Friday, June 21, 2019

Plight of New York dairy farmers detailed in articles that won awards in National Newspaper Association contest

Paul Keppler of Knox, N.Y., stands near a young bull at his farm.
 He sold his dairy cows after milk prices dropped so low that he
couldn’t make a profit, and now is selling hay and corn instead.
(Photo by H. Rose Schneider, Altamont Enterprise)
By Bill Reader
Ohio University
For The Rural Blog

American dairy farms are facing one of the worst market crises in two generations. Faced with reduced consumer demand and a glut of milk (largely due to increased production by industrial megafarms), independent family dairies are getting paid about the same for their milk as they were in the 1970s and 1980s — but paying 2019 prices for fuel, feed, utilities, equipment, and other needs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that more than 2,700 dairy farms went out of business in 2018, nearly half of those in three of the nation's biggest dairy states: Wisconsin (590 dairies shut down), Pennsylvania (370), and New York (280).

Many local newspapers have written stories about the plight of their dairy-farming neighbors. The National Newspaper Association recently honored two New York newspapers for focusing on the human toll of the changing market forces: the twice-weekly Sullivan County Democrat (circulation about 9,000) won a second place award and the weekly Altamont Enterprise (circulation about 4,500) won a third-place award, both in NNA's "Best Agriculture Story" category.

For the Democrat, freelancer Kathy Daley wrote a series of articles about local dairy farms after six of them received cancellation notices from the Connecticut processor who had purchased their milk for years. The first article in that series, "Dairy farms get pink slips," has since been expanded to a half-dozen articles by Daley and several more by the newspaper's staffers.

Daley grew up on suburban Long Island, but remembers visiting New York state's dairy country as a child. During those family vacations, she remembers walking to a nearby dairy farm to watch the milking -- "every day," she recalls. But she knew little about the realities of farming after she moved to Sullivan County more than a decade ago and started writing for the local newspaper: "I didn't even know what a heifer was when I started."

"When the town supervisor asked me to write something about the plight of the dairy farms, I spent weeks online researching everything I could about the dairy industry," Daley said. "I didn't want to sound like an idiot when talking to these farmers."

Her research revealed just how complicated and challenging dairy farming game can be. "I love these people so much. They are so smart -- farmers have to be veterinarians, mechanics, accountants, everything." But the spiritual connection those farmers have to their cows, and their land, also impressed her. "These people don't want to leave their land. Many of them are third or fourth generation dairy farmers. It's just who they are. it's in their bones."

Once home to more than 400 dairy farms, the rural county about 100 miles northwest of New York City now has only about a dozen family dairies. The local economy has shifted from agriculture to tourism and vacation homes (the recently opened Resort World Catskills casino has also sparked local growth). The county has initiated a number of farmland-preservation initiatives, including a shift from commodity farming to niche, "locavore," and hobby farming, Daley noted.

A new local creamery is in development that could increase demand for local milk, but that project is still two or more years from completion. "The farmers are thinking, 'Something that's happening in two years sounds good, but what about now? How do we feed the cows now?'" Daley said. Some of those farmers may find other milk buyers and be able to hold on a little longer, she said, but others may give up dairying, or even sell their land for development.

Farther upstate, in the rural, western edge of Albany County, the Altamont Enterprise's H. Rose Schneider profiled the last days of one of that county's last family dairy farms, the Keppler family farm near the small town of Knox.

Schneider got a tip that the family was selling its herd of Holsteins from a co-worker who saw a posting on Facebook by Cheyenne Keppler, the 22-year-old daughter of farm owner Paul Keppler. "It seemed very compelling," she said, "because she was clearly very upset about the situation and didn't know what the next steps would be."

Cheyenne Keppler's post was excerpted in Schneider's article: "You who vowed to buy local products — and then went to Walmart to get your dairy and produce. You who asked what can we do to help. You talked a big game. We waited. We tried for years to come out on top. We waited for you to save us. You failed us. You failed every small farmer across the country. Now we watch every last cow get loaded into a trailer.”

Schneider's feature focused not just on the emotional toll on the Keppers, but on the economic realities that are driving the Kepplers and so many other family dairy farms out of business.

"Keppler said that he was paid about $15 per 100 pounds of milk (roughly 11 gallons of milk) before he decided to close the farm. It’s the same price that his parents were paid during the 1960s and 1970s, he said. The difference being, of course, the cost of everything else, he said, including feed for the cows ($1,200 a month), diesel for the tractor ($3 a gallon), and the tractor itself ($50,000 to $70,000)."

The current dairy crisis started in 2015 after 10 years of growth — between 2004 and 2014, U.S. dairy exports more than quadrupled, and the U.S. became the world's third-largest dairy exporter after New Zealand and the European Union, according to the USDA. Market shifts in 2015 caused a 30-percent drop in the value of U.S. dairy exports, although that began to rebound in early 2018 — in fact, 2018 was a record-setting year for U.S. milk production, despite reduced demand. The surplus of milk, along with reduced consumer demand, has driven on-farm prices to record lows.

The surplus has been exacerbated by the trade policies of President Donald Trump. For example, by pulling out of the Trans Pacific Partnership in early 2017, the Trump administration nixed a potential $1 billion increase in annual U.S. dairy exports. Trump's threats of a "tariff war" with Mexico (and fear of retaliatory tariffs against U.S. products) led dairy industry leaders in June 2018 to formally demand Trump avoid those tariffs, stating in part: "Mexico accounts for approximately one quarter of foreign demand for Made-in-America dairy products and is our most reliable trading partner." The administration's attempts to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement with a new trade deal would likely benefit large-scale U.S. farm operations that are set up for exports, but some analysts doubt the revamped trade deal would be of much help to small-scale family dairies.

Rural Republicans flee Oregon legislature to block climate-change bill; governor orders police to round them up

Republican state senators fled Oregon on Thursday to prevent the Legislative Assembly's Democratic supermajority from passing a climate-change bill they fear would hurt rural constituents. UPDATE, June 22: "Oregon’s top lawmakers will shut down the state capitol after receiving threats from militia groups, who authorities say are planning to demonstrate there in support of the 11 Republican senators," The Washington Post reports.

The move was "last-ditch political arithmetic: no senators, no votes. Without their 11 GOP colleagues, Senate Democrats can’t achieve a quorum, and their legislative agenda grinds to a halt. So the Republicans fled. They left the state, reportedly bolting over the Idaho line," Reis Thebault reports for the Post. "Oregon Republicans said a boycott was the only way they could advocate for the people that voted them into office. They spoke of a deepening divide between the state’s ultra-liberal urban enclaves and its sprawling rural counties with proud libertarian streaks."

It's the second time this session Republicans have walked out to prevent a vote, but Democrats were able to bring them back the first time with promises of compromise. This time, Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, told state troopers to track down and bring back errant lawmakers, Thebault reports. Sen. Brian Boquist, a Republican, told the superintendent of the state police: "Send bachelors and come heavily armed . . . I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon. It’s just that simple."

The bill they opposed aims to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by establishing a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. Businesses that emit carbon would have to buy pollution credits, and the state would gradually decrease the number of available credits. But Senate Republicans say the bill will have a "disproportionate and detrimental effect" on rural areas, since the industry would probably pass the extra costs onto commuters and other consumers, increasing the price of fuel and putting an undue burden on industries like trucking and logging, Thebault reports.

The Republican senators still have not returned. State Democrats are vowing to fine each one $500 a day, Dirk VanderHart reports for Oregon Public Radio.

Clean Power Plan replacement a boon to coal-fired plants

The Trump administration has finalized a replacement for President Obama's Clean Power Plan that aims to help the coal industry by easing emissions restrictions on coal-fired power plants. Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler signed the measure Wednesday, and said he expects more coal plants to open as a result. "But one state, New York, immediately said it would go to court to challenge the action, and more lawsuits are likely," Ellen Knickmeyer reports for the Associated Press.

Coal state lawmakers and industry representatives applauded the move because they believe federal regulation, not market forces, are to blame for the coal industry's decline, Knickmeyer reports.

The move is one of the biggest environmental regulatory rollbacks done by the administration, and comes as the EPA's own scientists warn that the air pollution triggered by the rule will result in the deaths of 300 to 1,500 people each year by 2030, Knickmeyer reports. EPA data also shows that, after decades of improvement, air pollution in the U.S. has gotten noticeably worse since President Trump took office, Seth Borenstein and Nicky Forster report for the AP.

Quick hits: Impossible Burger demand skyrockets; dangerous fungal disease hitting some California farmers

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
Sometimes deadly communicable disease, fueled by climate change, is hitting farmworkers hard in California's Central Valley, Twilight Greenaway reports for Civil Eats.

The plant-based Impossible Burger is so popular that the manufacturer is having a hard time meeting restaurants' demand, Neil Vigdor reports for The New York Times.

The interests of rural Americans are often underrepresented in state and national politics. One organizer has some ideas about how they can make their voices heard, Gary Abernathy writes for The Washington Post.

Rural physician Edwin Leap writes in MedPageToday about the difficulties rural residents encounter in seeking emergency care.

In a concession to the wet weather that has prevented many farmers from planting, the US Department of Agriculture has announced that farmers who plant cover crops on prevented planting acres will be able to hay or graze that land starting Sept. 1 without getting penalized on their crop insurance indemnity, Chris Clayton reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer.

Leadership program for Appalachian Kentuckians age 40 and under accepting applications until June 28

The Leadership Kentucky Foundation is accepting applications for its new leadership program, BRIGHT Kentucky, through June 28.

From the website: "BRIGHT Kentucky is designed to build the capacity of next-generation leaders (average age 20-40) in the Appalachian region of Kentucky to innovate, collaborate, and advance community and economic development. BRIGHT Kentucky will engage bright, entrepreneurial minds from all sectors and regions to offer non-partisan, ethical leadership training, expanded networks, and mentors designed especially for residents of the 54 Kentucky counties of the Appalachian Regional Commission."

Tuition, meals and lodging are provided, but there's only room for 50 participants. Click here for more information, including dates and how to apply. The program is made possible with a $500,000 grant from the ARC and private funding from the Whitaker Foundation and other organizations.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Columnist sees gentrification coming to her tiny Texas town

Mary Jane McKinney, a publisher of grammar exercises, writes a column for The Canadian Record and other Texas newspapers called "Plain English," usually about language, but she often tackles other subjects, using her skills as a former reporter and editor. When a two-bedroom, two-bathroom home in her town of Christoval, Texas, population 500, sold for $329,500 after four days on the market, she knew it was "something new," as she told her readers.

After giving the basic facts, McKinney writes, "Our unincorporated village is full of small cottages built in the 1920s and 1930s. . . . Most of the old homes are valued at $40,000 to $80,000. The house that sold was ... a classic Craftsman built in the early 1920s. Six years ago, a couple bought the house at auction for $10,000 and .... doubled its size. They installed high-end fixtures, cabinetry, flooring, windows and a fireplace."

Wikipedia base map, adapted
The house sold to a retired couple from Austin, at least three hours away, and they "probably think it's a bargain compared to Travis County home prices and property taxes," McKinney writes. "The couple who sold the house moved out today into the house next door, their next real-estate flip they have almost finished renovating.

"Our town knows what's happening. Gentrification has been circling our village like a hungry buzzard for years. Property taxes are low here, and so are the prices of old homes. . . . Real-estate flippers are about to descend on our village," which is already "completely surrounded ... with expensive new homes."

Christoval is only 20 miles from San Angelo, a city of 93,000, with plenty of urban amenities for commuters. "The good news is that our tax base will increase. So will the real-estate values. New restaurants and stores will open, and church congregations may grow," she writes. "The bad news is that gentrification always means displacement of people . . . young couples with children, the working poor, and seniors on fixed incomes. Their families have lived here for generations." For the rest of the column, click here.

Rural Nebraska school district, fed up with e-cigarettes, adds nicotine to drug test for extracurricular activities

Google map, adapted
Use of electronic cigarettes among teenagers has skyrocketed in the past few years, and a rural Nebraska school district has instituted a controversial way to fight it: any student in grades 7-12 who wants to participate in extracurricular activities must submit to random nicotine testing, Margaret Reist reports for the Lincoln Journal Star.

That will affect about 60 percent of the 387 students at Fairbury Junior-Senior High, about 50 miles southwest of Lincoln. The district has already had a random drug testing policy for the past two years, so nicotine will simply be added to the list of substances to be tested for. Students and their parents must sign a consent form for the testing in order to participate in extracurricular activities.

The board of Fairbury Public Schools approved the measure last week. "Vaping and smoking in our view is reaching epidemic proportions," Superintendent Stephen Grizzle told Reist. "It’s just a way we can deter kids from potentially being addicted to nicotine." He said adding nicotine to the drug testing panel will cost the district about $900 a year, and said the district is also considering installing sensors in the bathrooms that would detect e-cigarette vapor and notify administrators.

Though teenagers and privacy rights advocates might find it extreme, the new policy appears to be legal, under to a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld an Oklahoma school district’s policy of randomly drug testing students who participate in 'competitive' extracurricular activities such as cheerleading and choir," Antonia Farzan reports for The Washington Post. "In 1997, the Supreme Court had determined that testing high school athletes for illegal drugs was constitutional."

Justice Dept. shifts funds for proposed prison in E. Ky. to immigration enforcement; Congress may countermand

The Trump administration is dropping plans to build a federal prison in rural Letcher County, Kentucky, and said the $505 million allocated for it will be used instead to enforce immigration laws and improve national security. "Both budget proposals the Trump administration has sent to Congress have included provisions to take back the money approved during the final year of the Obama administration," Sam Adams reports for The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg.

Letcher County, Kentucky (Wikipedia)
In a notice published in the Eagle, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons said there was new information related to the environmental analysis of the proposed site, which is on top of a former coal mine. But budget documents seeking to reclaim the funds list mostly economic reasons, Adams reports.

A Justice Department document justifying the decision said that, because the overall prison population is declining, it's cheaper to buy an existing facility than build one new, and the prison would be even more expensive than the average new construction, Adams reports. It also said prisons don't contribute to local economic growth because they're first staffed with experienced prison employees from elsewhere, and most locals won't be experienced or educated enough to work there. Finally, the document lists unspecified "project complications" related to the county's "unique topography" and said that challenges with land acquisition, "access, utilities, and environmental impact have contributed to increased costs and significant delays."

"Elwood Cornett, co-chair of the Letcher County Planning Commission, which has been working on the prison project for about 15 years, said he was not aware of any issues with property acquisition, other than those already addressed earlier when the size of the property needed was reduced," Adams reports. "He said he is only aware of one property owner who had talked to the bureau recently, and that person seemed satisfied with the negotiations. Cornett blamed the delay on the lawsuit filed by the Abolition Law Center, which he characterized as full of foolishness.'"
A group of federal prisoners sued last year to block the prison's construction, on the grounds that building the prison would harm the environment, and that pollutants at the site would endanger prisoners, Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. The suit was one of many listing as co-plaintiff the ALC, an organization that advocates for prisoner's rights.

Fifth District U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers, R-Somerset, told the Eagle for an earlier story that the Bureau of Prisons is nevertheless continuing the process of building the prison: “BOP leadership has assured me that the bureau will continue to defend the ongoing litigation and that internal processes related to the Letcher prison construction project continue to move forward. Meanwhile, $510 million remains available for construction, as the House Appropriations Committee has again rejected the administration’s proposed recission.”

Apply for business journalism fellowship by June 28

The Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York is accepting applications for its Summer 2019 McGraw Fellowship for Business Journalism. The deadline is June 28.

The fellowship grants provide up to $15,000 and editorial support each for experienced journalists to produce high-impact investigative or enterprise stories with an economic, financial, or business angle. The fellowship is non-residency.

"There’s no reason rural news media shouldn’t compete for such grants; in fact, they need them more than larger news organizations. All it takes is a good idea and one capable journalist," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

One example of a rural-related fellowship project is Mark Olalde's 2018 series for Climate Home News about the coal industry's failure to set aside enough money to reclaim Appalachian mines.

Click here for more information about the fellowship, including how to apply.

Bipartisan pressure forces Trump administration to drop plans to revamp or shutter rural Job Corps centers

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has dropped plans to shutter parts of Job Corps, a Forest Service program that provides vocational training to disadvantaged rural teens and young adults.

"The decision came after weeks of heavy pressure from lawmakers from Montana to Kentucky, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)," Lisa Rein reports for The Washington Post. (Here's a bipartisan letter to USDA and the Department of Labor, which would have taken control of the program.) "The Forest Service had planned to begin layoffs of 1,110 employees by September, believed to be the largest number of cuts to the federal workforce in a decade."

The 25 Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers, which operate in rural areas, enroll more than 3,000 students a year, but the program was criticized for low performance, inefficiency and high costs. The Labor Department planned to close nine centers and hand off 16 others to state governments or private companies. It would have continued operating urban Job Corps programs. The nine rural centers slated for closure were in Arkansas, Kentucky, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

"But the planned closures quickly ran headlong into political reality: Most were in Republican strongholds President Trump won in 2016," Rein reports. "While the president and his GOP allies on Capitol Hill have put a high premium on downsizing the federal government, lawmakers facing re-election campaigns next year were loath to sacrifice economic drivers back home, however small."

Coal giants Peabody and Arch plan to merge their operations in the Powder River Basin and Colorado

Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis chart; its analysis is here.
The two top-producing coal companies in the country, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal announced Wednesday that they will combine their mining operations in the Powder River Basin and Colorado. The deal covers some of the country's highest-producing mines, which serve most states in the nation.

Both companies "specifically noted natural gas and renewables as reasons for needing to make coal more competitive," Brandon Foster and Nick Reynolds report for the Casper Star-Tribune in Wyoming. "Peabody will own 66.5 percent of the joint venture, and Arch will own 33.5%. Peabody will manage all activities, including the marketing of coal, according to the announcement."

If federal regulators greenlight the move, the companies expect to save about $820 million, mostly by reducing overhead. Peabody spokesperson Charlene Murdock told the Star-Tribune the anticipated savings won't come from layoffs, and that she expects "only possibly minor changes in the salaried staffing levels." Reporters spoke to Peabody President and CEO Glenn Kellow and Arch CEO John Eaves on separate conference calls; neither CEO "said how the move will affect employment numbers. The mines employed about 3,300 workers in 2018," Foster and Reynolds report.

The consolidation "is a sign of an overcapacity in the Powder River Basin. Where in traditional sectors businesses would simply close up shop, coal mines are costly to shut down, an unattractive fate for any publicly traded company with shareholder obligations to consider," Foster and Reynolds report. "Traditionally, coal companies could choose to be more aggressive, fighting to cut into the market share occupied by their competition, in order to boost their earnings. However, under the current conditions of the market and a structural decline for coal in general, such a battle would only drive down costs and further destabilize companies’ already slim profit lines. As a result, companies are then forced to realign themselves in ways that either allow them to remain profitable or minimize their losses as much as possible. Under those conditions, coal industry insiders have seen the eventual consolidation between producers in the Powder River Basin as a foregone conclusion."

The announcement comes only a month after the nation's third-largest coal company, Cloud Peak Energy, which operated in the Powder River Basin, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Jail suicide increasing, especially in rural areas; trend linked to opioid and methamphetamine withdrawal, mental illness

"Long the leading cause of death in U.S. jails, suicides hit a high of 50 deaths for every 100,000 inmates in 2014, the latest year for which the data are available. That’s 2½ times the rate of suicides in state prisons and about 3½ times that of the general population," report The Associated Press and the University of Maryland's Capital News Service

Rural jails have been hit particularly hard by the phenomenon. A 2006 Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that 64 percent of inmates in local jails nationwide had a mental-health problem, and the Treatment Advocacy Center estimates that 16% of inmates in jails and prisons have a severe mental illness. "That has raised troubling questions about the treatment of inmates in many jails, possible patterns of neglect, and whether better care could have stopped suicides," rsays The Crime Report, a publication of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

Jails and prisons started seeing more mentally ill people in the 1970s after state psychiatric hospitals began closing. More recently the trend has been linked to drug use: Many drug addicts struggle with depression, and when forced to dry out in jail, many face the additional hurdle of withdrawal. "About a third of jail inmates who attempted suicide or took their lives did so after staff allegedly failed to provide medicines used to manage mental illness," says The Crime Report.

Study: Obama school-meal law improved nutrition, added little to waste; but Trump's USDA isn't saying much about it

An Obama-era initiative that mandated healthier foods in school meals produced "remarkably positive" results in just a few years, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report. But the USDA isn't making much noise about it, and some say the quiet approach is politically motivated, Laura Reiley reports for The Washington Post.

The School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study was the first nationwide, comprehensive assessment of school meals after the implementation of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a key project of first lady Michelle Obama. The report found that the quality of children's diets improved dramatically by the 2014-15 school year, when most of the study's data was collected. Opponents of the law complained that children disliked the new regimen, but the study found that kids were eating the healthier foods: "There was greater participation in school-meal programs at schools with the highest healthy food standards," Reiley reports. "And the study found food waste, a troubling national problem in the lunchroom, remained relatively unchanged."

Despite the good news, "There was no news release," Reiley notes. "USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue didn’t say anything about it. And the link on the USDA website disappeared for several days after that, and was altogether inaccessible before reappearing under a different URL. A search of the study title on the Food and Nutrition Service site does not pull it up, nor is it accessible on the National School Lunch Program website tab." The study was first noted by The Lunch Tray blog.

A Food and Nutrition Service spokesperson said most FNS publications don't merit a press release, and that news of the study was announced on Twitter and included in an email newsletter with 40,000 recipients. The FNS tweet did not draw attention to the health impacts; it said school food directors were concerned about the cost of foods, and that school meals were found to be nutritious, but it did not say that those statements applied mostly to school meals during the 2014-15 year. 

The dates matter, because in December, Perdue announced the USDA "was weakening school nutrition standards for whole grain, nonfat milk and sodium, all of which had been tightened during the Obama administration. He cited food waste and nonparticipation as key rationales for the shift," Reiley reports. However, the new study contradicts those reasons.

Calif. utility to pay local governments $1 billion for wildfires

"California utility giant Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has agreed to pay $1 billion to 14 local governments throughout the state for the wildfire damage caused by its equipment and practices," Richard Gonzales reports for NPR. "Attorneys for a group of local public entities — counties and cities — announced the proposed settlement Tuesday to help cover taxpayer losses due to the 2015 Butte Fire, the 2017 North Bay Fires and the 2018 Camp Fire." Investigators found PG&E transmission lines caused the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 and burned over 150,000 acres.

The Butte County area will get the lion's share of the cash, since it suffered most from the Camp Fire. The county will receive $252 million; the town of Paradise will get $270 million; and the Paradise Recreation and Parks District will receive $47.5 million, Gonzales reports.

"Another $415 million will be divided by other jurisdictions and agencies hit by the wildfires in 2017, including Sonoma County, the city of Santa Rosa, Napa County and the city of Napa," Gonzales reports. The settlement doesn't cover insurance claims filed by individuals or businesses who were victims of the fires. It also must be approved by a bankruptcy court, since PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection in January.

Bob McGaughey, journalism education leader and rural-journalism advocate in West Kentucky, dies at 76

By Al Cross, director and professor
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

Rural journalism lost a great friend and an effective champion this week with the death at 76 of Dr. Bob McGaughey, who ran the accredited journalism program at Murray State University in far Western Kentucky for 23 years and was on the school's faculty for 41 years. He always had a hearty greeting, sharp thoughts and a funny story.

Robert McGaughey III, Ph.D.
My favorite tale from "Doc" is the one about the one-galloused farmer who walked into the Todd County Standard office in Elkton and said "I want to renew my perscription." The weekly newspaper employee behind the desk smiled and replied, "So, you want to know what's going on, right?" The farmer said, "I already know what's going on. I want to see who got caught."

My friend had many accomplishments, as recounted by David Snow of The Paducah Sun. They included more than 40 presentations at national conferences, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame and the Kentucky Press Association's Distinguished Service Award. For 10 years, he was executive director of the now-defunct West Kentucky Press Association. I think WKPA, with which I was first affiliated in 1973, lasted as long as it did largely because of Bob McGaughey.

The visitation is today and the funeral is tomorrow, on the Murray campus. The obituary is here

California governor formally apologizes to state's Native Americans for 'genocide' of their ancestors

Gov. Gavin Newsom (fourth from left) read the apology while meeting with tribal leaders on the future site of the California Indian Heritage Center in Sacramento. (Associated Press photo by Rich Pedroncelli)
California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order Tuesday formally apologizing for the state's history of violence against the state's Native Americans. "The order represents an apology to Native people for the government’s slaughter of their ancestors, family separations and forced servitude, according to his office," Sophia Bollag reports for The Sacramento Bee.

"It’s called a genocide," Newsom said at a ceremony announcing the state’s apology. "No other way to describe it... I’m sorry on behalf of the state of California," Bollag reports. The ceremony took place at the site of the future California Indian Heritage Center in Sacramento.

According to the 2010 Census, California has about 270,000 Native Americans, the largest such population of any state, and about 12 percent of the nation's indigenous population. About half of California's Native Americans live in large urban areas after the federal government forced them to relocate, but the rest are scattered around the state, many in rural areas and reservations, according to California Courts.

"We can never undo the wrongs inflicted on the peoples who have lived on this land that we now call California since time immemorial, but we can work together to build bridges, tell the truth about our past and begin to heal deep wounds," Newsom said in a written statement. He "also announced a new commission called the Truth and Healing Council that his office says will allow Native Americans to clarify the historical record of the state’s violence against them," Bollag reports.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Agriculture appropriations bill moves to the House; one amendment would, in effect, ban horse slaughter

The House Appropriations Committee approved a $24.3 billion agriculture appropriations bill today on a 29-21 party-line vote. Of interest:
  • Instead of slashing the budget by 15 percent as President Trump requested, it adds $1 billion to current discretionary spending levels.
  • The bill provides nearly $4 billion for rural development programs, including $680 million for rural broadband.
  • It may include an amendment that would, in effect, ban horse slaughterhouses in the U.S. Since the National Thoroughbred Racing Association has come out in support of such a measure, it may be more likely to gain traction in the Senate version of the bill.
  • Another amendment would block the Department of Agriculture from using funds to provide controversial "harvest boxes" to SNAP recipients.
  • The bill would ban use of funds for any costs associated with relocating the USDA's Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The USDA recently announced it would move those agencies from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City.
  • Amendments from Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., would freeze funding for some food and nutrition programs until Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue can verify to Congress that every recipient has provided an identification card and passed a drug test before receiving services.
  • Amendments from Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., would limit USDA support programs for the sugar industry and restrict marketing assistance loans for raw cane sugar and refined beet sugar.
  • An amendment from Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, asks for an ERS report on the impact of the tariff war on U.S. farmers "in light of Russian efforts to expand agricultural exports to China."

Chronic wasting disease spreads among deer, elk, moose; now found in 24 states and four other countries

Incidences of chronic wasting disease in North America (U.S. Geological Survey map)
Chronic wasting disease is continuing to spread rapidly among deer, moose and elk. "Last winter, Tennessee became the latest of 24 states to report CWD infections, which have also been found in two Canadian provinces, Norway, Finland and South Korea," Jason Bittel reports for The Washington Post. "Now, as it strikes animals across a widening territory, concern is growing among scientists and public health officials that the disease might leap to humans."

CWD is spread by prions, mutated proteins. Sounds familiar? Prions are also how mad-cow disease spreads. Since the 1990s, the human form of mad-cow, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, has killed more than 220 people worldwide. Prion diseases are fatal, with no known cure. "Some experts say that in a nation with an estimated 10 million deer hunters harvesting 6 million deer a year and eating many of them, it may be just a matter of time before chronic wasting makes its way to us," Bittel reports.

Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, estimates that as many as 15,000 CWD-positive carcasses may have been eaten last year, which he says ups the chances that the disease will eventually leap to humans. "There are thought to be eight strains of CWD, and every time one goes through an animal, Osterholm said, there’s a chance it might adapt in a way that allows it to pass into humans," Bittel reports.

A study last year found that macaque monkeys could catch CWD under certain conditions; that's alarming since macaques and humans have very similar DNA. In the meantime, scientists urge hunters to have their deer tested if it's harvested from an area where CWD has been found.

Kids Count Data Book releases state-level data on factors that influence children's well-being; local data out in Nov.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation has just released its 2019 Kids Count Data Book, which provides state-level data about factors that influence children's well-being, such as education, health, economic well-being, and family and community. Local data, which provides a vast amount of information that can inspire and inform news reporting, will be released in November.

The findings in this year's report provide "dramatic" demographic and geographic contrasts since 1990, when the report was first issued, says Lisa Hamilton, the foundation's president and CEO. For example, in 1990, 69 percent of American children were white; in 2017 it was 53%. And the share of children with at least one immigrant parent has doubled since 1990, from 13% to 26%. Meanwhile, every state where child population growth is higher than the national average is in the South or West.

As far as well-being of children, "While we have stepped up for kids in some areas [since 1990], we have fallen profoundly short in other ways," Hamilton writes. "Notably, we have failed to reduce racial and ethnic disparities among children and dismantle the obstacles that so many children of color encounter on the road to adulthood. Addressing these failures remains critical, as many states that have continually been near the bottom of the Foundation's annual Kids Count index rankings are the same ones that have seen tremendous growth in their child population."

Read the data book here or view the interactive version here.

Farm Bill, new state laws may ease burdens and pitfalls for owners of property left by ancestors who didn't write a will

New laws are making it easier for heirs of undivided property to hold onto it and make something of it, April Simpson reports for Stateline. The campaign has mainly been pushed by African Americans, many of whose ancestors died without wills, but the issue affects "a range of people and communities, from whites in Appalachia, to Native Hawaiians in Hawaii, to Latinos along the New Mexico-Texas border, to middle-income white families with poor estate planning, according to Thomas Mitchell, a law professor at Texas A&M University in College Station."

Simpson explains the background: "When property owners die without a will, their descendants, or heirs, share a claim to the estate — a situation known as heirs' property. But it takes only one heir who wants out of the arrangement to sell their share. They may need the money or no longer want to share in the responsibility of property ownership. Sometimes, there are so many heirs, dividing up the property into separate tracts isn’t feasible. An heir may force a partition sale, which means the entire property is sold. Oftentimes, a predatory developer scoops it up at a deep discount. Poor and disadvantaged communities have been the primary victims of partition sales," the “most unstable form of common, real property ownership,” according to the American Bar Association.

The 2018 Farm Bill made it easier for heirs' farmland to be returned to production, with "provisions for heirs to qualify for a USDA Farm Service Agency farm number — akin to a driver’s license for agriculture — which unlocks key programs and enables participation in local FSA elections," Simpson reports. But to make full use of those provision in a state, it must have enacted a Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, which "gives co-owners the opportunity to buy out heirs who want to sell their share. ... If a buyout doesn’t resolve the issue, a court may consider dividing the property between the owners or selling the property and dividing the proceeds equitably between the owners. . . . Open market sales, rather than auctions, are preferred to ensure a higher sale price."

The laws are not a panacea. In Mississippi, where a bill failed this year, Rep. Mark Baker, chair of the state House Judiciary Committee, told Simpson, “You’d always bring yourself back full circle to, what is the state of title? And, in whom are we going to confirm ownership so that we can begin the process in making a partition determination in kind or by sale?" He said few people want to buy an interest in undivided property unless they’re related to other owners.

But in some cases, the new laws have resolved untenable situations created by old laws, Simson reports: "Iowa had one of the country’s worst partition laws because these laws made a partition sale the preferred remedy even when the court could have ordered property physically divided, Mitchell said. But a dispute between two siblings who had inherited a nearly 500-acre family farm prompted a public outcry. The case went to the state Supreme Court, which affirmed a lower court decision that upheld the law by forcing a partition sale."

The laws come too late for most African Americans. "The changes came after roughly 85 percent of black-owned land with active farm operations already had been lost, in part because of laws negatively affecting owners of heirs' property," Simpson reports.

Great Lakes near or at record high levels; scientists say climate change driving extreme swings in water levels

A pier on Lake Ontario is partially inundated by rising water and wind-driven waves. (Buffalo News photo)
Water levels in the Great Lakes have been high since 2014 and these days are at or near record highs. "In May, new high water level records were set on Lakes Erie and Superior, and there has been widespread flooding across Lake Ontario for the second time in three years. These events coincide with persistent precipitation and severe flooding across much of central North America, Drew Gronewold and Richard Rood write on The Conversation. Gronewold and Rood are professors at the University of Michigan who specialize in hydrology and climate science.

What happens to the Great Lakes matters; they contain about one-fifth of the world's surface fresh water, and more than 30 million people live in the Great Lakes basin, many of whom rely on the lakes for drinking water, industrial use, shipping and recreation, Gronewold and Rood report.

High water levels pose several problems for those who live near or depend on the Great Lakes, "including shoreline erosion, property damage, displacement of families and delays in planting spring crops. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently declared a state of emergency in response to the flooding around Lake Ontario while calling for better planning decisions in light of climate change," Gronewold and Rood report.

Based on their research, Gronewold and Rood say climate change is causing rapid fluctuations between too-high and too-low water levels in the Great Lakes, and that this will be the new normal. Water levels in most Great Lakes were very low as recently as 2013, but began surging in 2014 after the "polar vortex" froze much of the lakes and caused evaporation to drop, even as regional precipitation began increasing.

Water levels are influenced by three main factors: rain and snowfall over the lakes, evaporation, and runoff that enters the lakes from tributaries and rivers. Runoff is affected by rain over land, snow and soil moisture. Warmer weather increases evaporation, but also causes snow to melt and runoff to increase. That makes for bigger swings in water level, especially considering that spring is coming earlier these days. Gronewold and Rood call for government agencies and weather forecasters to develop new tools to assess how future climate conditions could affect the Great Lakes' water levels, since current tools aren't capturing the whole picture.

Sometimes, an obituary's not enough. Sometimes, a news story's not enough. Sometimes, you need the whole eulogy.

David Ainsworth gave one of his cows a shot in his barn in 2007.
(Photo by Ikuru Kuwajima; copyright, The Valley News)
Community newspapers increasingly charge for obituaries, an unfortunate result of digital media's erosion of their advertising base. But the news columns of the best community papers still include news obits about people who made their mark on the community or region. And sometimes a paper will double down and run a long tribute to a truly unique individual. The Valley News of Lebanon, N.H., and White River Junction, Vt., did that with the moving, funny and insightful eulogy for a well-known dairy farmer and former state legislator, David Ainsworth, by Corey Chapman, a veteran of Afghanistan.

He gets you with the first sentence: "I once got drunk on a beach in Hawaii. Now let’s be really honest here, how many of you thought I would open with that?" Turns out it was the only time his wife had seen him cry, until Ainsworth died. Chapman moved on to plainspoken, entertaining descriptions of Ainsworth the farmer: a manure pit with "chocolate sauce," doctoring a cow ("We used to run calcium into a sick cow’s jugular like it was a NASCAR pit stop"), baling hay on a slope ("He knew just how to maneuver in order to have the bale sit perfect every time"), and just passing the time ("He would always tell a quick story of times gone by and we would sit there looking out over the town of Royalton. Those were my favorite times with him: side by side.")

Ainsworth had been ill, but Chapman only hinted at it: "He always answered the phone when he knew it was me by saying 'Hello, sir,' or 'Hello, Mr. Chapman.' Lately he had been calling quite a few of us here today on a regular basis. He would call me and ask how the cows were doing and how my family was and then talk for a while about some ideas he had. I wish I had talked to him longer because I’m sure going to miss that 'Hello, sir,' that I’ll never hear again."

After reading a poem he found online about a just-passed farmer, Chapman closed the sale: "I would like to remind you all that David Ainsworth was a dying breed of Vermonter. A member of the old guard of our beautiful culture here, he was the type of man that we are losing more and more of every day. The wise old man with the big smile and the kind heart. Back to basics and pure luck and faith. When Merle Howe and George Spaulding and other old farmers pass away, I remember how much dies with them, a whole history of the way things used to be and how they should be now, memories and stories of a way of life that we will never know because they are gone now. So if you know any old timers in your life, these old wise men, do as I did with Dave: Spend as much time as you can talking and working with them and learn all that you possibly can from them before it is too late and they are gone, and that world of knowledge is gone too. If I could send a message to Dave I would say the farm is in good hands. . . . I wish you could see the crowd here today and the one at your farm yesterday. If you wanted to know if you impacted anyone in your life,  you should just look around. We all loved you and owed you so much for all that you have done for us. You will never be forgotten, as you have instilled in all of us your love of the land and this great state. We love you, Dave. Goodbye, sir."

Monday, June 17, 2019

As move to make 21 legal age to buy tobacco gains steam, legislators and farmers debate impact on shrinking industry

A tobacco harvest in Kentucky (Photo by Greg Eans, Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, via The Associated Press)
As longtime legislative supporters of tobacco follow manufacturers' lead toward making 21 the legal age to buy tobacco products, in the hope of avoiding greater regulation, some other legislators and tobacco farmers are worrying about what the future holds, reports Max Blau of Stateline.

More than a dozen states have passed "T-21" laws to raise the age from 18, and now Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a top tobacco state, has introduced a bill to make 21 the legal age nationwide and leave enforcement with the states. The bills are supported by tobacco companies such as Altria Group, the No. 1 manufacturer, which recently bought 35 percent of Juul Labs, maker of the electronic cigarette by far the most popular, especially with teenagers. Their logic: Raising the legal age will reduce the pressure for rules limiting flavorings, advertising and so on.

The companies' "about-face has worried some activists, who fear industry lobbying efforts behind such laws are intended to gut stronger local tobacco regulations," Blau notes. "Southern farmers are left to figure out what comes next. Some tobacco farmers wary of T-21 think the legislation is the latest threat to one of the region’s legacy crops. . . . Agricultural experts worry that the public health initiative could force farmers to grow less tobacco or push them out of the business."

Tony Banks, a Virginia Farm Bureau commodity-marketing specialist, told Blau, “It’s another step in the direction of hastening declines in cigarette consumption. And it’s another cut to [tobacco farmers’] production and income.” Supporters of T-21 say it won't have much impact on farmers because tobacco trades in an international market, but Steve Pratt, manager of the Kentucky-based Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association, told Blau, “Obviously, anything that’s going to cause people to stop smoking is going to cause a decline in demand for burley tobacco,” Pratt said. “From that perspective, it’s definitely not going to help the tobacco farming industry.”

The industry has shrunk since the federal program of production quotas and price supports ended in 2004, and consolidated into larger farms. Pratt estimated the number of burley growers has plummeted from 175,000 to 3,000. And that has reduced the political influence of the crop that once had a powerful hold on Congress and state legislatures.

LGBTQ+ Pride celebrations spring up in rural areas

Pride parade in Murray, Ky. (WKMS photo by Matt Markgraf)
Rural towns across the country are increasingly putting on, or allowing, LGBTQ+ Pride celebrations.

"Advocates say it’s a hopeful sign of shifting public attitudes toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents in Kentucky and other parts of rural America, where more than 2.9 million LGBTQ residents live," Chris Kenning reports for the Louisville Courier Journal.

In Kentucky alone, Pride festivals have sprung up in nearly 20 towns and rural communities across the state in recent years. Murray held its first ever Pride march last Saturday, timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. The event was peaceful and well-attended, though there were a few protesters, Matt Markgraf reports for WKMS-FM.

M.C. Lampe, the LGBT coordinator at Murray State University, told Markgraf that it's important for people to see that "there are people here that are LGBTQ-identifying and are supportive, because it can feel very lonely in a small town." Lampe, who moved to Murray from Louisville two years ago, said "I've been so impressed with the work being done on a rural level. More, honestly, than I ever did in a city."

Athens, Ohio, recently held its weeklong Pride Fest for the third year in a row, Keri Johnson reports for The Post, a student-run publication of Ohio University in Athens. Chris Nevil, an Athens native and assistant executive director at Southeastern Ohio Rainbow Alliance, said Pride "used to be a big city thing . . . So it's important now to see pride in smaller, more rural areas."

Franklin County in western Massachusetts is also holding its third annual Pride festival this year, Melina Bourdeau reports for the Greenfield Recorder. The first one was fairly small and quickly organized, but this year the event is larger and has more support from local businesses.

In La Grande, Oregon, near the northwestern corner of the state, student organizers from the Mountain Queers club at Eastern Oregon University are organizing the town's second annual Pride festival, Andrew Jankowski reports for Willamette Week in Portland, Oregon. "I think people who aren't from more rural areas don't realize that it's not necessarily outright homophobia that we have to deal with so much as just feeling invisible," the club president, who goes by C, told Jankowski. "We've got queer people, of course, but the sort of thing that Mountain Queers is doing where we're just out there, not being subtle, celebrating our existence, is something you don't really see in Eastern Oregon much, and that's why we're doing it."

The increase in rural Pride events reflects changing attitudes. A recent Pew Presearch Center report "showed sharp increases in support for LGBTQ people and issues since 2004 among many groups," Kenning reports. "Nationally, about 52% of rural residents support same-sex marriage (compared with 64% of urban residents)" according to a 2017 Public Religion Research Institute survey.

Wet weather leaves vegetable farmers in a tough spot

The historic flooding and rain in the Midwest has wreaked havoc on crops of all types, but vegetable farmers are in a particularly tough spot. Unlike corn and soybean farmers, vegetable growers don't get a piece of the $16 billion disaster aid package, and they can't get federally subsidized crop insurance.

"Although the lack of federal safety-net programs for farmers who grow everything from arugula to zucchini isn’t new, one of the wettest springs in U.S. history has focused attention on the special status of so-called commodity crops, primarily corn, soybeans, cotton, rice and wheat," Scott McFetridge reports for The Associated Press. "Growers of some of those crops received $11 billion in special aid last year and will get $16 billion more this year to offset losses caused by trade disputes that led to tariffs and resulting drops in demand."

Corn and soy growers are treated differently because their crops are commodities important to the national economy; most of the production is used for animal feed, ethanol and seed for future crops, and only 1 percent is for human consumption. "There isn’t a replacement for such crops, and a shortage would be painful, particularly to the livestock industry," McFetridge reports.

Consumers might rue the shortage of one at-risk crop come Thanksgiving: pumpkins. Farmers are about three weeks behind in planting because of the rain, but are sowing "from dawn to dusk and even during the night to catch up," according to Mohammad Babadoost, a professor at the University of Illinois and Urbana-Champaign. Jim Ackerman, agriculture manager for canned pumpkin giant Libby's, told McFetridge that the pumpkin crop should ripen in time and meet demand if the weather gets warmer and drier this summer.

Public lashes back as meteorologist loses job for objecting live on air to Sinclair-mandated 'Code Red' weather alerts

Meteorologist Joe Crain has been fired from WICS-TV in Springfield, Ill., after criticizing the "Code Red" weather alerts that Sinclair Broadcast Group had ordered its stations to use. Crain, who had been at the station for 15 years and was a trusted local source for viewers, felt the Code Red days were alarmist, Matthew Cappucci reports for The Washington Post.

Sinclair confirmed to CNN Wednesday that Crain was "let go" but declined further comment. WICS wouldn't comment publicly, but issued a statement defending the Code Red alerts and stressing that the decision to declare a Code Red day was made locally. The statement obliquely acknowledged that viewers were unhappy, and aaid the alerts would now be called "Weather Warn." They also promised to "continue to work to more precisely define the specific geographic areas of greatest concern." 

Meanwhile, public support for Crain remains strong. A Facebook page called "Supporters of Meteorologist Joe Crain" has more than 15,500 members. And on Wednesday, comedian Stephen Colbert praised Cain and poked fun at the Code Red system.  "With Joe Crain gone, the problem of scaring viewers isn’t getting any easier,' said Colbert, as the screen flipped to a graphic reading 'Storm Team Death Cast.' The audience laughed and applauded," Cappucci reports. 

At least four businesses have pulled their ads from WICS in support of Crain, the State Journal-Register in Springfield reports. And Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters that Crain "said something that was obvious" in criticizing the Code Red alerts, and that WICS and Sinclair were "overstating the danger to our community . ..  and they want to blame it on him."

"A petition to reinstate Crain as WICS’s morning meteorologist has gathered more than 16,000 signatures, but the effectiveness remains to be seen," Cappucci reports.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Commonwealth Fund state health system scorecard shows increases in 'deaths of despair' have big regional differences

Suicide, alcohol and drug-overdose deaths have increased markedly in the past decade, and the prevalence of these "deaths of despair" vary by region. So says The Commonwealth Fund's latest Scorecard on State Health System Performance.

The scorecard evaluates states on 47 indicators of health in five areas: access and affordability, prevention and treatment, avoidable hospital use and hospital cost, health outcomes and healthy lives,which includes measures on premature death, health status and risky behaviors. This is the Commonwealth Fund's seventh scorecard, with the first one released in 2007.

From 2005 to 2017, the report shows that deaths from drug overdoses went up 115%, deaths from alcohol increased 37% and deaths from suicide increased 28%. In every state, deaths from those causes have risen at least 3 percent since 2005.

"Drug overdose mortality is disproportionately impacting states in the eastern part of the country and suicide and alcohol related deaths are occurring at higher rates in the west," David Radley, senior scientist at The Commonwealth Fund and lead author of the study, said during a press conference.

“What we're seeing is a regional epidemic when it comes to premature deaths from suicide, alcohol, and drugs," Dr. David Blumenthal, president of The Commonwealth Fund, said in the news release. "It's going to take solutions that meet local need, and greater cooperation across all sectors -- at both the federal and state level -- to end the crisis that is shortening life expectancy in the United States."

For the first time, the scorecard also includes regional comparisons. The Commonwealth Fund also has a data center ( that allows users to explore state health system performance and policy data through custom tables, graphs and maps.