Friday, December 01, 2017

Survey says farmers and ranchers are closer to the opioid epidemic than their rural neighbors are

"The opioid crisis in the United States is impacting farm and ranch families more acutely than their rural neighbors, according to a survey published by the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union on Thursday," Karl Plume reports for Reuters.

The online poll of 2,201 rural adults across the U.S. found that 45 percent of the overall rural population reported that a family member, someone they know, or they themselves have taken an illegal opioid or struggle with addiction. But that figure rose to about 75 percent among farmers and ranchers. The numbers were almost the same for a second poll question: three out of four farmers and ranchers said it would be easy for them or someone in their community to get a large amount of opioids without a prescription, compared to 46 percent of the overall rural population.

"A third of those surveyed said it would be easy to access addiction treatment in their local community, while 38 percent said they felt treatment would be effective, affordable or covered by insurance," Plume reports.

The survey did not examine why the epidemic is disproportionately hurting farmers, but the cause may be related to work-related injuries. The opioid epidemic is being driven by prescription drug abuse, and government data shows that farmers have far more workplace injuries that could be treated with painkillers than any other U.S. occupation.

2017 Census of Agriculture is underway

When farmers get the 2017 Census of Agriculture form this month, and decide to respond online, they will notice some new questions and features.

The online questionnaire has some updated features to help make responding easier, such as automatic calculators and mobile phone accessibility. New questions ask about military-veteran status, additional queries about food-marketing practices, as well as questions about on-farm decision-making that are designed to better capture the roles of beginning farmers, women farmers, and others involved in agriculture.

Farms of all sizes that produced and sold (or normally would have sold) $1,000 or more of agricultural products in 2017 are included in the census, which is the only source of uniform, comprehensive and impartial agricultural data for every state and county in the U.S. It is conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service every five years. The response deadline is Feb. 5. NASS says it will release the results of the census in February 2019.

USDA says the census helps stakeholders like farmers, trade associations, researchers, lawmakers, and others to get a more complete and accurate picture of American agriculture. The data are in community planning, farm assistance programs, tech development, advocacy, agribusiness setup, rural development and more.

Corn and petroleum lobbies voice unhappiness with EPA's Renewable Fuel Standard ruling

After a protracted battle over how much biofuels should be mixed into the nation's transportation fuel supply, the Environmental Protection Agency announced yesterday its final ruling on the Renewable Fuels Standard: the mandate for conventional renewable fuels like ethanol will remain at 15 billion gallons for 2018, and the required amounts of advanced biofuels will rise from 4.28 billion gallons in 2017 to 4.29 billion in 2018. Advanced biofuels are made from woody crops or agricultural waste.

EPA had proposed in July to roll back the biofuels requirement, but was met with sharp criticism from Corn Belt lawmakers such as powerful Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa. That ultimately led EPA to back down, in a rare loss for the petroleum sector under President Trump.

The ruling is an attempt to placate Republicans from both oil and corn states, but as The Washington Post's Dino Grandoni writes, nobody's happy about it--which may be the sign of a good compromise. Grassley said in a statement about yesterday's decision that the "renewable volume obligations fall short of the full potential of the U.S. biofuels industry." Chet Thompson, president of the trade group American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, said, "It appears that EPA did exactly what Senator Grassley demanded, bowing the knee to King Corn." Grandoni also points out that neither side wants to look too happy with the results, since that could undermine their lobbying efforts for next year's standard.

USDA nixes next salt reduction in school lunches

Morning Ag Clips photo
As expected, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Nov. 29 that it's halting an Obama-era plan to gradually reduce the amount of salt in school lunches each year. But the new plan would keep current sodium level targets unchanged through 2019. "Those targets are currently not more than 1,230 milligrams per meal for elementary, 1,360 mg for middle and 1,420 mg for high schools," Maria Danilova reports for the Associated Press.

Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said that the sodium levels now allowed are too high, and said the high-school sodium target is two-thirds of a child's daily recommended intake. "This is locking in dangerously high levels of salt in school meals," she told Danilova. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention backs up this claim, saying that about 90 percent of school-age U.S. children eat too much sodium daily, and that 1 in 6 children have raised blood pressure (which can be lowered partly with a healthy diet that includes less sodium).

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has criticized the sodium restrictions, saying that children won't eat the healthier meals and that food gets thrown away.

USDA's Food and Nutrition Service is also keeping in place a program that allows school districts to opt out of a requirement to supply whole grains in lunches, if the schools feel they can't procure enough whole-grain products.

Walmart pulls from its online store a T-shirt that journalists may find threatening

"Walmart has pulled a T-shirt offered by an outside seller from its online store after a journalist advocacy group told the retailer it found the shirt threatening," The Associated Press reports. The shirt says “Rope. Tree. Journalist. SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED.” This photo of was taken at a Donald Trump rally in Minnesota the Sunday before last year's election.

Walmart told AP,  “This item was sold by a third-party seller on our marketplace and clearly violates our policy. We removed it as soon as it was brought to our attention, and are conducting a thorough review of the seller’s assortment.” The third-party seller, Teespring, "confirmed that the shirt has been pulled and said it is working to prevent such content from slipping through its filters," AP reports.

The Radio Television Digital News Association complained to Walmart about the shirt. “We are grateful for Walmart’s swift action, but dismayed that it, and anyone else selling the shirt, would offer such an offensive and inflammatory product,” RTDNA Executive Director Dan Shelley said. 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

USDA says farm sector profits will likely be stable this year, after three years of decline

After three consecutive years of decline, profits in the farm sector of the economy are expected to be relatively stable in 2017, according to a report on farm income and wealth from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The report is released three times a year, in February, August and November.

"Net farm income, a broader measure of profits, is forecast to increase $1.7 billion (2.7 percent) from 2016 to $63.2 billion in 2017 and net cash income is forecast to increase $3.7 billion (3.9 percent) to $96.9 billion, in nominal terms. Inflation-adjusted net farm income is forecast to be relatively unchanged from 2016, while inflation adjusted net cash farm income is forecast to rise 2.1 percent," the USDA reports. "The stronger forecast growth in net cash farm income is largely due to an additional $2.1 billion (nominal) in cash receipts from the sale of beginning-of-year crop inventories. The net cash farm income measure counts those sales as part of current-year income while the net farm income measure counted the value of those inventories as part of prior-year income."

Chuck Abbott reports for, "In August, USDA said income was stabilizing after plunging in 2014 and 2015 and could increase slightly from 2016’s levels. Even so, income this year would be one half to three fourths of the record set at the peak of the commodity boom."

The USDA report says, "Farm sector equity—the difference between farm sector total assets and total debt—is predicted to rise $70.1 billion (2.7 percent) in 2017 to $2.65 trillion. Farm sector debt is expected to rise $11.0 billion (2.9 percent) to $385.2 billion, while an $81.1-billion (2.7 percent) increase to $3.0 trillion is anticipated in the market value of farm sector assets."

Abbott reports Ohio State University economist Ani Katchova said at a conference early this month, "Hopefully, the worst is over. Financial conditions seem to be improving, albeit slowly."

Charts show tax bill's impact by income groups

A Congressional Budget Office report released Sunday found that the Senate tax plan stands to disproportionately help the wealthy, while barely benefiting the middle class and causing the poorest Americans to lose money. That's relevant to rural America, since rural residents tend to be less well-off, generally. PBS analyzed the data and produced three easy-to-understand charts that illustrate the bill's effect.

The first chart breaks down how much families in each income bracket would gain or lose. "Highlighted in red, you can see lower-income groups face overall losses, per person or family, in this plan. But take a closer look at the amounts. The size of the losses for lower incomes is dwarfed by the massive gains — up to $59,000 per tax filer — at the upper end of the income scale," Lisa Desjardins reports for PBS. (PBS charts; click on each image to enlarge it)
The second chart shows that the wealthy not only gain the most in flat dollar amounts, but also the most money relative to income:
The third chart controls for the size of the population in each income bracket to determine the percentage of Americans who would benefit (or not) from the tax bill, and how much. The low-income brackets represent a larger share of the population than the higher-income brackets, but the high-income taxpayers would gain many times more money from the bill:
"These numbers show what conservatives rarely say directly these days — that they believe the U.S. tax system is too progressive, and moves too many resources from the rich to the poor," Desjardins writes. "The GOP tax plan is a decided shift in the other direction."

Increase in inexperienced farmers leads to rise in accidental deaths and injuries

Farming has always been a risky business, even for experienced farmers, from equipment accidents to grain-bin suffocations, but the increasing popularity of hobby and sideline farms may be contributing to more incidents. The 2012 Census of Agriculture showed that there were more than 813,000 farms of fewer than 50 acres in the U.S., an increase of almost 10 percent from 2002. And Purdue University farm-safety expert Bill Field, who has tracked farm fatalities for almost 40 years, says that almost a quarter of Indiana's farm fatalities over the past four years were on hobby farms, Rick Callahan reports for the Associated Press.

USDA map; click on the image to enlarge it
Part of the problem is that hobby farmers tend to be amateurs who were lured to farming from other careers, and don't have the experience to avoid common farm accidents. Tractor rollovers are the leading cause of death on small farms, partly because of inexperience, and partly because hobby farms are the among the only places in the U.S. where cheaper, older tractors without rollover bars and other safety features are still in use. Some hobby or sideline farmers are still working day jobs and try to wedge in farm chores at odd hours; fatigue and working alone can also contribute to accidents.

Farms with 10 or fewer workers aren't regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration workplace safety rules, notes Jesse Hirsch ofModern Farmer. Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, warned in a July article in the Journal of Agromedicine that "very small, subsistence, part-time, non-traditional and hobby farms will continue to pose significant challenges" to the safety of U.S. agriculture.

DEA targets opioid abuse in Appalachia with new Louisville office to handle Ky., Tenn., W.Va.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is targeting the opioid epidemic in Appalachia by establishing a new field office in Louisville on Jan. 1. Louisville already has a district office, one of 222 across the country, but it and the rest of Kentucky were part of the Detroit division, while West Virginia was part of the Washington, D.C., division and Tennessee was part of the Atlanta division. DEA hopes a field office for the three states will better organize efforts to tackle a crisis that has hit Appalachia particularly hard.

"The Appalachian region has been ground zero for the opioid problem in recent years," Dylan Lovan notes for The Associated Press. "Overdose deaths were 65 percent higher among people in Appalachia than in the rest of the country in 2015, a recent Appalachian Regional Commission study found. The study, Appalachian Diseases of Despair, reported that nearly 70 percent of the overdose deaths in the Appalachian region in 2015 were caused by opioids. West Virginia had the highest opioid overdose mortality rates with 52.8 deaths per 100,000 people."

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said at a Nov. 29 press conference that this is the first restructuring of DEA's field offices since the creation of the El Paso Division in 1998. The Louisville office will have 150 positions with 90 special agents in the three states. D. Christopher Evans, an associate agent who helps lead the Detroit field office, will lead the Louisville office.
The old DEA divisions with field offices; click on the image to enlarge it. (DEA map)

Former coal operator Don Blankenship, just out of prison, is running for U.S. Senate in W. Va.

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is running for a U.S. Senate seat in West Virginia, Kennie Bass and Jeff Morris report for Charleston's WCHS-TV. He was released from prison in May after a year-long sentence for his role in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in 2010 that killed 29 men.

Blankenship maintains his innocence and has appealed, unsuccessfully, to have his conviction overturned. While in prison, he wrote a 67-page booklet in which he said he was an "American political prisoner" and distributed 250,000 copies. On his blog and in the booklet, he blamed the U.S. Mine Safety & Health Administration for the blast.

His longtime adversary, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, is running for re-election. But Blankenship is in a Republican primary with U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Hundreds attend EPA hearings in W.Va. about ending Obama rules on carbon emissions

The Environmental Protection Agency is holding the second of a two-day hearing today in the heart of the Appalachian coalfields over its proposal to dismantle Obama-era rules to cut carbon emissions from power plants. On the first day of the hearing, the only one the EPA has scheduled on repeal of the Clean Power Plan, more than 270 people signed up to speak, so many that the EPA broke the hearing up into three rooms over two days, Jason Schwartz reports for The New York Times.

People on both sides asked for things they likely can't have, Ken Ward Jr. reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail: "Coal industry officials and regional political leaders spoke hopefully of a major resurgence in mining, a development most experts agree won’t happen, even with . . . carbon-pollution rules eliminated. Environmental groups, public-health officials and citizens asked the EPA not to repeal the Obama administration’s greenhouse limits, a move that is also highly unlikely, given President Donald Trump’s repeated promises to kill his predecessor’s signature climate change initiative."

Dozens of Murray Energy miners attended.
(New York Times photo by Mark Trent.)
Coal operator Robert Murray and 25 of his employees in mining gear showed up to support the proposal. Murray is a staunch Trump supporter and stands to benefit heavily from a recent EPA proposal that favors coal-fired power plants. He said the Clean Power Plan would eliminate even more coal jobs and would impose "massive costs on the power sector and American consumers," Schwartz reports.

"Scott Segal, the head of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, said the CPP is expensive and illegal because it requires some utilities to reduce emissions “beyond the fence line” or far away from the power plants themselves," Kara Van Pelt reports for Reuters.

Environmental groups and other defenders of the CPP held their own event nearby at the University of Charleston. Ben Levitan of the Environmental Defense Fund, Liz Perera of the Sierra Club and Lindsay Pace of the Moms Clean Air Force spoke about the importance of reducing greenhouse gases to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Proponents of the CPP also spoke up at the EPA hearing, Schwartz notes. Retired Kentucky coal miner and activist Stanley Sturgill, who has black lung disease, testified that repealing the CPP was "immoral and indefensible. . . . We're dying, literally dying, for you to help us."

"EPA Regional Administrator Cosmo Servidio said that the agency hasn’t yet decided whether it will schedule additional public hearings, and also hasn’t set a timeline for announcing what kind of replacement rule it will propose to meet the legal requirement — kicked in by a 2009 finding that greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health and welfare — that it take some steps to address the issue," Ward reports.

USDA releases parts of long-term farm projections

Yesterday the U.S. Department of Agriculture released selected parts of its projections of production, consumption, and prices for major U.S. crops and livestock for the coming decade. It stressed in a press release that the figures are not forecasts, but a "conditional long-run scenario" that assumes normal weather and yields with no change in U.S. farm policy. The complete report will be released in February 2018.

Some highlights from the report:
  • Overall corn acres are projected to fall from 94 million in 2016-2017 to 87.5 million planted in 2027-28, but the yield and price per bushel is expected to rise from 174.6 bushels per acre at $3.36 in 2016-2017 to 191.5 bushels per acre at $3.60 in 2027-2028. Net returns are projected to rise from $253 per acre in 2016-17 to $320 per acre in 2027-28.
  • Soybean acres are projected to increase from 83.4 million in 2016-17 to 91.5 million in 2027-28. Net returns may increase from $320 per acre in 2016-17 to $326 in 2027-28.
  • Wheat acreage is expected to fall from 50.1 million acres in 2016-17 to 48 million in 2027-28, with decreasing yields: from 52.7 bushels per acre in 2016-17 to 50.9 bushels per acre in 2027-28. The price for wheat is predicted to rise from $3.89 per bushel in 2016-17 to $5.20 per bushel in 2027-28. Net returns are projected to rise from $89 per acre in 2016-17 to $132 per acre in 2027-28.
  • Rice acres could fall from 3.1 million in 2016-17 to 2.9 million in 2027-28, but yields are projected to rise from 7,237 pounds per acre in 2016-17 to 7,996 pounds per acre in 2027-28, with average price per hundredweight rising from $10.40 in 2016-17 to $13.10 in 2027-28. Net returns are projected to rise from $186 per acre in 2016-17 to $408 per acre in 2027-28.
  • Barley may become less profitable, with projected net returns falling from $216 per acre in 2016-2017 to $210 in 2027-2028.
  • Sorghum may also become less profitable, with projected net returns falling from $82 per acre in 2016-17 to $79 in 2027-28.
  • Upland cotton plantings are projected to rise from 9.9 million acres in 2016-17 to 11.4 million in 2027-28, while the yield may rise from 855 pounds per acre in 2016-17 to 899 in 2027-28. The price per pound is projected to rise from 68 cents in 2016-2017 to 72 cents in 2027-28. Net return per acre is projected to rise from $180 in 2016-17 to $206 in 2027-28.
  • Sugar projections were made for both sugar beets and sugar cane. Sugar-beet acres may decrease from 1.16 million in 2016-17 to 1.09 million in 2027-28, with a slightly increasing yield per acre during that time frame. Sugar-cane acres may increase from 853,000 in 2016-17 to 916,000 in 2027-28.
  • Total meat consumption by Americans is projected to rise from 214.6 pounds per person in 2016 to 221.5 pounds in 2027. Within that total, red-meat consumption is expected to rise slightly more than poultry consumption. 
  • Total dairy cows are projected to rise from 9.3 million in 2016 to 9.5 million in 2027, with pounds of milk produced per cow expected to rise from 22,775 pounds in 2016 to 26,205 pounds in 2027.

CDC report details health disparities among ethnic minorities and whites in rural America

North Carolina Health News graphic
Many studies have looked at the health disparities between rural and urban areas, but a new report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quantifies the health disparities among different ethnic groups in rural areas.

"The authors, who work mostly out of the CDC’s Office of Minority Health & Health Equity, found that rural white populations have better access to health providers than minorities. They also found that members of minority populations living in rural areas tended to be younger than the white residents, with lower incomes and less education," Taylor Knopf reports for North Carolina Health News.

Self-reported information for 2012-15 from rural residents revealed that rural minorities were more likely to report having "fair" or "poor" health instead of "good" health, more likely to say they were obese, less likely to see a doctor during the past year because of the cost, and less likely to report having a regular doctor.

Rural whites were more likely to identify themselves as current smokers, and more likely to report binge drinking in the past month. Janice Probst, head of the South Carolina Rural Health Research Center and professor at the University of South Carolina, told Knopf that lower levels of drinking and smoking among rural African Americans likely stem from greater adherence to religious denominations that frown on drinking and smoking.

Other problems specific populations face: Rural blacks were more likely to have heart disease and strokes, while tuberculosis was more prevalent among Asian Americans. Hispanics struggle more than other minorities to find a regular source of health care. American Indians and Alaskans have higher rates of suicide than other rural demographics.

The study's authors recommend "stratifying data by different demographics, using community health needs assessments, and adopting and implementing the National Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services Standards" to help rural communities identify disparities and develop effective initiatives to eliminate them.

Midwives help fill maternity-care gap left by closings of rural hospitals and delivery rooms

More than half of rural counties in the U.S. don't have a hospital that delivers babies, which can endanger the lives of both mother and baby and increase the likelihood of planned Caesarian sections. But a new study suggests that community midwives could help safely help rural women with low-risk pregnancies to deliver by home birth.

Researchers from Oregon State University, Bastyr University, and the University of British Columbia examined the outcomes for rural women who give birth at home or at a birth center to similar births in metro areas of the U.S., and found that women in both areas had no significant difference in outcomes. Though rural women often face greater health problems such as obesity and smoking that can cause problems during delivery, the researchers found that rural midwives generally have good outcomes because they screen clients before offering a home birth and refer women who may need more specialized care to a hospital when possible, UBC Health News reports.

And even when rural women are able to plan a hospital delivery, a midwife can deliver prenatal and postpartum care at home, meaning the patient doesn't have to do as much traveling. 

Columnist: Amazon should consider rural areas

As corporate giant Amazon seeks a home for its second headquarters, Blue State cities large and small are offering sometimes outlandish perks and performing weird publicity stunts to catch CEO Jeff Bezos' eye. But he shouldn't overlook rural America, Midwestern author Zachary Michael Jack writes for The Daily Yonder.

Not many heavily rural states have thrown their hats in the ring, but they have much to offer. "Of the seven states who reportedly opted out of the Amazon sweepstakes, four—Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, are among the most rural and Republican—in other words, not Amazon-friendly territory at first glance. And yet a 2011 report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranks three of those states (North Dakota, Wyoming, and South Dakota) among the top five growth performers nationwide," Jack writes. And some of those rural states are very well run, financially speaking: "According to the latest figures, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota continue to boast the lowest foreclosure ratings in the nation, a calling card that speaks not just to their affordable housing, but to their fiscal discipline and economic stability."

Bezos has said he needs plenty of available affordable housing, proximity to major highways, airports, and a major research university. But Jack says he should specifically invite applications from Great Plains and Intermountain rural states, because their citizens have a high work ethic, low rates of absenteeism, and high civic participation and volunteerism, while the cities and towns themselves have a lower cost of living, plenty of affordable housing, and proximity to outdoor recreation and natural resources. Moreover, locating an Amazon headquarters in a largely rural area could be a game-changer for the entire region, stopping the drain of college-educated natives and increasing local commerce.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Farm Bureau, Extension Service and FFA find ways to fight the opioid epidemic in rural Ohio

State officials, farm-oriented groups and private citizens are finding novel ways to attack the opioid epidemic in rural Ohio. These programs could work in other rural areas; overdose death rates are rising fastest in states with large rural populations like West Virginia, Kentucky and New Hampshire. "The CDC goes so far as to say that the combination of living in a rural area and having a low income is proven to increase your risk of prescription-opioid abuse and overdose," Karen Bernick reports for Successful Farming.

Ohio has been hit hard in recent years: It consistently ranks at the top of overdose-death statistics and had more than 4,100 deaths from overdoses in 2016, a 26 percent jump from 2015. Much of the state's opioid woes began with prescription "pill mills" that helped thousands become (or stay) addicted, Bernick notes.

Deterra pouches
Christmas-tree farmer Kathi Albertson began a Farm Bureau program in Guernsey County to prevent unused prescription opioids from circulating in the community. The idea came to her last year when she was prescribed Percocet after shoulder surgery. "I didn't want the pills sitting around my house," she told Bernick, so she shared her concerns with her pharmacist. He gave her a small plastic pouch called a Deterra Drug Deactivation System and told her to add water to it, shake it up, then throw it out. The pouch contains a charcoal-based material that neutralizes about 98 percent of the medication.

"The simple solution gave Albertson an idea to help prevent volumes of pills from circulating in her county," Bernick reports. "She worked with her local Farm Bureau to purchase 200 Deterra bags and they also obtained 1,000 more bags through a grant program by Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals. They enlisted a local anti-addiction organization called CHOICES to help get the word out they had bags available." They held pill-disposal drives and dropped off the bags to local organizations and businesses that could distribute them in the community.

Michele Specht, director for the Ohio Farm Bureau in four Eastern Ohio counties, began working on preventing addiction in rural youth last year. She and local Farm Bureaus brought photo booths to county fairs and other events where 4-H, Future Farmers of America and Farm Bureau youths gather, and encouraged the kids to take pictures with their advisers, teachers, friends, and parents. The youth were encouraged to tape the pictures to their dresser or bathroom mirror to remind them who they could turn to instead of drugs.

Theresa Ferrari, a 4-H Extension specialist in youth development and associate professor at Ohio State University, has been working on youth addiction awareness and prevention. She and 4-H leaders designed an educational booth county fairs with a medicine cabinet filled with pill bottles, each with a label with facts about addiction to remind people that it often starts in homes. "Looking into a bathroom mirror is a powerful image because this issue can affect anyone," Ferrari told Bernick. "No one wakes up in the morning and says, 'I think I’ll become a heroin addict,' but it often starts with a person standing over their bathroom sink."

Ferrari and Specht are on the planning committee of a statewide teen forum on the opioid epidemic called "Hope for Ohio" Dec. 2 at the Nationwide and Ohio Farm Bureau 4-H Center in Columbus.

HBO documentary explores meth in rural Arkansas

Veronica Converse and her sons (HBO photo)
A new HBO documentary called "Meth Storm" highlights the causes and devastating effects of methamphetamine in a rural Arkansas community, Stephanie Sharp reports for Arkansas Matters.

"The 96-minute film follows DEA agents and police fighting against cartels, local dealers and users and their families in central Arkansas. There are no jobs here, especially since Walmart moved on, and residents seem chained to a life of poverty, addiction, and dealing to support their habits," Eric Killelea writes for Rolling Stone.

As Little Rock natives, filmmakers Brent and Craig Renaud are no strangers to the area. The Peabody Award-winning brothers returned to their home state and spent more than two years on the documentary, following the life of longtime meth user Veronica Converse and her sons, who deal the drug. The Renauds also embedded with a DEA unit and witnessed large-scale seizures of meth and firearms, many of which originated with Mexican drug cartels. Read more about the documentary and find listing times here.

Some states prepare for worst, send warning letters as children's health funds begin to run out

Since federal authorization for the Children's Health Insurance Program lapsed in September, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have paid more than $600 million in emergency funds to 14 states and territories to help keep their programs running. The money comes from leftover CHIP allotments from previous years, Quinn Libson reports for Route Fifty.

Congress is reportedly making some progress toward a bipartisan deal to reauthorize the program, which provides medical coverage for 9 million low- and middle-income children. The Hill reports that staff from relevant committees  in both parties and chambers met over Thanksgiving to discuss a package that could include funding for CHIP, community health centers, extensions for some expiring Medicare programs, and a bill to make Medicare spending more efficient. "The health-care package could be attached to either a short-term government spending bill in early December, or the longer-term government funding bill later in December. Advocates are pushing for it to be included in the earlier, short-term bill," The Hill reports.
A Politico map shows when each state is expected to run out of money.
Meanwhile, states are preparing for worst-case scenarios. State officials in Colorado sent letters to families this week warning them that their children's insurance could run out Jan. 30, and encouraged them to start researching private insurance options, John Ingold reports for The Denver Post. Virginia is planning to send out a similar letter to Colorado's, and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said she's prepared to spend $35 million in state funds to keep CHIP running after it runs out of federal money in the next few weeks, Michael Ollove reports for Governing.

"Minnesota, which was on the verge of going bust in October, managed to cadge $3.6 million in emergency funds from the government to carry it through the end of the year," Michael Hiltzik reports for the Los Angeles Times. "Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey is pondering whether to raid his state’s rainy day fund. But as deadlines approach, most states have little choice other than to start throwing children off the CHIP rolls, cutting back on services or shutting down completely."

Hospital in county of 6,000 finds niches to first survive, then thrive; employs 500

Rural hospitals are struggling nationwide, but one Georgia hospital is thriving after a bold gamble on a new program, Elly Yu reports for WABE-FM, Atlanta's NPR affiliate.

When Robin Rau took over as the CEO of Miller County Hospital a decade ago, the hospital was $6 million in debt and its attached Miller County Nursing Home had almost 30 empty beds. When the recession hit, things got worse. The facility needed patients, so Rau decided to develop a program for ventilator care in the nursing home to lure patients away from crowded hospitals in Atlanta. The hospital invested millions in specialized equipment and staff, and many of the tracheotomy tube patients were uninsured, even homeless, so it was a big financial risk.

But the hospital forged ahead, enlisting social workers to help uninsured patients get Medicaid or private insurance so the nursing home could get paid for services. "It was a tremendous gamble that we took, but it was either that, or we were going to close,” Rau told Yu. Today the hospital employs about 500 people in a county of under 6,000 residents. The ventilator unit at the nursing home houses 60 patients, and the hospital has begun construction on space for 50 more nursing-home beds.

Rau implemented other cost-cutting measures at the hospital, like opening a pharmacy to save money by filling prescriptions in-house. To attract more insured patients, the hospital gave free doctor visits to employees of local companies To cut down on emergency-room visits for non-emergency care, it beefed up services at a rural clinic and creating programs to proactively manage people's health.

"I’m trying to keep people healthy so they’re not in our emergency room," Rau told Yu. "It costs me maybe $100, $110 to see somebody in our rural health clinic – that’s my cost. But if they come into my emergency room, it’s going to cost me a lot more than that."

Thursday webinar will use interactive tool that suggests health impacts of oil and gas drilling

A new web-based interactive platform aims to help residents, public-health scientists, medical professionals and community organizations create and share data about the local impacts of oil and gas drilling. The Environmental Health Channel was developed by the Create Lab at Carnegie Mellon University in partnership with the Environmental Health Project, with support from the Pittsburgh Foundation. The data is self-reported and includes physical and psychosocial health symptoms, measurements of particulate pollution in the air, and personal narratives from residents.

The Environmental Health Project will host a free webinar at 12:30 p.m. EST Thursday, Nov. 30, to demonstrate how to use the EHC. Click here to register or for more information.

A sample of data from the Environmental Health Channel

Consider The Rural Blog and its publisher for one of your year-end charitable donations

Today is Giving Tuesday, a relatively new observance aimed at creating an international day of giving to charitable causes. The Rural Blog and its publisher usually ask for help near the end of each year, so we're asking a little earlier this year in the hope that you will find a place for us as you reflect on the causes you would like to support.

The Rural Blog is published by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky, with academic partners at 25 universities in 17 states. The institute's mission is to help rural journalists define the public agenda in their communities through strong reporting and commentary, especially on broad issues that have a local impact but few good local sources of information. For the institute's five-year strategic plan, click here.

The institute is supported by an endowment at the university, which accepts online donations. To make an online donation, click on this link: The endowment's return rate to us, based on a three-year rolling average, is 3.5 percent. If you want to make a gift with more immediate impact, make out a check to the university, put "Rural Journalism, operating" on the memo line and mail it to us at 122 Grehan Journalism Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042.

Thanks for whatever you can do. At a time when audiences are being asked to pay more for journalism, so it can remain robust in the service of democracy, we hope you will find The Rural Blog and its publisher worthy of your support.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Advocacy group tells 248 counties to clean up their voter rolls or get sued in federal court; sues Ky.

"At a time when gaming the rules of elections has become standard political strategy," a conservative advocacy group has asked 248 counties to "do what Congress has ordered: Prune their rolls of voters who have died, moved or lost their eligibility — or face a federal lawsuit," Michael Wines reports for The New York Times. A conservative group connected with PILF, Judicial Watch, filed a federal suit Nov. 14 against the state of Kentucky. Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said "Kentucky has perhaps the dirtiest election rolls in the country" and that "dirty voting rolls can mean dirty elections."

The voting rights group Demos "and two other advocacy groups, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School, offered legal help to any of the 248 county election officials who tried to oppose the notice," Wines reports.

Wines writes, "Conservative groups and Republican election officials in some states say the poorly maintained rolls invite fraud and meddling by hackers, sap public confidence in elections and make election workers' jobs harder. Voting rights advocates and most Democratic election officials, in turn, say that the benefits are mostly imaginary, and that the purges are intended to reduce the number of minority, poor and young voters, who are disproportionately Democrats."

Anderson County in Kentucky
(Wikipedia map)
In Anderson County, Kentucky, which received a letter from PILF, County Clerk Jason Denny said it's possible there are more registered voters than people who are eligible to vote, but said his office can't clean up the voter rolls. "We’re not allowed to touch them . . . Only the State Board of Elections can purge them," he told Editor Ben Carlson of The Anderson News. "We have no way of knowing if anything corrupt is going on."

Denny said his office takes care to notify the state Office of Vital Statistics about deaths in the county, which is supposed to cause the deceased to be removed from voter rolls. He thinks bad census numbers may be partially to blame for the alleged excess of registered voters over eligible ones. "Some people don’t fill out the census honestly because they don’t want to be counted," Denny said. "But, they register to vote because they want to vote, and that makes it look skewed."

If that's the case, such discrepancies may continue to show up: the 2020 census will shift toward a more online model of self-reporting, which could cause rural areas to be undercounted.

Loss of net neutrality could hurt rural America

The Federal Communications Commission's upcoming vote on whether to repeal net neutrality regulations will likely have an outsized effect on rural America, Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton reports for The Progressive Farmer: "The neutrality debate pits major internet providers such as AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Mediacom -- just to name a few -- against a growing industry of internet content providers such as Google, Facebook, Netflix and Amazon Prime. Caught in between are rural residents who lag behind urban residents in quality internet service, but also have growing demands for internet content."

Net neutrality rules guarantee that internet service providers must make all content available at the same speed. Without net neutrality, ISPs can throttle or eliminate access to some websites' content, creating a virtual "fast lane" where companies who pay up can get better access, and small businesses could languish. FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, a former Verizon attorney, insists that deregulating the industry will spur greater innovation and benefit rural America. Click here for a good explanation of the issue.

The FCC has solicited public comments on the proposal since May. About 800,000 comments opposing net neutrality, out of the 22 million total comments, may have been faked. The FCC has ignored Freedom of Information Act requests for records, causing Democratic senators Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Frank Pallone of New Jersey to call for an investigation.

Researchers find evidence that Texas quakes are caused by injection of fluids from fracked wells

Science Advances maps of quakes of magnitude 3 or higherclick on image to enlarge it.
Disposal of wastewater from oil and gas wells opened with horizontal hydraulic fracturing may be responsible for an increasing number of earthquakes in Texas, according a study published Nov. 24 in Science Advances.

Previous studies have suggested a correlation between injection wells and earthquakes in Oklahoma, which adopted guidelines last year to force drilling companies to pause and evaluate the effects of their operations when an earthquake of sufficient strength occurs. However, it's almost impossible to directly prove the cause of a particular quake by looking at its characteristics or plotting quakes on a map. "A cluster of earthquakes around a drilling project can, at best, suggest a relationship," Ben Guarino reports for The Washington Post.

So researchers from Southern Methodist University in Dallas and the U.S. Geological Survey took a different tack: they performed seismic reflection imaging, a sort of ultrasound, on Texas bedrock to see if active faults could be causing a recent spate of earthquakes. They compared Texas with the Mississippi Embayment, a region with similar seismic activity and geologic placement but far less fracking. They found that the Mississippi Embayment's earthquakes were caused by continuous fault activity for the past 65 million years, but faults in the area of Texas they studied hadn't been active for 300 million years, so there is no known geologic process that could explain them.

Cliff Frohlich, a geophysicist at the University of Texas in Austin who was not involved in the study, told Guarino that the study provides a powerful argument that "These earthquakes are something new and different."

Last day to apply for Rural Computer-Assisted Reporting fellowship to 5-day IRE Boot Camp

Today, Nov. 27, is the deadline to apply for the Rural Computer-Assisted Reporting Fellowship to the next Investigative Reporters and Editors computer-assisted reporting boot camp in Columbia, Mo. The data boot camp will be held Jan. 8-12.

This fellowship is open only to journalists who work in rural areas. Journalists if they work outside of a metropolitan area (with a core urban population of 50,000 or more), for a newspaper with a circulation of less than 40,000, a television station outside the top 100 Nielsen markets, or a radio or online news organization with a record of covering rural areas. Freelancers should submit a letter from such an outlet testifying to their working relationship with that outlet and the prospect of publishing work they do as a result of the training.

Daniel Gilbert
The fellowship includes a one-year IRE membership, registration fee for the boot camp and up to $500 in reimbursement for travel expenses. It does not cover food or incidentals. It is financed by the Fund for Rural Computer-Assisted Reporting, established by IRE member Daniel Gilbert to give rural reporters skills that will help them uncover stories that otherwise would not come to light. The fellowship is offered in conjunction with the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

Required application materials include a resume, three clips showcasing investigative work, a letter of support from your news organization, and a statement of interest (preference is given to applicants who outline a project that includes the need to analyze databases). To apply, click here. To learn more about the fellowship from people who have received it, go here.

AP uses 'sexual misconduct' as broad label for topic

It's the biggest topic in the news, but we don't seem sure what to call it. Sexual harassment? Sexual misbehavior? Sexual misconduct?

As it often does, The Associated Press has stepped in to provide some guidance and set some standards, which can be followed by all journalists, not just AP members. In a blog post last week, AP Standards Vice President John Daniszewski said the broadest term, and this the best, is "sexual misconduct." He wrote:
“Sexual harassment” has a particular legal meaning. It is, per Webster’s New World College Dictionary, “inappropriate, unwelcome, and, typically, persistent behavior, as by an employer or co-worker, that is sexual in nature, specifically when actionable under federal or state statutes.”
While that definition is broad, encompassing many kinds of misbehavior, the word “harassment” is too mild to describe some of the activities that have been alleged in recent weeks. Beyond mere harassment, these have ranged to allegations of assault, serious abuse, pedophilia and even rape.
In our individual stories, we should be as specific as possible in describing the kinds of behavior that is being alleged or admitted — such as groping, unwanted kissing, disrobing, or verbal or physical abuse or assault.
In slugs and headlines, we have decided to adopt the generalized description “sexual misconduct,” rather than “sexual harassment,” because it encompasses a broader range of sexual misbehavior and does not run the risk of diminishing some of the alleged acts. 
Veteran editor Anne Glover writes for The Poynter Institute, "You could probably make a point that misconduct doesn't quite capture the depth of the experience for the victim, either. After all, the definition for that is ';unacceptable or improper behavior, especially by an employee or professional person.' Unacceptable is pretty strong, but improper is weaker than harassment. And yet, other synonyms fall short or seem stilted as well. Put 'sexual' in front of these and see how it sounds:
misdeeds; offenses; misbehavior; transgressions; wrongdoing. So misconduct, while not perfect, seems as good a word as any to use in headlines, display type, chyrons or stories."