Friday, April 20, 2018

Urban challenges make city birds smarter than rural ones

The great tit songbird, a menace to milkmen everywhere.
(Photo by Joe Tobias)
Life is a lot harder for birds living in cities, but the challenges have apparently sharpened some birds' wits and made them smarter than rural birds. Read how in this article in Aeon by Menno Schilthuizen, an excerpt from his upcoming book Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution.

Some adaptations he describes seem sensible, and some almost defy belief. Carrion crows in the Japanese city of Sendai, for example, figured out an excellent way to break open walnuts. The local walnuts are too tough for them to crack, so country crows fly high and drop the nuts on rocks to break them. Sendai crows, though, realized the nuts would crack easier when dropped under the wheels of slow-moving cars.

A songbird called a great tit was also well-known for its puzzle-solving prowess in early 20th century England. Some figured out how to open the glass bottles of milk left at doorsteps in the morning. Birds can't digest lactose, but the layer of cream at the top of the bottle contains very little lactose and a lot of fat that birds need in the winter. Dairies tried to stymie the birds with wax-sealed caps, then aluminum, but tits figured out how to open both. After dairies began offering skim and homogenized milk (which have no layer of cream on top), tits learned which color cap denoted whole milk and, apparently, were able to teach their friends the secret.

Read here for more.

Farmers warn of GOP losses over Trump trade policy

President Trump's attempt to revive industry in Rust Belt states with steel and aluminum tariffs are putting him at odds with rural farming voters, a larger bloc that is "essential to Republican success in the midterm elections and beyond." Jonathan Martin reports for The New York Times. Farmers across the Midwest say they are considering not voting Republican because of their concerns about President Trump's trade policies.

In Casselton, N.D., fourth-generation soybean farmer Robert Runck told Martin: "If he doesn’t understand what he’s doing to the nation by doing what he’s doing, he’s going to be a one-term president, plain and simple." Runck also noted that Trump's political woes could hurt Republicans running in local elections as well.

Barry Bergquest, a biology professor at the University of Northern Iowa and part-time farmer who voted for Trump in 2016, told Martin that commodities prices were down and hurting neighboring farmers. National politicians are "not in touch with the reality of the Midwest and the impact that the tariffs would have," he said.

Local and state-level politicians in farm country are facing an increasingly nervous populace, according to Iowa-based Republican strategist Grant Young. The radio farm show hosts are "usually a happy-go-lucky bunch promoting industry and holding a two-hour infomercial for the Farm Bureau," he told Martin. "But the last couple of months I’m wondering if they need to take the sharp objects out of the studio."

And Bob Henry, a Kansas corn and soybean farmer, acknowledged that China was targeting Trump's political base with the tariffs: "China knows who got Trump elected."

Trump met with some farm belt Republican senators and governors last week to discuss trade policy and how it's affecting farmers and ranchers. He floated the idea of rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership to mitigate the economic damage to rural areas, but walked that back on Twitter later that day.

Some rural Democratic politicians, like Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, may ride Trump's decreasing popularity in rural areas to victory in the upcoming midterm elections. "Rob Port, a conservative talk radio host and columnist in the state, put it: 'This is the perfect issue for her. Her base eats up the Trump bashing, but it’s also an economic argument that’ll have rural Trump voters saying, 'Maybe blind allegiance to Trump isn’t such a good thing,'" Martin reports.

First 2018 wildfire deaths reported as Oklahoma blazes rage

The Rhea Wildfire (Tornado Titans photo by Chris Sanner)

The first two apparent deaths of the 2018 wildfire season were reported in Oklahoma this week as wildfires rage across the southwest part of the state. A woman, whose name hasn't been reported, was found dead in her car in Dewey County on Tuesday, and Jack Osben, 61, died Thursday from injuries sustained in a fire.

Hundreds have been ordered to evacuate from their homes because of the two largest fires. "The largest blaze — the Rhea fire in Dewey County — has scorched across about 246,000 acres. That fire was still only about 3 percent contained Monday afternoon. That percentage remains unchanged since Sunday, according to Oklahoma Forestry Services," Matt Dinger reports for The Oklahoman. "The 34 Complex fire in Woodward and Harper counties has scorched across about 68,000 acres, and was about 45 percent contained as of Monday afternoon, officials said."

Firefighters have faced flames that topped 70 feet at times, Reece Ristau reports for Tulsa World. Tulsa Deputy Fire Chief Andy Teeter told Ristau: "You can’t even imagine the scale of how big they are, how fast they move and how far they can jump ahead of themselves."

Western Oklahoma and several other areas of the U.S. are facing extreme or exceptional drought conditions in 2018, increasing the likelihood of a bad wildfire season.

Irish Senate honors rural Pulitzer and Gish Award winner after Iowa Senate, upset by his editorials, declines to do so

After the Iowa Senate refused to honor a rural Iowa journalist who won last year's Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, another Senate from farther afield stepped in: the one in Ireland.

Art Cullen, editor of the twice-weekly Storm Lake Times, won the prize for his editorials on water quality and agricultural issues, and his family won the 2017 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism, given by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog. But Republicans in the GOP-controlled Iowa Senate have stalled a resolution to honor him since Feb. 14. "Republicans in Iowa indicated that the journalist’s reporting had rubbed some lawmakers the wrong way, which is why Senate Resolution 108 has been stalled for months," Morgan Gstalter reports for The Hill, a Washington, D.C., publication that mainly covers Congress.

A member of the Senate in Ireland, from whence the Cullens' ancestors immigrated five generations ago, stepped in. The Irish Senate passed a resolution honoring Cullen yesterday. The motion was introduced by Irish Sen. Mark Daly, parliamentary spokesman for foreign affairs.

"Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver told reporters on Thursday that they’re 'not really taking the lead from the Irish Senate' on considering the resolution," Gstalter reports.

Cullen wrote in a column Wednesday that he "would not want the support of a den of philanderers and oafs" and "I honestly do not care if I am ever honored by the Iowa Senate, the U.S. Congress or any other institution of dysfunction and cynicism. We did not get into this business to win awards or receive resolutions."

It remains to be seen whether the Iowa Senate will honor this year's Pulitzer winner for Editorial Writing: Andie Dominick of the Des Moines Register, who won for her columns on how privatizing the state's administration of Medicaid hurt the poorest Iowans.

Colorado Journalism Week, Denver Post editorial board war with hedge-fund owners, remind us why journalism matters

Today wraps up Colorado Journalism Week, a celebration whose importance is made clear by the recent tension between the Denver Post and its hedge fund owners Alden Global Capital. After Alden announced 30 newsroom layoffs--about a third of the staff--the editorial board declared war on its owners with a full page of editorials decrying "vulture capitalists" and urging readers to remember why news matters.

"The public tension between the Denver Post’s hard-working staff and managers of a soulless hedge fund is symptomatic of broader issues that cut across Colorado and the country. It reflects the state of journalism and how it is practiced in these turbulent times," Kevin Duggan writes for The Coloradoan. "It should be no surprise that the Coloradoan editorial board knows journalism matters. We believe thoughtful, fact-driven, accurate, unbiased reporting is a key component of our democratic society. We believe that as we mark Colorado Journalism Week on our calendars that the work of a free press remains necessary, relevant and worth fighting to preserve.

Why? Because it's important to keep readers informed, and the best way to do that is with trained journalists who know how to get the story. "How would you know what hides in the dark corners of our government agencies if journalists were not around to notice and ask questions?" Duggan writes.

Another reason journalism is so important: in the digital age, there are plenty of biased bloggers and activists pushing an agenda, Duggan writes. But trained journalists work with the facts and adhere to strict ethical standards, and when they get it wrong, they say so. That honesty is the cornerstone of readers' trust in journalists, and helps readers become more media literate.

But good journalism comes at a cost, and readers have to pitch in somehow to keep newspapers going, Duggan writes. Journalism "will survive and flourish because readers who care about their communities see the value in quality journalism, and will do what it takes to help keep it alive."

Thursday, April 19, 2018

FCC delays keep high-speed internet out of rural schools

"Under the Trump administration, rural schools requesting funding for broadband expansion have faced record delays and denials, according to the non-profit EducationSuperHighway, which works to get schools connected to the internet," Issie Lapowsky reports for Wired magazine.

The organization argues that more than 60 eligible fiber-optic cable projects that sought funds from the E-Rate program have been unfairly denied by the Federal Communications Commission since 2017, a much higher number than in years past, and more than 30 schools have been waiting about a year for approval. The average wait is 240 days. That adds up to about 750,000 students who lack access to high-speed internet, Lapowsky reports.

The problems stem come from a 2014 order that shifted more E-rate funding to expanding broadband connectivity for schools and away from older communications systems like subsidized phone service.  The Universal Service Administrative Co., an FCC arm that oversees E-Rate, began offering to pay up front for fiber-optic cables to very rural areas, and also offered to match state money put up to pay for construction.  "But because USAC now fronts more of the costs, it's also more cautious about how that money gets spent," Lapowsky reports. "Now, USAC asks E-Rate applicants detailed questions about the precise cost of each fiber construction project, the route the fiber would take to get to the school, and other specifics that the small schools asking for these funds have struggled to answer. Often, the problems preventing students from getting online prove to be blandly bureaucratic."

One problem is that USAC wants to pay for only the fiber used by the school, but local internet service providers can't feasibly build out a fiber line to just one rural school without gaining other rural customers in the process, and it's very difficult for ISPs to distinguish between what part of the cost is being used to provide fiber to the school and what part is being used to provide service to area businesses and residents.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai acknowledged problems with E-Rate in April 2017, but little progress has been made. An FCC spokesperson told Wired that Pai has told the USAC "to take steps to make the processing of all E-rate applications—including, but not limited to, fiber applications—more efficient," Lapowsky reports.

China slaps 179 percent tariff on U.S. sorghum imports

Statista graph; click on the image to enlarge it.
In the latest salvo in a trade war with the U.S., China announced Tuesday that it will impose a 179 percent tariff on American sorghum, accusing the U.S. of dumping the subsidized crop on Chinese markets, Daniel Shane reports for CNN. China began investigating sorghum imports in February as a warning shot to President Trump about his new steel and aluminum tariffs. The Chinese Commerce Ministry said its ruling is preliminary and that the sorghum tariffs are temporary. China had already announced 25 percent tariffs on U.S. sorghum imports earlier this month, but has not announced when those tariffs will be enforced.

China is America's biggest customer for exported sorghum, importing about $960 million in 2017. The lion's share is grown in Kansas, with Texas following a distant second. Used for livestock feed and in making baiju, a liquor popular in China, the grain thrives in arid pasturelands where wheat does well. "Squeezing the sorghum trade could also hurt America's rural economy -- particularly in states like Kansas -- where President Donald Trump has a lot of support," Shane reports.

U.S. is world's largest corn grower but imports organic corn

The U.S. is the world's biggest producer and exporter of corn, but it's a net importer of organic corn. The number of acres planted with organic corn increased by 28 percent between 2015 and 2016, to 214,000 acres. But that number is still less than 0.5 percent of the total corn planted in the U.S. Why? It isn't because of profit margins: farmers who plant organic corn get about 30 percent lower yield than with conventional corn, but the organic stuff sells for twice as much. Leo Mirani of The Economist explains the three main reasons more U.S. farmers don't grow organic corn:

Growing organic takes a significant investment of time and money. A field must be cultivated with no chemicals or contamination for three years before crops produced on it are certified organic. "In effect, that means putting in all the effort required for organic crops with none of the payback," Mirani writes from Norfolk, Neb.. "Moreover, it often means buying separate equipment rather than risking contamination through shared use with machines handling the conventional crop."

Growing organic is riskier, too: non-organic pollen drifting from nearby farms can pollinate the organic crop and render it uncertifiable. Weather and weeds are a bigger threat without conventional fertilizers and herbicides. And growing organic takes more work, which is both more expensive and sometimes harder to find.

Farm Bill passes out of committee on party-line vote

The House Agriculture Committee approved Republicans' proposed Farm Bill yesterday on a party-line vote of 26-20. "Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, told reporters afterward he hopes the bill can get to a full House vote during the first week of May. Conaway said in opening remarks he was determined to get the bill done on time, as the current farm bill expires Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year," Chris Clayton reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer.

Democrats objected to the bill's huge cuts to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. It would also add work requirements for able-bodied recipients who have no dependents. Ranking Democrat Collin Peterson of Minnesota called it "a flawed bill that is the result of a bad and nontransparent process," and aid the SNAP changes would turn urban lawmakers against farm programs on the House floor. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., who chairs the nutrition subcommittee, said the changes in SNAP aren't about saving money, but about creating "good policy to help our neighbors in need who find themselves in a tough circumstance."

The committee made no changes to the commodity section of the bill; Democrats offered no amendments at all. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, added an amendment that would override a California law that requires eggs imported to the state to meet the same cage-free standards required of eggs produced in-state. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., added an amendment to make it a felony to knowingly slaughter or import a dog or cat for human consumption.

"With trade being an emphasis right now, farm groups had called for doubling funding for the Market Access Program and the Foreign Market Development program -- known as MAP and FMD," Clayton reports. "The bill doesn't add funding, but does restore full funding for the programs, which are considered key tools to help sell U.S. agricultural products overseas."

Weekly paper gives readers (and potential readers) a look at the pressroom, and delivers a useful message at the end

One way local news outlets can engage more deeply with their communities is to be more transparent about how they do their jobs. A typical method is a "letter from the editor," explaining a newspaper's policies, perhaps telling readers how and why a story was reported. But there are other ways to explain the workings of your organization, and some that may be more interesting than others.

Charles Myrick, editor of The Mountain Advocate in Barbourville, Ky., did a two-minute video of the printing of the newspaper at J. Frank Publishing, a sister company in London. Few people have ever been in a newspaper pressroom, so this is "insider footage" that will draw an audience. Myrick's first headline on the YouTube video is "Behind the Scenes."

At the end, Myrick has a overlay slide with an important message: "To produce just one issue of the Mountain Advocate requires employment of dozens of skilled workers in every aspect. It truly takes a team effort! We want to thank our readers and advertisers for continuing to make our jobs possible, and for believing in democracy and freedom of the press."

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Why gun culture is so strong in rural America: ideals

Illustration by Nolan Pelletier for The New York Times
This item originally appeared March 20 but omitted the source and a link to it.

The country's deepest cultural divide might be on guns, and it "has a profound political dimension, reliably driving rural Americans into Republican arms," writes Robert Leonard, the news director for rural Knoxville, Iowa, radio stations KNIA-AM and KRLS-FM. In a thoughtful essay for The New York Times, Leonard digs into the gun debate and what it means for America.

While he grew up hunting small game with his grandfather, he says he's come to understand and appreciate arguments for gun control too. Guns are important to the culture in his conservative town of 7,313, so he said he wanted to understand more about pro-gun opinions.

Leonard spoke to a local police officer who believes better background checks could prevent some gun violence, and said people need to do a better job of keeping their guns locked up. But the officer doesn't think rural Americans will ever approve of significant gun-control measures, and says other officers have told him they'd rather quit their jobs than start taking away others' guns. He also said that gun control won't stop criminals from getting guns.

"To understand why many conservatives in rural America believe this, you must start with first principles, because the argument ultimately isn’t about guns; it runs even deeper than the Second Amendment," Leonard writes. "At a 2015 campaign event during the Iowa caucuses, J. C. Watts, the former congressman from Oklahoma, spoke about perspectives on original sin. It helps illuminate the differences in worldview between many conservatives and liberals. Mr. Watts said Democrats think people were born basically good, so when good people did bad things, something in society (in this case, guns) needed to be controlled. Republicans think the fault lies with the person — the perpetrator of the evil. Bad choices result in bad things being done, in part because the perpetrator lacks the moral guidance the Christian faith provides."

If Democrats want to connect with rural Americans, Leonard writes for the Times' primarily Democratic audience, they must understand rural ideals.

Index of readiness for disasters and health emergencies has regional differences; report has detailed profiles for states

2018 National Health Security Preparedness Index
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's annual report on the nation's readiness to manage disasters, disease outbreaks and other health emergencies shows significant improvements over the past five years, but adds that "deep regional differences" persist.

“Five years of continuous gains in health security nationally is remarkable progress,” Glen Mays, who leads the research at the University of Kentucky in developing the index, said in a news release. “But achieving equal protection across the U.S. population remains a critical unmet priority.”

The 2018 National Health Security Preparedness Index found that overall, the U.S. scored a 7.1 on a 10-point scale for preparedness for 2017. That was nearly 3 percent higher than in 2016 and a gradual improvement of nearly 11 percent since 2013.

Eighteen states had preparedness levels that exceeded the national average, and 21 states were below the national average. Eleven states were more or less average. Maryland scored highest, at 8.0; Alaska and Nevada were lowest at 6.4.

The report gives a detailed health security profile for each state. The index analyzes 140 measures, such as the number of pediatricians, flu-vaccination rates, bridge safety and food and water safety, to calculate a composite score of health security for each state and the nation as a whole.

Suggestions from the report to to improve health security include: improving data sources and metrics; strengthening networks and coalitions; improving workforce policies, such as offering paid leave and health insurance; improving health-care delivery preparedness; assuring a dedicated and adequately resourced health-security emergency response is in place; assuring adequate funding for an established health security infrastructure; and flexibility in health-security funding.

Rural advocate: farm bill should help rural health more

North Carolina Rural Health Research and Policy Analysis Center map. Click the image to enlarge it.
Though the House's proposed Farm Bill would allow the agriculture secretary to declare a rural health emergency, rural advocates say Congress should ensure that the bill does more to address rural health care needs, especially helping struggling rural hospitals, Bryce Oates reports for The Daily Yonder.

Maggie Elehwany, government and policy vice president for the National Rural Health Association, told Oates, "There is a long history with USDA and the farm bill when it comes to health care in rural communities, particularly when it comes to funding care through loans and grants."

Rural areas generally have an older, poorer and sicker population with a higher percentage of chronic disease and farmworkers doing dangerous jobs, all of which contributes to problems in providing health care access, she said. The inclusion of the rural-health-emergency section to the bill is important not just because of health-care access, but because hospitals provide jobs and help keep rural economies going. Elehwany told Oates that she would like to see more specific language about the opioid crisis, which has stressed the rural health-care system, and specific funding levels for the STRESS Act, which increases rural access to mental health services. Read more here.

Tennessee coal-ash spill workers file new lawsuit as EPA seeks to kill rules that could have prevented the spill

In the wake of a Knoxville News Sentinel series probing the treatment of cleanup workers at the nation's largest coal-ash spill, at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant, more stories of dead and dying workers have come to light. Some workers and their surviving families filed a federal lawsuit in 2014, but since the News Sentinel's series, more workers have come forward and filed a second lawsuit, this one in state court, against Jacobs Engineering, which TVA hired to clean up more than a billion gallons of coal ash and slurry that escaped from the plant in December 2008.

The Kingston disaster spurred the Obama administration to issue regulations that the Trump administration is seeking to roll back, Sue Sturgis notes for Facing South in reporting the lawsuit and recounting the Gannett Co. newspaper's reporting.

The Environmental Protection Agency's proposed changes would affect how ash from more than 400 coal-fired power plants is stored and allow states to alter how frequently they would test for groundwater contamination. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said the changes would save companies between $32 million and $100 million annually, Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin report for The Washington Post.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

T-Mobile fined $40 million for faking rural call connections

"T-Mobile has agreed to pay a hefty $40 million fine levied by the Federal Communications Commission after an investigation found that the company was playing fake ringing sounds to customers who were calling rural areas, making them believe that their call was going through when in fact the call had never connected," Christian de Looper reports for Digital Trends.

Calls to rural areas can take a few seconds to connect, but T-Mobile was filling those seconds with fake ringtones to make callers believe the call had already connected. The company promised to halt the practice when it was outlawed in 2014, but continued doing it.

The FCC's ruling said the uncompleted calls "cause rural businesses to lose revenue, impede medical professionals from reaching patients in rural areas, cut families off from their relatives, and create the potential for dangerous delays in public safety communications," de Looper reports.

In addition to the fine, T-Mobile must end the practice within 90 days and issue annual compliance reports to the FCC for the next three years.

Pulitzer prize winners include Charlottesville protest photo

(Daily Progress photo by Ryan Kelly)
The winners of 2018 Pulitzer Prizes were announced Monday, and several have rural resonance:

The staffs of the Arizona Republic and USA Today Network won the Explanatory Reporting prize for what the judges called "vivid and timely reporting that masterfully combined text, video, podcasts and virtual reality to examine, from multiple perspectives, the difficulties and unintended consequences of fulfilling President Trump's pledge to construct a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico," which would mostly be located in rural areas. Read more here.

Ryan Kelly of The Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Va., won in the Breaking News Photography category for a photo he took on his last day in the newsroom: "a chilling image that reflected his reflexes and concentration in capturing the moment a car struck protesters at a racially charged rally," the judges said. It was Kelly's last day at the paper, and he is no longer in journalism; read more here.

John Archibald of the Alabama Media Group (Birmingham, Montgomery and Huntsville newspapers owned by Newhouse) won the Commentary prize for "lyrical and courageous commentary that is rooted in Alabama but has a national resonance in scrutinizing corrupt politicians, championing the rights of women and calling out hypocrisy, the judges said.

South Dakota ranchers say drought aid data is inaccurate

Some South Dakota ranchers told Republican Sen. John Thune that the weather data that determines whether they're eligible for federal drought aid is inaccurate, since the nearest weather station is sometimes many miles away and may not reflect the weather conditions at their ranches. The U.S. Agriculture Department's Pasture, Rangeland, Forage insurance program only accepts data from certain weather stations operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"The South Dakota Stockgrowers Association encouraged members to collect data for the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network. The network sends data to a variety of entities, including certain federal agencies," The Associated Press reports. "But only some USDA programs accept data from the network, said Silvia Christen, the association's executive director."

The ranchers spoke to Thune at a recent discussion over the federal farm bill, and Thune promised to look into it.

The lack of accurate data comes at a perilous time for ranchers, as many areas of the U.S., including the Dakotas, are facing extreme or exceptional drought conditions this year.

Employment for TV news surpasses dailies for first time

Total local TV news employment has surpassed total employment at daily newspapers for the first time in the more than 20 years that the Radio Television Digital News Association and Hofstra University have been compiling an annual Newsroom Survey.
RTDNA/Hofstra graph; click the image to enlarge it.
"The latest survey found that the average TV station hired 6.8 replacements during 2017 and 1.2 staff for new positions. This is a change of 0.3 more replacements than a year ago, but 0.4 fewer new positions. In other words, turnover is slightly up and newly created positions slightly down," Bob Papper of Hofstra University reports. Part of the reason for that is the continued consolidation of local TV news stations. TV staffing totals are up in every market except the smallest, which have primarily rural audiences.

Though the number of multimedia or backpack journalists have steadily increased for the past several years, growth slowed this year for the first time. But in the average newsroom MMJ jobs still increased while reporter jobs decreased. Almost 90 percent of news directors expect their staffing to remain the same or increase in the coming year. Journalists in new positions are increasingly expected to pitch in with digital responsibilities such as social media or uploading and posting content to the website.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Global warming has moved eastward the boundary between the humid Eastern U.S. and drier lands to the west

Earth Interactions map
"A boundary that divides the humid eastern U.S. and the dry Great Plains states appears to have shifted 140 miles to the east over the past century due to global warming," according to a study recently published in Earth Interactions, a journal of the American Meteorological Society, Doyle Rice reports for USA Today. The study's authors say the boundary will likely continue moving east in the future and profoundly affect agriculture, especially corn growers.

The boundary was at 100 degrees west longitude when American geologist John Wesley Powell identified it in 1878. The meridian roughly marks the eastern boundary of the sparsely populated Great Plains. Wheat grows well in the west, but east of the boundary, thirstier crops like corn thrive.

Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the study's lead author, "predicts that as the line continues to move farther east, farms will have to consolidate and become larger to remain viable," Rice reports. "And unless farmers are able to adapt, such as by using irrigation, they will need to consider growing wheat or another more suitable crop than corn."

House's Farm Bill would cut food stamps drastically, allows agriculture secretary to declare rural health emergency

"The House version of a new Farm Bill released Thursday would allow the secretary of agriculture to declare a rural health emergency, making it easier to award grants and loans to community health facilities and telehealth programs," Bryce Oates and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder.

The bill doesn't name specific types of health emergencies, but prioritizes loans for facilities providing "recovery services," which could refer to the opioid epidemic. The emergency provision affects Title VI of the farm bill, which covers "rural utilities like electricity, phone, and broadband; community facilities; small business development; waste water and water treatment; and similar programs," Oates and Marema report. Trump proposed big cuts in those programs in 2017, but Congress hasn't followed through. 

The bill would also add more work requirements for an estimated 4 million to 5 million participants in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, and cut the program by about $93 billion over 10 years. Republicans have tried that before and failed. SNAP and other nutrition programs account for about 80 percent of Farm Bill spending.

Other facets of the bill include:
  • Reauthorization of the Delta Regional Commission and the Northern Great Plains Regional Authority at reduced funding levels.
  • Significant changes to conservation programs: the Conservation Reserve Program acreage cap would be increased from 20 million acres to 29 million acres over the next five years, and per-acre rental payments would be decreased. No new sign-ups would be permitted in the Conservation Stewardship Program. Funding would be increased for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
  • $255 million per year to develop international agricultural trade.

Former coal lobbyist confirmed for No. 2 EPA spot

Andrew Wheeler
(Zuma Press photo by Alex Edelman)
Former coal and uranium mining lobbyist Andrew Wheeler was confirmed in the Senate last week as the deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, which would put him in line to run the agency if Administrator Scott Pruitt left. The vote was 53-45, with three coal-state Democrats supporting Wheeler: Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Joe Donnelly of Indiana.

Before his lobbying days, Wheeler worked on environmental legislation as a longtime aide to Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking member of the Environmental and Public Works committee who famously denies climate change, Rebecca Hersher reports for NPR. He also worked at the EPA as a special assistant in the agency's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics in the early 1990s, helping the agency update its early warning system for regulating and keeping track of new chemical hazards.

"Environmental groups and many Democrats have criticized the nomination, pointing to Mr. Wheeler’s lobbying for the coal industry and, in particular, his work for behalf of Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp," Heidi Vogt and Timothy Puko report for The Wall Street Journal. "Murray Energy, the country’s largest privately held coal-mining company, and its controlling owner, Robert Murray, have been some of the largest donors to Mr. Trump’s political groups."

Wheeler sought to distance himself from Murray, telling the Journal that Murray was "just one client" and that critics highlight his former connection for "political reasons”. However, he said his biggest accomplishment has been working with Murray on health care and pension issues for coal miners.

Republicans attack ex-con coal CEO in W.Va. Senate race, fearing he will win May primary and lose in November

Don Blankenship
The contentious Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat in West Virginia has become a potential obstacle for the GOP's drive to preserve its two-seat Senate majority in the November elections. Career Republicans in many states are distancing themselves from President Trump, but his popularity in West Virginia — which had a higher share of votes for Trump than any other, 69 percent — led state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Rep. Evan Jenkins to emphasize their support for Trump as candidates for the Senate seat, which is currently held by Democrat Joe Manchin, Asma Khalid reports for NPR.

But a third Republican candidate, Don Blankenship, is jeopardizing their odds with a mostly self-funded campaign that has turned the race into a three-way tie. Blankenship, the former Massey Energy CEO who spent a year in federal prison for his role in one of the nation's deadliest mine explosions in decades, mentions Trump the least in his campaign, but he has much in common with the president, as a wealthy political outsider with a polarizing message. "Some analysts say Blankenship's campaign is a vendetta — a personal quest to clear his name. But, even if it began as payback, it's morphed into something much more — he has an intense desire to crush his opponents and win at all costs," Khalid reports. "He's been running attack ads against both of his chief opponents, and they've been reluctant to punch back in public (or attack him directly about his prison record)."

Republican leaders are worried that Blankenship could be toxic in the general election, and some political operatives with ties to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have spent nearly $700,000 on anti-Blankenship attack ads via a newly formed political action committee called the Mountain Families PAC. "The national party isn’t promoting its role in the group, but its fingerprints are all over it," Alex Isenstadt reports for Politico.

"At the same time, they’ve been concerned that attacking him would allow Blankenship to portray himself in the race as the embattled adversary of powerful D.C. interests," Isenstadt reports. "The scenario is similar to the one that played out in last year’s Alabama Senate race, when the party spent millions of dollars in an unsuccessful effort to stop former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore from winning the GOP nomination."

UPDATE, April 18: Tensions between Blankenship and the national Republican party heightened when Blankenship compared Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to Russians interfering in political races, Alex Isenstadt reports for Politico. "McConnell should not be in the U.S. Senate, let alone be the Republican Majority Leader. He is a Swamp captain," Blankenship said in a statement Monday. "The Russians and McConnell should both stop interfering with elections outside their jurisdictions."

Anti-solar, pro-coal power bill dies in Ky. legislature

This is an update of an earlier item.

"Kentucky's urban-rural divide surfaced during a legislative committee's final discussion about a controversial solar-energy bill Thursday before it was narrowly passed with three new members added to the panel," James Bruggers reports for the Louisville Courier Journal.

The bill, introduced by Republican Rep. Jim Gooch of Providence, in the West Kentucky Coalfield, would reduce the credits utilities must provide to future solar panel owners for any extra electricity they produce, using the wholesale rate (3 cents per kilowatt hour) rather than the retail rate (9 to 11 cents)

The bill moved out of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee with 14 yes votes, two more than needed, possibly helped because the committee was expanded last week; two of the three new appointees voted for the bill.

Supporters of the coal industry like the bill, but it was unpopular in more Democratic and urban areas like Lexington and Louisville. "Southeast Kentucky Democrat Rick Nelson of Middlesboro, who was also added late to the committee, said the bill looks to him like a way for monopoly utilities 'to get solar for themselves'," Bruggers reports. In an earlier story, he noted that PPL Corp. (formerly Pittsburgh Power and Light), the parent company of Kentucky's two major utilities, LG&E and KU, has announced it will eliminate the bulk of its coal-burning in years to come.

UPDATE, April 16: The solar-energy net-metering bill was sent back to Senate committee on the last day of the legislative session, effectively killing it., Christian Roselund reports for PV Magazine.