Friday, May 24, 2019

Corps OKs plan for keeping Asian carp out of Great Lakes; it's more expensive than first draft and might not be effective

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel maps show drainage near Chicago, including the Little Calumet River, where an adult Asian carp was found in June 2017, and Lake Calumet, where environmental DNA of two Asian carp species was found recently.
The Army Corps of Engineers will ask Congress for $778 million for its latest plan to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. "The strategy calls for installing devices such as noisemakers, air bubbles and an electric barrier to deter the fish," The Associated Press reports. "Scientists say if Asian carp become established in the Great Lakes, they could out-compete native fish."

The devices would be installed at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam on the Des Plaines River near Joliet, Illinois, AP reports: "It's considered a chokepoint where Asian carp and other invasive species could be prevented from migrating into Lake Michigan." The Corps already has an electric barrier farther upstream, past the northernmost set of locks on the canals connecting to Lake Michigan.

Silver carp (top) and bighead carp, species whose DNA was
found. (Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee photo)
The plan is much more expensive than a $275 million draft plan that the Corps announced last year, and it might not be effective. Brandon Road is 140 miles south of Lake Michigan, but the fish may already be on their way to getting established between the dam and the lake. "Researchers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have found environmental DNA of two species of carp in a lake that's just a few miles from Lake Michigan," Tracy Samilton reports for Michigan Radio.

"Environmental DNA comes from things like fish scales. It's an indicator that the fish could be present," Samilton reports. "The eDNA that was recently found came from samples from Lake Calumet." In June 2017, an adult carp was found in the Little Calumet River, in the same area.

Trump announces $16 billion trade-aid package for farmers

President Trump announced yesterday a $16 billion aid package aimed at helping farmers hurt by his trade war with China. "Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said $14.5 billion of the $16 billion would be paid out directly to producers, who have been hit hard by Trump’s tariff showdowns with China, Mexico and other countries," The Washington Post reports.

The first payments to farmers will come in July or August. In addition to the $14.5 billion paid to producers of row crops, fruits, vegetables, nuts, pork and dairy, Perdue said the government will spend $1.4 billion to buy and donate crops to food banks and schools, and will award $100 million in grants to develop new markets overseas, Chuck Abbott reports for Successful Farming.

"The three-prong structure is similar in design and name to the 2018 Trump bailout payments that were supposed to be a one-time boost. That package has paid $10 billion, mostly in cash to producers," Abbott reports. "The new package covers three dozen commodities compared with the nine earmarked for aid in 2018. For this year, the USDA says it will calculate trade war damage per county and divide the money among farmers based on how many acres of the eligible crops are planted this year. The USDA will announce the payment rates later."

"The relief plan aims to avoid problems that arose in the first aid package, when soybeans received what many believed was a disproportionate amount of the money, while corn received only a penny a bushel. Other producers were shut out entirely from relief payments," the Post reports.

The payment rate will be the same for all farmers regardless of what they plant. However, they will have to plant to receive it, Abbott reports. Midwestern farmers are anxious on that account since flooding has delayed planting, and some may not be able to plant at all this year. Farm groups have urged the USDA to base payments on historical production so the current weather won't hurt this year's trade aid payout. Last year, rates were based partly on the average yield of a crop in a county.

American farmers have been struggling for years with falling income and commodity prices. That left many with few financial reserves to cope with the trade war; an American Farm Bureau Federation data analysis shows that Chapter 12 farm bankruptcies rose from March 2017 to March 2018, especially in the Midwest, the Post reports.

"Randy Spronk, a hog farmer and past president of the National Pork Producers Council who attended the president’s Thursday meeting with farmers, said farmers realized the potential payouts will not make up for the losses due to a protracted trade war with China," the Post reports.

"Will it cover the losses? No. But it makes enough of a difference to keep a lot of farmers so they can survive," Spronk told the Post. Trump said the money will come from "the billions of dollars the Treasury takes in" from China, but the Post notes that "China does not pay tariffs imposed by the United States on Chinese imports. Importers pay those tariffs, and some of them pass on the cost to U.S. consumers."

GateHouse makes 'sizable' layoffs, which union local calls 'senseless and greedy;' shareholders reject CEO's pay plan; firm says it's creating a national and regional reporting team

GateHouse Media, which owns more U.S. newspapers than any other company, is making its second chain-wide layoff this year. But it's unclear just how many, or exactly what the company is doing. "A GateHouse employee who wished to keep their name private said layoffs could number near 200," reports Benjamin Goffin of Business Insider. He wrote that he had "confirmed more than 65 cuts in at least 22 local newsrooms in Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio, and Massachusetts, with potentially more to come on Friday."

Tom Jones of the Poynter Institute reports: "Mike Reed, CEO of GateHouse’s parent company, New Media Investment Group, told Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds, 'We are doing a small restructuring — at least that’s what I would call it — that I’m sure will be misreported. We have 11,000 employees. This involves a couple of hundred.' Reed said . . . a great majority 'are moving from non-reporting to reporting jobs' and the actual reduction in news staff is 'more like 10.' But numbers far exceeded 10 when journalists impacted took to social media and reached out to Poynter on Thursday." New Media Investment CEO Kirk Davis said in a memo to employees that the layoffs are "sizable," MassLive reports.

In Leesburg, Florida, the Daily Commercial "is now left with just six people to put out a seven-day-a-week paper," Jones reports, in a story that is being updated. In nearby Lakeland, The Ledger lost three editors and two reporters, the local news site reported.

In Illinois, the Galesburg Register-Mail also lost five staffers, three in its sports department, sports reporter Tom Wheaton said in an email to his contacts. UPDATE, May 26: The newspaper ran a story saying "This reorganization is part of a larger strategy to build a sustainable business model for quality, local journalism as the industry as a whole faces mounting competition from major technology platforms like Google and Facebook."

In nearby Peoria, the Journal Star lost three newsroom employees, which the local of the United Media Guild called "senseless and greedy," adding, "As usual, these cuts aren't necessary, as the JS is thoroughly in the black -- and, as our publisher so proudly announced recently, doing better financially of late. Rather, the cuts, as always, aim to line the pocketbooks of the GateHouse front office and its shareholders."

New Media Investment is "trading at all-time lows" and shareholders on Thursday "rejected a proposed compensation plan that includes $1.7 million" for Davis, reports Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal. Less than a month ago, "the company’s longtime chairman, Wesley R. Edens, resigned from that role" and was succeeded by Reed.

UPDATE, May 26: The story in the Galesburg paper says, "GateHouse announced in a message to publishers that the company is making a significant investment in national and regional investigative reporting and digital development. This data-driven reporting team of more than 30 talented journalists will focus on critical areas including healthcare, public safety and higher education. The team will be embedded in a number of local newsrooms."

The layoffs come on the heels of two GateHouse reporting projects, one on the potential of lay midwives to deliver obstetric service in rural areas, the other by its Missouri papers, led by the Columbia Daily Tribune, on the rural-urban divide in that state. The company says it owns 156 daily newspapers and 328 weeklies.

Berea College announces winners of Appalachian narrative essay contest; top winner counterpoints Hillbilly Elegy

Lonormi Manuel (Facebook photo)
So much of what pop culture says about Appalachia comes from the outside, and is often riddled with stereotypes and ill-informed judgments. The "Appalachian Narratives for Our Time" contest from Berea College's Loyal Jones Appalachian Center is a breath of fresh air, with personal essays about the realities of living in Appalachia. Berea recently announced the winners, which were selected by best-selling author Silas House. House, a Laurel County native, is Berea's National Endowment for the Humanities chair.

"Appalachia has a rich and, at the same time, challenging history," center director Chris Green said in a press release announcing the winners. "All too often, however, national media portrays difficulties in the region as the fault of people who live here. We wanted to give the majority of Appalachians who grow up and make good lives a new opportunity to tell their stories."

Lonormi Manuel of Anderson County, Kentucky, a native of East Tennessee who grew up in Southwest Virginia, won first place for "An Exaltation of Appalachia," which House described as creative and complex. Here's an excerpt:
“The Appalachia of my childhood had all the problems ascribed to today’s Appalachia, problems which—I repeat—are found in every single community in this country. (Anyone who says otherwise is lying to you. They have probably lied to you about other things, too.) The Appalachia of my childhood also had a rich tradition of music and literature, a natural beauty second to none, a culture of helping to build our neighbors up instead of tearing our neighbors down.”
This week Manuel discussed the essay on WEKU-FM's "Eastern Standard." She said she titled her essay an "exaltation," one of the few uplifting synonyms for "elegy," as a deliberate riposte to J.D. Vance's book Hillbilly Elegy, which she said depicts Appalachia as a hopeless, dying place in need of outside help.

"What I want is for Appalachia to stop waiting for somebody from the outside to bring us a solution to our problems," Manuel told host Tom Martin. "We can't help the fact that a lot of our problems have originated outside of our homes and our communities, but we have the power within us, if we will stand up and look in the mirror and say, 'Yes, I can do this, we can do this,' and believe it . . . I want to prove the stereotypes wrong, I want us to reclaim our identity for ourselves, and I want us to stand up and say, 'We have the right of self-determination, and we don't need your elegy to tell us who we are.'"

Richard Hopkins brought home second place for "From Moonshine to Lawyer." The Northern Georgia resident recounts his rise from childhood poverty, and talks about how his school's Future Farmers of America advisor became his "benchmark for how to act and go through life."

Jamie Ward, born and raised in Gray Hawk, Ky., won third with "An Appalachian Upbringing," which House lauded for its handling of regional historical and cultural contexts. From the essay:
“I’m in my thirties and I still struggle with my Appalachian identity. How do I reconcile my frustrations with my gratitude and values? How do I represent my hometown to the greater world in a way that is honest yet protective of the people I love so dearly? How do I advance in my profession without sacrificing the needs of my community?”

Study points the finger at rock dust as likely cause of increased black-lung disease in Appalachian coal miners

"New mining methods that churn up silica-laden rock are likely responsible for the surge of black-lung disease that has afflicted hundreds of miners across Central Appalachia in recent years, according to new research presented at the American Thoratic Society’s annual meeting this week," Will Wright reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

That's nothing new to people familiar with the reporting of Howard Berkes, now retired from NPR, but the study is the fclosest thing yet to scientific confirmation of the phenomenon. Robert Cohen, co-director of the Black Lung Center of Excellence, led the research.

Black-lung disease is caused by inhaling dust created by mining and transporting coal. The dust once came mainly from coal, but silica dust from cutting through the rock above and below coal seams is now the leading cause of the disease, because the thick seams have been mined. Mining thinner seams produces a larger ratio of rock dust to coal dust.

In 2014 the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration required mine operators to provide better dust sampling and allow less dust, but "dust" encompassed both coal and silica. Cohen said his research confirms that current regulations are inadequate and poorly enforced. "He also advocated that federal regulators should give silica its own regulatory designation, rather than rolling it into the existing coal-dust rule," Wright reports.

Cohen's project consisted of two studies. "The first examined tissue samples from 376 dead coal miners who participated in the National Coal Workers Autopsy Study. If found that the proportion of black lung primarily caused by silica increased from 24 percent before 1990 to 40 percent after 1990. Another 30 percent of cases were caused by a mix of coal dust and silica dust," Wright reports. 

The second study examined cause of death data for more than 34,000 miners and found that a higher percentage are dying from black lung than previous generations. "Black lung has contributed to the deaths of more than 76,000 miners since 1968, and while just 5 percent of miners had black lung in the late 1990s, that rate jumped to more than 20 percent in 2017, according to a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study published last year." Cohen's research also found that more younger miners are affected by the disease these days.

Research increasingly links depression and suicide to chronic disease, especially among seniors in rural U.S.

"Rural America has some of the highest rates of chronic disease in the nation – the more remote a community, the more heart disease, cancer and diabetes. And there’s a side effect from having a chronic condition many people don’t think about – depression, anxiety and even suicide," Lisa Gillespie reports for Louisville's WFPL. "This is especially true for older adults, who’ve lived their entire lives in places with little access to places to exercise, with diets high in fat and sugar and in a culture that still hasn’t given up tobacco."

To compound the problem, rural residents often have a hard time accessing medical care for their chronic conditions and psychiatric care for the attendant mental health issues. That contributes to the increased risk of suicide in rural areas, which are already at higher risk because of a lagging economy and substance abuse. For example, "suicide rates in 2017 were 30 percent higher in Appalachia than in the rest of the country." Within the region, suicides were concentrated in Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and East Tennessee, areas that struggle with high opioid-addiction rates and poverty. 

Gina Piane, a professor at National University in San Diego, was one of the first researchers to link chronic disease and mental health. Giving rural youth more health and nutrition education is a key way to prevent such issues, she told Gillespie. Psychologist John Fulton, who works in a rural Kentucky hospital, said he tries to teach his patients coping skills and recommends that they develop a support system of friends and family if they don't already have one.

"I try to say, you know, you’re sitting there focusing on the bad things, and all that’s going to do is drag you down deeper,” Fulton told Gillespie. "[I] try to get them to, you know, turn around and start thinking about, 'Well, I’ll go outside and look at dogs or I’ll watch wrestling on TV' — get their mind off the illness and how bad they feel."

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Local foundations back $660K rural journalism collaborative in Mountain West, where Facebook rules the news

As lower advertising revenues force cuts in local news media, philanthropists are showing increasing interest in funding local journalism. "But media philanthropy, like most everything else about media, is still largely centered on the coasts and in major metropolitan area," Christine Schmidt reports for Harvard University's Nieman Lab. "A handful of local foundations (along with Report for America and Solutions Journalism Network) are now upping their commitment for a journalism collaboration across the Mountain West . . . especially on rural issues and Native American stories."

The group has committed $660,000 for a one-year initiative to expand SJN's local engagement training in newsrooms and hire seven journalists funded by Report for America. The collaboration began with a 2015 survey the LOR Foundation and SJN conducted of Mountain West residents; only 20% of respondents deemed local news "consistently relevant and valuable," Schmidt reports. Nearly 80% "said they found most of their local news on Facebook; others named friends and even tavern hearsay as more useful sources than the local newspaper or TV station."

In 2016 LOR and SJN launched a pilot with seven New Mexico and Colorado newsrooms, and in 2017 shifted and expanded to 12 newsrooms each in New Mexico and Montana. The groups partnered with 50 newsrooms, but found there weren't enough reporters for in-depth local coverage. Other foundations got involved, culminating in this year's $660,000 commitment, Schmidt reports.

Some of the foundations are local, which SJN president Keith Hammonds says bodes well for the project and similar efforts. "I think it’s incredibly important that local and regional foundations see the importance of local media as part of the infrastructure of civic life in their communities and also see the indelible importance, the relationship between high quality local reporting and the rest of civic life they are funding," Hammonds told Schmidt. "Whatever a foundation’s local interests are, it cannot advance without the free flow of quality info that keeps businesses informed engaged and activated. I think that that piece of this may be the most critical of all."

Crop planting delayed because of Midwest flooding; farmers hope that won't hurt payments from new trade-aid program

Extensive flooding in the Midwest has delayed planting for many farmers. That's become a more complicating factor in the Department of Agriculture's efforts to create a $16 billion aid program for farmers hurt by the trade war with China.

"Farm groups have pushed for higher aid for their own commodities," and the National Farmers Union asked Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue last week to base the payments on historical production. That would be different from the payments created last year, which "were specifically tied to production levels," Chris Clayton writes for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "With final planting dates for crop insurance quickly approaching, the formula used for trade aid could factor heavily in farmers' planting decisions in the coming weeks."

Corn and soybean planting are significantly behind, and more heavy rain and flooding is predicted for the next few weeks. "With planting so far behind normal and continued heavy rain and flooding still in the forecast for the Midwest and Plains through the end of May, expectations are high that the number of prevented-planting acres could be large," Clayton reports. Some farmers may be forced to replant, and some will likely be unable to plant at all. For them, basing aid on historical production would make all the difference.

Rural wireless carriers scrambling in wake of ban on Chinese companies that supply key hardware, software

Last week President Trump banned U.S. telecommunications networks from buying or using equipment from "foreign adversaries," a move apparently targeting China. But that will mainly hurt small, rural carriers that rely on the inexpensive tech from Huawei, ZTE and similar companies. The move "left these small broadband companies under a cloud of uncertainty. If they can no longer rely on affordable foreign equipment to run their networks, will they run at all?" Suhauma Hussain and Alice Su report for the Los Angeles Times. "The move also left rural broadband companies that use Huawei equipment scrambling to figure out what it might mean for their day-to-day operations. Though small carriers don’t export to Huawei, they often need to send technical drawings or data to Huawei in order to maintain their current network infrastructure."

The Commerce Department announced Monday a 90-day window in which companies relying on Huawei equipment to keep operating. Rural carriers are unsure what will happen after that. "Rural broadband carriers could be forced to rip out and replace entire networks because they wouldn’t be able to import spare parts or software updates to maintain infrastructure," Hussain and Su report.

What does that look like for small carriers? John Nettles, president of Alabama carrier Pine Belt Communications, says replacing his company's network "would cost $5 million to $10 million. And downtime from installing new equipment would probably cause Pine Belt to forgo $1 million to $3 million in roaming fees, according to Federal Communications Commission filings," Hussain and Su report. Pine Belt has about 40 employees and around 60 cell sites, and provides 4G coverage in farming areas overlooked by big providers.

"I’m aware of the need to have secure networks. We’re not trying to suggest security is not an important consideration," Nettles told Hussain and Su. "But how do you balance it with providing service to underserved markets — which is mainly where we operate?"

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill Wednesday to provide $700 million in grants to help U.S. telecoms providers replace Huawei and ZTE equipment. "The Rural Wireless Association, which represents carriers with fewer than 100,000 subscribers, estimates that 25 percent of its members have Huawei and ZTE in their networks, and have said it would cost $800 million to $1 billion to replace it," Makini Brice reports for Reuters.

USDA researchers say they're being forced to relocate or quit because of work that undermined Trump policies

"The Agriculture Department is moving nearly all its researchers into the economic effects of climate change, trade policy and food stamps – subjects of controversial Trump administration initiatives – outside of Washington, part of what employees claim is a political crackdown on economists whose assessments have raised questions about the president’s policies," Politico reports.

Last year, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced he would move the Economic Research Service away from Washington, and in March began informing employees who would have to relocate with the agency. Some claimed the move was meant to pressure researchers into quitting rather than relocating. Of the agency's 279 employees, only 76 are being allowed to stay in Washington, Politico's Liz Crampton reports. 

"The current and former employees, all of whom requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation, say the specialties of those who are being asked to move corresponds closely to the areas where economic assessments often clash with the president’s policies, including tax policies, climate change, and the farm economy," Crampton writes.

A USDA spokesperson refused to directly address employees' allegation of political bias, but said the move was not politically motivated. Crampton reports, "Employees claim the department’s leadership, including Perdue, turned against the research service after an estimate early last year suggested that the Republican-backed tax plan would largely benefit the wealthiest farmers."

Rural Telehealth Toolkit webinar online at 1 p.m. ET June 5

A webinar about the new Rural Telehealth Toolkit, which is designed to help rural communities identify and implement telehealth programs, will be online June 5. The Rural Health Information Hub and the Norc Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis will present the webinar, with featured experts in rural health and telehealth.

The free webinar will begin at 1 p.m. ET June 5 and  last about an hour. Click here for more information or to register. A recording will be available afterward.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Telemedicine can't help rural America very much until broadband access improves, researchers conclude

University of Pittsburgh maps; click on the image to enlarge it. CEAC is a county with extreme access considerations.
Telemedicine, whether the patient is is a health-care facility or at home, has been lauded as a way to increase rural health-care access, but a newly published study suggests that it can't help very much until rural broadband access improves.

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health mapped out areas where residents might have to drive an hour or more to access a primary care physician or specialist. "Then, to determine access to broadband, the researchers turned to data from the Federal Communications Commission to find out whether people who lived in counties with distant drives to doctors had a way to download data at a speed of at least 25 megabits per second, which is sufficient to support video-based telehealth visits," Linda Carroll reports for Reuters.

The researchers found that, in counties with inadequate access to primary care physicians and psychiatrists, the broadband subscription rate was 38.6%. And even if the broadband problem were solved, there are other barriers to telemedicine, according to lead author Coleman Drake: "Medicare, with few exceptions, doesn’t reimburse for telemedicine visits from home."

EPA bans 12 pesticides linked to deaths of honeybees

As part of a legal settlement, the Environmental Protection Agency is banning 12 insecticides containing neonicotinoids, chemicals known to be toxic to honeybees. Ten are sold in the U.S.

"For years, beekeepers and wildlife conversationalists alike have voiced concern that the widespread use of neo-nics, as the chemicals are commonly called, is imperiling wild and domesticated bees crucial to pollinating commercial fruit, nut and vegetable crops," Dino Grandoni reports for The Washington Post.

EPA has pulled other neonics from the market before, but this is a rare action. "The decision follows five years of litigation in which the beekeepers and environmentalists pressed the agency to mount a response to the use of neonics as regulators in Europe and Canada have taken steps toward banning the chemicals," Grandoni reports. "Finally, at the end of 2018, three agribusinesses — Bayer, Syngenta and Valentagreed to let the EPA pull from shelves the 12 pesticide products used by growers ranging from large-scale agricultural businesses to home gardeners. The legal settlement also compels the EPA to analyze the impacts of the entire neo-nic class on endangered species."

Difficulty in hiring and keeping doctors helps drive rural health care shortage; being a rural physician is a calling

The recently released Life in Rural America survey found that rural Americans are having a harder time these days accessing health care. Part of the problem is pure distance: "One out of every four people living in rural areas said they couldn't get the health care they needed recently. And about a quarter of those said the reason was that their health care location was too far or difficult to get to," Kirk Siegler reports for NPR.

Local health care isn't available to many rural residents because so many rural hospitals have closed -- more than 100 since 2010, with hundreds more in dire financial straits. Of the more than 7,000 areas in the U.S. with health professional shortages, almost 60% were in rural areas, Siegler reports.

Another big problem is that it's hard to find replacements for retiring rural doctors. "As baby boomer doctors retire, independent family practices are closing, especially in small towns. Only 1% of doctors in their final year of medical school say they want to live in communities under 10,000; only 2% were wanted to live in towns of 25,000 or fewer," Siegler reports. "Taking over a small-town practice is too expensive, or in some cases, too time-consuming for younger, millennial physicians. And a lot of the newly minted doctors out of medical training are opting to work at hospitals, rather than opening their own practices."

Being a rural doctor also requires a different mindset. Christopher Wong, a family practice physician in Ogallala, Nebraska, said it was a difficult transition. "Being a doctor in a small town, you're always on, even when you're not. It's not like you can just clock out and leave work. Wong will bump into a patient at the grocery store who politely asks about this ailment or that problem. Everyone knows him and there's no anonymity," Siegler reports.

"I think that's why it's also hard to get physicians into rural practice, because it's hard to maintain a personal life," Wong told Siegler.

How rural areas can become more hurricane-ready

Seven months after Hurricane Michael hit Florida's Gulf Coast, rural areas of the Panhandle still haven't recovered: many people are still living in tents and relying on food banks, and many businesses have left the area for good. Those rural areas suffered more severe damage because they were unprepared for the Category 5 storm, Eren Ozguven writes on The Conversation. Ozguven is a Florida State University engineering professor who has studied hurricane resilience for 13 years.

Though it's challenging to prepare for large, fast-moving storms like Michael, Ozguven and some of his FSU colleagues are working with Panhandle communities to help them improve their response plans ahead of the 2019 hurricane season. That includes planning for emergency communications if cell-phone towers get knocked out. "It also is important to assess which demographic and socioeconomic groups will be most affected by damage to power lines and roadways – for example, aging populations," Ozguven writes. "Studying power outages and roadway closures during hurricanes, together with a region’s physical features, reveals vulnerable locations that will be at high risk in future events."

It's especially important to create strong community training programs in rural areas and make sure neighbors can count on each other in emergencies. , Ozguven says planners must also make sure they have up-to-date information on rural populations to make sure no one is left behind, and involve rural communities in the planning.

ARC report provides an update on trends in Appalachia

One of dozens of maps in the report (Click on it for a larger version.)
The Appalachian Regional Commission has released an extensive report detailing trends in Appalachia from 2013 to 2017, including population, education, employment, income, poverty, and broadband access. Most data comes from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey. Among the report's key points:
  • Much of Appalachia has lost population since 2010, but some southern parts of the region – East Tennessee and northern Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia – have grown. (There have long been significant economic and demographic differences among ARC's five sub-regions, which are defined partly by those differences; Central Appalachia has most of the region's economically distressed counties.)
  • The overall Appalachian poverty rate is declining slightly overall, but is still higher than the U.S. average and is increasing in Central and North Central Appalachia.
  • The unemployment rate for working-age adults is lowest in Northern Appalachia and highest in Central Appalachia.
  • The median household income in Appalachia is $47,836, or 83% of the nationwide average of $57,652.
  • Minorities made up 18.6% of Appalachia's population in 2017, up from 16.4% in 2010. In that same timespan, the nation's minority population rose from 36.2% to 39.3%.
  • African Americans are the largest minority population in Appalachia at 9.7%, but Latinos are the fastest-growing (from 4.2% in 2010 to 5.1% in 2017).
  • The percentage of Appalachian adults from 25 to 64 with a high-school diploma (88.5%) is almost the same as the nationwide average of 88.6%. 
  • Appalachian adults are more likely than the national average to have an associate's degree but less likely to have a bachelor's degree.
  • 30.7% of Appalachian adults with a bachelor's degree have one in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) field, compared to 34.8% nationwide.
  • 94.6% of Appalachia's labor force is employed, the same as nationwide.
  • 31.7% of Appalachian workers work outside the county they live in, compared with 27.6% of U.S. workers.
  • 82.2% of Appalachian households have access to a computer, compared to the nationwide average of 87.2%. 
  • 63.8% of Appalachian households have access to a smartphone, but only 42.8% have a cellular data plan subscription.
  • 72.3% of Appalachian households have a broadband subscription, compared to the U.S. average of 78.1%. Broadband subscriptions are highest in Northern Appalachia and lowest in Central Appalachia.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Lay midwives won't solve gap in rural maternity care, according to GateHouse Media analysis of data

Access to obstetric care has been dwindling in rural America for years. Midwives have been touted as a way to help close the coverage gap, but a new data analysis by GateHouse Media shows that may not be the case. 

"An estimated 5 million women live in maternity care deserts, defined as a county with neither an obstetric provider nor a hospital offering obstetric care, according to the March of Dimes, which links lack of access to maternal mortality and poor birth outcomes," Lucille Sherman reports for GateHouse. Nearly 1,100 maternity care deserts exist nationwide, but a GateHouse analysis of more than 3,000 non-nurse midwives showed that very few live in those deserts. 

"There are so many counties that don’t have a single health care provider. A big part of obstetric care is the prenatal care, preconception care and postpartum care," Jeffrey Goldberg, legislative chair for the Kentucky Section of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, told Sherman. "Lay midwifery is not going to be a solution for that."

The analysis features excellent data presentation through multimedia maps and is well worth a read.

Major dairy processors invest in dairy-free products such as oat milk, leaving small farmers increasingly in the lurch

One reason the American dairy industry has been struggling in recent years: People just don't drink as much milk anymore. Instead, more consumers increasingly favor substitutes made from nuts, flax, hemp, and more. Major dairy processors have tried to fight the trend by lobbying to ban non-dairy products from using dairy-associated words like milk, yogurt or cheese. But many have also been investing or launching their own plant-based dairy alternative product lines. "The fight, which is now playing out in Washington, pits smaller dairy farmers against some of the country’s largest milk producers, which have been increasingly looking to work both ends of the dairy aisle," Janelle Nanos reports for The Boston Globe

Major dairy processors like HP Hood, Dean Foods and Danone North America have launched or invested in plant-based brands in recent years. Hood, especially, has embraced the trend. The company has been producing Almond Breeze nut milk in its facilities for the past decade, and in January became the first major dairy to market its own oat milk, Nanos reports.

Oat milk, made by straining oats and water, is the current darling of the alt-milk world. It first became popular in 2016 when Oatly, a 25-year-old Swedish oat milk brand, hit American coffeehouses in 2016. The product quickly became popular because it was rich, creamy, free of common allergens, and foams up like real cow's milk, Nanos reports. Hood executives say their effort to get an oat milk product to market has paid off, and that its Planet Oat is so popular that Amazon regularly runs out. 

"That one of the nation’s major dairy producers considered it a coup to introduce an oat milk to America was yet another sign that the traditional milk market is at a crossroads," Nanos reports. "Americans bought $16.16 billion of cow’s milk in the year ending in late March 2015, the market research firm Nielsen found, but that number dropped to $12.13 billion at the same time this past year. Meanwhile, sales of alternative milks were up 8 percent year-over-year, as of January of this year, hitting $1.7 billion, according to Nielsen data."

10-part series explores rural-urban divide in central Missouri

The Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri has launched a 10-part series that aims to explore the division between rural and urban communities in Central Missouri, and the changes those communities have seen over the past few decades.

The Rural Divide project is "the culmination of hundreds of hours of work by more than a dozen staff members in four GateHouse Missouri newsrooms," writes Daily Tribune Managing Editor Charles Westmoreland. "This series is one of the most aggressive projects I’ve been a part of, and it wouldn’t have been possible if not for the tireless work of our journalism teams."

Westmoreland takes readers behind the scenes on the series in his explainer, discussing how the reporting teams gathered information, what metrics and data they mined, and what inspired the series in the first place. "In the coming weeks the topics we will explore include jobs, education, municipal funding, health care, agriculture, crime, infrastructure, poverty and the role of local sports," Westmoreland writes. "The series will conclude June 19 with a look at how everything we’ve reported so far connects to Columbia and Boone County."

The first article in the series, published May 18, provides readers with an overview of the project. The next article will be published May 22.

Report ranks best, worst states to live in; how did yours do?

Washington is the best overall state to live in and Louisiana, for the third year in a row, is the worst, according to U.S. News & World Report's annual Best States Rankings.

The rankings draw on more than 70 metrics in eight main categories such as health care, education, economy, infrastructure; some measures are weighted based on what people said matters most to them. "Health care and education were weighted most heavily," U.S. News says. "Then came state economies, infrastructure, and the opportunity states offer their citizens. Fiscal stability followed closely in weighting, followed by measures of crime & corrections and a state's natural environment.

"At a time when the federal government is attempting to hand more responsibility for spending and policymaking to the states, these rankings offer the first comprehensive view, state by state, of how some states already are performing best," the report says. "This highly interactive platform enables users to explore thousands of important benchmarks and easily draw state-to-state comparisons. Build a chart, share it, and ultimately learn what all the states can learn from one another."

The overall top five states are, in descending order: Washington, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Utah, and Vermont. The overall bottom five states are, in descending order, New Mexico, West Virginia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana.

Most rural Americans, broadly defined, are happy with their quality of life, but many face problems getting health care

Most rural Americans, broadly defined, are satisfied with their quality of life. But most also say their local economy isn't in good shape, and 40% say they've had trouble affording food, housing or medical bills in the past few years. So says the second part of the "Life in Rural America" survey by NPRHarvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, released today. The first part was released last October.

The second survey was conducted via cell phones and landlines from Jan. 31 to March 2, among a nationally representative sample of 1,405 adults living in the rural U.S. The poll defined rurality as areas outside a Metropolitan Statistical Area, which must have a city of at least 50,000 people.

Almost half of the survey respondents reported being financially insecure: 49% said they couldn't afford to quickly pay off an unexpected $1,000 expense. 

Health-care access remains a problem in rural America, too. Though most rural Americans have health insurance, about a quarter of respondents said they haven't been able to get health care they needed at some point in the past few years. And nearly one in 10 said their local hospital has closed in the past few years. 

Homelessness and inadequate housing are also recurring issues for rural Americans. One in three respondents said homelessness is a problem in their local community, and more than one in 10 have experienced problems with their housing such as mold or unsafe drinking water. 

One-fifth of respondents said they have difficulty accessing broadband internet. Most respondents who use the internet said they mostly used it to get health-related information, for personal finance, and for job-related activities. 

People with disabilities, racial/ethnic minorities, people with a lower education level and people with disabilities all reported greater difficulties across many parts of their lives.

Though the survey found many areas of concern in rural America, it also reflected a populace that is highly civically and socially engaged, who value their rural lifestyle and see their communities as safe. 

Monday, May 20, 2019

Jails, especially in rural areas, struggle to fulfill their increasing role as opioid detoxification centers

As opioid addiction has spread in the past decade, county jails have struggled with their increasing role as de facto detox centers. "The problem is particularly hard for jails in more rural and semi-rural counties, which often have limited access to medications, to physicians who will administer it, and to follow-up programs that inmates can tap into upon release," reports Eric Westervelt of NPR. Between half to two-thirds of today's jail population has a drug problem, and in some counties it's higher.

"To get a handle on the problem, more jails are adding some form of medication-assisted treatment, or MAT, to help inmates safely detox from opioids and stay clean behind bars and after release," NPR reports. "But there are deep concerns about potential abuse of the treatment drugs, as well as worries about the efficacy and costs of programs that jails just weren't designed or built for."

States with the biggest opioid problems, including several Ohio Valley states, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, are expanding jail MAT programs the fastest, but only 10% to 12% of the nation's 4,000 jails offer it. Though a few jails offer long-term addiction "maintenance" drugs buprenorphine and methadone to inmates, "the majority of jail-based medication-assisted treatment programs today are limited to injectable naltrexone, given upon an inmate's release," Westervelt reports.

Jails could soon be under greater pressure to expand treatment, since a federal appeals court in Boston ruled that a rural jail in Maine must provide an inmate MAT for her opioid-use disorder. The inmate had been taking buprenorphine twice a day for five years, but the Aroostook County Jail didn't want to give her the meds, arguing that the drug is often trafficked among inmates. The inmate's attorneys argued successfully that withholding treatment violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, Willis Arnold reports for NPR.

Farmers seem to be sticking with President Trump in trade war with China, but they want him to win it soon

Farmer Tim Bardole sticks with Trump. (Photo by Zach Boyden-
Holmes of the Des Moines Register, via The Associated Press)
Though his fight with China over trade "has been devastating to an already-struggling agriculture industry, there's little indication [President] Trump is paying a political price," report Sarah Burnett and Scott McFetridge of The Associated Press. "There's a big potential upside if he can get a better deal — and little downside if he continues to get credit for trying for the farmers caught in the middle. It's a calculation Trump recognizes heading into a reelection bid where he needs to hold on to farm states like Iowa and Wisconsin and is looking to flip others, like Minnesota."

The story's example is Iowa farmer Tim Bardole, who "survived years of low crop prices and rising costs by cutting back on fertilizer and herbicides and fixing broken-down equipment rather than buying new." When Trump "made a miserable situation worse, Bardole used up any equity his operation had and started investing in hogs in hopes they'll do better than crops. A year later, the dispute is still raging and soybeans hit a 10-year-low. But Bardole says he supports his president more today than he did when he cast a ballot for Trump in 2016, skeptical he would follow through on his promises."

"He does really seem to be fighting for us," Bardole says, "even if it feels like the two sides are throwing punches and we're in the middle, taking most of the hits."

After citing March polling, the story notes, "Many farmers are lifelong Republicans who like other things Trump has done, such as reining in the EPA and tackling illegal immigration, and believe he's better for their interests than most Democrats even on his worst day. They give him credit for doing something previous presidents of both parties mostly talked about. And now that they've struggled for this long, they want to see him finish the job — and soon."

"We are the frontline soldiers getting killed as this trade war goes on," Paul Jeschke, who grows corn and soybeans in northern Illinois, told AP. "I'm unhappy and I think most of us are unhappy with the situation. But most of us understand the merits. And it's not like anyone else would be better. The smooth-talking presidents we've had recently -- they certainly didn't get anything done."

When newspapers move printing elsewhere, it gives them a chance to relocate; southwestern Ky. daily goes downtown

Left to right: Landlord Hal McCoy, Editor Zirconia Alleyne and Publisher Brandon Cox in front of the building in downtown Hopkinsville, Ky., that will be the new home of the Kentucky New Era, a small daily newspaper. (Photo by Tony Kirves)
All over the country, small daily newspapers no longer need the real estate and buildings they once did, mainly because they have moved their printing to another location, usually in the same ownership group, to save personnel and equipment-maintenance costs.

That happened when Paducah-based Paxton Media Inc. bought the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville and moved the printing to Owensboro. The company didn't buy the newspaper's real estate, so it's moving to a downtown building that once housed a J.C. Penney & Co. store and is directly across the street from City Hall. The paper moved from downtown in 1971.

"Publisher Brandon Cox likes the idea of getting closer to the action," writes Jennifer P. Brown, an online news entrepreneur and former New Era editor whom the paper hired to write the story of the move. Cox told her, “From an editorial perspective, we support what’s going on in downtown Hopkinsville, and we think we should put our money where our mouth is.” That took some finagling.

Brown writes, "There was only one available building with a loading dock to handle distribution of the papers when they arrive on trucks around 2:30 a.m. on the New Era’s five publication days. Hopkinsville businessman Hal McCoy made a deal to buy the former J.C. Penney building and will renovate two vacant bays on the main floor. One bay will be for McCoy, who owns and manages several residential and commercial properties in Hopkinsville. The other bay will house the New Era. . . . The news staff will have a view of Main Street through the building’s storefront window."

“It’s so important, I think, for the local news to be intimately ingrained and connected to the heart of the community it serves,” Cox told Brown. “There’s no better way to do that than to be a part of the downtown.”

InsideClimate News reporting project with 14 Midwest newsrooms includes stories on farmers, rural energy use

Reporters in 14 newsrooms across the Midwest teamed up with InsideClimate News to explore local solutions to climate change, and the result is a package of stories called "Middle America's Low-Hanging Carbon," implicitly arguing that there are many relatively simple steps to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases in a politically pivotal region vulnerable to a warming world.

"Summers will warm faster in the Midwest than in any other American region, according to the National Climate Assessment," John J. Cushman of ICN notes. "​And these states form the hinge of the nation's intensifying political debate over climate change. Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, devoted to saving coal and hostile to the Paris climate accord, succeeded in swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa—all won by Barack Obama in 2012. Two years after Trump's victory, in the 2018 midterms, lots of upper Midwest congressional districts and governorships flipped the other way, putting in place new leaders with high climate ambitions."

The package includes stories about a beef-cattle farmer in Illinois offsetting his climate footprint, a small dairy farm in Iowa doing likewise, Wisconsin dairies wary of investing in digesters to make energy from manure, and stories about energy use in Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Kentucky, Indiana and other states.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Trump and Democrats ignore farmers' biggest issue, five years of low crop prices, agricultural policy experts write

President Trump and his Democratic challengers are ignoring "the critical issue facing the agricultural sector: low farm income brought on by five years of falling crop prices," Harwood D. Schaffer and Daryll E. Ray of the University of Tennessee write for The Daily Yonder.

"While there are alternate policies preferred by different farmers and farm organizations, there is virtually no dissension on identifying the problem," they write. "At the same time, farmers from left, right, and center agree that the current low prices are disastrous. Some see echoes of the 1980s in the rising level of farm bankruptcies."

Trump and the Democrats need to visit "rural, agricultural areas and listen and learn," write Ray and Schaffer, of UT's Agricultural Policy Research Center. "The candidates need to understand that the current low-price situation is no anomaly; agriculture is characterized by long periods of low prices punctuated by single years and short periods of higher prices."

And what should the politicians do? "From the perspective of social stability and humanitarian concerns, the objective should be to cultivate and maintain an agricultural sector in which productive capacity always exceeds current demand. To do otherwise would be ethically unacceptable." And what are political leaders doing to accomplish that? "From our perspective: not much."

"The Democrats have been silent" on such issues, the Trump administration wants the government to pay a smaller share of crop insurance, and the 2018 Farm Bill "does little to address the current price/income problems," with no new policies, they write, and existing programs "are simply inadequate to address the multi-year price problem that farmers are facing."