Friday, April 06, 2018

Trump talks tit-for-tat tariffs, unspecified protection for farm interests; China says it would respond; who has leverage?

President Trump said Thursday evening that he is considering an additional $100 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods, in retaliation for tariffs China said it would impose on a long list of U.S. imports, from soybeans and pork to tobacco and ginseng. The Chinese announcement, which came without an effective date for the tariffs, came in response to Trump's $50 billion in import duties on Chinese steel and aluminum, which are still going through the formal approval process.

In a statement, Trump said "China has repeatedly engaged in practices to unfairly obtain America’s intellectual property," and "Rather than remedy its misconduct, China has chosen to harm our farmers and manufacturers." Trump said he had asked Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, "with the support of other members of my Cabinet, to use his broad authority to implement a plan to protect our farmers and agricultural interests." He offered no details. In a statement this morning, the White House said the trade moves "are a response to years of unfair trade practices by China."

"In response to the possible new U.S. tariffs, China’s Commerce Ministry said Beijing would respond with its own countermeasures should it come to that," reports Bob Davis of The Wall Street Journal. The Journal's Washington Bureau chief, Gerald Seib, writes that Trump's announcement "was almost certain to cause fears of a full-scale trade war among investors, farmers and businesses with ties to Chinese trade." The news came after the close of stock trading, but recent trade tensions with Beijing have already fueled wide price swings in recent trading sessions." Stock and agricultural commodity markets are down this morning, and falling.

"Why would President Trump threaten steep tariffs on Chinese imports, rattling stock markets?" asks the Journal's Greg Ip. "It’s partly because this is a negotiation, and a negotiator must show a tolerance for pain if his demands aren’t met. For Mr. Trump to succeed, China must believe its pain will exceed that of the U.S. in a trade war and settle on his terms. Whether he’s right depends heavily on who has the most leverage. Economically, it's the U.S.," because Chinese exports to the U.S. are 4 percent of its economy, while those from the U.S. to China are only 0.7 percent of our economy.

"China imports so much of the world’s soybean supply that it has few alternatives to the U.S.," Ip writes. "Brazil, the only other major supplier, is already reaching its capacity. That means China would have to keep importing American soybeans while its tariff rippled through to the price of tofu, bean curd, animal feed and thus chicken and pork," hurting Chinese consumers. "Perhaps the biggest risk to China from a trade war is that global manufacturers no longer regard it as a reliable base from which to supply the U.S. and shift operations elsewhere."

However, "The political leverage is with China," Ip writes. "Chinese leaders don’t have to worry about losing elections or critical editorials if its consumers pay more for soybeans. The communist leadership prioritizes growth, but prioritizes long-term geostrategic interests even more. . . . The U.S.’s political pain threshold is low, which other countries regularly exploit." The Associated Press reports, "Seven months before the 2018 midterm elections, Trump’s faceoff with China . . . has exposed an unexpected political vulnerability in what was supposed to be the Republican Party’s strongest region: rural America."

EPA exempts many more refineries from biofuels mandate; ethanol interests say it's an attack on renewable fuels

"The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved the request of 25 small refineries to be exempted from the nation’s biofuels laws, an agency source said on Wednesday, marking a big increase from previous years and triggering an outcry from farm groups worried the move will hurt ethanol demand," Jarrett Renshaw and Chris Prentice report for Reuters.

Refineries are required to blend biofuels such as ethanol into the nation's fuel each year, at a level set by the Renewable Fuels Standard. The administration came under fire last fall when it considered rolling back the RFS; Trump ultimately caved and kept the RFS steady after Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, threatened to hold up court nominees.

In past administrations EPA has issued between six and eight waivers per year to small refineries for whom RFS compliance would be a financial hardship, but the unprecedented expansion has triggered outrage from biofuels advocates. "Brooke Coleman, head of the Advanced Biofuels Business Council, said he was concerned EPA’s [Scott] Pruitt was using the waivers to gut a program he dislikes," Renshaw and Prentice report. Grassley said the move raises legal questions.

The move triggered a dramatic drop in U.S. renewable fuel credits, which fell as low as 29 cents each on Wednesday, the first time they've fallen below 30 cents since September 2015.

New summer camp helps kids affected by opioid addiction

Sperling's Best Places map
A rural West Virginia firefighter and emergency medical technician is trying a novel approach to mitigating the opioid epidemic: a summer camp geared toward kids affected by opioid addiction. Through his job at the Teays Valley Fire Department and working with the Tri-County YMCA's summer camp for several years, Jared Davis saw local kids needed something like the camp. If the generations-long cycle of poverty and drug abuse is allowed to continue unchecked, today's kids could be tomorrow's opioid users, Carlee Lammers reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

"When a kid is born into a particular situation, they’re going to see that as normal . . . When their family does drugs, doesn’t work and isn’t functional, the kid is simply going to grow up and follow in those footsteps," Davis told Lammers. "It’s not a kid’s fault to grow up and become what their home situation is if no one has ever taken the time to show them a better way."

Davis' church, Church at the Depot, bought a defunct day camp for $535,000 and turned it into Camp Appalachia, a 150-acre camp with features such as a rock wall, a ropes course, and a pool. The church is partnering with West Virginia State University to provide outdoor education, in hopes of slowing or preventing summer learning loss for campers.

The camp aims to help kids build up their self-esteem and realize they can conquer challenges (such as a rock climbing wall), which will hopefully help them feel like they can overcome the challenges in their home lives. They want to help the children understand that "they can be better," Davis told Lammers. "We can't necessarily fix the kid's situation, but we can change his or her outlook on the situation. So, when they go back to a home that is not suitable, so to speak, they have the emotional fortitude and the resiliency to be able to overcome their family situation. Maybe they can look back on the counselor who spent extra time with them, or showed them that they cared."

Davis will bring in local firefighters, EMTs and police officers to hang out with the kids so they can feel more comfortable with law enforcement, instead of viewing them primarily as people who "took Mom or Dad away," he said. The camp opens this summer.

U. of Wisconsin starts rural obstetrics/gynecology program

The chronic shortage of rural obstetrician/gynecologists is worsening in some areas, but the University of Wisconsin-Madison is trying to reverse the trend with a new rural residency program for OB-GYNs, the first in the nation. The program welcomed its first rural resident in June, Dr. Laura McDowell. The 27-year-old is training in Portage, and over the next four years will train in hospitals in other rural towns: Monroe, Watertown and Ripon.

The need for doctors like McDowell is great: nearly half of all U.S. counties lack an OB-GYN, and there will be a shortage of 6,000 to 8,000 by the year 2020, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

McDowell says she's familiar with the shortage of rural OB-GYNs because she grew up in rural Minnesota and graduated from medical school last year from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where the school's curriculum was generally focused on rural medicine, Noah Vernau reports for the Portage Daily Register.

"McDowell, who spent the first year of her training in Madison, is the only doctor in the rural-residency program, but the school expects to add a second doctor soon and will have four residents on a rural track by 2021," Vernau reports.

The program took about three years to develop, using a $375,000 grant from the Wisconsin Rural Physicians Residency Assistance Program, funded by the state budget. RPRA has funded rural programs in Wisconsin medical schools in fields such as psychiatry and surgery, according to program coordinator Kimberly Bruksch-Meck.

Fixing Appalachia may be the first step to fixing America, says leading modern historian of the region

You may know Buzzfeed as the home of pop-culture listicles, but it recently published a thoughtful essay about Appalachia by Ronald Eller, the author of Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, and professor emeritus of history at the University of Kentucky.

When most Appalachians voted for Donald Trump in 2016, he writes, liberal pundits made the region a symbol of the nation's broken politics and used it to explain his appeal, while some conservatives said poor Appalachian areas were "white ghettos" of dependency created by liberal policies.

Both sides ignore the real source of Appalachia's well-known problems with unemployment, opioid addiction, health problems and poverty, Eller argues: "Rampant, unregulated free-market capitalism has ravaged the land and people of the mountains since the turn of the 20th century, creating an internal economic colony that provided natural resources for the modernization of the rest of country but left the working-class residents of Appalachia dependent and poor. . . . Efforts to reduce regional poverty over the last five decades, including those of the present, have relied primarily upon the same market-expanding strategies that fueled these inequalities in the first place. They provide a semblance of growth and opportunities for a few, especially those well connected to outside sources of capital, but they do not fundamentally alter the economic, political, and institutional structures that have plagued the region for more than a century."

When those solutions failed in Appalachia, coal country elites told locals that wealthy outsiders, especially federal bureaucrats, were the source of the region's problems, not greed, exploitation or corruption, Eller writes: "This may be the central issue of the Trump era: whether we will continue to blame the people of the region for their own condition, or whether we will acknowledge the need for substantive structural reform nationally and within Appalachia."

Appalachia's problems show the need for nationwide policy change, and fixing Appalachia may be the first step to fixing America, Eller argues.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

In significant Pa. ruling on fracking, appeals court clears way for trespassing claims against gas companies

A Pennsylvania appeals court ruled this week that three siblings can proceed with a lawsuit alleging that Southwestern Energy Production Co. trespassed on their property by extracting natural gas from their land through a hydraulic fracturing well (presumably horizontal) on adjacent property. The ruling "negates a legal principle in oil and gas law that allows companies to siphon natural resources from beneath land they do not own without compensating the landowner," Terrie Morgan-Besecker reports for the Scranton Times-Tribune.

Adam Briggs filed the lawsuit in 2015 regarding 11 acres in Harford Township owned by him, his brother and his sister. Southwestern has operated two fracked wells since 2011 on adjacent property, and Briggs says his family has never been compensated.

A judge dismissed the lawsuit because of a legal principle called the "rule of capture," which "allows companies to drain a natural resource, including oil, gas or water, from beneath property they do not own as long as they do not trespass on the land," Morgan-Besecker reports. The principle behind the rule is that gas and oil migrate across property lines, especially when a well changes pressure in the rock formation. Based on the rule, courts have ruled that companies can extract oil and gas without having to compensate adjoining property owners.

The Briggses' attorney argued the shouldn't apply to gas extracted through fracking because the gas in deep, "tight" formations like the Marcellus Shale doesn't freely migrate, and is freed only through fracking. The state Superior Court agreed, saying "Unlike oil and gas originating in a common reservoir, natural gas, when trapped in a shale formation, is nonmigratory in nature."

It's not known if Southwestern will appeal the decision. If it doesn't, the ruling would set a precedent that would impact similar disputes in Pennsylvania, Morgan-Besecker reports.

Rural California residents protest cannabis growers

A Save Our Sonoma Neighborhoods map shows existing
growers in red and new growers in blue. (Click to enlarge)
Sonoma County, California, is well-known for producing wine, but cannabis has become a popular crop too since marijuana was legalized in the state, and some of Sonoma's rural residents aren't crazy about it.

"Rural neighbors are concerned that increased traffic from recreational cannabis farms — and the planting, cultivating, trimming and processing that they require — will damage the rugged landscapes, use up scarce water resources and invite crime into areas that have little access to law enforcement support," Ray Holley reports for The Healdsburg Tribune.

According to a countywide volunteer organization called Save Our Sonoma Neighborhoods, the biggest problem is that county officials treat cannabis as agriculture and not like an industry. So county regulations encourage cannabis growers to locate in rural areas that aren't otherwise useful.

But area resident Steve Imbibo told Holley that industrial zones are the best place for cannabis growers. He also said a regulation that favors existing growers has backfired. "He says that small, outlaw growers who existed for years in remote areas are being used 'for cover' by outside investors who come in and take advantage of the regulations to claim an existing use, Holley reports. "They throw a bunch of plants in the ground and they qualify as existing growers," Imbibo said.

Growers, meanwhile, say they're frustrated because the regulations are burdensome and the taxes and fees are too high. Both sides of the conflict plan to attend the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meeting on April 10.

Calaveras County, to the west, is facing a similar problem with rural residents who aren't happy with the burgeoning cannabis industry.

USDA hears concerns, ideas, at first opioid epidemic roundtable in Pennsylvania; next one will be in Utah

On March 14 in Harrisburg, Pa., representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture held the first in a series of roundtables to discuss the opioid epidemic. "The inaugural roundtable was convened in Pennsylvania by Anne Hazlett, the USDA’s assistant to the secretary for Rural Development and also brought to the table several local officials from rural counties in the state, including a first responder from Adams County, a commissioner from Bradford County, a judge from Lackawanna County and a coroner from York County," Hadi Sedigh and Arthur Scott report for County News, the publishing arm of nonprofit organization the National Association of Counties. "These county leaders were joined at the event by representatives from USDA, Pennsylvania state government, area universities, faith-based organizations, hospitals, recovery centers and law enforcement agencies." Here's some of what they talked about:

Kerry Benninghoff, majority policy chairman of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and former county coroner in Center County, shared key takeaways from the 10 hearings about the opioid epidemic that he's held throughout the state. Many people think the opioid crisis is someone else's problem, he said. He suggested that stakeholders remember that many who need addiction treatments don't ask for it, so there may be low demand for treatment in an area but a high need for it. Local governments may find that a major impediment to responding effectively to the opioid epidemic.

Shannon Monnat, an associate professor of sociology at Syracuse University, talked about social and economic distress throughout the country that she said has caused hopelessness and despair, which has in turn been a main driver of the opioid epidemic. To defeat the epidemic, she said, leaders must address the despair. She also demonstrated with data that different rural areas have different reasons driving their opioid addiction rates. "According to her research, one predictor of how acutely a rural county is impacted by the opioid epidemic is the jurisdiction’s economic dependency type: counties in which mining is a major economic driver, for example, have significantly higher drug-related rates per 100,000 residents than farming communities," Sedigh and Scott report.

Local officials shared first-hand accounts of what the opioid crisis looks like in rural areas. One said her agency is wary of warning the public about lethal batches of illegal opioids because she fears some will seek those batches out on purpose for a better high. A first responder said his agency didn't have enough ambulances to deal with overdoses. And another person said that, while task forces are an important part of figuring out how to fight addiction, rural communities often have trouble funding them.

Speakers also shared ideas that are helping their communities fight addictions. "Judge Michael Barrasse from Lackawanna County stated that in rural areas in Pennsylvania, local governments are teaming up to create regional drug courts in place of often resource-prohibitive single-county courts," Sedigh and Scott report. "A representative of a faith-based organization funded by Lancaster County highlighted the pivotal role of churches — often among the only settings where rural communities congregate — in formulating an effective response to addiction in rural areas. Speakers also discussed tech solutions for helping recovering addicts, such as mobile apps.

Commissioner Ed Bustin, a member of the National Association of Counties' Rural Action Caucus and a member of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said the the response to the epidemic must focus on addiction and not any specific drug. If addiction isn't addressed, he said, then opioids will simply be replaced by a different drug in the next epidemic. To fight addiction, they had to "try and knit together communities again so they have the strength to prevent addiction from taking hold from the start," Sedigh and Scott report. That will require changes in how they look at schools, recreation, and faith-based communities, and federal funding that will allow local leaders to be creative.

The next opioid roundtable will be on April 11 at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City, followed by one in Kentucky on May 9, one in Oklahoma on June 6, and one in Maine on July 11.

As tariffs roil stock and ag markets, Trump aide advises calm; targets include McConnell's tobacco, Ryan's ginseng

As the Trump administration tried to calm markets roiled by the start of a trade war with China, the specifics of new tariffs announced by China became more widely known, and their rural targets became clearer.

"The tariffs on soybeans have grabbed much of the attention because they are America’s biggest single export to China, and will affect a number of rural states that heavily backed Trump in the 2016 presidential election, but many of the other measures will also hit farmers across Red State America," reports Sarah Zheng of Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, which is rated as the most credible news outlet in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.

Zheng notes, "The 25 per cent levies on tobacco and whiskey will hit Kentucky – the heartland of bourbon production and home to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell," who called the tariffs "a slippery slope" and likened the November midterm elections to a hurricane for the Republican Party. “We know the wind is going to be in our face,” he told Kentucky Today. “We don’t know whether it’s going to be a Category 3, 4 or 5.”

Zheng writes, "The impact of China’s latest measures could also drown out the Republicans’ message that their tax cuts are delivering prosperity, which the party is counting on to save their majorities in the House and Senate."

Trump's top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said in an interview on Fox Business Network that the threat of tariffs was “just the first proposal” to be followed by negotiations. Trump Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said there could be "short-term pain" that would pay off.

Trump's tariffs can't take effect until the end of a legally required comment period. China hasn't said when its long list of tariffs will take effect, giving hope that negotiations can head them off. But some earlier tariffs took effect Monday, including a 15 per cent duty on ginseng, which "will be felt particularly acutely in Wisconsin, which accounts for 85 per cent of US exports of the crop to China" and is the home of House Speaker Paul Ryan. "The majority is grown in the state’s Marathon county, where Trump beat his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton by 47 percentage points in 2016."

Trump's impact on the coal industry, which he vowed to revive, has been largely psychological and financial

President Trump pledged to revive the ailing coal industry from the start, but has he? He fulfilled most of the items on the wish list of coal magnate and financial supporter Robert Murray, but while industry numbers have improved somewhat, "No one is na├»ve enough to think that coal will return anytime soon to its glory days, when it fueled more than half of the nation’s electricity generation, employment reflected robust production and coal was fetching high prices in overseas steelmaking centers," Michael Collins reports for USA Today.

The numbers say Trump hasn't moved the needle much, and most gains weren't because of policy change: There are 1,300 more coal jobs than when Trump took office, and coal production in 2017 went up to 774 million tons, a 6 percent gain over 2016. But the increase in production is mostly because of lower production costs, which happened because several major coal companies went bankrupt and restructured, Collins reports.

Meanwhile, coal consumption fell slightly, to 717 million tons in 2017. "Even more alarming for the industry: Almost all domestic coal consumption is in the power sector, yet despite an increase in natural-gas prices in 2017, coal’s share of power generation for the year was just 30 percent, the lowest on record and lower than natural gas for the second year in a row," Collins reports. Coal exports increased 61 percent from 2016, but analysts say the bump is short-lived and caused by international market factors.

Coal-industry insiders say those numbers don't tell the whole story, and insist Trump has helped because he made miners and financiers feel more hopeful about the future and jettisoned regulations that hampered the industry. "It has given the industry and investors the assurance that at least their government is not going to discourage production and we only have to deal with the marketplace," Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association, told Collins. "Instead of having to fight natural gas, subsidized renewals and our own government, now we are at least free to compete in the marketplace. That has been the big change as far as we’re concerned."

Terry Headley of the American Coal Council said the job numbers don't reflect the fact that some miners have returned to work as contractors, "or that contractors who work as suppliers also are back on the job," Collins reports.

At least one hard-hit coal area has seen some recovery since Trump became president: Coal jobs in West Virginia rose more than 15 percent in 2017. Several local leaders in coal country told Collins that many coalfield residents believe Trump is responsible for any industry gains, and they think coal is stable and will be for a while. But they don't think it will boom again.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Infectious-disease deaths drop; not as much in rural areas

Though fewer Americans are dying from infectious diseases than three decades ago, mortality rates among rural Americans have improved less than overall, and one factor is the steady decline in access to health-care services in many rural areas, according to a study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. "As a country we are doing much better, but certain counties are still lagging behind and are in fact getting worse," co-author Ali Mokdad, professor at the University of Washington, told Steven Ross Johnson of Modern Healthcare.

Deaths from lower-respiratory infections showed the largest difference between rural and urban areas, but "a 2017 Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention report found death rates for heart disease, cancer, unintentional injury, chronic lower respiratory disease and stroke were all higher in rural areas compared to urban environments," Johnson reports. "Like Tuesday's study, the CDC report suggested a combination of limited health-care access and a higher frequency of health-risk behaviors were major contributors to those outcomes."

Infectious-disease deaths dropped 18 percent between 1980 and 2014, from 43 per 100,000 to 34, based on death records from the National Center for Health Statistics, population counts from NCHS, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Human Mortality Database. Mortality rates for almost all categories of infectious disease declined, except for diarrheal diseases, which increased.

Mokdad said factors such as income, education, obesity, access to care, and frequency of risky behaviors like smoking and substance use usually predict health outcomes in a community, Johnson reports: "He said people living in medically under-served areas often go through a vicious cycle of engaging in unhealthy behaviors when they can't access health-care services consistently or take advantage of preventive services. Such individuals often delay seeking treatment until their condition has become more advanced, reducing their chances of recovery."

Rural hospital closures leave communities to fend for themselves, may make states expand Medicaid

With rural hospitals closing at the highest rate in decades, communities left without are forced to address residents' medical needs with a patchwork of local services or face driving miles away to obtain critical medical services. According to the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program, 83 rural hospitals have closed in the U.S. between Jan. 2010 and Jan. 2018, Berkeley Lovelace Jr. and John Schoen report for CNBC.

Patrick County, Va. (Wikipedia map)
Their example: In Stuart, Va., the 25-bed Pioneer Community Hospital closed last year, leaving the nearly 19,000 residents in Patrick County without an emergency health facility close by. They now handle emergencies with six volunteer rescue squads who respond to 911 calls and drive patients to the nearest hospital, Martinsville Memorial, at least 45 minutes away. When Pioneer closed in September, some residents had to travel three to four hours to receive needed care, said Debbie Foley, Patrick County's director of economic development.

Not only did local residents lose their most important source of medical care, about 100 people lost their jobs. Reasons for hospital closures vary for every community, according to Mark Holmes, director of the North Carolina Rural Health Research and Policy Analysis Center, part of the program that tracks rural hospital closures. "One factor can include social demographics: Rural populations are often older, sicker and poorer than urban populations, he said. Other factors include decreased demand for inpatient services, consolidation in the health-care space, and a state's decision of whether to expand Medicaid," Lovelace and Schoen report.

Beth O'Connor of the Virginia Rural Health Association said rural hospitals may play a key role in getting Virginia Republicans to allow Medicaid expansion, since two-thirds of the hospitals that have closed in the past eight years were in states that did not expand Medicaid, Michael Pope reports for NPR affiliate WTVF at Virginia Tech. Medicaid is a key financial resource for rural hospitals nationwide, reducing the amount of uncompensated care hospitals must provide and insulating them from worse financial problems. O'Connor told WTVF that expanding Medicaid would help more rural hospitals stay open.

A special Senate session on Medicaid expansion is scheduled for later this month. Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University, told WTVF that he thinks more rural Republican lawmakers will soon support expansion because "they all know that at the end of the day the dollars and cents are going to be meaningful to their rural hospitals and they need those rural hospitals to stay open."

What makes people subscribe to a news outlet? Here's why

By Al Cross, Director
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

One point we hope our bumper sticker makes is that all news media must get more of their revenue from the audience, since strategic-media advertising is moving to social media. But how do news outlets get people to subscribe? A new analysis of people who do subscribe should help.

"Paths to Subscription: Why Recent Subscribers Chose to Pay for News," is a report by the American Press Institute, based on research by API, The Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. It identifies nine distinct "paths to subscriptions" and is "about print and digital subscribers alike, and the triggers and promotions that may move them to click 'subscribe' or 'join'." says the California Newspapers Association Bulletin. API Executive Director Tom Rosenstiel will, discuss the report at the CNPA meeting April 13.

The report "also defines why they might go away when a promotion term ends, or a paywall ticker hits the end point, or they're being a good customer but are still bombarded with come-ons and unwanted features," CNPA reports. "It requires getting very serious about your data," Rosenstiel says.

We have another version of the bumper sticker, with an additional line: "to independent journalism." If you want one, email

China announces, but doesn't schedule, tariffs on crops and other products that seem to target Trump's rural base

The day after President Trump announced tariffs on more than 1,300 Chinese products, China escalated the trade war, saying it would levy 25 percent tariffs on $50 billion worth of U.S. products. The import taxes will likely hurt the rural areas that voted for Trump. There is time for the U.S. and China to negotiate; Trump's latest tariffs won't take effect until after a public comment period ends May 11, and China has not said when the tariffs it announced today will take effect.

"China’s Ministry of Commerce on Wednesday said it plans to impose 25 percent duties on the commodity in addition to other U.S. agricultural produce including wheat, corn, cotton, sorghum, tobacco and beef," Alfred Cang and Phoebe Sedgman report for Bloomberg. "They’re among 106 products ranging from aircraft to chemicals targeted by Beijing in retaliation for proposed American duties on its high-tech goods." Other targeted products include tobacco, whiskey and orange juice, Don Lee and Jonathan Kaiman report for the Los Angeles Times.

China is America's biggest customer for soybeans and cotton, importing about $14 billion in soybeans alone last year. The announcement triggered a drop in soybean, corn and cotton futures, with soybeans falling as much as 5.3 percent to $9.835 a bushel. Sorghum has not yet been targeted for tariffs, but it's another vulnerable item, since China buys about 80 percent of U.S. sorghum exports, worth about $957 million in 2017. China pointedly began investigating sorghum imports from the U.S. after Trump imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum.

This round of tariffs seems to target Trump's rural base: "Trump won eight of the U.S.'s top-10 soy-exporting states in his 2016 election, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Wisconsin and Michigan, both crucial swing states in the election, are also major soybean exporters," Lee and Kaiman report. "Whiskey, to take another example, is a prime product of Kentucky, the home of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has already expressed reservations about Trump's tariff policies. Orange juice is heavily produced in Florida, a key swing state."

Citing an analysis by the Brookings Institution, Greg Sargent of The Washington Post writes, "Agricultural communities are right to worry about what’s happening, but that’s not all: The data also show that other targeted industries should be worried as well. And it reveals that those who are vulnerable to negative impacts from these trade tensions are mostly concentrated in counties carried by Trump." Brookings analyzed the impact on "seven industries producing the products targeted by China’s retaliatory actions, which include fresh and dried fruit and nut farming, stainless steel pipes, pork products, modified ethanol, scrap aluminum and wineries," Sargent reports.

Hurry to be counted in the 2017 Census of Agriculture

If you're a farmer or rancher and still haven't filled out the 2017 Census of Agriculture, you still have a few days. The official deadline to respond was Feb. 5, but the Department of Agriculture has issued an extension in hopes of getting more responses to the census, which is conducted every five years.

A National Agricultural Statistics Service official we spoke with said there is no firm ending date for the extension, but said the toll-free help line would be staffed only through April 13. In a press release, NASS Administrator Hubert Hamer encouraged farmers to respond, since the data gathered will influence important decisions about farm policy, disaster relief, insurance or loan programs, infrastructure improvements, and agribusiness setup.

You're eligible to participate in the Census of Agriculture if you own a farm that produced and sold (or normally would have sold) $1,000 or more of agricultural products in 2017. To fill out the Census of Agriculture online, click here.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Domestic violence in rural areas might be greater than in cities; what's sure is that help is harder to get in rural

There are no nationwide statistics on the rate of domestic violence in rural areas versus cities, but regional studies indicate women in rural areas experience domestic violence at equal or higher rates than their urban counterparts, "and those experiencing abuse in rural spaces have less access to resources, often endure more severe physical attacks and are more likely to be killed by their partner, according to a 2015 report by the National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services," Elise Schmelzer reports for the Casper Star Tribune in Wyoming.

Higher poverty rates, lack of transportation and affordable housing, and lack of affordable, reliable phone or internet service are all barriers rural women may face in leaving an abusive situation and living on their own afterward, the report says. In rural areas law enforcement is farther away, there aren't many or any neighbors to hear abuse happening and intervene, and there are fewer trained counselors and shelters.

About one in three women and one in four men have been physically abused by a partner in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common abuser tactics such as isolating their partner to gain control or controlling finances can be easier to carry out in rural areas. In her story, Schmelzer narrates the terrifying story of one such abuse survivor, and how her partner isolated her by moving them to rural Wyoming. Read more here.

Alabama towns protest backup of rail cars full of New York City sewage sludge headed for local landfill

Rural residents in Northern Alabama put their foot down about shipments of sewage solids from New York City, resulting in a legal dispute that has left 200 shipping containers full of the smelly stuff rotting in train cars, stalled for six weeks near Parrish, Ala., on their way to a nearby landfill.

Locals have been complaining about the stink and flies for the past year and a half that New York has been shipping the waste to Big Sky Landfill in Adamsville, 25 miles away from Parrish. At a recent public hearing on a permit renewal for Big Sky, Charlies Nix, mayor of nearby West Jefferson, said the train cars frequently leak sticky sewage sludge on his town's roads. "I never dreamed someone could flush a commode in New York, and it would run out in my backyard," he said.

"This is a little-seen part of daily life in America. Big cities produce more waste than they can dispose of," Valerie Bauerlein and Kate King report for the Wall Street Journal. "All across the country, pipes, trucks and trains carry waste elsewhere to be incinerated, dumped or used as fertilizer. Over the past decade, private landfills in the rural South have agreed to take sludge from out of state. But communities near landfills like Big Sky are increasingly pushing back, saying the tax revenue and jobs don’t outweigh the negative effects."

The Parrish Town Council voted Feb. 28 to deny Big Sky a local business license but "did grant temporary approval for the company to remove the more than 250 metal containers," Elaine Jones of the Jasper Daily Mountain Eagle reported. Mayor Heather Hall said, “When the temperatures reached 80 degrees . . . the smell became unbearable.”A Big Sky spokesman blamed the backlog of cars on delays by Norfolk Southern Railway and said “You will never again see this number of rail cars on this site.”

The mayors of Parrish and West Jefferson met with Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey this week, asking her help in stopping the flow of New York waste to their area. State regulators are expected to decide soon whether to renew Big Sky's permit, following public hearings, soliciting written comments, and reviewing the company's regulatory records.

Publisher explains journalism for readers; all need to

"Over the last year or so the prevalence of 'fake news' has really shed a light on the importance of good journalism," writes Publisher Rob Galloway of the Tahoe Daily Tribune in California, who asks, "What is journalism in today's media and how does it differ from years past?" What follows is an excellent explainer that breaks down the fundamentals of journalism for readers.

Local journalism is a different animal than national journalism, Galloway writes. Some readers have included local journalists in their dislike of larger news media outlets, but local reporters approach their jobs "with the intent to bring attention to the most important stories that affect the local communities we serve and empower our readers with information to help them make informed decisions and stay on top of breaking events — not to provide a single-sided look at a specific issue," he explains.

News writers focus on covering issues thoroughly and fairly. Opinion pieces, often submitted by concerned members of the community, are no less important, but shouldn't be confused with hard news or the opinions of news reporters. "With so much of what's perceived as 'news' nowadays being user-generated submissions, it really boils down to being a responsible consumer," Galloway writes. "That means it's up to the reader to find a purveyor of news and information they can trust and help them make informed decisions. Which is maybe to say: it's your duty of being a good citizen and providing due diligence in being an invested member of your community and society."

Galloway encourages readers to give reporters news tips. That's important, because local journalists will tell the stories you won't usually find in nationwide news media outlets.

Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, praised Galloway's article: "I think every newspaper needs to publish articles like this from time to time, with a condensed version posted online and occasionally on the editorial page, to explain to readers how newspapers and journalism work, the difference in fact and opinion, and the difference in news media, which practice a discipline of verification (through journalism); social media, which have no discipline of verification; and strategic media, which are not as much about information as selling you a good, a service, an idea or a way of thinking."

Judge rules pipeline protesters' actions necessary to prevent climate change; could be precedent for other cases

Karenna Gore protests the West Roxbury pipeline.
(Associated Press photo by Kori Feener)
A Boston judge dismissed charges against 13 gas-pipeline protesters on grounds that they believed climate change made their protest a necessary act of civil disobedience. The ruling could create legal precedent for others protesting controversial pipelines. The pipeline in this case is the West Roxbury Lateral Pipeline, an Enbridge Inc. project.

"The protesters, including Karenna Gore, the daughter of former Vice President Al Gore, were facing charges of trespassing and disturbing the peace after climbing into a construction trench," Jordan Graham reports for the Boston Herald. "On Tuesday, prosecutors asked a judge to convert the criminal charges into civil infractions, saying in the event of a conviction they were unlikely to ask for any further punishment. After allowing the motion, Judge Mary Ann Driscoll found the defendants not responsible, saying she agreed with their argument that their actions were necessary to combat climate change."

This isn't the first time environmental protesters have used the "necessity defense" strategy, in which defendants admit that they did something illegal, but had no legal alternative in order to prevent imminent danger. But the Climate Disobedience Center, which helped represent the West Roxbury protesters, said it may be the first time that defense has proven successful for environmental protesters, Alex Lubben reports for Vice News

Rural Ore. weekly Malheur Enterprise wins Investigative Reporters & Editors award for 'Deadly Decisions' package

The Malheur Enterprise, a rural weekly in Vale, Oregon, with a circulation of 2,000, won a 2017 Investigative Reporters & Editors Award in the Freedom of Information category for its "Deadly Decisions" package about a state hospital's release of a man later arrested for murder. Editor Les Zaitz and his staff beat out packages from bigger publications like ProPublica, the Kansas City Star, and Zaitz's old paper The Oregonian, from which he retired in 2016.

The annual IRE Awards have recognized outstanding investigative reporting since 1979. Investigative Reporters & Editors is a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of investigative reporting since its inception in 1975.

Deadly Decisions is a "classic David-meets-Goliath triumph," IRE judges wrote. "The small staff at this weekly newspaper in Oregon won a public records battle with the state agency that sued the newspaper to block release of documents. The newspaper launched a GoFundMe drive to raise money for a lawyer to defend the journalist. In the end, the documents were released after the governor stepped in. The paper's tenacity led a public affirmation of the state's commitment to openness. This work is proof that you don’t need a large staff and deep resources to move the needle on open records."

Deadly Decisions was also the runner-up for a Scripps Howard Award in the Distinguished Service to the First Amendment category.

Monday, April 02, 2018

Candidate pulls ads from Sinclair station over company-written script attacking other news media, calls for boycott

A congressional candidate in a Democratic primary for a Republican-held seat in Kentucky says she pulled all ads from a Lexington television station owned by Sinclair Broadcasting Group, and is calling on all Democratic candidates nationwide to follow suit. 

Amy McGrath, a retired Marine fighter pilot running in the Sixth District, responded to the recent revelation that Sinclair forced dozens of local news anchors at its stations to recite a script warning viewers about fake news and accusing other news media of using "their platforms to push their own personal bias," Jacey Fortin and Jonah Engel Bromwich report for The New York Times.

Sinclair, the nation's largest owner of television stations, has been criticized for asking its stations' news directors to donate to its conservative political action committee and forcing local stations to run pro-Republican content. UPDATE: Many Sinclair stations don't do their own news, but hire other stations to do it, and that is the case with WDKY, the one that serves the Sixth District. Anchor Marvin Bartlett said  he had not been asked to read it, and his nightly news report is independently produced by Lexington's WKYT.

McGrath said in a press release, "Sinclair’s corporate-mandated 'must-read' right-wing script on its nearly 200 television stations about 'fake news' is itself an extreme danger to our democracy and eerily mimics the propaganda efforts that authoritarian regimes often use to control the media in their own country. I call on all Democratic candidates across the country to take a firm stand against this frightening development to our democracy and refuse to buy advertising time on all Sinclair-owned television stations. Through the power of a boycott, and how we use our supporters' contributions, we can stand up to this threat to our independent media and send a firm message that these actions will not be tolerated in a nation where the freedom of the press is vital."

McGrath is in a May 22 primary with Lexington Mayor Jim Gray for the nomination to face three-term Republican Rep. Andy Barr. Gray campaign manager Jamie Emmons told CNN they would stay on WDKY. "Sinclair's approach is a disgrace to journalism, but we're not going to write people off just because of the TV shows they watch," Emmons said. "If we cut and run, then the people trying to spread this garbage are the only ones doing the talking."

CNN notes, "Sinclair has defended its script as a 'corporate news journalistic responsibility promotional campaign'." In another story, it quoted an anonymous investigative reporter at a Sinclair station as saying, "It sickens me the way this company is encroaching upon trusted news brands in rural markets."

China slaps tariffs on 128 goods; could hurt rural U.S.

In response to President Trump's tariffs on steel and aluminum, China announced Sunday that it will retaliate with tariffs on 128 U.S. goods starting today, ranging from agricultural products like fruit, wine and pork as well as manufacturing products like modified ethanol and stainless steel pipes, as they had threatened to do last month. In introducing this story this morning, NPR said "a lot of these products are produced in rural or working-class areas" that Trump won in 2016.

Most items on the list have a 15 percent tariff on most items on the list, but pork and scrap aluminum will carry a 25 percent tariff. "Beijing said it was suspending its obligations to the World Trade Organization to reduce tariffs on U.S. goods," Scott Neuman reports for NPR, on the grounds that "the U.S. had 'seriously violated' the free-trade principles in the WTO rules."

U.S. agricultural interests worry that the Chinese tariffs will hurt American farmers, since China is a major destination for U.S. pork. The steel and aluminum tariffs may also hurt rural areas that depend on manufacturing. China did not play all its cards; for example, it did not impose tariffs on U.S. soybeans (one-third of which go to China) or sorghum.

Rural Iowans worry Trump's tariffs and China response will hurt farming, manufacturing, radio newsman says

Rural Iowans aren't paying much attention to whether President Trump had sex with a porn star or his ties to Russia, but they're paying close attention to what he's doing with the economy. If his policies hurt them, and the rest of rural America, Trump "and his legacy are in deep trouble," Robert Leonard, news director of KNIA-AM and KRLS-FM in Knoxville, Iowa, writes for The New York Times.

Iowa has a strong manufacturing industry, and many rural Iowans worry that Trump's steel and aluminum tariffs will hurt their businesses by driving costs up. Leonard reports, "One smaller manufacturer – a Trump voter – told me that his costs to produce his product nearly doubled overnight, and that his business has already been hurt by the tariffs. Prices didn’t rise only after the tariffs were announced; they started rising when Mr. Trump floated the idea."

Farm interests have been on high alert about Trump's trade policies for a while. The Iowa Soybean Association said the steel and aluminum tariffs pose "an immediate and grave threat" to their industry and Iowa agriculture. China has responded to the tariffs with retaliatory tariffs on pork and other products. Iowa is the nation's largest pork producer.

Republican Iowa Rep. Steve King, a Trump supporter, says he opposes the president's tariffs and worries they could help trigger a farm crisis like the one in the 1980's, which put 10,000 Iowa farms out of operation. "Dairy farmers are particularly hard hit, suffering through four years of declining prices. It’s gotten so bad, dairy farming organizations are giving out suicide hotline numbers, as farmers are committing suicide in the hope that their insurance will save the family farm," Leonard reports.

Though rural America voted overwhelmingly for Trump, his standing is precarious, Leonard writes: "With the multiple scandals, rampant corruption and the Mueller investigation, the only thing keeping him near 40 percent approval — and most important, approval among most Republicans — is a strong economy. That, and Fox [News] cheerleading. If the rural economy turns sour, much of rural America will abandon Mr. Trump, and Fox may have no choice but to follow."

Newspaper consultant finds big differences in weeklies and dailies about online value; starts site, 'State of Newspapers'

Kevin Slimp
Kevin Slimp, a leading consultant to community newspapers, has started a website, State of Newspapers, with news, research and features about the industry, and advice for it. Slimp has been taking informal surveys for years, and his latest one found an interesting divide between publishers of weekly and daily newspapers, showing that the former aren't as keen on the web as the latter.

When asked, "How do you feel about the following statement: 'Our business would do just as well or better without a digital version'," 59 per cent of daily publishers chose the response, "That's ridiculous. We would be in worse shape without a digital/online edition." But 68 percent of weekly publishers (those printing three or fewer times a week) chose one of the other responses: "I believe that is true" (22.8 percent) or "It might be true, but I'm not sure" (45.5 percent).

"After visiting thousands of newspapers during my career, and speaking to thousands more at conferences, there's not much that catches me off guard about our industry these days. But I was a little surprised by the vast differences between the way daily and weekly newspaper publishers view the benefits of their digital efforts," Slimp writes. "The results are even more striking when asked about the benefits of social media. Only 22 per cent of non-daily newspaper publishers report seeing any benefit, financial or otherwise, from their social media efforts. Compare that to 60 per cent of daily newspaper publishers who see some type of benefit from their social media efforts and it's clear there are some real differences between the results of social media at daily and non-daily newspapers."

New workers' compensation law in Ky. could make it more difficult for coal miners to get state benefits for black lung

At a time when black lung and related diseases of coal mining are on the rise in Central Appalachia, Kentucky lawmakers may have made it more difficult for miners to get state workers' compensation benefits for black lung, report Howard Berkes of NPR and Benny Becker of Ohio Valley ReSource.

The new law, signed Friday by Gov. Matt Bevin, is part of a revamp of state workers' compensation laws. It "requires that only pulmonologists — doctors who specialize in the lungs and respiratory system — assess diagnostic black-lung X-rays when state black lung claims are filed," Berkes and Becker report. "Up until now, radiologists, who work in evaluating all types of X-rays and other diagnostic images, had been allowed to diagnose the disease as well."

The law is likely to make state benefits harder to get (and they were hard to get already) because only six Kentucky pulmonologists "have the federal certification to read black-lung X-rays and four of them routinely are hired by coal companies or their insurers, according to an NPR review of federal black-lung cases," the reporters write. "The two remaining pulmonologists have generally assessed X-rays on behalf of coal miners but one is semi-retired and his federal certification expires June 1."

One Kentucky radiologist who lacks federal certification is Dr. Brandon Crum, "who helped expose the biggest clusters ever documented of complicated black lung, the advanced stage of the fatal disease that strikes coal miners," a story heavily reported by Berkes. Crum said, "I know of nowhere where radiologists are taken completely out of the evaluation for potential black lung disease. That's what we're primarily trained in."

The law also excludes out-of-state doctors, such as Dr. Kathleen DePonte, a radiologist in Norton, Va., 20 miles from the Kentucky border, "who has read more than 100,000 black lung X-rays in the past 30 years," Berkes and Becker report, quoting her: "It is curious to me that the legislators feel that the pulmonologist is more qualified to interpret a chest radiograph than a radiologist is. This is primarily what radiologists do. It is radiologists who receive all the special training in reading X-rays and other imaging."

The bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Adam Koenig of Erlanger in Northern Kentucky, said he "relied on the expertise of those who understand the issue — the industry, coal companies and attorneys. . . . If this process doesn't work, I'll be the first in line to figure out how to do it better."

UPDATE, April 8: Berkes and Becker report that Koenig and other state officials did not consult the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health about the bill, and the CEO of the American College of Radiology called on the legislature to repeal the new law.

National Rural Assembly early discount expires tomorrow

The early registration discount for the National Rural Assembly, to be held May 21-23 in Durham, N.C., ends tomorrow. The early rate is $195; after April 3, it will be $225.

The focus of this year's Assembly "will be how we build a more inclusive nation, viewed through a lens of civic courage," its website says. "We'll explore a number of questions, such as: What does civic courage look like? Why is civic courage important for achieving policy change? How are rural people strengthening our democracy? How do we amplify wise, diverse, and informed rural voices in ways that promote better policies?"

Webinar to discuss safety guidelines for teen lawn-mowing

Many older children and teens mow lawns in the spring and summer; a new resource from the National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety can help supervising adults keep them safe on the job, whether they're using push or riding mowers. More than 17,000 children and teens are treated for lawnmower injuries each year, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The National Center has added "Operating a Lawn Mower" to its list of nearly 30 interactive Agricultural Youth Work Guidelines.

Lawnmower safety will be one of the childhood agricultural safety topics covered during the AgriSafe Network webinar, "Children and Youth: Living, working and playing safely on farms." The webinar, which takes place from noon to 1 p.m. CT on April 4, is free but you must pre-register. Marsha Salzwedel, a Youth Agricultural Safety Specialist with the National Children's Center, will present the webinar.

Click here to learn more about the webinar or register.