Friday, May 03, 2019

Cyberattack destroyed archives and classifieds for New York newspaper chain; see tips on how to defend against hackers

A small newspaper chain in upstate New York was hit by a cyberattack last weekend that destroyed digital archives and crippled the classified ad publishing system for three dailies.

"Servers targeted by criminals over the weekend were encrypted by a virus that spread quickly throughout Johnson Newspaper Corp., affecting servers used for internal sharing of content used to produce newspapers in Watertown, Hudson and Massena," Alec Johnson reports for the Watertown Daily Times. "Servers that host the newspaper website, subscriptions and email were not affected, according to an analysis by company information technology professionals."

The printing servers for the Times, the Hudson Register-Star, and the Courier Observer in Massena and Potsdam have been repaired, and classifieds are expected to be back online by the end of the week, Johnson reports.

GOP senators say NAFTA replacement dead unless steel and aluminum tariffs are; old deal could remain in place

"Top Republican senators told President Donald Trump he has a choice to make on trade: Lose the steel and aluminum tariffs that led to a wave of retaliatory duties on U.S. ag products, or forget about using the new NAFTA deal as a signature achievement during your re-election campaign," Helena Bottemiller Evich reports for Politico.

Unless Trump drops the steel and aluminum tariffs, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement won't have enough votes to pass the G.O.P.-controlled Senate, the six Republican senators threatened. The senators include Chuck Grassley of Iowa, John Thune of South Dakota, and Johnny Isakson of Georgia, all states with heavy agricultural interests, Evich reports.

If the deal fails, the North American Free Trade Agreement would remain in place, "which is what many in both parties wanted anyway," Bloomberg News reports. Trump Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney "urged Speaker Nancy Pelosi to put the new trade plan on the House floor as is, claiming that it would have the votes," Jonathan Bernstein writes. "The problem is that pressuring Pelosi publicly, and generally turning ratification of the deal into a partisan contest, is a clear losing strategy given that Democrats have the majority in the House: The more Donald Trump and the White House do to divide by party on this trade deal, the deader it will be. At the same time, Mulvaney opened the door on just sticking with Nafta if the new deal doesn’t get approved, contrary to the president’s threats to attempt to unilaterally pull out of the existing deal. That would certainly appear to take most of the pressure off everyone in Congress."

EPA says glyphosate (Roundup) doesn't cause cancer; ag editor pokes wry fun at the agency over the announcement

Glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup and similar herbicides, doesn't cause cancer and is otherwise safe to use when used properly, according to a review published this week by the Environmental Protection Agency. However, the agency found that the chemical can harm the environment and recommended measures to help farmers protect pollinators, reduce the incidence of glyphosate-resistant weeds, and better target pests with the appropriate pesticide, Todd Neeley reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer.

Critics of the popular herbicide maintain that glyphosate is dangerous, a claim bolstered after recent jury verdicts that awarded millions to plaintiffs who said longtime glyphosate exposure caused their cancer, Neeley reports.

Editor-in-Chief Greg Horstmeier of DTN/The Progressive Farmer commented in a column that the review made him "gasp, then giggle, then seethe," mostly because the EPA was ruling on human health issues instead of sticking to environmental issues: "I gasped, because here was our 'environmental' watchdog group, actually making a comment related to herbicides that was about the 'environment.' What a novel thought!"

Quick hits: Impossible Burger goes big; online gaming without broadband; S.D. ag town tries to be a mural mecca

A mural on a 110-foot grain elevator in Faulkton, S.D.
(Progressive Farmer photo by Greg Lamp)
Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at

Burger King started offering the plant-based Impossible Burger in test markets on April 1. It's been such a hit that the chain now plans to offer the "Impossible Whopper" nationwide later this year. Read more here.

"Drug maker Gilead Sciences will give $11.3 million to help prevent and treat hepatitis C in Kentucky, Indiana, West Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. That money is part of a five-year project aimed at a region that’s been hit hard by the viral disease," Lisa Gillespie reports for Ohio Valley ReSource.

A rural farming community of 700 in South Dakota has made a name for itself as a mural mecca, Greg Lamp reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer.

Online gaming is difficult at best without reliable broadband, so a gaming company has come up with an innovative solution to ensure rural gamers can play. Read more here.

Today is World Press Freedom Day, which is a good time to ask: What would happen if journalists were not watching?

World Press Freedom Day was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1993, following the recommendation of UNESCO's General Conference. Since then, May 3, the anniversary of the Declaration of Windhoek, is celebrated worldwide as World Press Freedom Day. It is an opportunity to: celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom; assess the state of press freedom throughout the world; defend the news media from attacks on their independence; and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

This year's theme, “Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation” discusses current challenges faced by media in elections, along with the media’s potential in supporting peace and reconciliation processes. The New York Times is marking the observance by taking down its paywall for three days. International Editor Michael Slackman asks us to imagine what would happen around the world if journalists, and the public, were not watching.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Food insecurity report shows in-depth county-level data

Food insecurity rates in 2017 (Feeding Hunger map; click here for the interactive version)
The latest Map the Meal Gap report, by nonprofit organization Feeding America aims to provide a more detailed picture of food insecurity in America with county-level data from 2017.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, about 40 million Americans, including more than 12 million children, faced hunger and food insecurity in 2017. But "national and even state estimates of food insecurity can mask the variation that exists at the local level," the Feeding America report says. Some hunger organizations estimate local need based on poverty rates, but that isn't the best way to measure it, according to the report: "National data reveal that about 59% of people struggling with hunger earn incomes above the federal poverty level and 61% of people living in poor households are food-secure."

Instead, Feeding America gathered four types of community-level data to assess hunger: overall food-insecurity estimates, child food-insecurity estimates, average meal costs and food budget shortfalls. The researchers found that, as expected, poverty, unemployment, and under-employment contribute significantly to hunger. Under-employment exists when a person is working but doesn't have enough hours or sufficient wages to make a living. Hunger is most concentrated in the Black Belt, the Lower Mississippi Valley, Central Appalachia, and Native American reservations.

The Map the Meal Gap report has an interactive map with county-by-county data. Here's a screenshot for Rhea County, Tennessee; for a larger version, click on the image.

Rural editors dispute Buffett's forecast that all but national newspapers are 'toast'; but social media threaten, so papers need to distinguish selves as reliable sources, Cross says

Billionaire Warren Buffett, who owns more than 30 U.S. dailies, said in a recent interview with Yahoo Finance that most newspapers are "toast," due to the internet sucking away advertising revenue. Though he said The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal would likely live on, he predicted that other newspapers are "going to disappear."

Dave Bradley
In an open letter to Buffett, columnist Dave Bradley, writing for the Aurora News-Register in Nebraska, disagrees, saying rural newspapers provide a service to communities unmatched by any other resource: "The way I see it, the News-Register is anything but toast. Take the weekly edition clean away and our community, our county, would literally be in the dark when it involves news, features, photos, editorials and so much more. Who else is going to cover all of our local sports teams, week in and week out, even when it’s 105 humid degrees in the summer time during Legion ball, to -25 degree wind chill a few years back on senior day during a Nebraska-Iowa football game?"

"Mr. Bradley is more correct than Mr. Buffett, who doesn't seem to be familiar with rural weeklies as he is with small dailies," said University of Kentucky Extension Journalism Professor Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog. "There will always be a demand for news of a locality, and for reliable reporting of it. That being said, rural newspapers need to realize that social media are becoming alternative sources of local news, and newspapers need to promote that they do journalism, the essence of which is a discipline of verification, while social media have no verification and very little discipline."

In The Canadian Record in Canadian, Texas, Editor and Publisher Laurie Ezzell Brown agrees in an editorial that newspapers are struggling, but not because the work is less important or needed, but "because fewer people take time to read and think and be informed, because our collective sense of civic engagement is slowly eroding, and frankly, because the small businesses that support community newspapers are struggling, too, and that essential source of advertising revenue for newspapers is dwindling."

In other words, newspapers' decline is a symptom of larger problems. And, she notes, "if Buffet's assessment is right, you ain't seen nothing yet."

Bill to use accumulated coal-tax revenue for Central Appalachia moving again in House, under Democrats

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky.
A bill to bring more than $100 million to the Central Appalachian coalfield passed the House Committee on Natural Resources Committee Wednesday. The Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More (RECLAIM) Act Of 2019, "written by U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky’s 5th Congressional District, would pay for the reclamation of abandoned mine lands and, advocates hope, would foster growth in areas suffering from a sharp decline in coal production in recent years,"  Will Wright reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. 

The bill would distribute $1 billion of unappropriated money from the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund to coal-producing states and Native American tribes over five years for mine reclamation projects, Wright reports. One of the bill's sponsors, Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., noted, "This is money that’s already collected and sitting in the federal treasury."

Though the bill has bipartisan support, it may face the same obstacles it did when introduced in years past. The idea was originally part of President Obama's PowerPlus plan, included in his 2016 budget proposal, and most Republicans were leery of supporting it. Rogers, a Republican, filed the RECLAIM Act as a stand-alone bill in 2016. It failed to pass the Natural Resources Committee that year; in 2017 it passed the committee but didn't get a full vote in the House, Wright reports.

But now the House is controlled by more free-spending Democrats, and the Senate is managed by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who introduced his own version of the legislation last year but has been cagey about whether the other bill. Spokesperson Robert Steurer said McConnell "remains committed to ensuring funding is secured to reclaim abandoned mine lands as well as for economic development efforts in Central Appalachia" and said McConnell's office "continues to discuss the issue with constituents and colleagues," Wright reports.

The bill has been blocked by representatives from Western coal states. Wyoming, which produces 40% of the nation's coal and thus pays a plurality of the taxes for the AML Fund, and Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming is in the Republican leadership with McConnell. But some of the states that get AML funds don't have any more eligible coal sites to reclaim and are spending the funds on non-coal projects. That could trigger resentment, since that means high-producing coal states like Wyoming aren't getting money they need to spend on their greater share of mine reclamation projects.

7 rural hospital CEOs in N.C. call for Medicaid expansion

CEOs from seven rural hospitals in North Carolina met with Gov. Roy Cooper and state Health and Human
Services Secretary Mandy Cohen (center) Wednesday to support Medicaid expansion. (Photo by Taylor Knopf)
CEOs from seven rural North Carolina hospitals told Gov. Roy Cooper and Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen on Wednesday that expanding Medicaid would help them stay open, Taylor Knopf reports for North Carolina Health News.

Though the issues the hospitals face vary, there are many similarities: they're having a hard time recruiting doctors and other medical professionals, all of them have thin operating margins, and their budgets are increasingly strained because rural patients rely more heavily on emergency departments for care; many of those patients can't pay or are uninsured, so the hospital must eat the cost of care for those patients, Knopf reports. The CEOs also said that, because poor patients don't have access to urgent, primary or preventative care, problems that might have been dealt with relatively quickly and cheaply become expensive issues when the patients finally seek care at the emergency department.

"The consensus was that Medicaid expansion wouldn’t solve all their problems overnight, but they agreed it would go a long way to relieving pressure on their emergency departments and create a healthier patient population," Knopf reports.

The CEOs have reason to worry: six rural hospitals have closed since 2010, while 104 rural hospitals closed nationwide in the same time frame. Eighty percent of those nationwide closures happened in states that didn't expand Medicaid, Knopf reports. 

Greg Tung, a health economist from the University of Colorado, told Knopf that his research found that Medicaid expansion has helped hospitals stay open, and especially rural ones, which tend to be in more danger of closing. Helping a rural hospital stay open helps the local economy too, he said: "Rural hospitals are anchor institutions in their communities. They are kind of a pillar of the local community and the local economy, they provide a lot of skilled, well-paying jobs for that area . . . So when a rural hospital closes, it has a disproportionately large impact on that community, especially in comparison to an urban hospital closure."

Cooper said Medicaid expansion could pass in the state House right now if the Republican leadership allows it to come to a floor vote, but was less confident about it passing the state Senate. Some state Senate Republicans worry that the federal money to support Medicaid expansion might disappear, but Cooper said that hasn't happened so far in other states because it's such a popular measure. "They couldn't kill it," Cooper said, 

Alabama reporter up for an award for year-long investigation of corrupt rural law enforcement

Connor Sheets
Atlantic Media has named Alabama Media Group reporter Connor Sheets one of the four finalists for the 16th annual Michael Kelly Award. Sheets gained national headlines for his year-long investigation of corrupt local law enforcement in rural Alabama (Read all the articles here).

The award is named for the editor of The Atlantic and the National Journal who was killed in 2003 while covering the war in Iraq. Finalists will be honored at an awards dinner in Washington, D.C., on May 23, where the winner of the $25,000 first-place prize will be announced. The other three finalists will each receive $3,000.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Small daily newspaper tackles a tough topic, youth suicide, by first working with the community

Durango Cares website was developed as part of the project.
The Durango Herald, a small daily newspaper in Colorado, took on the difficult topic of youth suicide by forging some innovative community partnerships.

In applying for a grant to subsidize the reporting, the paper had to check with the community. "That check-in helped reshape the direction of the project," Kristen Hare reports for The Poynter Institute. "Several local organizations that work with youth suicide prevention came to the newsroom. Some were hesitant be there at all because of the Herald’s past coverage, which many worried created a contagion effect."

The paper asked the groups what they needed that they didn't have, and discovered some things. Claudia Laws, audience development manager for Ballantine Communications, which owns the Herald, told Hare that the youth-suicide-prevention community needed a central place to connect, and to maintain and update information. Laws realized that the newspaper's expertise in providing updated information put them in a unique spot to help.

"The project, 'Creating Connections,' is a solutions-based youth suicide prevention project in print, online and audio that ran in partnership with local radio stations. The Herald also created a standalone resource website, which it operates and maintains, and took a thoughtful approach to commenting," Hare reports.

Staff writer Mary Shinn spoke to a grief counselor to help her cover suicides in a way that wouldn't retraumatize readers who had known someone who died by suicide. Using a $5,000 grant from the Solutions Journalism Network, she partnered with freelance broadcaster Sarah Flower to bring new stories to new audiences, Hare reports. That partnership opened doors for the Herald. "While some organizations and groups, including the Southern Ute Tribe, didn’t have a good relationship with the Herald, they did have a relationship with Flower," Hare reports.

The newsroom also created a resource site that Laws updates monthly. "Durango Cares is a resource, she said, but more importantly, it’s a way to show readers and stakeholders in the community that the newsroom cares about the community it covers," Hare reports. "It didn’t drive pageviews, Laws said; it’s not news, but it’s done much more to build trust that she ever imagined."

Columnist considers immigration, compassion and American values: 'We are better together than we are alone'

Brian Hunhoff
A recent experience at a naturalization ceremony was illuminating for South Dakota Journalism Hall of Famer Brian Hunhoff. A contributing editor at the Yankton County Observer, Hunhoff wrote in a recent column that he gave the keynote speech at the March 15 ceremony in Sioux Falls, welcoming new Americans from 40 different countries. "It was my first time at a naturalization ceremony. I wish everyone in America could experience it," Hunhoff writes. "I wish everyone could see the joy and pride shining in the faces of those 237 new Americans, how eager and excited they are to be here, how much energy they bring to our country and the powerful level of gratitude they expressed to officials in attendance."

If more people saw naturalization ceremonies, Hunhoff believes, there might be less fighting about immigration in the U.S. "America's greatest achievements are not skyscrapers or jets. Our strength lies in our compassion, in our communities, where our people care for one another, where neighbors help neighbors — and strangers — in times of need," Hunhoff writes. "America is a nation of immigrants, multicultural by design. We should be a celebration of diversity. America should mean respect and dignity for all people. America is red, white and blue. We're also black, white and brown."

Americans can bridge the political divide by remembering our shared values like freedom and equality, which are "more important than partisan beliefs that divide us," Hunhoff writes. "We are better together than we are alone."

Monthly use of renewable energy outpaced coal for the first time in April (a month of moderate temperatures), feds say

Chart by Energy Information Administration; click the image to enlarge it
For the first time ever, last month renewable energy sources generated more electricity in the U.S. than coal, according to projections by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The EIA predicts that renewables will outpace coal in May as well, and that coal and renewables will swap ranks several times throughout the coming year, Phil Dzikiy reports for Electrek, a news site that tracks changes from fossil fuel to electric power in transportation. Coal use is generally lowest in April, as temperatures moderate.

"Renewables (including hydro, solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal) are projected to generate more electricity than coal-fired plants in April, according to an analysis of EIA data by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis," Dzikiy reports. "Estimates show renewables generating 2,322 and 2,271 thousand megawatt-hours per day in April and May. Coal is expected to reach 1,997 and 2,239 thousand MWh/day during those same two months."

Overall, the IEEFA notes that renewable energy is catching up to coal, and doing so faster than previous predictions suggested, Dzikiy reports.

Chart by EIA; click the image to enlarge it.

How climate change is affecting 11 American crops

Peaches are among crops threatened by a combination of warmer
winters followed by late frosts. (Photo by Maura Friedman, NYT)
Consumers may see climate change as a nebulous concept with far-off effects, but agriculture is already seeing plenty of changes. "Warmer temperatures are extending growing seasons in some areas and sending a host of new pests into others. Some fields are parched with drought, others so flooded that they swallow tractors," Kim Severson reports for The New York Times. "Decades-long patterns of frost, heat and rain — never entirely predictable but once reliable enough — have broken down."

Small climate shifts that nudge growing seasons even a few weeks earlier or later can disrupt supply chains, schedules for farm workers, and natural processes like honeybee pollination and pest management. And though higher temperatures make it possible to grow crops in once unsuitable areas, that heat also hurts crops in traditional growing areas, Severson reports.

Here are 11 common food crops, from all over the country, that Severson reports are seeing big changes because of climate change:
  1. Tart cherries have long been grown in northern Michigan, since growers have been able to rely on long, cold winters and slow, cool springs so the trees don't bloom until the threat of a late freeze has passed. But warmer early temperatures, followed by freezes, have caused two total crop failures in the past decade; the last one before that was in 1945. Increasingly violent spring storms have damaged the fruit, and the climate shift has also brought an invasive fruit fly that ruins the cherries.
  2. Organic raspberries are endangered in New York because of too-warm winters that don't kill off fruit flies and other pests. Organic farmers are especially vulnerable to insects since they can't use commercial pesticides. The area has also been seeing either way too much rain (which causes fungus on the fruit) or not enough (which means the fruit doesn't grow).
  3. Watermelon farmers in Florida are planting and harvesting crops earlier. That means they're competing with late-winter crops from Mexico, so American farmers may not have enough Mexican laborers to pick crops, especially with tighter immigration restrictions in place.
  4. Chickpeas are doing well in Montana because of climate change. The average annual temperature has increased 2.4 degrees in the past century, but average rainfall has stayed about the same. That makes chickpeas a good bet, since they require less water than other cereal grains and also improve the soil, but the crop faces global competition. 
  5. Wild blueberries are a rockstar in Maine agriculture, but a longer growing season, warmer summers, erratic frosts, increasing fruit flies, and more frequent droughts are threatening the crop.
  6. Organic heirloom popcorn has been a reliable crop in Iowa for decades, but increasing flooding, tornadoes and other unpredictable weather are making it much harder to grow.
  7. Peaches in Georgia and South Carolina are threatened by increasingly warm winters. Without a certain amount of consistently cold weather, the buds are weak and make poor fruit. Also, too-warm winters followed by frost can kill most buds. A warm winter in 2017 led to the failure of almost 85% of Georgia's peach crop.
  8. Organic apples in Washington are suffering from hotter spring weather, since such weather increases diseases like fire blight. Hotter temperatures can also cause apples to sunburn.
  9. Golden kiwi fruit in Texas are well suited to heat and humidity, but require a certain amount of predictably cold weather to thrive. Erratic spring freezes threaten that. 
  10. Artichokes in California depend on cool, cloudy weather fed by the Pacific Ocean in the spring, but a warming ocean has made such weather less common, and warmer weather in general means more pests.
  11. Rice is notoriously thirsty, and decreasing rain in Arkansas, where almost half the nation's supply is grown, is drying out rice farms and the underground aquifers that help water the fields. Higher temperatures cause more starch content, making rice stickier and more brittle.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

When a big hospital buys a smaller one, beware of its ads

Advertising by large hospitals is often misleading, and it can be more so when a big hospital buys a smaller one, national health journalist Trudy Lieberman writes for Rural Health News Service.

Trudy Lieberman
Lieberman, who lives in New York City but is from Nebraska, notes ads from NYC hospitals about their research rankings and "medical miracles for hard-to-cure patients." She writes, "Why is this something I need to know before choosing a hospital? I can think of several other measures – like a hospital’s infection rates for blood stream or surgical site infections or its readmission rates – that can indicate poor care and are far more useful. These metrics are sometimes available on state health department websites or on the Medicare Hospital Compare site."

She quotes Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center: “The problem with these ads is they may not be giving a realistic picture to people who have serious life-threatening cancers and other diseases and suggest that survival, if not certain, is at least likely. . . . It’s cruel to suggest you’re getting something special or otherwise unattainable when that’s not the case.”

Lieberman writes, "These ad campaigns designed to make you think favorably of a hospital are part of a larger campaign to build brand recognition much like detergent or cereal makers do. Caplan told her, “Medicine is mainly being treated like a business. More and more, people are treated as customers, and doctors are treated as providers. You’d be a sap if you don’t advertise. I see a lot of cut-throat competition.”

Brand recognition ads are "especially important when what Caplan calls the Mother Ship Hospital buys smaller facilities in other locations as a way to bring in more patients," Lieberman writes. "When people live in communities where, say, a hospital like New York’s Mt. Sinai Hospital or the Cleveland Clinic has bought a satellite facility, they’ll think favorably about someday being a patient at the local affiliate."

She adds, "A recent study published in the JAMA Network Open found that the likelihood of surviving complex cancer surgery appears to be greater for those who had the procedure at the top-ranked hospitals than at their affiliates. Until we know more, the best advice is to take hospital advertising with a grain of salt. Do research on your own if you are in a situation where you can make a choice – many people can’t – using the Medicare Hospital Compare website and any state information. You might also consider information on, a nonprofit patient-safety organization, to help with your decision-making."

Medicare plans reimbursement boost for low-wage rural hospitals; urban hospitals, which would lose, likely to fight

The federal government plans to increase Medicare reimbursements by about $4.7 billion in fiscal year 2020 to help struggling rural hospitals. That's an overall increase of about 3.2 percent.

Starting in October, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services "wants to raise the index for low-wage hospitals at the expense of decreasing it for high-wage hospitals," Robert King and Alex Kacik report for Modern Healthcare. "The goal is to help close a wide payment disparity that some advocates say is fueling the rash of rural hospital closures."

The proposal is part of a larger overhaul to the CMS inpatient prospective-payment system, which also includes measures to allow add-on payments for newly approved medical devices that are significantly better than the ones already on the market. "Still, rural hospitals are worried about how the change will affect them, and if it will be enough," King and Kacik report. The proposed rule doesn't impact rural critical-access hospitals or health clinics that are also financially struggling.

The wealthiest urban hospitals, which could see a reduction of as much as 5% in their reimbursements, are likely to fight the proposed change, King and Kacik report.

Widely available rural broadband could boost U.S. economy by $47 billion a year, USDA says in report

Expanding rural broadband to farms and ranches nationwide could result in at least $47 billion in national economic benefits every year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A USDA report, A Case for Rural Broadband, is part of the agency's ongoing efforts to expand rural broadband. It recently launched a $600 million pilot program to awards loans and grants to rural communities to build out their own broadband networks.

The report says that, if broadband and digital technologies were widely available in rural areas, the U.S. economy could get a boost equal to about 18 percent of the nation's total agricultural production. Such digital technologies usher in what the report calls "Next Generation Precision Agriculture," in which farmers use precise, frequently updated data on their lands and crops for more accurate planting, feeding and watering, pest management and harvesting. 

Some NGPA technology doesn't require broadband, the report notes, but it says that as technology advances, farmers will not only need faster download speeds, but faster and "more symmetrical" upload speeds too. The Federal Communications Commission's definition of high-speed internet is 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads.

EPA ordered to decide whether to ban chlorpyrifos for good

A federal appeals court has ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to make a final decision within 90 days on whether it will ban a popular pesticide linked to developmental disorders in children. Last year the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit "ordered the EPA to remove chlorpyrifos from use within 60 days of an August ruling, ending what would have been a decade-long fight by health advocates to ban the substance," Miranda Green reports for The Hill. "However, the Trump administration promptly appealed that ruling, and the court agreed to rehear the case." It ruled Friday.

Chlorpyrifos was first developed in World War II for use in chemical warfare, but has been used for years on crops such as strawberries, oranges, corn and wheat. The EPA banned it for residential use in 2001 and proposed a total ban during President Obama's tenure, but Scott Pruitt, President Trump's first EPA administrator, reversed that order. Pruitt wrote that the science linking chlorpyrifos to neurological effects in children was "unresolved" and that further study was necessary, Green reports.

In the weeks leading up to Pruitt's decision, he secretly promised farm lobbies that he was listening to their concerns, according to internal documents obtained by The New York Times. Pesticide makers also lobbied Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, then the deputy secretary, to block a 2017 study that could have led to tighter restrictions on two pesticides. The Fish and Wildlife Service study found that chlorpyrifos and malathion were so toxic that they threatened the existence of more than 1,200 endangered species.

Elk introduced in former surface mined land in Central Appalachia to help restore ecosystems and local economies

A relocated Rocky Mountain elk roams a former strip mine in Buchanan County, Virginia. (Photo by Leon Boyd)
Elk were once native to the Appalachian Mountains, were driven out by overhunting and loss of habitat. But these days, elk are making a comeback in Central Appalachia because of strip mining, Mason Adams reports for Yes!

When a company has stopped mining, it's required to do some restoration. That usually means covering the area with topsoil and seeding it with grass and shrubs to prevent erosion. It turns out that such terrain, flat and scrubby with pockets of forests, is the perfect habitat for elk, Adams reports. Almost 2,000 have been relocated to the region from the Rocky Mountains with the help of local volunteers and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. In the Eastern Kentucky Coal Field, where they were first released, their number has grown to more than 10,000.

"Central Appalachian communities are burdened with more than a million acres of these flattened mountains, many of which have been restored on the cheap," Adams reports. "Faced with the quandary of what to do with these problematic lands, several states have used them as reintroduction sites for elk in hopes of enriching the habitat for diverse animal species. And the hopes that follow involve some economic revival in coal country from tourist dollars spent by wildlife watchers and, eventually, hunters."

New Ky.-based publication aims to bring nuanced coverage of justice, environment and culture in the rural South

Lyndsey Gilpin
A new nonprofit media organization aims to bring readers a nuanced look at ecology, justice and culture in the South. Based in Whitesburg, Ky., Southerly is meant to fill the "glaring hole in dedicated coverage of the complex relationship Southerners have with their natural resources," the publication's founder and editor, Lyndsey Gilpin, writes in The Daily Yonder.

The rural South is a large and diverse area, and its residents deserve a publication that covers these issues "without being condescending or stereotypical, without parachuting in from large metropolitan areas," Gilpin writes in Southerly's "About" page. "The rest of the world deserves to know about the creative ways communities here are adapting to these changes and how those in economic and political power are responding to either move the region forward or maintain the status quo."

Urban or nationwide media outlets often oversimplify issues and perpetuate negative rural and/or Southern stereotypes in their coverage, Gilpin writes for the Yonder. Not only does that make rural areas look bad, but it also effectively excludes the people most affected by these issues from the larger discussion, and therefore from problem-solving efforts. So Southerly makes it a point to include regional and national context in its stories, so readers from anywhere can better understand what's going on. Gilpin also plans (and has already held some) events in rural communities to discuss issues, trust in journalism, and civic engagement.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Iowa utility urges law to penalize solar customers; similar battles going on in other states

Des Moines-based MidAmerican Energy is known in Iowa as a proponent of renewable energy, since it has installed almost half the wind turbines in the state. But the utility wants state lawmakers to charge homeowners with solar panels an extra fee each month. The move highlights a sometimes adversarial relationship between the growing solar and wind power industries in several states.

"For years wind and solar were friendly twins in the campaign for green alternatives to fossil fuels, but the relationship is getting ugly in a number of states, especially in Iowa, where more than 4,000 turbines generate 34% of the state’s electricity, the second highest rate in the country," Scott McFetridge and David Pitt report for the Associated Press. "The acrimony comes as alternative energy sources are powering an increasing percentage of the country’s needs. Since 1990, the country’s wind energy capacity has grown from a tiny 0.2% to 6.5% in 2018, and in the past decade solar capacity has had an average annual growth rate of 50%. About 2 million solar systems have been installed on homes and businesses nationwide, with 3,700 in Iowa."

Utilities in other states are pushing similar bills to penalize solar customers, or decrease their incentive to produce solar power, by adding or increasing fees or paying them less for excess power they add to the grid, AP reports. Kentucky recently enacted such a bill after years of lobbying from utilities and resistance from citizens.

MidAmerican says the new fees, which would average about $27 a month, would go to maintaining the electrical grid. Since solar customers use that grid when selling excess power back to the utility, MidAmerican spokesperson Tina Hoffman told the AP that the fees are about "customer fairness . . . Paying for the grid if you use the grid is what this policy is about."

Todd Miller, who owns a solar panel business near Des Moines, said he thinks MidAmerican is more interested in cornering the market on energy production. He noted that a MidAmerican lobbyist said at a legislative hearing that the utility would use the profits from the extra fees to invest in large-scale solar projects. "They’re using that as the stepping stone to take over any and all solar," Miller told the AP. "If energy is being produced, they want to produce it."

EPA chief questions science of climate change as agency warns localities to prepare for more natural disasters

The Environmental Protection Agency published a 150-page document last week urging state and local leaders to start planning for the fallout from worsening natural disasters, including floods, hurricanes and wildfires. 

The guide builds on a recent government report outlining the effects of climate change, but it contrasts with EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler's views on the subject; last month, the former fossil-fuels lobbyist told CBS that climate change wouldn't be much of a problem for 50 to 75 years, Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report for The Washington Post.

"The divergence between Wheeler and his own agency offers the latest example of the often contradictory way that federal climate policy has evolved under President Trump," the Post reports. "As the White House has sought to minimize or ignore climate science, government experts have continued to sound the alarm. The White House has repeatedly sought ways to question the broad scientific consensus that human activities are driving climate change, and it is considering creating a federal advisory panel to re-examine those findings. But while the National Security Council is still pursuing the . . . proposal, it has encountered resistance from military and intelligence officials as well as the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy."

That's because there's an increasing body of research that confirms not only the existence of climate change but its effects. "Since 2011, the American Meteorological Society has compiled an annual assessment of how human-caused climate change probably affected the strength and frequency of extreme events such as record heat waves, droughts and wildfires," Eilperin and Dennis report. "The group has said that of the more than 130 peer-reviewed studies published as part of the annual reviews, about 65 percent have identified the fingerprints of climate change in extreme weather events, while about 35 percent found no clear connection."

Fact-checking the role of cow farts in climate change

The Green New Deal has generated a surprising amount of debate on whether cows fart and whether that flatulence contributes to climate change. The question first came to the forefront after the plan's liberal sponsors put out an information sheet. "With tongue in cheek or foot in mouth, depending on whom you ask, the statement's authors said that despite the plan's proposals for strong limits on emissions over a decade, 'we aren't sure that we'll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast,'" Calvin Woodward and Seth Borenstein report for The Associated Press.

That sentence led to rampant mocking from Republicans, which led a fed-up Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., to tell Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last month that "Just for the record, cows don't fart. They belch," AP reports.

So what's the truth here? AP fact-checkers asked global experts on climate change and interviewed an author who wrote "the definitive science book on gassy animals," they write. They found that, unsurprisingly, cows do fart. But even though the methane from cow flatulence contributes to climate change, as much as 95% of the potent greenhouse gas produced by cows comes from their burps.

"In a nutshell, belches are bad news," AP reports. "At Tuscia University in Viterbo, Italy, environmental scholar Giampiero Grossi said methane emitted by ruminant livestock accounts for about 5.5% of the greenhouse gasses that come from human activity. More than 70% of livestock emissions are from cattle, he said." However, burning fossil fuels generate 10 to 17 times more greenhouse gases than livestock emissions, according to Christopher Field at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

For those who reject the science of climate change, focusing on a seemingly absurd climate-change vector like cow flatulence is a "a go-to rhetorical weapon they use against having a serious discussion," Georgia Tech climate scientist Kim Cobb told AP. 

Register for Rural Health Journalism Workshop

The Association of Health Care Journalists is holding a free one-day workshop in Denver, Colorado, on June 12 to help rural health journalists find and cover rural stories. The Rural Health Journalism Workshop 2019 will feature health care and policy experts on rural medical issues, and will go from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Limited travel stipends are available. Learn more about and register for the workshop here.

The workshop is sponsored by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Commonwealth Fund.

Access to life-saving care increasingly challenging for rural women, write women's health advocates

Decreasing access to health care is having a devastating impact on rural women, write Drs. Roberta Gebhard and Eliza Lo Chin. Gebhard is the president of the American Medical Women's Association and Chin is the organization's executive director. They write:
"Almost 30% of women age 18 or older live in rural communities, and the effects of their declining access to healthcare are continuing to compound. Rural women are at greater risk of poor health and disease, and often have limited access to preventive screenings and mammograms. Pregnant women in rural areas also face incredible difficulty accessing the necessary maternity care, as only 6% of the nation’s OB-GYNs work in rural settings. As less than half of rural women live within a 30-minute drive of the nearest hospital offering obstetric services, and only about 19% of family physicians in rural areas offer these services, pregnant women in these areas are forced to travel long distances for prenatal care." 
 Read more here.