Friday, December 29, 2017

Agricultural publication with small staff does a three-part series on the rural opioid epidemic

The Rural Blog doesn't compile an annual list of the best rural journalism of the year past, because we don't have the resources to make a comprehensive review. But if were able to do one for 2017, we would likely include a three-part series on the rural opioid epidemic by Farm and Dairy, an agricultural newspaper based in eastern Ohio, that has three reporters. Chris Kick, Katy Mumaw and Catie Noyes spent nine months reporting on opioids in three rural Ohio and Pennsylvania counties in the paper's circulation area that have high rates of drug-overdose deaths. "Addiction: A Rural Reality" was edited by Aimee Tenzek and designed by art director David Hartong. A special web page, created by Tammy Reese and coordinated by Sara Welch, has stories and information not in the print edition, as well as audio and video. It's an ambitious piece of public-service journalism.

Editor Susan Crowell wrote in a column introducing the November series that it might be the most important thing she had done in her 30-plus years at the newspaper: "Some of you may think the subject of drug addiction doesn’t belong in the pages of Farm and Dairy. You read this newspaper because it shares the stories of farm families, of agriculture, of rural life — not to read about the opioid epidemic that litters the pages of your local daily newspaper. But I think you’re wrong. It’s exactly because we share the stories of farm families and of rural life that we can’t ignore the issue. We’re not immune to its ravages. We all need to know more about this problem that’s right in our midst, whether you live in a city or on a farm. We all need to fight stereotypes — that people with an addiction are low income, or the products of a single-parent home, or didn’t go to church when they were growing up, or any other false impression of someone who might be fighting a substance abuse battle." Crowell concluded, "Every life is worth saving."

New tax law could hurt donations to non-profits like publisher of The Rural Blog; here's how to give

The new tax law might be bad for small non-profits like the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, the publisher of The Rural Blog. Almost all of our donors are small, and the new law makes it likely that fewer people will itemize deductions — and thus be less likely to give to outfits like ours. The Council on Foundations estimates the tax bill will drain anywhere from $16 billion to $24 billion a year from the nonprofit sector in future years.

But until midnight Sunday, Dec. 31, the old law is in effect, so now might be a good time to send a donation to the Institute, which is supported in part by an endowment at the University of Kentucky, 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 of the corpus. 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, and happy new year!

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Rural Blog and its publisher need your help

If you appreciate The Rural Blog, please help its publisher, the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues with a year-end gift.

We're 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 our five-year strategic plan, click here.

The institute is supported in part 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 of the corpus. 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.

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. Thanks for whatever you can do.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Coal's decline made Wyo. and W.Va. top percentage losers in population in 2017; Idaho had most gain

The decline of the coal industry made the top two coal-producing states, Wyoming and West Virginia, lose more of their population this year than any other state, the Bureau of the Census estimates.

"Those two, and others in the lower echelon, have something in common: resource dependence," notes Andew Van Dam of The Washington Post. "That helps explain why the state went from the fourth-fastest growing in 2012 (D.C. was first that year) to rock bottom in 2017." Wyoming's loss was entirely from its residents moving out; its births outnumbered its deaths; that was not the case in West Virginia, which lost its status as No. 1 coal state to Wyoming decades ago.

Both states suffer from the resource curse, "in which natural-resource wealth actually harms developing countries because it crowds out important long-term investments in infrastructure, education and industrialization," Van Dam writes. "Resource-dependent states may see a population recovery in 2018 thanks to a partial recovery in energy prices, but that does nothing to break their cycle of dependence on global commodity markets." He contrasts Wyoming with its neighbor, Idaho, which was the fastest-growing state this year, followed by Nevada, Utah and Washington.

The story has three good charts, one showing the growth or loss rankings of each state by decade since 1900; another with the percentages of state gross domestic product in 2016 that came from mining, including oil and gas (20.29 percent in Wyoming, 11.52 percent in West Virginia); and the sources of population growth or loss: migration from other states, migration from abroad, and net births and deaths (indicated by different colors). Here's an emendated screenshot of the bottom of that chart, showing the states that lost population (as shown by the horizontal black lines to the left of the chart's vertical axis; Wyoming's line shows that it lost almost 1 percent of its population this year):
Here's a screenshot of the top three-fifths of the first chart, with the states ranked by this year's estimated growth:

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Lending and local business decline as banks leave towns they think are too small for branches

Danielle Baker (Photo by Veasey Conway for WSJ)
"The financial fabric of rural America is fraying," Ruth Simon and Coulter Jones report for The Wall Street Journal. "Even as lending revives around cities, it is drying up in small communities. In-person banking, crucial to many small businesses, is disappearing as banks consolidate and close rural branches. Bigger banks have been swallowing community banks and gravitating toward the business of making larger loans," making it harder for very small towns to attract business. It's a downward spiral: "Bankers say they don't see enough business in small towns."

The story opens in Roxobel, N.C., population 220, with the case of Danielle Baker, who "wanted a $324,000 loan last year to expand the peanut-processing business she ran from the family farm. She had a longstanding relationship with the Roxobel branch of Southern Bank, and she thought Southern would help fund the peanut operation she had spun off, too. But that branch—the town’s only bank—closed in 2014. A Southern banker based in Ahoskie, 19 miles away, said Baker’s Southern Traditions Peanuts Inc. was too small and specialized, she says. A PNC Bank branch also turned her down," the Journal reports. "She finally got a loan from a nonprofit in Raleigh two hours away that provides financing to small businesses but not other traditional banking services. She must drive 19 miles every afternoon to make cash deposits or get change for her cash register, and expects to make a two-hour trip when she wants to refinance."

“It’s very aggravating on a day-to-day basis,” Baker told the newspaper. “If you are not a big company with tons of assets and a big bank account, they just overlook you.”

Simon and Jones report, "Rural communities in parts of the U.S. have become less attractive to local banks because they are suffering from a variety of economic ills that have taken a toll on business activity and new business formation." Those include "weak schools," big-box stores that crushed local retailers, lower credit ratings after the financial crisis and migration of young people to cities.
WSJ graphic shows decline of rural lending. For a larger version of the chart, click on it.
"The value of small loans to businesses in rural U.S. communities peaked in 2004 and is less than half what it was then in the same communities, when adjusted for inflation," the Journal reports, based on its analysis of Community Reinvestment Act data. "In big cities, small loans to businesses fell only a quarter during the same period, mainly due to large declines in lending activity during the financial crisis. Adjusted for inflation, rural lending is below 1996 levels. Of America’s 1,980 rural counties, 625 don’t have a locally owned community bank—double the number in 1994, federal data show. At least 35 counties have no bank, while about 115 are now served by just one branch."

A town with no bank has little future. It’s really like a death sentence for a small town because the bank is the center of all activity,” North Carolina insurance agent Tommy Davis told the Journal. He moved his office 25 miles from Colerain, pop. 187, to Windsor, pop. 3,700, when the only bank branch in Colerain closed. There's a lot more in the story; read it here.

Monday, December 25, 2017

A list of 'best films' about 25 professions recalls a better one naming the best movies about farming

Kevin Costner played a farmer in "Field of Dreams" (1989).
The Washington Post's selection of the 10 best movies about journalism prompted the newspaper to round up some experts — just one for each profession — to declare the best movies about other professions. Since the first list didn't include any pictures with a rural angle, here are the pickers and the picks for two rural lines of work, farming and mining.

Phil Smith, director of government affairs and longtime spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, told the Post that the best movie about coal mining is "Matewan," a 1987 film about a West Virginia coal strike almost 100 years ago that led to the greatest use of military force against American civilians.

"The story is about miners who decided to organize . . . the real life and death struggle it took to make improvements in their lives," Smith writes. "My favorite scene is a meeting scene. James Earl Jones stands up with that voice, and makes an argument about how they should be working together and working toward the same goal. Sometimes the most thrilling part of a movie can still just be a speech."

To choose the best movie about farming, someone at the Post picked Breanna Holbert, a student at California State University, Chico, and president of the National FFA Organization, formerly known as Future Farmers of America. She selected "Charlotte's Web," a 1973 film full of talking animals and starring a spider who saves a pig from slaughter.

"My brother is 8. He loves this movie and I do, too," Holbert writes. "There are a lot of small players in the agricultural industry, small farmers, who get overlooked — but then they end up pushing the big players to move forward, to try and experience new things. Those small players are the Charlottes. We need Charlottes."

Farm and Dairy, an agricultural paper in eastern Ohio, picked the best films about farming four years ago. They included "Charlotte's Web," and "Places in the Heart" a 1984 film starring Sally Field, but higher on the list came "Grapes of Wrath" (1940), from John Steinbeck's novel about Oklahoma farmers becoming migrant workers in California; "Babe" (1995), also about a pig, one that herds sheep; and "Field of Dreams" (1989), starring Kevin Costner as an Iowa farmer who "builds a baseball diamond in the middle of his cornfield," Will Flannigan wrote. "The ghosts of legendary baseball players then come to the field every night to play."

Also on the Farm and Dairy list is a 2005 documentary, "The Real Dirt on Farmer John," about John Peterson, a Northern Illinois farmer who operates Angelic Organics. the largest community-supported agriculture business in the U.S. "Peterson is an outcast in his community who turns his family’s farm around by taking his family traditions and combining them with art and free expression," Flannigan wrote.