Friday, December 21, 2018

American holiday symbolism and tradition have deep rural roots, writes American Farm Bureau columnist

The Rural Blog will be on hiatus next week, unless we see something really compelling, and resume regular publishing Jan. 2. We wish you the merriest of Christmases and a happy, prosperous 2019.

Robert Giblin
Though holiday traditions have changed greatly over the years, its roots are deeply embedded in rural and immigrant America, American Farm Bureau Federation columnist Robert Giblin writes.

In rural America, people exchanged small, practical, often homemade gifts, and commonly made sure to give to neighbors who were less fortunate. When rural American moved to cities in droves in the late 1800s, they took their traditions with them as much as they could. Though they could no longer make gifts from their own farms, they loved sending Christmas cards, many featuring scenes of rural America, Giblin writes.

"Christmas postcards may have been American’s first social media, by allowing all a glimpse into the lives of the senders," Giblin writes. "The large volume of greeting and postcard mailings sent to and from rural America helped subsidize the Rural Free Delivery system, at that time a controversial nationwide free rural postal delivery system proposed by the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, the nation’s oldest agricultural organization."

Greeting card images of an "old fashioned Christmas" comforted city dwellers with rural roots, and still resonate for Americans today. But it's important that, in our nostalgia for the old days, we remember that rural America is a diverse, welcoming place. "Many of the symbols of Christmas as we know it today — gift giving, Christmas trees, the joy of children, sharing with friends, neighbors and families, and community celebrations — were brought to America and fostered by immigrant farmers and rural settlers," Giblin writes. "While many describe cities and urban areas as the melting pots of America, holiday celebrations in rural and farm communities brought people together, along with diverse traditions, religious beliefs, cultures and languages from many different countries. In churches and one-room schools in rural communities, differences were ignored or blended in favor of honoring the spirit of the season."

Christmas is a time when rural and urban Americans can remember and celebrate their common roots, Giblin writes: "This holds true for everything from holiday cards depicting rural images to visits to Christmas tree farms or farms offering hay rides and other opportunities to experience old holiday traditions."

Bloomberg Businessweek writers publish annual 'Jealousy List' of stories they wish they'd thought up first

Bloomberg Businessweek's contribution to the inevitable year-end listicles is their Jealosy List, i.e., a list of stories the writers wish they'd thought of first. The stories are as diverse as they are excellent, from a Reuters explainer about the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show to The New York Times' investigation into how President Trump's father engaged in shady tax schemes to direct money to his inheritors.

Of special interest to rural readers is the New Yorker piece "When Twenty-Six Thousand Stinkbugs Invade Your Home," which we referenced in a March item for The Rural Blog.

List highlights great local accountability journalism of 2018

It's the end of the year, and "Best Of" listicles lay thick upon the ground. Here's a good one from reporter Joseph Cranney of The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., who compiled a list of great local accountability journalism in 2018. Among those of interest to rural readers:
  • In Connecticut, the Hartford Courant reported how council members in the small town of Bloomfield ordered lavish dinners on the taxpayers while discussing the town budget.
  • In Columbus, Miss., Zach Plair and Isabelle Altman of The Dispatch obtained surveillance footage that showed a council member stole hundreds of dollars in merchandise from a store.
  • In West Virginia, Eric Eyre of the Charleston Gazette-Mail found that, over the past decade, out-of-state drug companies had shipped more than 20 million prescription opioids to two pharmacies in a small town of 2,900. That was part of a package that won a Pulitzer Prize. 

Microsoft researchers say rural-urban broadband gap is much larger than FCC says, based on ISPs' reports

The rural-urban digital divide is much higher than the Federal Communications Commission broadband coverage map suggests, according to a new study by Microsoft researchers. "Over all, Microsoft concluded that 162.8 million people do not use the internet at broadband speeds, while the FCC says broadband is not available to 24.7 million Americans. The discrepancy is particularly stark in rural areas," Steve Lohr reports for The New York Times.

A big part of the problem is that the FCC lets internet service providers simply tell it which areas they cover, and ISPs have an incentive to exaggerate their coverage areas. The FCC is investigating whether some ISPs lied about covering rural areas to access government funds for rural providers.

"The Microsoft researchers instead looked at the internet speeds of people using the company’s software and services, like Office software, Windows updates, Bing searches and maps, and Xbox game play," Lohr reports. It should be noted that Microsoft has an incentive to highlight the digital gap, since it is angling to get government funding for its controversial Airband initiative, which uses white-space tech, or vacant low-frequency channels, to transmit a signal.

USDA unveils proposal to limit states' ability to grant some SNAP waivers, reviving failed Farm Bill provision

Though tighter restrictions on SNAP recipients didn't make it to the final version of the 2018 Farm Bill, the Trump administration has introduced a proposal that accomplishes much the same. Yesterday the Department of Agriculture "announced a proposal aimed at limiting states’ ability to waive existing work requirements for certain food-stamp recipients — essentially giving the House GOP some of what they sought in the Farm Bill. Not coincidentally, it’s happening the same day as the White House farm bill signing ceremony," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico.

Under current law, able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) can't be in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps, for more than there months in a three-year period unless they're students, in training, or working 80 hours a month. States can waive that time limit when there aren't many jobs available, but the proposed rule would tighten criteria states must meet when applying for those waivers.

If the proposal is implemented, the USDA estimates 755,000 able-bodied adults without dependents would lose SNAP benefits over three years, and that the plan will save $15 billion over the next decade, McCrimmon reports. But the restrictions would likely end up hurting SNAP recipients who already work. Most ABAWDs are in the labor force, with very few working less than 20 hours a week or always unemployed, economist Lauren Bauer reports for Brookings.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Many drinking-water wells in Southeast could be polluted by flooding from hurricanes, but very few have been tested

Graphic by The Pew Charitable Trusts; click on it to enlarge.
Though hundreds of thousands of private water wells in the Southeast may have been inundated by floodwaters after this year's hurricanes, few have been tested for contamination because most states don't require routine testing of such wells, and lawmakers have been reluctant to mandate it.

The risk of contamination is considerable: "Hurricanes Florence and Michael dumped more than 30 inches of rain on some areas stretching from Florida to North Carolina, creating a toxic soup that may have overwhelmed the nearly 650,000 homes in those areas that rely on well water, according to estimates from the National Groundwater Association," Rebecca Beitsch reports for Stateline. "More than 30 above-ground hog lagoons overflowed in North Carolina after Hurricane Florence, sending pig waste into water inundating surrounding communities. Floodwater from Florence and Michael also contained agricultural runoff, fuel and other contaminants that can seep into the aquifer or flow into man-made wells through their ground-level ventilation systems."

Health departments in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina offered free well water tests to anyone affected by the hurricanes, but fewer than 1,000 homeowners in each state took them up on it, Beitsch reports.

North Carolina is particularly at risk for such contamination; 2.4 million people in the state (about a fifth of its population) rely on private wells, the fifth-highest number in the nation. The state also has a high concentration of open-air pits full of hog or chicken feces, or toxic coal ash from coal-fired power plants.

Across all four hurricane-affected states, more 30 percent of the households that took advantage of the free testing had wells that tested positive for coliform, a bacteria that indicates contamination by surface water. In North Carolina 13 percent of wells tested positive for e. Coli, which can come from feces. Usually only 2 percent of the state's wells test positive for coliforms. And when Georgia tested 108 wells after Hurricane Michael in October, 43 percent were positive for coliforms.

Why don't more people get their wells tested? The testing is cheap or free, but a basic chlorine treatment to kill well bacteria is about $500, Merritt Partridge, vice president of Partridge Well Drilling in Jacksonville told Beitsch: "Some people are drinking water that they shouldn’t be, but they have no idea."

German reporter fired after fabricating parts of dozens of stories, including one about a small town in Minnesota

Rural America has been under the news media's microscope since the 2016 election; sometimes that's resulted in insightful, fair-minded write-ups, sometimes not. So it's little wonder rural residents are suspicious when outsider journalists come to town.

"Suddenly we do matter, but only because everyone wants to be the hero pundit that cracks the code of the current rural psyche. There are only two things those writers seem to have concluded or are able to pitch to their editors — we are either backwards, living in the past and have our heads up our asses, or we’re like dumb, endearing animals that just need a little attention in order to keep us from eating the rest of the world alive," Fergus Falls, Minnesota, artists Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn write on the blogging platform Medium.

Wikipedia map shows Fergus Falls in Otter Tail County
So Anderson, Krohn, and neighbors were wary when Claas Relotius, a reporter for the German magazine Der Spiegel, came to Fergus Falls for a few weeks in February 2017 for a story about the town of 13,500. Anderson knew he was after a story about why most in town voted for Donald Trump, but says in the blog item's introduction that she "still had an ounce of faith in journalism. Maybe, just maybe, since he was a professional, award-winning, international journalist and was spending not one day here but several weeks, he would craft an interesting, nuanced story about how we all somehow manage to coexist with each other in Trump’s America without burning each other’s houses down."

That's not what happened. The finished piece, headlined "Where They Pray for Trump on Sundays" was "an insulting, if not hilarious, excuse for journalism," Anderson writes. "Not only did Relotius' 'exposé' on Fergus Falls make unrecognizable movie-like characters out of the people in my town that I interact with on a daily basis, but its very basic lack of truth and its bizarrely bleak portrayal of the place I love left a very sick, unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach."

The 7,300-word article got only a few basics right, Anderson writes, calling the rest "uninhibited fiction" so sloppy that it "begs the question of why Der Spiegel even invested in Relotius’ three-week trip to the U.S., whether they should demand their money back from him, and what kind of institutional breakdown led to the supposedly world-class Der Spiegel fact-checking team completely dropping the ball on this one."

Anderson was so incensed that she and Krohn wrote in the blog item the top 11 "stupidest lies" from Relotius' article. We at The Rural Blog would love to say that this immolation of Relotius' work is what caused Der Spiegel to fire him, but it appears that Fergus Falls wasn't his only victim: Der Spiegel revealed yesterday that Relotius was sacked after his editors discovered he had "falsified articles on a grand scale and even invented characters."

Anderson laments that Relotius not only lied about Fergus Falls, but spent three weeks there and missed the opportunity to explore the complicated issues that would have been fertile ground for an article. She tried to speak to Relotius at a public meeting, but says he ignored her because he was "very preoccupied with taking a picture of an American flag at our city hall. Or maybe he just pretended not to hear me because I didn’t fit into his story."

Nonprofit warns of rural affordable housing crisis

During its biannual conference last week, the nonprofit Housing Assistance Council warned that rural America will be hit with an affordable-housing crisis in the coming years, one that will be exacerbated if the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn't take action.

Hundreds of thousands of rental units could age out of the USDA's Section 515 Rural Rental Housing program in the coming years unless the department pays to repair and update those properties. There are about 415,000 rental units available through the program today. "The program started in 1963 and has financed more than 533,000 apartment units in nearly 28,000 different developments," Jan Pytalski reports for The Daily Yonder. "The program supports mortgages for the builders of rental housing for very-low-, low-, and moderate-income families, elderly persons, and persons with disabilities. Those groups face the gravest danger. Once the properties that hold their units exit the program after being paid off by the owner, the individuals might find themselves unable to participate in the unsubsidized rental market."

Affordable housing can be scarce in rural areas, and 515 is one of the few affordable housing programs focused on rural communities. If the USDA doesn't invest in the program, rural residents could lose access to some of the few available units in their communities and be forced to move to another town or city, said Stephen Sugg, HAC's government relations manager.

The main problem is that mortgages on many Section 515 properties are nearly paid off. Once the loan ends, the property loses its Section 521 Rental Assistance. "Some properties are restricted to low-income use for a period of time after they leave the program. In instances where there is no restrictive use provision, owners may increase rents to levels their low-income tenants may not be able to afford," according to the HAC report.

USDA seeks info on aquaculture and irrigation practices

If you irrigate your crops or sell aquaculture products, Uncle Sam wants your input. In fact, he requires it. The Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service is conducting two studies as follow-ups to the 2017 Census of Agriculture to get more detailed info on irrigation and aquaculture practices.

The 2018 Census of Aquaculture was mailed Dec. 17 to farmers who said on their 2017 Census of Agriculture forms that they produced and and sold more than $1,000 aquaculture products such as baitfish, food fish, crustaceans and mollusks. That doesn't include wild-caught aquatic products.

The Census of Aquaculture was last conducted in 2013 and 2005; it provides industry-specific data for government, agribusiness, trade association, and producer stakeholders to make decisions about the aquaculture industry's sustainability and growth. Response to the survey is mandatory, and all individual information will be kept confidential. The deadline to respond is Jan. 14.

On Jan. 3, NASS will mail the 2018 Irrigation and Water Management Survey (formerly called the Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey) to a sample of producers who reported on the 2017 Census of Agriculture that they irrigate crops. The survey is the only comprehensive source of information about U.S. irrigation practices, and response is mandatory. All individual information will be kept confidential, and the deadline to respond is Feb. 15.

Producers can respond to the questionnaires online, by mail, or by phone. The results for both studies are scheduled for release in fall 2019. Visit the Census of Agriculture page for more information.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Garrett Ray, a great rural editor and publisher, passes

Garrett Ray
Garrett Ray, a widely respected weekly newspaper editor and publisher in Colorado, died Monday night at his home after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. He was 82.

Ray earned bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Colorado. After working for weekly newspapers in rural Colorado and Utah, he was editor and publisher of the Littleton Independent and the Arapahoe Herald.

“He was the soul of the community,” former city manager Larry Borger told David Gilbert of the Independent. “In the 1960s and '70s, lots of people were new to Littleton, and he provided a hometown feel. Through the Independent, he made Littleton a place people could connect to.”

After selling the papers in 1981, he produced and hosted community television programs before joining the journalism faculty at Colorado State University, and wrote a monthly Publishers’ Auxiliary column for the National Newspaper Association until retirement in 2001. He and his wife Nina "moved briefly to Wales, where he got a doctorate from Cardiff University, and moved back to Littleton in 2009, the Independent reports.

He was president of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, the Colorado Press Association and the Colorado chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University. He joined the CPA Hall of Fame this year and won ISWNE's 1980 Golden Quill Award for editorial writing and its 2009 Eugene Cervi Award for a career of outstanding public service through community journalism. His friend Richard McCord of Santa Fe, N.M., said in announcing the award that Ray has won journalism awards for "almost anything you can win an award for."

A celebration of Ray's life is scheduled for 2 p.m. Dec. 30 at Columbine United Church, 6375 South Platte Canyon Road, Littleton.

Mining regulators could have stopped black-lung epidemic, reports NPR's Howard Berkes, who retires Dec. 31

Danny Smith, one of the miners interviewed, poses at the
coal mine where he worked. (NPR photo by Rich-Joseph Facun)
After analyzing 30 years of federal regulatory data, NPR and the PBS program "Frontline" report that government regulators had evidence of excessive and toxic dust in coal mines, and knew it was causing black-lung disease, but failed to protect miners even after they were "urged to take specific and direct action to stop it," Howard Berkes, Huo Jingnan and Robert Benincasa report for NPR.

In 85 percent of the samples regulators collected from mines, coal and silica dust were at safe levels. The other 15 percent, some 21,000 samples, showed excessive levels of the toxic dust. When regulators found too much silica dust, they made coal mines observe much stricter limits on coal dust, since silica and coal dust are often mixed together in the air. But not always: dangerous levels of silica were found in almost 9,000 samples even after the mines were required to reduce coal dust. And because inspections are so infrequent and not done while miners were actively mining at full production, it's almost certain that more miners were exposed to excessive amounts of toxic dust than regulators knew about, Berkes, Jingnan and Benincasa report.

"We failed," Clinton-era mine safety regulator Celeste Monforton told Berkes. "Had we taken action at that time, I really believe that we would not be seeing the disease we're seeing now. . . . Having miners die at such young ages from exposures that happened 20 years ago . . . I mean, this is such a gross and frank example of regulatory failure." Monforton is now a workplace safety advocate and teaches at George Washington and Texas State universities.

The investigation is notable for being the second collaboration on black lung by NPR and another nonprofit news outlet. After a multiyear investigation, NPR and Chris Hamby of the Center for Public Integrity reported in 2016 that the disease was surging among coal miners, and that the federal government had far underreported the numbers.

Howard Berkes
One more reason the story is notable: It's one of the last NPR will have from Howard Berkes, who will leave its air Dec. 31 after a nearly 40-year career at the network. Berkes told The Rural Blog he'll be working off air a little longer to finish up the Frontline report, scheduled to air on PBS Jan. 22.

Berkes has focused on investigative projects since 2010, many about black lung; before that he spent 10 years as NPR's first rural-affairs correspondent. He also covered eight summer and winter Olympics and has won more than 40 major journalism awards.

What has driven Berkes' tenacity as a watchdog for coal miners? "We as journalists do our best when we focus on those who have the least and suffer the most," he told The Rural Blog. "My investigative reporting following [West Virginia's] Upper Big Branch mine disaster in 2010 made me realize how dependent coal miners are on federal regulators doing their jobs and mining companies doing the right thing. Coal miners also tend to be misunderstood, dismissed and demonized. These are people without much of a voice and regulatory failure can be catastrophic. How could I turn away?"

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified NPR's partner in the earlier investigation.

Writer cites four reasons why charter schools aren't a good rural fit, and one circumstance in which they might be

About 90 percent of the nation's charter schools are in urban areas, but school-choice advocates are eager to open more in rural areas. There are a few reasons that charter schools aren't a good fit in rural America, Peter Green writes for Forbes magazine.

For one thing, rural schools are at the heart of their communities. "In rural and small-town areas, grown adults still identify themselves by what high school they graduated from. Sporting events, school concerts, art displays -- these are attended by all sorts of people who are not actual parents of the participants," Green writes. "Launching a charter school in this setting is about as welcome as having a guy move into the house next door and inviting your children to call him 'Dad'."

Along those lines, rural communities aren't always welcome to outsiders, especially overconfident ones out to "fix" rural America. "Every small town can tell a story about some city big shot who rolled into town and thought he was going to institute sweeping changes, only to fall flat on his face," Green writes. "Charter operators have a history of bypassing the local community they enter, of doing charters to the locals instead of with them."

Also, rural public schools are almost all underfunded already. If a charter school lures students (and their state funding) away, public schools in the area would likely be hurt.

Conversely, there are reasons charter advocates might not want to go into rural communities. It's more profitable for charters to launch in high-density population areas, since students come with state funding. And rural areas tend not to have the kind of wealthy backers ready to help finance charters that urban areas do, Greene writes.

All that being said, charters can be a good fit in rural areas under certain circumstances. "The small community of Tidioute, Pennsylvania, lost its public school due to budget cuts in the larger district of which they were a part. So to keep the heart of their community intact and their children's education local, they re-opened their local school as a charter school, operated and controlled by local folks," Greene writes. "It is the one approach to rural chartering that makes sense--a local school under local control created to meet a local need. That's a good charter fit."

DTN launches series on rural opioid epidemic

Rural America is a "key battlefront" where the opioid epidemic is growing, but struggling rural economies don't have the resources to make health-care infrastructure improvements that could help, Todd Neely reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer, in the first of a special series examining the impact of opioid addiction on rural America, its roots, and what's being done about it.

The 15 states with more than half the population living in rural areas (Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, West Virginia, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine) went from 2,854 opioid overdose deaths in 2013 to 4,162 deaths in 2016, a 46 percent increase, Neely reports. Another 19 states with populations more rural than average (Oregon, Idaho, New Mexico, Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Missouri, Louisiana, Tennessee, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia) went from 9,633 opioid deaths in 2013 to 17,365 deaths in 2016, an 80 percent jump.

But how do rural opioid deaths compare with urban deaths? In 1999 the opioid overdose death rate in urban areas was 6.4 per 100,000 residents, compared to 4.0 in rural areas. But by 2015 rural opioid overdose death rates were 17.0 per 100,000 compared to 16.2 in urban areas, Neely reports.

About 80 percent of people addicted to opioids don't receive treatment, according to a 2015 study. The reasons are various: fear of stigma, lack of money, or limited treatment options nearby. All three can be concerns for rural residents, especially lack of nearby treatment: 92 percent of treatment facilities in the U.S. are in urban areas. Click here to read more of DTN's deep dive into the rural opioid epidemic.

Californians complain about 'dead skunk' smell of pot farms

Mike Wondolowski sometimes wears a respirator when
outdoors to escape the smell. (NYT photo by Jim Wilson)
With recreational marijuana now legal, cannabis is a booming agriculture sector in California. But many who live near such operations often complain that the farms could attract crime, damage the land, and use up scarce water resources. And now, a new complaint: the smell.

"As a result of the stench, residents in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, are suing to ban cannabis operations from their neighborhoods. Mendocino County, farther north, recently created zones banning cannabis cultivation — the sheriff’s deputy there says the stink is the No. 1 complaint," Thomas Fuller reports for The New York Times.

One Sonoma resident, Mike Wondolowski, told Fuller: "If someone is saying, 'Is it really that bad?' I’ll go find a bunch of skunks and every evening I’ll put them outside your window . . . It’s just brutal."

Many cannabis farmers are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on odor-control systems originally designed for garbage dumps. Cannabis executives say the plant is no different than other agricultural sectors that generate smelly waste, such as dairy farms or concentrated animal feeding operations, Fuller reports.

But neighbors' objections to the smell are only one of the problems plaguing the marijuana industry in California. "After nearly one year of recreational sales in California, much of the cannabis industry remains underground. Stung by taxes and voluminous paperwork, only around 5 percent of marijuana farmers in the state have licenses, according to Hezekiah Allen, the executive director of the California Growers Association, a marijuana advocacy group," Fuller reports. "Sales of legal cannabis are expected to exceed $3 billion this year, only slightly higher than medical marijuana sales from last year. Tax revenues have been lower than expected, and only about one-fifth of California cities allow sales of recreational cannabis. The dream of a fully regulated market seems years off."

Country singer Tyler Childers remembers his rural roots, delivers 500 cases of water to Eastern Kentucky county

Tyler Childers performed at the MoonTower Music Festival
in Lexington (Lexington Herald-Leader photo: Rich Copley)
Tyler Childers is a rising star in country music with a slew of awards under his belt, but he hasn't forgotten his Eastern Kentucky roots: Childers, who grew up in Lawrence County, paid for and helped distribute 500 cases of water to next-door Martin County on Saturday.

"The Martin County Water District became the most prominent example of water reliability and quality problems in Eastern Kentucky after an outage in January left thousands of residents without running water for days," Will Wright reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "Many of the district’s customers continue to report days-long water outages that force some families to collect rainwater for bathing, and some post videos on social media of brown and discolored water flowing out their taps."

Wright and two West Virginia journalists brought Martin County's water woes to light earlier this month in a package based on a six-month investigation of the lack of reliable, clean drinking water in Eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia. The package triggered immediate changes: some state and local officials called for increased regulation and accountability of water districts, and the Martin County Water District was approved for almost $5 million in grants to begin improvements.

Childers' gesture brought some welcome light to the problem as well; since hearing about his visit, other counties in Eastern Kentucky have offered to bring residents even more water. Jimmy Don Kerr, chairman of the Martin County water board, was grateful for the help. "He’s one of us," Kerr told Wright. "For him to be that concerned about it and actually do something — actually put an action to it — is a big deal."

UPDATE, Dec. 24: Childers' gift inspired his fans to donate even more, so many that Kerr "said there’s no telling how much will come," Wright reports. "In addition to Childers’ 500 cases handed out at the Inez Community Center Saturday, there are at least another 30 pallets of water on the way, said Ian Thornton, Childers’ manager. That’s the equivalent of 36,000 bottles of water."

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Trump OKs second round of aid to farmers hurt by trade war, after renewed Chinese soybean buys aren't enough

President Trump said Monday that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will proceed with a second round of payments to farmers hurt by the trade war with China. The aid package could amount to as much as $12 billion, split into two rounds; the first has already been distributed.

"USDA expects direct payments to farmers under the program to total $9.567 billion, with around $7.3 billion for soybean farmers, the hardest hit from the trade war," Doina Chiacu and Humeyra Pamuk report for Reuters. "The USDA program includes an additional $1.2 billion in food purchases, and around $200 million to develop foreign markets, bringing the total estimated aid to just below $11 billion."

There was some doubt about whether the second round of aid would happen. President Trump and China's President Xi Jinping agreed recently to a brief ceasefire in the trade war, and China began buying a small amount of U.S. soybeans again. Though the Chinese only bought 1.13 million tons, a tiny fraction of what they usually buy, the Trump administration delayed the second round of farmer aid in hopes that Chinese purchases would make it unnecessary. That has not been the case, Chiacu and Pamuk report. Soybean sales to China are unlikely to pick back up soon; Brazil's soybean crop is ready for harvest, and China generally buys there in the early months of the year.

New photography and story project provides an intimate portrait of the rural South

Richloam, Florida, resident Eric Burkes sits in front of a local store. (Photo by Eric Dusenbery)
A new photography and story project, Sidetracked, shows viewers a "local's view" of the rural South. In an interview with The Daily Yonder, photographer Eric Dusenbery talks about how the project goes past stereotypical images of the South "to explore the people and communities that are known only by the locals — to create a new sense of place." Read more here.

Struggling rural Texas hospitals accuse Blue Cross Blue Shield of 'strongarm tactics' in contract negotiation

Rural hospital administrators across Texas allege that insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield is using "strongarm tactics" to force them to accept unfavorable contracts, Christopher Collins reports for Texas Observer. Blue Cross has considerable clout in Texas, claiming a quarter of the state's marketplace. As much 80 percent of charges at rural hospitals are reimbursed through private insurers like Blue Cross, compared to 20 to 30 percent covered by Medicaid. Unlike most other states, Texas has not expanded Medicaid under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Iraan, Texas (Wikipedia map)
At Iraan General Hospital in Iraan (pop. 1,229), a proposed contract this spring "proposed slashing the reimbursements that Blue Cross, the hospital’s biggest source of revenue, would pay for patient services such as outpatient clinic visits and emergency room care," Collins reports. Keith Butler, the new interim CEO at the struggling hospital, told Collins the contract "would have hurt this hospital a lot."

After Butler sent Blue Cross a counteroffer, he said he didn't hear from the company until a few months later when the company began using what he calls "strongarm" tactics. Blue Cross sent letters to customers saying that problems in contract negotiations could lead to the facility being considered out of network for Blue Cross policyholders. "Put simply, patients covered by Blue Cross would have to travel dozens of miles to another hospital if they expected the insurance company to pick up the bill," Collins reports.

Butler says townspeople were angry at him, and that that was the point of Blue Cross's campaign: to create pressure forcing him to sign the original offer. He eventually signed a slightly better deal than the original, but says the hospital will still lose hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on payments for laboratory tests.

Iraan isn't the only rural hospital where Blue Cross has used the same tactics, according to John Henderson, CEO of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals. And rural hospitals lack the experience with contract negotiations to fight insurance giants like Blue Cross, he said. Rural hospitals are unlikely to have the leverage to fight with such insurers, especially since state antitrust rules bar rural hospitals from collectively bargaining with Blue Cross to get a better deal.

A spokesperson for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas told the Observer in an email that it has pushed renegotiations with some rural hospitals because their outdated contracts "needed to be updated to include new protections for members and employees," Collins reports. "The spokesperson said the company 'continues to negotiate in good faith with a group of rural hospitals across the state' and pointed to a $10 million initiative it funded last month at Texas A&M University to explore new health care delivery options in rural areas."

Rural charter school splits Oklahoma town, may test state's authority to override local school decisions

Seminole, Okla. (Wikipedia map)
An Oklahoma businessman's success in opening a rural charter school over objections of the local school board could "test the popularity of charters in Oklahoma, and the role of the state in overruling community decisions," Caroline Preston reports for The Hechinger Report, an education journal. "More broadly, it’s a test case for whether these privately operated, publicly funded schools can open in small communities without eroding public education."

Paul Campbell and his family moved from Los Angeles to Oklahoma three years to aerospace manufacturing company Enviro Systems, but had a hard time finding qualified workers in Seminole, a town of 7,300 just east of Oklahoma City. He believed part of the problem was a school system that didn't prepare students for highly skilled labor, and thought he could offer the town a better choice, Preston reports.

At the Academy of Seminole, which opened this past fall to 29 freshmen and sophomores, Campbell has focused on career readiness from the beginning. He's brought in speakers from different careers, and each student is required to choose a career and do a semester-long project on it. That dovetails nicely with Oklahoma's new requirement that all students must develop a career plan in order to graduate.

It sounds like an easy sell in theory, since "Campbell’s can-do, pro-business attitude fits in with the ethos of this working class, Trump-supporting town," Preston reports. But his charter has divided the town since he proposed it. Supporters thought the charter could bring new employers and skilled workers to the town, and liked the school's emphasis on workforce preparation.

Critics worried it would take students and their state funding away, leaving only the poorest children at the town's underfunded public schools, Preston reports. They were also concerned that Campbell didn't have an education background and that his program didn't offer students opportunities they couldn't get from existing programs. And though the school focuses on workplace readiness, locals worried that it might be used to incubate workers for Campbell's company.

Campbell said he met with local school-board leaders several times to discuss how his company could help kids in the system but was rebuffed; board members say that's not accurate. After that, he said, he began planning his own school and submitted an application to the Seminole School District in August 2016 to open one of the state's first rural charters, Preston reports. The board twice voted unanimously to reject the application, but the state board overrode it.

Because rural charters are so rare -- only about 11 percent of the nation's 6,747 are rural -- it's been difficult to predict how this one affect the community. So far, "much of what inspired the charter’s supporters, and troubled its opponents, hasn’t yet come to pass," Preston reports. "The small size is good financial news for the Seminole district, which stands to lose between $3,500 to $9,000 in state funding for every student who departs for the charter. To critics, of course, the small enrollment is evidence that there was never much demand for a charter school in the first place. For his part, Campbell is pointedly unsympathetic to worries over the charter school’s financial impact on the district," His advice: "Adapt."

Small-town Vermont feud leads to tall middle-finger statue

Boston Globe photo by Michael Swensen
In Westford, Vermont (pop. 2,000), local mechanic Ted Pelkey's frustration with the state and local government led to him commissioning, and publicly displaying on a tall pole, a huge hand with a raised middle finger.

"For the past decade, Pelkey said, he has been attempting to move his business, Ted’s Truck and Trailer Repair, from the town of Swanton, 20-some miles away, to the 11.4 acres on which his home sits in Westford," Dugan Arnett reports for The Boston Globe. "The move would not only eliminate his daily 30-minute commute, he said, but save him thousands of dollars a year in rent. It would also require the construction of an 8,000-square-foot building on his property."

Town officials originally approved the move, but withheld the permit necessary to begin construction after a few neighbors complained to the state environmental court, Pelkey said. He estimated for the Globe that he has spent $100,000 in legal fees over the past 10 years in an expensive battle with Westford officials and the state's environmental court.

A few months ago, Pelkey, 54, said he got the idea for the middle finger sculpture as a way to get back at the town. He paid a local sculptor $3,000 to create the middle finger salute from a 7-foot-tall chunk of pine and hoisted it onto a 16-foot pole in his front yard, Arnett reports. Locals immediately noticed; some were horrified, but most thought it was funny.

Pam Sargent, who works at a local deli, told Arnett the town should "capitalize on it" and proposed selling t-shirts featuring the sculpture that say "Westford's Number 1."

Town officials were less amused, and told Arnett in emails that Pelkey "has a history of directing animosity toward town employees and town volunteer boards" and said the case is “definitely not a tale of David v Goliath."

Pelkey figured he'd be ordered to take it down in a few days, but it turns out that, because the piece is considered public art, the town can't make him. Arnett sums it up: "The bird, in other words, is free to soar. And it has."

Monday, December 17, 2018

Essay: Farm Bill doesn't do enough to help farmers, who bear the brunt of climate change, adopt greener practices

A thoughtful essay from nonprofit think-tank The Aspen Institute says the Farm Bill can help mitigate climate change via better funding decisions without hurting farmers' finances, but the 2018 version doesn't do enough.

A 2016 study by the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that agriculture accounted for 9 percent of the nation's greenhouse gas output; that figure is about 33 percent worldwide. "In Congress, lawmakers have the opportunity to implement policy with the goal of reducing agricultural GHG emissions and assisting farmers and ranchers who are faced with the devastating impacts of a changing climate resulting in extreme drought, wildfires, and shorter growing seasons," Greg Gershuny and Kate Henjum write.

The recent climate report released by 13 federal agencies said that climate change will cause problems for farms and ranches more quickly than technology can solve them. The 2018 Farm Bill has some provisions that can help farmers adapt to an already-changing climate and help mitigate further changes, like a program that incentivizes farmers to build healthier soil. But Farm Bill funding is finite, and adding money to one program means taking it away from another. Because of that, some programs that would help farmers follow more sustainable practices are underfunded, Gershuny and Henjum write.

"It is critical that funds are appropriated in full to designated programs. Traditional farming practices are still important, but an openness and commitment to more sustainable and transformative practices that reflect the present reality faced by farmers and ranchers is necessary," Gershuny and Henjum write. "In the quickly changing agricultural landscape that is suffering from drought and forest fire, pests and disease, it is no longer enough to simply consider sustainable practices. By cutting funding or merely maintaining funding for research and programs that are used to improve rural economies, mitigate impacts of climate variability, address water availability issues, and train the next generation of agricultural workers, the burden falls hardest on the farmers and ranchers who are faced directly with these impacts.

Rural school principals have some of the hardest jobs, and some of the highest turnover rates, in education

"Rural school leaders have some of the most complex, multifaceted jobs in education. They also have some of the highest turnover. Half of all new principals quit their jobs within three years, according to a 2014 study," Caroline Preston reports for The Hechinger Report, an education journal. "A national survey released in July found that principals in rural school districts are even less likely than their urban and suburban counterparts to stay at their school the following year and more likely to leave the profession altogether. The schools they preside over, meanwhile, often struggle with persistent poverty, low college-going rates and extreme racial disparities in student outcomes."

It can be difficult to lure a new principal to a rural area unless they grew up in the area (or any rural area). And even when a new principal agrees to come on board, chronic shortages in other areas of education make the job even harder, Preston reports.

Cheraw, Colorado, is located in
Otero County (Wikipedia map)
For example, Matthew Snyder is the new principal of the elementary, middle and high schools in Cheraw, Colorado (pop. 252). He's also the district superintendent, the maintenance director, a substitute teacher, and soon will be a fill-in bus driver. He grew up in a farming town in northern Colorado and told Preston that, although he was daunted at the prospect of filling so many roles in Cheraw, his brother encouraged him to try it. The job turned out to be very hard, but Snyder said he hopes that's just because he's new. "The light at the end of the tunnel for me is I’m hoping this is just adjusting," he told Preston.

A nationwide initiative aims to help multitasking principals like Snyder. Mark Shellinger, a former dual superintendent-principal in rural Alaska, runs a group called the National SAM Innovation Project. It operates in Colorado and 22 other states "to help principals better plan their days and train colleagues to assume more of their schools’ management tasks," Preston reports.

First-of-its-kind federal report shows GDP figures for all U.S. counties; that and another report show rural areas lagging

U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis map; click on the image to enlarge it.
The most sparsely populated U.S. counties were most likely to have seen a decline in economic output from 2014 to 2015, according to newly published federal data. "The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis for the first time last week released gross domestic product, or GDP, data for all of the nation's 3,113 counties. The statistics only cover 2012 through 2015. That makes them somewhat dated. But the share of small counties with falling GDP numbers in 2015 is one aspect of the statistics that stands out," Bill Lucia reports for Route Fifty.

The BEA classified counties as large (population over 500,000), medium (population between 100,000 and 500,000), and small (fewer than 100,000). Only 13 of the 138 large counties (about 9 percent) saw GDP decreases from 2014 to 2015. Of the 461 medium counties, 120 (or 26 percent) saw GDP decreases from 2014 to 2015. But of the 2,514 small counties, 1,024, or 40 percent, saw an economic output decline in that time frame, Lucia reports.

A 2017 report from the National Association of Counties provides more recent and more granular data. "The report says that in 2016, almost eight in 10 county economies had returned to their pre-recession GDP levels and that while economic output growth was slower than it was in 2015 in almost two-thirds of counties, virtually none had GDP declines," Lucia reports. "It added that the counties where GDP had not recovered to pre-recession levels had fewer than 50,000 residents and were mainly located in Southern states, including Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia."

Both studies affirm that rural America continues to lag economically behind urban areas. The BEA said it plans to release more timely data next December.

Volunteers help rural elderly get health care, and more

U.S. Census Bureau chart;
click the image to enlarge it.
Accessing health care and other support services is difficult for seniors in rural America, and because rural populations are increasingly older than those in suburban and urban areas, that adds up to a significant issue.

The strains and limits on the country’s caregiving system are especially acute in non-metropolitan areas, where one out of four Americans 65 and older live—some 10 million people. Around 65 percent of the areas that are short of health professionals are rural or partially rural, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration, Clare Ansberry reports for The Wall Street Journal.

Because so many people moved away from rural areas after they grew up, "the percentage of family caregivers—unpaid relatives or friends—living in rural areas fell to 16 percent in 2015 from 31 percent in 2009, according to reports by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP Public Policy Institute," Anberry reports.

Rural elderly residents face a host of barriers to accessing health care, like lack of transportation or ability to drive. And since rural hospitals keep closing, many rural patients have an unusually long drive to get to the nearest health care provider, Ansberry writes. Some seniors simply need to be watched, but it's difficult to find adult daycares in rural areas.

Volunteers are increasingly filling the gap in providing services for rural seniors. In Cavalier, a town of 1,200 in the northwest corner of North Dakota, a local volunteer group called Faith in Action takes seniors to medical appointments, grocery stores, dentists, and hair salons. Michelle Murray, who runs the group, says her 46 regular drivers are increasingly needed: they logged about 89,000 miles this year, compared to 76,000 miles last year, Ansberry reports.

"Partnerships are important, says John Feather, CEO of Grantmakers in Aging, an association of foundations seeking ways to improve the experience of aging in America," Ansberry writes. "In Tennessee, he says, Meals on Wheels drivers alert the local Habitat for Humanity office when they see an older adult living in a home that isn’t safe or needs repairs. Such local efforts that can be replicated help foundations and other organizations see what is possible."

USDA launches $600 million broadband program

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is launching a $600 million pilot project to build out high-speed internet service in rural America. Telecommunications companies, rural electric cooperatives and utilities, internet service providers, and municipal governments can apply for funding from the ReConnect Program.

During a ceremony last Thursday announcing the program, "Chad Parker, the Rural Utilities Service assistant administrator for telecommunications policy, explained that USDA will make available approximately $200 million for grants with applications due to USDA by April 29 as well as $200 million for loan and grant combinations with applications due May 29 and $200 million for low-interest loans with applications due by June 28," Jerry Hagstrom reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "Projects funded through this initiative must serve communities with fewer than 20,000 people with no broadband service or where service is slower than 10 megabits per second (mbps) download and 1 mbps upload, Parker said." In order to be approved, projects must provide speeds of at least 25 Mbps for uploads and 3 Mbps for downloads.

During the ceremony, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said that high-speed internet is "a necessity, not an amenity, vital for quality of life and economic opportunity . . . We don't want an urban-rural divide in the country." The USDA will hold a series of webinars and regional in-person workshops to help applicants learn more. The full list of events can be found here.