Friday, August 16, 2019

First Amendment awareness campaign kicks off

Sample ad for the Think First campaign
A new campaign seeks to raise public awareness about the importance of defending our First Amendment rights. The Think First campaign was originally developed in 2018 by Media of Nebraska, but in July 2019 a number of other broadcast and press associations from other states decided to adapt the idea, and on Aug. 1 the expanded program went live. 

Think First includes materials for media outlets, including videos, radio spots, and newspaper ads. Click here for more information. 

Construction begun on first 60-acre Ky. greenhouse, part of a plan to get fresher produce to Eastern U.S. consumers

After years of work, Jonathan Webb is finally turning dirt. (Photo by Jessica Tezak for The Wall Street Journal)
In Morehead, Kentucky, ground has been broken on a project that, its founder hopes, will help bring jobs to Eastern Kentucky and supply fresher produce to the Eastern U.S. AppHarvest founder Jonathan Webb plans to build a series of huge greenhouses to grow tomatoes at first. The solar-power professional "has no prior experience in farming, but he has managed to attract $97 million in project financing and a list of noteworthy partners. Ultimately, he plans to spend $1 billion to $2 billion on greenhouses—even if it takes a decade or two," Leigh Kamping-Carder reports for The Wall Street Journal. Investors include Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance and AOL co-founder Steve Case.

The first step is a 60-acre greenhouse that Webb says will be operating by mid-2020. "Compared with traditional farms, indoor farms offset weather-related risks, reduce food waste, use drastically less water and produce more consistent crops. A modern, acre-size greenhouse can yield the same amount of produce as 40 to 50 acres of soil," Kamping-Carder reports. "Produce grown indoors also appeals to changing consumer preferences, as more Americans seek to reduce sugar and processed foods in their diets, eat more locally grown, chemical-free produce, and track the origins of their food."

Webb told Kamping-Carder there's plenty of demand for the product: "If we had 500 acres of supply tomorrow, we could sell all of that supply to U.S. grocers . . . We cannot build fast enough or grow fast enough to meet the demand of grocers or consumers." The project was originally supposed to be on a reclaimed strip mine in far Eastern Kentucky, but that didn't work out; the site is in the Knobs region that lies between the Bluegrass and the Appalachian coalfield.

Kamping-Carder writes that AppHarvest "is one of a growing number of technology-focused agricultural companies seeking to solve the problems of the U.S. food system—among them opaque supply chains, labor shortages, food waste, health and safety issues, higher import costs and an increasingly unpredictable climate—by growing food indoors."

Rural hospitals likely to take a hit from court limiting extra payments to those with large share of Medicaid, uninsured

Many if not most rural hospitals are likely to take a hit from an Aug. 13 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

"Hospitals that care for a large share of Medicaid, low-income and uninsured patients stand to receive less funding from the federal government after the D.C. Circuit reconsidered how Medicaid disproportionate-share hospital reimbursement is calculated," Alex Kacik reports for Modern Healthcare. "A three-judge panel . . . reversed a lower court and reinstated a 2017 rule establishing that payments by Medicare and private insurers are to be included in calculating a hospital's DSH limit, ultimately lowering its maximum reimbursement."

Hospitals qualify for disproportionate-share payments if they get a significant portion of their revenue from Medicaid, which usually doesn't cover the cost of care. And rural hospitals are more likely than others to fall into that category.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued a rule in 2017 rule saying Medicare and private-insurance payments must be included when calculating the maximum disproportionate-share payment, part;y "to prevent hospitals from double-dipping by collecting DSH payments to cover costs that had already been reimbursed," Kacik reports. "Previous cases also revealed that some states have made DSH payments to state psychiatric or university hospitals that exceed the net costs, or even total costs, of operating the facilities."

Four children's hospitals in Minnesota, Virginia and Washington, along with eight children's hospitals in Texas, filed suit to challenge the rule, saying CMS had overstepped its authority. The next step in the case could be an appeal to the Supreme Court or a hearing by all the judges on the appeals court, either of which could be denied without further hearings.

Work suspended on Mountain Valley Pipeline

Roanoke Times map
"Developers of the Mountain Valley Pipeline have voluntarily suspended work on parts of the embattled project, three days after a lawsuit raised questions about its impact on endangered species," Laurence Hammack reports for The Roanoke Times. "In a letter Thursday to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Mountain Valley said the suspension covers 'new activities' that could pose a threat to the lives of endangered bats and fish, or potentially destroy their habitat."

On Monday, a group of environmental organizations petitioned the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to vacate a 2017 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opinion that the pipeline would not significantly harm endangered species along the pipeline's route. "The 4th Circuit has already thrown out a similar permit issued for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, ruling that the federal agency had apparently 'lost sight of its mandate,'" Hammack reports.

Mountain Valley spokesperson Natalie Cox said construction will continue on other areas along the pipeline where no impact on endangered species is anticipated. About 238 of the pipeline's 303 miles have already been constructed. Cox said the move would not have any "material impact" on the number of workers employed and won't delay the expected mid-2020 completion date, Hammack reports.

"Most work will be halted on a 75-mile stretch, along watersheds in the counties of Giles, Craig, Montgomery, Roanoke, Franklin, and Pittsylvania. Another 20 miles, including some streams and rivers in West Virginia, are also included," Hammack reports. "Mountain Valley also said it would cease tree-felling in areas populated by endangered bats. But with the exception of a wooded slope in Montgomery County — where two tree-sitters have been blocking work on the pipeline since last September — nearly all of the trees the company had planned to cut are already gone."

This is far from the first delay for the pipeline on environmental grounds. Mountain Valley halted the project in Virginia for a while last summer because muddy runoff from construction caused erosion problems along a two-mile stretch. Then in August 2018 construction halted for a month after a federal appeals court vacated a permit to cross the Jefferson National Forest. In December. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring filed suit against the pipeline's builders, saying they had violated environmental regulations more than 300 times. "The company is still trying to regain two sets of key permits it lost to legal challenges last year, one for the pipeline to cross through the national forest and another for it to cross more than 1,000 streams and wetlands," Hammack reports.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

McConnell announces grant for former governor to create rural substance-abuse center for 101 counties in 8 states

Ernie Fletcher spoke in Owensboro, Ky., last year about
his plan to take the Recovery Kentucky concept beyond
Kentucky. (Photo by Alan Warren, Messenger-Inquirer)
An organization headed by a former Kentucky governor will get $6.6 million in federal funds "to establish a center of excellence for substance-abuse disorder and . . . provide treatment and housing options for low-income and high-risk individuals in 47 Kentucky counties," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in a press release Aug. 15.

The money comes from the Rural Communities Opioid Response Program of the Department of Health and Human Services. It will go to the Fletcher Group, "which has partnered with the University of Kentucky to establish an opioid response program and will maintain its headquarters in rural Kentucky, the release said. "Its work will target 101 rural counties in eight states."

The group's chair and chief medical officer is Dr. Ernie Fletcher, a physician and Republican who was governor in 2003-07. He said in the release that the grant “will enable the Fletcher Group to establish a Rural Center of Excellence on Substance Use Disorder to continue to spread the successful Recovery Kentucky model to other parts of the commonwealth and beyond. The center will provide technical assistance to rural communities seeking to establish evidence-based treatment and recovery housing options for at-risk populations.” Fletcher, as governor, helped start Recovery Kentucky, a treatment program with housing. He was defeated for re-election by Democrat Steve Beshear, who continued the program.

Broadband too important for rural areas to not have it

Broadband internet access is increasingly important part of daily life, but many Americans are still doing without, especially in rural areas. About a third of rural Americans don't have a broadband connection at home, and remain about 12 percentage points less likely than other Americans to have it, according to recent findings from the Pew Research Center.

Access to high-speed internet is too important for so many people to not have it, Lara Fishbane and Adie Tomer write for the Brookings Institution: "If broadband is an essential part of daily American life in the 21st century, how can we be comfortable with the fact that over 19 million households do not have a mobile or in-home subscription? Imagine if an electricity outage like the 2003 Northeast blackout occurred every day. Or if the Flint water crisis impacted the entire states of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. That’s the scale of broadband disconnect this country experiences."

The U.S. needs to aggressively pursue universal broadband adoption, but some lawmakers and members of the public may be unaware of how much it can help their communities, Fishbane and Tomer write. It's common knowledge that broadband access can enable people to apply for jobs online, but research suggests that even the act of performing online job searches can provide an emotional boost to a discouraged job-seeker.

"In turn, businesses reap benefits from e-recruiting by decreasing labor market search costs and achieving productivity gains through increased efficiencies," Fishbane and Tomer write. "Similar productivity gains can even be passed onto employees through higher wages and to consumers through lower prices. Broadband also helps employees increase their wages by sharpening their online and digital skill sets."

Broadband adoption can also increase civic engagement by making it easier for voters to find information and interact with local representatives. With better broadband connections, voters are more likely to vote and contribute to campaigns, Fishbane and Tomer write.

Guidebook aims to help agricultural communities develop child-care programs for farm workers' families

Access to good child care can help boost recruitment, retention and satisfaction in agricultural jobs, but it can be hard to find. A new guidebook aims to change that.

A Roadmap for Delivering Child Care in Agricultural Communities seeks to help them get child care programs off the ground, with practical tips on how to identify and meet their needs; adopt strategies on how to fund, build and market the program or center; and info on policy and legal considerations.

The roadmap was developed with input from farm-worker parents, farmers and other agricultural employers, human-resources directors, insurance providers and Head Start specialists. It's part of the "Protecting Children While Parents Work in Agriculture" project, an initiative of the National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety and the Migrant Clinicians Network, funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

Interior watchdog office limits interactions with news media

The Interior Department's internal watchdog is investigating six Interior officials for potential ethics violations, including Secretary David Bernhardt and former Secretary Ryan Zinke, but won't be sharing any details with the press. A new policy in the Office of Inspector General prohibits its press office from providing journalists with any information beyond "Our work speaks for itself" or "We have no comment," Miranda Green reports for The Hill.

"The policy, which took effect Aug. 5, is a change from the previous practice of sometimes providing reporters with background or additional information," Green reports. "The policy change comes under the leadership of acting Inspector General Gail Ennis."

Ennis, a former partner at a law firm whose clients lobbied Interior, has risen quickly. President Trump appointed her Social Security Administration inspector general early this year, then added the Interior role in May. "Unlike most IG officials, who are usually career government employees, Ennis is a political appointee who previously contributed to Trump’s campaign," Green reports.

It's unclear whether Ennis's permanent replacement, Mark Lee Greenblatt, will continue the press policy when he assumes the role in the coming weeks, Green reports.

Report: Putting solar panels on farmland could help meet renewable energy needs and financially benefit farmers

The 20-megawatt Maricopa West project near Bakersfield, surrounded by almond groves. (L.A. Times photo by Al Seib)
The things that make American croplands perfect for growing also make many ideal for hosting solar panels: plenty of sunlight, low humidity, and moderate wind and temperatures. The practice, dubbed agrivoltaics, could offset a significant chunk of global non-renewable electricity demands while alleviating concerns that solar installations will take up large swaths of otherwise useful land, according to a newly published study in Scientific Reports.

"The findings raise a pair of potential implications: One possibility is that land-intensive solar uses will increasingly compete with agriculture for available acres. That competition has already manifested in conflicts between the two industries, and some states have adopted rules establishing boundaries on the use of valuable farmland for gathering solar energy," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture newsletter. "On the other hand, crop growers could see financial benefits from developing agrivoltaic systems that could help power their farm operations."

The practice is becoming more popular in California, where limited water supplies hinder many farmers. "In the San Joaquin Valley alone, farmers may need to take more than half a million acres out of production to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which will ultimately put restrictions on pumping," Sammy Roth reports for the Los Angeles Times. "Converting farmland to solar farms also could be key to meeting California’s climate change targets. That’s according to a new report from the Nature Conservancy."

Why both incarceration and crime rates dropped in 34 states

The United States has the largest incarcerated population in the world, with slightly under 1.5 million in state and federal prisons and 750,000 in local jails in 2017. But "between 2007 and 2017, 34 states reduced both imprisonment and crime rates simultaneously, showing clearly that reducing mass incarceration does not come at the cost of public safety," Cameron Kimble and Ames Grawert report for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

Though the nationwide crime rate is near a 40-year low, the drop in prison population from 2007 to 2017 is more because of court orders and policy changes, Kimble and Grawert report. There is considerable state and regional variation too: at the ends of the spectrum are Massachusetts, whose imprisonment rate fell by half, and Arkansas, whose rate increased 19 percent. Massachusetts was helped by the steepest decline in crime rate in the nation, about 40%; a lot was due to new laws that reduced sentences for non-violent drug offenders and decriminalized small amounts of marijuana.

"It’s tough to say why some states successfully reduced their prison population while others failed. One possible commonality relates to socioeconomic well-being. Over half of the states where imprisonment rates grew had poverty rates above the national average as well," Kimble and Grawert report. "Those states were also some of the hardest hit by the opioid epidemic. West Virginia typifies this experience: crime rates dropped, but incarceration rose amidst the state’s struggles with opioid abuse and poverty."

Much of the Deep South, including Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Florida, and Louisiana, saw reductions in imprisonment rates, but many of those states still have some of the largest prison populations in the nation. "The Northeast saw the largest average decline in imprisonment rate (24%), with only Pennsylvania recording an increase (3%). Crime rates also dropped fastest in the Northeast region, falling by just over 30% on average," Kimble and Grawert report.

Meanwhile, the imprisonment rate in the Midwest dropped an average of only 1%; that was mostly because of a 20% reduction in Michigan due to criminal justice reforms focusing on reducing recidivism. Some central states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee either stalled or increased their imprisonment rates. The rising opioid epidemic and punishment-focused response may be at the root. "Kentucky, for example, recently increased penalties for heroin trafficking and doubled penalties for crimes involving fentanyl," Kimble and Grawert report.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Kentucky-based tobacco cooperative is investing in hemp

The cooperative founded to help farmers of burley tobacco, a key ingredient in cigarettes, is facing a declining market and worsening finances, and at least one of its leaders thinks it should go out of business. Instead, it is putting $1 million into hemp, which the state agriculture commissioner, son of that leader, says is "a high-risk crop."

The Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association, formed in 1921, has almost $35 million in assets, but "has struggled to find a role since the ending of the federal support program in 2005," Janet Patton reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "It is now sitting on thousands of pounds of unsold tobacco in a declining market and is operating at a loss, losing almost half a million dollars a year since 2014," according to a report the cooperative commissioned.

Former co-op chair Roger Quarles, who is still a director, proposed last month that the co-op dissolve itself and distribute its assets to members "before the money dries up," Patton writes. In a July guest editorial in The Farmer's Pride, the state's agricultural newspaper, he suggested burley farmers could each get up to $14,000 if the co-op dissolves now.

Instead, the co-op's executive committee voted to buy up to $1 million worth of hemp from Kentucky farmers, have it processed by its Tennessee counterpart into hemp oil. Directors to whom Patton spoke declined to discuss specifics, but Chairman Pat Raines "said that they already have a buyer who wants to purchased the potential oil," Patton reports.

Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, son of Roger Quarles, is a big advocate of hemp but declined to comment on the co-op's move. "I always say it's a high-risk commodity," he told Patton. Amid a surge of permits to grow hemp, there is concern about oversupply, which plagued tobacco until Congress created the federal program of quotas and price supports in 1938.

Recent ICE raids rock rural towns where workers lived

One week after 680 chicken-plant employees in Mississippi were arrested in the largest immigration sting in more than a decade, the towns where they lived and worked are still reeling.

Many businesses that serve local immigrants have seen a sharp decline in revenue since the Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid, and some may have to close. The seven communities most affected range in size from about 300 people to 12,000, Justin Vicory, Lici Beveridge and Alissa Zhu report for the Jackson Clarion Ledger.

More than 300 of the people originally detained have been released with orders to appear in front of immigration judges, but though they're back in the community for now, they're unlikely to be able to work, and therefore can't spend as much at local businesses, the Clarion Ledger reports.

Southern Mississippi residents interviewed by the Clarion Ledger seemed to have mixed feelings about the raid. Haily Gaskill, who manages a convenience store in Bay Hill, said her business will be hurt by the raid since it's the last such store heading out of town. She empathized with the affected workers, saying that many locals won't work, but that immigrants, who "get up every morning and bust their asses" are being "punished," the newspaper reports.

Teri Graham, who works at a Bay Springs fruit and vegetable stand, told the Clarion Ledger that "I think they’re hardworking people who are trying to improve themselves, but I also think the jobs should be given to local people."

Most Iowa farmers interviewed by Wall Street Journal at state fair appear to be sticking with Trump through trade war

Farmers at the Minnesota State Fair in Minnesota vented to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue about the trade war with China, but The Wall Street Journal's sampling of farmers at the Iowa State Fair this week found that most are sticking with him.

"He's doing a good job and trying to make sure we're treated fairly," said Kevin Prevo, a fifth-generation farmer who raises corn, soybeans, cattle and hogs, and plans to vote for Trump again in 2020. Another fifth-gen farmer, Leo Balk, said Trump is "doing the right thing . . . It hurts, but his concept is absolutely right."

John McCormick and Jesse Narnanjo report, "One of the reasons farmers are showing so much patience with Mr. Trump, even as commodity prices have suffered, is because his administration has provided tariff-related aid to farmers. . . . In the wake of agricultural consolidation in recent decades, farmers aren’t nearly as large a group as they once were. But in heavily rural states like Iowa, which Mr. Trump won by almost 10 percentage points in 2016, they could still be an important voting bloc in 2020."

Not all of the dozen or so farmers the WSJ spoke to support Trump. Dan Taylor said he didn't vote for Trump in 2016 and compared farmers to evangelical Christians who, he believes, support Trump though some of his actions run counter to their beliefs: "The ag sector is the same way . . . They’ll still give him their loyalty, even though the trade war isn’t doing ag any good."

Former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, told the newspaper that he's glad to see Democratic presidential candidates are trying harder to reach out to rural voters in the state whose caucuses start the voting, but warns them not to conflate farmers and rural voters. "Some farmers, Mr. Vilsack said, are also starting to realize the trade situation wouldn’t be so dire if Mr. Trump had built a coalition and made it harder for the Chinese to target U.S. agriculture," McCormick and Naranjo report.

Regardless, many say they're willing to stick with Trump. Adam Nechanicky, who farms soybeans, corn and cattle, said he doesn't believe Trump is "out trying to hurt the farmers . . . A deal worth doing is not going to be easy. It’s going to take a little bit of pain to make it better."

Blue-green 'algae' blooms threaten dogs and livestock

Blue-green algae (Kansas State University Extension photo)
This time of year, it's normal to see a scum of algae in lakes and ponds; be careful about letting your dog or livestock come into contact with such water. Blue-green cyanobacteria, often referred to as algae, can kill. Two North Carolina women learned that when all three of their dogs died after swimming in a pond laden with the stuff.

"The health threats to animals range from skin rashes to neurological problems. The blooms can release toxins that can cause liver damage, lead to respiratory paralysis or produce other fatal conditions," Christine Hauser reports for The New York Times. "Intense blooms have led to swimming bans from lakes in the Pacific Northwest to the entire Mississippi seacoast, to Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey’s largest lake. Algal blooms tend to thrive in high temperatures and after heavy rains carry fertilizer runoff and sewage into waterways."

Blue-green cyanobacteria can go undetected below the water's surface or dry up in crusts onshore, so check carefully before allowing your dog or livestock to go swimming, wallowing or drinking, Hauser reports. The blooms may vary in color to gray, red or brown, and can establish themselves quickly in a pond, A.J. Tarpoff reports for Drovers. Click here for tips on how to sample and remedy blue-green "algae" in your water.

"Dangerous algal blooms are a 'major environmental problem' in all 50 states, and scientists believe they will continue to wreak havoc on U.S. waterways with the rising threat of climate change, according to the Environmental Protection Agency," Katie Mettler reports for The Washington Post. "Red-tide algal blooms have killed marine life on the Florida and Mississippi coasts."

21 states and six cities states sue EPA over its reduction of Obama-era restrictions on coal-fired power plants

A group of 21 states and six cities have filed suit against the Trump administration, arguing that its decision to weaken restrictions on coal-fired power plants doesn't meaningfully limit greenhouse gases, therefore violating the federal Clean Air Act.

"In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency eliminated the agency’s Clean Power Plan and replaced it with a new rule that gives states more leeway in deciding upgrades for coal-fired power plants," Don Thompson and Adam Beam report for The Associated Press. EPA's analysis predicted an extra 300 to 1,500 people will die annually by 2030 because of extra air pollution in the power grid, but EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said recently that Americans want "reliable energy that they can afford."

Attorneys general from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia filed suit, along with six local governments: Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, South Miami and Boulder, Colo.

The plaintiffs also argues that the new rule will increase overall pollution by extending the life of aging coal-burning plants, which California Gov. Gavin Newsom called an effort to "prop up the coal industry," AP reports.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, whose state produced the second most coal behind Wyoming in 2017, predicted the suit will ultimately fail at the Supreme Court, which stayed an earlier Obama administration attempt in 2016 at the request of a competing 27-state coalition," the AP reports. Morrisey said the coalition is "dead wrong" in its interpretation of the Clean Air Act.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Amid big merger, many smaller papers do well; experts say keys are a quality product and 'real ties to the community'

Kevin Slimp
If the pending marriage of Gannett Co. and GateHouse Media is to be a success, the merged company's managers will have to remember that their newspapers should be about producing quality journalism and a sense of community, two knowledgeable observers told Jonathan O'Connell of The Washington Post.

Community newspaper consultant Kevin Slimp of Knoxville, Tenn., says in a post on his State of Newspapers site that he surprised O'Connell by telling him that the U.S. still has about 12,000 newspapers in the country, and "that most, not all, but most papers are doing fine financially."

O'Connell reports that Slimp's survey of about 400 publishers last year found that for successful papers, in Slimp's words, “Job number one is to put out a good product. Job number two is to realize that your business is still mainly on the print side.”

"Slimp is a longtime critic of newspapers’ rush to cut their staffs and race to digital platforms once the Internet began cutting into business," O'Connell notes. "When that failed, he said, private equity investors and Wall Street sharks arrived and further gutted the papers for profits."

“They should not have ignored their main products, and they should not have reduced their staffs,” Slimp told the Post. “When you start getting rid of reporters, no one wants to read your paper.”

O'Connell writes, "There is some data to suggest that this time around could be different: that newspapers — while nowhere near as robust as they once were -— could find some stability in balancing their print and online businesses as part of large chains. Gannett increased digital-only subscriptions by 34 percent from the same time last year to 561,000."

But Bernie Lunzer, the president of NewsGuild-CWA, the labor union for newspaper journalists, told O'Connell that he fears the merged chain will have “layoffs and more cookie-cutter journalism.”

"Lunzer agrees that the future of local news largely relies on success online and a degree of corporate efficiency. But he’s worried more financial machinations from Wall Street and out-of-town owners will short circuit the required solutions," O'Connell writes, quoting him: “Creating real ties to the community — that’s the only way these things are going to work. And I just don’t think that corporations think that way.”

USDA says prevented planting set to hit a record high this year because of wet weather; corn futures plummet

Farmers were unable to plant a record 19 million acres because of rain and flooding earlier this year, according to the Farm Service Agency's first estimate of 2019 prevented planting, released Monday.

That tallies up to about 11.2 million acres of corn, 4.35 million acres of soybeans, and 2.2 million acres of wheat, the Department of Agriculture agency said that. By comparison, prevented planting last year was about 2 million acres, Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's "Morning Agriculture."

"USDA also released its monthly World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates — which immediately sent corn futures prices lower. The department surprised traders by raising its forecast for corn production to 13.9 billion bushels and corn yields to 169.5 bushels per acre. Meanwhile, it lowered its estimate of 2019-20 corn exports by 100 million bushels," McCrimmon reports. "The plummet in corn prices was the steepest drop in six years, and it sent ripples through the commodity markets . . . Some market watchers saw the higher-than-expected corn estimates as proof that farmers were planting more crops than they normally would, given the poor weather conditions, in order to get a bigger paycheck under USDA’s trade relief program."

Poultry shares increased because of the prospect of cheaper animal feed, but stocks for farming equipment makers went down, as traders anticipated lower farm income and fewer purchases of farming machinery. McCrimmon reports.

Buttegieg, Warren release rural health plans; Daily Yonder launches Democratic candidate rural policy tracker

Pete Buttegieg
Democratic presidential candidates Pete Buttegieg and Elizabeth Warren have released rural health care plans; here's the gist:

Buttegieg's plan would include "Medicare for All Who Want It"—a public option, basically— and increase subsidies for Obamacare exchange plans. It would also expand the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and increase Medicare reimbursement rates for providers in under-served areas, and extend the amount of time certain foreign doctors can work in the U.S. "The plan also addresses mental health addiction and maternal mortality. It invests in telehealth and attempts to tackle health disparities across rural communities," Brianna Ehley reports for Politico.

The plan "closely mirrors that of other Democratic presidential candidates, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposals on reimbursement, telehealth and workforce disparities, and Sen. Michael Bennet’s call for . . . new payment policies to tackle social determinants of health," Inside Health Policy reports.

Elizabeth Warren
Warren's plan would increase the Federal Trade Commission's authority to block big hospital mergers, which she says decrease competition. Her plan also calls for increased funding to fight the opioid epidemic, expanded student-loan forgiveness programs, more community-health and birthing centers, improved transportation to rural hospitals, and increased Medicare reimbursement for rural hospitals. She also wants increased broadband access in rural areas for telemedicine, Chelsea Cirruzzo reports for Inside Health Policy.

The Daily Yonder has just launched a page to help you keep track of Democratic presidential candidates' promises about rural policy. Click here to read it.

The Rural Blog reports major statements by presidential candidates about rural policy.

Trump backs off on some new China tariffs until December

The Trump administration announced today that it will delay imposing new tariffs on certain Chinese goods—such as laptops, cellphones, video game consoles, and some clothes and shoes—until Dec. 15, instead of the original start date of Sept. 1. "The announcement, which came from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, likely ensures that Apple products and other major consumer goods would be shielded from the import tax until at least December, potentially keeping costs on these products down during the holiday shopping season," Damian Paletta and Heather Long report for The Washington Post.

Trump announced the new round of tariffs Aug.1, saying he would impose 10% levies on $300 billion in Chinese goods because China hadn't followed through on a promise to buy more American farm products. In response to the new tariff announcement, China halted all U.S. ag purchases.

The USTR said the tariffs will still go into effect in September on other items, but didn't fully explain why some items were exempted. "But it said tariffs on other items would be waived completely 'based on health, safety, national security and other factors,'" Paletta and Long report.

It's likely that economic fears influenced the decision; Trump's recent tariff threat "spooked investors and many lawmakers, and it has led to a steady slide in the stock market in the past two weeks," Paletta and Long report. Former Trump Treasury Department official Steve Pavlick, now head of policy at Renaissance Macro Research, told the Post: "I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you see this right before Christmas. They are trying to minimize the impact."

"Many businesses had worried that higher tariffs on consumer goods ahead of the Christmas shopping season could severely damage the economy at a time when some are warning that the risk of a recession next year has increased," Paletta and Long report. "The announcement moved the stock market sharply higher. The Dow Jones industrial average climbed close to 500 points, or nearly 2 percent, on the news. The stock prices of Apple, Best Buy, Mattel and Macy’s were among those that rallied on the announcement."

Did your local paper close? The N.Y. Times wants to know how it affected your town, what stories aren't being covered

Has your local newspaper closed? The New York Times wants to hear about it. Specifically, the Times wants your perspective on what happened when your community became a news desert.

"When hometown papers shutter, the news they once covered — school board updates, city government scandals, high school sports games — often gets lost in a void. Their role as a community connector also ceases to exist. With no hyperlocal news outlets to replace them, unconfirmed social media posts may be residents' only source of information," Lara Takenaga reports for the Times. If your community's paper has shut down, how has the loss affected you? Where do you turn now for local news? . . . What stories aren't being covered?"

The Times invites readers to answer by filling in a form, which you can find here, and says it may publish a selection of the responses. Respondents are asked to include their name, location, and the name of the closed publication.

Monday, August 12, 2019

The bad news about rural America, and ways to deal with it

Illustration by Sarah Grillo, Axios (cropped vertically from original)
The online news service Axios specializes in smart, short reads of 300 to 600 words, pretty much the range for typical post on The Rural Blog, so we're running verbatim a 583-word piece headlined "The rural America death spiral," with our commentary below. We invite you to post your own comments, by clicking on the comment link at the bottom.

By Stef W. Kight and Juliet Bartz

Many of the nation's current pathologies are taking a heavy toll on the majority-white population living in rural America, which was severely impacted by the opioid crisis and has dealt with falling populations, job losses and rising suicide rates.

Why it matters: The malaise and discontent that President Trump has tapped into goes beyond the racism we've seen over the past few weeks and includes anger at a changing world and frustration at dwindling opportunities close to home. These trends are further entrenching the rural-urban schism that came to light in the 2016 election.

The big picture: Political and economic power is shifting to the cities, and 20 percent of the population — 46 million people — is being left behind in the middle of America. These communities face increasingly difficult barriers to education, wealth and health. And if you're African American or Hispanic, your chances of success and survival at every turn are even worse.

Let’s say you were born, grew up and now reside in rural America. Throughout your life, you have been more susceptible to poverty, lower education, illness and even death than your urban counterparts. As a kid, chances are, you lived farther away from a doctor or hospital and got less exercise. You were more likely to live in a school desert — having to travel long distances to make it to school, if you were able to attend at all. Your school might have shuttered, as school consolidation has become more common in many rural areas, per The New York Times.

You had a greater likelihood of getting your high school diploma than the national average, but were far less likely to go straight to college than your urban and suburban counterparts, as The Atlantic reported. If you did graduate with a college degree, you'd likely end up so saddled with student debt that returning to your rural hometown wouldn't be an option if you hoped to get a job that would enable you to pay it off, according to research by the Federal Reserve. Even if you stay, some of the brightest people you grew up with would leave, contributing to the rural "brain drain."

As an adult, you’re more likely suffer from obesity, mental health issues, diabetes, cancer and opioid addiction. You are more likely to know people who took their own lives. If you keep working in your hometown, your job is more likely to be taken over by artificial intelligence, according to a study by the Brookings Institution — especially if you live in Indiana, Kentucky, South Dakota, Arkansas or Iowa. Your community's economy still hasn't fully recovered from the 2008 recession, according to Fed data.

As you get older, you are more likely to die from a preventable death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you do make it into old age, you may not have a place to grow old near your friends, family and the place you called home your whole life.

What's next: Technological advancements such as 5G and automated vehicles won't directly make life harder for rural America, but instead will fuel inequality by making life that much easier for urban America. The rural-urban divide will continue to play a central role in politics and elections for the next several years — unless and until rural America's population declines enough that its political power dwindles.

The bottom line: States, municipalities and the federal government have spent billions to draw jobs and prosperity to stagnant rural areas. But not much has changed.

COMMENT: One of our wiser advisers at the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, the late Dr. Gil Friedell, liked to say, "If there's a problem in the community, the solution is probably in the community." In other words, governments and philanthropies can help, but communities must leverage their own assets to create progress. Rural communities have much in common, but each one is a distinct place, with its own potential solutions. We try to provide information that helps rural communities deal with their problems; or, as our mission statement puts it, "help rural journalists define the public agenda in their communities."

Articles like the one above tell troubling truths, but there are other truths. We need to remind our urban cousins that rural America is where the nation gets its food, its fiber and most of its water; it’s where Americans find recreation and relief from the urban environment, many of them in second homes. But the value of rural America to the nation is more than just economic. Most Americans have some rural heritage, and elements of rural culture still run through our lives. Its values of neighborliness and self-reliance – which are complimentary, not conflicting – are too often forgotten in urban America. We need to point out and exalt the good things about rural America and not let it be reduced to stereotypes. –Al Cross, director and professor, IRJCI, University of Kentucky

What can encourage more people to live in rural areas? Broadband, education, training and something cool

Tom Still
It's well-known that rural areas are losing population to cities, caused by factors like the economy, health care access, infrastructure issues, schools and culture. What can stabilize rural communities and lure more people to live there? The issue calls to mind the 1919 song "How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree)", Tom Still writes for Inside Wisconsin. Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.

One measure of the challenges: nearly 35 percent of rural counties are seeing long-term, significant population loss, according the University of New Hampshire's Carsey School of Public Policy. Those counties now have a total population of 6.2 million, a third less than they did in 1950. "In all, the New Hampshire researchers reported 746 counties representing 24% of all U.S. counties are losing people and 91% of them are rural. That means just 9% of urban counties are depopulating," Still writes. But, he notes, "Not all rural counties are losing people. More than 35% of rural counties have grown for decades, led by those near cities or centers for retirement and recreation."

Better broadband access is a bedrock must for bringing in more young people, since most depend on the internet for jobs, friends, and access to the world in general. Businesses, too, rely on dependable, affordable broadband, Still writes. Bringing in more workers for those new employers will likely require better access to higher education or career training. And, those workers will need somewhere to live, so increasing available housing matters too, Still writes.

"Finally, rural America must combat its image of not being cool," Still writes. "Many educated young people think they won’t find others like themselves in rural settings, but that’s not necessarily so, based on a survey by the American Enterprise Institute. In fact, the survey found that a smaller percentage of educated rural residents wanted to move elsewhere than the percentage of urban residents who wanted to leave."

Database, Post map show how many pain pills individual pharmacies dispensed in 2006-12; the top 10 were all rural

Map by The Washington Post; click on it for a larger version or click here to view the interactive version.
How many opioid pills did your local pharmacy dispense between 2006 and 2012? The Washington Post, expanding on its earlier reporting of databases from the Drug Enforcement Administration, has analyzed and mapped the data to provide a first-of-its-kind, granular look at how many prescription painkillers flowed through individual pharmacies and into communities during that time frame. "The Post’s analysis of the data found that a small percentage of pharmacies received nearly half of the pills distributed in the United States between 2006 and 2012," the Post reports.

"This analysis used two measures for comparison: the number of pills per person per year within a five- to 10-mile radius of each pharmacy and the cumulative number of pills per person based on the county population," The Post reports. All 10 of the pharmacies that dispensed the most pills per person were rural; Shearer Drug in Albany, Ky., led the pack with 96 pills per person per year, for a total of 6,778,550. Albany is the only town in Clinton County, which had 10,272 in the 2010 census.

UPDATE, Aug. 13: The Post "says local journalists in over 30 states have collectively published more than 90 articles based on the data. They’re listed here," Columbia Journalism Review reports.

Feds finalize rule reducing protection for threatened species

"Three months after a U.N. report warned that 1 million species face extinction because of human activity, the Trump administration on Monday finalized rule changes to the Endangered Species Act that make it harder to protect plants and animals whose populations are in serious decline," Darryl Fears reports for The Washington Post.

Language "that required officials to rely heavily on science when considering whether to list a species as threatened or endangered regardless of economic impact was removed," Fears writes. "Potential threats to business opportunities and other costs of listing a species can now be considered and shared with the public. Officials said those considerations would not affect listing decisions."

The rule change will also allow the administration to leave open for development areas that threatened species once occupied and could at least theoretically return to. "Conservationists and some politicians decried the changes as a major rollback of the 46-year-old law credited with saving the bald eagle, grizzly bear, humpback whale, American alligator and Florida manatee from extinction," Fears reports.

"The Trump administration says the changes will make regulation more efficient and less burdensome while preserving protections for wildlife," reports Doyle Rice of USA Today. "At least 10 attorneys general joined conservation groups in protesting an early draft of the changes, saying they put more wildlife at greater risk of extinction."

Another major Central Appalachian coal company, Cambrian, declares bankrupcty

Central Appalachia, already reeling from the recent shuttering of Blackjewel, has been dealt another blow as another major coal producer declares Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

"According to filings in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky, Cambrian Coal LLC plans to put virtually all of its assets up for bid and, pending court approval, will auction them off next month," Will Wright reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. CEO Jim Booth resigned less than two weeks before Cambrian declared bankruptcy.

Cambrian, which employs about 660 people in three major operations in Eastern Kentucky and Western Virginia, has kept its mines open and continued to pay employees through its bankruptcy proceedings; it's unclear what will happen to employees and mines if the sale is approved and successful, Wright reports.

The bankruptcy is mostly because Cambria grew by purchasing mines and other assets from large coal companies. "Company President Mark Campbell said in a court motion that the bankruptcy was largely caused by debt it acquired while buying up other coal companies, and by the general decline of the thermal coal industry," Wright reports. Cambria owes millions of dollars to various businesses and government agencies in Kentucky and Virginia.

"A proposed sale order, if approved, would set a Sept. 11 bid deadline for Cambrian’s mines. The company would then hold an auction Sept. 18, and a sale hearing Sept. 24," Wright reports.