Friday, March 22, 2019

Rising debt raises questions about stability of agriculture

A recent Department of Agriculture forecast predicted that net farm income will stay low, but debt and assets will continue increasing this year. Some analysts said that showed agriculture was in a new, lower normal for income, but that the farm sector was financially sound.

But other signs show farmers are increasingly struggling. "At the well-known farmer support organization, Farm Aid, officials say they have added staffers for the group's hotline, which has seen a doubling in crisis call volumes," Chris Clayton reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "Farm Service Agency, which used to be considered the lender of last resort, has seen its rate of delinquent borrowers rise from 16.97 percent in 2013 (the height of farm income) to 19.41 percent now."

Iowa attorney Joe Peiffer told Clayton he spent the second half of February helping farmer clients restructure debt and get operating loans after they found out past lenders wouldn't continue financing them. "Peiffer and others see more distressed farmers looking for help even as broader debt indicators show a farm economy, while certainly down from levels five to 10 years ago, not in crisis," Clayton reports. "Overall, farm loan delinquency rates at banks remain around 2 percent, according to Federal Reserve and FDIC numbers. Reports filed at the end of last year by Farm Credit lenders show the number of loans in bankruptcy or foreclosure amount to 1.35 percent of total loans made by Farm Credit associations. With $194.5 billion loaned out at the end of last year, the dollar figure of non-accrual loans was $1.3 billion, or just 0.66 percent of total loan dollars."

Midwestern flooding devastates farmers

NOAA map; click the image to enlarge it
"Midwestern states are at a heightened flood risk this spring, bad news for large swaths of the country already grappling with devastating effects of unprecedented flooding in recent weeks, according to a spring outlook issued Thursday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration," Kate Queram reports for Route Fifty.

Twenty-five states are at major or moderate risk of flooding through May, and the flooding in the Midwest recently will get worse in the coming weeks, making it a "potentially unprecedented flood season, with more than 200 million people at risk for flooding in their communities," said Ed Clark, director of NOAA's National Water Center.

The news is especially dire for Midwestern soybean and corn farmers. Many could not sell their harvests last year because their main customer, China, is embroiled in a trade war with the U.S. So farmers have been storing their harvests in makeshift bins and even on the ground covered by tarps, Humeyra Pamuk, P.J. Huffstutter, and Tom Polansek report for Reuters.

"Now, the unthinkable has happened. Record floods have devastated a wide swath of the Farm Belt across Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and several other states. Early estimates of lost crops and livestock are approaching $1 billion in Nebraska alone. With more flooding expected, damages are expected to climb much higher for the region," Reuters reports. "As river levels rose, spilling over levees and swallowing up townships, farmers watched helplessly as the waters consumed not only their fields, but their stockpiles of grain, the one thing that can stand between them and financial ruin."

Also, the flood damage to roads, bridges and rail lines will make it difficult for farmers to move their harvests to processing plants or shipping hubs, Reuters reports.

Walmart and Costco move to control production and distribution of chicken and milk could hurt farmers

Alan Guebert
Retail giants Walmart and Costco have made recent ventures into agriculture that could have a huge impact on farming, columnist Alan Guebert writes.

Both companies took over production and distribution of some products. In 2018, Walmart began bottling its own milk in Fort Wayne, Indiana, for 500 stores in surrounding states. At the same time, Costco built its own poultry barns near Fremont, Nebraska, to grow, slaughter, and distribute 2 million chickens a week to sell at all Costco stores west of the Mississippi River, Guebert writes.

It makes sense that the retailers would want to cut out the middlemen for chicken and milk, since groceries usually sell those items for little to no profit to lure shoppers into their stores, Guebert writes, but the move could hurt farmers by reducing industry-wide competition, and has hurt dairy farmers: When Walmart decided to no longer buy milk from Dean Foods, Dean Foods terminated the contracts of more than 100 small dairy farmers because it was no longer cost-effective.

John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, warned Guebert that farmers could hurt themselves in the long run by signing up as contract producers for the retailers: "I have said that farmers who sign these contracts are volunteering to get run over by a bus because total integration means the total elimination of markets. The integrators become the only market."

Own backyard chickens? Tune in to this March 28 webinar

If you keep backyard chickens, tune in to a free webinar at 2:30 p.m. ET on March 28 to learn more about how to keep your birds safe from dangers like avian flu, bacterial infections or parasites. The webinar, presented by U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, is part of its "Defend the Flock" program and falls during Bird Health Awareness Week. Click here for a comprehensive resource center with information, tips, news, and more. 

Andy Schneider, aka "The Chicken Whisperer" will host the webinar, along with vets from the USDA/APHIS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Click here to register for the webinar.

State cottage-food sales laws struggle to keep up with trend

Selling homemade food such as jams, baked goods and candies is a practice as old as civilization, but as the "eat local" movement gains in popularity, such "cottage-food" sales in the U.S. have increased from $5 billion annually in 2008 to a predicted $20 billion in 2019, Marsha Mercer reports for Stateline.

States have been trying to keep up with the trend by allowing cottage-food sellers to make their products at home rather than a commercial kitchen. State approval of a kitchen can be a time-consuming, expensive process that would put homemade-food sales out of reach for many, Mercer reports.

"Every state except New Jersey now allows home-kitchen cooks to make and sell non-hazardous foods with a low risk of causing foodborne illness such as baked goods, jams, jellies and other items that do not require time and temperature controls for food safety," Mercer reports. "Maine, North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming have gone further, enacting 'food freedom' laws that exempt home producers from food-safety rules that apply to grocery stores, restaurants and other food establishments."

Proponents of food-freedom laws see them as common-sense measures that preserve liberty with little risk, which the federal government seems willing to allow, to an extent: "when the Maine legislature passed a food sovereignty law in 2017 that allowed municipalities to set their own food-safety ordinances, the U.S. Department of Agriculture threatened to take over meat inspections in the state," Mercer reports. Meat inspections are required by federal law.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Hemp boom is here, especially with CBD, but agricultural economists advise farmers, investors to act with caution

University of Kentucky chart shows annual growth rates on a line.
The hemp boom has arrived with legalization under the new Farm Bill, especially with the new market for cannabidiol (CBD) preparations, but annual growth is likely to remain stable, and production may be concentrated "in relatively few states where hemp can be grown at the lowest cost of production and transported shorter distances for processing," write University of Kentucky agricultural economists Will Snell and Tyler Mark, with Ph.D. student Jonathan Shepherd. "This suggests that states that can entice processors, manufacturers and infrastructure to locate in their state based on a strong research base of knowledge, an interested and willing/educated grower pool with lowest cost of production for desired quality characteristics requested, along with support from local and state governments, will likely enhance their chances for success."

Kentucky is an example of that, with this week's announcement that the nation's first plant to turn hemp stalks into a wood alternative that can be stronger than oak, but nearby it also has an example of how the hemp boom can become a bust if boomers go too fast. Fibonacci LLC announced that it will build a $5.8 million plant in Calloway County to make its branded HempWood product and employ 25 people, and begin production this summer in a leased facility, the Murray Ledger & Times reports. But 50 miles away, "The court battle over a failed Carlisle County hemp plant wages on," Paducah's WPSD-TV reports. "One case involves a dispute over the sale of hemp seeds produced by last year’s crop. The other case is an effort by investors from Carlisle County to get their money back from the failed project."

The Kentucky economists write,"Hemp can be used as an input for thousands of consumer products," but "The emergence of the CBD market has been sort of a game-changer. CBD currently offers a much higher economic return for hemp producers, but also possess more volatile financial, policy, and regulatory risk than markets for hemp fiber and grain." Also, quick early profits from CBD "will likely lure additional supply across the U.S. and globally, which will diminish future profit potential." They also caution, "With any emerging industry, investors of all types will attempt to capitalize on potential market opportunities promising large economic returns. History reveals that some will succeed, while many others will fail. Thus, growers should thoroughly investigate potential buyers . . . ." There's much more in their report, and you can read it here. The economists plan to publish a more detailed report for farmers soon.

Interior must halt drilling in Wyoming and redo environmental impact assessments, D.C. judge rules

Map by The Washington Post; click to enlarge it
"A federal judge ruled late Tuesday that the Interior Department violated federal law by failing to take into account the climate impact of its oil and gas leasing in the West," Juliet Eilperin reports for The Washington Post. "The decision by U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras of Washington could force the Trump administration to account for the full climate impact of its energy-dominance agenda, and it could signal trouble for the president’s plan to boost fossil fuel production across the country." Environmental groups WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility filed the lawsuit.

Contreras, an Obama appointee, temporarily blocked oil and gas drilling on about 300,000 Wyoming acres that the Bureau of Land Management leased out in 2015. Drilling could resume if the BLM completes adequate assessments on the land to see how much each drilling project would contribute to the nation's carbon output. That information is required under the National Environmental Policy Act, since drilling releases greenhouse gases, which are the main driver of climate change, Contreras wrote. The ruling could affect drilling on federal land throughout the West, Eilperin reports.

Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon said in a statement that the state might appeal the ruling: "Our country’s efforts to reduce carbon should not center on the livelihoods of those committed workers and industries who seek to provide reliable and affordable energy, especially when we don’t look to the detrimental effects of other expansive industries. Bringing our country to its knees is not the way to thwart climate change."

Minn. woman pens op-ed on why she moved back to her rural home town

Michele Anderson
(NYT photo by Damon Winter)
Regular readers of The Rural Blog may recognize the name of Michele Anderson; we wrote an item about her in December after she and a local artist wrote a blog post eviscerating a German reporter who made up dozens of quotes for a story about his trip to her rural Minnesota town (the reporter was fired).

In an elegaic new op-ed for The New York Times, Anderson writes about why she and her husband moved to Fergus Falls, pop. 14,000, last fall to start a family. A big part of it is roots: Anderson's great-great-great grandfather Walter moved to the area from Canada in the 1800s and lived on a homestead 40 miles away. Anderson herself is from a town of 450 in rural Minnesota, but left to attend college in Portland, Ore.

Living in Fergus Falls, and knowing its history, makes for complicated feelings, she writes. "The Interstate splits the original homestead, so I drive through that farmland often. I catch myself romanticizing my family’s 'legacy,' feeling both pride for what they built and regret that the land that defines my family was stolen from the Dakota people," Anderson writes. "I feel conflicted about my role here. Rural places like this one are facing countless questions about the economy, about identity and about the environment. It’s hard to know what we need to be stewards of and sustain, and what we need to let go or confront, to build a strong future."
Fergus Falls, Minnesota
(Wikipedia map)

Kentucky writer and farmer Wendell Berry calls people like Anderson "homecomers": those who come back to their rural hometowns after spending time away, usually in a city, she writes. It's an increasing trend in Minnesota, and likely elsewhere in the U.S.; state demographers noted that people in their 30s and 40s were moving to small towns and offsetting the population loss caused by high school graduates moving away, Anderson writes.

"In a 2009 commencement address at Northern Kentucky University, Mr. Berry encouraged students to consider whether they might be better and more responsible citizens if they embraced the concept of homecoming rather than the desire for upward mobility, which lures them to places to which they have little connection, to participate in a destructive and extractive economy," Anderson writes.

That connection to her ancestors, to her home in rural Minnesota, is what brought Anderson back after 11 years away. In Portland her life felt as though it lacked meaning, and her work felt "trivial and temporary," she writes. But living and working in Fergus Falls, though sometimes frustrating, is "stimulating and rewarding, a place for bold creativity", Anderson writes. It's not what some urban dwellers might expect: "I am more involved in politics, and more outspoken about social and racial justice, economic development and feminism than I ever was in Portland. And incidentally, I have not had much time to garden, go fishing, or learn how to can food," Anderson writes.

Instead of the ham-fisted or patronizing efforts to bridge the rural-urban divide, Anderson hopes urban residents and news media can pay a more nuanced kind of attention to rural America,"one directed somewhere between bleak landscapes of ignorance and bigotry, and Pollyanna illusions of the pastoral life. This is where most rural Americans actually live and where some of the most important work is being done," Anderson writes.

U.S. could keep tariffs on Chinese goods to ensure results; some doubt impact of more Chinese crop purchases

President Trump said Wednesday that tariffs on Chinese goods could remain for some time to ensure that China keeps its word on ending on the trade war, Chuck Abbott reports for Successful Farming.

"We’re talking about leaving them, and for a substantial period of time, because we have to make sure that if we do the deal with China, that China lives by the deal," Trump said before a trip to Ohio. "Because they’ve had a lot of problems living by certain deals, and we have to make sure."

China has promised to buy large quantities of U.S. goods, including agricultural products, to reduce its trade surplus with the U.S. But that may not help American farmers as much as trade negotiators hope. "A promise by China to buy more U.S. ag exports might carry less wallop than expected, said economist David Widmar, who parsed the impact of a rumored $30-billion-a-year pledge," Abbott reports. The U.S. Department of Agriculture "estimates that China will buy $9 billion worth of U.S. ag exports this year, a low starting point. It would take more than $10 billion in additional purchases to return to the roughly $21 billion that was sold annually to China before the trade war, he wrote at the Agricultural Economic Insights blog."

U.S. farm exports are expected to be worth $141.5 billion in fiscal year 2019, compared to FY2018's $143.4 billion, Abbott reports.

Maine investigates whether dried sewage solids, used widely as fertilizer, are contaminating cows' milk

Dairy regulators and health experts in Maine are investigating whether fertilizing farmland with sewage could threaten the state's milk supply.

The issue first came to light when Maine dairy farmer Fred Stone discovered in 2016 that his cows were producing tainted milk. "The chemicals on Stone’s farm likely came from biosolids, or nutrient-rich sewage from municipal utilities, that he spread across his fields, according to a report last year by Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection," Richard Valdmanis and Joshua Schneyer report for Reuters. "The chemicals are known as perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS – some of which have been linked to cancers, liver damage, low birth weight and other health problems."

Because of contaminated sites like Stone's and others around the country, new Maine Gov. Janet Mills established a task force this month to study the issue and make recommendations. State DEP staff has been working to identify farms that may have used the contaminated biosolids and is testing for the chemicals at more than 95 locations, Valdmanis and Schneyer report.

Thousands of farms across the nation, including hundreds in Maine, use biosolids as fertilizer, said Patrick MacRoy, deputy director at the Maine-based Environmental Health Strategy Center. Alan Bjerga, a spokesperson for the National Milk Producers Federation, said in a statement that the organization believes the incident at Stone's farm is isolated, and that it sees "no wide threat to the milk supply," Reuters reports.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Facebook project aims to shrink news deserts

Map by Facebook; click the image to enlarge it.
Facebook has a new feature called Today In, which seeks to connect users to local news and discussion, but many places in the U.S. don't have enough local news sources to launch the service. These news deserts have been expanding for the past 25 years, according to Penny Abernathy of the University of North Carolina, who studies the trend.

In an effort to shrink news deserts, Facebook announced this week a pilot program called the Facebook Journalism Project Community Network, which supports projects to build community through local news. "Launching with an open call for applications in early May, the FJP Community Network will be offering grants and opportunities for expert support," Jimmy O'Keefe and Josh Mabry write for Facebook. "Whether a publisher is trying to build a new business around memberships, report in an underserved community, or build a tool that helps local storytellers find and engage news audiences — we want to provide runway for them to serve their community. Grant recipients will be connected to Facebook’s community of Accelerator alumni as well as to fellow grant awardees, establishing a network of experts and resources for continued support."

Rural electrics in Pa., heavily invested in nuclear power, want ratepayers to help it compete with gas-fired power

Pennsylvania Rural Electric Association map shows its members and their service territories
"They are talking about nuclear power across rural Pennsylvania," Marc Levy reports for The Associated Press, because rural electric cooperatives "in the nation's No. 2 nuclear-power state have perhaps the biggest stake in what critics call a bailout" of the industry, which is pending in the state legislature.

"Every opportunity that we have, I encourage our member-owners to bring this up," Frank Betley, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Rural Electric Association, told Levy. "I hope that our people are talking to (lawmakers) at every turn to let them know that, 'Hey, this is important to us.'"

Nuclear power plant owners warn that they are "being driven into unprofitability, primarily by a flood of cheap natural gas plants entering competitive electricity markets," Levy writes. They want "the same favorable treatment in Pennsylvania as wind farms, solar installations and other 'carbon-free' energy sources," and that would raise Pennsylvanians' electric bills an average of about 3 percent.

The co-op association's 14 members, including one in northern New Jersey, own 10 percent of a nuclear plant that supplies about 60 percent of their 230,000 member-owners' electricity. "That, they say, has helped them keep their rates well below what for-profit utilities charge ratepayers," Levy reports. If the plant is shut down because of low rates, "members of the cooperatives can expect a big increase in their electric bills. But if the bailout bill passes, it "would shield members of the cooperatives from the rate increases that most of Pennsylvania's other electric customers will pay."

Levy offers a political analysis: "Passing a complicated, heavily lobbied and politically thorny bill won't be easy. Securing the backing of Gov. Tom Wolf and his fellow Democrats in the Legislature will likely require adding clean-energy concessions and limiting nuclear power subsidies. At the same time, swinging the votes of rural lawmakers behind it could be the difference between its success and failure in the Republican-controlled Legislature. Some rural lawmakers may have divided loyalties if Pennsylvania's considerable natural-gas industry maintains its opposition to any nuclear-friendly legislation. And the cooperatives aren't prominent campaign donors. But nearly 70 House and Senate members have cooperative service territory in their districts, the cooperatives say. Some of the cooperatives' employees and board members are well known to lawmakers, and the cooperatives are involved in civic causes and donate to local organizations."

Woman's death from asthma attack illustrates deadly gaps in rural emergency services and hospitals, papers report

Shyteria Shoemaker (Photo
provided to Clarion-Ledger)
A story out of Mississippi shows how the gaps in rural emergency services, and possibly police mistakes, can be fatal in situations where minutes count. Shyteria Shoemaker, a 23-year-old pregnant woman with a toddler, died Jan. 27 from an apparent asthma attack after she couldn't get help quickly enough in Chickasaw County, pop. 17,392, Floyd Ingram reports for the Chickasaw Journal in Houston, Miss.

Part of the problem was lack of ambulance service. Two ambulances operate in the county at all times, one in Houston and one in Okolona, but the Houston driver had a family emergency and left duty a little more than an hour before Shoemaker's asthma attack, Giacomo Bologna reports for the Clarion Ledger in Jackson. That left only one ambulance, and it was picking up another patient at the time of Shoemaker's attack.

The other big problem: Trace Regional Hospital in Houston had closed its emergency room in 2014, citing bad debts of patients who couldn't pay. According to a timeline in the two newspapers, a cousin of Shoemaker's called 911 in Chickasaw County at 1:18 a.m. saying Shoemaker was having difficulty breathing. Dispatchers sent an ambulance from Okolona, near her home in Houston. At 1:25 a second call alerted them that they were headed to the hospital; dispatchers told them there was no emergency room there, and told them to go to the local fire department.

Chickasaw County and Houston
(Wikipedia map)
At 1:26 Shoemaker arrived at the department. Firefighters there decided she needed to go to the emergency room at Memorial Baptist Hospital in Calhoun City, 25 minutes away, but Shoemaker was unconscious and her cousins worried the firefighters weren't responding quickly enough, and drove a block to downtown to flag down police. One cousin said police believed they were a threat and ordered them to the ground, further delaying the response. Dispatchers rerouted the ambulance downtown, which took Shoemaker to the hospital. But she was pronounced dead at 2:38 a.m. "They tried to resuscitate here for about 20 to 30 minutes, but never got her to come around," Coroner Jerry Wayne Fleming told Ingram.

"Last fall the community seemed to be seeking ways to revive the emergency room or some kind of after-hours clinic with several people writing a series of letters to the Chickasaw Journal about the issue," Ingram reports. "Nothing materialized."

Roundup maker loses second Calif. lawsuit claiming cancer

Associated Press photo by Haven Daley
Monsanto, now a subsidiary of German firm Bayer, lost a second lawsuit yesterday over the carcinogenic properties of glyphosate, which it markets as Roundup, the nation's most popular herbicide.

"Jurors in federal glyphosate multidistrict litigation in San Francisco found that use of glyphosate caused non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the plaintiff, Edwin Hardeman. The jury will now decide liability and damages in a second trial phase," reports Gil Gullickson of Successful Farming.

Last August in San Francisco Superior Court, jurors found in favor of a 42-year-old school groundskeeper suffering from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and awarded him $289 million. "That award was later reduced to $78 million and is on appeal," Gullickson notes.

Bayer issued a statement saying in part, "We continue to believe firmly that the science confirms that glyphosate-based herbicides do not cause cancer. . . . We have great sympathy for Mr. Hardeman and his family, but an extensive body of science supports the conclusion that Roundup was not the cause of his cancer. Bayer stands behind these products and will vigorously defend them."

Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group, which has criticized Roundup and its maker, said
"scientists with the State of California and the World Health Organization have concluded glyphosate causes cancer in people." Jurors heard conflicting evidence about that, report Sara Randazzo and Ruth Bender of The Wall Street Journal.

Op-ed touts growing importance of arts in rural America

Kentucky's Appalshop (Photo by Bridge Progressive Arts Institute)
"We're all too familiar with the stories of rural areas that didn't rebound from the last recession, where families are struggling to make ends meet and prospects for future growth look bleak. But there's a different story emerging across America that offers solutions and hope. It's a story of rural vibrancy, economic opportunity and community resilience catalyzed by a uniquely potent asset: the creative sector," Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Governors Associationwrites for Governing magazine.

Pattison's examples include Appalshop in southeastern Kentucky, which "fuses technology and art to tell the story of an often overlooked and misunderstood region," and "the Clay Trail, the Fiber Arts Trail and other arts trails crisscrossing New Mexico," which are "living museums of traditions that predate the founding of the United States." Both, he writes, "can seem worlds away from the booming coastal metropolises where arts and culture are taken for granted. Across New Mexico, arts and culture account for $5.6 billion in annual economic activity and one in every 10 jobs."

The NGA has a new study and action guide, issued with the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. It says "that of the $763 billion that the arts and cultural sectors contributed to the nation's gross domestic product in 2015, some $67.5 billion came from states in which 30 percent or more of the population lives in rural areas," Pattison writes. "Arts and cultural production in rural states employed nearly 628,500 workers that year."

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

County Health Rankings released; rural counties increasingly struggle with housing, which affects health

Severe housing cost burden among U.S. counties from 2011 to 2015 (County Health Rankings map; click to enlarge)
The County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program, a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, released its annual County Health Rankings today. The rankings are a good snapshot of each county's health, compared to other in-state counties, and the report has loads of data for every county. Some appear to provide examples of rural community efforts getting results.

For example, Clinton County, in Appalachian Southern Kentucky, moved up 30 notches in health outcomes, to 64th from 94th among Kentucky's 120 counties. "The improvements could be an indication that the efforts of the Clinton County Healthy Hometown Coalition that was created in 2013 are beginning to pay off," Melissa Patrick of Kentucky Health News reports. "The coalition, which was created with the help of a grant from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, has largely focused on efforts to improve the health of the county's children, such as building walking paths and playgrounds as well as working to increase physical activity and nutrition programs in the schools, which banned tobacco."

This year's national rankings report highlighted housing, calling it "an important element that shapes how well and how long we live." Meaningful gaps in health outcomes persist among U.S. counties mostly because of differences in opportunities for health-care access, the report found. Many factors influence that access, including housing:
"Our homes, and those of our neighbors, play a critical role in shaping our health and the health of the whole community. When our homes are near quality schools and good jobs, it’s easier to get a quality education and earn living wages. When people live near grocery stores where nutritious food is available and affordable, eating healthy is easier. Green spaces and parks encourage active lifestyles. By contrast, inside our homes things like lead, mold, smoke, and other toxins can make us sick. And when too much of a paycheck goes toward the rent or mortgage, it makes it hard to afford the doctor, cover utility bills, or maintain reliable transportation to work or school. Owning a home can help build savings, providing stability and wealth over time."
The report notes that people with low incomes and people of color have a harder time finding affordable housing. More than one in 10 households experience severe housing cost burden, which the report defines as paying more than 50 percent of household income on housing.

Though rural counties have the lowest rate of residents for whom housing cost are a severe burden, that's changing: "Since 2006-2010, when a real estate crisis affected more than half of U.S. states, severe-housing-cost burden has decreased in large urban metro counties. However, half of all rural counties experienced an increase in severe housing cost burden since the housing crisis of
2006-2010," the report found.

Some lawmakers try to tighten rules on ballot initiatives

"Republican legislators in states across the country have introduced dozens of bills that would make significant changes to the initiative and referendum process, tightening rules and raising requirements after their voters approved progressive proposals that legislators opposed or refused to take up," Reid Wilson reports for The Hill, a Washigton, D.C., news outlet.

Critics say the bills are an attempt to muzzle citizens who want to make their voices heard. "This is, combined with what we saw after the success of many of these ballot initiatives in 2018, state legislatures undermining the will of the people," said Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, who runs the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. "Rather than listen to the will of the people, elected officials are undermining the will of the people."

Some Republicans behind such bills say they're not trying to stifle democracy, and "say they are necessary to curb the influence of big-money groups that increasingly fund some of the most expensive ballot measure campaigns across the country," Wilson reports. "Other legislators said easy access to the ballot has led to a raft of ill-considered public policy that does not face the same scrutiny as legislation reviewed and scored by trained legal analysts."

Bills to tighten initiative rules aren't just by Republicans; Democrats in Oregon and Washington have proposed similar measures after low signature requirements led to crowded ballots, Wilson reports.

States' telecom-friendly laws hamstring locals seeking 5G; FCC order does likewise to states, their officials say

"The next generation of wireless technology, 5G, could bring major advancements in everything from entertainment to public safety. But federal, state and local governments are at odds over how that technology should be deployed and where regulatory authority over it should reside," Korey Clark reports for State Net Capitol Journal.

5G could mean big changes for rural areas, with speeds up to 100 times faster than current wireless networks: everything from telemedicine to farming could get a boost. But 5G requires many more relay towers (called small-cell antennas) and is generally more expensive to build out, so it could be a while before rural areas see it. 

Some small towns could negotiate with wireless providers to bring in 5G, but some laws favoring telecommunications companies may prevent them from doing so. Laws in 21 states establish statewide rules such as right-of-way fees for small-cell installations, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Clark reports: "Some bar local governments from negotiating their own deals with wireless providers or impose restrictions on such agreements. For example, legislation enacted in Texas in 2017, SB 1004, capped municipal ROW fees for small-cell installations at $250 per network node, well below the $1,500-$2,500 some of the state’s major cities were charging, potentially denying them millions of dollars a year, as Governing reported." The law's co-sponsor, Republican Sen. Paul Bettencourt, said it was meant to ensure that local governments don't use 5G rollout as a "major revenue source."

But John Davis, borough manager of Doylestown, Pa., told CNET that the town's battle with a wireless operator over the placement of small-cell antennas in the city's downtown was not about municipal revenue. "We never saw this new infrastructure as a cash cow," Davis said. "But they’re using rights of way that belong to the public, and we deserve to be fairly compensated for it."

Hawaii and a few other states passed small-cell laws that give local governments more leeway to negotiate with wireless carriers, but in September the Federal Communications Commission passed a rule and order that preempts any state or local laws and ordinances that conflict with FCC provisions, another move favorable to telecommunications companies.

"Those provisions include 'shot clock' time limits for processing applications for small-cell installations -- 60 days for installations on existing infrastructure and 90 days for those involving new utility poles -- as well as limits on application fees and a $270 cap on ROW charges," Clark reports. "The order also provides guidance on when aesthetic or other state or local requirements, such as 'undergrounding,' the deployment of infrastructure below ground, constitute an 'effective prohibition' of service."

The FCC said the order draws on "balanced and common sense" measures from state and local small cell bills and is meant to "remove regulatory barriers" that would unlawfully prevent the build out of infrastructure needed to support 5G networks. But Clark reports that the legislatures' organization and the National Governors Association said the order would hamstring states "looking to ensure inclusive and equitable access to high-speed internet services to residents." Dozens of cities and counties have sued to block the FCC ruling. Meanwhile, Clark reports that bills are pending in nine states to regulate 5G rollout, including Georgia, West Virginia and Montana.

Newspaper plumbs public records to reveal widespread problems with rural water systems in South Carolina

Small towns and rural areas across South Carolina have unsafe drinking water because of decisions and mistakes by "poorly staffed and lightly regulated" small utilities, according to a series from The State in Columbia. The newspaper found the problems, some ongoing for more than 20 years, while reviewing public records from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Among the problems the paper found: "Disease-carrying bacteria, cancer-causing chemicals, toxic nitrates and brain-damaging metals," Sammy Fretwell reports. "State inspectors report seeing fire ants and roaches on public wells, vulture droppings coating the ground below water tanks and cracked wells that allow bacteria into water systems."

Small utilities are cited for violations far more than their metropolitan counterparts. Since 2012, about 88 percent of DHEC enforcement cases have been against small utilities, and "small systems also have run into trouble with DHEC more than twice as many times as large utilities for failing to maintain equipment, such as water tanks and pipes, records show," Fretwell reports.

South Carolina isn't the only state dealing with rural drinking-water problems. A 2016 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency "said small water systems across the country violate safe-drinking standards more often than big utilities. Failing equipment and pipes can lead to poor water quality and 'pose significant public health risks in customers,'" Fretwell reports. That tracks with a recent six-month investigation into the lack of clean, reliable drinking water in Eastern Kentucky.

As Democratic candidates descend on Iowa, op-ed tells them what they need to know to succeed in rural precincts

Rural Americans came out in unprecedented numbers to vote for Donald Trump in 2016, continuing a decades-long decline for Democrats in rural areas. Many Democratic contenders for the nomination to challenge Trump have already made a point of talking about rural issues while campaigning in Iowa, but several seem "clueless," Robert Leonard and Matt Russell write for The New York Times. Leonard is the news director for the Iowa radio stations KNIA and KRLS. Russell is a farmer and the executive director of Iowa Interfaith Power and Light, an ecumenical group.

"A strong Democratic platform with realistic plans for rural America would focus on four themes: demography, infrastructure, farm sustainability and environmental practices that can help combat climate change," Leonard and Russell write in a wide-ranging op-ed.

In Iowa, agriculture and trade problems are big. Up to 30 percent of the state's economy depends on agriculture such as soybeans, corn and hogs -- all affected by the trade war with China, Leonard and Russell write. They say young people are leaving agriculture because of uncertain money, which means a lot of small towns are dying.

"Don’t demonize 'Big Ag' and factory farms," they also advise. "It’s just liberal white noise to most involved in agriculture. Most of our farms are family-owned, not big agricultural corporations, even if they are integrated into the larger systems to one degree or another. Most need that integration to survive."

The Green New Deal is a flawed but decent bit of legislation that could help revive rural Iowa, since it is a national leader in solar and wind power, and farmers could be interested in fighting climate change if candidates show how they can do it through farming practices like carbon sequestration, Leonard and Russell write.

Housing and development are also big issues to discuss, they write: "Rural hubs will survive with investment. Communities that want to invest in themselves, develop creative strategies for growth, and partner with regional development efforts should be supported."

Democratic candidates could also connect with voters on faith. Many Christians in rural Iowa dislike the way that evangelical Christianity has been yoked to the Republican Party and used to deny help to those who need it, Leonard and Russell write.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Steve Case, J.D. Vance try to lure venture capitalists to rural America with $150 million investment fund, bus tour

Steve Case and J.D. Vance (CBS image)
Steve Case, the billionaire co-founder of America Online, is trying to get more venture capitalists to invest in often-overlooked smaller towns and cities in the middle of the country. His main weapons: a $150 million investment fund and a "Rise of the Rest" bus tour designed to lure news coverage, Sharyn Alfonsi reports for CBS's "60 Minutes."

Most venture capital is invested on the coasts, Case said: about 75 percent in California, New York and Massachusetts. In an effort to bring more attention to "flyover" states, Alfonsi reports, he and his team have traveled to dozens of cities in 26 states on a bright red tour bus, looking for promising ideas that Silicon Valley has overlooked.

In the past year the fund has invested in more than 100 companies in 63 cities and towns. Not only that, a few big names in business have offered funding and advice to entrepreneurs, including members of Walmart's Walton family, former Facebook president Sean Parker and former executive chairman of Google Eric Schmidt, Alfonsi reports.

People in the middle of America "have been forgotten," Case told Alfonsi. "It's not about a feeling about being left behind, they have been left behind. We have to kinda level the playing field so everybody everywhere really does feel like they have a shot at the American dream. Right now, they don't."

The Rise of the Rest tour bus (CBS image)
J.D. Vance, who wrote the bootstrappy bestseller Hillbilly Elegy, agrees with Case so much that he helped develop, run and raise money for the Rise of the Rest Fund. Vance told Alfonsi that many people who live on the coasts seem to assume that small-town residents are stupid and that "the only people who live here are the people who are forced to live here," which he said is not true. And though Vance doesn't think the tour will transform any town's economy, he said the initiative is part of a larger movement to bring more economic prosperity to the middle of the country.

That means places like Pikeville, a town in far Eastern Kentucky that has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic and the decline of coal. Rise of the Rest invested in a project there to build high-tech greenhouses on top of former strip mines, Alfonsi reports. The greenhouses, which will be staffed by well-paid recovering opioid addicts, will supply fresh, affordable produce to surrounding areas. That ticks several boxes: it helps keep addicts productive so they won't be tempted to use again, it pumps money into the local economy, and makes it easier for locals to access affordable fresh vegetables.

A local high school student told Alfonsi he hopes the project takes off: "There's not anything here right now. And I hope and pray for our community that something does come back here, but as of now it's impossible for all of us to stay even though 90 percent of us want to, and be able to live the kind of lives where we could support ourselves and our family too."

Vance said he hopes so too, and hopes that projects like the one in Pikeville will show outsiders that investing in such communities is worth it. "We shouldn't just accept that the story should be one of decline," Vance told Alfonsi. "And that's what I think -- you know, at its core, what Rise of the Rest is about is refusing to see the worst in any place. We want to see the best."

UPDATE, March 27: The publisher of the Appalachian News-Express in Pikeville, Jeff Vanderbeck, had some problems with the report. Here is his column.

Five-month investigation by Charleston Post and Courier uncovers wrongdoing by many South Carolina sheriffs

Almost one in four county sheriffs in South Carolina have been accused (and sometimes convicted) of lawbreaking in the past decade, but a five-month investigation by the Charleston Post and Courier uncovered a fresh string of "questionable spending and behavior" from sheriffs all over the state. "Sheriffs have embezzled, bribed and dipped into public funds for expensive chauffeurs. They’ve driven drunk and bullied other public officials. They’ve been accused of leveraging their power to sexually assault their female employees," Tony Bartelme and Joseph Cranney report.

Reporters dug through more than 5,000 pages of spending records from all 46 counties and interviewed criminal-justice experts as well as current and former deputies. "Among the findings: some sheriffs spent public money on luxury accommodations, personal clothing and a host of other questionable purchases," they report. "Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood spent thousands to fly first class to conferences. Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott used thousands of dollars in campaign funds to join a private club where members dine on beef tenderloin and rack of lamb."

A rural county's sheriff is often its most powerful public official. South Carolina law gives sheriffs near-complete control over firing whistleblowers or employees who won't help out with wrongdoing. The scandals suggest that current laws and power structures helped create "a culture of secrecy that allows wrongdoing to fester" in South Carolina and in other states, Bartelme and Cranney report.

"South Carolina lawmakers have long had the power to create more checks and balances. But decade after decade they’ve stood by as corruption cases piled up," Bartelme and Cranney report. "The result is a system that generates scandals on a regular basis, a status quo that hands sheriffs a license to operate as if they’re above the law."

Young farmers confront farmers' suicides, mental health

Rose Jeter (left) and Amy Johnson
(Roanoke Times photo by Stephanie Klein-Davis)
Two young Virginia farmers have teamed up to raise awareness of how stressful farming can be and to facilitate discussion about mental health and suicide, from which rural residents are more likely to die.

The initiative was sparked after one of the farmers, Rose Jeter, asked friends on Facebook last year why so many farmers were killing themselves. Though the answers didn't surprise her (stress from unpredictable weather, inability to set your own prices for crops, and financial instability), but she was surprised to receive private messages from farmers who had considered suicide, Casey Fabris reports for The Roanoke Times.

Amy Johnson, a farmer and nurse practitioner whom Jeter knew through Virginia Farm Bureau Young Farmers, also responded to the post and said she wanted to talk more about the issue. The two women soon decided to raise awareness about it. "They join a growing number of people in the region and state — from academics to farmers to the state’s commissioner of agriculture — looking to shine light on an issue that often remains hidden in the shadows," Fabris reports.

Jeter and Johnson drafted and submitted policies to their local farm bureau chapters that were later adopted at the state level. "The policies voice support for the Farmer and Rancher Stress Assistance Network, in addition to training on farm stress for mental health professionals practicing in rural areas and seeking grants to fund workshops for farmers in crisis that would address mental health and financial restructuring," Fabris reports. "The American Farm Bureau Federation, the national organization, adopted one policy that cites similar goals."

Kim Niewolny, an extension specialist and associate professor at Virginia Tech, is also trying to improve farmer mental health. She and a team focused on farmer health and safety recently got a grant to help farmers who are new or transitioning, military veterans, and in historically underserved populations, Fabris reports.

"Niewolny explained the team’s three-prong approach: workshops and a dinner theater program for farmers, professional development for the educator community and webinars that will help farmers and providers work through decisions, based on real-life scenarios," Fabris reports. "The farm dinner theater is an intervention developed by Deborah Reed, a University of Kentucky professor, who will assist in bringing the program to Virginia. Farmers will be recruited, likely through extension agents who already have relationships in the community, to write and perform a script at a community dinner. It’s a chance for farmers to share their own experiences with farm stress."

Black editor, who replaced Alabama publisher who called for KKK to night-ride, steps down after he asserts control

Elecia R. Dexter (Democrat-
Reporter photo via N.Y. Times)
After rural Alabama publisher Goodloe Sutton was widely criticized last month for an editorial calling for the Ku Klux Klan to "night ride again" against Democrats who want to raise taxes, he said he was handing over control to a black woman who had recently been hired as the paper's front office clerk. "The new editor and publisher, Elecia R. Dexter, said she wanted to make the newspaper, The Democrat-Reporter, more reflective of the community it serves in Linden, a small town in western Alabama that is about 59 percent white and 41 percent black," Sarah Mervosh reports for The New York Times. "But now, after only a few weeks, Ms. Dexter has stepped down."

Red marks Linden, in Marengo County
(Wikipedia map)
After supposedly giving Dexter the reins, Sutton continued to assert partial control over the content of the paper, which he still owned. He emailed to local news outlets and advertisers an altered version of the Feb. 28 edition that replaced an article about his retirement with one that defended his editorial and criticized The Montgomery Advertiser for its coverage, Mervosh reports. He also interfered with the March 14 paper, which Dexter said obliged her to put out a press release saying that the edition didn't reflect her "views or thoughts."

Dexter's departure "complicates the future of the weekly newspaper, which was once hailed for its journalism, and reflects the thorny reality that healing from racially hurtful acts is rarely a once-and-done process," Mervosh reports. Dexter told her, "You can be mad at him, but we can’t keep making this about him . . . People like him will exist. That’s just the reality of life. The point is not to give those people all the energy."

U.S. seizes 1 million pounds of Chinese pork on the chance it could be contaminated with African swine flu

U.S. border agents in New York seized about 1 million pounds of pork from China last week, amid fears the meat could be contaminated with African swine flu.

"China, home to the world’s largest hog herd, has reported 112 outbreaks of the highly contagious disease in 28 provinces and regions since August, with the vast majority found on farms, with one at a slaughterhouse," Humeyra Pamuk and Tom Polansek report for Reuters. "The disease can kill hogs in just two days, but is not harmful to people. About 1 million pigs have been culled so far in an effort to try to control the spread."

Anthony Bucci, a spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told Reuters that the agency was working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to determine whether any of the confiscated pork had swine flu.

"U.S. officials decided to ramp up their fight to avoid the virus after Vietnam confirmed its first cases last month," Pamuk and Polansek report. The U.S. Department of Agriculture "said it will add more dogs to sniff out illegal pork products at airports and seaports."