Friday, June 14, 2019

USDA to move research agencies from D.C. to Kansas City; employees turn backs on Perdue during his announcement

Unionized ERS and NIFA employees turned backs to the stage 
during Perdue's announcement. (McClatchy photo by Brian Lowry)
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Thursday it will move two major offices out of Washington, D.C., to the Kansas City area. It had unveiled the controversial plan to move last August, but until now has not revealed where. The plan has faced strong resistance from employees and others.

"Nearly 550 positions at the Economic Research Service, a statistical agency, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which funds cutting-edge agricultural science, are expected to be moved before year’s end," Ben Guarino reports for The Washington Post. "USDA estimated the savings at $300 million over 15 years from employment and rent" and said the move would put the agencies closer to agricultural stakeholders.

Some ERS and NIFA employees claim the move is an effort to force them to quit, rather than relocate their families, which will allow the USDA to replace them with employees more sympathetic to the Republican Party. The ERS researches the economic effects of climate change, trade policy, food stamps and more. "NIFA unionized earlier this week, and ERS unionized in May in the face of the decision. Union officials have promised to fight the move," Guarino reports.

When Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told employees about the decision to relocate to Kansas City, the unionized employees turned their backs on the stage, Jerry Hagstrom reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer.

The employees aren't the only ones concerned. Losing experienced employees with specialized skills will set the ERS back "five to 10 years," Gale Buchanan, the USDA's chief scientist under President George W. Bush, and Catherine Woteki, the chief scientist in the Obama administration, told Congress in a letter last year. And Jack Payne, the Unversity of Florida's senior vice president for agriculture, told Guarino that the move would cut NIFA off from collaborating with major federal funding agencies in Washington, Guarino reports.

The relocation effort will suffer further because there isn't a chief scientist at the USDA to oversee ERS, NIFA, and other agency research offices, Guarino reports.

Quick hits: Cycling helps rural economies; Maine islands get health care by boat; rainbow tailgate goes viral

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at

Health care comes by boat to Maine's most remote islands, Modern Healthcare reports.

Last week thousands of cyclists from all over the world "set off on a grueling 200-mile race across gravel roads in Emporia, Kansas. The sport has grown to such a level that there are now 600 such events across the country — and they're lifting rural economies," Jay Price reports for WUNC FM in North Carolina.

Check out "This Land," a true-crime podcast from journalist and Cherokee Nation citizen Rebecca Nagle, about a high-stakes murder investigation that triggered big questions about Native American land rights and sovereignty:

A group looks to mountain biking to give rural New England an economic boost:

Here's a viral social-media post from a rural Oklahoma man who decorated his truck's tailgate with a duct tape rainbow in honor of Pride Month:

Could returning to sheep farming help the Appalachian economy? Read more here:

Beef-group film shows sprawl's impact on farmers, ranchers

"Losing Ground", a new documentary from the American Angus Association, a beef industry group, aims to show the impact of urban sprawl on farmers and ranchers. According to the American Farmland Trust's "Farms Under Threat" report, the U.S. is losing 1.5 million acres a year to the urban sprawl, which the Angus group says is unsustainable.

"It’s easy to drive through, especially the Midwest, and feel like we have plenty of land," film director Josh Comninellis said in a press release. "But, it’s a little more complicated than that as we dug into the research. Not only are we losing some of our best ground and a lot of total agricultural land, but the population, and therefore demand, is going up. When you pair those two things together, you see, down the road, a really dire situation emerging."

The documentary focuses on five farming and ranching families who talk about the challenges and opportunities they've faced because of urban sprawl: the Lovin family in Lexington, Georgia; the Marsh family in Huntley, Illinois; the Stabler family in Brookeville, Maryland; the Cropp family in Damascus, Maryland; and the Nelson family in Wilton, California.

See the video below, on YouTube, or on RFD-TV.

VA doctors prescribe far more opioids to rural veterans, perhaps due to lack of long-term treatment alternatives

Rural veterans got almost a third more opioids than urban veterans from doctors in the Department for Veterans Affairs, according to a study of outpatient prescription practices in 2016.

Opioid prescribing in the Veterans Health Administration among rural veterans declined from 2012 to 2016, but rural "rates remain 32 percent higher than urban counterparts," said the study, published in the most recent issue of the journal Military Medicine.

One reason: More rural vets use opioids long-term; rates of short-term use among rural and urban vets were similar, according to the study. A 2017 study also found that rural vets were far more likely to use opioids long-term. "The findings suggest that rural veterans with chronic pain use opioids for long periods because alternative treatments are available primarily in urban areas," Wyatt Olson reports for Stars and Stripes. "The hypothesis is supported by the study’s finding that VA facilities serving rural areas with more dense populations of veterans had smaller rural-urban differences in dispensed opioid volume — as compared to facilities treating the sparsest rural populations of veterans."

Housing crunches in urban areas spill over to smaller towns

Change in percentage of county residents with severe cost burden for housing in 2010-17
(Stateline map; click on the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version)
High housing prices have chased some urban commuters and retirees to nearby suburbs and exurbs, driving up housing prices in those areas, Tim Henderson reports for Stateline. "Small towns of fewer than 10,000 people grew more quickly than earlier in the decade, attracting more than 142,000 new people last year, according to a Stateline analysis of U.S. Census Bureau estimates, driven in part by retirees seeking affordable housing," Henderson reports. In 2011-12, the gain was only 8,000.

Sahuarita, a community of 30,000 near Tucson, added 800 in 2016-17, the largest rise in a decade. And there are plans to build retirement homes in nearby Benson, which has fewer than 5,000 people and lost population every year until gaining 31 residents last year. "The city hopes to mimic the success of rural retirement areas such as The Villages in Florida, a development that contributed to a more than doubling of Fruitland Park’s population to about 10,000," Henderson reports.

Housing prices in rural areas generally increase when more affluent commuters move in, which puts financial pressure on rural families. "Nearly one-fourth of the nation’s most rural counties have seen a sizeable increase this decade in the number of households spending at least half their income on housing, a category the federal government calls 'severely cost-burdened,'" Henderson noted in an earlier story. That's mainly due to local job pressures and lesser federal incentives for affordable housing, but the influx of urban commuters and retirees in some areas has also affected some areas.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

National Newspaper Association contest results announced; Wyoming papers take 3 of 5 awards for general excellence

The front page of this week's Buffalo Bulletin
Wyoming newspapers won three of the five general-excellence awards in the 2019 Better Newspaper Contest of the National Newspaper Association, the main trade association for community papers. The Rural Blog plans to excerpt some of the individual winning work; for now, here are the winners in the General Excellence category:

Dailies: Wyoming Tribune Eagle, Cheyenne, Wyo., first; Sioux City Journal, Sioux City, S.D., second.
Non-dailies with circulation of 10,000 or more: Park Cities People, Dallas; Livingston Parish News, Denham Springs, La., second; The Examiner, Beaumont, Texas, third.
Non-dailies, 6,000-9,999: Jackson Hole News&Guide, Jackson, Wyo; The Taos News, Taos, N.M., second; Yamhill Valley News-Register, McMinnville, Ore, third.
Non-dailies, 3,000-5,999: Buffalo Bulletin, Buffalo, Wyo.; The Highlands Current, Cold Spring, N.Y., second; The Galena Gazette, Galena, Ill., third.
Non-dailies, less than 3,000 circulation: The Ark, Tiburon, Calif.; Nogales International, Nogales, Ariz.; Shelter Island Reporter, Shelter Island, N.Y.

The contest categories include some open to both dailies and non-dailies. One of those is the Civic/Community Service Award, won by The Galena Gazette for a 32-page section looking back at the influenza epidemic of 1918, partly as a device to remind readers to get their flu shots. "The influenza project actually started 10 or more years ago when I did a series of stories about how the flu pandemic of 1918 impacted Galena," Publisher Carter Newton told us. "Late last summer, based on issues with influenza in the community and our country in January-March of 2018, we proposed to our local hospital that we dust off the series and add current stories about influenza, the impact of influenza in 2018, the importance of vaccination, how the hospital and health authorities would handle a health crisis today." The hospital sponsored the section, at left. The Vilas County News-Review of Eagle River, Wis., won second place for its "Warm the Children" campaign that collected $80,000 to buy coats for 591 kids in a county where a national snowmobile tournament is held. The Buffalo Bulletin won third place, but its entry was not specified in the contest list.

Study aims to help suicidal veterans seek treatment

Retired and active military veterans are twice as likely as civilians to die by suicide, but a study funded by the Department of Defense sheds light on how to persuade veterans to seek help.

Though 16 percent of Americans live in rural areas, 24% of all veterans do. And rural residents are more likely to consider or attempt suicide. "Nationwide, an average of 20 current and former military service members die by suicide each day. Of those, an average of six were connected to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health system. Only half of all veterans who need mental health services are receiving them, according to the VA," Christine Vestal reports for Stateline.

Suicides among veterans receiving VA help are declining, but the challenge is to find a way to help the ones who aren't seeking treatment. The primary barrier to treatment for veterans, especially males, is the stigma associated with seeking mental health services. Also, "Veterans are afraid that if they admit they’re thinking about killing themselves, somebody will come snatch them up and put them in a hospital and make them take medicine," lead researcher Tracy Stecker told Vestal.

So, Stecker and her team at the Medical University of South Carolina decided to see if a simple phone call from a psychologist could persuade veterans to take the first step in seeking treatment.

They "called a thousand veterans who volunteered to participate in the study. They screened them for six mental health symptoms — sleep loss, post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression, substance use, pain and suicidal thoughts or attempts — five times during the year after they initially made contact," Vestal reports. "Half of the participants also received a call from a psychologist who discussed with them their fears and concerns about seeking mental health treatment. For any participants who decided they wanted treatment during the study, the researchers connected them directly to a local mental health provider."

The researchers found that the veterans who talked to a psychologist had fewer suicidal thoughts and mental health symptoms and were more than twice as likely to seek help during suicidal episodes, Vestal reports.

The VA recently launched a multimillion-dollar social media and ad campaign to educate veterans about suicide risk after a 2018 Government Accountability Office report said the department wasn't doing enough. "Since then, the VA’s suicide prevention division has spent $12 million on outreach in 2018, including $1.5 million on paid media. This year’s suicide prevention outreach budget is $20 million, according to the VA," Vestal reports. "In addition, local suicide prevention coordinators connected to the VA’s 170 medical centers nationwide held more than 20,000 outreach events to contact veterans at risk for suicide, according to the VA. As a result, they are now managing care for nearly 11,000 veterans, according to the agency."

Feds reluctant to address coal mines' level of silica dust, which causes black-lung disease; Congress sets hearing

Scientists, activists and coal miners continue to call for action in fighting black-lung disease, and though Congressional leaders have scheduled investigative hearings for later this month, "federal mine safety regulators show little indication of making any meaningful change to policies meant to protect miners from harmful dust exposure," Sydney Boles reports for Ohio Valley Resource.

Black lung is a progressive, debilitating, sometimes fatal disease that affects as many as one in five experienced miners in Central Appalachia. Miners can get black lung from inhaling dust churned up while mining and transporting coal. Though the dust once mainly came from coal, new research has found that silica dust from cutting through rock is now the leading cause of a form of black lung called diffuse dust fibrosis (usually called DDF). A joint reporting project between NPR's Howard Berkes and the PBS program "Frontline" detailed federal regulators' failure to protect miners even after they knew toxic dust was causing black lung.

"The mining community has known since the 1970s that silica is far more toxic than coal dust alone, and federal researchers and miner advocates have fought for decades to implement more stringent coal dust standards. But those efforts have stalled, often because of pressure from industry," Boles reports. A 2014 Mine Safety and Health Administration rule further limited coal dust exposure, but didn't specifically address silica dust exposure.

Regulators say silica dust is hard to measure, and that they essentially use coal dust levels as an indicator of silica levels, but research has shown that lowering overall dust levels often doesn't reduce silica dust to safe levels. "Despite the mounting evidence of silica’s role in the epidemic, there is little sign that regulators are planning to do anything differently to control dust exposure," Boles reports. "Under the Trump administration, legislators and regulators have made moves to change some health and safety controls and raised concerns among health advocates that the changes would weaken protections in order to reduce costs for the mining industry."

Former mining executive David Zatezelo, whom President Trump appointed to lead MSHA, said in September that silica must be controlled, but said the science didn't conclusively link silica exposure and severe black lung.

Earlier this month at the West Virginia Black Lung Association conference, United Mine Workers president advocated for stronger regulations for silica dust. "Roberts called on Congress to step in if regulators would not, and he may get his wish. Democratic Congressman Bobby Scott of Virginia, who chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor, pledged to conduct hearings in response to NPR’s 2018 investigation," Boles reports. "A committee staffer confirmed on background that those hearings are scheduled for June 20."

Texas town outlaws abortion, says it's the state's first 'sanctuary city for the unborn'

The Waskom council unanimously approved the anti-abortion
measures Tuesday. (Photo by Right to Life of East Texas)
There is no abortion clinic in Waskom, Texas, pop. 2,189, but locals wanted to make sure it stays that way. So on Tuesday the five-member City Council unanimously voted to become Texas' first "sanctuary city for the unborn." It could be the first of many, and not just in Texas.

Right to Life of East Texas approached Waskom residents and the council with an ordinance and resolution criminalizing abortion, Robin Richardson reports for the Longview News-Journal.

Waskom, Texas (Wikipedia map)
"Right to Life approached us because the abortion laws are changing in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi that the abortion clinics may start moving to Texas," Mayor Jesse Moore told Richardson. "With Waskom being the first city, 18 miles [west] from [Shreveport] Louisiana, they were anticipating one moving over here."

Waskom's new ordinance doubles down on recently passed state legislation that bars Texas cities and counties from doing some kinds of business with abortion providers. The law, which will take effect on Sept. 1, "specifically prevents local governments from entering into reduced tax and lease agreements with such organizations," Richardson reports. "It also prevents cities and counties from 'advocacy or lobbying on behalf of the interests of an abortion provider or affiliate.' It does not impact hospitals or doctor’s offices that perform fewer than 50 abortions a year."

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Report reveals nearly 400 poor-performing nursing homes; government website doesn't make their problems clear

The Senate Special Committee on Aging, led by Pennsylvania's senators, Democrat Bob Casey and Republican Pat Toomey, has released a report listing nearly 400 nursing homes with a "persistent record of poor care" that had not been publicly available. Almost every state has facilities on the list.

The report is "one of the most damning reports on the nation’s nursing homes that I’ve seen in a long time" and "should be required reading for any family thinking of moving a relative to a nursing facility," Trudy Lieberman writes in "Thinking About Health" for the Rural Health News Service.

Nursing homes that score poorly in state inspections qualify for extra oversight under the federal Special Focus Facility program until their issues are resolved. Of the nearly 400 facilities that are candidates for the program, only 88 have been selected as participants because of limited resources at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. But even though candidates are indistinguishable from participants in terms of quality, the list of candidates is not published. "As a result, individuals and families making decisions about nursing home care for themselves or for a loved one are unlikely to be aware of these candidates," the report says.

They may not be aware of the Special Focus participants, either. "The names on the participant list are public, but . . . CMS doesn’t make it easy to identify them," Lieberman writes. "On the CMS website these problematic facilities are not given star ratings as are most other facilities. Instead they are designated with a small yellow triangle that looks like a caution traffic sign."

The report found several other issues with CMS' Nursing Home Compare site. The star ratings on the website are also sometimes misleading, the report says, which is a problem since families and hospital discharge planners often use the star ratings in choosing a facility. The report also notes that CMS hasn't consistently updated data on the website and that nine troubled nursing homes are listed as having perfect scores for staffing and quality of care. 

For some rural people, participants in and candidates for the Special Focus program may be the only facilities nearby. Lieberman advises shunning such facilities, but "If they are the only game in town, then proceed with caution and keep a very close eye on any relative you send to one of them."

Programs provide remote counseling to encourage and help rural students get to college

It's well-known that rural high-school graduates are less likely to go to college than their suburban and urban counterparts. One reason: If their parents didn't go to college and their high school doesn't have a college adviser, they may not know how to make it happen, or be comfortable with the idea.

So, a program called College Possible is trying a novel way to help rural high-school grads go to college: the internet. The St, Paul-based nonprofit has helped urban students get into college for years, but three years ago began the Navigate program, which pairs "high-achieving rural students in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Oregon with coaches to guide them virtually through the application process," Stevie Friess reports for The Hechinger Report, a nonpartisan education publication. The coaches are recent college graduates fulfilling AmeriCorps service.

Cayanne Korder of Red Wing, Minn., participated in the program. She always wanted to go to college, but didn't know how to go about it. "From her office in St. Paul, Korder’s coach, Addy Steffens, provided ACT prep materials that Korder credits with boosting her test score by about 6 points, to an impressive 33," Friess reports. "Steffens reviewed drafts of Korder’s application essays, walked her through the completion of the Common Application and let her vent about academic and personal angst. Through monthly calls and countless texts and emails in between, they also researched schools and financial aid prospects together. The outcome: Korder heads this fall to Emory University on a full scholarship."

The program provides the kind of individualized help many public school students rarely have access to. "Nationwide, school counselors are overworked and underfunded, serving a median of 482 students each, nearly twice the 250-to-1 ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association," Friess reports.

Navigate isn't the only such program. College Advising Corps will debut this fall at two rural Texas high schools. And CollegePoint, a program that provides funding to College Possible and College Advising Corps, provides virtual counselling to 19,000 students nationwide with top test scores and a household income of less than $80,000. About a third of CollegePoint's students are rural.

The programs are untested and reach only a small share of rural students, "but their backers say that if they prove successful, they could expand to help lift the prospects of more teens from rural communities who, despite graduating high school at higher rates and earning better overall test scores than their urban and suburban counterparts, remain less likely to attend college," Friess reports.

Only 29 percent of 18-24-year-olds from rural areas are enrolled in higher education, compared to the national average of 42%. 

Trump orders easier path for OKing GMO crops, livestock

President Trump signed an executive order Tuesday directing federal agencies to streamline rules for approving genetically engineered crops and livestock. "The order also noted the government’s policies should urge trading partners to adopt similar regulatory approaches. Even if the U.S. loosens regulations on genetically engineered foods . . . companies could be hampered by regulations overseas," Candice Choi reports for The Associated Press.

The order's impact will depend on how the Agriculture Department, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency carry it out, since simple deregulation could cause consumers to be more skeptical of GMOs, argues Greg Jaffe, biotechnology director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The order may have a bigger impact on livestock than crops, since genetically engineered animals tend to face more regulatory hurdles, Choi reports.

Federal agencies try to make policies keep up with new technologies, but the GMO-approval process is complicated because "how genetically engineered plants and animals are currently regulated in the U.S. varies depending on the exact methods used to produce them," Choi reports.

Last week USDA proposed changing rules to exempt most GMOs from special oversight if produced through gene editing. That's a form of genetic modification that only produces traits that could have been achieved through traditional breeding techniques, albeit much more quickly and accurately, Choi reports. Most of the GMO corn and soy grown in the U.S. is produced through gene editing.

"But Jaydee Hanson of the Center for Food Safety said gene editing could also be used to make more significant changes, including those that would never happen in nature, and said oversight is necessary," Choi reports.

Nurse creates Farm Dinner Theater as a way to remind farmers of safe practices; has some unexpected benefits

Deborah Reed (UK photo by
Mark Cornelison)
A University of Kentucky nursing professor has come up with a novel way to remind farmers about farm safety: dinner theater.

At Farm Dinner Theater, farmers watch each other perform funny skits with a serious message. At a recent show at the Lincoln County Extension Office in Stanford, Thelma Blair asked her husband Jack if he remembered to wear ear plugs before working on his loud farm machinery. The audience laughed as Jack yelled, "WHAT?" in response. "While they delight in Jack's feigned deafness, it serves as a reminder to use ear protection when working with machines, Hilary Brown reports for UK Now. The Blairs are respected farmers in their community, and were excited to participate in the program when their extension agent asked.

The skits may fill a need because health and safety standards don't apply to small family farms. Lectures aren't effective, and pamphlets are easy to ignore, so Reed, who grew up on a nearby farm, wanted to find another way to help farmers recognize farming hazards and practice safety measures, Brown reports.

"Based on our research, we found that farmers learned best from watching each other and stories based on real situations," Reed told Brown. "They like humor. From observing farmers and how they choose their work behavior we know they learn from an apprentice model where role modeling is so important." And a free dinner doesn't hurt.

Reed says the program has helped in ways she didn't expect, such as "how the farmers would come together and work out issues among themselves," Brown reports. "At one event, a farmer mentioned how his father, who was grappling with Alzheimer's, kept trying to get the keys to the family tractor. Their solution was to move the tractor out sight. Once they did that, he stopped trying to drive it."

Another unexpected benefit: Attendees say the program has helped relieve their stress. Farmers are under a lot of stress these days because of bad weather, the trade war, low crop prices and more, and depression and suicide among farmers has increased greatly in recent years. Farm Dinner Theater "gives farmers the opportunity to come together, discuss their situations, and to support each other," Reed told Brown. "Non-farm people in the community come to these events and have a better understanding of the stressors that farmers face and can support them better."

Brown reports, "The results of these events have been remarkable. Fifty percent of the farmers who attended reported to have incorporated changes in their habits and on their farms within two weeks. Sixty percent made changes within two months. The program was so successful, Reed, who has won numerous awards for the program and was named by Oprah Magazine as "One of Five Nurses Who Might Just Save the World", was appointed UK's first agricultural nurse, the first at a land-grant university. Her position is funded by UK's College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, and marks the beginning of a unique partnership" with the College of Nursing.

The project is funded with a grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Workshops to prevent child injuries in agriculture start June 23 in Des Moines, later in Lexington, Ky., and Hershey, Pa.

Starting this month, the National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety will host three workshops on preventing injuries for children on farms and ranches.

The first workshop will be in Des Moines, Iowa, June 23-24. The second will be in Lexington, Ky., Aug. 6-7, and the third will be in Hershey, Pa., Sept. 17-18.

The workshop website says, "Learn how you can help safeguard children and youth who live, work and play on farms and ranches. This information can be used to develop and enhance childhood agricultural safety strategies for your organization. Interactive sessions will be facilitated by safety experts and leaders in the field of childhood agricultural injury prevention."

Registration is limited to 60 participants. Registration is $249, but only $199 for early birds. Click here for more information or to register.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Rural weekly investigates how Oregon legislator has scored multiple government contracts for his private business

Oregon state Rep. Greg Smith
(Mid-Valley Media photo by Mark Ylen) 
The Malheur Enterprise in rural Oregon has won multiple awards for watchdog journalism; now, editor-publisher Les Zaitz and his team are at it again. They recently published an article, the third in a series, on how state legislator Greg Smith has been able to score multiple government contracts for his private business.

Smith, R-Heppner, wears many hats. As a state representative, he serves on nine legislative committees and leads three, earning $31,200 a year. He also has a full-time job directing Eastern Oregon University's Small Business Development Center, and a second full-time job as executive director of a group redeveloping the U.S. Army's Umatilla Chemical Depot. Since he took office in 2001, "he has stacked one government contract atop another," Zaitz, Pat Caldwell and Kristine de Leon report.

"He uses his influence in the Legislature ­– he is dean of the House ­– to benefit those who retain him, pushing through millions of dollars in state allocations," the Enterprise reports. Its three-month probe, for which Smith refused to comment, "untangled his public service and his private contracts through government documents and interviews, revealing an empire funded by public money."

Smith has "made no secret" of his roles and has occasionally sought guidance from the state ethics commission. But some county officials say there's no way Smith can ethically reconcile his conflicts of interest, and wonder why there isn't more state oversight, the Enterprise reports.

The rural weekly demonstrated its willingness to take on state-level corruption in 2017 with its "Deadly Decisions" package, which revealed that a mental hospital improperly released a patient who went on to commit two murders. The package earned the Enterprise--and Zaitz--multiple national awards, including the Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and the 2017 Investigative Reporters & Editors Award in the Freedom of Information category. Largely on the strength of that package, ProPublica chose the Enterprise as one of only seven newsrooms nationwide (out of 239 applicants) for the first generation of its Local Reporting Network.

Project helps rural teens in Mo. news deserts, who feel ignored by news media, learn more about journalism

Sarah Gallagher heads the Katy Bridge Coalition, the subject
of the prizewinning story in the project. (Photo by Lily Terrell)
"There is a heightened interest in what goes on in the heads and hearts of modern teenagers — dubbed 'Generation Z' (Gen Z) — particularly by legacy media. But teenagers from rural communities, especially in the Midwest, are not often factored into mainstream Gen Z coverage. This can be attributed to a number of factors, such as living in a news desert, living in the middle of the country, and-or unpredictable Wi-Fi access that hampers engagement with news and information sources," reports the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. "With these barriers to access in mind, the central question becomes: Do rural Gen Z teenagers see themselves in the news they consume? If they do, what news topics and-or information is of interest to them? Where do they consume it? And if they don't consume news and information, how can they be compelled to engage with it?"

Nico Gendron, an RJI residential fellow, tried to find out more with a study of rural Missouri teens who live in news deserts. She worked with 15 juniors and seniors from five high schools in four counties in the middle of the state, from August 2018 through April 2019. The students were given the opportunity to produce an original, local news story about their community that they felt hadn't been explored by the news media, and in the process learn more about journalism basics. Read the final report here.

Gendron writes for the Columbia Missourian about the stories that won a competition judged by faculty at the Missouri School of Journalism: "Lily Terrell of Boonville High School is the grand prize winner for her profile on the Katy Bridge, the community fighting to save it and how beloved the landmark is to the Boonville community. The two runners-up are Emily Byrne of Boonville High School and Hannah Duncan of Prairie Home High School.

"Byrne produced an investigative feature on the use of Boonville’s stormwater tax to build six turf fields in hopes of boosting the local economy by making Boonville a destination for soccer tournaments. Duncan captured an intimate photo essay — which can be seen in Friday’s print edition — of the woman behind Duncan’s Diner, the only diner in a town of 280 people. This woman is also Hannah’s mother. She makes a mean Reese's pie."

USDA promises quick disaster aid for Southern farmers and forest owners hit in 2018; the latter may take some finagling

Now that the disaster-aid bill is law, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue promised that the Department of Agriculture will quickly get help to Southeastern farmers and forest owners whose products were damaged by Hurricane Michael in 2018. "The Category 5 storm in October 2018 tore through Florida’s top lumber producing counties and dealt about $1.3 billion in damage to the state’s timber sector," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's "Morning Agriculture."

Since the USDA doesn't usually help with timber losses, "Aiding tree farmers could require some creativity from federal and state officials," McCrimmon reports. "Florida and Georgia lawmakers last week asked Perdue to design forest restoration block grants that cover debris removal and replanting costs and compensate forest owners for the value of the trees they lost in the storm. The USDA chief on Friday suggested the program could be similar to block grants for the citrus industry."

Presidential candidate Hickenlooper issues rural policy plan

John Hickenlooper
On Friday, Democratic presidential candidate John Hickenlooper, former governor of Colorado, unveiled a plan to invest billions of dollars in rural communities as part of his platform.

The plan prioritizes fighting the opioid epidemic, investing in renewable energy, and expanding access to health care, education, infrastructure and broadband. Hickenlooper wrote that he would also "streamline access to the more than 60 federal programs designed for rural communities."

Hickenlooper said his experience as a successful entrepreneur makes him uniquely qualified to consider the needs of rural businesses. And, he said, during his two terms as governor he had expanded broadband access to 64 of Colorado's rural counties and that such initiatives have made the state's rural counties more successful. Read the plan here.

Editor's note: The Rural Blog plans to report on major rural policy platforms of the candidates.

Companies owned by W.Va. governor forced to pay off some of their long-standing debts in that state and Ky.

Gov. Jim Justice
Companies owned by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and his family are being forced to pay off some of their long-standing debts to companies and counties in that state and Kentucky. 

In West Virginia, "court cases, including some from afar, keep resulting in local law enforcement officers being asked to assess what personal property is available from Gov. Jim Justice, said to be the state’s richest man — and seize it," Brad McElhinny reports for MetroNews in Charleston. 

Siemens Financial Services is asking the Greenbrier County sheriff to seize Justice's personal property and check his assets. A Justice-owned company, Southern Coal, owes Siemens almost $4 million, but Justice agreed in court to personally pay $2.79 million on the debt. "He didn’t do so fast enough to satisfy the company. It’s now trying to force the collection of what’s left," McElhinny reports.

In Kentucky, Justice coal companies were forced to start paying back delinquent property taxes to counties if they wanted the mining license for their company, Kentucky Fuel, to be reinstated. Most of Justice's debt was for Kentucky Fuel, ownership of which he transferred to his son and daughter in 2017. State officials agreed to waive penalties and interest on tax debts to most Kentucky counties in order to reach the agreement and start bringing in money for counties that might not have been able to collect otherwise, Bill Estep and Will Wright report for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

"Knott, Pike, Harlan and Magoffin counties received checks last week totaling nearly $1.2 million, and Justice’s organization has pledged to pay an equal amount over the next six months," Estep and Wright report. "The agreement did not cover Floyd County, where . . . Kentucky Fuel has a delinquent tax bill of $671,000" because the county attorney won't waive all interest and penalties.

The cash is sorely needed. "Counties get money from a tax on coal production, so their revenue has withered because of the drop in production and because of a state decision to reduce the valuation of coal reserves, forcing cuts for local governments and schools," Estep and Wright report. "Knott County, for instance, has laid off 32 employees since the first of the year, sold 15 vehicles to reduce costs, and cut the number of hot meals it provides for senior citizens."

Monday, June 10, 2019

Independent rural radio stations struggle; cutbacks, closures weaken community identity and coverage of local news

Co-owner and operator Mark Lucke at KHIL-AM, which is in danger of closing after broadcasting in Willcox, Ariz.
(pop. 3,500) for 60 years. Tanya Tucker listened to the station as a child. (Guardian photo by Cassidy Araiza)
More and more rural radio stations have been forced to close or cut local programming in recent years, which often weakens community connections, Debbie Weingarten reports for The Guardian.

"Small-town radio is fizzling nationwide, as stations struggle to attract advertisement dollars," Weingarten writes. "As station owners are forced to sell, media conglomerates snap up rural frequencies for rock-bottom prices, for the sole purpose of relocating them to urban areas. In a more affluent market, they can be flipped for a higher price. With limited frequencies available, larger broadcasters purchase as many as possible . . . in a race not dissimilar to a real-estate grab."

The trend toward consolidation kicked off after the 1996 Telecommunications Act largely deregulated sales of stations. Reed Hundt, then chair of the Federal Communications Commission, told Congress it would foster "innovation and competition in radio" and promote "diversity in programming and diversity in the viewpoints expressed on this powerful medium that so shapes our culture," Weingarten reports. "And yet the act did not deliver on these ideals. Instead, for the first time, large media companies were allowed to buy up multiple stations without restriction. By 2002, the radio industry was essentially an oligopoly – just 10 parent companies controlled two-thirds of the listeners and revenue," Those companies buy up the best signals and get the best advertisers, leaving independent rural radio stations with "fewer listeners, fewer sponsors, and far less revenue to get by."

The consolidation of owners has led to consolidation of content. Today, it's common for one automated center to feed programming to stations all over the country. The lack of local information and identity worries Dennis Deninger, a Syracuse University communications professor whose first media job was reading obituaries on the air at a radio station in rural New York. "If local radio stations are getting their content fed in from some distant studio in another state, you have less information about your home," Deninger told Weingarten. "Having less information about where you live and the people you live with … I can’t think that’s a good thing."

Foreign investment in U.S. farmland increasing; Chinese ownership has increased tenfold in less than a decade

Foreign investors acquired at least 1.6 million acres of U.S. farmland in 2016, the largest increase in more than a decade, according to a review of the most recent federal data. About 2.2 percent of U.S. farmland (1% of all U.S. land) is owned or long-term leased by foreign investors.

"The data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that foreign investors control – either through direct ownership or long-term leases – at least 28.3 million acres, valued at $52.2 billion. That area is about the size of the state of Ohio," Jonathan Hettinger reports for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Most of that farmland is owned by timber and renewable energy companies, but some of it is used for meat production or crops.

Missouri relaxed its ban on foreign farmland ownership in 2013 when a Chinese company bought Smithfield Foods. "That move allowed the company, now known as WH Group, to acquire more than 40,000 acres of Missouri farmland, according to federal data." That deal put Chinese-sponsored businesses in control of about 25% of the state's pork production, Allen Fennewald reports for the Fulton Sun.

Smithfield, the world's largest pork producer, owns about 150,000 acres in the U.S., and Chinese businesses overall own about 191,000 acres worth $1.9 billion. Though that isn't much in the grand scheme of things, Chinese investment in U.S. agriculture has grown tenfold in less than a decade, according to USDA data. "And in Ohio, one of the states where a ban on foreign-owned farmland is being considered, WH Group bought two grain elevators in 2016, allowing the company to skip the middleman in feeding Smithfield’s livestock," Hettinger reports.

Hawaii, Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Dakota and Oklahoma ban foreign ownership of farmland, and a group called Family Farm Action is lobbying for bans in other states, Hettinger reports. Jake Davis, the group's policy director, told him, "This is about food security for [foreign investors], it needs to be about food security for us."

The five states estimated to have the most foreign-controlled land are:
  1. Maine, 3.1 million acres
  2. Texas, 3 million acres
  3. Alabama, 1.6 million acres
  4. Washington, 1.5 million acres
  5. Michigan, 1.3 million acres
"In 2016, Luxembourg had the largest increase of any country in foreign investment at 262,000 acres – all forestland – valued at $599 million, while Italy was second at 257,000 acres – almost entirely cropland – valued at $300 million," Hettinger reports. "Overall, Canadian individuals and entities own the most land at 4.7 million acres, valued at $4.6 billion. Netherlands is a close second at 4.5 million acres, valued at $6 billion Those countries hold significant forestland investments. EDP Renewables, a Portuguese renewable energy company, and Enel Green Power, an Italian renewable energy company . . . both control significant swaths of farmland through long-term leases."

W.Va. Supreme Court says landowners can keep drillers from using their land to frack on other properties

David Wentz looks at an EQT gas well site on his property. (ProPublica photo by Raymond Thompson Jr.)
Last Wednesday, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled unanimously that oil and gas companies are trespassing if they enter private land to use it for something the owners have not agreed to.

"Companies must obtain permission from surface owners in order to use their land to reach reserves under other properties, Justice John Hutchison wrote for the court," report Kate Mishkin and Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette-Mail and ProPublica's Local Reporting Network.

The problem that led to the lawsuit began more than seven years ago. EQT Corp. owned the mineral rights on Beth Crowder and David Wentz's farm, and was allowed to use a 20-acre well pad on their property to drill for natural gas under their property. But EQT also owned drilling rights to about 3,000 acres nearby, and wanted to use the Wentz well pad to drill horizontal hydraulic fracturing wells to reach those tracts. Crowder and Wentz told EQT it could not do that, but EQT ignored them and drilled nine wells, causing considerable noise and traffic on the farm, Mishkin and Ward report.

The ruling "represents a rare victory for residents in a state where economics and politics are increasingly controlled by the natural gas business after decades of domination by the coal industry. Making it more gratifying for Crowder and Wentz, the court that ruled in their favor has been under the microscope because of connections to the gas industry," Mishkin and Ward report.

Industry officials say fracking limits environmental harm by drilling multiple wells from one pad, but that practice has increased the nuisance for nearby residents, many of whom didn't own their surface tracts when the mineral rights under them were sold. The sellers could not have anticipated the advent of fracking, which critics say is sometimes more of a nuisance than traditional drilling. "Though bills have been introduced year after year that are designed to mitigate the impacts on residents, West Virginia lawmakers have repeatedly refused to act," Mishkin and Ward report.

Sinclair station meteorologist may lose job after objecting on the air to mandated 'code red' weather alerts

A meteorologist for a Sinclair Broadcasting station could lose his job after he criticized, on the air, last week, new orders from corporate to declare "code red" weather alert days.

Joe Crain has been a meteorologist at WICS-TV in Springfield, Ill., for 15 years, and is trusted by locals as a source for severe weather coverage. He said Sinclair management encouraged meteorologists at his and other affiliates to declare "code red" days as part of weather forecasts, which he believed undermined his credibility, Matthew Cappucci reports for The Washington Post.

He spoke out on Wednesday in response to what he said were "thousands" of negative comments from readers. "I take my job seriously and my responsibility to the public," Crain said during his forecast. "We want you to know it’s not us. This is a corporate initiative: the code red alert. Behind the scenes, many of us have tried to dissuade it for the last few months." He encouraged viewers to continue complaining: "Despite the fact that this facility is owned by a corporation, it’s still licensed under the authority by the Federal Communications Commission to serve the public interest, convenience and necessity. You still have a voice. Keep those cards and letters coming."

Crain did not deliver a forecast Thursday morning, and his bio has been removed from the company site. Thousands of local viewers have commented on social media in support of Crain, some pledging to boycott the station. At least four local businesses have pulled advertising from WICS in response, and meteorologists across the country have spoken out, saying management needs to stay out of news coverage, Cappucci reports.

A Sinclair spokesperson told the Post that the company stands behind its decision to push code red alerts, and says the increase in code red days seen in Springfield was the product of frequent severe weather that had created "significant storm damage in the area." The spokesperson also contradicted Crain's on-air complaint and said that local meteorologists decide whether to issue a red alert, Cappucci reports.


Sunday, June 09, 2019

Daily papers, seeking anti-trust break to deal with Google and Facebook, say Google makes billions from their work

Google made $4.7 billion "from the work of news publishers in 2018 via search and Google News, according to a study by the News Media Alliance, the main lobbying group for daily newspapers. "The journalists who create that content deserve a cut of that $4.7 billion, said David Chavern, the president and chief executive of the alliance," Marc Tracy reports for The New York Times.

"That $4.7 billion is nearly as much as the $5.1 billion brought in by the United States news industry as a whole from digital advertising last year — and the News Media Alliance cautioned that its estimate for Google’s income was conservative. For one thing, it does not count the value of the personal data the company collects on consumers every time they click on an article," Tracy writes. Google didn't respond to the Times' request for comment.

The study's release is tied to a House subcommittee hearing Tuesday "on the interrelationship of big tech companies and the media," Tracy reports. The newspaper industry wants "a four-year antitrust exemption, allowing them to collectively bargain with the owners of online platforms over revenue splitting. The bill has bipartisan support in the Senate and the House, including the chairman and ranking member of the House Judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee."

Google's parent, Alphabet, and Facebook "are major distributors for news publishers," Tracy notes. "The two of them ferry more than 80 percent of external traffic to various sites. That is a far cry from the analog days, when media barons controlled how their publications reached the public and collected all the ad income they generated." By playing middleman, they "take a huge proportion of online ad revenue," the advent of which has reduced newspaper advertising. The companies “like this business,” Chavern told Tracy. “It’s a good business, where you write for them.”