Friday, June 07, 2019

Some chicken farmers reconsider support of Trump after his USDA scrapped rules protecting them, eased up on packers

Mike Weaver stands between chickenhouses that stand idle because the chicken company he contracted with asked him
to give up his right to sue it, a business practice briefly prohibited by Obama-era rules. (ProPublica photo by Annie Flanagan)
Some of the nation's 25,000 contract chicken farmers voted for Donald Trump because they were disappointed in Barack Obama's failure to check the power of big meat processors, but now some say Trump isn't helping much either, Isaac Arnsdorf reports for ProPublica. "Chicken farmers who considered themselves staunch Trump supporters say their worsening circumstances since he took office are making them reconsider their votes," Arnsdorf writes.

During Obama's tenure, "Farmers complained that they had been lured into the business with rosy profit projections only to discover that the processing companies — which they depend on for supplies of chicks and feed — could suddenly change their contract terms to impose additional costs or drop them for any reason," Arnsdorf reports. The Obama administration did adopt rules meant to address those problems, but not until a month after the election.

"Over the last two years, Trump appointees have not only reversed the regulations put in place at the end of Obama’s presidency, they have retreated from enforcing the pre-existing rules," Arnsdorf notes. "The Trump administration dissolved the office charged with policing meat companies for cheating and defrauding farmers. Fines for breaking the rules dropped to $243,850 in 2018, less than 10 percent of what they were five years earlier."

Tony Grigsby, a retired police officer in Alabama who recently quit raising chickens, told Arnsdorf that he enthusiastically supported Trump, but wishes the administration hadn’t scrapped Obama’s regulations. “I hear the president saying he’s doing things for the American farmer,” Grigsby said, “but it’s almost like it’s only a certain percentage.”

The administration's support of meatpackers over farmers highlights Trump's ties with the industry: He got a $2 million donation from a poultry magnate during the campaign and installed several industry insiders on the transition team or in the Agriculture Department, Arnsdorf reports.

Mike Weaver told Arnsdorf that he gave up raising chickens along the Allegheny Front in Fort Seybert, West Virginia, after the company he contracted with wanted him to waive his right to sue. Obama's rules would have prevented that. "I made excuses for [Trump] for a while, thinking he’s going to eventually get a grasp on the dire situation small family farmers are in," Weaver said. "It hasn’t happened yet. If it doesn’t happen by the next election, I’m going to tell everybody some of the promises he made were never kept and I don’t see it changing."

FedEx to hire 700 part-time rural and residential drivers

FedEx Corp. is planning to hire about 700 part-time drivers in 160 U.S. residential and rural markets. They'll use company vehicles, won't get benefits, and will be paid $17.10 per hour in most markets, according to a review of help-wanted ads, Lisa Baertlein reports for Reuters.

"FedEx, like global rival United Parcel Service, is investing billions of dollars to cope with the boom in low-margin residential deliveries, which account for just over half of total package volume versus 20 percent in 2000," Reuters reports. "Taking small numbers of packages the 'last mile' to shoppers' doorsteps and far-flung homes is more costly than delivering scads of envelopes and packages to office buildings . . . which has been the Memphis-based company's bread and butter."

FedEx said the drivers are meant to be a flexible supplement to its existing workforce. Some experts say the move is a response to Amazon, which employs "flex" drivers at $18 to $25 an hour (with no benefits) to deliver packages from their own cars, Baertlein notes

John Haber, chief executive of consultancy Spend Management Experts, said FedEx's move is a shift toward the gig economy. He and other consultants said the new drivers could support FedEx's "Extra Hours" service that allows retailers to provide next-day local delivery for online orders. "They've got a ton of Walmart business," Haber told Baertlein. "If these drivers are rural, this fits the Walmart model."

FedEx also recently announced it would start offering Sunday deliveries, with no extra fees, to most U.S. homes to better accommodate online shopping habits, Paul Ziobro reports for The Wall Street Journal. It hasn't made clear what the extent of Sunday delivery will be in rural areas.

Livestream or attend free June 10 discussion about land stewardship and development in the rural West

America's Rural Opportunity will host a conversation June 10 with five rural and tribal innovators who are advancing collaborative solutions that foster economic development while protecting natural resources. "Learn about what they have done to forge new productive partnerships and about the difference it has made for the economy and environment, as well as rural communities and livelihoods," says ARO, a program of The Aspen Institute.

The event is set for 10:30 a.m. to noon Pacific Time at Portland State University in Oregon. Click here to attend in person. Click here to view the livestream.

The Rural Development Innovation Group, the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition, the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group, and the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at PSU are co-sponsoring the event with support from the U.S. Forest Service.

What's in the $19.1 billion disaster aid package: a lot

Congress passed and President Trump signed the long-delayed $19 billion disaster aid bill this week. "Communities in California, Florida and Texas -- which have been ravaged by wildfires, hurricanes and floods -- will likely be among the biggest beneficiaries . . . but the bill is likely to touch nearly every corner of the U.S. and territories," Liz Farmer reports for Governing, a magazine for state and local officials. The departments of Agriculture and Housing and Urban Development will administer the aid. Here's a broad summary of the package:
  • About $1.4 billion to help Puerto Rico, which is in bankruptcy, rebuild nearly two years after hurricanes Irma and Maria. Trump's reticence to allocate more funding for Puerto Rico was a major cause of delay for the bill.
  • Almost $2.5 billion for community development block grants to help communities rebuild housing, businesses and roads in the hardest-hit areas.
  • $1.65 billion to reimburse states and territories for repairing damage to federally managed roads and bridges.
  • $3 billion to assist farmers who lost livestock and crops to a natural disaster or who weren't able to plant this year because of flooding. Farmers who had insurance will receive higher payments.  The package also covers losses of already harvested crops that were in storage; no other program covers such losses. Farmers had stored an unusually high amount of crops, especially soybeans, because of Trump's trade war.
  • Almost $350 million to improve water quality, replace damaged monitoring equipment, and inspect and clean up hazardous-waste facilities.
  • $600 million for economic-development grants to foster long-term recovery in areas hit hard by major disasters in 2018 and 2019.
  • $100 million for mental-health treatment, crisis counseling, helplines and related services for people affected by recent natural disasters.
  • $25 million for improved fire and weather forecasting equipment. 

NNA, the only national lobby for community newspapers, deserves your support, says publisher of The Rural Blog

By Al Cross, Director and Professor
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

I got a bill yesterday that I was happy to get, and am happy to pay. It was a dues notice from the National Newspaper Association, the only national lobby for community newspapers. That's why I'm happy to pay it, and I wish more community newspapers would pitch in. NNA needs members.

Al Cross
Almost all community papers belong to their state newspaper association; it's close to home, lobbies on state-specific matters such as public-notice and open-government laws, and typically has an advertising service that brings revenue and a news and/or press-release service with news content.

But there are national issues that affect community papers, such as postal rates and delivery issues, federal open-government laws and advertising regulations, and, most recently, tariffs on Canadian newsprint that posed the greatest existential threat to to rural journalism and community newspapers in their history -- greater than the advents of radio, television, the digital revolution and social media.

NNA led the successful effort to kill those tariffs, one of its greatest victories ever. But at the same time, it was losing members, because the financial challenges that have plagued metropolitan newspapers for more than a decade are increasingly affecting community papers. NNA reported an operating loss in the last fiscal year, and had to cut back on staff and services -- at a time when community papers need all the help they can get.

No other organization fights such battles at the national level for rural and community newspapers and the journalism they provide. The tariff fights shows that these issues go beyond the often complex dealings with the U.S. Postal Service, which is increasingly used by community dailies for delivery. NNA is largely a weeklies' organization, but dailies need to support it, too. It stands for newspapers, journalism and their essential roles in democracy. All papers should be members.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Tenn. Republicans embraced free college before national Democrats did; could another red state do likewise today?

This college and nearby Lynchburg, Tenn., pop.6,336, are the object examples of the story. (Politico photo by Hollis Bennett)
"The whole idea of free college in America is a linchpin of progressive politics," Benjamin Wermund writes for "The Agenda" on Politico. "But as Republicans nationally have grown increasingly hostile toward universities they see as elitist, Republicans in Tennessee have gone precisely the opposite direction." The state "has been offering two years of tuition-free community college or technical school to all high school graduates, regardless of income, since 2014."

Every year since, Wermund writes, "It has boosted graduation rates and grown in popularity. . . . It inspired President Barack Obama’s free-community-college push in 2015 and provided a model for a handful of other states that have launched free-college programs of their own, including New York, Oregon and Rhode Island, though few go as far as Tennessee’s. The results here have been so promising that the state’s conservative Legislature decided to double down, expanding free community college beginning last year to all adults, regardless of income, who don’t already have a credential. The program has been wildly popular: The state’s higher education commission had anticipated just 8,000 adults would apply for the expanded program; 33,258 did. Nearly 15,000 of them enrolled in the first semester."

Wermund says Tennessee's experience "holds lessons for not only how to talk about education in America, but how to bridge political divides by reaching out to those who feel left behind, in rural and urban America alike." The idea was pushed by Bill Haslam during his two-term governorship, which ended in January, "as a pragmatic response to decades of failed economic-development policy," especially in rural areas, where college-going lags. That helped make it politically palatable, as did getting the money from the state lottery, requiring students to do community service, and making it available to all regardless of income -- not another "poverty program." Also, the program is "last dollar," meaning it pays only what federal Pell grants do not, about $45 million a year.

However, Democrats' embrace of the idea nationally probably means that a Republican governor anywhere couldn't get it done now, said Kim Dancy, assistant director of research and policy at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonpartisan group focused on promoting access to higher education. “It wasn’t as strongly associated with Democratic politics at that time,” she told Wermund. “I would be very surprised if a Republican governor was able to do this today.” One test of the issue's punch might be in Kentucky, which has a long border and rivalry with Tennessee, and elects a governor this year. The rural candidate in the Democratic primary, House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, favors such a program, and the winner, Attorney General Andy Beshear, is expected to contrast his advocacy of public education with the stances of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.

Poll: Fake news has become a big problem, mainly due to activists and politicians, but it's up to journalists to fix it

Pew Research Center graphic; for a larger version, click on it.
"Many Americans say the creation and spread of made-up news and information is causing significant harm to the nation and needs to be stopped." So reports the Pew Research Center, on its latest survey of 6,127 adults. Half of them said fake news is a "very big problem in the country today," more than violent crime, climate change, racism, illegal immigration, terrorism or sexism.

Respondents blame politicians and activists for fake news far more than journalists, but more than half believe journalists are mostly responsible for fixing the problem, and 64 percent believe the political divide is a significant barrier to fixing it. Older and more conservative voters are more likely to be concerned about the impact of fake news and more likely to blame journalists, Pew reports.

"The vast majority of Americans say they sometimes or often encounter made-up news. In response, many have altered their news consumption habits, including by fact-checking the news they get and changing the sources they turn to for news," Pew reports. "In addition, about eight in 10 U.S. adults (79%) believe steps should be taken to restrict made-up news, as opposed to 20% who see it as protected communication."

President Trump, who popularized use of the phrase "fake news" to describe journalism he doesn't like, has taken credit for "exposing" it, but the effort to cast doubt on mainstream news media "began decades ago, in the Nixon era, and assumed its modern, professional incarnation with the 1996 launch of Fox News — the leading purveyor of false and misleading statements about the performance of the media," writes media columnist Erik Wemple of The Washington Post. "It’s a good bet that the 38-point gap surfaced by the latest Pew study would have been wider if the survey had been conducted a month or so after its Feb. 19-March 4 span. That way, it would have reflected public opinion in light of Attorney General William P. Barr’s March 24 letter abridging the Mueller report, which noted that the investigation did not establish a conspiracy with Russia. In response to that selectively articulated document, commentators blasted the media for a “catastrophic” failure, a “lie, a fabrication, a complete and utter hoax” and the like."

Federal Reserve paints gloomy picture in corn and soy belts

Washington Post map; for a larger version, click on it
The Federal Reserve Bank painted a gloomy picture of Midwestern agriculture this week in its latest report on the economy. "The bank surveyed ag credit conditions and found that farm income and capital spending were down from the previous year — and likely to continue dropping for several months," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico.

Farmers are struggling because of low commodity prices, tariffs, and planting problems due to the wet weather, according to the Federal Reserve's new Beige Book. The weather in the Corn Belt over the last 60 days has neared or broken previous precipitation records, and that soil will have to dry out for around a week before it can be planted, The Washington Post reports.

Planting for major crops like soy and corn is proceeding at the slowest pace on record, and some farmers may not be able to plant a crop at all this year. Adding to farmers' woes, the Agriculture Department has reportedly decided not to provide trade aid for unplanted acres, according to a government official with inside knowledge. The USDA has not confirmed or denied making a final decision.

Tune in for public sector cybersecurity webinar on June 11

Cybersecurity is a growing issue for state and local governments, even in small towns or rural areas. Hackers have infiltrated many government and utility systems and demanded ransoms to unlock them in the past several years, and nearly 70,000 small and mid-sized water and wastewater systems in the U.S. are vulnerable to such attacks.

On June 11 from 1-3 p.m. ET, Route Fifty will host a free webinar exploring "new models for government leaders as they battle misinformation, secure an expanding array of civic technology, identify gaps in their agencies' own cyber strategies and build the cybersecurity workforce of the future." Click here for information, including a list of speakers and an agenda. Click here to register.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

McConnell, seeking re-election, touts efforts to manage Asian carp, including corraling and electroshock harvesting

McConnell speaks in Calvert City, Ky. (WKDZ Radio photo)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom The Economist dubbed one of the 100 most important people in the world, has many concerns, from dealing with President Trump to keeping a Republican majority in the Senate next year. But he spent much of a day last week talking about fish. And that is likely to be part of his re-election campaign in Kentucky.

McConnell's efforts to keep invasive, voracious Asian carp out of Kentucky waterways, and a visit to promote that effort, earned him a 1,682-word story in the weekly Marshall County Tribune Courier, in the native county of McConnell's Kentucky chief of staff, Terry Carmack of Fairdealing.

"McConnell's message during an Asian carp update in Calvert City last week was, help is on the way and the future is optimistic, reports Rachel Keller Collins. "Between the BAFF (bioacoustic fish fence) scheduled for installation at Barkley Dam next month, the modified Unified [Fishing] Method scheduled to arrive by early 2020, and the cooperation of federal, state and local government officials with various experts, McConnell said he's confident they can collectively solve the problem to ensure tourism does not further decline in the Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley region."

"This is my top priority for Western Kentucky not only for this year but for as long as it takes to finish it," he said. His record six straight Senate elections in Kentucky has been built in large measure on support from the state's historically Democratic western third, which now votes Republican. The two lakes are major economic drivers, and the carp invasion is a threat to fishers, Bassmaster reports.

Allen Brown, assistant regional director of fish and aquatic conservation in the Southeast for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "said the BAFF . . . is a customized sound-and-air-bubble curtain design to restrict migration," Collins reports. "Duane Chapman, research fish biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey . . . said the Unified Method is designed as a way to fish a substantial portion of a large body of water as a unit, which he said is perfect" for the two huge lakes on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers.

Unified fishers "block off a cove using electro-fishing gear and underwater loud speakers to corral and direct the Asian carp cell by cell until they reach the 'killing zone,' at which point they're removed in very large quantities," Collins writes. The technique was developed in China, the market for carp caught in the area, and "has been modified to fit the local market and local needs." Chapman said, "It's worked really well in some other places."

Ryan Brooks, fisheries director for Kentucky, "said the No. 1 concern he hears is creating an industry reliant upon Asian carp and then running out of the fish, which would leave the industry in need of subsidies," Collins reports. But Brooks added, "Fortunately or unfortunately for both sides of the issue, we are never in our lifetime going to be in a place where we've eradicated all the Asian carp out of the rivers. There's thousands and thousands of miles of Asian carp from the Mississippi Delta up through and into Wisconsin and Minnesota now."

Map of proposed first coast-to-coast bike trail is revealed; group raising money to secure remaining 48% of route

Proposed route for the Great American Rail-Trail. (Map by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy)
The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the nation's largest trails organization, has been planning an uninterrupted cross-country bicycle trail for the past year, and recently published the first map of it.

"The Great American Rail-Trail will stretch 3,700 miles across 12 states, from Washington, D.C., to Washington state. Collectively, the trail will connect more than 125 currently existing trails and 90 trail gaps," McKinley Corbley reports for the Good News Network.

About 52 percent of the trail is already open for public use; RTC has announced a funding campaign to help open the other 48%. The trail could be a popular trek for serious cyclists and bring tourist dollars to rural areas and small towns along the path. But history has shown that securing the best property for trails can be difficult.

"We have the chance to create from that vision a national treasure that unites millions of people over thousands of miles of trail," said Ryan Chao, president of RTC. "This trail is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide—together—an enduring gift to the nation that will bring joy for generations to come."

Food banks benefit from Trump's trade-aid program for farmers, but have trouble refrigerating all that milk

Food banks all over the country are stocked with fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and beans because of a federal program that helps farmers hurt by the trade war with China.

Most of last year's $12 billion Department of Agriculture program was for farmers, but it included $1.2 billion to buy surplus commodities and distribute them to food banks, schools, and other places that serve low-income people. The program was expanded and extended this year, for a total of $16 billion in aid with $1.4 billion of that going to food banks, April Simpson reports for Stateline.

Food-bank leaders say the program has helped them provide healthy food for their clients, but said maintaining and distributing fresh food has meant unexpected expenses. A huge increase of liquid milk donations, for example, has triggered headaches for food banks as they try to figure out how to keep it refrigerated. And "critics say donating food to the needy is merely a beneficial side effect of the aid program and won’t put a substantial dent in food waste or hunger," Simpson reports.

"That combination of trade war and additional food for food banks is not the policy mix I would have recommended," Tufts University food economist Parke Wilde told Simpson. "It’s better to have a fairly well-functioning trade policy and less need for mitigation for food banks."

The federal government, along with some state governments, are trying to increase farmer donations to food pantries in other ways. The 2018 Farm Bill designated $20 million over the next five years to create a farm-to-food bank program, and at least eight states give farmers tax credits for donating agricultural products to food banks, Simpson reports.

Dems want to see USDA data behind plan to let pork plants do some of their own inspections and lift line-speed limits

Inspector at a hog slaughterhouse (Photo from Pinterest)
House Democrats are balking at a Department of Agriculture plan to shift some safety inspections from federal inspectors to pork-plant employees and lift all restrictions on speeds of processing lines.

During an Appropriations Committee hearing Tuesday, Democrats ordered USDA's inspector general to investigate data used when the agency developed the new program. An investigation "could delay the proposal by months and, depending on the findings, could lead to changes or a withdrawal of the proposal, experts said," Kimberly Kindy reports for The Washington Post. But before that could happen, the Republican-controlled Senate would have to go along, because the order is an amendment to the USDA appropriations bill for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

The plan, which USDA proposed in February, was expected to be finalized this summer. It would reduce the number of federal inspectors on slaughter lines by about 40 percent and would save the agency an estimated $6 million annually; eliminating the cap on line speeds, now 18 hogs a minute, would increase meatpacker profits by more than $2 million a year.

Democrats on the committee cried foul."I believe it would endanger food safety, worker safety and animal welfare," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. She introduced the order, which "calls for an investigation into all data used by the USDA to develop the proposal, including worker-safety data that was not publicly disclosed until after the closure of the public review and comment period for the proposed rule," Kindy reports. "It also said no federal funds should be used for the new system unless any problems identified by the inspector general were first addressed."

Kindy notes, "The proposed rule is based on a study that began 20 years ago, ultimately including five large test plants. Efforts to expand the program have sputtered under past administrations, but Trump administration officials have said for months that they expect the system to be in place soon. The agency said that 40 of the 612 hog plants want to use the proposed system; those seeking to opt in would collectively account for 90 percent of the pork consumed in the United States."

Coyotes spread nationwide, filling voids left by hated wolves

Canis latrans (AP photo by Karen Nichols)
Coyotes have spread all over the country from their native Southwest and are showing up in increasingly populated areas because of government-sanctioned programs that killed most red and gray wolves, their main competitors.

"As the Trump administration seeks to strip away legal protections for the last remaining wolves, state officials are contending with the consequences of a massacre carried out without regard to science," Darryl Fears reports for The Washington Post.

Coyotes are widely acknowledged as a nuisance: they rarely kill pets, but the voracious omnivores happily dine on fruit, deer, rodents, and small barnyard animals like chickens or even turkeys. They're hard to get rid of, too, Fears writes: "Coyotes have a unique response to population pressure: They make more coyotes. Kill half a million one year, experts say, and that many will pop up the next."

Federal and state agencies are trying to reduce coyote populations with incentives such as cash bounties and hunting contests, but it's not really working. "All told, 500,000 coyotes per year are killed by hunters, state agencies and federal wildlife services. The reason why they still come back is because of their body size. They can survive on just about anything," Jonathan Way, founder of Eastern Coyote/Coywolf Research in Massachusetts, told Fears.

Logging safety issues examined in academic journal

An academic journal has devoted a special issue to the dangers in the logging and forestry industries.

It's a big problem: "The United States is the top timber-producing nation in the world, but that distinction comes with a cost: Harvesting timber is America’s most dangerous occupation. Over the past decade, an average of 66 loggers died each year, at a fatal injury rate more than 30 times the all-industry average," Scott Heiberger writes for the National Farm Medicine Center. "Loggers’ work is physically demanding. It is carried out in remote locations amidst unpredictable weather and rough terrain. Loggers deal with massive weights and irresistible momentum of falling, rolling, and sliding trees and logs. Most injuries involve trees and other falling objects."

The current issue of the Journal of Agromedicine is all about health and safety issues in the timber and forestry industries. That includes immigrant workers, technology, injury data collection, regional logging systems, firefighting, tree planting, and pruning, Heiberger writes. Read the 13 articles here.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

GOP lawmakers consider blocking Trump's tariffs on Mexico, say U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade treaty is at risk

Congressional Republicans are considering blocking President Trump's planned tariffs on Mexico because they increasingly agree that the tariffs would cost American businesses and consumers more money, according to people with inside knowledge, Erica Werner, Seung Min Kim, and Damian Paletta report for The Washington Post. "Trump has said he would put in place 5 percent tariffs on all Mexican goods as of June 10, rising by another 5 percent a month until October, unless Mexico stops all illegal migration into the United States," they note.

The U.S. has a free-trade agreement with Mexico, so Trump must declare a national emergency at the border to enact the tariffs. Congress can override the declaration by passing a resolution that Trump could veto; a two-thirds vote of both houses would be needed to override the veto, and that would be the biggest rebuke ever by this Republican Congress to this Republican president.

"Congress passed such a resolution in March after Trump reallocated the border wall funds, but he vetoed it. Now, as frustration on Capitol Hill grows over Trump’s latest tariff threat, a second vote could potentially command a veto-proof majority to nullify the national emergency, which in turn could undercut both the border-wall effort and the new tariffs," the Post reports. "The vote, which would be the GOP’s most dramatic act of defiance since Trump took office, could also have the effect of blocking billions of dollars in border-wall funding that the president had announced in February when he declared a national emergency at the southern border."

On Monday, lawmakers from both parties urged Trump to abandon the tariffs, and threatened not to pass the pending trade deal with Mexico and Canada. White House officials said they still planned to impose the tariffs, which they said are unrelated to the trade deal, the Post reports.

Montana journalism school project and Canadian inquiry put spotlight on violence against Native American women

University of Montana School of Journalism graphic illustration for this year's Native News reporting package
In the past three years, 671 Native American women have gone missing and/or been murdered in the U.S., according to an impressive news package from the University of Montana School of Journalism. The real number is likely much higher, since the data is often poorly collected by federal, state and tribal governments.

The disappearances and deaths "are not just numbers or data to be formed into graph lines, but women’s lives ended or hanging in the limbo of disappearance. The 2019 Montana Native News Project investigates the complex crisis of Native American women disappearing in Montana, who they leave behind and how communities are trying to address the issue," write the project editors and advisers. The school covers the Native communities in the state and produces an annual report.

Women, especially women of color, continue to suffer worldwide because of trauma and inequality, but Native American women are on the forefront of confronting the issue, the editors write. The Sovereign Bodies Institute, which worked with the journalism students on the project, began raising awareness about it by creating a database of missing and murdered indigenous women.

The issue is receiving increasing attention in Canada, too. Human rights abuses against indigenous women and girls have led to violence that amounts to genocide, according to a years-long government inquiry that released its findings Monday. The report of more than 1,000 pages also highlights violence against LGBT+ indigenous people, is "the conclusion of more than two years of research involving at least 2,380 people who shared their stories or artwork with the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls," Merrit Kennedy reports for NPR.

The report recommends many actions to end the violence. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who ordered the inquiry, promised to develop a plan for meaningful action, Kennedy reports.

Unfavorable weather puts U.S. corn planting at slowest pace on record, says USDA; soybeans are way behind too

Historically bad weather in the Midwest has slowed corn planting to the slowest pace on record. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported on Monday that corn planting was 67 percent complete, well behind the five-year average of 96%.

"As of Sunday, Iowa farmers had 80% of that state’s corn crop planted vs. a 99% five-year average. Illinois farmers have 45% of their corn seeded, behind a 98% five-year average. Indiana has 31% planted vs. a 94% five-year average. In the eastern Corn Belt, Nebraska farmers have 88% of their corn planted vs. a 98% five-year average," Mike McGinnis reports for Successful Farming.

Soybeans are way behind, too. The report estimated that 39% of the U.S. soybean crop has been planted, compared to a 79% five-year average. "Iowa has 41% of its soybean crop in the ground compared with an 89% five-year average. Illinois has 21% of its crop seeded, compared with an 84% five-year average. Indiana soybean growers have 17% of their crop in the ground vs. an 80% five-year average," McGinnis reports.

In a win for rural areas, high court nixes Medicare reductions to hospitals whose patients are disproportionately poor

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that the Department of Health and Human Services improperly changed the Medicare reimbursement formula for "disproportionate share hospitals," which receive more money because they treat a disproportionate share of poor people. That's good news for rural hospitals, which are overall more dependent on so-called DSH payments.

"In a 7-1 decision, the justices said HHS needed a notice-and-comment period for the Medicare DSH calculation change," Susannah Luthi reports for Modern Healthcare. "Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the decision that HHS' position for not following the procedure was 'ambiguous at best.'"

Gorsuch wrote that, because Medicare is such a large program, even small changes can make a big difference in millions of lives and need to be considered carefully. "Because affected members of the public received no advance warning and no chance to comment first, and because the government has not identified a lawful excuse for neglecting its statutory notice-and-comment obligations, we agree with the Court of Appeals that the new policy cannot stand," he wrote. 

"Disproportionate Share Hospital cuts have been delayed several times since first scheduled in 2014, but had been set to take effect in 2020 — beginning with a reduction of $4 billion and increasing to $8 billion by 2025," Dana Elfin reports for Healthcare Dive.

Virginia governor plans special session on gun control

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam will call the legislature into session this summer "to take up a package of gun-control legislation he said is urgently needed to prevent killings like Friday's mass shooting in Virginia Beach," reports Alan Suderman of The Associated Press.

Northam's legislation includes a ban on silencers and high capacity magazines like those used in the shooting at the Virginia Beach city hall, and would broaden "the ability of local governments to limit guns in city buildings," AP reports. It would also require background checks of all gun buyers, limit handgun purchases to one per month and "allow authorities to temporarily seize someone's guns if they are a shown to be threat to themselves or others."

Virginia has a strong, rural-based gun culture. However, "Polls have shown that Virginians increasingly favor tightening the state’s gun laws, which are among the most permissive in the nation, notes Gregory Schneider of The Washington Post. AP notes, "The governor . . . made the issue a top priority of his 2017 gubernatorial campaign, drawing from his experience as a pediatrician and Army doctor who has treated children and soldiers wounded by firearms."

"The topic is especially sensitive in an election year when all 140 seats in the legislature are on the November ballot," Schneider notes. "Republicans are nursing two-seat majorities in both the Senate and the House of Delegates, and Democrats are hoping to inspire bigger-than-usual turnout to change the balance of power."

AP notes, "Friday's shooting has been Northam's first major test since a scandal over a racist photo in his medical school yearbook nearly drove him from office four months ago. . . .Republicans have previously rejected Northam's gun control bills out of hand," but House Majority Leader Tommy Norment told Williamsburg's Virginia Gazette, "I think there ought to be a meaningful discussion legislatively and in the community about gun control."

Monday, June 03, 2019

Rural hospitals are hiring more foreign-born workers

"The U.S. faces a massive shortage of health-care professionals over the next decade, including up to 120,000 physicians by 2030, according to data by the Association of American Medical Colleges," Ramon Taylor reports for Voice of America. "With an aging U.S. population and workforce, immigrant doctors and nurses are playing a growing role in health care, especially in rural areas where staff shortages are most severe. But . . . their help alone may not be enough to end the crisis."


Berkshire Eagle in rural western Massachusetts is thriving after group of local investors bought it back from a chain

UPDATE, June 19: Alexandra Olson of The Associated Press reports in a 2,700-word story, "The Eagle is still struggling, and its survival is far from assured. Readers are trickling, not flocking, back. But if it does fail, it won’t be for lack of effort. The Eagle’s owners, editors and staff are waging an all-out campaign to revitalize local journalism in the Berkshires and southern Vermont."

Fred Rutberg (Boston Globe
photo by Nathan Klima)
A daily newspaper in rural western Massachusetts has experienced a revival after locals bought it back from a chain in 2016.

The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield was a "once-great daily whose staff, circulation, and prestige all declined dramatically during two decades of corporate ownership," Mark Shanahan reports for The Boston Globe. Until recently, it was owned by Colorado-based MNG Enterprises (formerly known as Digital First Media), a hedge fund subsidiary that owns dozens of papers and has been derided as "vulture capitalists."

In 2016 a retiring local district court judge, Fred Rutberg, decided to buy the Eagle back. "Backed by a group with local ties and deep pockets, Rutberg bought the moribund paper in May 2016 and began investing in it, hiring reporters and editors, adding new sections, revitalizing its website, even spending money on better-quality newsprint," Shanahan reports.

Under Rutberg's leadership, "So far, the results are promising. Print subscriptions, which had been dropping for years, are holding steady, and the Eagle’s digital subscriptions are growing — by an impressive 60 percent since June 2018," Shanahan reports. "Last year, the Eagle received the New England Newspaper & Press Association’s award for general excellence, and its daily and Sunday editions swept the Newspaper of the Year awards for papers of its size. And not coincidentally, there has been an increase in furrowed brows among local officials who are now being confronted by a more active press." The Eagle also won the 2019 John F. Kennedy Commonwealth Award for "demonstrating the enduring civic value of community journalism."

Rutberg said he was inspired to buy the paper after a 2014 lecture by political journalist Joe Klein. "At some point, [Klein] said, offhandedly, 'Democracy requires citizenship and citizenship requires a town square'," Rutberg told Shanahan. "And when he said that, I whispered to my wife, 'The Berkshire Eagle'."

Newspaper analyst Ken Doctor told Shanahan that the paper's new ownership was a boon to the community: "People in the Berkshires won the lottery when [Rutberg’s group] bought the Eagle . . . It’s rare to see local people with the willingness, the capital, and the stamina to step up and do the really heavy lifting to transform an old newspaper in the digital age."

Rutberg remains modest. "I wanted to do something useful," he told Shanahan. "I wanted to try to do some good around here."

Someone must pay for journalism, and journalists need to explain that on social media, to reach readers they need

Dan Mackie
Journalists and their paymasters increasingly remind readers (and hopefully potential readers) that someone has to pay for journalism. It's good to see a contributor banging that drum, as retired journalist Dan Mackie does in an op-ed for the Valley News in West Lebanon, N.H., and White River Junction, Vt.

Mackie writes that he has noticed several "cranky non-subscribers" complaining that Valley News content isn't free online. But, though internet advertising can be lucrative, it's not "a brilliant business plan" for a newspaper to depend on that to pay the bills. "Subscriptions are the ticket," Mackie writes.

Propaganda, press releases, and fluff are readily available for free online, but quality journalism is worth paying for. "Reporting, consulting multiple sources and fact-checking stories test the brain and intestinal fortitude. Journalism might seem like a fun hobby, but it is difficult to get hobbyists to show up every day, or for night shifts," Mackie writes.

"It’s good to see contributors, not just editors and publishers, pointing out that someone has to pay for journalism, and increasingly, that is the audience, not advertisers," says Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog. "But unless it’s shared on social media, and not behind a paywall, they’re preaching to the choir."

Scientists suggest converting methane to CO2 as short-term way to reduce effect of greenhouse gases

Capturing atmospheric methane, which comes mainly from agriculture, could have an outsized and more immediate impact on mitigating climate change, argues a newly published paper.

In the short term, methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. "Its warming effect doesn’t last nearly as long, but molecule-for-molecule it traps 84 times more heat during the first two decades, James Temple notes in MIT Technology Review.

The paper argues that if we could capture methane and converting it to carbon dioxide, we would "reduce short-term warming much more than we would by removing far more carbon dioxide." Lead author Rob Jackson, a professor of earth system science at Stanford University, writes, "Methane removal would buy us considerable time to address the problem of carbon-dioxide emissions."

Livestock and other agricultural elements are the largest source of human-caused methane emissions,  Efforts to cut methane emissions in agriculture haven't progressed much beyond the experimental level, and Temple notes that oil and gas producers, another significant source of atmospheric methane through pipeline leaks and flaring, have resisted efforts to tighten regulations.

The idea of converting methane (CH4) into CO2 has been floated before, Temple notes, but the paper takes a closer look at using "zeolites, a class of minerals with very tiny pores, which are commonly used as industrial catalysts. . . . While it would likely be necessary to remove hundreds of billions of metric tons of carbon dioxide to return to preindustrial levels, you’d only need to eliminate 3.2 billion tons of methane to get back to earlier levels of that gas. Doing so would reverse one-sixth of the total warming effect of all greenhouses gases in the atmosphere, the study found."

Dead man's files suggest citizenship question for census has political motive; could cost immigrant-heavy areas

Recently discovered computer files reveal that a proposed census question about citizenship may have been added to benefit the Republican party. Such a question could lead to undercounting in many rural areas with large Latino populations, such as agricultural communities, and cause them to lose federal and state appropriations. "The disclosures represent the most explicit evidence to date that the Trump administration added the question to the 2020 census to advance Republican Party interests," Michael Wines reports for The New York Times.

The matter came to light after the estranged daughter of legendary Republican strategist Thomas Hofeller went through his files after his death. She discovered evidence that he had played a critical role in adding the question to the 2020 census. "Files on those drives showed that he wrote a study in 2015 concluding that adding a citizenship question to the census would allow Republicans to draft even more extreme gerrymandered maps to stymie Democrats," Wines reports. "And months after urging President Trump’s transition team to tack the question onto the census, he wrote the key portion of a draft Justice Department letter claiming the question was needed to enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act — the rationale the administration later used to justify its decision.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the legality of the citizenship question in the next few weeks. Opponents of adding the question cited Hofeller's files in a federal court filing last Thursday. They say the question would cause fewer immigrants to be counted and give more political power to Republican areas, Wines reports.

The Justice Department said the accusations in the filing were baseless and meant to "derail" the Supreme Court's consideration of the case. It also said that the decision to add the citizenship question to the census was not influenced by Hofeller's 2015 study, Wines reports.