Saturday, January 26, 2019

Howard to do film on Camp Fire, promises cautionary tale; Netflix has $45 million for his adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy

Ron Howard
Director Ron Howard will make a documentary film about the catastrophic fire that nearly obliterated the Northern California town of Paradise in November, reports Gregg Kilday of The Hollywood Reporter.

The film will follow the rebuilding efforts of the Sierra Nevada foothills community, where Howard's mother-in-law and 26,000 other people once lived. He "has relatives in nearby Redding, visited the town in December, viewing the destruction caused by the Nov. 8 Camp Fire," Kilday writes. Howard told the Paradise Post then, "You have to see it to really believe it. And you have to talk to the people to really feel the level of both the inspiration and, also, the struggle."

The film, tentatively titled "Rebuilding Paradise," promises "a microcosmic look at the growing global repercussions of climate change through a community destroyed by one of the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in U.S. history," Kilday reports.

Paradise in Butte County (Wikipedia)
"The people of Paradise lost everything in the blink of an eye," Howard said in a release from National Geographic Documentary Films. "The way in which the citizens are coming together to rebuild is beautiful and hopeful — but no one should have to live through this. Theirs is a cautionary tale about the impending effects of climate change and what it takes to restore the communities ravaged by it. Paradise could be any of us."

Meanwhile, Netflix won the "fierce bidding war' for Howard's film adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance's "critically revered account of growing up in the Rust Belt and a personal analysis of the white underclass, race and privilege in America," Lynette Rice of Deadline Hollywood reports. The book has been criticized for its use of Appalachian stereotypes. "Howard will direct while Vanessa Taylor,  co-writer of 'The Shape of Water,' will adapt" the book for the screen. "The idea is to shoot later this year but cast has yet to be set."

"Netflix is expected to fully finance the project, which could reportedly ring in at $45 million," Rice reports. That indicates the movie "could get a theatrical bow before it shows up on the streaming service," like "Roma," the Netflix feature that has been nominated for 10 Academy Awards.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Plan to cover hog-manure lagoons could spur biogas development, especially in North Carolina

A plan to cover hog-manure lagoons could generate new energy opportunities while reducing greenhouse gases, Greg Barnes reports for North Carolina Health News.

Smithfield, the world's largest hog producer, unveiled the plan last October, saying that it would install lagoon covers and anaerobic digesters on 90 percent of its hog-finishing farms in North Carolina, Missouri and Utah within the next 10 years. The covers will capture 85,000 tons of methane each year to convert it into biogas, Barnes reports.

"Smithfield spokeswoman Lisa Martin said the pork producer and Dominion Energy will pay for the infrastructure, including piping, transportation, gas cleaning and equipment to inject the gas into pipelines," Barnes reports. "Farmers will pay for the digesters and lagoon covers if they choose to participate, Martin said."

In North Carolina alone, the move could help bring 19,000 jobs per year through 2030, according to a 2016 report by the nonprofit American Jobs Project. Duke University has said it wants to use hog-sourced biofuel instead of natural gas to fuel its steam plants, Barnes reports.

North Carolina is the third-richest biogas resource state in the nation, "but some neighbors to big hog farms who have lived with odors and coped with the consequences of hog waste disposal for years say harvesting energy at these farms is not enough to decrease their environmental health impacts," Barnes reports. They want government and industry to ensure that changes made at concentrated animal feeding operations to produce bioenergy "also reduce risks of air, soil and water pollution."

Food banks see increased demand because of shutdown

Food pantries all over the nation are seeing increased demand because of the season and the partial federal shutdown. That's an ominous sign for how the nation's most food insecure will fare if the shutdown continues and money runs out of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Mary Meehan reports for Ohio Valley Resource.

Not all the increased demand at food pantries is from SNAP recipients though; some is from furloughed federal employees who are having a hard time making ends meet after a month without pay, according to Mike Halligan, CEO of God's Pantry Food Bank in Lexington, Kentucky. "Wintertime is one of the greatest risks for people who are food insecure," Halligan told Meehan. "Electricity costs increase because you are lighting your home for more waking hours in the day. When kids aren’t in school because school is closed for weather or over a holiday, that food budget actually gets stretched further."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave SNAP recipients their February allotments early, on Jan. 20, as a legal workaround during the shutdown. The program is fully funded through February, but only has enough money in reserve to pay part of March's benefits for the nation's 3.86 million SNAP recipients, Chuck Abbott reports for Successful Farming.

Food pantries won't be able to provide enough help for the hungry if SNAP runs out, Halligan warned. "For every one meal that a food bank is able to distribute, SNAP provides 12," he told Meehan. "There’s no way that food banks and private support and other sources of public support can replace SNAP. There just aren’t enough resources to provide 12 times what the food bank distributes if SNAP stops."

Wisconsin project works with farmers to reduce phosphorus runoff, hopefully reducing Great Lakes algae blooms

A four-year pilot project near Green Bay, Wisconsin, is trying to see if farmers can reduce phosphorus runoff while still remaining profitable. It's an important question because phosphorus, an ingredient in  fertilizers, triggers algae blooms in lakes, rivers and oceans that sicken people, kill animals, and hurt tourism.

"The Silver Creek Pilot Project began downstream, at the treatment plant handling the city of Green Bay’s wastewater. The state of Wisconsin told the Metropolitan Sewerage District — known as NEW Water — that it must cut back drastically on the phosphorus in the effluent it discharges into the bay," Stephanie Hemphill reports for Ensia, a non-profit climate news organization. "A 2012 state plan requires industries in the watershed to cut their phosphorus by about half. That plan also calculated that farms in the watershed contributed almost half of the nearly 275 tons (250 metric tons) of phosphorus entering the bay each year."

The treatment plan would normally have responded to the state's new mandate by spending $100 million in added filtering, but that wouldn't have addressed the overall problem, said Erin Houghton, NEW Water's watershed specialist. Instead, the district decided to work with other stakeholders to help farmers reduce their phosphorus runoff, Hemphill reports. 

Popular methods of reducing phosphorus runoff include using cover crops, low-till or no-till farming, using lands that are prone to erosion for rotational grazing instead of row crops, and planting buffer zones of grass or perennials along streams. "The problem is, all these methods work differently depending on soil conditions, crop type, climate and weather. There are many variables, and few controlled studies, so researchers have been unable to pinpoint with confidence how well they work," Hemphill reports. The project aims to get solid data on which methods work best in which kinds of conditions.

NEW Water is mostly paying for the project with a $1.67 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency's Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The Oneida Nation is a major partner in the project, since the creek lies within its land and it owns more than half of the land involved in the project, which it leases to many non-Oneida farmers, Hemphill reports. Other partners include: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Wisconsin Green Bay, the Brown County and Outagamie County Land and Water Conservation Departments, The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and some private agronomists.

USDA official says farmers have gotten far less in trade aid than originally expected

A senior U.S. Department of Agriculture official said on the Adams on Agriculture program Thursday that American farmers hurting from the trade war with China may get significantly less in aid than originally expected. Agriculture Undersecretary Bill Northey said a little more than $5 billion was paid out by the beginning of January, though the administration expected to pay out $8 billion, Chuck Abbott reports for Successful Farming.

"Northey did not provide details nor was a USDA spokesman immediately available to say why the figure differed from the USDA’s earlier estimate that up to $9.6 billion in cash would go to producers of almonds, cotton, corn, dairy, pork, soybeans, sorghum, sweet cherries, and wheat," Abbott reports. "Soybean growers, hit hard by the loss of sales to China, were in line for $7.3 billion." The USDA has also said it would pay farmers $1.2 billion for food to donate and give $200 million to agriculture export groups to promote trade.

The aid payments, administered through the Market Facilitation Program, are limited to $125,000 for producers of grain, livestock, fruit, and nut producers, and are not available to those who make more than $900,000 a year, Abbott reports.

The vanishing grave houses of Appalachia

In pioneer days, settlers' burials were often hasty affairs, but as time went on Appalachians developed and adapted burial customs that reflected their values and the realities of the terrain around them.

"I remember reading about a someone who had to carry a coffin up a steep mountain," Hope Thompson writes for Candid Slice, a digital storytelling blog based in Raleigh, N.C. "When he finally arrived at the top, he stated, 'If John don’t make it to heaven, it ain’t my fault! I’ve already carried him halfway there.' Burials on top of mountains and high places provided comfort to the family that water would not seep into the grave and disturb the departed. Most communities never willingly chose areas that were subject to periodic flooding or standing water. It also served as a symbolic gesture that our loved ones were closer to heaven and even better if the burial site was facing the east to have a better view of the coming Resurrection."

Click here for a fascinating look back at how these rural residents honored their loved ones.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Analysis: EPA's civil penalties for polluters dropped 'dramatically' in Trump's first two years

A new analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data shows that, under the two years of the Trump administration, civil penalties for polluters have fallen to the lowest average level since the EPA enforcement office was created in 1994.

"In the two decades before President Trump took office, EPA civil fines averaged more than $500 million a year, when adjusted for inflation. Last year’s $72 million in fines was 85 percent below that amount, according to the agency’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online database," Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report for The Washington Post.

Stiff penalties encourage companies to comply with the law, but if they're too cheap or not frequently imposed, companies could figure it's cheaper to break the law and pay the fine. Administration officials have said that, instead of focusing on penalties, they prefer to work with companies to prevent them from polluting in the first place, Eilperin and Dennis report.

One reason for fewer penalties could be that it's now easier for companies to meet standards. The analysis "shows that in addition to the drop in civil penalties for polluting, the amount of money companies must pay to come into compliance with federal environmental laws also declined last fiscal year, to nearly $5.6 billion," Eilperin and Dennis report. "That represents the lowest amount of injunctive relief since 2003, in inflation-adjusted dollars, and is below the roughly $7.8 billion average for the two decades before Trump took office."

Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said at his confirmation hearing last week that the agency wasn't going easier on polluters, and EPA opened more criminal enforcement cases in 2018 than in 2017. EPA officials told the Post said they could not disclose the exact figures for recent civil and criminal penalties until after the partial government shutdown ends.

Supreme Court agrees to hear newspaper lawsuit over releasing SNAP (food stamps) income for grocers

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to rule whether the Department of Agriculture must reveal how much money grocers, gas stations and other retailers get from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, often known by its old name, food stamps.

The Sioux Falls Argus Leader filed suit in 2011 against the Food Marketing Institute, a retail trade lobby that argued such figures should be confidential records because their release would harm businesses' ability to compete with other retailers if released. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that the figures should be public, but FMI persuaded a majority of Supreme Court justices to review that ruling, arguing that the Freedom of Information Act contains exemptions for some types of information, Jonathan Ellis reports for the Argus Leader.

"The exemption at issue in the FMI/Argus Leader case – exemption 4 – concerns sensitive trade secrets or confidential business records that, if released, would cause substantial competitive harm," Ellis reports. "FMI argues that businesses should decide what constitutes confidential information, and that lower courts have issued conflicting rulings about exemption 4." The Argus Leader has maintained that it wants records of taxpayer payments and not confidential business records.

Shutdown puts rural bus systems and riders in dire straits

The partial federal-government shutdown, now the longest in U.S. history at 34 days, is prompting some rural, small-town and mid-size public transit systems to reduce services and consider furloughs or shuttering completely.

"The trauma for crucial transportation lifelines in rural or small-town America, including in states President Donald Trump won in 2016, underscores the damage the 34-day shutdown is inflicting hundreds or thousands of miles from Washington, D.C.," Tanya Snyder reports for Politico. "While the loss of federal dollars is hitting transit systems large and small, including those inside the Beltway, the most vulnerable agencies are those that don’t get significant state support. And their riders are primarily low-income seniors, people with disabilities and veterans."

One operator told Snyder it might be easier to close down entirely until the shutdown ends, rather than closing some routes. Picking routes to close could provoke complaints under civil-rights laws or the Americans with Disabilities Act, he said. But even if a bus system closes for the duration of the shutdown, it must continue to pay some expenses, such as insurance premiums and utility bills. 

Another bus-system administrator voiced fears that, if furloughed drivers start quitting, it could be difficult to hire more, since they'd need to pass a drug screening and an extensive background check and have a commercial license. Also, if routes close temporarily, bus riders might find another way to get where they need to go and won't keep riding the bus after it resumes service, Snyder reports.

"Transit agencies are accustomed to continuing resolutions and short lapses in federal funding," Snyder reports. The Federal Transit Administration "normally waits until it has four or five months of funding before it begins to distribute it to states and transit agencies. But agency heads worry that even if a deal were reached today, it could take months to process all the funding requests from all 50 states that have languished for a month."

Getting black-lung benefits a daunting task for coal miners

Black-lung claims by total received since July 1, 1973, including terminated, non-approved claims and Medical Benefits Only claims. (Ohio Valley Resource map; click the image to enlarge it)
Black-lung disease is common among coal miners, with one in 10 nationwide suffering some form of it. The disease hit a 25-year high in Central Appalachia last year, where one in five suffer from it. But accessing federal benefits for the sometimes debilitating and deadly disease can be difficult, often taking years of fighting through bureaucracy, Sydney Boles reports for Ohio Valley Resource.

"The black lung benefits process is really adversarial," Evan Smith, an AppalReD Legal Aid attorney who represents miners and widows in black-lung litigation, told Boles. "For people who just kind of file a claim and think they can figure out the system on their own, sadly, they’re really at a disadvantage."

Applying for benefits is a task mostly left to the wives of coal miners who died (or are dying) from black lung disease. The time-consuming process can be daunting and prohibitively expensive for women often struggling financially without their spouse's income, Boles reports.

Black-lung claims are often denied because the miner's lung damage was ruled to have been caused by smoking, or the miner died from another primary cause such as a heart attack, or the miner's blood oxygen level isn't quite low enough to qualify, Boles reports. That's despite a recent investigation NPR and the PBS program Frontline which found that federal regulators failed to protect coal miners from black lung, despite many warnings.

But even before an official diagnosis, black lung can effectively cripple miners living with the disease. As part of their investigation, NPR and PBS interviewed dozens of sufferers in Central Appalachia and heard about how black lung has changed their lives. "I can't follow a hound through the mountains nowadays. I had to give all that up," said Paul Kinder of Honaker, Va. "The old saying goes, you lay down with dogs, you get up with fleas. And if you work in the coal mines, you're going to get black lung."

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

New Tenn. governor orders agencies to assess impact on distressed rural counties, suggest ways to serve them better

Gov. Bill Lee, right, succeeded Bill Haslam. (Tennessean photo)
In his first executive order, Tennessee's new governor has ordered all 22 executive-branch departments to assess their impact on distressed rural counties, "along with recommendations on how they will accelerate plans to serve rural Tennesseans better," Andy Sher reports for the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Bill Lee, Tennessee's first Republican governor to succeed another Republican, pledged in his campaign "to step up state efforts to focus on the state's 15 economically distressed rural counties" as defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission, Sher reports.

"My administration will place a high emphasis on the development and success of our rural areas," said Lee, a businessman who took office Saturday. "Our first executive order sends a clear message that rural areas will be prioritized across all departments as we work to improve coordination in our efforts."

The order requires departments "to provide comprehensive descriptions of initiatives adopted or funded over the past four years to specifically address challenges unique to rural communities," Sher reports. "Lee wants departments to report back to him with the rural impact statements by May 31 with recommendations for service improvements due by June 30."

Organization aims to bring civility back to American politics

At a time where political tension is sky-high and rudeness in public discussion is almost the norm, one group is encouraging Americans to be more respectful of each other. The nonpartisan National Institute for Civil Discourse, based at the University of Arizona, urges elected officials and citizens to disagree with each other with civility, Katie Zezima reports for The Washington Post.

"It’s not the difference of opinion on policy that makes us bitter," NICD's executive director Keith Allred told Zezima, "but thinking they’re a bad person."

Gabrielle Giffords
NICD was created in 2011 after a shooting in Tucson killed six people and wounded 13, including then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. One NICD program, called "Next Generation," works with state legislators to show them how to work across the aisle. Another, "CommonSense American," educates voters on issues and on how to better engage with lawmakers and other citizens, Zezima reports.

"Polls show that Americans want to see a return to civility," Zezima reports. "Ninety-one percent of registered voters said the lack of civility in politics is a 'serious problem,' according to a 2018 Quinnipiac University poll. Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed in a Pew Research poll from July said it was 'essential' for people in high political offices to maintain a tone of civility and respect in politics."

Former Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle, a Democrat from South Dakota, is co-chair of the institute's board. NICD matters, he said, because Americans must be more civil to each other in disagreement if the country is to survive. "It's about keeping this republic," he told Zezima.

Closed and at-risk rural hospitals are more common in the 14 states that haven't expanded Medicaid

Rural hospitals all over America are struggling, but "closures and at-risk hospitals are heavily clustered in the 14 states that have not expanded" Medicaid under the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Michael Ollove reports for Stateline. "Those state decisions not to expand have deprived rural hospitals, which already operate with the slimmest of margins, of resources that could be the difference between survival and closure."

At least 95 rural hospitals have closed since 2010, according to the Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina. Another 600 or more are at risk of closing, "according to an oft-cited 2016 report by iVantage Health Analytics," Ollove notes. The center told Kentucky Health News that 35 to 38 percent of rural hospitals are losing money.

Medicaid has been expanded in 36 states and Washington, D.C. About 4 million more people would qualify if the program were expanded in the remaining states, according to a 2018 Kaiser Family Foundation analysis. That includes 1.2 million in Texas alone, and rural hospitals in Texas are especially endangered; 21 have closed in the past six years, leaving 160 still open. "An Urban Institute study in 2014 estimated that not expanding Medicaid would deprive Texas hospitals of $34.3 billion in federal reimbursements over 10 years," Ollove reports.

But expansion is not a silver bullet. It could "prop up inefficient and wasteful hospitals," said Michael Cannon, director of health policy studies at the Libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. And some rural hospitals could stay solvent if locals approve increased property taxes, Ollove reports. Moreover, rural America would still face many health care issues even if Medicaid were expanded in all states, since rural areas tend to have an older, sicker and less-insured populace.

USDA's Farm Service Agency offices to reopen despite federal shutdown, but not all services will be available

"The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday that it will reopen all Farm Service Agency offices nationwide, temporarily calling nearly 10,000 furloughed federal employees back to work even as the longest-ever government shutdown dragged on," Kevin Breuninger reports for CNBC.

The 9,700 employees will work without pay until the shutdown is over, starting Jan. 24. About 2,500 of them were called back to work last week after the USDA reopened some FSA offices for three days only to provide what were deemed essential services. 

Without the FSA, farmers can't receive trade-war aid, apply for new aid, or get important information about financing options on possible new loans for land or equipment. Also, wildfire and hurricane relief can't be distributed.

Though the FSA offices open last week provided only a few services, offices will now offer an expanded (though not complete) list. The hours of operation could change if the shutdown goes long enough: "For the first two full weeks under this operating plan (Jan. 28 through Feb. 1 and Feb. 4-8), FSA offices will be open Mondays through Fridays. In subsequent weeks, offices will be open three days a week, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays if needed to provide the additional administrative services," USDA announced in a press release. It has also extended the deadline to apply for trade aid from Jan. 15 to Feb. 14. Click here for a full list of services that will be available.

Apple growers move to Honeycrisps for the money, despite the obstacles to growing them

Honeycrisp apples (Photo by Karolina Wojtasik, Bloomberg)
The popularity of an apple variety is making some farmers to go to extreme lengths to grow it.

It's called Honeycrisp. Its sweet taste and crisp texture are such a hit that it's now the fifth-most grown variety in the U.S. It's among the priciest, too: Honeycrisps are often twice or even three times as expensive as other varieties. But farmers who want to grow Honeycrisps, especially outside their original habitat of Minnesota, must deal with many obstacles, Deena Shanker and Lydia Mulvany report for Bloomberg. That's because, unlike most modern commercial varieties, Honeycrisps were bred for taste and texture instead of the ability to grow, store or ship well.

One problem is keeping the tree branches from growing too tall, too fast, so leaves don't block apples from getting sunlight. And the apples tend to get too big for consumers' tastes if not carefully tended, growers said. Another challenge: "The fruit is also vulnerable to bitter pit—small, sunken brown spots that sully an otherwise perfect orb. The flaw is a result of the trees’ inability to properly take up calcium from the soil. Growers are forced to spray their orchards with foliar calcium to boost their intake, but it’s not always enough," Shanker and Mulvaney report.

Harvesting and storage are also challenging because the fruits are so delicate. After all that work, only 55 to 60 percent of the fruit makes it to the store, Shanker and Mulvaney report. The higher cost of Honeycrisps is almost all absorbed by production costs; growers aren't taking home the extra. But growers are compelled to grow them, because they're so popular.

Meeting consumer demand isn't too hard for West Coast growers, especially in Washington state, but growers everywhere are hoping for an easier to cultivate apple variety that will match the Honeycrisp's popularity. Some contenders include the soon-to-hit-the-market Cosmic Crisp and the Opal.

More than 1,000 Kentucky farmers are licensed to grow hemp this year, up from 210 last year, thanks to Farm Bill

With hemp now distinguished from marijuana by federal law, in the latest Farm Bill, the rush is on to grow legal cannabis, under the watchful eye of state agriculture agencies.

The Kentucky Department of Agriculture announced that 1,115 farmers in the state applied to grow hemp and 1,035 were licensed. "That’s up from the 210 licensed growers in 2018 . . . leaving little doubt that the hemp hype has taken hold in the commonwealth," Don Wilkins writes for the Messenger-Inquirer in Owensboro,

“It exceeded expectations,” Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles said. “The enthusiasm for the crop continues to grow.” License holders must pass background checks and allow program staff and law enforcement to inspect premises where hemp or hemp products are grown, handled, stored or processed. Police agencies are notified of those locations.

Kentucky is expected have 42,000 acres in hemp this year, up from 16,000 last year. Wilkins reports, Until the Farm Bill cleared the way for commercialized industrial hemp, Kentucky had been part of a pilot program that limited the number of growers. Paul Glover, a 60-year-old third generation Hancock County farmer, was one of those pilot growers."

Glover told Wilkins that he welcomes more growers, but is concerned that processors could take advantage of farmers looking to diversify or move away from tobacco. The state now has fewer than 4,000 tobacco farmers.

“The whole thing with CBD oil is blowing up,” said Glover, who has been growing hemp and selling the oil for five years. “Everybody and their brother is trying to get in on this green rush to try to make money. There are a lot of unscrupulous processors and people out there who are promising the farmers that they’re going to make a gazillion dollars. It’s not quite as easy as sticking some plants into the ground and then going straight to the bank at the end of the season.”

Quarles said farmers and processors have a "learning period" ahead of them. "We hope our hemp participants take time to consider who to hitch their wagon to on the processing side," he said. "The market is literally being developed as we speak."

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Sunshine Week coming up March 10-16; organizers seek submissions for 'journalism wins' from 2018

Sunshine Week is March 10-16, and its organizers want to hear about especially useful open-government journalism done in 2018. That includes news stories that helped communities, good accountability work, election coverage, or anything you feel was an example of good journalism having a positive impact. Submit stories here.

The annual observance, led by the American Society of News Editors and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, celebrates the freedom of the press and how access to public information helps people. News outlets can participate by running free-for-use stories created by major news organizations just for the occasion, and attending or streaming conferences and webinars dedicated to relevant issues.

With public trust in the new media wavering, it's more important than ever for news organizations to remind the public why good journalism matters. 

Rural Midwestern bankers say they expect loan defaults to be their biggest challenge in 2019

The latest Rural Mainstreet Index found that economic growth in the rural Midwest is slowing, though still slightly above "growth neutral." Overall jobs are growing, but more slowly than in urban areas, and the farming sector is hurting because of the trade war with China and low crop prices, says Creighton University economist Ernie Goss, who compiles the index via a monthly survey of small-bank CEOs in a 10-state region where agriculture and energy are critical to the economy: Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.
Creighton University chart; click on the image to enlarge it.
Farmland prices rose slightly but remained below growth neutral for the 62nd month straight, home sales remained just under growth neutral, and retail property sales decreased but remained slightly above growth neutral. A plurality of bankers surveyed, 45.7 percent, said they would characterize the rural Midwest as having "little or no growth" while 31.4 percent said it was in a "modest economic downturn.

More than 4 in 10 of the bankers surveyed said they expect rising loan defaults to be their biggest economic challenge in 2019. The bankers' confidence index climbed slightly to 45.7 percent but still indicates a pessimistic outlook on the rural Midwestern economy for 2019.
Creighton University chart; click on the image to enlarge it.

Shutdown triggers rent hikes for low-income renters; landlords struggle to cover costs without subsidies

The partial federal shutdown, now a month old, is beginning to impact some low-income renters, many rural, who receive rental assistance through a U.S. Department of Agriculture program.

Property management company Tri-State Management sent letters this week to tenants in four states warning that, because of the shutdown, the government is no longer subsidizing their rent and that all tenants will be responsible for full-price rent as of Feb. 1. The letters went out to renters in 29 buildings with 758 units in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri and Mississippi, Arthur Delaney reports Huffington Post.

"If the shutdown continues into February, rent hikes and eviction threats will probably spread as more landlords get antsy. The letter follows a similar note that a different Arkansas landlord sent to 50 properties last week," Delaney reports. "Landlords have told HuffPost they will struggle to pay for staff and maintenance without the government’s portion of their rental income."

The federal government's biggest housing-subsidy programs, administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, help more than 3 million households and are funded through February. The USDA program supports 282,000 U.S. households, mostly elderly, and is funded through the end of January. HUD programs protect renters from rent hikes during a federal shutdown, but the USDA program offers no such protections, Delaney reports.

"But housing subsidy recipients do not have ironclad protection, according to a legal analysis the National Housing Law Project released Friday," Delaney reports. "While HUD’s regulation for landlords with Section 8 vouchers does not allow rent hikes or evictions if the government stops paying its share, it does allow them to evict tenants for 'business or economic reasons,' such as wanting to lease an apartment for higher rent."

Thousands of HUD renters also face eviction during the shutdown because of unrenewed contracts between landlords at the government.

MIT energy economist explains why coal won't bounce back

Coal-fired generation of electricity has declined by 40 percent in the U.S. over the past decade. Can coal make a comeback? No, says a thorough essay by Howard Gruenspecht, a senior energy economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative.

Though U.S.coal production and use in has fluctuated over the past 100 years, competition from low-priced natural gas, the increasing presence of renewable energy, and flat electricity sales mean that coal will almost certainly not make a comeback, Gruenspecht writes for the Brookings Institution.

Trump administration moves to revive coal have been largely symbolic, such as the plan to replace the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan for existing coal-fired power plants. The moves could slow coal's decline, and "could make future coal generation more responsive to any sharp rise in natural gas prices, posing a conundrum for those who support emissions reductions, but also oppose shale-gas development and the buildout of gas pipeline infrastructure," Gruenspecht writes.

The essay is a deep dive, and worth reading to understand the state of play. Click here to check it out.

Kentucky ups battle against Asian carp with online auctions

Asian carp
(Photo by Josh Mogerman)
A new program aimed at reducing populations of the invasive Asian carp kicked off on Jan. 1 in far western Kentucky. The program, a first-of-its-kind partnership between the state and fish processing company Two Rivers Fisheries, will pay anglers for Asian carp and sell the catches in online auctions, Chris Yu reports for WPSD-TV in Paducah.

The first few weeks have been productive: about 80,000 pounds of carp were brought in the first week, and 60,000 pounds on the second week. Two Rivers' goal is "to bring in 5 million pounds of Asian carp this year, 8 million pounds in 2020, 10 million pounds in 2021, 15 million pounds in 2022, and 20 million pounds each in 2023 and 2024," Yu reports. "Collectively, the goal is to remove 78 million pounds of Asian carp from Kentucky waters in six years." Two Rivers sells much of its product in China.

Keeping Asian carp populations down is critical, since the voracious and fast-multiplying species is known for overwhelming ecosystems by eating the food other fish would normally eat and crowding out competitors in the watershed of the Mississippi River and its tributaries, such as the Tennessee River.

Yu reports that Two Rivers makes it easier for commercial fishers to offload their catches by offering three drop-off locations, including a collection boat on Lake Barkley, an impoundment of the Cumberland River, which flows into the Ohio River several miles downstream. Not too much farther, the Ohio flows into the Mississippi at Wickliffe, site of the Two Rivers processing plant.

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Wall Street Journal shines a light on increasing problem of agriculture's pollution of wells and public water systems

Wall Street Journal chart, from USDA and USGS data
"Farms, More Productive Than Ever, Are Poisoning Drinking Water in Rural America." That's the headline on a big story in The Wall Street Journal, with this subhead: "One in seven Americans drink from private wells, which are being polluted by contaminants from manure and fertilizer."

Both produce nitrates, which rose significantly in 21 percent of the regions where the U.S. Geological Survey "tested groundwater from 2002 through 2012, compared with the 13 prior years," Jesse Newman and Patrick McGroarty report. "The greatest increases were in agricultural areas. More recent sampling shows the pattern is continuing, at a potentially greater rate."

The reporters add, "More than 16 percent of groundwater from wells sampled between 2002 and 2012 topped the federal nitrate limit of 10 parts per million, versus 12 percent in the 1990s. The percentage above the limit fell slightly in the wells sampled after 2013 but remained elevated."

The story comes on the heels of a Minneapolis StarTribune package exploring agriculture-related water-quality issues in the Upper Midwest. “The worst-kept secret is how vulnerable private wells are to agricultural runoff,” David Cwiertny, director of the University of Iowa’s Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, told the Journal.

The story also notes the problems for public water systems, which draw from streams and wells. "Runoff from fields is largely exempt from federal regulation," the reporters note. "Many water utilities in the Midwest are struggling to pay for flushing farm runoff from their systems, say scientists and utility managers."

The writers summarize, "Among factors producing contaminants: fewer, more-intensively worked farms, bigger cows and shifting crop mixes. Those factors have helped drive abundance in the U.S. farm economy. Corn and soybean harvests have hit records, as have pork, poultry and dairy production. Farmers and their supporters say America needs to balance environmental concerns with food security."

'Brain drain' from rural areas is driven by need for higher wages to pay off student loans, Federal Reserve finds

The "brain drain" of young people from rural areas is driven partly by higher wages in urban areas, according to research from the Federal Reserve System of banks. "College students from rural areas are moving to big cities for higher wages to help pay off their student loans," Kaveh Waddell reports for Axios.

"In the past, experts have explained this dynamic as a lifestyle choice. But in its new analysis, the Fed points to student loans as an additional factor in the gravitational pull away from rural areas," Waddell writes. "Researchers studied student borrowers, following their path across America for several years after they started paying back their loans." Their findings included:
  • About half of rural residents who took out student loans still lived in a rural area six years later, compared to two-thirds who had not taken out loans.
  • People with the most debt — those in the highest quartile of loan balances — were most likely to leave.
  • Those who did move to cities did better financially. They were employed at higher rates and earned considerably higher wages, even when accounting for more expensive living.
"This pattern was on hold during the 2000s, but has taken off post-recession, the analysis said." Much research has shown that rural areas have lagged behind metro areas in job growth since the recession, only recently reaching pre-recession employment levels. Meanwhile, rural population declined in five years after the recession.

"With 70 percent of today’s graduates borrowing an average of more than $25,000, it’s no question that college graduates are forced to live in expensive urban areas, because they have the highest concentration of high-paying jobs," David Chang, CEO of Gradifi, which consults for companies on their student-loan repayment programs, told Axios. "While these urban areas offer tremendous opportunities, these come at significant costs. The metro areas that are drawing the most recent graduates are among the most expensive in the country, which is also a challenge for those grappling with student-loan payments."

Retiring after 15 years as NPR rural reporter, Berkes says local leadership is key to solving community issues

Howard Berkes
(Photo by Elaine Sheldon)
Our friend Howard Berkes, who in 2003 became the first rural correspondent for NPR, is turning 65 and is retiring; and our friend Tim Marema at The Daily Yonder highlights his career with an interview.

"The biggest takeaway for me that was consistent across all rural communities, no matter where they were in the country, was that in every place I went to, there were thoughtful people who were trying to figure out how to make their communities work better, who had concern about the ability of people to learn in their communities, the ability for young people to stay there, the kind of changes that occur when maybe there is some big, new economic driver that suddenly comes in. I found in every community people who really gave a lot of thought to what they wanted their communities to be," Berkes told Marema.

"The difference between the communities that were successful in meeting those challenges, or at least had a chance for success, were communities where those kinds of people were also leaders. Every rural community that I’ve been in that had innovation going on and was having some success at meeting new challenges and at adapting to changes were communities where there were strong leaders, business leaders, community leaders. That made the difference."

Marema notes that tomorrow night, PBS will air “Coal’s Deadly Dust,” on the resurgence of black-lung disease among coal miners, done by Berkes with filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon.

Counties where drug makers did more marketing had higher rates of overdoses from prescription painkillers, study finds

Counties where doctors got more attention and favors from drug manufacturers were more likely to have a higher rate of overdoses from prescription opioids a year later, says a new study, published in the American Medical Association journal JAMA Network Open, looked at $40 million in marketing to 67,500 U.S. physicians from mid-2013 through 2016.

The study stops short of finding a cause and effect. But it "offers some of the strongest evidence yet of the connection between the marketing of opioids to doctors and the nation’s addiction epidemic," writes Abby Goodnough of The New York Times. "It found that counties where opioid manufacturers offered a large number of gifts and payments to doctors had more overdose deaths involving the drugs than counties where direct-to-physician marketing was less aggressive." The payments included trips, meals and consulting fees. Meals seemed especially influential, the study said.
Maps from study show prescription opioid OD rate and drug-maker marketing expenses. (Click on image for larger version)
The researchers from New York University and Boston Medical Center "found that for every three additional payments that companies made to doctors per 100,000 people in a county, overdose deaths involving prescription opioids there a year later were 18 percent higher," Goodnough reports. "The authors acknowledged several caveats in the study, including that it could not differentiate between overdose deaths involving painkillers that are prescribed versus illicitly acquired."

The researchers wrote, "Prescription opioids are involved in 40 percent of all deaths from opioid overdose in the United States and are commonly the first opioids encountered by individuals with opioid use disorder. It is unclear whether the pharmaceutical industry marketing of opioids to physicians is associated with mortality from overdoses. . . . Amid a national opioid overdose crisis, reexamining the influence of the pharmaceutical industry may be warranted."

The study found that opioid prescribing rates were somewhat higher outside metropolitan areas, but the non-metro mortality rate from overdose deaths was somewhat lower than in metros. "The study found that opioid-related spending on doctors was most highly concentrated in counties in the Northeast; the Midwest had the lowest concentration," Goodnough notes. "Areas with large numbers of payments and high overdose rates included four cities in Virginia — Salem, Fredericksburg, Winchester and Norton — as well as Cabell County, W.Va., which has one of the highest overdose death rates in the nation."