Saturday, December 01, 2018

Every summer, George H.W. Bush was a small-town guy

George H.W. Bush spoke at the Memorial Day observance in
Kennebunkport in 2007. (York County Coast Star / Bob Dennis)
George Herbert Walker Bush was born in Massachusetts, grew up and graduated college in Connecticut, made his fortune in Texas, and retired there after his public life, but every summer of his life (except the one when he was at war) he went to his family home in Kennebunkport, Maine, reports the local weekly, the York County Coast Star, in the wake of the 41st president's death late Friday: "Members of the Bush family spend their summers on Walker’s Point, from Memorial Day into the early fall. Bush and his wife Barbara were active members of the community."

Kennebunkport “has always been a part of my life -- a place where our big, close family has always come together surrounded by good friends and wonderful townspeople,” Bush told The Boston Globe last year. “In that sense, Kennebunkport has been my anchor to windward through a full and challenging life. It has kept me grounded and focused on what is really important.” An anchor to windward, as Navy folks know, is "an anchor dropped in a storm to keep a ship from wrecking," Kate Taylor reports for The New York Times in a story from Kennebunkport, where a Navy anchor overlooks Walker's Point as a monument to Bush.

Kirsten Camp, executive administrator of the Kennebunkport Historical Society, told the Star, “The history he’s leaving behind here in Kennebunkport is not just the history of his presidency, but it goes way back. His father still holds the course record at Cape Arundel. If President Bush were never president we would still be talking about a family with a wonderful legacy in Kennebunkport. This is one place that hasn’t changed in his life. Everything in his whole life changed, except this place.”

The Star and Times stories have several anecdotes about the Bushes' life in the town of 3,500. “Everybody in this town has stories about their lives with the Bush family in it,” Camp said, calling the deaths of the Bushes a “huge loss” but family members “continue the legacy in Maine and in Kennebunkport.” Another Times piece, by Amy S. Walker and Bill Marsh, says “For all of Mr. Bush’s attempts to portray himself as a lover of Texas barbecue and pork rinds, and despite its being a symbol of his affluent New England upbringing, he never let go of his Kennebunkport home.”

Friday, November 30, 2018

Documentary chronicles the African American quilters of Gee's Bend, Alabama

The small town of Gee's Bend, Alabama, is renowned for the gorgeous quilts produced by its mostly African-American residents. "The quilts of Gee’s Bend reflect a collective history and deep sense of place. And they register the bold individual voices of the women who made them," filmmaker Maris Curran reports for The New York Times. Curran and Alabama-born artist and musician Lonnie Holley created a short documentary about the quilts of Gee's Bend and the women who made them. It's well worth your time to watch.

Does high rate of deaths on small farms rate stem from exemption to workplace laws and regulations?

When a worker dies on the job, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration normally investigates to see what happened and if similar incidents can be prevented. But there's an exception: when a worker dies on a small farm, OSHA can't investigate because Congress granted such farms immunity from safety oversight, even though there's some evidence that small farms are more dangerous on average than other workplaces. "Over the last four decades, many hundreds of employees have been killed or seriously injured without follow-up investigations by OSHA because small farms are exempt from agency scrutiny,"  Eli Wolfe reports for The New Food Economy.

Also, because small farms are exempted from all OSHA oversight, agency inspectors can't check for hazards before injuries or deaths occur, respond to employee complaints about unsafe conditions, or even to advise or train small farmers on simple and inexpensive safer practices. Congress first attached a rider to the OSHA appropriation in 1976 (and every year since) that prohibited using federal funds to regulate a farm with 10 or fewer non-family workers. That applies to about 93 percent of U.S. farms that employ anyone outside the family, about 1.2 million workers, Wolfe reports.

"There is no official count of farm deaths that have been exempted from investigation since OSHA doesn’t keep track. But data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics show that, in a recent six-year period—2011 through 2016—333 employees were killed in accidents on farms with 10 or fewer employees," and 1,474 farmers or their family members were killed in accidents on such farms, Wolfe reports. "OSHA wouldn’t have followed up on any of these, though it’s possible a small number were investigated by inspectors from the few states that, on their own, monitor safety on small farms."

Worker safety advocates argue that the OSHA exemption has prevented an official accounting of how small-farm workers got killed, which makes it harder to identify trends and prevent more deaths. Inspections would also help determine if a farmer was reckless or negligent with their employees, Wolfe reports. State job safety agencies could investigate small farms but mostly don't.

Only California, Oregon and Washington regularly inspect small farms. A study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that those three states have significantly lower farm worker death rates than other states, and concluded that lifting the exemption would reduce fatalities on small farms in other states, Wolfe reports.

Leading agricultural lobbying group the American Farm Bureau Federation declined to comment for Wolfe's story or for requests from The Rural Blog to comment for this item.

U.S. has less and shallower fresh groundwater than believed; fracking wells may be contaminating some of it

Map from study; click on the image to enlarge it.

The U.S. groundwater supply is smaller than originally thought, much of it is old (meaning such groundwater is unlikely to replenish itself), and hydraulic fracturing wells may be contaminating it, according to a newly published study from researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara, the University of Arizona, and the University of Saskatchewan. Groundwater is the primary source of domestic water supply for half the U.S. population, and about 40 percent of water used for agricultural irrigation comes from groundwater.

Potable groundwater doesn't go as deep as previously thought, too, so drilling deeper wells may not be a long-term solution for increasing demand for fresh water. Moreover, the study found that some fracking wells are so shallow that they can contaminate fresh water instead of going deeper to where the more brackish (saline) water is.

Previous studies suggested that fresh groundwater can go down to 6,500 feet below the surface, but the new research found that the average depth of transition from fresh to brackish water is about 1,800 feet. Aquifers tend to be especially shallow in parts of the eastern U.S., with the transition from fresh to brackish water occurring at less than 1,000 feet.

Profile of flooring company shows impact of Chinese tariffs

Howell County, Missouri
The full impact of the United States' trade war with China won't be clear for years to come, but a profile of a Missouri flooring business illustrates the damage tariffs have done to many American companies, and also provides some insight on the government's decision-making process in imposing those tariffs.

Real Wood Floors and its affiliated companies employ 247 people; it's the second-largest employer in Howell County, the poorest in Missouri. The biggest town in Howell County is West Plains, pop. 12,000, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016, Guy Lawson reports for The New York Times.

Real Wood Floors harvests hardwood from southern Missouri, sends it to China for finishing, which then sends it back to Missouri ready to sell. But the tariffs make that supply chain unprofitable. CEO Sam Cobb told Lawson " it was preposterous to believe that this could be done in the United States for a competitive price. Even if it could, he went on, building a factory in the United States would be not just expensive but extremely risky, given that the tariffs on China could be removed at any time by the president or some future administration."

The company had been steadily growing for years, but "in the wake of the tariffs, Real Wood had postponed five new hires, along with the purchase of a new van and truck," Lawson reports. "For the past three years, the company grew at a healthy rate of 15 percent. But now, with the new 10 percent tariff, the best-case scenario was for revenue to be flat next year — and even that seemed improbable."

Coal miners urge Congress to extend black lung funding

 "Former Appalachian coal miners and supporters are in Washington this week to urge lawmakers to extend a tax that benefits miners sick with black-lung disease," Dylan Lovan reports for The Associated Press. "The excise tax paid by coal companies funds the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, but if Congress doesn’t act the tax will decrease by about 55 percent at the end of the year.
Calling it a matter of life and death, supporters said the fund could be halved without the extension."

The fund gives a medical expense card and benefits to black-lung patients and their dependents when a coal company appeals the miner's black-lung benefits award or when the company goes bankrupt (which means it no longer has to pay for such benefits). It paid about $184 million in benefits to more than 25,000 miners and dependents in 2017, Lovan reports.

House Republicans put a one-year extension of the tax into a tax bill released this week, but the miners in Washington to plead their case say it's a "band-aid." Former Kentucky miner Kenny Fleming, who has black-lung, told Lovan "it's a short-term solution to a long-term problem."

Black-lung rates have been rising in recent years, with the biggest increase and most severe cases in Appalachia, according to a study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Lovan reports.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Tentative agreement is reached on Farm Bill, with hemp legalization but no SNAP work rules or late forestry ideas

House and Senate negotiators have reached a tentative agreement on a new five-year Farm Bill. They are largely mum, but Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, chair of the Agriculture Committee, "said that it included a compromise over proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps," Bryan Lowry reports for McClatchy Newspapers.

The "compromise" apparently will not include "an incendiary proposal by House Republicans for strict SNAP work requirements," Chuck Abbott reports for With that "apparently off the table, the $87-billion-a-year legislation would make few noteworthy changes in U.S. food and ag policy." Nutrition programs are 80 percent of the bill's spending.

Insiders say the bill makes mostly minor changes to crop subsidies and expands the Conservation Reserve Program. "For farmers, the most welcome part of the bill would be the first chance since the 2014 farm law took effect to switch enrollment between the insurance-like Agricultural Risk Coverage subsidy and the traditionally styled Price Loss Coverage subsidy," Abbott reports.

Forest-management funding was one of the last points of contention. House Republicans, picking up on President Trump's view that California wildfires were triggered by state forest-management issues, wanted "to scale back forestry regulations and allow expedited removal of dead trees brush, among other changes, but environmental groups and some Democrats say the proposals go too far," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Morning Agriculture. The Forest Service is part of the USDA.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said the agreement must be vetted by the Congressional Budget Office, which could take until next week, Abbott reports. "Congress needs to pass a bill before the end of the year to ensure crop insurance and other agriculture programs continue to operate," Lowry notes.

UPDATES: The bill includes language to legalize industrial hemp, Sen. Rand Paul announced in a press release. His Kentucky colleague, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, also pushed for it.

The American Farm Bureau Federation said the bill "is good news for farmers amid a prolonged downturn in the agricultural economy. . . . The Farm Bill and ag policy broadly remain bipartisan matters and we encourage both houses of Congress to approve this bill once it is finalized by House and Senate ag leaders."

Report: Extracting and burning fossil fuels from federal lands accounts for nearly 1/4 of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions

The climate-change report released last Friday has made headlines all week, but government scientists released a second report that day with significant findings. That report, issued by the U.S. Geological Survey, found that the extracting and burning of oil, gas, and coal on federally owned lands (onshore and offshore) accounted for 23.7 percent of all U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions and 7.3 percent of methane emissions between 2005 and 2014.

The survey also found that COemissions from such extraction and use fell 6.1 percent from 2005 to 2014. That's because coal, the fuel that leads to the highest CO2 emissions, is losing ground to natural gas. 

The report is the first to examine greenhouse-gas emissions from fossil fuels extracted on federal lands. The Environmental Protection Agency publishes nationwide greenhouse-gas emissions figures but does not report emissions from federal lands specifically. Researchers relied on state-level data and did not include tribal lands in their analysis.

Congress lets historic riverboat ply rivers again, after fixup

The Delta Queen was docked at Coolidge Park in Chattanooga until 2015. (Photo contributed to Times Free Press)
The historic Delta Queen will once again ply the rivers after the U.S. House reauthorized its operation in a Coast Guard bill Tuesday night. The sternwheeler is expected to begin passenger trips on the Mississippi, Arkansas and Ohio rivers in 2020 after $10 million to $12 million in renovations.

Christened in 1927, the partly wooden boat was docked in Chattanooga as a stationary bar and hotel in 2008 after its federal fire-safety exemption expired. It stopped taking passengers after damage from a 2014 ice storm, Mike Pare reports for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. In 2015 local preservationists and business people formed the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. and bought it, hoping to repair it and get the exemption renewed. The boat is currently docked in Houma, La.

CEO Cornel Martin said the upgrades will include new boilers, generators, rebuilding the paddlewheel and adding more exit routes. The bill requires 10 percent of the wooden or other combustible parts of the boat to be replaced with non-combustible materials each year, according to the Mississippi Delta Grass Roots Caucus, which lobbied for it.

Chattanooga city leaders are lauding the vote, saying that the Delta Queen will help attract well-heeled tourists to the city. And Shaw Sprague, senior director of government relations for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said the boat is historically significant and "connects citizens to our proud maritime past," Pare reports.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation designated the Delta Queen as a National Treasure recently. It is also on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark. "It represents the last vestige of the sternwheel steamboat maritime heritage," he said. "There's nothing like the Delta Queen actively traveling the inland river system," said Shaw Sprague, the trust's senior director of government relations.

Dec. 12 webinar to address rural health insurance issues

The Rural Health Information Hub will host a free webinar Dec. 12 about the unique challenges rural people face in accessing health care and health insurance.

"This webinar will examine rural health-insurance market challenges and how they apply to public insurance programs under the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services," RHI Hub reports. The National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services "focused on assessing the challenges related to Medicare Advantage, Medicare Part D, Medicaid managed care and the Health Insurance Marketplace, as these programs utilize private organizations to provide health insurance."

Featured speakers for the webinar will be:
  • Paul Moore, D.Ph., executive secretary, National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services, and senior health policy adviser, Federal Office of Rural Health Policy
  • Mary K. Rolf, MBA, MHA, member, National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services; president/CEO, Home Care of Central New York, Inc.
  • Abigail Barker, Ph.D., research assistant professor, Brown School, Center for Health Economics and Policy, Washington University, St. Louis
  • Normandy Brangan, M.A., health insurance specialist at the federal Office of Rural Health Policy
The webinar will begin at noon ET on Dec. 12 and will last about an hour. Click here for more information, or to register.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Local journalists' engagement with their communities can counter false attacks on news media, journalism prof writes

Local journalism "can play an important role" in reversing the news media's lower-than ever standing among the public, driven by attacks alleging "fake news" by "enemies of the people," Damian Radcliffe, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon, writes for The Conversation.

"Local journalists are often the only journalists that most people will ever meet," Radcliffe notes. "So they play a significant role in how the wider profession is perceived." And it's in their own interests; The Rural Blog has reported several examples of the national criticism having a local impact.

Caitlyn May, editor of the Cottage Grove Sentinel in Oregon, has an informal “Meet the Editor” discussion at a local coffee shop each month. She told Radcliffe, "It’s essential that journalists leave the office and go out into the community."

Radcliffe has other, more explicit, recommendations, with links to other works, including his own:

"To succeed, local news providers must be relentlessly local and offer something different if they want people to pay for their product. They also need to be more visible, embracing opportunities for real life engagement and consciously diversifying the range of people they interview.

"According to a 2006 study by journalism professors Don Heider, Maxwell McCombs and Paula Poindexter, this means that investigative and watchdog reporting should appear alongside stories that demonstrate “caring about your community, highlighting interesting people and groups in the community, understanding the local community, and offering solutions to community problems.”

"That way, local journalists act as a check on those in power and create an informed citizenry, while also fostering a sense of community."

Corn growers upset that they're getting less in trade-war aid than soybean growers

The White House promised to help farmers hurt by the trade war with China, but many corn farmers are upset that they're getting far less than soybean growers.

"Federal economists have calculated that the nation’s losses in corn – its largest crop by harvest and export volume – amount to just a penny per bushel, a pittance farmers call absurd," P.J. Huffstutter and Mark Weinraub report for Reuters. "That’s in stark contrast to the substantial $1.65 per bushel the government will pay for lost sales of soybeans, the crop hardest hit by retaliatory Chinese tariffs in a trade war launched by U.S. President Donald Trump."

Both corn and soybean aid only cover half of this fall's harvest, though the feds may decide to give more money later. The U.S. Department of Agriculture released $6.1 billion recently of an authorized $12 billion aid package for farmers of grains, oilseeds, cotton, dairy and hogs, Reuters reports. Government data shows that the U.S. has paid out $1.9 million for 12,807 corn claims as of October 31.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, a former farmer, recently told Illinois corn farmers that he didn't understand how his own agency's economists had calculated the amount of relief offered, but said they had to stick to it because that's what the U.S. would present to the World Trade Organization when filing an unfair trade grievance, Reuters reports.

"We have got $1.65 on beans and a penny on corn? That doesn’t make any sense," Perdue told the farmers. "If I were picking numbers, I’d have picked a different one."

Fact checking the president on fires, climate and trade

The Washington Post got an interview with President Trump, and he "made a number of false or misleading claims," says the paper's Fact Checker column, written by Glenn Kessler and Salvador Rizzo. Some of the off-base assertions dealt with rural concerns such as wildfire and climate change.

Trump blamed the California fires on "forest management," but "Experts say the most recent wildfires besetting California were not sparked by forest management problems," the Post reports. It quotes LeRoy Westerling, a climate and fire researcher at the University of California at Merced, from a previous fact-check: “The ones in Southern California are burning in chaparral, so it’s not a forest management issue at all.” The Post notes, "Some California forests appear to have many more trees per acre than what is considered healthy, according to an expert cited by the San Francisco Chronicle. But more than half of the state’s forested land is managed by the federal government," which has decreased the budget of the Forest Service.

On climate, Trump said, “If you go back and if you look at articles, they talked about global freezing, they talked about at some point the planets could have freeze to death; then it’s going to die of heat exhaustion.” The Post says he "appears to be referring to some speculative journalism a half-century ago. There had been a period of cold winters in the early 1970s, and so some reporters put two and two together — and came up with five. . . . In 2006, Newsweek admitted it had been 'spectacularly wrong' in publishing its article. Yet the bad journalism of the 1970s is still cited today by climate skeptics such as Trump, even though the science affirming the impact of human activity on climate change now is widely accepted."

Trump also said, "We lose $800 billion a year with trade." He was talking about trade deficits, which might be better described as trade disparities because they don't involve a loss of money. The Post explains: "The trade deficit just means Americans are buying more products from other countries than foreigners are buying from the United States, not that they are somehow stealing U.S. money. Trade deficits are also affected by macroeconomic factors, such as the relative strength of currencies, economic growth rates, and savings and investment rates. By passing a large deficit-financed tax cut, Trump has made it harder to reduce trade deficits, if that were even important. Trump’s figure is also inflated. The U.S. had a $552 billion trade deficit in 2017, when goods and services are counted. But Trump only counts trade in goods, thus inflating the total. The trade deficit has widened in 2018, according to the Commerce Department."

Sinclair forces local TV news stations to air segment supporting use of tear gas on migrants at U.S. border

Boris Epshteyn
Conservative media empire Sinclair Broadcasting Group has raised controversy several times for ethically questionable practices such as asking station news directors to give to its political action committee and airing sponsored content without labeling it. The latest dust-up stems from its order to about 200 local news stations to air commentary from conservative political analyst and former Trump campaign aide Boris Epshteyn defending the Border Patrol's use of tear gas against migrants crossing the border on Sunday, Caleb Ecarma reports for politics-and-media-analysis publication Mediaite.

Epshteyn said in his commentary that the "migrant crisis at our southern border has greatly escalated" and said American authorities were obliged to use tear gas to stop "dozens of migrants" from throwing rocks and bottles at border agents. He then condemned "the left" in general and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., specifically for questioning Trump and "his team standing up for our men and women in uniform and for our national security," Escarma reports.

It isn't the first time Sinclair has done such a thing; 173 stations were forced to air Epshteyn's pro-Trump commentary in July 2017.

Growing up poor, white, and rural appears to have reduced the chances of going to jail as a young adult

Daily Yonder chart; click on the image to enlarge it.
A newly published study found that people who grew up poor and in rural areas were less likely to be in prison during their late 20s and early 30s. Harvard University economists led by Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren used census data and tax returns to track people born in the U.S. between 1978 and 1983 --the so-called Xennials. The economists were able to get informaiton on about 20 million people, 94 percent of the children born in that period, Bill Bishop reports for The Daily Yonder.

"Chetty and Hendren tracked those children over the ensuing decades," Bishop reports. "They could determine the composition of their homes (their income and whether a father and a mother were present). They could see where these children lived. And on April 1, 2010, the economists counted how many of those 20 million people were locked up in jails, prisons or any kind of detention facility. These children would have grown to be between 27 and 32 years old."

The results? Female incarceration among Xennials was consistently low across races and the rural-metropolitan spectrum. But male incarceration rates varied widely. About 20 percent of black males who grew up in the bottom 1 percent of income were in jail in 2010, while only 6.4 percent of their white counterparts were jailed, Bishop reports.

Where Xennial boys grew up mattered too, though the results were skewed by race. That is, boys who grew up in rural areas were less likely to be in jail, but that's because fewer black people live in rural areas, and black incarceration rates were higher across the board. But black rural boys were also less likely to wind up in jail, and those who moved to better areas earlier in childhood had higher incomes and lower incarceration rates as adults, Bishop reports.

"The incarceration rate for young men reared in the most urban counties is 36 percent higher than the rate for men who grew up in the most rural counties. The rate for young black men who grew up in urban centers is 20 percent higher than for those who spent their youth in the most rural counties," Bishop reports. "In general, rural communities are good places for children in poor families to be reared. They earn higher incomes than those who grow up in central cities because of the effects of growing up in rural communities."

The general factors found to make a difference in incarceration rates included having a father present, the average wage in a neighborhood, and living in an area where white residents have low levels of racial bias, the economists found. They haven't studied the difference between rural and urban upbringing only in incarceration rates, Bishop reports.

National Weather Service bucks tradition, Trump to tout climate report; critics on right revive conspiracy theory

When a panel of scientists from 13 federal agencies published a report last week warning that global warming could cost the U.S. hundreds of billions of dollars and disrupt life as we know it, the White House attempted to blunt its impact by releasing it late on Black Friday. Nevertheless, the report has made big waves and prompted some interesting responses.

The National Weather Service, which has historically focused only on communicating about weather hazards, broke with tradition by highlighting the report Monday morning in a series of tweets and a Facebook post calling attention to the report's findings. The NWS is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which contributed to the report, Jason Samenow reports for The Washington Post. NOAA is part of the Commerce Department; Commerce Secretary WIlbur Ross said in his confirmation testimony that he would keep hands off NOAA's climate work.

The NWS tweets came an hour after President Trump told reporters he didn't believe parts of the report that predicted negative effects on the economy. "The White House said in a statement the report is 'largely based on the most extreme scenario' and doesn't account for reduced greenhouse gas emissions and new technologies that reduce pollution," Stephanie Ebbs reports for ABC News.

Cable news networks, in an attempt to play fair, gave airtime to conservative pundits who dismissed the entire report as a conspiracy. "The entire worldwide establishment, these pundits argue, is involved in a massive conspiracy, funded by shadowy but apparently infinitely wealthy figures, to perpetuate the climate hoax on the world, for unclear reasons," Amanda Marcotte writes for left-leaning publication Salon. Former Pennsylvania Senator and presidential hopeful Rick Santorum argued in a CNN segment that the scientists made outrageous claims to make money and remain relevant.

"It's irresponsible of CNN to invite these climate change denialists on to spread conspiracy theories, but that error is compounded by the failure of supposed journalists to follow up on these preposterous claims," Marcotte writes. "Right-wingers are not asked why not a single person has blown the whistle on this conspiracy that, at this point, would require the cooperation of hundreds of thousands of people. Nor are they asked about the alleged motivations of these supposed funders, or who they are."

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Our plea on Giving Tuesday: No one else does what we do for journalism, at a time when it needs your support

By Al Cross, Director, IRJCI, and Professor of Journalism, University of Kentucky

So, out of all the folks asking for money on #GivingTuesday, why should you support the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog?

First, no one else does what we do. We deliver a daily digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism, from and about rural America, to thousands of rural journalists who want to look beyond the county line and help their audiences understand broader issues and how they affect them.

Each month, we produce a column, usually based on the blog, for the National Newspaper Association, the leading organization for rural newspapers, and we work closely with NNA on issues that affect community papers, such as the recent proposal to have farmers wanting migrant workers advertise the jobs online instead of local papers.

Several times a year, I speak to state or national groups about rural journalism. This year, that included three panels at Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications convention. Early this year, my book chapter, “Trump and non-metropolitan America: An urbanite saw a rural base where pollsters and journalists didn’t,” was published by Routledge in The Trump Presidency, Journalism and Democracy, edited by Robert (Ted) Gutsche Jr.

Bumper stickers are available from the Institute for $1 apiece.
At a time when some people question the whole concept of independent journalism, the Institute increasingly plays a role in explaining and defending it. One example is our bumper sticker that makes the point that someone has to pay for journalism. In The Rural Blog, we write about the challenges facing community newspapers and journalism, including ways to explain and defend the profession. To that end, we have started a series of “Fake News Forums” in towns around Kentucky, and hope to make it a model for the nation.

Our work is only partly supported by my faculty line at the university. We are able to publish The Rural Blog because the Institute has an endowment that gives us money for year-round travel, programming and a half-time assistant. But we rely increasingly on gifts that go directly into our operating budget of about $200,000 a year, so we need your support.

To donate to our endowment via credit card, click here. To give to our operating fund, send a check to IRJCI, 343 S. Martin Luther King Blvd., University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0012.

To those of you who have already donated this year, we extend our sincere thanks. A longtime advocate for rural America posted on the donation site, "The Rural Blog is an essential tool for keeping us connected." A rural editor said, "The Rural Blog is a valuable source of information that my weekly newspaper would not otherwise have. Wish I could help more." Thanks for whatever you can do.

Les Zaitz and the Malheur Enterprise show that people in rural areas want and need good journalism

Les Zaitz
As many newspapers struggle, a rural weekly in western Oregon is thriving because it is producing good journalism. The Malheur Enterprise, founded in 1909 in Vale, has won several national awards and has seen increasing circulation in the past three years, thanks to new owners and an editor-publisher who has long been an investigative reporter: Les Zaitz, whose family bought the Enterprise in 2015 to save it from closing. Zaitz, now 63, retired from his post as senior investigative reporter at The Oregonian in 2016 to run the Enterprise full-time.

When Zaitz bought the Enterprise, it was almost out of business, "filled with gossip and press releases," had only one reporter who mostly covered local high school sports, and had not had an ad salesperson in 10 years, Tom Goldman reports for NPR. Now, the paper has three reporters, revenue has tripled in the past three years, paid subscriptions have doubled to about 2,000, and more than 10,000 of Malheur County's 30,000 residents read the online edition in a recent week.

Zaitz told Goldman that giving him all the credit for the turnaround is a "damnable lie." Under his purview, the Enterprise 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 murdering two people. It was the first weekly to win the IRE award in that category.

What happened before the package was published was almost as important as the package itself: A state agency sued the paper to block the release of documents, but the Enterprise refused to give up and launched a GoFundMe drive to raise money for a lawyer. The documents were released after the governor stepped in. IRE judges called it a "classic David-meets-Goliath triumph." That effort, and Zaitz's earlier work in rural Oregon, helped earn him the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism, given by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog. In accepting the award, Zaitz urged other weekly editors to follow his example.

The "Deadly Decisions" package reaped other rewards: Investigative news organization ProPublica chose the Enterprise as one of only seven newsrooms nationwide (out of 239 applicants) for its Local Reporting Network; as part of that project, ProPublica is paying for reporter Jayme Fraser, formerly of The Missoulian, to work at the Enterprise for a year and follow up on the Deadly Decisions story.

IRJCI Director Al Cross told Goldman that Zaitz is the ideal community journalist: a person "who is in the community, of the community . . .but isn't afraid to hold up a mirror to the community that may look unflattering." After reading Goldman's story, that "Les has proven that good journalism can be good business in rural areas, that readers want a watchdog."

Goldman ventured, "Perhaps surprisingly, the weekly paper's turnaround and increased popularity happened in a part of the state that strongly supports President Trump, who continues to lash out at the media." Trump won nearly 70 percent of the vote in Malheur County, but his criticism of the news media who cover him doesn't seem to apply to Les Zaitz and the news of Malheur County.

Local attorney Carol Skerjanec told Goldman, "We're pretty intelligent people, so we don't need to be told how to feel about something or what direction to take or what stance to take. Just tell us what the facts are and we'll make our own decision. And I think that's what Les is doing."

Why some hunters are moving away from lead bullets

"Cameras trained on a dead elk in an Oregon preserve captured the many animals who feed on such carcasses. State agencies have urged hunters to stop using lead ammunition, citing devastating impacts on wildlife," The New York Times reports.

A few hunters are making the switch from lead to copper bullets as evidence mounts that lead bullets poison the wildlife that feeds on carcasses and pollute the game meat people eat.

"According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, lead exposure is the leading cause of death in California condors, the largest land birds in North America, which three decades ago were on the brink of extinction," Ian Urbina reports for The New York Times. "And between 10 million and 20 million animals, including eagles, hawks, bears, vultures, ravens and coyotes, die each year not from being hunted, but from lead poisoning," says the Humane Society of the United States.

Urbina reports that about 95 percent of the 10 billion to 13 billion rounds of ammunition purchased in the U.S. each year contain lead, and that hunters reluctant to switch "cite a range of reasons, from being unaware of the potential health threat or harm to scavenger animals," including bald eagles, "to having a stockpile of traditional ammunition they do not want to waste. Some also see the push away from lead bullets as a ruse for limiting gun rights or banning hunting more broadly. And many hunters question the availability, accuracy, price and lethality of non-lead ammunition."

The National Rifle Association and the firearms industry may have contributed to hunters' reluctance to switch by funding a nonprofit called Hunt for Truth. The organization was meant to protest California's attempt to ban lead ammunition in 2013. The group's website was taken down after the NRA was outed as its major funder, but the organization lives on as a Facebook page.

The site "claimed that lead used in bullets is not sufficiently soluble to dissolve in most animals’ digestive tracts," Urbina reports. "Lynn Tompkins, who runs a bird rehabilitation center called Blue Mountain Wildlife in Pendleton, Ore., rejected those ideas. She held up photographs of X-rays of birds with lead bullet fragments in their stomachs, and said that roughly half of those she treats have lead poisoning." She told Urbina, "I’m not opposed to hunting. But we moved away from lead in gasoline, paint and plumbing, and now we need to do the same with ammunition."

Sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise as funding to prevent and treat them falls

Health officials are worried about this strain of gonorrhea that
is resistant to antibiotics. (Centers for Disease Control photo)
"Health officials are tracking record-breaking rates of sexually transmitted disease, including a resurgence of some infections which had been considered rare, such as gonorrhea and syphilis. These STDs are on the rise amid cuts to public health budgets dedicated to testing, prevention, and public outreach," Mary Meehan reports for Ohio Valley ReSource, which covers Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 2.4 million new cases of STDs in 2017; about 40 percent of those were among people aged 15 to 25. The number of babies born with syphilis increased from 362 in 2013 to 918 in 2017, mostly in Southern and Western states. In some Ohio Valley communities, chlamydia infections rose more than 200 percent and gonorrhea rose 1,000 percent or more between 2011 and 2017, Meehan reports.

The surge among younger people could stem from a greater likelihood to engage in risky sexual behavior. Jim Thacker, spokesperson for the Madison County Health Department in Kentucky, told Meehan that people born after the AIDS epidemic was largely contained may be less fearful about STDs. And the availability of effective, long-term birth control might make young adults and teens less prone to use condoms, he said.

Some of those affected by STDs are much younger than teens: according to a recent CDC report, more infants are dying after catching syphilis from their mothers during birth. Syphilis is easily treated with antibiotics, but an untreated pregnant woman has up to an 80 percent chance of passing it on to her baby during birth, Meehan reports.

Matt Prior, spokesperson for the nonprofit National Coalition of STD Directors, told Meehan that STDs are a public health crisis often hitting areas already hurting from the opioid epidemic, such as Appalachia.  Meehan reports, "As rates go up, Prior said, funding has gone down. So while STDs have increased by 30 percent in the last five years to reach an all-time high, the amount of federal money for prevention and education has consistently gone down since 2003. Prior says that federal funding is critical for states like Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio."

Prior told Meehan, "The federal STD prevention line is the only line or funding streams these states have so it is really the first and last line of defense."

Monday, November 26, 2018

Climate change will hurt farmers, cost hundreds of billions by 2100, federal government scientists warn

"The U.S. government's climate scientists issued a blunt warning on Friday, writing that global warming is a growing threat to human life, property and ecosystems across the country, and that the economic damage—from worsening heat waves, extreme weather, sea level rise, droughts and wildfires—will spiral in the coming decades," Bob Berwyn reports for Inside Climate News. In the worst-case scenario, global warming costs could total 10 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product by the end of the century.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment, written by a scientific panel representing 13 federal agencies, said that those effects can be mitigated if the United States and other countries cut greenhouse-gas emissions, especially from burning fossil fuels. Limiting global warming to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit would save hundreds of billions of dollars in future damages, the panel reports.

Midwest farmers are already seeing the effects of climate change; drought accounted for about a third of all crop insurance payouts from 2000 to 2016. And there's more to come: "Climate change will hit the Corn Belt particularly hard. Under a high-emissions scenario, the Midwest will see greater increases in warm-season temperatures than anywhere else in the country, with the frost-free season projected to increase by an average of 10 days from 2016 to 2045," Berwyn reports.

Though some parts of the U.S. economy may improve in the short term because of a slightly warmer world, lack of mitigation in the long run will hurt regional economies and industries, increase electricity costs, and affect U.S. export and import prices, the report says.

"For example, heat waves and droughts can cut energy production if there is not enough water to cool power plants, which can limit manufacturing and even affect health care in hospitals," Berwyn reports. "Hurricane Harvey's damage to power infrastructure affected water-treatment plants and refineries, shutting down 11 percent of U.S. oil refining capacities and causing a temporary spike in gas prices."

Moderate who stresses party's need to appeal to rural areas is running to head House Democrats' campaign committee

U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos of northwest Illinois, who is running for chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, "is the only one of about 18 leadership candidates who doesn’t represent a district along one of the coasts. She is one of only two contenders representing a district won by [President] Trump. And she’s probably the only member of Democratic leadership whose go-to road food while campaigning is an indulgent, heart-clogging ButterBurger from Midwestern fast-food chain Culver’s," reports Jennifer Haberkorn of the Los Angeles Times.

Rep. Cheri Bustos (Photo from CQ Roll Call)
"Her pitch to Democrats of all stripes is that the party’s majority is fragile," Haberkorn writes. "If its political pendulum swings too far to the left in next two years or Democrats are seen as coastal elites, they risk losing in those moderate districts, especially when Trump himself is on the ballot, she said." Or, in her own words, “We don’t hang on to that majority by having a Democratic message that is viewed as extreme in rural America or in the heartland.”

Bustos, 57, has been singing that tune to her Democratic colleagues for some time, and to a group of rural newspaper editors who responded to an invitation during the 2017 conference of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors in the Washington, D.C., area. She is a former reporter for the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa.

"Moderate Democrats such as Bustos will likely be pivotal to the party’s success in 2020," Haberkorn writes. "The Democratic presidential candidate will have to appeal to their voters to have any shot of denying Trump a second term."

Others in the race are "another Democrat who won in a Trump district, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, as well as two Democrats from Washington state, Reps. Dennis Heck and Suzan DelBene," Haberkorn reports. Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is running for speaker, "has not put her thumb on the scale in the DCCC contest. But Bustos said Pelosi 'has personally said to me and many others' that she wants to see a woman in the job."

FCC proposes doubling minimum speed of rural broadband in future subsidized buildouts

The Federal Communications Commission may increase the minimum broadband speed standard to 25 megabytes per second in rural areas. That's on the lower end of what urban residents can generally access, but it's more than double the current rate for rural broadband, Makena Kelly reports for The Verge, a tech publication of Vox.

Telecommunications companies that take government subsidies to build out rural broadband would be required to meet the new standard, but the FCC would have to use different incentives to get companies to improve existing networks, Kelly reports.

FCC Chair Ajit Pai announced the proposal in a blog post last week, saying the commission hoped to begin the switch in December.

N.C. hog-waste lagoons haven't changed much in 20 years; Smithfield says it will act there, and in Missouri and Utah

After open-air hog-waste lagoons overflowed and mixed with flood waters from Hurricane Floyd in 1999, North Carolina leaders promised to eliminate the waste pits. But almost 19 years later, the second-largest pork producing state has failed to come up with a viable alternative, and hurricanes keep slamming the state. In September, Hurricane Florence dumped a record 8 trillion gallons over the state, causing 33 lagoons to overflow.

In 2000, Smithfield Foods, the world's biggest pork producer and and a major presence in the state, promised to pay for research to find alternatives to the lagoons and to install them within three years. "Today, many North Carolina hog farmers continue to store hog waste in open pits despite the millions of dollars in private investment spent and years of research and political promises. Little has changed, storms are intensifying and the clock is ticking on the Smithfield agreement, which expires in 2025," Talia Buford reports for ProPublica. Smithfield announced in October it would cover 90 percent of the hog lagoons in North Carolina, Missouri and Utah within 10 years as part of a plan to reduce its carbon footprint.

The statewide plan fizzled for several reasons: the "all-or-nothing" strategy meant that nothing would change unless the perfect replacement system was developed, and it was not only ambitious but ambiguous. "The deal required the 'substantial' elimination of odors, ammonia emissions, bacteria, soil and groundwater contamination, and waste discharges, yet it did not state what that threshold was or what costs the industry was obliged to absorb," Buford reports. "The deal also was mum on the odors, pests and other nuisances that people who live near the lagoons continue to endure." The recession and the state's shift toward Republican lawmakers put the agreement on the back burner in recent years.

Because state government and industry have not acted, citizens increasingly seek change through the courts. More than 500 people have joined 26 federal lawsuits against a Smithfield subsidiary since 2014, arguing that the hog farms are nuisances that bring terrible odors, flies, and heavy traffic. "Juries have awarded multimillion-dollar damages to plaintiffs in three of the lawsuits so far," and a fourth trial began this month, Buford reports.

Farm bankruptcies up in Midwest, Plains states

Farm bankruptcies are up across the Upper Midwest because of low prices on corn, soybeans, milk, and beef, and bankers say the worst is yet to come.
Star-Tribune chart by Raymond Grumney; click on the image to enlarge it.
The "nagging economic strain of low commodity prices on farmers and ranchers—compounded for some by recent tariffs—is starting to show up not just in bottom-line profitability, but in simple viability," financial analyst Ronald Wirtz writes for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. "Current price levels and the trajectory of the current trends suggest that this trend has not yet seen a peak."

A Minneapolis Fed analysis found that 84 farms filed for Chapter 12 bankruptcy in Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana between June 2017 and June 2018. "That’s more than double the number over the same period in 2013 and 2014, and the number of bankruptcies in Minnesota doubled over the past four years from eight to 20," Adam Belz reports for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.

Wisconsin has been hit particularly hard, reporting about 60 percent of those 84 bankruptcies, mostly because of dairy industry woes. "Though the state is the country’s number two milk producer, it still has many small farms, which tend to be more exposed to large price fluctuations," Wirtz reports.

Mark Miedtke, president of the Citizens State Bank in Hayfield, Minn., said corn and soybean farmers are hurting too. "Grain farmers have had low prices for the past three years but high yields have helped them through. We’re just waiting for a turnaround. We’re waiting for the tariff problem to go away," Miedtke told Belz.

"The problem is showing up in other parts of the Midwest, too. A new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, which covers Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Wyoming and portions of Missouri and New Mexico, showed that more than half of bankers in the district reported lower farm income than a year ago," Belz reports. "They also said they expect farm income to weaken in coming months."