Friday, May 04, 2018

Alabama Public Radio wins Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for series on state's rural health-care crisis

APR News Director Pat Duggins
Alabama Public Radio has won a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for its series, “Help Wanted: Alabama’s Rural Health Care Crisis.” News Director Pat Duggins, Stan Ingold and Alex AuBuchon "spent the year, with no budget, investigating why the system here is so badly broken and why solutions aren’t being pursued," Duggins said in the nomination, which includes links to the audio reports.

The National Rural Health Association calls Alabama “ground zero” for "most of what’s wrong with rural health care," Duggins wrote, reporting that 80 percent of the state's rural hospitals are losing money."Rural residents of Alabama frequently go without treatment. Some are reduced to seeking medical care from their veterinarians to avoid long lines or co-pays they can’t afford."

VA's struggling program to help rural veterans avoid long trips and long waits runs out of money in June

A struggling program designed to help veterans face shorter wait times will run out of money within the first two weeks of June, according to a recent letter to lawmakers from acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie. The Veterans Choice program "has come under criticism since it was established four years ago in the wake of VA’s national wait time scandal, where administrators were found doctoring appointment schedules to cover up problems with delayed medical care for veterans," Leo Shane reports for Army Times.

Even after the VA changed the program to pay for visits to private health-care providers if patients live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or have been on a waiting list for more than 30 days, veterans faced long waits. Lawmakers have approved multi-billion-dollar funding extensions to the program twice in the last nine months while trying to figure out a better solution. "Department officials said they need another $1.3 billion to extend the program until this fall, and up to $3.6 billion more to keep it running through fiscal 2019," Shane reports.

Even if an improved program is approved soon, VA administrators say they'll need a year to transition veterans to the new program. The transition time required is one reason for Wilkie's urgency; his letter said that "We cannot wait any longer."

Quick hits: the gender wage gap in rural workers; Utah town harnesses art and architecture to breathe new life to town...

A study from the Center for American Progress examines the gender wage gap in rural workers: "While all rural workers earn lower wages than their nonrural counterparts, new analysis by the Center for American Progress reveals that women of color are among the lowest paid workers in rural areas with rural black and Hispanic women who work full time, year-round making just 56 cents for every dollar that rural white, non-Hispanic men make. . . . These numbers make clear that, regardless of where they live, all women of color are facing substantial economic challenges and that addressing the needs of rural workers requires more than focusing solely on one segment of that workforce."

The struggling hamlet of Green River, Utah, is using art and architecture to bring new energy, life, and economic development to town, PBS reports. Read how here.

Need to research education issues for a story? Education Week has an exhaustively curated bank of essays on almost any school-related topic you can think of. See more here.

Forget Tahiti: how about a trip to Whitesburg? Nonprofit explanatory journalism outlet Yes! Magazine profiles the coal country Kentucky towns working hard to diversify their economy and attract tourists with everything from punk rock concerts to ultramarathons. Read more here.

Different kinds of rural health care need different kinds of broadband for telemedicine

Telemedicine is being offered as a partial solution to rural America's health-care issues, but different kinds of care require different kinds of telemedicine, and therefore different kinds of broadband capability. Rural communities expanding their broadband should consider both long-term and short-term health care needs, Craig Settles writes for The Daily Yonder.

Care for acute problems such as a heart attack or other trauma will likely need a speedy fiber-optic broadband infrastructure. For long-term care for veterans, addiction, or mental health patients, fixed wireless might be more important, because some telemedicine interfaces directly from a patient's or doctor's phone or tablet.

"In the past, community broadband providers may have been advocates of only fiber or only wireless infrastructure," Settles reports. "In the last year or so, communities are increasingly deploying hybrid networks that combine different broadband technologies. Necessity may dictate the network be comprised of fiber, cellular and fixed wireless, and even cable.

Kansas native probes state's rural population loss

The sun burns off early morning fog from the Kansas River, just south of Manhattan. (Photo by Luke Townsend)
Kansas, which has the slowest annual population growth rate in the country, is losing its rural population bit by bit, as almost all of its growth happens in eastern cities like Wichita, Kansas City, Topeka and Lawrence. Kansas native Corie Brown went on a road trip around the backroads of her home state to see why rural areas are thinning out. She chronicles the trip in a vivid essay for New Food Economy, accompanied with photos by Luke Townsend.

Brown writes, "The small towns that epitomize America’s heartland are cut off from the rest of the world by miles and miles of grain, casualties of a vast commodity agriculture system that has less and less use for living, breathing farmers." In rural areas, slaughterhouses and feedlots are seeing some growth, but it isn't enough to balance out the steady losses elsewhere. Read more here.

Controversial Clovis leaves Agriculture Department

Sam Clovis (Associated Press photo by Charlie Neibergall)
Liz Crampton reports for Politico, "Sam Clovis, the former Trump campaign aide who had been serving as USDA's liaison to the White House, is leaving the Agriculture Department and will return home to Iowa, a USDA official confirmed Thursday evening."

Clovis was a co-chairman and policy adviser for the campaign and led the initial USDA transition team, but when the president nominated him to be USDA undersecretary for research, education and economics, he ran into "a torrent of criticism from Senate Democrats and environmental advocates," Crampton notes. "Clovis drew fire for his skepticism of climate science, past comments on issues like race and gender, and what critics on the left said was his lack of scientific credentials that are legally required for the position, which would also have had him serve as the department's chief scientist."

He withdrew from consideration in November, "shortly after he was swept up in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign and the Trump campaign's alleged ties to Russian interests," Crampton writes. "While serving on the campaign, Clovis had supervised George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser who struck a plea deal on charges he lied to FBI investigators about his communications with Russia-linked contacts. Clovis' withdrawal followed shortly after news of Papadopoulos' plea deal. More recently, Clovis had been posted to the Natural Resources Conservation Service to provide guidance."

Opioid epidemic may have soured rural American attitudes about prisons

A recent poll indicates that an increasing number of rural Americans think there are too many people in the nation's prisons. The poll, conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and the Vera Institute of Justice, "provides the latest data in a growing body of evidence suggesting that Americans actually want fewer prisons—and now favor policies and politicians that put fewer people in them," Vann Newkirk reports for The Atlantic.

Overall, 40 percent of those polled said too many Americans are in jail. And among rural respondents, 61 percent said that constructing more prisons doesn't actually reduce crime, compared with a little over two-thirds of the general population. But most new jail construction is happening in small towns and rural areas. And an increasingly higher percentage of rural residents are being jailed. The Vera Institute's Jasmine Heiss wonders: "There's the obvious question about whether that trend and the shift are the result of a continuing adherence to a tough-on-crime narrative in small places.

The increased rural support for prison alternatives such as drug treatment programs may be because of the opioid epidemic, which has hit rural areas hard. "In a political landscape full of wedge issues designed to splinter voters into factions, perhaps incarceration could be emerging as the opposite: a coalition-building issue that can bridge the vexing urban-rural divide," Newkirk reports.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

China apparently halts all U.S. soybean purchases; has also cut orders for American corn, pork and sorghum

UPDATE, May 5: "Chinese importers have canceled purchases of corn and cut orders for pork," The Wall Street Journal reports. "Chinese importers’ new orders of sorghum, a grain used in animal feed, have dwindled while cancellations increased. . . . Livestock operations and food processors in China typically switch their soybean purchasing from the U.S. to Brazil and Argentina in the North American springtime, as South American farmers harvest crops and their beans become cheaper. But analysts say China’s reluctance to put on advance orders for U.S. crops indicates growing worries that tariffs will leave importers facing losses on each shipment."

China has apparently stopped buying U.S. soybeans, escalating the trade war, according to Bunge Ltd., the world's largest oilseed producer. "Whatever they're buying is non-U.S.," Bunge CEO Soren Schroder told Mario Parker of Bloomberg. "They're buying beans in Canada, in Brazil, mostly Brazil, but very definitely not buying anything from the U.S." Schroder said it was "very clear" that the trade war had triggered China's actions, but said he didn't know how long it would last.

In early April, China announced a 25 percent tariff on American soybeans but did not announce when it would take effect. In mid-April, it canceled orders for a net 62,690 metric tons of U.S. soybeans. South American countries are typically the leading global exporters of soybeans in the late spring and early- to mid-summer; the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that Brazil’s lead is expected to set a record in the 2017-18 season as it sells 73.1 million tons abroad versus the U.S.'s 56.2 million.

China's latest move will likely hurt U.S. soybean farmers, who are planting more soybeans than corn this year for the first time in decades. China is the U.S.'s biggest customer for soybeans.

Fentanyl drives increasing OD deaths, new study finds

Lethal doses of heroin and fentanyl
(Getty Images photo by Chip Somodevilla)
"In the United States, more people are dying because of synthetic drugs like fentanyl than because of heroin or prescribed painkillers," Joseph Frankel reports for The Atlantic. "While, to many, the opioid crisis has been synonymous with heroin and prescription pills, a report published Tuesday in JAMA Psychiatry builds the case that the class of synthetic drug is increasingly making its way into other drugs like cocaine and leading to overdoses. From 2010 to 2016, more and more overdose deaths have been found to be caused, at least in part, by drugs like fentanyl."

Scientists have known that synthetic opioids like fentanyl now cause more opioid deaths than heroin, but the new study emphasizes that fentanyl is killing people who unwittingly consumed it while seeking other drugs like cocaine or Xanax. Almost one-third of overdose deaths from benzodiazepines such as Xanax or Valium in 2016 also involved a synthetic opioid. About half of the 42,000 overdose deaths in 2016 were fentanyl-related, according to Wilson Compton, one of the study's authors.

Why is fentanyl causing so much damage? It's much stronger than heroin, so drug dealers sometimes mix a tiny bit of fentanyl into heroin so they can stretch the supply and sell it to more people while producing the same high. Dealers also sometimes mix systemic depressants like fentanyl with uppers like cocaine to decrease undesirable side-effects; because the side-effects are mitigated, users may unknowingly take a lethal dose.

Traci Green, an epidemiologist at Brown University, told Frankel that in order to get to the root of the fentanyl problem, "the public needs better data, more transparent data, and more consistent data."

It's World Press Freedom Day; U.S. drops to 45th in latest Reporters Without Borders ranking of news-media freedom

Apropos of World Press Freedom Day, which is today: The United States has dropped to 45th on an annual ranking of countries' press freedom, by Reporters Without Borders. That's down two spots from last year. "The survey ranked 180 countries based on factors such as pluralism, media independence, media environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency, and the quality of the infrastructure that supports the production of news and information," Sally French reports for MarketWatch. "The index is compiled via a questionnaire distributed to experts based on both quantitative data and qualitative analysis.

The report cites President Trump's animosity toward the press as the reason for the lower ranking, noting that he has called reporters "enemies of the state," as Russian dictator Joseph Stalin once did. The report also cited Trump's attempts to block some media outlets from the White House, his routine use of the term "fake news" to discredit critical reporting, his calls to revoke some media outlets' broadcasting licenses, and anti-media tweets such as a "doctored pro wrestling video showing Trump body slamming an opponent who has the CNN logo superimposed over their head," French reports. See the complete rankings here.

Feds reconsider explosive cyanide devices used to kill coyotes after Idaho teen poisoned and dog dies

Federal officials are considering whether to ban the explosive cyanide devices used to kill coyotes and foxes, one year after a Pocatello, Idaho, teenage boy was sickened and his dog died from accidentally setting off one of the M-44 "bombs". "In February, a coalition of environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, forced the Department of Agriculture to ask the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate whether the devices should be banned," Trevor Hughes reports for USA Today.

Environmental groups have long opposed M-44s, saying they could accidentally kill endangered species. Farmers and ranchers generally support M-44s, saying they're an inexpensive way to kill predators. "A 2015 federal survey concluded that predators, including foxes and coyotes, killed $32 million worth of sheep, $18 million worth of goats and nearly $60 million worth of cattle in a single year," Hughes reports. Chase Adams, a spokesman for the American Sheep Industry Association, told Hughes that some ranchers lost 30 percent of their flocks in 2017 after M-44s were temporarily banned because of the Idaho case.

M-44s are still banned in Idaho because of that incident, and they're also forbidden in Colorado and Northern California. But the devices are legal on other federal lands, as well as state lands in Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Texas and South Dakota. Sixteen states use them, including Virginia and West Virginia, Hughes reports. The USDA's agreement with environmental groups gives the federal government until Dec. 31, 2021 to decide whether M-44s should be legal, and allows the continued use of the bombs until then.

States that expanded Medicaid tended to improve most in latest scorecard of health system performance

States that expanded Medicaid showed the greatest improvement in health-system performance from 2013 to 2016, according to a scorecard released today by The Commonwealth Fund, which says it advocates for high-performing health systems but takes no position per se on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which enabled expansion of Medicaid to people with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

A chart with the report shows the improvement and decline of each state across 37 indicators that measure access to care, quality and efficiency of care, health outcomes and income-based health care disparities. (Click on the chart to view a larger version.)

Among the nine states that improved on the most indicators, only Oklahoma has not expanded Medicaid. It did show a big drop in its smoking rate, to 19 percent from 26 percent. Commonwealth Fund President David Blumenthal said in a telephone press conference that the state's second largest city, Tulsa, "has a very aggressive, citywide health-improvement program." Researchers for the fund noted afterward that Oklahoma's improvement in the percentage of people without health insurance, to 20 percent from 25 percent, "is certainly better than nothing, but it doesn’t come close to the improvement that states like Arkansas, Kentucky or New Mexico, that did expand Medicaid, saw."

The overall rankings of health system performance placed Oklahoma next to last, behind Louisiana, where the expansion of Medicaid did not some until 2016 and thus was not reflected in the report. Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont, and Utah were ranked highest overall. In the rankings, California and Oregon rose the most, jumping nine and 10 spots, respectively.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Help the public understand what's news, or should be shared, with a handy flow chart from the Newseum

All the responsibly produced news stories in the world don't help if the public doesn't know how to weed out bad stories and stop sharing them on social media. To that end, the Newseum has created an excellent flow chart and activity outline to help the public divine a good news story from a bad one. For a slightly larger version, click here.

It's geared toward middle- and high-schoolers, but perfectly appropriate for any member of the public. Read about it here.

Rural journalists awarded special Nieman fellowships at Harvard for investigative reporting in under-served markets

A rural reporter, a small-city editor and an investigative reporter and editor from Puerto Rico the first recipients of a new fellowship from The Nieman Foundation at Harvard University "to support reporting and public service investigations in under-served news markets," as it is described by the Boston-based Abrams Foundation, which funds it.

The 2019 Abrams Nieman Fellows for Local Investigative Journalism are Benny Becker, a reporter for Appalshop's WMMT in Whitesburg, Ky., and Ohio Valley ReSource, a collaborative of public radio stations serving Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia; Nathan Payne, executive editor of the Traverse City Record-Eagle, a Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. daily in a Northern Michigan town of 14,000; and Laura N. Pérez Sánchez of Puerto Rico.

After two semesters at Harvard with other Nieman fellows, the Abrams fellows will receive funding for up to nine months of fieldwork at home, where they will work on a public service reporting project and participate in specialized journalism education. Becker plans to research ways to fund infrastructure "in rural communities that are struggling with the collapse of an extractive economy," which describes the Central Appalachian coalfield in which he lives.

Payne plans to study the impact of data-driven investigative journalism on public perceptions of local media organizations, with special attention to the effects of mental health policies on local communities. Pérez Sánchez will examine Puerto Rico’s reconstruction and use of relief funds after Hurricane Maria. (A "Frontline" documentary that aired on PBS last night suggests there is still plenty of news to cover on that front.)

The Nieman fellowships are generally considered the leading mid-career fellowships for journalists. None of the Michigan-Wallace fellows at the University of Michigan or the John S. Knight fellows at Stanford University, also announced Tuesday, have a rural background.

Struggling dairy farms should form a cooperative like tobacco growers did decades ago, Wendell Berry writes

Berry (Photo by Guy Mendes)
To save their farms, struggling small dairies should consider banding together in a cooperative as tobacco farmers did decades ago, author and farmer Wendell Berry writes for the Henry County Local in Kentucky. In March, the Sentinel-News in nearby Shelbyville reported that Dean Foods ended its milk-procurement contracts with dozens of small dairy farmers in Kentucky, and others nationwide, as of May 31. Walmart, Dean's largest regional buyer, plans to start processing its own milk.

"The story of Dean Foods’ cancelled contracts is a representative piece of the story of rural America since the 1950s, when [President] Eisenhower’s secretary of agriculture told farmers to 'get big or get out,'" Berry writes. "And so the story of rural America has been the story of the dispossession of millions of farm families, the disintegration of rural communities, and the destruction of small businesses and small towns."

Berry writes that, from what he's read, Kentucky's agricultural offices and organizations don't seem to have a solution to the problem of overproduction or much help for farmers affected by it. They also don't blame Walmart for it. Shelby County Extension Agent Corrine Belton told the Sentinel-News, "It's not Walmart's fault; they just made the best business decision for them."

Berry also notes that, according to Reace Smith of Dean Foods, American dairy farms are producing about 350 million more gallons of milk each year than the year before. That benefits huge agribusinesses because it's less efficient and profitable for large corporate customers to buy from many small dairies.

The best solution, he writes, is the one proposed by dairy farmer Gary Rock in the News-Sentinel article: a nationwide cooperative that sets production quotas in line with market demands. The Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association, which Berry's father helped create, is a good model, he believes. "That organization effectively controlled production, maintained fair prices, and gave the same protections to small producers as to large ones," Berry writes. "The history of the Burley Association disproves, as its membership conscientiously rejected, the 'inevitability' of the destruction of family farms by agribusiness corporations."

Journalists' dinner should honor killed colleagues, columnist writes; tomorrow is World Press Freedom Day

As President Trump tries to discredit the free press with cries of "fake news" after making 3,001 false or misleading claims while in office, as the U.S. fails to protest the abuse of journalists overseas, and as more and more journalists are killed abroad and jailed or subpoenaed here in the U.S., the spectacle of the chummy White House Correspondents' Association dinner "ought to shame Washington media," columnist Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post.

Milbank suggests moving the dinner to coincide with the World Press Freedom Day, which is tomorrow, May 3. WPFD is a United Nations-created observation meant to celebrate the principles of press freedom, reflect on the state of it around the world, defend the news media from attacks on their independence, and honor journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

In Millbank's reconceived WHCA dinner, which is a fund-raiser for journalism scholarships, there would be no comedians. Instead, hosts would read the names of journalists killed or jailed that year while doing their jobs. Media companies and politicians would give money to groups that protect the free press and solicit donations from others. They'd also pledge to write and air more stories about American and global abuses of press freedoms.

"We should all pledge to be unabashed advocates: to shine light on the journalists languishing in prisons, the unsolved murders of journalists and the erosion of press freedom at home," Millbank writes. "Maybe Trump would boycott and ridicule such an event. Fine. It will be clear to everyone exactly where he stands — and where we do."

Some events for World Press Freedom Day are held on other days. Here's one:

Gas may extract a price from West Virginia, as coal did

West Virginia is in last or near last in state measures of well-being, development and employment, partially because state politicians have failed to adequately tax booming industries: first coal, and now natural gas, the Charleston Gazette-Mail's Ken Ward Jr. reports for ProPublica's Local Reporting Network.

"Today, West Virginia’s headlong race into the gas rush is taking the state down the same path that it’s been on for generations with coal," Ward reports. "Elected officials have sided with natural-gas companies on tax proposals and property-rights legislation. Industry lobbyists have convinced regulators to soften new rules aimed at protecting residents and their communities from drilling damage."

For example, Gov. Jim Justice proposed solving the recent teacher strike by increasing taxes on the state's booming gas industry. But industry lobbyists criticized the idea and it quickly lost steam. It's not the first time West Virginia politicians have passed on harnessing an industry for the state's good. In 1953 then-Gov. William Marland proposed a new tax on coal to upgrade schools and roads, but it failed after heavy criticism, Ward reports.

Failing to tax gas is doubly shortsighted if the industry causes as many health and environmental problems as coal has, Ward reports in another story. "Hopefully, the stories about this crossroads in our state will shine some light on how West Virginia can learn from our past," he writes.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

13-year-old tells 100 strangers about her mental illness and its stigma, and a newspaper publishes an important story

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

The stigma that still surround mental illness and drug addiction, especially in rural areas, are major obstacles to addressing those issues. Rural news media can play an important role in reducing stigma and helping individuals and communities face up to their problems and deal with them. The Paducah Sun saw that opportunity when a 13-year-old eighth grader with a long list of mental-health issues told nearly 100 attendees at the third annual West Kentucky Health and Wellness Summit about her condition and its stigma.

Julia Burkhart has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, general anxiety disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but "When she walks down the hall, you wouldn't know her from any other student," David B. Snow reported for the Sun: "There are no identifying marks or signs on her to indicate she has mental illness. The problem is the signs placed on her by other people."

At the meeting in Paducah, Julia said her problems began with bullying in kindergarten, which became so bad in fifth grade, with social-media attacks and rumors that something was "wrong" with her, that she started cutting herself. She changed schools and got better, but recently relapsed into eating disorders and taking pills "to escape," she said. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia and went back into the outpatient program at the beginning of this school year, Snow reports.

"I graduated in February from outpatient, and I've been continuing to better myself," Julia told the crowd. "And here I am now, speaking about my problems. I take pride in my recovery every day, and I am proud to have gone through this. It's made me realize what's really important." And she spoke because she wanted to; her mothervwas originally invited to share the family's story.

Snow wrote that Julia's experience is common among people with mental illness. Dr. Laurie Ballew, a psychiatrist and medical director of behavioral health at Lourdes Hospital, told him, "People have this negative thought process about mental health, not realizing that our brain is the organ that controls our body."

Snow's story is a remarkable example of how news media can reduce or eliminate the stigma that surround issues of behavioral health. We hope to see more such stories. And it's a good time for them: May is Mental Health Awareness Month.

New list shows how prepared each state is for a public health emergency; poor, rural states lag

The annual Health Security Preparedness Index was released in April, which ranks each state on how prepared it is to respond to public health crises such as natural disasters, terrorism, or disease outbreaks. Maryland claimed the top spot on the list, while Nevada and Alaska brought up the rear.

"By analyzing 140 measures—including the percentage of bridges in good or fair condition, flu vaccination rates and the number of pediatricians—the index calculates a composite score to determine health preparedness for the country as a whole, as well as individual scores for each state," Kate Elizabeth Queram reports for Route Fifty.

Preparedness continues to improve overall, with the country as a whole scoring a 7.1 out of a possible 10--nearly 3 percent higher than last year, and almost 11 percent higher than in 2013 when the index was first created. The biggest gains in the past year were in information and incident management, which is state and local governments' ability to divert people, supplies, money and information to the locations where they're most needed, Queram reports.

Inequalities in health security remain a challenge, especially in highly rural states in the deep South and Mountain West. Many of those states face a disproportionate number of people living in poverty and an elevated risk of disasters.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began compiling the index in 2013, but it's now created as a collaborative effort of more than 30 organizations and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Research looks at rural attitudes about self-driving vehicles

Self-driving vehicles will mean big changes for America, including rural areas, but most research has focused on their impact in urban areas, Kali Katerberg reports for The Daily Mining Gazette in Houghton, Mich. A team of Michigan Technological University students studied possible impacts in rural areas as well as knowledge and attitudes of rural citizens about self-driving cars, using Houghton for a case study.

"The class was tasked with determining environmental, social and economic impacts of Level 4 autonomous vehicles, part of a competition known as the AutoDrive Challenge," Katerberg reports. "Level 4 refers to vehicles that are self-diving but unable to deal with every scenario."

Houghton was a desirable test subject because it has one dominant employer, and a median income and poverty rates that are about average for rural areas. Students asked parents and the elderly about what the environmental, economic and social impacts they believed self-driving vehicles would bring.

The results found a high number of neutral responses, between 20 and 30 percent. Participants also raised questions about unexpected topics such as land use and parking. Elderly participants were most excited about the idea of autonomous vehicles, but only 36 percent of young adults were comfortable with the idea of riding in one. Many were concerned about the high initial cost of the vehicles, and 60 percent said they wouldn't buy one. "After their research, the team felt a shared-use system would be the most feasible for a community like Houghton and help autonomous vehicle companies restore lost trust among consumers," Katerberg reports. The team also determined "there would need to be significant changes to infrastructure" to accommodate the vehicles.

Ecologists promote carbon farming to stem climate change

Peggy Rathmann and John Wick on their Marin County ranch
(New York Times photo by Jonno Rattman)
UPDATE: For a study on loss of carbon storage capacity in the Midwest, with a map showing cropland expansion, click here.

A deep-dive story from a California ranch illustrates the the role grazing animals can play in improving soil and slowing global warming, Moises Velasquez-Manoff reports for The New York Times.

Children's author Peggy Rathmann and her husband John Wick moved to a 540-acre ranch in Marin County, California, in 1996. It's dairy country, and herds of cows roam the hills, but the couple loved watching deer and other wild animals on their land, so they decided to help it return to a more pristine state by banning a nearby rancher's cows from their land.

But "within months of the herd's departure, the landscape began to change. Brush encroached on meadow. Dried-out, uneaten grass hindered new growth. A mysterious disease struck their oak trees. Their land seemed to be losing its vitality," Manoff reports. "Wick was especially bothered by the advance of a prickly, yellow-flowered invasive weed called the woolly distaff thistle. He pulled it, mowed it, doused it with herbicides. But the distaff kept moving into what had been pasture."

Rangeland ecologist Jeff Creque urged them to invite the cows back: grasslands and grazing animals evolved together, he told them. Grasslands depend on animals to get rid of dead growth and recycle nutrients with manure and urine, so grazing can restore the land if done right. That means allowing cows to roam in herds like wild buffalo, never staying in one place too long. But if the cows are confined to a smaller area for a few months, the land is more likely to suffer.

Creque's advice was proved sound after Wick and Rathmann welcomed cows back to their land the next summer. By the fall, the cows were fat and the land was lush and abundant with wildlife. Creque explained to them that the fat came from carbohydrates in the grass, which came from carbon pulled from the atmosphere. Though most of the carbon humans add to the air is from power and heat generation, agricultural and other land use contributes almost as much."The erosion and degradation of soil caused by plowing, intense grazing and clear-cutting has played a significant role in the atmospheric accumulation of heat-trapping gasses," Manoff reports. "Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, agricultural practices and animal husbandry have released an estimated 135  gigatons -- 125 billion metric tons -- of carbon into the atmosphere."

In recent years, scientists have increasingly advocated trapping more carbon in soil and ecosystems by better land management practices instead of synthetic fertilizers, an idea known as carbon farming. University of California Berkley ecologist Whendee Silver tested the soil on Wick and Rathmann's ranch and found that inviting the cows back had increased the carbon trapped in the soil dramatically. Wick has become an outspoken carbon-farming advocate, and in 2008 founded the Marin Carbon Project along with Creque and Silver. Its goal is to develop science-based carbon-farming practices and establish incentives that will encourage farmers to adopt them.

What about the greenhouse gases from cattle manure? Silver has found that spreading a mixture of manure and compost on fields increases the capture of carbon in the soil, but "No one really know if the carbon they put in the ground more than offsets the methane produced by their cows," Manoff reports. "What they do demonstrate is that augmenting soil carbon while farming is not only possible, but also beneficial, even in a business sense."

States like Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Colorado, Arizona and Montana are considering or have passed legislation encouraging carbon-farming, but California has led the way. "By 2050, the state aims to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 20 percent of what they were in 1990. Nearly half its 58 counties have farmers and ranchers at various stages of developing and implementing carbon-farming plans," Manoff reports. Many of those efforts in California owe a debt to the Marin Carbon Project.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Some Democrats look at recent special elections and see hope in rural districts that are increasingly diverse racially

Based on surprisingly good Democratic performances in recent special elections, some Democrats are urging the party to increase funding and support in traditionally rural Republican strongholds that they say are becoming more racially diverse and more liberal. "Five special elections have been held for seats where Trump won 56 percent to 60 percent of the vote — in Kansas, Montana, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Arizona — and in each of those races the Democrat did much better than expected, winning one and getting very close in two others," Paul Kane reports for The Washington Post.

For example, neophyte Democrat Hiral Tipirneni, who had no major financial support, got 47 percent of the vote against veteran Republican politician Debbie Lesko in a special election in rural and suburban Arizona last week. President Trump won 58 percent of the vote in that district in 2016, and no Democrat had received 40 percent of the vote in that district in this century. The figures were almost the same in last month's special election, in which Democrat Conor Lamb pulled off a narrow win for a House seat in a blue-collar Pennsylvania district.
In an early 2017 review of 127 House races in 2016, Rep. Sean Maloney, D-N.Y., wrote that Democrats gained ground in suburban districts, but lost ground in rural districts. "It’s harder in places where it used to be easier, and it’s easier in places where it used to be harder," he told Kane. But anti-Trump backlash is helping Democrats: "Every time somebody's had a ballot in front of them, since Donald Trump was elected, we significantly outperformed," he said.

Republicans have a lot at stake in the upcoming House mid-term elections, with anywhere from 50 to 100 Republican seats up for grabs but only a few Democratic seats in play. Though the GOP has spent heavily in the past to help candidates defend their seats, with so many elections "the national GOP committees and super PACs will not be able to prop up Republican candidates the same way they have in the special elections," Kane writes.

USDA repurposes at least $25 million to fight addiction

The House's proposed Farm Bill would let the Department of Agriculture declare a rural health emergency, but in the meantime USDA has announced that it will help rural areas fight the opioid epidemic with existing funds. "The agency this year says it will dedicate at least $20 million of a $49 million rural telehealth and distance learning fund for projects related to opioid addiction," Jen Fifield reports for Stateline. "It also has committed to spending $5 million of a $30 million grant program that pays for buildings and equipment in rural areas for projects related to opioids."

One example of how that spending could help rural areas: in 2015 an addiction management center opened in Harrington, Del., with help from a $1 million low-interest USDA loan. Rural drug overdose rates have increased rapidly in recent years, surpassing the urban rate in 2006. Farmers are particularly vulnerable: a 2017 study by the National Farmers Union and the American Farm Bureau Federation found that almost three-fourths of farmers or farmworkers have either misused opioids or know someone who has, Fifield reports.

Maggie Elehwany, government affairs and policy vice president for the National Rural Health Association, told Fifield it makes sense for the USDA to help rural health systems, since rural hospitals are often the economic center of their communities. But Elehwany cautioned that the grants and loans won't solve chronic doctor shortages and low Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates.

"Rural hospitals have money problems when their patients cannot afford to pay for services and reimbursement rates are low," Fifield reports. "Since 2010, 83 rural hospitals have closed, according to the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Elehwany wants the Farm Bill to directly support struggling rural hospitals."

Merger of T-Mobile and Sprint could boost rural wireless

Sprint and T-Mobile announced a $26.5 billion, all-stock merger which, if approved by the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice, could increase consumer costs but increase wireless access in rural areas.

The two companies tried to merge in 2014 but the Obama-era FCC denied the deal, concerned that the wireless market wasn't competitive enough. In October the companies called off a second attempt after T-Mobile had been adding customers for years, but started talking again. Sprint is deep in debt and "hasn’t invested enough in its network and doesn’t have enough airwave rights for quality service in rural areas," Stan Choe and Tari Arbel report for The Associated Press.

Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure and T-Mobile CEO John Legere told reporters "the combination would allow them to better compete not only with AT&T and Verizon but also with Comcast and others as the wireless, broadband and video industries converge," Choe and Arbel report. They also said they plan to expand in rural areas. The company will be called T-Mobile.

Ky. native says he has cash to bring high-tech greenhouse jobs to Central Appalachia, will break ground in a few weeks

Jonathan Webb of AppHarvest
Solar-power professional Jonathan Webb says he will bring about 600 jobs to Central Appalachia with high-tech mountaintop greenhouses where workers will grow produce to sell all over the U.S., Salena Zito reports for the New York Post.

Webb, 33, left his hometown of Lexington, Ky., to work in New York City in 2010, and was hired in 2014 by the Army to help President Obama increase use of renewable energy. After Donald Trump's election, Webb said he wasn't surprised that Trump's message had resonated in Appalachia, an area reeling from unemployment, the opioid epidemic and general disillusionment, Zito reports. 

Shortly afterward, he founded AppHarvest, and says he has has raised $60 million in capital from such investors as Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance and AOL co-founder Steve Case. He said he's tried to convince the executives at some of the nation's largest environmental organization to invest. "I have told them . . . they have a poor strategy in some cases," Webb told Zito. "Instead of campaigning against coal for green-collar jobs in coal country, they need to facilitate investment into the region to build projects." Criticizing the coal industry is cheap and easy, he said, but jobs are the best way to get Appalachians to support environmental initiatives.

Webb told Zito that AppHarvest expects to break ground in the next few weeks on the first greenhouses in Pikeville, Ky.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Eastern Kentucky students, teachers shine amid adversity

Central Appalachia is suffering from the opioid epidemic and the near-collapse of the region's steam-coal industry, but good things are happening in the schools of Eastern Kentucky.

At the annual East Kentucky Leadership Conference in Hindman Thursday night, the Youth Leadership Award went to the science classes of Belfry High School, the state's easternmost, for a research project that tests the quality of well water. The goal of the project, which won a statewide competition, is to have groundwater regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. For a list of all the winners, click here; Hazard's WYMT-TV will broadcast the ceremony tonight at 7 ET.

Earlier in the week, former Courier Journal editor David Hawpe was impressed with what he saw at the latest Forging Innovation in Rural Education summit at the East Kentucky Expo Center in Pikeville. "What I saw buoyed me, as it has every time I’ve attended over the last few years," Hawpe writes for the Louisville newspaper.

"More than 14,000 people were there, including over 1,300 in person and others watching online in 42 states," as well as Canada, France, the United Kingdom, China, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Peru and elsewhere, Hawpe reports. "More than 160 teachers and students were presenters. . . . It was not just innovative teachers who dazzled me. Equally impressive were the students who spotlighted their own efforts at solving problems and pushing forward. They organized . . . their own health and wellness conference . . . with student teams making strategic plans to address the region’s problems."

The event was sponsored by the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative as part of the Appalachian Renaissance Initiative, a program funded as part of the Obama administration's "Race to the Top" initiative. Hawpe is a member of the initiative's national advisory council.