Friday, January 18, 2019

Health-care providers in rural counties are more likely to prescribe opioids; CDC sees a link to higher opioid deaths

Primary health-care providers in rural counties are much more likely to prescribe opioids than their suburban and urban counterparts, and that correlates to a higher incidence of opioid-related deaths, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's latest Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Researchers analyzed data from January 2014 to March 2017, dividing data into six categories of population density. All six population level areas saw a substantial decline in opioid prescriptions over the studied time period, but the more rural a county was, the higher its opioid prescription rate across the board. Fourteen of the 15 counties with the highest opioid prescription rates were rural, the report says. Read the report here.

Most 2019 Report for America grant winners announced; many will focus on rural areas and issues

The nonprofit journalism funder Report for America has announced 40 winners of its 2019 newsroom grants. The grants will cover half the salaries for 50 emerging journalists to report on under-covered topics in communities across the country. The winning newsrooms span 26 states and Puerto Rico, and include nonprofits, daily and weekly newspapers, and public radio stations. The grant application deadline has been extended to February 8, so another five to 10 newsroom winners will be announced in the coming weeks, supporting another 10 reporter positions.

Here are a few winners that pitched projects with a rural angle:
  • Buffalo Bulletin in Wyoming: the energy production industry in Johnson County
  • Charleston Gazette-Mail: poverty in southern West Virginia
  • Chico Enterprise-Record and Ukiah Daily Journal in California: wildfire recovery in Northern California
  • Desert Sun, Palm Springs, Calif.: Native American issues in the Coachella Valley
  • KUER-FM in Utah: two reporters, one focusing on Native American populations in southern Utah and the other on Washington County, location of Zion National Park
  • Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky: health care in Appalachian Kentucky
  • Malheur Enterprise, Vale, Oregon: Latinx issues in rural Oregon
  • News & Observer in Raleigh: watchdog reporting on Hurricane Florence recovery
  • Spokesman-Review in Spokane: public health in Eastern Washington
  • The Sun-Gazette, Exeter, Calif.: agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley
  • West Virginia Public Broadcasting: state government's effect on southern West Virginia
Report for America will also renew some reporters' 2018 contracts in at least eight newsrooms. Here are those with rural resonance:
  • Victoria Advocate in Texas: rural public health (Ciara McCarthy)
  • Mississippi Today: criminal justice and photography (Michelle Liu and Eric Shelton)
  • Mississippi Public Broadcasting: Mississippi Delta (Alexandra Watts)
  • Lexington Herald-Leader: Eastern Kentucky (Will Wright)
  • Charleston Gazette-Mail: southern coalfield of West Virginia (Caity Coyne)

America needs more midwives, especially in rural areas, say the editors of Scientific American magazine

America needs more midwives, especially in rural areas where it's hard for pregnant women to access hospital care, write the editors of Scientific American magazine.

American maternity care is in bad shape: "Despite the astronomical sums that the U.S. spends on maternity care, mortality rates for women and infants are significantly higher in America than in other wealthy countries," they write. "Moreover, the rate of cesarean sections is exceedingly high at 32 percent — the World Health Organization considers the ideal rate to be around 10 percent — and 13 percent of women report feeling pressured by their providers to have the procedure."

Midwife care is at least as common as obstetrician care in many other developed countries, but in the U.S. only 8 percent of births are attended by midwives. That makes little sense, the editors argue, since certified American midwives must have an accredited graduate degree and at least two years of training, making them plenty qualified to care for low-risk births.

So why aren't midwives more popular in the U.S.? "The roots of America's aversion to midwifery go back to the late 1800s, when the advent of germ theory and anesthesia reduced much of the danger and discomfort associated with childbirth," the editors write. "The benefits of these technologies brought doctors to the forefront of maternity care and pushed midwives aside. Obstetricians helped to bar midwives from practicing in hospitals, which were now considered the safest birth settings. By the early 1960s midwifery was virtually obsolete."

Midwifery has gained a little ground since then, but some states still don't recognize them as qualified practitioners or limit what they're allowed to do. Midwives must be fully embraced by state governments, insurance companies and the medical community to ensure pregnant women can routinely and affordably access such care, the editors write.

West Virginia native 'pleasantly surprised' by Fallout 76 depiction of her home state

Politicians, writers, journalists, and pop culture often reduce the complex realities of Appalachia to a few tired stereotypes and tropes, so West Virginia native Sarah Einstein said she wasn't expecting much better from the recently-released video game Fallout 76, which takes place in a post-apocalyptic West Virginia.

Instead, Einstein was "pleasantly surprised" that Bethesda Game Studios mostly got it right, she writes for Rewire News. Bethesda's design director said in a recent interview that he hated "redneck post-apocalyptic" cliches and felt it was important not to fall into that trap when depicting West Virginia.

"The careful work that went into realizing this mandate can be seen throughout the game. As a player, you enter the game through Vault 76—a fallout shelter meant to house people through the toxic years—and find yourself in a wooded area just outside of Flatwoods," Einstein writes. "And the thing is, these are the right woods, with the right trees, the right bird songs, with rhododendron and fern. It feels like home. The game’s recorded voices have a variety of accents, from the deep drawl of the middle counties to the clipped consonants of a non-native speaker, but all of them feel authentic and, except for a few robot characters clearly programmed to be 'down homey,' none seem overdone."

Even the nuclear mutants encountered by characters are a neat bit of symbolism, and "are the direct result of outside corporate interests exploiting the people and environment of the state—and while this is a constant throughout the Fallout franchise, it feels especially apt in a game set in West Virginia," Einstein writes.

Apply for $8,000 education-reporting fellowships by Feb. 15

The Education Writers Association is inviting journalists to apply for its 2019 reporting fellowships to cover issues "focused on both the challenges and potential solutions to enhancing educational equity at the K-12 and higher education levels." Each fellow receives $8,000 for their project as well as other assistance. The application deadline is Feb. 15. Click here for more information.

The association is particularly interested in stories that address these topics:
  • The challenges facing low-income students in accessing higher education, and efforts to expand their opportunities.
  • Improving postsecondary education, with a focus on better serving disadvantaged students, as well as on under-resourced higher education institutions.
  • Increasing access to, and the quality of, STEM learning in higher education.
  • Improving the quality of teachers and school leaders (preparation, recruitment, development, etc.).
  • New models of schooling to rethink education, and innovative practices to boost achievement.
  • Developing new instructional materials and tools.
  • Enhancing parent/family engagement.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Op-ed: Rural America doesn't need to be saved

Jean Hardy
A wave of commentators and researchers have asked whether rural America can be "saved" from problems with everything from employment levels to broadband reach, but such publications often seem to fixate on outsiders' role in fixing rural areas and ignore what rural areas are doing to save themselves. So says a thoughtful CityLab op-ed from Jean Hardy, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan School of Information.

Hardy, who has spent the past four years researching how rural communities in Michigan and Wisconsin use modern technology to help earn a living, writes that rural businesses and economic developers have access to many tools to help their communities grow. "The insistence that no one out there knows how to solve problems of the rural economy is a false and misleading one. There are decades of research that have identified paths forward that rural communities are already following and flourishing on," Hardy writes. 

Rural areas might not have much money, but local pride and tight-knit communities go a long way toward helping rural youth succeed, Hardy writes. "We treat rural communities as if they are just behind the times and waiting to catch up. When we turn to emerging American supercities as bastions of the future, we lose what we can learn from rural communities."

Escaped rodeo cow evades capture in and around Anchorage

A jogger spotted Betsy on the Tour of Anchorage Trail on Dec. 26. (Photo by Meg Kurtagh)
Anchorage, Alaska, is no stranger to wandering ruminants; after all, moose wander throughout town frequently. But an escaped rodeo cow is another matter altogether.

A wily 3-year-old cow has been roaming free in Anchorage and in the wilderness beyond for more than six months, and nobody has been able to catch her since, despite concerted efforts, Madeline McGee reports for the Anchorage Daily News.

Anchorage police have been searching for the elusive cow using drones with infrared cameras; Sgt. Mark Huelskoetter, who leads the Technical Support Unit for the department's SWAT team, figured it was good practice.

"It’s a good training opportunity for our guys, since we’re going to be training anyway, to maybe get something good out of this — find this dude’s cow," Huelskoetter told McGee.

Colleges work to address rural students' unique challenges

About a third of U.S. college students are from rural areas, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and many must overcome a host of challenges in order to succeed in college. Some colleges are trying to help rural students do just that.

For example, some might come from a high school that doesn't have enough staff to adequately advise all graduating students on college preparedness. Some may come from families where no one else has a diploma and can serve as a role model or source of information about applying to college or getting financial aid, Leigh Guidry reports for the Lafayette Daily Advertiser in Louisiana.

About 59 percent of rural high school grads go straight to college, compared to 67 percent of suburban teens and 62 percent of urban teens. And not all rural students who go to college stick it out: fewer than a fifth of rural adults age 25 and up have a degree. In many rural areas, college enrollment rates have remained lower because high school grads were able to get high-paying jobs in oil, gas, coal, farming, or other industries. But that isn't the case any more, and more rural teens are becoming interested in college, Guidry reports.

Some rural high school grads who do go to college may fail to thrive there because of culture shock. Stewart Lockett of New Iberia, La., told Guidry that attending Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge was very different from his home town: "The climate and voice was different ... and there was the exposure to a lot of things not in high school, like nontraditional students. That includes transgender students, veterans, older students."

Northwestern State University in Louisiana is one of many colleges trying to smooth such transitions for rural students. The enrollment management office has a team of 10 recruiters who seek out students from rural schools. They also offer a summer camp to teach rural teens about university recruiting and admissions, financial aid, potential majors, and student support staff, Guidry reports.

New report shows rural-urban divide in speed-related traffic fatalities

GHSA chart; click to enlarge it
A new report from the Governors Highway Safety Association quantifies rural-urban differences in speed-related car crash deaths. Here are some of the highlights from Speeding Away from Zero: Rethinking a Forgotten Traffic Safety Challenge:

  • Speeding-related traffic fatalities account for about a third of all U.S. road deaths. In 2017 there were 9,717 speeding-related fatalities in the U.S. 
  • Speeding fatalities are associated with behaviors such as driving under the influence, not using a seatbelt, driving conditions, and the way the road is built/maintained.
  • Curvy roads--which are more common in rural areas--are a frequent factor in speeding-related crashes. A higher percentage of fatal curve-related crashes happen on rural roads.
  • Fatal speeding-related crashes happen most often on non-interstate roads in both rural and urban areas, but total fatality rates on rural roads are more than twice that of urban roads. 
  • Non-interstate rural roads have the highest incidence of speeding-related fatalities, which could be because of several factors: higher incidence of curved roads, higher speed limits, longer distances to drive with less traffic, less traffic enforcement, fewer traffic calming features (such as rumble strips), and fewer pedestrians and bicyclists. 
  • In 2016 there were 5,013 speeding related fatalities on all rural roadways compared to 4,660 on urban roadways (interstate and non-interstate).

Some Farm Service Agency offices reopened for three days

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has temporarily reopened almost half of the nation's Farm Service Agency offices to perform limited services for three days: today, tomorrow, and Tuesday, Jan. 22. The offices will be closed on Jan. 21 for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

About 2,500 workers have been recalled to process payments on existing loans, provide tax documents, and a few other services deemed necessary. Offices won't be able to process new loans or trade aid applications, or dispense hurricane or wildlife relief. Click here for a list of services available, and click here for a list of reopened offices.

The move could provide some relief to farmers hurt by the shutdown, but farmers still face difficulties without access to the full scope of services offered by FSA offices. "With growing season just months away, the closure of FSA offices and other USDA programs is threatening some farmers’ ability to buy seeds, land and fertilizer in time to plant many of their crops this year," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico. "Without access to the more than 2,100 FSA offices dotting the country, farmers and ranchers can’t discuss financing options for buying land or read monthly market reports that influence planting decisions, for example."

Between Dec. 21 and Jan. 3 the USDA dispensed $2.78 billion in aid to farmers hurt by the trade war with China. About $4.4 billion in aid is still available to farmers, but farmers have no way to access it until the shutdown ends, McCrimmon reports.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

A social media campaign rallied kidnapped teen's hometown

After teen Jayme Closs was kidnapped and her parents murdered three months ago, her small town home of Barron, Wisconsin, was devastated. But three women, total strangers, came together to run a non-stop social media campaign to keep the town updated on Jayme's case, raise money for her family, and keep Jayme's picture in the minds of locals so they could search for her. Watch the CBS News story here.

Op-eds say partial shutdown of federal government hurts rural areas and small towns that can least afford it

The federal shutdown is hurting rural people who can least afford it, writes Jim King in an op-ed for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky. King is the president of Fahe, a collaboration of nonprofit organizations working to eliminate poverty in Appalachia.

The shutdown is having a big impact on wage earning, food and housing for people all over America. But "in places such as Appalachia that are dominated by small and rural towns, a shutdown is potentially devastating. Federal and related agencies are an important source of liquidity so the shutdown means a lack of finance flowing in our region. This coupled with years of disinvestment adds instability to families and communities that are already struggling," King writes.

The shutdown isn't helping the growing town of Estes Park, Colorado, either, writes mountain climber Kelly Cordes in an op-ed for The New York Times. Though it was once only a summer town that catered to tourists heading for Rocky Mountain National Park, in recent years the town has been able to build a sustainable year-round economy. "But now, with so many locals having banked on a small but steady stream of income tied in various ways to the park — the fourth most visited national park in 2017, with 4.4 million visitors — the government shutdown has upended the economy of this town and created apprehension and uncertainty," Cordes writes.

Rural areas running short of ambulance drivers

Many rural areas rely on volunteers to man ambulances and run emergency medical services, but sometimes that's not enough. "Today, that system faces collapse. As these communities become grayer and less populated, there are fewer people left to drive ambulances, and fewer people left to pay the taxes that keep the ambulances in service," Nathan Kohrman reports for The New Yorker.

Sometimes EMTs from nearby towns have to come help counties with no ambulance service, meaning sometimes dangerously long waits and rides for patients and medics who are stretched too thin. "We’re facing a crisis in rural America. Someone needs to do some planning or one day we’re going to call 9-1-1 and nobody’s going to come," said Andy Gienapp, director of the Wyoming Office of Emergency Medical Services.

The modern era of emergency transport services began in 1973 when Congress passed the EMS Systems Act, giving states more than $150 million to create or improve their emergency medical service systems. When President Reagan stripped EMS money from the federal budget in 1981, emergency services in many rural areas were only able to limp along with volunteers or by pooling resources with local volunteer fire departments, and some rural areas had to shutter their emergency services, Kohrman reports.

Dia Gainor, the executive director of the National Association of State EMS Officials, said better federal funding would be a big help for rural emergency services. "Fire departments get the love because of community insurance ratings," Gainor told Kohrman, since it's cheaper for people to insure their homes in rural towns with fire stations.

Gienapp agreed that better federal funding would help augment state and local funding. "Do we have a right to an ambulance within five minutes of our home? Within forty minutes? The answer isn’t going to make everybody happy. Cities are going to have to help write the checks, and they can’t just say, 'Tough nuts, hillbillies,'" Gienapp told Kohrman.

Structural changes could also help: "Congress could let rural ambulances make more money by billing for the care they provide. It could legislate higher reimbursement rates for Medicaid and Medicare, the way it did with the Critical Access Hospital program, which has helped rural hospitals increase their revenue," Kohrman reports. "Federal lawmakers could also establish grants to help fund EMS volunteers and full-time medics, and commission national-scale research on EMS. In states that have not expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, lawmakers could vote to do so."

Report: Clean energy jobs fuel rural Midwestern economy

Natural Resources Defense Council chart; click the image to enlarge it.

A newly published report says that clean energy is a major source of jobs in the rural Midwest, far more so than fossil fuels jobs in most states, according to a report produced by environmental nonprofit the Natural Resources Defense Council using numbers from a research firm that collected the data for the Department of Energy’s U.S. Energy and Employment Report."

"Clean energy jobs outnumber the combined jobs in oil, gas and coal jobs in rural communities within the twelve-state region the study included, according to the study, Clean Energy Sweeps Across Rural America," Bryce Oates reports for The Daily Yonder. "Only two states, North Dakota and Kansas, have more fossil fuel workers than clean energy workers."

The growth rate of rural clean energy jobs in the region is generally also far higher than economy-wide job growth in rural areas, and slightly higher than the growth rate of clean energy jobs in urban areas, the report found. Jobs related to solar power (including installation, sales and servicing) are more than 45 percent of renewable energy jobs in the Midwest, according to the report. But wind energy is the big winner in rural clean energy jobs, with 99 percent of existing wind capacity in rural communities, Oates reports.

Not only does wind power provide jobs and power millions of homes, but it also gives rural counties a significant bump in tax revenue. Oates writes, "Farmers and landowners earn significant income from leasing land for wind farms, approximately $245 million nationally, the report says. Within the study’s 12-state region, Iowa, Illinois, and Kansas receive more than $10 million annually from wind leases. Landowners in North Dakota, Minnesota, and Indiana receive between $5 million and $10 million."
Federal programs have been instrumental in the growth of the clean energy industry, including tax credits to offset tax liabilities, grants and loans for installing clean energy projects and funding for developing and improving power lines and smart grids, Oates reports.

FDA bringing back furloughed workers without pay to resume some inspections for high-risk foods

The Food and Drug Administration has ordered about 150 unpaid workers to resume inspections of high-risk foods such as infant formula, cheese, and some fresh produce. Most food has gone without inspection since the partial federal government shutdown began Dec. 22, Maggie Fox reports for NBC News.

The agency employs about 5,000 inspectors who make about 160 inspections per month. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the agency will resume inspections by early next week of some medical products whose inspections were halted by the shutdown. Some inspections are paid for through industry user fees, and those were never halted, Fox reports.

U.S. lettuce growers are desperate to have FDA inspectors back on the job, since American-grown romaine lettuce contaminated with E. coli bacteria caused three separate foodborne-illness outbreaks in 2018. The biggest one, in March, sickened 2010 people and led to five deaths, Joel Achenbach reports for The Washington Post.

"During the shutdown, the FDA isn’t allowed to participate in conference calls or webinars with state officials, industry leaders and research scientists, said Jennifer McEntire, vice president for food safety at United Fresh Produce Association. She said the lack of FDA help has had a 'ripple effect' as outside experts are forced to try to do their work without FDA data," Achenbach reports.

The FDA told the Post that the resumed high-risk inspections could include leafy greens, Achenbach reports, but the agency has provided few details about what it's doing during the shutdown.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Federal judge nixes Census citizenship question; could help some rural areas get a higher count and more federal funds

On Tuesday a federal judge in New York ordered the Census Bureau to remove a question added last year to the 2020 census form that would ask whether the respondent is a American citizen. The issue could have big implications for states and communities with a large Latino population, such as agricultural communities.

Federal and state money is often apportioned by census data, and Census Bureau research suggests that a citizenship question could scare even legal noncitizens away from participating, leading those areas to be undercounted and underfunded, Hansi Lo Wang reports for NPR. Rural areas are already at risk of being undercounted because of the the Census Bureau's move to a largely online survey.

Though District Judge Jesse Furman ruled on two combined cases, "the administration is fighting five more lawsuits across the country filed by dozens of states, cities and other groups that want the question removed. A second trial over the question began earlier this month in California, and another is scheduled to begin in Maryland on Jan. 22," Wang reports.

The Supreme Court has already agreed to settle a dispute about what kind of evidence can be used in the lawsuits and whether Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, can be asked under oath why he allowed the question to be added, Wang reports.

Survey puts numbers on rural seniors' transportation issue

A recent survey confirmed that rural seniors who can no longer drive face significant obstacles in finding transportation, which can limit their ability to stay in their homes as they age.

"A survey by the National Aging and Disability Transportation Center found that 68 percent of adults 60 and older who they polled this fall said it would be hard to find alternative transportation options if they needed to stop driving," Laura Maggi reports for Route Fifty. "The poll also included younger disabled people, who said they would struggle even more, with 80 percent responding that it would be difficult to find other alternatives."

Most rural areas have two major problems when it comes to transportation: too many people don't know about public transit or other available options, and sometimes there just aren't enough transportation options to augment public transit, broadly defined, Maggi reports.

"Only 15 percent of the 509 older adults who were polled between Oct. 19 and Nov. 5—which included both phone and online respondents—reported using public transportation and even fewer used special services like paratransit or a volunteer ride agency," Maggi reports. "Transit use was higher among younger people with disabilities, with about a third of the 513 respondents saying they used public transportation."

Even a small state like Massachusetts is having a hard time providing public transit for rural areas where seniors are a key demographic. The state has 15 regional transit agencies, but some rural areas still don't have access to public transportation, or can only access it on weekdays, Adam Vaccaro reports for The Boston Globe. The state legislature provided more funding for bus services last year, but the regional agencies still have to apply for the money and show why they need it. Some proposed solutions include better broadband access so seniors can use ride-hailing services like Uber, a "micro-transit" service that blends ride-hailing services and smaller transit vehicles like shuttle buses to create flexible routes that change with passenger demand, Vaccaro reports.

Trump order to prevent wildfires may not help much, and would increase logging on public land

President Trump's recent executive order, meant to prevent wildfires, would dramatically increase logging on public land, Sara Sorcher reports for The Washington Post.

The order, issued the Friday before Christmas, "instructs the secretaries of agriculture and interior to consider harvesting a total of 4.4 billion board feet of timber from forest land managed by their agencies on millions of acres, and put it up for sale. The order would translate into a 31percent increase in forest service logging since 2017," Darryl Fears and Juliet Eilperin report in another story for the Post. "In addition to removing trees, Trump asked his secretaries to remove forest brush and debris that help fuel fires from more than 4 million acres and treat another 1.5 million acres to control tree-destroying pests."

Some experts say such actions won't help very much. Jennifer Balch, a fire ecologist and professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Sorcher in an email that, while treating federal forests near homes is sensible, it won't help with the huge wildfires out West. Hot and dry weather is the biggest problem, she said, and that problem will continue to get worse in the future.

The Trump administration wants the logging to continue even though the U.S. Forest Service is closed for the duration of the federal shutdown and can't do the more effective work of clearing the dry brush that helps wildfires spread, Sorcher notes.

Thousands face eviction after HUD contracts not renewed

National Low Income Housing Coalition map; click the image to enlarge it.
Affordable-housing advocates say thousands of low-income Americans could be evicted because of the partial shutdown of the federal government.

"Since the shutdown began last month, approximately 1,150 federal rental assistance contracts have not been renewed due to funding lapses at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
These lapses impact Project-Based Rental Assistance agreements between private property owners and the federal government," Brakkton Booker reports for NPR. "These landlords are contracted to house low and very low-income residents. The property owner charges tenants modest rents and HUD kicks in subsidies to make up the difference." HUD housing contracts cover about 1.2 million low-income families in both rural and urban areas.

Five hundred more HUD contracts will expire by the end of January, and another 550 will expire by the end of February. HUD asked property owners to take some of the financial burden in a letter earlier this month, urging landlords to use their savings to cover federal funding shortfalls so tenants wouldn't have to be evicted, Booker reports.

Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told Booker that "Eventually these owners will have to resort to either significant rent hikes or evictions of these lowest-income renters."

Rural areas of the U.S. were already facing an affordable housing crisis before the shutdown. Hundreds of thousands of homes could age out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Section 515 Rural Rental Housing program unless the USDA pays to repair and update those properties.

More women lead cattle ranches as men leave family farms

Caitlyn Taussig mends fences in Kremmling, Colorado (New York Times photo by Amanda Lucier)
Though the archetypal Western rancher is a John Wayne-type male, these days "as mechanization and technology transform the ranching industry, making the job of cowboy less about physical strength — though female ranchers have that in spades — and more about business, animal husbandry and the environment, women have reclaimed their connection to the land," Amy Chozick reports for The New York Times.

Increasingly, men who would have inherited family farms and ranches have been lured away by more profitable and less physical work, leaving women to either run the family business or sell. About 11 percent of the nation's nearly 730,000 cattle ranches are run by women, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (which may need to change its name before too long). That number could continue increasing, since the age of the average beef cattle rancher is 58 years, 91 percent of cattle farms are family-owned, and more than half of those ranches are expected to change hands in the next 20 years, Chozick reports.

Because these ranching women often don't feel like they fit the mold of what a rancher should look like, some say they feel more empowered to do things differently. "Women are leading the trend of sustainable ranching and raising grass-fed breeds of cattle in humane, ecological ways," Chozick reports.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Farm Bureau president voices support for Trump trade war, but warns that farmers are hurting; Iowa journalist agrees

On Sunday the leader of America's largest farm lobby expressed support for President Trump's trade war with China, but said farmers are having a rough time and warned that such support might not last forever, Chuck Abbott reports for Successful Farming.

"We’re with you, Mr. President," said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, as the group opened its convention in New Orleans. But he added a caveat: "The runaway of our patience is going to be determined by the financial situation of our farms. We went into the battle very weak."

That attitude was reflected much more sharply today in a New York Times column by Robert Leonard, news director of KNIA in Knoxville, Iowa. Noting that Trump will speak to the convention, he writes, "any promises of help will be too late for many farmers. Had he set out to ruin America’s small farmers, he could hardly have come up with a more effective, potentially ruinous one-two combination punch than tariffs and the shutdown."

Senate Agriculture Committee chair Pat Roberts, who spoke after Duvall, suggested that the U.S. should trade with China while negotiating to decrease or end China's unfair trading practices and intellectual piracy. Abbott reports. Trump is scheduled to speak Tuesday.

Abbott notes, "Farm and rural voters were key to Trump’s election in 2016 and he remains highly popular in rural America. He scored a sky-high 76 percent approval rating in late December, just before the partial government shutdown, in a straw poll of producers by Farm JournalBy contrast, Trump has an approval rating of 41 percent in a tracking poll maintained by the analytical site FiveThirtyEight."

Duvall said 2018 was a "terrible year" for farmers, citing hurricanes, wildfires, lost income from the trade war, a farm-labor shortage and low commodity prices. And though farm income is about half the record high set in 2013, "the year was a success as far as federal policy, he said, with tax cuts for farmers and ranchers, regulatory relief, passage of a five-year farm law that modestly strengthens the safety net and administration promises to begin year round sales this summer of E15, a 15-percent blend of corn ethanol into gasoline," Abbott reports.

Leonard writes, "Most rural American farms are not big corporate operations. The most recent available farm census data, from 2012, shows that Iowa has nearly 89,000 farms, and 57 percent are small farms under 180 acres. Generally, to make a living on farm income, operations of at least 225 to 750 acres or more are needed. Of the farmers that Mr. Trump’s tariffs and shutdown are hurting, about 80 percent are family businesses. So 'big ag' — the only farmers with the capital to survive over the long term — profits from the blundering crisis. If and when small farmers fail, larger operations can swoop in and buy up the land at fire sale prices. The large seed and other input companies would rather deliver product to one farm in a township than 27."

WVU gets grant for program to find and train potential new owners for rural newspapers that have no good successor

A foundation that focuses on West Virginia and adjoining regions has given West Virginia University a $125,000 grant to help rural and community journalism in the state by creating a pipeline to develop new owners of for community newspapers, some of whose aging owners have delayed retirement because they can't find a suitable buyer and don't want the paper to fold.

The grant from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, augmented by the WVU Foundation, will support a partnership between the Reed College of Media and the West Virginia Press Association "to recruit, develop and train the next generation of independent community newspaper owners," and help current publishers get their papers ready to sell, WVU says.

The idea developed after WVPA Executive Director Don Smith told College Dean Maryanne Reed that he had received many phone calls from long-time owners looking for someone to take over, Mark Jurkowitz wrote last year for Nieman Lab. The college hopes to launch the program this fall.

The three-year program aims to facilitate smooth transfers of ownership so newspapers can remain a strong presence in their communities, and will enroll potential new owners in a year-long fellowship at the college to help them learn more modern ways to run a newspaper. That includes learning about digital media, new funding models for media, and an internship at a West Virginia newspaper to learn about the everyday business of running a small, local paper.

Sunday comic encapsulates why local news media matter

Yesterday's Pearls Before Swine by Stephen Pastis shows, in nine panels and fewer than 100 words why supporting independent, investigative journalism at the local level matters:

Rural colleges making big changes to stay afloat; students ask, 'What's a university without a major in history?'

UW-Stevens Point was founded as a teachers' college in 1894.
Many public universities in smaller towns are in crisis mode as enrollment and state funding continue to drop, and it doesn't look like those trends will improve any time soon. Administrators at such colleges are making drastic changes to combat the downturn, including slashing staff, changing up majors, appealing more to adults looking to switch careers, and merging satellite programs and even campuses, Mitch Smith reports for The New York Times.

The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, near the geographic center of the state, is his object example. For 125 years the university has been a reputable, relatively inexpensive way for rural residents to get a degree and improve their lives, but declining enrollment and state funding have prompted university administrators to revamp the college's offerings, eliminating classical liberal arts degrees like history and French and investing more in career-focused programs. "But critics say that in trying to carve out a sustainable path for Stevens Point — and build a model for other struggling, regionally focused universities — administrators are risking the very essence of a four-year college experience," Smith reports.

Advances in transportation technology are part of the reason rural colleges struggle. "Most universities were founded generations ago, when rural communities were thriving and when traveling across a state to a larger urban campus was more complicated," Smith reports. "As people moved toward cities and the Sun Belt, and as cars and planes connected the country, many rural universities have fallen on hard times."

Rural private colleges, as well as public and private historically black institutions, are also hurting. Without the cushion provided by state funding, the trends that pressure public universities are more likely to cause private schools to close, like St. Catharine College in Kentucky and Dana College in Nebraska.