Friday, February 01, 2019

China agrees to buy more soybeans, other U.S. products

After two days of trade talks in Washington, D.C., ended Thursday, China promised to buy more U.S. exports of agricultural products, services, and industrial products.

Of particular interest to American farmers, China agreed to buy another 5 million metric tons of U.S. soybeans, though it's not clear when that will happen — or whether the soybean purchases China made in December are part of that number. "The commitment means China will significantly ramp up its U.S. soy purchases after several medium-size sales in December — though less significantly than indicated by initial reports that China would buy 5 million tons per day," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico.

President Trump said he will meet with President Xi Jinping in Beijing later this month to seal a deal to end the trade war, though he repeated that March 1 is a "hard deadline," McCrimmon reports.

"Negotiators have until March 1 to come to an agreement or tariffs on more than $200 billion worth of Chinese goods would rise to 25 percent from their current level of 10 percent, Trump said. China would likely retaliate with trade barriers of its own," Tony Dreibus reports for Successful Farming.

Prices on soybeans, corn and wheat rose overnight following news of the trade talks.

GateHouse buys 20 papers from Schurz Communications; sale marks end of Schurz as a newspaper company

Schurz Communications announced an agreement this week to sell its print division to GateHouse Media for $30 million, including 20 local and regional newspapers and several special publications across Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania and South Dakota, Melynda Fuller reports for Publishers Daily.

The sale marks the end of the 147-year-old Schurz as a news outlet, since the Indiana-based company, once a Top 100 U.S. corporation, sold its television and radio stations to Gray Television in late 2015.

A Schurz press release said the company will now focus solely on "cloud and managed IT services and broadband operations." The company has purchased four broadband companies and is finalizing the purchase of a fifth.

Man who left NFL to run a farm seems to be doing well

In 2012, NFL player Jason Brown left a thriving career to buy a farm. Brown admitted he knew very little about farming, and that he got most of his know-how from YouTube videos. So how are things working out for farmer Brown? Pretty well, according to CBS News, which caught up with him recently. The former offensive lineman now owns and runs a 1,000-acre farm in Louisburg, N.C., and donates part of every harvest to local food banks. Click the video for more:

Vermont, losing too many residents, wants to pay out-of-staters $5,000 each to move there and take a local job

Vermont's governor recently announced a straightforward plan to bring in more residents to the state, the third-most rural in the nation: pay them cold, hard cash.

Gov. Phil Scott told state lawmakers at his annual budget address last week that Vermont is losing too many residents, and that he plans to pay out-of-staters $5,000 to move to Vermont and take any local job, regardless of the industry. "Mike Schirling, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, told the committee Friday that the agency wants to expand funding for recruiting out-of-staters to $1 million for Fiscal Year 2020, and a million in Fiscal Year 2021," Anne Allen reports for VTDigger.

The plan is a step up from the one that made international headlines last summer, when the state government announced a plan to reimburse out-of-staters $1,000 to move to Vermont and work remotely, Allen reports.

But some state lawmakers complained that that plan only helped out-of-state businesses. Thus, the new plan. In addition to the $2 million earmarked for targeted marketing and recruitment, the plan budgets $500,000 for "relocation agents" at the state Department of Labor to help out-of-staters find jobs, housing and more, Allen reports.

"The decline of Vermont’s working-age population is a pressing concern for the administration," Allen reports. "According to Scott’s office, there are 23,000 fewer people in Vermont under age 20 now than there were in 2000, and nearly 30,000 more Vermonters who are over 65 than there were in 2000. The unemployment rate was 2.8 percent in December. Economists have said the shortage is suppressing economic growth."

"We simply need more people helping to pay the bills," Scott said in his budget address.

Polar vortex could be bad news for emerald ash borer

The emerald ash borer
(Photo by Minnesota Department of Natural Resources)
This week's polar vortex caused some of the coldest weather Midwesterners have seen in decades, but it brought with it a silver lining: scientists say the extreme cold could decimate the population of an invasive species called the emerald ash borer. The insect has been thriving in the upper Midwest because of warm temperatures.

"Since the discovery of emerald ash borers in the U.S. in 2002, its larvae has destroyed tens of millions of ash trees. The exotic beetle, whose larvae nibble on the inside of ash trees' bark, can cause extensive damage to the way ash trees transport water and nutrients, Jeremy Hobson and Serena McMahon report for WBUR-FM in Boston.

Lee Frelich, director at the University of Minnesota's Center for Forest Ecology, told Hobson that the cold can kill off the beetles' larvae if it can penetrate the ash trees' bark. "You have to remember the bark of trees is a really good insulator — it has to actually get colder than the air temperature in order to make it cold enough to kill through the bugs under the bark," Frelich said.

Extreme cold (at least -40 degrees F.) can help kill off other insect pests too, he said, such as the mountain pine beetle.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Census of Agriculture and other farm-related reports delayed almost 2 months because of federal shutdown

Data from the 2017 Census of Agriculture has been delayed for almost two months because of the lapse of funding during the five week partial federal government shutdown.

"The National Agricultural Statistics Service said Wednesday that, assuming funding remains available for fiscal year 2019, it plans to release the 2017 Census of Agriculture at noon on April 11. The report was originally set to be unveiled at USDA’s annual Agricultural Outlook Forum Feb. 21," Steve Davies reports for Agri-Pulse.

NASS is also rescheduling the release of dozens of reports meant to be gathered and/or released during the shutdown, since the agency's Agricultural Statistics Board couldn't collect data during that time. Click here for a full list of the delayed reports and when they are now scheduled to be released.

Prescribing of Valium, Xanax, other sedatives in U.S. doubled from 2003 to 2015, may correlate with overdoses

According to a newly published study, prescriptions for sedatives such as Valium and Xanax doubled from 2003 to 2015, and about half of those prescriptions were from primary-care physicians. While such drugs, called benzodiazepines, "are mostly prescribed for anxiety, insomnia and seizures, the study found that the biggest rise in prescriptions during this time period was for back pain and other types of chronic pain," Rhitu Chatterjee reports for NPR.

Dr. Joanna Starrels, an associate professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, noted that primary care physicians were more likely to prescribe benzodiazepines to outpatients, not psychiatrists. "I think the big message here is that primary care doctors are really left with burden of dealing, not only with chronic pain and opioid prescription, but also benzodiazepine prescriptions," she told Chatterjee. "Primary care doctors are the frontline providers. And in many settings, particularly in rural areas, we may be the only providers. So we end up needing to treat conditions where specialists may be better trained — like chronic pain, addiction and anxiety."

The study also found that long-term use of benzodiazepines increased by 50 percent from 2005 to 2015. That tracks with previous studies that have shown an almost eightfold increase in benzodiazepine overdose deaths between 1999 and 2016 -- totaling almost 12,000 in that period. Benzo-overdose deaths are particularly common in women, since they are more likely to see a doctor for anxiety or depression, and increased 830 percent between 1996 and 2017 for women between the ages of 30 and 64, Chatterjee reports.

Some researchers say the increase in benzodiazepine prescriptions and overdose deaths correlates with the opioid epidemic. Benzos share many of the same characteristics as opioids: they're addictive, they slow breathing, and alter the user's mental status. People who are vulnerable to opioid addiction would likely find themselves vulnerable to benzodiazepine addiction as well, Chatterjee reports.

Op-ed: profit-based news model foundering; non-profit may be the best way to ensure good local coverage

January 23 was a "bloodbath for journalists," writes Tennessee journalist Steve Cavendish in a thoughtful op-ed for The Washington Post: "BuzzFeed said it would lay off 15 percent of its employees, and Verizon Media announced it would cut 7 percent from its newsrooms at HuffPost, AOL and Yahoo. Worst of all, a wave of layoffs tore through Gannett newsrooms across the country that day, hitting staffs that had already been thinned by years of nearly annual cuts."

Newspapers have had to make cuts because of reduced advertising revenue, and circulation revenue that hasn't brought in enough to make up for it, he summarizes. Gannett is under particular pressure because a hedge fund wants to acquire the company and make even more cuts, but more cuts would critically wound its ability to cover local news, Cavendish writes.

A non-profit model may be the best way to ensure quality, in-depth local coverage, writes Cavendish, who is president of nonprofit news startup Nashville Public Media.

Family-owned fish shacks in rural Georgia are disappearing

Photo by Alexandra Marvar
Just a few miles south of Savannah, Georgia, on the Wilmington River, Desposito's Seafood Restaurant is a survivor. "Simple Southern fish shacks — food for coastal families, cooked and caught by coastal families — are disappearing throughout the region. And Desposito’s may be soon to follow," The Bitter Southerner reports.

Click here for a lushly illustrated look back at Desposito's, the small-town love that helped it thrive for decades, and the pressures that could cause it to close, in a story by Alexandra Marvar .

Rural people with disabilities are still struggling to recover from the Great Recession, researchers find

It's well known that rural areas have been slower to recover from the Great Recession than urban areas, but University of Montana researchers have identified another demographic still struggling: people with disabilities, especially those in rural areas.

The researchers, who work for the university's Research and Training Center on Disability in Rural Communities, analyzed data from the Census Bureau's latest American Community Survey, which was released in December with 2013-17 data, compared to data from the 2008-2012 edition. They included people with sensory, physical and mental disabilities.
Employment of "people without disabilities increased by 1.7 percentage points, while those with disabilities increased by just 0.8" points, and declined by 0.6 percent in small towns and rural areas, the researchers report in The Conversation. "What’s more, people with disabilities are already much less employed than people without disabilities. We found that this difference is widening over time."

Employment rates among people with disabilities varied widely in different parts of the country; those in New England, West South Central, Mountain, and Pacific states (as defined by the Census Bureau) had a particularly hard time finding employment. Those lower employment rates mean the rural disabled have less access to health insurance, retirement benefits and other financial resources, the researchers report.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Vortex strikes U.S. farmers with coldest weather in decades

AccuWeather map
The Midwest is seeing some of the coldest weather in decades this week as the polar vortex, which normally stays over the North Pole, has slipped southward to much of eastern Canada and the U.S. Some temps are expected to get as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit. Grand Forks, North Dakota, for example, reported a windchill of -75 degrees Tuesday morning, meteorologist Kristina Pydynowski reports for AccuWeather.

For farmers, that means a lot of extra planning to keep their animals safe. "Cattle ranchers Joey Myers and her fiancĂ©, Scott Bailey, in Minot, N.D., were brewing coffee with plans to stay up all night as long as the cold lasted to check on their animals," fearing the -50 degree windchill could cause their pregnant cows to give birth prematurely, P.J. Huffstutter and Michael Hirtzer report for Successful Farming.

Cattle eat more during cold snaps, so farmers are working hard to make sure they have extra feed and adequately heated water lines to keep them running. And though chickens normally stay toasty in cold weather as long as they can tuck their feet under them on a perch, this kind of weather is too cold even for them. Hobby chicken owners in the Midwest inundated the message board on to ask about advice on how to keep their poultry warm. Suggestions ranged from placing heating pads and red heating lamps in the coop to slathering Vaseline on chickens' exposed skin, to insulating coops by packing snow around them to make an ersatz igloo, Huffstutter and Hirtzer report.

The extreme cold weather will likely last a few days; parts of the Midwest will remain below zero for 48 to 72 hours, Pydnowski reports.

Central Kentucky mourns the death of a pastor who was also a newspaper editor, and a good one: Larry Rowell

Larry Rowell and Abigail Whitehouse before a dove hunt
To some, the simultaneous roles of rural newspaper editor and church pastor might seem incompatible, but some have done it successfully. This week, Central Kentucky said goodbye to another who did: Larry Rowell.

Rowell, 63, died of pancreatic brain cancer Jan. 25. He had been editor of The Casey County News in Liberty, interim editor of the Greensburg Record-Herald, and between those towns, pastor of Beech Grove Baptist Church in Black Gnat and minister of education at Campbellsville Baptist Church. He had a master's degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a journalism degree from Western Kentucky University and a criminal-justice degree from Valdosta State College in his native Georgia. He and his wife Edwina, who survives him, had been missionaries in Nigeria and French-speaking West Africa.

"Larry came loaded for bear when he started working for The Casey County News," a Landmark Community Newspapers weekly as staff writer, columnist Joberta Wells wrote. "He knew half the citizens of the county, and they knew him, before he had been here two or three months. He got involved in every activity held, not just because he was a writer and the editor of the paper. He was genuinely interested in the people of this county and made friends wherever he went."

Making friends is helpful for an editor, but Rowell told reporter Abigail Whitehouse, “Abs, if someone somewhere isn’t pissed off at us, then we ain’t doin’ our jobs right.” Whitehouse, who went on to edit The Interior Journal at Stanford, put together a two-page newspaper to honor her mentor, with Wells's tribute and others; read it here. "He treated sources with compassion, but he never avoided the tough questions," she writes. "I can still hear him now yelling at an attorney at 8 p.m. on a Tuesday night, 'It’s a simple question. If I were you, I’d answer it before tomorrow morning.'"

As a pastor, "He didn’t force his faith on you," Wells recalled. "He just let it wash gently over you." Expressions of sympathy are requested to be donations to Beech Grove Baptist Church or Baptist Global Response, and may be made through Parrott & Ramsey Funeral Home in Campbellsville.
Rowell's recent domain, from Green County to Taylor County to Casey County, with Black Gnat in blue (Google map)

Former coal miners train as beekeepers to earn extra cash

Former miner James Scyphers works with
bees. (Photo by Kevin Johnson
With mining jobs in decline, many coal miners need to find new ways to make a living. One possibility: beekeeping. In West Virginia, the state with the lowest labor-force participation in the country, the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective has been training former miners to build hives and tend bees, Jodi Helmer reports for NPR. The program is open to all the more than 28 percent of West Virginia residents at or below the federal poverty rate.

There's a bit of irony in how the project came about: the nonprofit Appalachian Headwaters, which operates the collective in 17 West Virginia counties, "was formed in 2016 to invest a $7.5 million settlement from a lawsuit against coal mine operator Alpha Natural Resources for violations of the Clean Water Act," Helmer reports. "The money has been used to fund environmental restoration projects and to develop sustainable economic opportunities in the once-thriving coal-mining communities of West Virginia."

The nonprofit has trained 35 beekeepers and has another 50 signed up for classes set to begin soon. Everyone who graduates from the free introductory class gets equipment and bees for free or at a reduced cost and gets access to ongoing training and mentorship, Helmer reports.

Last year was the first season in which beekeepers in the program maintained their own hives, but they'll have to wait until spring to collect the first honey. ABC will collect, bottle, and sell the honey and pay them for their harvest. The delightfully named Cindy Bee, a master beekeeper with Headwaters, says a good hive can produce 60 to 100 pounds of honey per season, selling for an average retail price of $7.32. "With multiple hives, that can add up quickly: Twenty hives could mean nearly $15,000 per season. There are also opportunities to produce candles, lip balm and other wax products with additional training offered through the organization," Young reports.

Beekeeping expertise could also come in handy if any of the new beekeepers are not averse to a road trip and want to tap into demand for bees as pollinators for crops. Renting out bees for pollination services now nets beekeepers more money than raising them for honey.

Black-lung clinics call for more action to protect coal miners

A coalition of black-lung clinics is calling for the federal government to better protect coal miners from breathing dust that causes the disease, but the government's top mine safety and health regulator said recently he has no plans to do so.

The statement, released Monday by the National Coalition of Black Lung and Respiratory Disease Clinics, comes in the wake of a recent investigation by NPR and PBS's Frontline which found that more than 2,300 miners in Central Appalachia are sick with black lung or massive fibrosis, and that industry and government regulators are not taking decisive action to prevent it or adequately treat or release benefits to afflicted miners, Jeff Young reports for Ohio Valley Resource.

The coalition said in the statement that the federal government has "more than enough data" to conclude that current practices expose miners to a dangerous level of risk and that new safety measures must be implemented, Young reports.

"Specifically, the coalition asks regulators to enact a standard to control the dust generated when mining equipment cuts into rock containing silica, or quartz. Silica dust is highly toxic and, as the NPR investigation shows, health advisors urged tighter control standards on that dust decades ago," because it causes fibrosis, Young reports. "In a recent call with mining industry stakeholders, the government’s top mine safety and health regulator, David Zatezalo, said he would have 'no announcements' on any new measures to control dust or to address lung disease among miners."

Zatezalo, a former mining executive, defended the Mine Safety and Health Administration's system of monitoring dust exposure in mines, saying they have more than doubled sampling and use personal dust monitors, and that incidents where samples exceed the dust standard are one-third to one-fifth as common as they were before the new monitoring was put in place, Young reports.

"However, the new devices do not specifically monitor for dust from quartz, or silica. And as the NPR investigation points out, MSHA’s own data show that earlier attempts to use an overall dust standard to control quartz dust exposure resulted in thousands of incidents where miners were exposed to excessive quartz dust," Young reports.

Dairy exporters' report urges President Trump to get a trade deal with Japan to keep it as a prime customer for the U.S.

U.S. dairy producers could lose $1.3 billion in dairy exports to Japan over the next 10 years and $5.4 billion over the next 20 years because it has better trade agreements with other countries, according to a new report sent to Congress and President Trump today. Japan has a treaty with every other major dairy-exporting country, through the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Japan's new trade agreement with the European Union, Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico.

Japan is a plum customer for dairy exporters, since its domestic demand for dairy products is increasing as its own dairy production declines, Lydia Mulvany reports for Bloomberg. The report, commissioned by the U.S. Dairy Export Council, headed by former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, noted that the U.S. saw record dairy exports in 2018 and urged Trump and Congress to aggressively pursue new trade agreements in order to keep Japan as a customer.

Dairy exports are a sorely needed source of revenue for U.S. dairy producers reeling from overproduction, low prices and domestic consumption.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Congressional Budget office expects low corn and soybean prices for years to come; cites trade war as major factor

"Farm-gate prices for corn and soybeans, the two most widely grown crops in the United States, are stuck in a rut for years to come, said the Congressional Budget Office on Monday in its long-term budget outlook," Chuck Abbott reports for Successful Farming. "Farmers will grow near-record corn crops to generate revenue while slowly working down a soybean stockpile that is expected to approach a billion bushels this summer, the largest inventory ever."

The CBO predicted corn will stay below $4 a bushel for the next decade and soybeans won't go over $9 a bushel until 2023. For the 2019 harvest, corn is predicted to sell for $3.75 a bushel, compared to last year's $3.60, and the soybean crop will probably get $8.23, compared to $8.60 for last year's harvest. The last time prices were that low for that long was in the early and mid-2000's, Abbott reports. The forecast is based on farm-subsidy costs, crop and market conditions in late 2018, and expert opinions. 

The trade war with China was a major factor in the CBO's consideration. It has "driven down U.S. soybean prices while ballooning the soy stockpile to four times its usual size, aided by record-large harvests. Formerly, China bought 1 in 3 bushels of U.S. soybeans. Exports volume has been slow to recover," Abbott reports. Because of that, "farmers will plant far more corn than soybeans this year — 93 million acres vs 83.5 million acres — after a virtual tie at 89.1 million acres in 2018, when China was an eager customer."

The CBO predicts corn, soybean and wheat growers will switch en masse from the ARC type of crop insurance to the PLC, which offers better protection against sustained low crop prices, Abbott reports.

Ky. company announces 'holy grail' hemp with no THC

"A Kentucky-based company says it’s developed the first patentable form of hemp grains that contain virtually no THC, the compound responsible for giving marijuana users a high," Josh James reports for WUKY-FM. "They’re calling it the 'Holy Grail' of hemp: a genetic variant with 0.0 percent THC."

Since new federal guidelines say hemp must have a THC content of under 0.3 percent, that's a big deal for industrial-hemp farmers. Shifting field conditions could cause a cannabis crop to edge over the line of having too much THC, so a cannabis strain with none could make farmers less nervous about growing it, Jones reports.

That especially goes for farmers growing cannabis meant to be harvested for cannabidiol, or CBD, oil. CBD is a non-psychoactive compound in cannabis popular with consumers for its ability to relieve pain and anxiety, but its presence in cannabis is correlated to THC. With the new strain, hemp farmers can get a more powerful CBD product without worrying about THC, James reports.

The company, GenCanna, developed the strain in conjunction with the University of Kentucky. State Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles predicts the strain will be a "game-changer" for the state's fledgling hemp industry; industrial hemp production was legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, with heavy support from Senate Majority Leader and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

A sign of the times: New England's Valley News will no longer be printed locally, and it tells the tale in a video

Tomorrow night the printing press of the Valley News in West Lebanon, N.H., will begin its final run. Though the newsroom and advertising will remain local, the paper's parent company, Newspapers of New England, will begin printing the Valley News, its sister paper the Concord Monitor, and a few other papers at a new facility 60 miles away in Penacook, John Lippman reports for the Valley News, which also serves the Vermont side of the Connecticut River valley.

Such stories have become common in the last decade, as newspaper owners have consolidated press operations to save money, mainly from pressroom payrolls. Some papers have done that quietly, with no public notice, but the Valley News was up front about it, even producing a poignant retrospective video featuring longtime Press Manager Jason Libbey:

Lippman reports, "The more than $4 million investment in the new printing plant, which company executives say will increase the range of offerings while lowering its production cost, is a contrarian bet on the future of a medium that has seen its financial underpinnings collapse because of the internet and smartphones."

The move will mean some changes. The size of the paper will narrow a bit and the type will be smaller. The paper will need to be put to bed by 10:30 p.m. instead of midnight to make sure all 13,000 copies can be printed and trucked in by delivery time. And because of that earlier deadline, more late-breaking news and sports scores will be published on the paper's website, Lippman reports.

The increased reliance on digital publishing could be challenging, since only 1/13 of Valley News subscribers are digital-only, Lippman reports. The paper's new editor, Maggie Cassidy, may be able to help expand the paper's online presence; her digital savvy was part of the reason she was hired.

Journalists invited to apply for yearlong fellowships on role of bail and fines in keeping the poor behind bars

The Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College is inviting U.S.-based journalists and freelancers to apply for up to 25 reporting fellowships on the role bail and court fees and fines play in keeping the poor behind bars. According to the Center, "a large percentage of the incarcerated are behind bears because they are unable to pay bail, or to come up with accumulated fees and fines associated with both felony and non-felony convictions." This adds up to the modern equivalent of debtor's prisons, since the defendants' main crime is that they are too poor, the Center adds.

The yearlong fellowships will kick off with a symposium and workshop on March 7-8 in New York City called "Cash Register Justice." The conference will feature policymakers, researchers and practitioners with special expertise on the issue. The fellowships will include travel and accommodation for the conference and additional research assistance once the journalists return home.

The application deadline is Feb. 15. Click here for more information or to apply.

Scientists say dicamba partly to blame for honeybee die-off

Scientists say a popular weedkiller is a major reason honeybee populations are falling in the U.S. and worldwide.

Dicamba has been used as a herbicide since the 1960s, but in recent years stakeholders have increasingly complained that it tends to drift from where it's sprayed and damage or kill neighboring crops and other plants. That includes the flowering weeds that honeybees love to pollinate, Liza Gross reports for Reveal, a publication of The Center for Investigative Reporting, in conjunction with the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

Several states have banned or restricted use of the herbicide, but the Environmental Protection Agency ruled in October that farmers can use it for the next two years with tighter restrictions. Scientists have warned EPA for years that dicamba would continue to kill bees' food. In 2011, EPA scientists agreed, concluding that increased dicamba use could hurt pollinators. But in 2018 EPA said it expected the decision would not cause any adverse effects for bees or other pollinators.

Dicamba use "appears to be a major factor in large financial losses for beekeepers," Gross reports. "Hive losses don’t affect just the nation’s honey supply: Honeybees pollinate more than $15 billion worth of fruits, nuts and vegetables a year, largely in California. From 2016 to 2017, U.S. honey production dropped 9 percent. Official statistics for 2018 have not been released."

Besides destroying bees' food, dicamba may also be killing them by damaging their gut microbes and hindering their ability to make fat and stay warm during cold weather. Parasites, viruses, climate change and insecticides are other factors that have contributed to colony collapse disorder, which has destroyed between 30 and 90 percent of beekeepers' hives in the past decade, Gross reports.

Food banks flooded with surplus milk they can't store

Food banks often have little capacity to store fresh milk.
(Ohio Valley Resource photo by Glynis Board)
A glut of fresh-milk donations from the federal government is driving up administrative costs at food banks across the country.

Dairy farmers have been struggling in recent years because of low milk prices, overproduction, and here lately, the trade dispute with China. In addition to releasing $12 billion in aid for farmers hurt by the trade war, the Trump administration has allocated $1.2 billion to purchasing commodities and distributing them as hunger relief, Glynis Board reports for Ohio Valley Resource, a public-radio service that covers Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.

"Since the federal purchases started in August, the government has bought more than $50 million worth of milk and shipped it to food banks. But the food doesn’t come with any help to offset extra administrative costs," Board reports. Food banks do get reimbursements for administrative costs from the federal government, but such reimbursements don't cover the increase in expenses caused by these huge donations of perishable milk.

That's a problem because the donated milk is in liquid form, and most food banks don't have adequate refrigerated storage space for that much perishable food, nor the capacity to distribute it. Joshua Lohnes, a doctoral student at West Virginia University's Food Justice Lab, told Board that it costs food banks $2 a mile to distribute food in remote rural areas. He said aid groups are talking with the state Department of Agriculture and state legislators about how to better distribute the surplus milk.

In a recent article in Environment and Planning, Lohnes argued that government policies have essentially forced food banks to serve the needs of industrial food operations and that such policies don't address the issues that lead to hunger and food insecurity, Board reports.

Monday, January 28, 2019

States seek to improve college-graduation rates in an effort to boost rural employment

The lack of college graduates in rural areas is discouraging companies from setting up shop in those areas, many of which are desperate to find educated workers when unemployment rates are already at historical lows. Some states are getting creative to try to fix the problem.

Tennessee, for example, has promised free community college to all residents starting this fall, and more than a dozen counties with low college-graduation rates have created "completion councils" comprised of elected officials, educators, and businesses. The state currently has a graduation rate of about 40 percent, sixth-lowest in the nation, but is aiming to increase its rate to 55 percent by 2025, Matt Krupnick reports for NPR.

In Humphreys County, on Kentucky Lake west of Nashville, 10 manufacturers "have struck a partnership with the local campus of Nashville State Community College to train and certify factory workers, creating a new employee pipeline from scratch," Krupnick reports. "Graduates, who receive an associate degree in industrial process or mechanical maintenance technology, can expect to earn around $60,000 annually within a few years, the college and its partners say."

Other states in the same boat are also looking for solutions, such as Illinois, Oklahoma, North Carolina and Florida. One big challenge: changing people's attitudes about college who live in areas where not many people traditionally have a college degree, Krupnick reports. Dan Baer, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, pointed out that it's only relatively recently that Americans began to view college as something most people should go to.

"Never before have we had a conclusion that the majority of the population should have a postsecondary credential," Baer told Krupnick. "Postsecondary has always been for a minority of the workforce. This is a true inflection point." But rural Americans can no longer commonly get the kind of high-paying jobs without a degree that they once could, so convincing them that college is necessary can be an uphill battle, Krupnick reports.

The Oklahoman newspaper reduces rural circulation area

Oregon editor: Subscriptions vital to local news coverage

Editor Eric Lukens of The Bulletin in Bend, Ore., offers readers a peek behind the curtain and a prediction of where local journalism is headed in the wake of last week's announcement that the paper's locally based parent company, Western Communications, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The biggest thing readers can do to help preserve local news outlets is to subscribe, Lukens advises. That's because newspapers can no longer depend on advertising revenue to pay the bills. "At one time, abundant ad revenue allowed news organizations to provide broad news coverage without charging readers much for it. Then, digital advertising behemoths like Facebook and Google came along and disrupted that model, substantially reducing the advertising dollars that support news coverage," Lukens writes.

This bumper sticker is available from the Institute for Rural
Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog
As advertising revenue continues to decline, subscription revenue has to increase in order for news outlets to stay afloat. In the meantime, they must cut costs where they can. That's frustrating for readers who can see that they're paying more for less, Lukens acknowledges: "As our funding model evolves, our products, as distributed in print and online, will be refined to deliver what it is our readers value at a price they are willing to pay. There’s an equilibrium out there for The Bulletin, and it will involve less newsprint and wire-service articles . . . and a sustained focus on local news."

The best way to ensure that The Bulletin can continue to provide quality local coverage is to subscribe and urge others to do so as well, Lukens writes: "Above all, understand that dedicated community journalism will rely increasingly upon readers willing to support it."

The question of whether to subscribe or not gets more complicated when the local paper is purchased by a hedge fund or other media chain and reduced to a shell of its former self for profit, Margaret Sullivan writes for The Washington Post. As one subscriber of such a paper told her, "The paper has become almost useless to me, and it feels like paying for it is only helping a hedge fund instead of advancing journalism." Sullivan advises, "Hang in there if you can. You’re certainly not wrong to question what’s happened, to be troubled by the corporate decision-making, and to miss your more robust newspaper of old. But there is value here still. And there are working journalists — skilled, experienced, dedicated reporters, editors, photographers — who are doing their best, in tough times, to serve you, while a beleaguered news industry tries to find a path to a sustainable future. Please support them."

U.S. coal production dropped last year, despite President Trump's promises and efforts to keep the industry afloat

Despite the Trump administration's campaign-promised efforts to help the coal industry, including rollbacks on emissions standards for coal-fired power plants, coal production fell last year, to less than a third of its 2008 level. That corresponds with a rise in production of natural gas and renewable energy, according to fresh data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

"Annual production last year dropped by 2.5 percent to 755 million short tons, lower than at any point during what critics decried as the Obama administration's 'war on coal' except for 2016, when production hovered around 725 million short tons," Alan Neuhauser reports for U.S. News and World Report. More than half the 530 coal-fired power units in the U.S. have been shuttered or scheduled for retirement since 2002, and most have been replaced by natural-gas units or, to a lesser extent, renewable energy.

The EIA "projects that U.S. coal consumption will decline 4 percent this year to 691 million short tons. This will be down 44 percent since coal’s peak usage in 2007, and the lowest amount since 1979," Chuck Jones reports for Forbes.

Coal exports have helped mitigate the damage, doubling from 49.6 million short tons in 2006 to 125.7 million in 2012, but it couldn't make up for the decrease in U.S. consumption, which dropped from 1,112 million short tons to 889 million in the same time period, Jones reports.

"Coal-mine jobs have seen a small improvement since Trump took office, but [growth] is minuscule compared to overall job growth. In October 2016 there were 49,500 coal miners, which has grown to 53,200 per the latest job report, an increase of 3,700 jobs," Jones reports. "This compares to total U.S. employment growing from 151.9 million to 156.8 million, almost 5 million more. The increase in coal jobs is 0.07 percent of total job growth."

Small towns pay price when hospitals quit delivering babies

Struggling rural hospitals are increasingly cutting obstetric services, because there are fewer rural babies being born these days, it's difficult to attract OB/GYNs to rural areas, and such services are expensive to provide and insure, the latter because legal costs are high: childbirth-related incidents are the fifth-largest source of malpractice claims.

What all that adds up to: Fewer than half of rural counties in the U.S. have a hospital where a woman can deliver a baby, and that's caused big problems for communities and families in rural areas, especially those who are poorer, minorities, or depend on public assistance, Catharine Richert reports for Minnesota Public Radio.

Minnesota Public Radio map; click the image to enlarge it
Richert reports from Grand Marais, near the state's northeastern corner, where a pregnant woman and her husband had to drive four hours southwest to Duluth in the middle of the night during a blizzard when her water broke. The hospital in Grand Marais stopped delivering babies more than three years ago.

From 2000 through 2014, "15 of the state's rural hospitals stopped delivering babies in that time — a nearly 38 percent decline," Richert reports.

The decrease in rural birth services has increased stress for pregnant women and their partners. "One recent University of Minnesota study found a huge jump in anxiety when the Grand Marais and Ely hospitals stopped providing labor and delivery services in the summer of 2015," Richert reports. "Women who received prenatal care locally reported a tenfold increase in anxiety from 1990 to 2016, the year following the closures."

Some in the study reported feeling like second-class citizens, and felt that government did not care as much about rural residents, Richert reports.

The lack of birthing services isn't the only problem for parents of newborns in rural areas. Parents have a hard time accessing certain medical services for infants that are commonly available in urban areas. Matt Tyler, a forester who lives in Grand Marais, said he and his partner Erin Petz had to take their newborn to Duluth to treat his jaundice, but their car broke down before they could get there. "There is a big gulf" between the availability of health care in urban and rural areas, he told Richert. "If we want our rural communities to be strong and to carry on, that gulf needs to get closed somewhat, because otherwise these communities are going to die if there's no way to have babies here."