Friday, July 12, 2019

Farm debt shifts to smaller banks as Wall Street lenders increasingly bail on less profitable farming sector

Reuters chart shows agricultural production loans and real estate loans backed by farmland; click on the image to enlarge.
As cash-strapped American farmers are increasingly forced to declare bankruptcy or retire early, farm loans are shifting to smaller banks as large Wall Street lenders pull out of the less profitable sector. "Fewer loan options can threaten a farm’s survival, particularly in an era when farm incomes have been cut nearly in half since 2013," P.J. Huffstutter and Jason Lange report for Reuters. "Total U.S. farm debt was $317 billion a decade ago (adjusted for inflation), but is expected to rise to $426 billion this year--almost as high as levels seen in the 1980s farm crisis."

After the subprime mortgage bubble burst in the late 2000s, many big banks dramatically expanded their farm loan portfolios. It was a profitable move at the time, since U.S. farmers were doing well and benefited from high grain and farmland prices. JPMorgan Chase & Co., for example, increased its farm loans to $1.1 billion between 2008 and 2015, a 76 percent jump, Reuters reports.

"But now - after years of falling farm income and an intensifying U.S.-China trade war - JPMorgan and other Wall Street banks are heading for the exits, according to a Reuters analysis of the farm-loan holdings they reported to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation," Reuters reports. "The agricultural loan portfolios of the nation’s top 30 banks fell by $3.9 billion, to $18.3 billion, between their peak in December 2015 and March 2019, the analysis showed. That’s a 17.5 percent decline."

Farmers rely on loans to buy and refinance land, as well as pay for operational expenses. Since demand for farm credit continues to grow, farmers increasingly turn to smaller regional and local banks. But lenders are becoming more cautious about lending to farmers, especially since smaller rural banks are more dependent on their farm lending portfolios and can't as easily afford to take on defaulted loans.

Gordon Giese, a 66-year-old corn and dairy farmer in Wisconsin, had to sell most of his cows, his house and a third of his land to pay his farm's debt last year after he couldn't get a loan. "If you have any signs of trouble, the banks don’t want to work with you," Giese told Reuters. "I don’t want to get out of farming, but we might be forced to."

Fish and wildlife agencies to employ gathering method to reduce Asian carp in Western Kentucky waterways

Using the Unified Method in Missouri
(Missouri Department of Conservation photo)
Asian carp are an increasing problem in Western Kentucky waterways, prompting officials to try everything from bounties to selling the catches to China. This week the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced another tactic in the war on carp: the "unified method," in which a team of fishers "gathers the Asian carp in one area by using electronic technology, then the fish are extracted from the water with specialized netting," Garrison Simpson reports for WHAS-TV in Louisville.

The method has been fairly successful in removing Asian carp in Missouri and the Illinois River, and allows a large amount of fish to be harvested quickly, Cory Sharber reports for WKMS-FM in Murray.

Ron Brooks of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources said the first extraction could take place in February or March, and that the carp would then be given to nearby processors for free. "Brooks said the cost of the operation will probably not be known until after it has been completed," Sharber reports.

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, who is running for re-election, announced in a press release that the move to use the unified method was at his request. Reducing the Asian carp population is the number one issue he wants to accomplish in Western Kentucky in the next few years, the press release said.

Rural Alabama editor who called on KKK to ride is finally out

Goodloe Sutton
(Montgomery Advertiser photo)
A rural Alabama newspaper publisher is out for good, months after an editorial calling for the Ku Klux Klan to "night ride again" against "Democrats in the Republican Party and Democrats [who] are plotting to raise taxes in Alabama," Jay Reeves reports for The Associated Press.

Goodloe Sutton, 80, was widely criticized after the Feb. 14 editorial in The Democrat-Reporter in Linden, which he has owned for decades. After mounting public anger, in late February he handed the reins over to Elicia Dexter, who had worked as the weekly's front office clerk for six weeks. But Dexter quit in mid-March. Sutton, who still owned the paper, was still trying to control some of the content, she said.

Later in March, Sutton announced he had sold the paper to a Chicago couple. But the Alabama Political Reporter discovered that the buyers were connected to the KKK, and the sale fell through.

Now, the sale is for real, according to new owner and operator Tommy Wells. Sutton "doesn't even have a key anymore," Wells told Reeves. Wells, lately a sports publicist at a Texas college, has about three decades of experience in the newspaper business. He said he had approached Sutton several years ago about buying the paper after he heard Sutton planned to close it, Reeves reports.

Quick hits: black-lung program underfunded; media protest EPA's FOIA rule; does free trade lead to opioid ODs?

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 heather.chapman@uky.edu.

As black-lung cases increase, federal funding has fallen sharply for a program that helps care for those with the disease, Joe Davidson writes for The Washington Post.

Though the nationwide unemployment rate is low, lost manufacturing jobs mean rural Tennessee hasn't recovered from the Great Recession as well as urban areas have, economics student and rural policy researcher John Casey writes in an op-ed for The Tennessean.

Nearly 40 news media publications co-signed a letter to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, protesting a new rule that gives EPA more power to refuse requests for information made under the Freedom of Information Act, Miranda Green reports for The Hill.

A new study suggests that free-trade policy plays a role in opioid-overdose deaths, Chuck Dinerstein reports for the American Council on Science and Health: "Free trade shifts the manufacture of goods to the cheapest supplier . . .trade-related job loss closes factories, eliminates middle-class jobs, and, as it turns out, disproportionately impacts those regions in the U.S. most burdened by opioids’ disruption. The displaced workers, often less-educated, have only short term unemployment benefits for what has become a long term problem. There is also evidence that one way to make ends meet, is to apply for disability benefits; benefits that require a medical examination and are associated with a greater likelihood of being prescribed opioids. That argument aside, the researchers feel that trade-related job loss has two additional impacts. It eliminates manufacturing jobs that pay relatively well; the closing of local factors ripples through the community and affects not only the directly employed but those that are working in support of the lost jobs, like luncheonettes, grocery stores, the local retail community that gives regions an economic and cultural life. Finally, manufacturing jobs are labor-intensive, they cause aches and pains often treated, rightly or wrongly, with opioids – with no source of income and a medication 'habit,' illicit drugs are a convenient substitute."

Apply for justice reporting fellowships by Friday, July 19

The Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the City University of New York's John Jay College is accepting applications for a second round of paid fellowships to learn more about the impact of bail and poverty on incarceration rates. The deadline to apply is Friday, July 19.

The Crime Report, published by the center, explains: "Few Americans are aware that prisons and jails confine thousands of people whose main offense is that they are too poor. Confronted with an accumulation of fees and fines associated with both felony and non-felony convictions as well as unpaid tickets and other civil penalties, they wind up behind bars in what amounts to a 21st century version of debtors’ prisons."

The fellowship will cover travel, hotel and related expenses for attending workshops in New York City Sept. 26-27. Fifteen to 20  U.S.-based reporters will be selected, based on project pitches related to the theme of "cash register justice." Click here for more information or to apply.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Iowa senators ask FCC for better rural broadband map

Sen. Chuck Grassley
Iowa's senators, Republicans Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, are pressuring the Federal Communications Commission to create more accurate maps of broadband access in rural America. As the chair of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, Grassley has considerable clout.

In an open letter to FCC Chair Ajit Pai, the senators said the maps "drastically overstate" the level of broadband access in rural Iowa, Matt Kelley reports for Radio Iowa. For instance, the map says that Chickasaw County has universal broadband access, but that's not true, said the letter: "Users’ data available from technology companies suggests that only 6 percent of Chickasaw County residents have access to the internet at broadband speeds."

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have complained about the accuracy of the FCC map since it was published last year. The main reason for its inaccuracy is that its data comes from telecommunications companies, which have an incentive to overstate their rural reach, since that qualifies them for state and federal grants to build out rural broadband.

Another reason: Even in places where telecoms did build out rural broadband, they often used slower, cheaper Digital Subscriber Line technology instead of fiber. DSL once cleared the minimum download speed of 10 megabytes per second required by the Connect America Fund, but the FCC increased the minimum download speed for broadband to the more widely accepted 25 mbps in February 2018.

New documentary chronicles legal battle between W.Va. landowners and owner of mineral rights on their land

A new documentary explores the impact of hydraulic fracturing on landowners. "Powerless: The High Cost of Cheap Gas" follows Beth Crowder and David Wentz of West Virginia, who battled in courts for years with natural-gas company EQT Corp. over fracking on their land, Mayeta Clark reports for ProPublica, in conjunction with the Charleston Gazette-Mail. The film is a product of ProPublica and CBS.

In June, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that oil and gas companies are trespassing if they enter private lands to use it for something the landowners didn't agree to. EQT used the well site on their land to drill fracking wells to reach adjacent tracts where it also owned the mineral rights.

When Crowder and Wentz bought their land in 1975, they knew EQT owned the mineral rights, but they could not have imagined fracking, which involves much above-ground equipment and facilities, and how disruptive the drilling technique would prove, they alleged. Eventually, they prevailed.

Dairy watchdog The Milkweed marks 40th anniversary

Pete Hardin (Isthmus photo)
The Milkweed, a gutsy watchdog of the dairy industry in Wisconsin and the nation, marked its 40th anniversary in June. The monthly's motto, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," comes from Muhammad Ali, and signals publisher Pete Hardin's willingness to bedevil and challenge the powerful.

"Year after year, Hardin has been a hard-edged voice challenging exploitative food processors, errant farm cooperatives, bullying seed companies, and self-serving agricultural groups that he feels habitually abuse the farmers who enrich them," Marc Eisen reports for Madison weekly Isthmus.

Hardin's "intensely fact-based, assiduously sourced" reporting makes him a sought-after source for reporters nationwide, and his independence from influence makes his voice all the more important. "Pete’s not beholden to the forces that other publications are," Milkweed farm reporter Jan Shepel told Eisen. "He takes to task people who have gotten too big for their britches. You don’t see a lot of that in farm publications."

Hardin's tenacity has led to some big stories over the years. "Years ahead of the national press, The Milkweed broke the story in 1991 of how Kraft General Foods drove down the price of cheese and milk by manipulating the National Cheese Exchange in Green Bay, a tiny market with outsized influence because it set the benchmark price for virtually all private cheese sales," Eisen reports. Hardin also published repeated exposés on the dangers of recombinant bovine growth hormone, which has been banned in other countries but is still sold to U.S. farmers.

Sometimes his targets punch back: The Milkweed was sued for $40 million in 1981 for reporting how his old dairy co-op got a federally insured loan to buy Mafia-linked mozzarella cheese plants. Hardin stuck by his reporting and fought the suit. Though a federal judge eventually dismissed all counts of defamation, it took a financial toll on Hardin. It also garnered nationwide attention as an example of how big businesses use courts to silence critics, Eisen reports.

Hardin, 70, is a New Jersey native with dairy farming and defending underdogs in his blood. "His great-grandfather led a rancorous three-week milk strike in 1916 that shut off the supply to New York City," Hardin reports, "and ended with the farmers winning a 50 percent pay hike and his great grandpa beating an indictment for price fixing." Hardin carries on that tradition with The Milkweed, which Eisen calls "essential reading for anyone — citizen, professor, activist, politician — who wants to understand the under-reported dairy crisis."

Ag economists criticize USDA plans to move research agencies, object to suppression of their research

In their most recent "Policy Pennings" column, Harwood Schaffer and Daryll Ray of the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center at the University of Tennessee take the U.S. Department of Agriculture to task for moving two of its research organizations from Washington D.C. to Kansas City. The Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture are slated to make the move in the fall.

Schaffer and Ray also object to the Trump administration's moves to suppress ERA and NIFA findings, especially on climate change. "This type of behavior does not serve the public well and is contrary to the kind of analysis we rightly expect from USDA funded research in which USDA scientists are often directly involved."

"From our perspective both of these decisions reflect the administration’s hostility to the 'deep state.' What the administration calls the deep state we see as the apolitical work of the dedicated civil servants who carry on their work regardless of the political affiliation of the administration that happens to be in power," Schaffer and Ray write. "One of the reasons the US established an apolitical civil service was to have employees who would do their work based on their expertise and not their political connections. Their dedication is to their science and their fulfilling the requirements of their job descriptions and not to spinning their work to accommodate the political winds of the day."

The decision to move the agencies has been widely criticized as a political move meant to force employees to quit rather than relocate, allowing the administration to install more loyal employees. The administration says the move is meant to bring the agencies closer to regional stakeholders and save money. However, an independent analysis estimates the move would actually cost taxpayers millions more. The government union many NIFA workers joined last month predicts that so many employees will quit that the agency will be less able to award grants to land-grant universities and other institutions, Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Weekly editors' group seeks proposals for papers to help with issues and everyday problems in community journalism

The International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors and the Huck Boyd National Center for Community Media at Kansas State University invite academicians and community-newspaper journalists to submit proposals that provide insight and guidance on general issues and/or everyday problems that confront community papers and their newsrooms, with particular reference to weekly, general-interest publications with circulation under 10,000.

Examples could include legal, political or ethical issues; alternative print/ digital integration models; surveys to determine successful techniques for staff recruitment/retention; ways to boosting online presence or to elicit “best practices” for special editions. Information on how states handle Sunshine Law violations or how papers train reporters to be alert for such violations would also be of interest. These are only some of the many areas on which research could focus.

The “Strengthening Community News” competition is an extension of the Huck Boyd Center’s former “Newspapers and Community-Building Symposium,” co-sponsored for 20 years by the National Newspaper Association and its foundation.

Proposals will be peer-reviewed by faculty members with expertise in community journalism. Final selection of the papers to be written will be made by a panel of working and retired community journalists, who will evaluate the proposals on the basis of their potential value to newsrooms. Completed papers will undergo a final peer review prior to publication in an issue of ISWNE’s quarterly journal, Grassroots Editor.

The schedule has been set up to ensure publication of all accepted papers by January 2021. One paper will be selected for presentation at the next ISWNE conference, June 24-28, 2020, in Reno, Nevada. ISWNE and its foundation will provide the author with a complimentary conference registration, and a travel subsidy.

Proposals should be submitted electronically by Oct. 1 to Huck Boyd Center Director Gloria Freeland at gfreela@ksu.edu. The proposal itself should contain nothing that would identify the author. It must be accompanied by a separate title page containing full author contact information (name, email, mailing address, university and/or professional affiliation and phone number). The call for proposals, with detailed information on logistics, dates can be found on the ISWNE website, www.iswne.org.

Overhaul of foster care, which will limit children's stays in group homes, may strain rural areas short of such homes

A new federal law that overhauls the nation's system of care for foster children tightens rules on group-home placement. The homes say there aren't enough foster parents to care for all the children in need, which have increased in recently, especially in rural areas, because of the opioid epidemic.

The Family First Prevention Services Act was included in an omnibus spending bill signed in February 2018; when it takes effect in October, the federal government won't pay for a child to stay in a group home for more than two weeks, with a few exceptions for children with special needs, Teresa Wiltz reports for Stateline: "The law had overwhelming support from nearly every state and the U.S. Congress. Many child welfare experts say that group homes, even the homiest among them, are far from an ideal place for a child to grow up. Research shows that foster kids in group homes face worse outcomes, from lower educational attainment to increased rates of homelessness and criminal-justice involvement."

The law puts a greater emphasis on trying to prevent children from needing foster care, and allows the federal government to reimburse states for more preventive services to children deemed "foster care candidates," generally those who have been abused or neglected but haven't been removed from home. "Under the new law, states may use matching federal funding to provide at-risk families with up to 12 months of mental health services, substance abuse treatment and in-home parenting training to families. Eligible beneficiaries are the families of children identified as safe staying at home; teen parents in foster care; and other parents who need preventive help so their kids don’t end up in the system. States must also come up with a plan to keep the child safe while remaining with parents," Wiltz reports in a different Stateline story. States can ask for a two-year delay to implement the group home restrictions in the new law, but that means forgoing federal funding for preventative services.

Baptist Children's Homes of North Carolina, which operates dozens of group homes in the state, kept the law from passing for years with the help of Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.. The organization's leaders protest that there aren't enough foster homes to care for all the children in need, and that the two-week time limit is too short -- it can take two weeks for a child to have their first family court appearance after being removed from their parents, Wiltz reports.

Karen McLeod, the director of Benchmarks, an alliance of statewide child-welfare agencies, said group homes in North Carolina aren't against the law because they're motivated by profit. Most are run by religious organizations, lose money and raise funds to make up for the shortfall, Wiltz reports.

Group homes are particularly suited to housing sibling groups and teens, both of which often have a harder time being adopted or placed in foster homes. Some teens choose to stay in group homes because they're tired of moving around. While most children have been placed there by courts, a few have been privately placed by parents, usually because the parent is having trouble managing the child or because the parent is incarcerated. The typical stay is six to nine months. Some children are reunited with their families, and some are adopted, Wiltz reports.

1 in 5 rural seniors are insecure about getting enough to eat


One in five rural seniors has difficulty getting enough to eat, according to a new study from nonprofit organization Feeding America.

Study co-author James Ziliak of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky notes that rural economies haven't recovered as quickly from the Great Recession. "Lack of jobs, lack of access to food and lack of income are hampering seniors’ ability to rest assured that they will have food when they want it," Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder.

Nine of the top 10 states for food insecurity among seniors are in the Southeast. Nearly a third of seniors living below the poverty line are food insecure, which means they don't know if they'll have enough to eat. And about half of those seniors have very low food security, meaning they worry about food access frequently, Carey reports.

"Despite an improving economy and financial markets, millions of seniors in the United States are going without enough food due to economic constraints," Ziliak wrote in the study. "This stubbornly high proportion of food-insecure seniors continues to impose a major health care challenge in the U.S. One group of practical concern is those seniors experiencing VLFS (very low food security), the ranks of which have especially swelled since 2001."

The study found that rural seniors are more likely to be hungry if they're divorced, widowed or separated; if they're sick, disabled or unemployed, or if they're renters, Carey reports. Lack of transportation can also be a factor: they can't get food if they can't get to the store or the food bank.

Seniors are less likely to take advantage of assistance like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program because of pride, or because they don't know they qualify, says Michael Halligan, the CEO of God's Pantry, a food bank in Lexington, Kentucky. "I think we need to really think through how we’re going to take care of folks as our society ages," Halligan told Carey. "It’s great to say people need a larger nest egg to live on, but how do we ensure people are stable? How do we get services to where people live rather than where they aren’t? I think we really need to envision and reimagine solutions to the problems that I see as indicators of increased risk for all seniors."

Va. gun-control special session ends after 90 minutes

A special legislative session in Virginia meant to address gun-control laws ended in less than two hours on Tuesday after the Republican-led General Assembly adjourned the session and postponed action on gun laws until after the November election. "It was a familiar outcome in a stalled debate that plays out yearly in Virginia on an issue that has divided the nation for more than two decades," Alan Suderman and Sarah Rankin report for The Associated Press.

Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, called for the session after a May 31 shooting in Virginia Beach that killed 12. He hoped to have enough support from Republicans to overcome the GOP's razor-thin majority in both chambers and pass some of the eight measures he proposed. "But not a single vote was cast on the legislation. Republican leaders said the session was premature and politically motivated. They assigned the state’s bipartisan crime commission to study the Virginia Beach shooting and the governor’s proposed legislation," Suderman and Rankin report.

The session was fraught with drama even before it began. On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment filed a surprise bill that would broadly ban guns in any government building in the state. Fellow Senate Republicans were horrified, and Sen. Bill Stanley resigned as majority whip in protest. Then Norment withdrew the bill, apologized, and reinstated Stanley, Suderman and Rankin report.

Both parties lambasted each other over the session. Republicans accused Northam of using the session to distract voters from the recent blackface scandal. The proposed measures, they said, would not have prevented the Virginia Beach shooting, and said the governor should have created a commission to study gun and mental health issues. U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, then Virginia's governor, did something similar after a 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech. After that shooting, "the state passed a law prohibiting people deemed seriously mentally ill from buying a gun. But a push at the time for universal background checks failed," Suderman and Rankin report.

Democrats, in turn, "said Republicans were beholden to the gun lobby and afraid of passing common-sense laws they know will save lives," Suderman and Rankin report. "Virginia is generally considered a gun-friendly state and is home to the NRA headquarters. The GOP-led General Assembly has spiked numerous gun-control bills — including several Northam proposed for the special session — year after year."

Appeals court sounds likely to uphold ruling against ACA; Democrat says the law 'is the future of rural health care'

"A panel of federal appeals court judges on Tuesday sounded likely to uphold a lower-court ruling that a central provision of the Affordable Care Act — the requirement that most people have health insurance — is unconstitutional," reports Abby Goodnough of The New York Times. "But it was harder to discern how the court might come down on a much bigger question: whether the rest of the sprawling health law must fall if the insurance mandate does."

The law "is the future of rural health care," said Andy Beshear, the Democratic nominee for governor of Kentucky and one of 21 Democratic attorneys general who intervened in the Texas lawsuit that led to a federal district court ruling that the entire 2010 law violates the Constitution.

Without the law and its expansion of Medicaid to people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, many more rural hospitals would be in trouble, Beshear told Kentucky Health News, because they would not only get less revenue but have to write off the cost of care for people who wouldn't be able to afford health insurance.

Beshear is the son of former Gov. Steve Beshear, who expanded Medicaid under the reform law. His opponent is Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, who initially campaigned on repealing the expansion but now wants to require work or other "community engagement" from "able-bodied" people covered by the expansion. Most of them work, but Bevin has argued that the benefits keep some from working.

In Tuesday's oral arguments, "Two appellate judges appointed by Republican presidents peppered lawyers with blunt questions while the third judge, appointed by President Jimmy Carter, remained silent," Goodnough reports. "The two Republican appointees, Jennifer Walker Elrod, appointed by President George W. Bush in 2007, and Kurt Engelhardt, appointed by President Trump in 2018, seemed particularly skeptical of the Democratic defendants’ argument that Congress had fully intended to keep the rest of the law when it eliminated the penalty for going without insurance as part of its 2017 tax overhaul."

"Despite such pointed questioning, the hearing did not clearly foreshadow how the panel will rule," reports Amy Goldstein of The Washington Post. The newspaper also reports that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to say whether he supports the lawsuit, but focused on coverage of pre-existing conditions, which has also been the focus of Democrats. “I think the important thing for the public to know is there is nobody in the Senate not in favor of covering pre-existing conditions,” the Republican leader told reporters at the Capitol. “And if it were, under any of these scenarios, to go away, we would act quickly on a bipartisan basis to restore it.”

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Georgia legislature dealt with rural issues; what'd yours do?

A wide-angle shot by The Associated Press's John Bazemore
captured the end of the legislative session in Georgia April 2.
With most state legislatures adjourned for the year, it's a good time to recap what the solons did. In Georgia, Jill Nolin, the statehouse reporter for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., did a roundup of rural issues for CNHI's papers in Valdosta, Moultrie, Milledgeville, Dalton and Thomasville.

"Rural Georgia’s economic woes loomed large, with many bills being cast – some more convincingly than others – as a lift for the state’s small towns," Nolin wrote in April. "One measure pitched horse racing as a rural jobs bill. Another proposed requiring tech companies to disclose repair information for phones and other gadgets as a way to put more people to work across the state. And another would ban local home design laws as a way to protect workforce housing. None of those passed."

However, the Legislature passed "several rural-focused bills," Nolin reported. "This was at least the third consecutive year where legislators pushed fixes aimed at spurring job growth in the state’s rural corners, where economic recovery has lagged behind metro Atlanta and other urban areas."

High on the list was a bill giving rural electric and telephone cooperatives the authority to offer high-speed internet. Non-profit telephone co-ops will be able to do the same. Two co-ops in north Georgia "are already providing broadband, but others have been hesitant to wade into the internet business without legislators officially blessing it in state code," Nolin wrote. "Another bill that stalled would have raised money for rural broadband expansion by taxing digital goods and streaming services while lowering existing fees on traditional services, such as telephone and cable." Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, told Nolin, “The news media portrayed it as a ‘Netflix tax,’ which I think was couched to see how much public opposition they could generate.”

Amid concerns about rural hospitals and other health-care providers, lawmakers passed legislation requiring nonprofit hospitals to be more transparent with their finances, "including the salary and fringe benefits of their highest-paid staffers, a list of the properties owned and any stake a hospital may have in other enterprises," Nolin reported. There's a lot more in her story; read it here.

New law in S.D. aims to address epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women; other states working on it too

A new law in South Dakota aims to address the epidemic of missing and murdered Native American women in the state. There is no official count of such cases, which are often unreported or slip through the cracks of the justice system. The new law, which went into effect July 1, requires "the state Division of Criminal Investigation to collect data on missing and murdered indigenous people, and create procedures and training for investigating cases involving women and children," Lisa Kaczke reports for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls.

Republican Sen. Lynne DiSanto of Box Elder, who sponsored the unanimously supported bill, said she hopes the law helps families feel like the state cares about the victims, and hopes it improves collaboration between tribal and non-tribal law enforcement, Kaczke reports.

"Native women have been dehumanized or sexualized and the media has historically solidified those stereotypes," Kaczke writes. "Native American communities also struggle with alcohol, drugs and poverty, which can factor into the belief that Native women aren't important."

Republican Rep. Tamara St. John, a historian for the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribe, told Kaczke she doesn't think law enforcement is deliberately not helping, but said "Native women can be perceived as marginalized and outside scope of the American justice system and for that reason, can be easily targeted or a family won't be assisted."

South Dakota isn't the only state trying to address the issue. North Dakota passed similar bills, Montana created a missing persons specialist to look into it, and Minnesota just enacted a new law that creates a task force on missing and murdered indigenous women, Kaczke reports. A recent University of Montana School of Journalism package brought attention to the phenomenon as well.

National governments are taking action too. A yearslong government inquiry in Canada recently released a huge report on human rights abuses against indigenous women. U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is trying to pass a law to address the issue as well. "Savanna's Act, which would require the federal Department of Justice to develop protocols for cases involving missing and murdered Native Americans, was reintroduced earlier this year after stalling in Congress last year, and a hearing on the federal bill took place earlier this month," Kaczke reports.

Bug appétit: Maggots may revolutionize animal feed industry, help with waste management and climate change

Dried soldier fly larvae
(Washington Post photo by Loren Elliott)
As the world's population grows and resources are stretched, the United Nations warns that it will be increasingly difficult to find cheap, reliable sources of protein for people and livestock. Enter the humble black soldier fly. Some scientists say its larvae could be the key to feeding the planet sustainably.

"That’s because of the black soldier fly larva’s remarkable ability to transform nearly any kind of organic waste — cafeteria refuse, manure, even toxic algae — into high-quality protein, all while leaving a smaller carbon footprint than it found," Christopher Ingraham reports for The Washington Post.  "In one week, a soldier fly colony of modest size can turn a ton of waste into 100 pounds of protein and 400 pounds of compost . . . In one year, a single acre of black soldier fly larvae can produce more protein than 3,000 acres of cattle or 130 acres of soybeans."

Jeff Tomberlin, an entomology professor at Texas A&M University, said using maggots for protein could "save lives, stabilize economies, create jobs and protect the environment," Ingraham reports. Scientists have known about the potential for decades, but couldn't figure out the precise mix of temperature, humidity and light to reliably breed them in captivity until 2002.

Soldier fly larvae are great at getting rid of waste. They'll eat just about anything, including distillery mash, food scraps, manure (pig or human), and more. "Using larvae to eliminate food waste at this scale could be an ecological game-changer. A 2011 U.N. report detailed how rotting food emits millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, accounting for about 7 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. But when maggots consume food waste, they take all that carbon with them," Ingraham reports.

The larvae are mostly gaining steam in the U.S. as a source of animal feed, but they have potential as food for humans if Americans can get over the ick factor (oven-dried larvae reportedly taste like Fritos corn chips). About 2 billion people in the world already include insects in their diets, according to the U.N., so the larvae may be more likely to catch on as food elsewhere. They could be dried and ground up into protein powder, which could be mixed with other foods, to further side-step cultural hurdles toward insect consumption, Ingraham reports.

Tracking readers' online news habits is difficult; analysis of news sites' recent Facebook trends helps a little

Local News Resource Center chart; click to enlarge it.
If you want your news organization to be a big hit on Facebook, post more photos. That's the key takeaway from a recent analysis of local newspaper and news sites' Facebook pages. 

The Local News Resource Center of the Local Media Association pulled public metrics from the Facebook pages of 2,678 local newspapers and news sites (but not broadcasters) from May 1-30, 2019 to gather a snapshot of online behavior and trends. They divided publishers into tiers based on the number of page likes, then analyzed posting frequency, what kind of content was posted (links, photos, videos, plain text, etc.) and the interaction rate, which is the number of post engagements— i.e, likes, shares, or comments— divided by the number of page likes, reports Emilie Lutostanski of the LNRC.

They found that the biggest Facebook pages, all major metro publishers, posted an average of 34 times per day, and that the pages with the fewest followers posted an average of twice a day. The majority of posts— 83 percent— were links, followed by 11% photos, 2.6% statuses and owned video, 0.6% shared video, and 0.3% other video. But photos got the highest median interaction rate, at 0.27%, followed by 0.26% for links, 0.22% for Facebook videos, 0.15% statuses, and 0.8% for other videos, Lutostanski reports.

The analysis is one way of trying to crack a tough nut. Identifying how Americans get news online and interpreting survey respondents' answers about their online news habits has been a longtime problem in measuring online news use, Elisa Shearer reports for the Pew Research Center.
Pew Research Center chart; click on the image to enlarge it.
Many online news sources don't fit neatly into survey categories, and as news organizations have expanded their online presence, pollsters have added more and more survey categories. That makes it hard to track apples-to-apples data over the past 20 years, Shearer reports.

Also, it can be difficult to parse just how a survey respondent thinks about news. "For example, when a respondent is getting news from nytimes.com, does she primarily remember getting news online or getting news from The New York Times newspaper brand, whose flagship product is a print newspaper?" Shearer reports.

Regardless of how Pew pollsters phrase their questions, it's clear that the internet is approaching primacy. More Americans get their news from social media than print newspapers, and the share of Americans who get their news online is approaching the share who get it from TV.

Outdoorsy Kentucky clothing brand gains steam worldwide

Mark Wystrach of Midland performs while wearing
New Frontier Outfitters gear (Photo from NFO)
A clothing company based in Morehead, Kentucky, is building a cult following with "retro-outdoors wear" and "American blue-collar chic," Alfred Miller reports for the Louisville Courier Journal.

Brothers Jared and Josh Ravenscraft founded New Frontier Outfitters in 2016 because they felt that most of the big-name outdoors clothing brands, like Patagonia, were focused on the American West. They wanted to give consumers an option that promoted adventures in Appalachia as well as more general outdoorsy gear, Miller reports.

The first designs were based on retro ski badges and their father's collection of old trucker hats. "Today, New Frontier Outfitters has a brick-and-mortar store in Morehead with outposts in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, and Cave Run Lake in Kentucky [near Morehead]. The brothers say they regularly ship hats, shirts and other gear across the country and the world," Miller reports.

The brand is starting to make a splash with celebrities. Channing Tatum visited their store in 2017 and wore a branded hat in an Entertainment Tonight interview, and country singer Tyler Booth wore one of their shirts in a concert last month, Miller reports.

"But perhaps the brand’s biggest coup has been their association with Grammy-nominated country group Midland, which shares a retro aesthetic with New Frontier Outfitters," Miller reports. "Midland’s broad appeal has meant New Frontier Outfitters orders from faraway locales, including Sonora, Mexico, where Mike Zapata says he and his oldies band, Los Hijos de Frank, sport the Ravencrafts’ hats and other retro apparel he first spotted Midland wearing."

Registration open for Appalachian Regional Commission annual summit to be held Sept. 4-6 in Asheville

Registration is now open for "Appalachia Strong," the Appalachian Regional Commission's annual summit, which will take place Sept. 4-6 in Asheville, N.C. Discounted early-bird pricing is available through Aug. 2.

The summit will feature panel discussions, networking, mobile workshops, plenary sessions, and learning tracks on business and workforce development, infrastructure expansion, substance use disorder and related health issues, and ARC technical assistance. Featured guests have not yet been announced. Click here for more information or to register.

Monday, July 08, 2019

ProPublica creates Local Reporting Network position for Youngstown, Ohio, which will lose its daily Aug. 31

ProPublica announced today that it is creating an immediate position in its Local Reporting Network for a local news organization to cover accountability issues in Youngstown, Ohio. Youngstown's paper, The Vindicator, announced recently that it will issue its final edition on Aug. 31, which will leave it the largest U.S. city without a daily newspaper.

"What’s going on in Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley cries out for solid investigative reporting," said Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica’s editor in chief. "We created the Local Reporting Network to fill that critically important need."

Under the Local Reporting Network, ProPublica pays the salaries and provides benefits stipends, as well as editing and production assistance, for selected full-time reporters to work on accountability journalism projects for one year. The program is in its second year, and this year is working with 20 partners across the country.

Applications for the Youngstown post are due by July 22; applicants must describe what they want to investigate. Freelance reporters can apply, but must first find an Ohio-based news organization willing to run their work.

Feds use facial-recognition tech to scan license photos without drivers' consent; does your state or locality allow it?

"Agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have turned state driver’s-license databases into a facial-recognition gold mine, scanning through millions of Americans’ photos without their knowledge or consent," Drew Harwell reports for The Washington Post. "Police have long had access to fingerprints, DNA and other 'biometric data' taken from criminal suspects. But the DMV records contain the photos of a vast majority of a state’s residents, most of whom have never been charged with a crime."

According to documents obtained by the Georgetown University law school's Center on Privacy and Technology, state motor-vehicle databases have become "the bedrock of an unprecedented surveillance infrastructure," which both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have criticized as "dangerous, pervasive and error-prone," Harwell reports. "Neither Congress nor state legislatures have authorized the development of such a system." In 21 states and D.C., federal agencies are allowed to scan driver's license photos, but the scans must be relevant to a criminal investigation.

"Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), the House Oversight Committee’s ranking Republican, seemed particularly incensed during a hearing into the technology last month at the use of driver’s license photos in federal facial-recognition searches without the approval of state legislators or individual license holders," Harwell reports. Jordan said, "They’ve just given access to that to the FBI. No individual signed off on that when they renewed their driver’s license, got their driver’s licenses. They didn’t sign any waiver saying, 'Oh, it’s okay to turn my information, my photo, over to the FBI.' No elected officials voted for that to happen."

Modern policing routinely uses facial recognition to track down low-level suspects, with database searches often authorized by emails between a federal agent and a local official, records show. Some communities have banned their law enforcement officials from using facial-recognition software because they believe it's government overreach and breaches the public's trust, Harwell reports.

Officials from the Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection, and the Secret Service will testify Wednesday before the House Committee on Homeland Security about their agencies' use of the technology.

Large farms find legal loopholes to get more trade aid

Eight members of Bernard Peterson's family in Loretto, Ky.,
received a total of $863,560, under the limit of $125,000 per
individual. He told The Associated Press that it still didn't make
up for their losses at a time of low prices. (AP photo by Dylan Lovan)
President Trump's aid package for farmers who suffered losses because of his trade war included limits on payments to individuals, but many large farms have found legal loopholes to get around those limits, The Associated Press reports. It says records it obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show more than 3,000 trade-aid recipients collected more than the $125,000 limit.

"Recipients who spoke to AP defended the payouts, saying they didn’t cover their losses from the trade war, and they were legally entitled to them. U.S. Department of Agriculture rules let farms file claims for multiple family members or other partners who meet the department’s definition of being 'actively engaged in farming'," Steve Karnowski and Balint Szalai report. For example, a soybean farm in southeast Missouri received nearly $2.8 million because it was registered as three entities at the same address.

About 83 percent of trade-aid money has gone to soybean growers, who have been affected most by the tariff war with China. The program sets caps in three categories: soybeans and other row crops, pork and dairy, and cherries and almonds. Farmers with products in two or three categories can collect up to $125,000 in each category. The USDA has paid out about $8.6 billion, but the new rule will bring payouts closer to the $12 billion authorized, Karnowski and Szalai report.

USDA officials said they believe they are following the rules and can audit suspicious cases. "But critics including U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican who has long fought for subsidy limits, say it’s the latest example of how loopholes in federal farm subsidy programs allow large farms to collect far more than the supposed caps on that aid," AP reports.

Grassley told the news service that huge farms are getting the payments "through underhanded legal tricks. They’re getting richer off the backs of taxpayers while young and beginning farmers are priced out of the profession. This needs to end." He called for USDA to change rules and increase oversight.

EPA plan would keep ethanol's share of gasoline market same in 2020; farm and biofuel interests say Big Oil wins

Corn ethanol’s share of the gasoline market for cars and light trucks would not increase next year, under a Trump administration proposal that has the Farm Belt howling, Successful Farming reports.

The administration's proposed Renewable Fuel Standard would increase the share of the market going to cleaner-burning cellulosic ethanol, made from grass and woody plants, by 120 million gallons," Chuck Abbott reports. "Farm groups and biofuel makers, who opened the summer with a celebration that higher-blend E15 was approved for year-round sale, said the EPA bowed to Big Oil."

The Environmental Protection Agency said in announcing the proposal at the start of the long July 4 weekend, “Today, nearly all gasoline used for transportation purposes contains 10% ethanol (E10) and, on average, diesel fuel contains nearly 5% biodiesel and/or renewable diesel.”

Virginia to begin gun-control session Tuesday; Democratic governor says his ideas can get GOP votes to pass

Virginia legislators will begin a special session tomorrow to address gun-control laws. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, called the session after a May 31 shooting in Virginia Beach that killed 12.

Last week Northam released a final list of eight measures he wants legislators to address in the session. Many have been considered by the Republican-controlled General Assembly before, but haven't made it far. One new proposal is to bar those with final protective orders from possessing firearms. Current law only prohibits those with final protective orders for family abuse from owning firearms, Amy Friedenberger reports for The Roanoke Times.

Among Northam's proposals: background checks for all gun buyers; bans of assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, bump stocks and silencers; restoration of a law limiting handgun purchases to one per month; a new law to require that lost and stolen firearms be reported to police within 24 hours; allow local governments to pass gun laws stricter than the state's; raise the punishment for letting a child gain access to loaded, unsecured firearms from a misdemeanor to a felony; and raise the age of the children to whom that law applies to from 14 to 18.

"Northam is also interested in extreme risk protection orders, which allow a third party — in Virginia, officials said this would be a police officer or prosecutor — to petition a judge for a warrant to seize legally owned guns if someone is determined to be an immediate threat to themselves or others," Friedenberger writes.

House Republicans have not released a list of counter-proposals, "but House Speaker Kirk Cox has said they plan to introduce legislation to impose tougher penalties — including mandatory minimums — against offenders. Northam has vowed not to sign any more mandatory minimum legislation for the remainder of his term," Friedenberger reports.

The Republicans have one- and two-vote majorities in the two chambers. Northam has said he believes some of his proposals can get enough Republican supporters to pass, Friedenberger reports.

Northam's optimism may be warranted, say researchers at the nonpartisan Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy. Recent polling they conducted found that Republican voters "oppose gun control generally but strongly favor specific gun-control proposals that will likely be on the agenda in the special session," center Director Quentin Kidd said.

Apply for paid food and agriculture fellowship by July 16

The National Press Foundation is offering all-expenses-paid fellowships for the Innovations in Food and Agriculture program, which will be held from Sept. 15-18 in St. Louis, Missouri. 

From the website: "From tariffs to technology, journalists will learn the latest developments in food and agriculture at this National Press Foundation training program. Over four days, reporters will be immersed in gene editing and GMOs, high-tech agriculture, implementation of the 2018 farm bill, food waste and hunger, organic farming practices and more."

The fellowship is open to U.S.-based journalists only, and covers airfare, ground transportation, hotel costs and most meals. July 16 is the application deadline. Click here for more information or to apply.