Friday, July 01, 2016

Weekly publisher jailed by judge who didn't like his stories about her; his records request cited

UPDATE, July 6: The Georgia Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists has filed a complaint against Judge Weaver with the state Judicial Qualifications Commission, which she chairs, and asked that she recuse herself in the case. "We are unable to publicly share the complaint, because the JQC’s rules require that all complaints be kept confidential until they’ve been resolved," the chapter says. "We can say that we feel there have been several potential violations of the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct. We hope JQC will launch an investigation immediately. . . . SPJ Georgia has also signed onto a joint statement from the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, the Atlanta Press Club and the Georgia Press Association calling for the dismissal of all charges against Thomason."

Mark Thomason
A rural newspaper publisher in North Georgia and his lawyer were jailed this week by a local judge who was unhappy about being negatively portrayed in the press and pounced when the publisher filed an open-records request, Rhonda Cook reports for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Mark Thomason, publisher of the Fannin Focus in Blue Ridge, and attorney Russell Stookey were arrested June 24 "and charged with attempted identity fraud and identity fraud. Thomason was also accused of making a false statement in his records request." Thomason filed his request to get transcripts of officials using a racial slur in court. He was denied the records and later sued for $1.6 million for defamation by the court stenographer for saying that her transcripts, which omitted some of the slurs, were not accurate.

Superior Court Chief Judge Brenda Weaver of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit "said she resented Thomason’s attacks on her character in his weekly newspaper and in conversations with her constituents," Cook writes. Weaver and district attorney Alison Sosebee said the charges were justified. Weaver told Cook, “I don’t react well when my honesty is questioned. It’s clear this is a personal vendetta against me. I don’t know how else to explain that.”

Thomason "was charged with making a false statement in an open-records request in which he asked for copies of checks 'cashed illegally',” Cook writes. "Thomason and Stookey were also charged with identity fraud and attempted identity fraud because they did not get Weaver’s approval before sending subpoenas to banks where Weaver and another judge maintained accounts for office expenses. Weaver suggested that Thomason may have been trying to steal banking information." A follow-up story by Cook offers more background. (Best Places map)

"Thomason and Stookey are out on $1,000 bond and have a long list of things they cannot do or things they must do to avoid going to jail until their trials," Cook writes. "On Thursday, for example, Thomason reported to a pretrial center and was told that he may have to submit to a random drug test – a condition of the bond on which he was released from jail last Saturday."

Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, told Cook, “To the extent these criminal charges stem from the use of the Open Records Act undermines the entire purpose of the law. The Open Records Act is the vehicle by which citizens access governmental information. . . . Retaliation for use of the Open Records Act will inhibit every citizen from using it, and reel us back into the dark ages.” (Read more)

UPDATE: The Society of Professional Journalists called the Georgia attorney general about the case. “We are shocked that any journalist would be jailed for simply asking a question,” SPJ said, noting that any personal banking information in the requested records could be redacted from copies given to Thomason.

Rural community colleges, mainly in South, more likely to block students' access to federal loans

Rural community-college students are more than twice as likely as urban and suburban community college students to attend schools that block access to federal loans, says a report by the Institute for College Access and Success. The advocacy group found that 16.9 percent of rural community-college students have no access to federal student loans, compared to 6.9 percent of urban students. In 11 states, more than 10 percent of community college students lack access to federal loans, and in eight states, including five in the South, more than 20 percent lack access. (Institute for College Access and Success map)
"Nearly a quarter of the nation’s 1,097 community colleges do not offer federal student loans," Danielle Douglas-Gabriel reports for The Washington Post.  "Most community college students do not take out student loans—just 37 percent of people who complete an associate’s degree have borrowed for it—but policy analysts at the institute say students who need the help should have access to the most affordable options."

James Hermes, associate vice president of government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, "said community colleges often are reluctant to participate in the federal loan program out of concern that students will borrow excessively and fail to repay the money," Douglas-Gabriel writes. "Schools that amass high loan default rates face the threat of losing access to other types of federal financial aid, like Pell grants, upon which so many community college students rely." (Read more)

Farm-related accidents claim a child's life every 3 days, and there are 33 injuries a day

Every three days a child dies in an agriculture-related accident, says the 2016 Childhood Agricultural Injuries Fact Sheet produced by the National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety.

One-quarter of the deaths involved machinery, and 17 percent motor vehicles; 16 percent were drownings. Tractors were the leading source of deaths, followed by ATVs. Non-fatal injuries occurred at a rate of 33 per day, with vehicles being the leading source of injury for household youth and animals the leading source of injury for household non-working youth and visitors. Sixty percent of injuries occurred to young people who were not working at the time of the injury. About 893,000 youth lived on farms in 2014, and 51 percent worked on the farm.
"While overall numbers of farm injuries are declining, injuries to household youth have held steady," says the report. "Among household youth on farms, injury rates increased in 2014 for youth 10-19 years. From 2003 to 2010, among workers younger than 16 years, the number of worker fatalities in agriculture was consistently higher than in all non-agricultural industries combined." The cost of youth agricultural injuries are an estimated $1 billion per year and fatalities an estimated $420 million per year.

Obama signs Freedom of Information Act reforms

President Obama on Thursday signed the FOIA Improvement Act in an attempt to improve "the government's often-sluggish responses to Freedom of Information Act requests," Josh Gerstein reports for Politico. The bill "codifies a presumption of disclosure that Obama re-instituted at the outset of his presidency, but which requesters say has done little to make recalcitrant agencies fork over information. That presumption is now in law and may give requesters a stronger hand in court, although it's unclear how much stronger since similar court-authored precedents are already on the books."

"The bill also makes it harder for government to withhold certain kinds of information that's more than 25 years old, although the impact of that provision was narrowed as the legislation pinged back and forth between the House and Senate," Gerstein writes. "Obama acknowledged Thursday that while battles continue over what should and shouldn't be released, federal agencies are struggling to keep up with the requests that are streaming in. The bill contains some measures designed to speed the process, but it also will make FOIA requests even easier to file, which could bog the system down more. Another challenge: the legislation, which emerged as a consensus measure after years of debate in Congress, does not contain any additional funding."

Luis Ferre Sadurni of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press writes, "The law also paves the way for the creation of a single online portal to accept FOIA requests for any agency, similar to FOIAonline, already in use by 12 agencies and offices. The Office of Government Information Services will also be strengthened with the reforms, permitting it to make recommendations for improving FOIA without necessarily seeking input from other agencies."

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), a co-sponsor of the reform bill, said in a statement: “The bill effectively cripples the ability of federal bureaucrats and power-hungry government officials to keep information from the American people." The 50th anniversary of the FOIA is July 4.

USDA announces $1.4 million for five projects to fight opioid epidemic in Appalachia

During a town-hall meeting on Thursday in Abingdon, Va., Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced $1.4 million in funding for five projects to fight the opioid epidemic in the Appalachian areas of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. The meeting was the first of a series of town halls, which are also also expected to make stops in New Hampshire, Missouri, Nevada and Mississippi.

In Eastern Kentucky, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says it approved two applications of more than $720,000 to establish telemedicine networks "that will provide treatment for medical conditions, including mental health and drug addiction treatment." In Tennessee, $67,572 was awarded to the Carey Counseling Center "to expand and improve six rural counseling centers with mental, behavioral and psychiatric care services and substance treatment services" to serve two StrikeForce counties. Also, more than $587,000 was awarded "to Virginia tele-medicine projects that will provide health care services in rural areas, including mental health and drug addiction treatment." (Read more)

Rural areas lost 1.1 million veterans in 2007-14

Members of the armed services come disproportionately from rural America, but most don't return when they leave. The count of rural veterans continues its rapid decline, despite an overall increase in the number of veterans since 9/11, says a report by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture(USDA graphic)

In 2014, 3.4 million veterans lived in rural areas, down from 4.5 million in 2007, "despite an influx of more than 100,000 post-9/11 veterans over the same period." The biggest decline is among World War II veterans, whose numbers dropped by 400,000 in rural areas from 2007-2014. Numbers are expected to continue to decline, "as the newest veteran cohorts have overwhelmingly returned to urban areas and the current rural veteran population ages."

The rural share of rural World War II veterans declined to 16.8 percent in 2014 from 20.2 percent in 2007, Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder. "Nationally, about 1.6 million WW2 veterans died from 2007 to 2014, according to a report published by the World War 2 Memorial in New Orleans. Most of the living WW2 vets are in their 90s now, according to the report. Only 700,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in the war are still living." The rural share of Korean veterans dropped to 18.8 percent from 21.4 percent, and that of Gulf War veterans dropped to 13.4 percent from 16.2 percent. (Read more)

Keillor's final 'A Prairie Home Companion' is Sat.

Garrison Keillor (Associated Press photo)
Garrison Keillor's last original episode of "A Prairie Home Companion" will air Saturday. The show, which began in 1974, has a weekly audience of 3 million. Chris Thile will step in for Keillor in October. 

"The overall form of the show, an olio of songs, stories, skits and ads for invented products—invented because public radio carried no commercials—was inspired by Keillor’s reporting, for a 1974 New Yorker piece, on the last broadcast of 'The Grand Ole Opry' from Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, built in 1892, before its move to plush new digs at Opryland," Robert Lloyd reports for the Los Angeles Times. Keillor wrote, "You listen to the Opry and pretty soon you have a place in mind … and eventually you have got to go and be there too. Closing my eyes, I could see the stage just as clearly as when I was a kid lying in front of our giant Zenith console."

"Populated with characters not from Keillor's own small-town youth but from the world of his parents, their siblings and their friends, Lake Wobegon—the fictional subject of Keillor’s weekly monologue—is on the face of it old-fashioned: a needlepoint sampler created in the year of 'Chinatown,' 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,' Kraftwerk's 'Autobahn,' and the Ramones' first public appearance," Lloyd writes.

The show "has been a sort of ark between the old world and the new, the analog and the digital," Lloyd writes. "It kept audio comedy alive into an age of video – I bow down here to the flexible brilliance of company members Sue Scott and Tom Russell and to the sound-effects artistry of Fred Newman and Tom Keith, given a pride of place unmatched elsewhere."

It's probably not the last fans will hear of the 73-year-old Keillor. In 2013 he published a book of poetry, O, What a Luxury, and in 2012 a work of fiction, Guy Noir and the Straight Skinny. He has also been writing about the political landscape, most recently for The Washington Post.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Gun ownership in U.S. lowest in 40 years, but gun sales are at record levels, as gun owners stock up

Gun ownership in the U.S. is at its lowest in 40 years, but gun purchases are at recorded highs, according to surveys and government background checks, Christopher Ingraham reports for The Washington Post. A CBS News poll found that 36 percent of adults either own a gun or live with someone who does. That's the lowest since polling began in 1978. An October Gallup poll has gun ownership at 43 percent and a 2014 General Social Survey says 32 percent. Gallup shows a 10 percent drop in gun ownership since peak levels 10 years ago, while the General Social Survey finds a 20 percent drop since the mid-1970s. Rural residents are twice as likely as urban ones (39 percent to 18 percent) to own guns, says the Pew Research Center.

FBI firearm background checks show that gun sales are at historic highs and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms says "gun manufacturers are churning out record numbers of guns," Ingraham writes. While gun advocates cite increased ownership, data show "that most of the rise in gun purchases is driven by existing gun owners stocking up, rather than by people buying their first gun. A Washington Post analysis last year found that the average American gun owner now owns approximately eight firearms, double the number in the 1990s." (Post graphic)
"Other research bears this out as well," Ingraham writes. "A 2004 survey found that the average gun owner owned 6.6 firearms, and that the top 3 percent of gun owners owned about 25 guns each. More recently, a CBS News poll taken in March of this year found that roughly one in five gun owners owned 10 guns or more." (Read more)

Thieves targeting farm equipment dealerships in Michigan, where valuable goods are easy pickings

Michigan farm-equipment dealers have been hit with a rash of thefts of commercial lawn equipment, farm implements and construction equipment, Rosemary Parker reports for MLive in Grand Rapids. Michigan State Police Det. Sgt. Todd Petersen said said "such dealerships, with their massive lots and sometime lax security, are frequent targets of theft all over the southern tier of counties near the Indiana border. The equipment is valuable, easy to grab and difficult for authorities to trace once it's gone, Petersen said." (John Deere photo: A 2015 John Deere Tractor was stolen from a Three Rivers, Mich. dealership)

Petersen told Parker, "It's unbelievable. Two times we've had people throw bricks through the front window" to steal chainsaws, while thefts occurring on the weekends often are not reported until they were discovered Monday morning. Some of the stolen equipment is pricey, such as the $80,000 custom outfitted skid steer loader stolen from one business.

Brett Wilson, a detective with the Johnson County Kansas Sheriff's Department in Olathe, Kan., said one problem is that "big name manufacturers such as Case and John Deere often have all been keyed the same to allow easier employee access on big farms and construction sites," Parker writes. "But making keys cheap and interchangeable for crew members has targeted vehicles for easy theft." Wilson told her, "If I have a key to a John Deere Gator, I also have a key to other pieces of equipment," meaning someone with just a few key can gain access to equipment of the same manufacturer anywhere, and the recovery rate of stolen goods is low, at just 8 to 10 percent, Wilson said. (Read more)

New Mexico's rural remote hospitals form network to share information and find ways to survive

Hospitals in rural remote areas in New Mexico are teaming up to survive. The New Mexico Rural Hospital Network, which had five hospital members when it founded in 2014, now has 10. The network, created to improve cooperation between hospitals, allows them to "share information, hire experts and offer advice on how to navigate an increasingly uncertain industry," J.R. Logan reports for the Taos News. Stephen Stoddard, the network’s executive director, told Logan, “All of our hospitals are the only hospital in their town, sometimes even in their whole county or beyond." (Rural Health Information Hub graphic)

"According to federal data, one-third of the state’s population lived in 'Health Professional Shortage Areas' in 2010," Logan writes. "Thirty-one of New Mexico’s 33 counties faced shortages." In poorer counties "many patients rely on government health insurance, which often doesn't cover the hospital's costs, let alone provide a profit. That situation is only expected to get worse as the state faces a $417 million Medicaid shortfall." New Mexico also ranks 37th in the 2015 America's Health Rankings, "partly due to high rates of diabetes, drug deaths and children living in poverty."

The group was created through a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as part of the agency's $11.6 million funding in 2014 to 39 networks nationwide, Logan writes. Stoddard told Logan, "Generally, the purpose of these hospital networks is to focus on helping them thrive. But in the case of New Mexico, it’s to survive.” Some member hospitals "have entered into group purchasing agreements, lowering prices on bulk purchases for necessities like bandages and bedpans," which has helped some hospitals cost cuts by one-third. "But Stoddard says the real strength of the network is in building relationships and exchanging ideas. He told Logan, “In an urban environment, there are lots of opportunities to collaborate and share ideas. But in a rural setting, you’re often very isolated.”

The network is also "working with the University of New Mexico to draw more medical students to do rotations in rural hospitals," Logan writes. "Studies have found that attracting a medical student to a small hospital makes it easier to later hire them when they finish school. Although many of the ten hospitals have previously tried to combat retention problems on their own, the existence of the network gives these small facilities more to offer medical students, Stoddard says." (Read more)

Unable to wait for help, rural W.Va. flood victim repairs bridges, roadway to help free neighbor

Flooding in West Virginia has killed at least 23 people and devastated 1,200 homes, Steve Visser and Martin Savidge report for CNN. Timothy Rock, spokesman for the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management said that, "As of Wednesday evening, 3,240 residents had registered flood damage with Federal Emergency Management Agencyreports the Charleston Gazette-Mail. State Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox said flooding has caused $16 million in damage to the state's highways, Jeff Jenkins reports for West Virginia Metro News.

With so much damage, some rural residents have taken to making their own repairs. On June 23, the day of most of the flooding, "the people of Granny's Creek outside of Amma watched as two bridges and several sections of the rural roadway were washed away," Sean DeLancey reports for WCHS-8 in Charleston. Local resident "Butch Jett fixed them in less than 16 hours." Jett told DeLancey, "I was born and raised in this hollow. I'm sure it's where I'll be buried." (WCHS image: Damaged bridge)

DeLancey writes, "Jett patched the two bridges and all of the washed out roadways, freeing his neighbor Oral Newsome to get supplies. Jett said he had no choice, but to jump into his miniature bulldozer and help in any way he could." Jett, who said his hollow should stand as an example for others looking to help rebuild rural communities, told DeLancey, "Some of my good friends, I've taken their whole life, put it in a Dumpster, and shipped it down the road. You'd watch people going by and wonder why they wouldn't stop and help. Don't be the passerby—be the helping hand." (Best Places map: Granny's Creek runs through Sutton)

You could soon get your kicks on a Route 66 solar panel walkway, in Missouri

Historic US Route 66 will soon have a solar-powered walkway at the welcome center in Conway, Mo., Eli Chen reports for St. Louis Public Radio. The Missouri Department of Transportation said the "pilot project will examine how feasible it is to use the technology before the department considers putting it on more roads and sidewalks." The hope is to have the panels installed by the end of the year. (Solar Roadways photo)

Hexagonal glass solar panels made by an Idaho-based startup, Solar Roadways, will be "equipped with LED lights to improve road safety and heat elements to prevent snow and ice accumulation," Chen writes. The project "marks the first time the company has collaborated with a state transportation department. The effort is supported by MoDOT's Road to Tomorrow initiative, a program announced last year to research and implement innovative technologies to reconstruct Interstate 70."

Tom Blair, MoDOT's assistant district engineer in St. Louis, told Chen, "If this becomes successful, then yeah, you could be ultimately talking about solar roadways we drive on, that melts snow and has the potential to pay for themselves. I've been at this for a long time and I've never seen a road that's created its own revenue stream yet." (Route 66 Search map)

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Book about extended Appalachian family helps explain trials of the lesser-educated working class

J.D. Vance is a Yale Law School graduate who was raised mainly by his grandparents because one of his parents was an addict. His family was part of the great migration north from Central Appalachia -- Jackson and Breathitt County, Kentucky, where life expectancy is only 70 years, to Middletown, Ohio, where there are so many Kentucky transplants they call it "Middletucky." But the culture follows, and economic problems do, too. "People have struggled to get out of Jackson for decades," Vance writes, "Now they struggle to get out of Middletown."

Vance's new HarperCollins book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, is about his extended family and its times. "Nearly every person you will read about is deeply flawed," Vance writes in his introduction. "But I love these people, even those to whom I avoid speaking for my own sanity. . . . There are no villains in this story. There's just a ragtag band of hillbillies trying to find their way -- both for their sake and, by the grace of God, for mine."

Vance, 31, says he wrote the book because, among other things, "I want people to know how it feels to nearly give up on yourself and why you might do it. I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children."

Sales of Vance's book are likely to surge because it is the takeoff point for the latest political column by David Brooks of The New York Times. Brooks says the book is "essential reading for this moment in history," a time when the lesser-educated working class is losing "the social institutions and cultural values that made it possible to have self-respect amid hardship."

Brooks writes, "This honor code has been decimated lately. Conservatives argue that it has been decimated by cosmopolitan cultural elites who look down on rural rubes. There’s some truth to this, as the reactions of smug elites to the Brexit vote demonstrate. But the honor code has also been decimated by the culture of the modern meritocracy, which awards status to the individual who works with his mind, and devalues the class of people who work with their hands. Most of all, it has been undermined by rampant consumerism, by celebrity culture, by reality-TV fantasies that tell people success comes in a quick flash of publicity, not through steady work."

Reading or streaming content jumped a full hour per day last year, to 10:39, led by smartphones

Over the past year use of smartphones by adults to watch and stream content has dramatically increased, according to Nielsen's Q1 2016 Total Audience Report. In the first quarter of 2016 adults spent an average of 10 hours, 39 minutes each day watching or streaming content on any device, a one-hour-per-day increase from the first quarter of 2015. From the first quarter of 2014 to the first quarter of 2015, usage increased only seven minutes a day.

Smartphone use increased by 37 minutes per day, tablet use by 12 minutes, internet on PC use by 10 minutes and multimedia devices, including Apple TV and Roku, by 4 minutes, Jason Lynch writes for AdWeek. Television use actually declined by three minutes, but "half of all U.S. TV households now have access to at least one SVOD (subscription video on demand) service like Netflix, Hulu or Amazon. That's the same percentage of households with DVRs."
"Most of the consumption on non-TV devices came from the top 20 percent of users for each category," Lynch writes. "Those top 20 percent account for 87 percent of in-home PC streaming, 83 percent of smartphone video, and 71 percent of connected TV devices like Apple TV, Roku and Xbox. But the top 20 percent of TV and DVR users only represent 52 percent of the total overall minutes watched on those devices." (Read more)

Federal judge: Miss. clerks can't cite their religious beliefs to deny same-sex marriage licenses

A federal judge ruled Monday that Mississippi clerks cannot cite religious beliefs for denying same-sex marriage licenses, Jimmie Gates reports for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, In April, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant signed a Republican-led religious-objections House bill that proponents said protects religious freedom and critics said discriminates against gay people and others. Monday's ruling means that "no circuit clerk or staff member clerk can deny a gay couple a marriage license," even under the recently signed law, which goes into effect Friday.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said Monday, "If this opinion by the federal court denies even one Mississippian of their fundamental right to practice their religion, then all Mississippians are denied their First Amendment rights. I hope the state’s attorneys will quickly appeal this decision to the Fifth Circuit to protect the deeply held religious beliefs of all Mississippians.”

Last year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. Paul Barnes, attorney for the state, "said no same-sex couple has been denied a marriage license in Mississippi since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year," Gates reports. "HB 1523 provides circuit clerks and deputy clerks with the right to recuse themselves from providing a marriage license to same-sex couples if it is against their religious belief. However, the law outlined the steps that must be taken and said the clerks had to provide a way or information on how same-sex couples could get a marriage license." (Read more)

Whole milk sales up, fat-free milk sales down; studies link whole milk to healthier diets

Whole milk is making a comeback. Sales rose 4.5 percent in 2015, while sales of fat-free milk dropped 12.3 percent, says Dairy Management, a marketing group for the industry's 45,000 U.S. dairy farmers. "Once snubbed, whole-fat milk, yogurt and other dairy products are finding their way back into our refrigerators, thanks to a growing interest in 'whole foods' diets and new evidence that full-fat dairy products can be good for us, experts say," Donnelle Eller reports for The Des Moines Register.

Ruth Litchfield, associate professor of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University, told Eller, "Full-fat dairy products used to be seen as taboo. We were told we should cut them out of our diet, We're realizing that fat can be good." Litchfield said the federal dietary guidelines still recommend that Americans consume low- or fat-free milk, yogurt and cheese, saying they contain saturated fat linked to increased cholesterol levels that contribute to heart disease.

Litchfield said new studies are challenging that perspective, Eller writes. Litchefield told her."There is some research that's coming out that shows consumption of whole-fat dairy is decreasing risk of Type 2 diabetes, decreasing risk of cardiovascular disease, decreasing risk of certain kinds of cancer, and people who consume whole-fat dairy products are less obese." (Progressive Dairyman graphic)
A study at the Harvard School of Public Healthreported in the journal Circulation, found that "children who habitually drink low-fat milk gain more weight, and those who drink whole-fat milk gain less weight, over time." Robert Pemberton, president of the Virginia State Dairymen’s Association, found the results unsurprising, reports the Augusta Free Press in Waynesboro, Va. He told the Press, “Milk’s easily digested fat is not only good for you but also helps you feel full so you don’t eat extra calories. Our mothers were right; a balanced diet and moderation are the way to go.”

Farm economists say Brexit may hurt by lowering global demand and strengthening the dollar

Purdue University agricultural economists say Britain’s departure from the European Union would have little affect on U.S. farmers—the U.S. exports a small portion of its products to the United Kingdom—but it could slow economic growth tied to manufacturing, reports Hoosier Ag Today. Of the $133 billion in overall U.S. agricultural exports in 2015, $1.8 billion went to the U.K.

“The indirect effects will matter the most,” ag-econ Professor Philip Abbott told Hoosier Ag Today. “The effects on agricultural trade will be through the exchange rate mechanism and through any negative business cycle effects involving global demand. How big those are depend on whether this is a temporary or longer-term situation and how long the very recent changes in exchange rates and interest rates persist.”

Ag-econ Professor Mike Boehlje said the vote "drew more attention to the issue of globalization versus nationalization—essentially open or closed markets," Hoosier Ag Today reports. Boehlje said, “Generally, agriculture is much more dependent on international trade than other parts of the economy. Globalization is important to U.S. agriculture to keep markets open to access.” He said openness also is important to agriculture for immigrant labor it needs and for sharing of innovations that promote growth, and “These are probably the more important longer-term issues. We don’t know what the answers are yet.”

Larry DeBoer, who specializes in economic development, said that "uncertainty in the markets, in part by the turmoil involving the EU, tends to lead investors to shift their money to 'safe assets' such as Treasury bonds. That appreciates the dollar, thereby making Indiana exports more expensive to foreign buyers." He said, “That means Indiana would be facing a less favorable trade environment. When the value of the dollar rises, Indiana manufacturing and employment growth stall.” (Read more)

Rural W.Va. sheriff in flood area warns looters that armed citizen patrols might not be taking prisoners

Fayette County (Wikipedia)
Looting in rural West Virginia communities ravaged by floods has led to an increase in armed citizen patrols, leading local law enforcement to issue a warning that crime could be deadly, Erin Beck reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Fayette County Sheriff Steve Kessler, who said the department has received reports of looting in flood areas, said in a statement that “citizens have implemented armed patrols to protect what is left of their homes and possessions. Anyone we catch looting will be arrested and jailed. If the residents of this area catch you first, you may not make it to jail.”

While West Virginia law permits deadly force by residents in certain instances where they feel threatened by a home intruder, the law does not apply to shooting someone in another person's home, Beck writes. Fayette Sheriff’s Capt. Jim Sizemore said the department doesn't encourage armed citizens patrols, but are unable to prevent such acts. He told Beck, “That’s a Second Amendment constitutional right, right there. Those folks are not breaking the law by arming themselves and protecting their community. It’s not sanctioned by the sheriff’s department. It doesn’t have to be, but they have the constitutional right to protect themselves and their families and we’re not going to tell them they can’t exercise that constitutional right.”

Sgt. Brian Humphreys, spokesman for the sheriff in adjoining Kanawha County (Charleston), told Beck that the department has received only limited reports of attempted looting in its flood areas. Humphreys, who said that because damage is so extensive police may not be aware of looting yet, told Beck, “I wouldn’t dare tell people don’t protect your property or the property of others. I’m also not going to say you’re justified in whatever means you use because that’s not the case.”

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Millennials leaving rural America for expensive big cities; believe living in cities equals success

Millennials are increasingly leaving behind small-town America for expensive big cities, Beau Dure reports for Ozy, a daily digital magazine. From 2007 to 2013 the population of millennials in Arlington, Va., across the Potomac River from Washington D.C., grew 82 percent. The median home price in Arlington in 2014 was $557,250 and most apartments were listed at more than $1,200 a month.

Robert Lang, professor of urban growth and population dynamics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told Dure that millennials “continue a multigenerational pattern of young adults preferring more expensive urban areas over lower-cost rural ones because the lifestyles and opportunities in such places make the extra burden of cost worth it." Millennials equate getting to a big city with achieving success. Speaking of her peers, Brittany Shoot, a 20-year-old living in San Francisco, told Dure, “We don’t all hail from small Midwestern towns, but most came from places where they felt limited—small town Maine, suburban west Texas, California’s Central Valley and the Inland Empire. It’s easy to find people who will sneeringly complain about how trapped they felt as teenagers.” (Nielsen graphic)
Dure writes, "From 2007 to 2013, the 10 counties that gained the most millennial residents had a median home price of $406,800. And the average population of those counties was 587,522—a far cry from small-town living. Baby boomers filled out the other side of the equation by flocking to counties with average populations of 261,232 and a median home price of $144,875. So the best answer as to why millennials are moving away from smaller towns may be simple: because they can. And small towns will have to rev up their sales pitch to convince young adults that they can live not just cheaply but also well in the places that older generations called home."

Illegal Mexican border crossings are down, but deaths are up, especially in rural areas

While the number of illegal crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border has gone down, the number of deaths has increased, with 6,000 official deaths—remains found—since 2000, Karen Fasimpaur reports for the Daily Yonder. Fasimpaur, who moved from Los Angeles to a rural town on the New Mexico/Arizona border, works in online community building, education and strategic planning for non-profits (Economist graphic)

One theory for the rise in deaths is that illegals are being coerced to cross in rural areas, where scorching desert conditions and rugged mountains make foot travel treacherous, Fasimpaur writes. "In 1994, the U.S. government explicitly adopted a policy of 'prevention through deterrence,' reallocating enforcement resources to urban centers in order to force border crossers to more rural and more dangerous parts of the border. Since that time, while the overall numbers crossing the border have decreased, the number of deaths relative to apprehensions has skyrocketed."

"At the most superficial level, the large number of unidentified remains creates significant work for local morgues and coroners’ offices," Fasimpaur writes. "Medical emergencies have also put strain on hospitals and first responders. Beyond this, the cost is sometimes a political one, splitting communities along ideological lines."

Meanwhile, there has been a "dramatic increase of border enforcement in recent years," Fasimpaur writes. "Opinions on the efficacy of these expenditures also vary. Many border residents believe this is essential to curtailing illegal border crossing, as well as human and drug trafficking. In addition, increases in Border Patrol numbers have brought many jobs to rural areas, not only in direct employment of agents, but in their contributions to local businesses, as well as the construction and operation of related detention facilities."

Did Park Service violate rules by closing part of Shenandoah for ad that plugged a Subaru?

There's a fine line between promoting a national park and corporate commercialization, Joe Davidson writes for The Washington Post. For example, Shenandoah National Park, along the Blue Ridge in Virginia, partially closed its Skyline Drive for two days last year to film a park promotional advertisement with National Geographic magazine. However, the promotion included a Subaru, with an announcer concluding, “Love. It’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru.” The ad was produced with a drone, normally banned at national parks. (Jeffrey Schmidt photo: Skyline Drive)

Despite the presence of the car and the plug at the end, the National Park Service insists the spots are not commercials for Subaru, Davidson writes. NPS spokesman Jeremy K. Barnum told him, "The video was produced to support the National Park Service centennial goal to connect with and create the next generation of park visitors, supporters and advocates."

But if it looks like commercial and sounds like commercial, isn't it a commercial? Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which secured documents about the shoot through a Freedom of Information Act request, told Davidson, “The visiting public was kept off of park facilities. Park rules against commercial closures and drone access were ignored and the approval was immediate with no apparent internal debate.”

Jim Northrup, Shenandoah’s superintendent, "said the filming would support the 'Find Your Park' campaign while showcasing the park’s 'many dramatic viewsheds,'" Davidson writes. "Making the commercial, he argued, 'is appropriate and compatible with the values and resources of the park.'" (Read more)

Agriculture secretary holding town hall Thursday in Southwest Virginia on Appalachian drug abuse

In March, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he would hold town- hall meetings in rural areas hit particularly hard by drug abuse—New Hampshire, Missouri, Nevada, Mississippi and Appalachia—to "bring together local and state government partners, the health community and other stakeholders to raise awareness of the issue and discuss possible solutions." One of those town hall meetings will be held Thursday in Abingdon, Va., just north of Bristol. Other locations have yet to be announced. (Tennessean photo by Holly Fletcher: Sign posted at gas station)

"Vilsack said establishing a 'new natural resources economy,' such as a local and regional food system, in the Tennessee-Virginia border area will help revitalize an economically depressed area," Holly Fletcher reports for The Tennessean in Nashville. "The area has a natural resource advantage that could support a biomass industry or new approaches to conservation that creates new streams of revenue for landowners."

"Vilsack said he wants to see 'different ways of approaching folks who get crossed with the law' in addition to more treatment centers—both brick-and-mortar and telemedicine locations—and community resources," Fletcher writes. "States have an 'opportunity and responsibility' to upgrade monitoring databases to work across state lines to help clinicians and law enforcement alike track potential abuse, Vilsack said. Access to treatment also is a problem. There are about 2.2 million people across the country with a prescription painkiller addiction but only about half have access to treatment," said U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy.

Tennessee had 1,263 overdose deaths in 2014, up from 1,166 in 2013 and 1,094 in 2012, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. Virginia had 1,013 in 2015, up from 992 in 2014 and 690 in 2010, says the Virginia Department of Health. Kentucky, which borders the two states, had 1,087 overdose deaths in 2014, up from 1,010 in 2013, says the state Office of Drug Control Policy.

Rural residents in California, West Virginia trying to recover from disastrous floods, fires

Rural residents in California and West Virginia are trying to recover from disasters that have decimated local communities, and reporters in rural areas are chasing many stories. Wildfires ravaged Southern California, causing extensive damage in some towns. While droughts have plagued the West, too much water was the problem in West Virginia, where flooding wrecked havoc.

The 1,212 residents of Clendenin, W.Va., "were finally able to emerge from their homes on Saturday, following the Thursday and Friday floods that ravaged the area, destroying homes, washing out roads and killing at least 24 across the state," Jake Jarvis reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. "With all of the roads finally opened, people there started to clean up." (Gazette-Mail photo by Sam Owens: Clendenin)

"All the water had sunk back into the Elk River, leaving behind a slick mud that still covered most of the town," Jarvis writes. "Tires spun as cars and trucks tried to drive over it; rain boots slid as they tried to walk through it. Neighbors waded through the mud, piled ankle deep in some places, to visit their friends and family and help them start to recover from the flood."

"You would be hard pressed to find a place in Clendenin that wasn't affected by the storm," Jarvis writes. "Houses high up in the hills were spared from the floods, but many of their driveways were washed away or covered by small mudslides from the torrential rain. People here say the rain came fast—too fast to react to it. They knew there was a flash flood warning, but that's not out of the ordinary for the town that hugs the Elk River. Occasional floods are commonplace."

In the Southern California town of Erksine, pop. 17,384, there have been two reported fatalities, 200 structures confirmed lost and 36,800 acres burned, Lois Henry reports for The Bakersfield Californian. In South Lake, a tightly packed community of mobile homes, "the fire chewed through them like Pez candies." (Californian photo by Felix Adamo: South Lake)

In South Lake, 45 miles northeast of Bakersfield, residents are frustrated that more wasn't done to save the community's 100 trailers and houses—all located within a square mile—that were destroyed, Ruben Vives, Brittny Mejia and Matt Hamilton report for the Los Angeles Times. "Convinced that protecting wealthier communities was the priority of first responders, angry South Lake residents pressed officials on Monday to explain at a community meeting why firefighters didn’t save more of the town."

South Lake resident Janice Ryan asked during a gathering at a makeshift evacuation center, "We don’t count because we’re poor? Why aren’t we as important as the next town? Why was South Lake bypassed?” Kern County Fire Department spokesman Anthony Romero responded from a bullhorn: “When you have heavy wind going at 40 to 50 mph, there’s not any fire department anywhere in the world that would be able to catch a fire going that fast. No one is less important here. Everybody is important. Unfortunately this fire was too big, too fast for us to get in front of.”

Monday, June 27, 2016

High court voids Texas abortion law on grounds it limited rural women's access to the procedure

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning struck down a Texas abortion law as unconstitutionally restrictive, ensuring that women in rural Texas would continue to have reasonable access to the procedure. The court's 5-3 majority noted that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the “two requirements erect a particularly high barrier for poor, rural, or disadvantaged women.”

"The requirements that doctors who perform abortions maintain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and all abortions be performed in hospital-like surgical centers, have caused more than half of the state’s abortion clinics to close," Katie Leslie reports for the Dallas Morning News. "Up to nine more clinics would have closed if the justices had voted to uphold the law in full. The stricter building requirements were on hold while the Supreme Court reviewed the case."

Other states have passed similar laws, but the decision's impact "may not be immediately felt outside of Texas," Leslie writes. Those laws "probably won’t change unless they are challenged in court or repealed by state lawmakers."

"Since the law at the center of the Supreme Court case -- House Bill 2 -- was enacted in July 2013, the number of abortion clinics in Texas has dropped from 40 to 18," Brittney Martin and Andrew Chavez reported for the News. "100 counties are more than 100 miles away from the nearest Texas abortion facility, and 21 counties are more than 250 miles away," as shown by these DMN maps:
"An analysis by the News shows that more clinic closures, specifically the closure of clinics in El Paso and McAllen, would disproportionately affect women in counties with largely non-white populations and higher levels of poverty," Martin and Chavez write. At right is a map representing the newspaper's analysis. For an interactive version of all these maps, with county-by-county information, click here. For larger versions of any of these maps, click on them. The New York Times produced several maps showing past, present and potential distance to abortion clinics; here's the basic national map:

Presidential polls show rural-urban divide growing due to gun control, environmental issues

Since Bill Clinton left the White House, Democrats have "essentially written off rural, gun-friendly heartland states, such as Tennessee, and added cosmopolitan, racially diverse, and urbanized states, particularly along the coasts, that are more receptive to gun control—Virginia, say," Ron Brownstein reports for The Atlantic.

Dan Friedman reports for Fortune, "After attributing their presidential loss in 2000 in part to the assault-weapons ban, Democrats shied away from gun control talk in order to avoid alienating rural voters, particularly blue-collar white males. Today, Democrats are less worried about those voters, who tend to oppose gun laws. That’s because those voters now tend to vote Republican anyway."

Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder notes these reports and points out that recent polls in three states—Arizona, Utah and Wisconsin—have some unusual findings in the presidential race but reflect a growing rural-urban gap driven by issues such as gun control and the environment.

A statewide poll in Arizona shows Democrat Hillary Clinton leading Republican Donald Trump 46.5 percent to 42.2 percent, Mike Sunnucks reports for the Phoenix Business Journal. Clinton leads by 17 points in Tuscon and holds a 12 -point lead among women. The story is different in rural areas, where Trump has a 6-point lead. Clinton's overall lead is surprising, considering Republican Mitt Romney won the state in 2012 and Republicans have carried the state in every election expect 1996, when Bill Clinton beat Sen. Bob Dole by 2 percent.

A Marquette University Law School poll shows that Wisconsin voters are not high on either candidate, with Clinton holding a 7-point lead with registered voters and a 9-point lead among those likely to vote, Craig Gilbert reports for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. In rural areas, Clinton is viewed unfavorably by 62 percent of voters.

The Utah Priorities Project Voter Survey found a big different between how the state's rural and urban voters view the environment, reports Utah Policy. Two-thirds of rural voters (66 percent) say stricter environmental controls are too costly, while only 47 percent of urban voters agreed. Also, "48 percent of voters say stricter environmental controls are worth the cost, while 52 percent say they are not. The results show a wide gap between conservative and liberal voters, with 73 percent of conservative voters saying more stringent controls are too costly. 93 percent of liberal voters hold the opposite position."

Wireless towers on farm structures provide high-speed internet to rural areas, if they're flat

Farmers in rural Illinois are getting some of the state's fastest internet service by allowing telecommunications companies to build towers on their structures, Nat Williams reports for The Southern Illinoisan in Carbondale. The devices include "an antenna on the outside of a house or building and a cable that runs inside the home. A wireless router provides service throughout the property." (Williams photo: A wireless tower atop a grain bin in Franklin County, Illinois)

Nathan Stooke, founder of Wisper Internet, said wireless broadband is easier to provide in northern Illinois because it is mostly flat, than in the southern part of the state, where there are plenty of trees and rolling hills. Stooke told Williams, “We have towers on one-story houses, on grain elevators, whatever we can do to get as close as we can to the customer to provide them service they need. We use the farmer’s grain elevator to provide service to him and his neighbors. It works really, really well. It keeps costs down.”

Williams writes, "It’s a winning system. Those who allow the installation of towers on their property usually receive free or upgraded internet service. Their neighbors get good signals for a lot less than they paid for inferior dial-up." Some say faster and better internet is boosting agriculture, with the younger generation more willing to join in the family business now that they can access high-speed internet. (Read more)

Deal would allow companies to use digital codes for GMO ingredients, nullifying Vermont law

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) last week agreed on genetically-modified-food labeling rules that would allow companies to use digital codes, rather than on-package language or symbols, to disclose GMO ingredients, Philip Brasher reports for Agri-Pulse. "The agreement also would use a narrow definition of genetic engineering that would exempt the newest biotech methods such as gene editing from the national disclosure standards." (Detox Market graphic)

"The legislation, which will need 60 votes to pass the Senate, would nullify Vermont's first-in-the-nation GMO labeling law, which takes effect July 1, and would bar any other state from enacting labeling requirements that differ from the federal standards," Brasher writes. "Under the legislation, most food companies would have the option of disclosing GMO ingredients through either a digital, smartphone code, the industry's preference, or through an on-package symbol or language that the Agriculture Department would approve. The code would be accompanied by: 'Scan here for more food information.' Small companies would have the option of putting a phone number or website URL on labels instead of the digital code."

Vermont's law "requires products with biotech ingredients to be labeled as produced or partially produced with genetic engineering," Brasher writes. "The definition of genetic engineering, or 'bioengineering,' would be restricted to traits developed through recombinant DNA techniques, which involve transferring a gene from one organism to another. Techniques such as RNA interference and gene editing would be exempt."

In anticipation of Vermont's law "many large food companies, including Campbell Soup Co., Kellogg's and General Mills, have already begun labeling some of their products," Peggy Lowe reports for NPR. " Roughly 75 percent of processed foods in the U.S. contain genetically modified ingredients, according to estimates from the Center for Food Safety."

Rural Utah town's population has exploded 3,000% since 2010, mainly from high-tech businesses

A rural Utah town has seen its population explode 3,000 percent since 2010, with farms being bought up to provide space for housing, as high-tech jobs replace agriculture. Vineyard, which had a population of 106 in 2010, now has 3,195 residents, with projections calling for the population to reach 40,000, Katie McKellar reports for the Deseret News. (DN graphic)

"The national and state housing market is booming. The county's high-tech Silicon Slopes sector is surging, placing Utah County [county seat, Provo] second in the nation for 2015 job growth, according to new data recently released by the U.S. Department of Labor," McKellar writes. "But as Utah County's prosperity spills over into communities like Vineyard—close enough for convenience yet abundant with open land—longtime residents are faced with a rapid rural-urban shift, and all the growing pains that come with it."

Locals "have watched their town's farmland vanish," McKellar writes. "Where there were once rolling fields, cow barns and chicken coops, there are now neighborhoods, town houses, schools, gas stations." Residents like Robert and Cumorah Holdaway, 86 and 87, "sold all 350 acres of their dairy farm to developers for the usual reasons: The children who would have taken up the business moved on to different work. Farming became less and less practical to turn a profit." Only one farm remains in Vineyard (Best Places map) but local officials "have anticipated it will eventually be rezoned to residential, according to the town's master plan."

Online Appalachian photo project includes 300 photos submitted from all 13 states

Photographer Roger May's project to encourage people to submit photos of Appalachia has resulted in a finalized online version, "Looking at Appalachia," that includes 300 photos from all 13 states, each of which has its own page. May, who moved from West Virginia to North Carolina as a teenager in 1989, said the project's goal is "to break down stereotypes and show that the region is about more than funny accents, pickup trucks and overalls," Sarah Nagem reports for The News & Observer. More than 2,000 photos were submitted for the project, which is to be renewed annually. (Lauren Pond photo: Young Mennonites socialize around a campfire after their friend's wedding in North Bloomfield, Ohio)

"When he speaks to student groups about Appalachia, May said, some young people make jokes about incest, poor dentistry and moonshine. It’s going to take conversation—and some brain re-training—to shift those ideas, he said," Nagem writes. "Ideally, students would talk instead about hard work, pride and persistence in Appalachia." May told her, “People automatically think of Appalachia as this other world. ... There’s this assumption that because we don’t have a 4,000-square-foot house and don’t drive the latest car that you must be poor. What poor looks like to you and what poor looks like to me are different things.”

May said he is "especially interested in how Appalachia is 'looked at and talked about' half a century after the War on Poverty brought international photographic attention to the region. He hopes that his project will help create a 'visual counterpoint' to those images," Layne Amerikaner reports for The Nation. Speaking of those old photos, May told Amerikaner,  “I can’t really say for sure if it equally helped and harmed, but at the time I think it certainly served its purpose." He said the photos did “a phenomenal job of highlighting need, this indelible impression that that’s what Appalachia is.” (George Etheredge photo: Asheville, N.C.)

"Which is not to say that his new project intends to deny or gloss over the poverty in the region," Amerikaner writes. "Appalachia’s poverty rate is more than 17 percent, nearly two points higher than the national average. And in some places, the rate is even higher—as in the Appalachian counties of Kentucky, where one in four people, on average, lives in poverty. May says that while much has changed since the War on Poverty era, 'unfortunately, a lot of the problems that existed then still exist now—they just wear a different mask.'”