Friday, September 06, 2019

Researcher says relocating towns away from disaster-prone areas may be better than rebuilding after storms

How do you rebuild after a weather-related disaster? Maybe you shouldn't: "A paper published Thursday in the journal Science makes a case that, sometimes, retreating from nature instead of fighting it can actually open up new opportunities for communities," Kendra Pierre-Louis reports for The New York Times.

Though the rhetoric tends to focus on building back better, "You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick," said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper.

"Siders pointed to Soldiers Grove, Wis., a town of about 500 that, after one too many floods, moved itself out of the flood plain," Pierre-Louis reports. "The community took that challenge and turned it into opportunity, reorienting the business district such that it could take advantage of highway traffic and powering it entirely with solar energy — and they did this in the 1970s."

Staying in place after a disaster can not only make residents a target for later disasters, but it's costly for the government to provide aid and for insurance companies to pay out, as illustrated by Dauphin Island, Alabama, which Gilbert Gaul of YaleEnvironment360 called "the unluckiest island in America." The island has been hit by more than a dozen big storms in recent decades, but residents of the beach resort keep rebuilding.

Some communities do shrink after disasters. The population of New Orleans is only 85% of its pre-Katrina population, for example. But the retreats are haphazard, and most of the people who leave have money and options, meaning it's generally the poorest who stay. "The new paper lays out ways communities could practice managed retreats that would address their broader needs," Pierre-Louis reports. "Lack of access to reliable climate-hazard maps, for example, makes it difficult to make informed choices about risk. Such maps must be improved and updated regularly, the paper said."

For those who choose to—or must—stay, post-disaster recovery is often hampered by bureaucracy, Andrea Noble reports for Route Fifty. Though Hurricane Michael hit the Florida panhandle in October 2018, the Federal Emergency Management Agency didn't begin delivering temporary housing units to the area until late January, and people were still living in tents this spring.

Executives at dairy-promotion nonprofit get huge salaries from farmers' milk checks even as dairy farms go bankrupt

Thousands of dairy farms have gone out of business in recent years, but 10 top executives at Dairy Management Inc., a nonprofit meant to promote dairy products, were paid a combined $8 million in 2017, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports. Some even took trips to the Super Bowl. The salaries are paid for out of farmers' milk checks: 15 cents for every hundred pounds of milk sold.

"DMI is funded by one of the nearly two dozen federally mandated checkoff programs overseen by USDA, covering crops from pork and soybeans to popcorn and mangoes. The commodities are taxed and pooled for research, advertising and other promotional efforts," Catherine Boudreau reports for Politico's "Morning Agriculture."

A DMI spokesperson told the Journal Sentinel that the CEO's salary is reviewed annually to make sure it compares to peer companies, and that executive salaries are likewise competitive with similar roles in the public and private sector.

Sarah Lloyd, a dairy farmer who served on the DMI board from 2013 to 2016, told the Journal Sentinel that she would often cry on her way home from the meetings: "These high-priced marketing people sitting in fancy offices in suburban Chicago were driving up to the meetings in luxury foreign SUVs. They were using my money and [other] farmers' money when farmers' kids are on free and reduced lunch. The contrast was just maddening."

Farmers fall more behind on loans from community banks

"A U.S. banking regulator on Thursday said more farmers were falling behind on loans held by community banks compared to a year earlier and that it was watching risks in the agriculture sector," Jason Lange reports for Reuters

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation noted in its quarterly report on U.S. banks that some farmers are struggling because of low commodity prices and farm incomes. Though the FDIC report did not discuss causes, the trade war has depressed commodity prices over the past year as China, once the top buyer of U.S. soybeans, has severely reduced its purchases, Lange reports.

"The FDIC said the share of long past-due farm loans held by community banks, which are major agricultural lenders, was 1.28 percent in the April-June period, up 13 basis points from the same period in 2018," Lange reports. A basis point is 1/100 of 1 percent. Long past-due loans are those "that are at least 90 days past due or which no longer accrue interest because of repayment doubts."

Quick hits: Feud film, fentanyl book, academics' suggestion that every American get $50 to give a favorite news outlet

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

A new PBS documentary, "The Feud," explores the Hatfield-McCoy feud. It premieres at 9 p.m. ET on Sept. 10. Read more here.

A new book explores the history, manufacture, sale and use of fentanyl, Dave Davies reports for NPR.

Fears of hog-lagoon waste pollution were raised as Hurricane Dorian approaches North Carolina, Ari Natter reports for Bloomberg.

Some academics have come up with an ambitious plan to help journalism: give every American adult $50 to donate to a favorite news outlet, Rick Edmonds reports for Poynter.

Critics say movement to eat less meat distorts science

Agriculture, especially cattle, is a main contributor to climate change, accounting for almost a quarter of annual greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide. In the United States, where the average person eats four times more beef than people in other countries, environmentalism is often cited as a reason to cut back on or eschew eating beef entirely and has helped spur some fast-food chains to offer vegetarian meat analogues. "But a rising chorus of farming advocates says that notion gets it wrong, or at best only partly right," Lynne Curry writes for The New Food Economy.

Nutritionist Diana Rodgers, who produces organic vegetables and pasture-raised meats on her farm, is frustrated with anti-meat messaging. She wrote on her blog recently that it comes from all angles, including the media, medical experts, international organizations, and sometimes city governments, Curry reports. Rodgers, who is working on a documentary urging better—not less—meat consumption, is an outspoken critic of meat reduction campaigns.

"In January, she railed against the Eat Lancet Commission’s 'diet for planetary health,' which suggested a dramatic reduction to about 1.5 ounces of animal protein per day. She agrees with many nutritionists who assert that meat is an irreplaceable, nutrient-dense food group, especially for children, women and at-risk populations," Curry reports. Meat analogues are often highly processed, expensive, and nutrient-poor, but are marketed as "cleaner, more virtuous, healthier," Rodgers said. "It's the biggest form of greenwashing there is today."

Andrew Gunther, executive director of sustainable livestock farming organization A Greener World, told Curry that the simplified view is dangerous: "If we thought the soil, air and water could be fixed by a single solution, we’d advocate for that." Rancher Ariel Greenwood, who co-owns grassland sustainability consulting company Grass Nomads LLC, said the notion of eating less beef to save the earth is "asinine" because it ignores the significant possible variations in beef production.

Vegetarian rancher Nicolette Hahn Niman objected on different grounds: "My strongest objection to environmental and public health advocates using the slogan 'eat less meat' is that it is extremely alienating to farmers and ranchers," she told Curry. "We need far more intelligent conversations about climate change’s connection to food, agriculture and health."

Thursday, September 05, 2019

$108 hoodie illustrates modern realities of 'Made in America'

Scores of manufacturers moved their factories overseas in the past 40 years to take advantage of cheaper labor and laxer environmental standards. President Trump has vowed to lure manufacturers back home, but it may be difficult for many companies to do so and still make a profit, Dustin Stephens reports for CBS News. To illustrate the obstacles to "Made in America" labels, CBS interviewed Bayard Winthrop, all of whose American Giant apparel is made in the U.S., and followed production of its popular hooded sweatshirt. He illustrates how some manufacturers may have to provide fewer jobs and rely more on automation and immigrant labor to remain profitable.

When Winthrop came up with the idea for American Giant in 2012, the first major problem he faced was a lack of infrastructure for apparel components. He had to essentially coax a master yarn dyer out of retirement to accomplish that part of the process, Stephens reports. But the supply chain problems start with farm labor: a North Carolina cotton farmer told CBS he hires seasonal Mexican workers because few locals are willing to work for him, no matter what pay and benefits he offers.

Workforce is also a problem in the mill where the cotton is cleaned and spun into yarn. It must rely largely on automation to stay profitable. "In the 1960s a mill like this would have employed 2,000 workers; today, about 125 work here producing about 2 million pounds of yarn a week," Stephens reports. But human workers must be used in the final step, where the fabric is cut and sewn. Keeping this step in the U.S. adds as much as $17 to the hoodie's cost, Winthrop said; American Giant tries to keep costs down by selling its products almost entirely online, with only two brick-and-mortar stores.

The final cost of the hoodie is $108. And though it's widely praised as "the greatest hoodie ever made," the price tag could put it out of reach for many Americans. However, Winthrop says domestic manufacturing matters. "I think we're selling a value system," Winthrop told CBS. "Stand for some things that matter, stand for American manufacturing, stand for the people that are making stuff. And when we buy things, when we do it consciously, when we do it with an eye towards understanding how these little votes that we make have an impact attached to them, we'll be better off."

How feral pigs threaten wildlife, habitats, and crops

Last month, the phrase "30 to 50 feral hogs" became a meme sensation after a Twitter user cited the beasts as a legitimate reason for civilians to own AR-15 semiautomatic rifles and similar military-style firearms. But there's a grain of truth in there; feral pigs are among the most damaging invasive species in North America, as shown by a recent Mississippi State University study.

The researchers found that forest areas with feral pigs had 26 percent less diverse mammal and bird communities than other forests, partly because the voracious ominvores eat plants, animals and fungi, and out-compete other animals for food. In other words, "Wild pigs are a serious threat to biodiversity," Marcus Lashley writes for The Conversation. Lashley is an assistant professor of wildlife ecology at Mississippi State and the lead author of the study.

All that adds up to a lot of expense. In the early 2000's it was estimated that feral hogs caused $1.5 billion in damage each year in the U.S. Their population has grown by 30% and their territory has grown by 40% since then, so their economic impact has likely increased. Since the 1980s, feral pig populations have nearly tripled and have expanded from 18 to 35 states, Lashley notes.

"Another major concern is feral pigs’ potential to spread disease. They carry numerous pathogens, including brucellosis and tuberculosis, Lashley writes. "However, little ecological research has been done on this issue, and scientists have not yet demonstrated that increasing abundance of feral pigs reduces the abundance of native wildlife via disease transmission."

Here's a Farm Bureau video of farmers and scientists describing damage from feral pigs in Missouri:

Horse trainer won top walking-horse prize despite imminent suspension for soring, a 'sad state of affairs,' activist says

Rodney Dick riding I'm Mayhem
(Shelbyville Times-Gazette photo by Gary Johnson) 
The trainer and rider whose horse was named Tennessee Walking Horse World Grand Champion on Aug. 31 was allowed to compete even though he will soon begin a mandatory suspension for serial violations of the Horse Protection Act. Rodney Dick rode the horse I'm Mayhem to victory during the 81st annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville, John Carney reports for the local Times-Gazette.

In December 2018 the U.S. Department of Agriculture disqualifed Dick from all involvement in the horse industry from Oct. 1, 2019, to March 31, 2021, and ordered him to pay a $2,200 penalty for engaging in the practice of "soring" Tennessee walking horses. The technique involves harming a horse's front hooves and legs to encourage the high step that wins competitions. 

The Horse Protection Act has long banned sored horses from competitions, exhibitions or sales, but the rule is widely ignored and spottily enforced. In July, the U.S. House passed a bill called the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act to ban other soring techniques, increase penalties for violations and expand the USDA's enforcement of the HPA, but it faces an uphill battle in the Senate. 

Many horse competitions have shunned Tennessee walking horses because of the abuse associated with soring, activist Marty Irby writes in an op-ed for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Irby is now the executive director at Animal Wellness Action, but is a former eight-time world champion rider and a past president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' & Exhibitors' Association. He urges senators to pass the PAST Act: "The Tennessee Walking Horse breed can remove the label of being the most abused horse on earth, but only with legitimate change." 

The fact that Rodney Dick was allowed to compete is a "sad state of affairs" that shows how necessary the PAST Act is, Irby wrote in an email to The Rural Blog.

Rural job growth continued to lag urban areas in the past year; view county-level data to see how your area compared

Job changes from July 2018 to 2019. Click here to view the interactive version. (Map by The Daily Yonder)
Job growth in rural counties continued to lag urban counties from July 2018 to July 2019, according to the latest employment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Only 8 percent of new jobs were created in rural counties in that time period, while more than 60% went to metro areas that have more than 1 million people. However, jobs in smaller and mid-sized cities grew at a faster rate than in major cities, Bill Bishop reports for The Daily Yonder.

Meanwhile, 45% of rural counties lost jobs last year, compared to 20% of urban counties. "The largest rural job declines were in Hawaii. The largest gains were scattered across the country, from Jackson County, West Virginia, to the coasts of South Carolina and Alabama," Bishop reports.

CNN focuses on cattle as candidates talk farm practices, green-energy jobs and more in climate-change town hall

During CNN's seven-hour "town hall" on climate change last evening, some Democratic presidential candidates "said farmers and agriculture can be a solution to climate change, but criticized large-scale agriculture and food production at the same time," Chris Clayton reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer.

Ten candidates attended the forum; each got 30 to 40 minutes to talk about their plans. "When it came to food and agriculture, CNN's hosts and guest questioners were aggressively engaged in asking about policies surrounding cattle emissions, even though U.S. livestock accounts for just 3 percent of the nation's greenhouse-gas emissions," Clayton reports. "There was a lot of discussion on dietary guidelines and linking U.S. agricultural interests to Amazon deforestation and fires."

Here's some of what the candidates had to say about agriculture and rural-related topics, according to Clayton and another recap by Jordan McDonald of CNBC:
  • Sen. Kamala Harris of California said she would consider the environmental impacts of food production in issuing dietary guidelines. 
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said farmers could be "part of the solution" on climate change, through incentives to to use less water and put less CO2 into the atmosphere. noted that she was the only candidate present who is on the Senate Agriculture Committee. (Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, who did not attend the town hall, is also on the committee.)
  • Mayor Pete Buttegieg of South Bend, Indiana, said climate change causes a lot of the uncertainty farmers currently face, but "rural Americans can be such a huge part of the solution." He admired the quest for a net-zero emissions cattle farm and said we must invest more in Agriculture Department research to make it affordable. He also wants to invest more in the Conservation Stewardship Program to preserve topsoil.
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden wasn't asked about agriculture, but said he believes renewable energy jobs will bring economic benefits.
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said the nation must transition from "factory farming," which he said endangers the environment and contributes to climate change, and encourage more family farms to supply people with local food.
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts didn't talk about agriculture but said renewable energy could bring more than a million manufacturing jobs to the U.S.
  • Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas suggested a new Farm Bill that would pay farmers for environmentally friendly practices like planting cover crops, keeping more land under conservation, and using regenerative agriculture in ranching. He panned U.S. investment in Brazilian agriculture, which he said hurts U.S. farmers.
  • Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey proposed a climate stewardship plan that would invest billions in agriculture. He noted that Iowa has created new sources of revenue with wind energy and said cover crops could help reduce carbon in the atmosphere. Booker, who is a vegan, also suggested reducing subsidies to the meat and dairy industries.
  • Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro said he wants to strengthen the National Flood Insurance Program and update America's flood maps. He also proposes providing incentives to farmers who adopt environmentally friendly practices.
  • Andrew Yang, a billionaire businessman, proposed an aggressive climate strategy, including switching to greener farming techniques.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Sept. 9 webinar to discuss USDA food insecurity report

Tune in for a one-hour webinar at 1 p.m. ET on September 9 for an overview of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's most recent research on food insecurity. The webinar has been rescheduled from Sept. 4.

USDA Economic Research Service social science analyst Alisha Coleman-Jensen will provide an overview of the USDA's annual report on the prevalence and severity of food insecurity. "The report includes changes in food insecurity from previous years, the prevalence of food insecurity by selected household characteristics, and food insecurity among children," according to the website. Click here to register.

State judges rule that gerrymandered N.C. state legislature district maps must be redrawn before 2020 elections

A three-judge panel of a state court ruled yesterday that North Carolina's state legislature districting maps unfairly favor Republicans and must be redrawn before the 2020 elections. "The maps were drawn in 2017 to replace previous maps, drawn in 2011, that had also been ruled unconstitutional. Both sets of maps were drawn by North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature," Will Doran reports for The News & Observer in Raleigh.

The decision underscores the power of state constitutions, courts and legislators in drawing political maps, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court punted on partisan gerrymandering cases in June.

The three judges, two Democrats and one Republican, agreed that the state Supreme Court has long believed that the government is based on the will of the people, whose will is expressed by the ballot, Doran reports. That perspective helped the judges decide that the maps violated the state constitution because "It is the carefully crafted maps, and not the will of the voters, that dictate the election outcomes in a significant number of legislative districts and, ultimately, the majority control of the General Assembly," the judges wrote in the 357-page ruling.

The decision will apparently stand, since Republican Senate leader Phil Berger said he won't appeal and will start drawing new maps, Doran reports. "We disagree with the court’s ruling as it contradicts the Constitution and binding legal precedent, but we intend to respect the court’s decision and finally put this divisive battle behind us," Berger said in a statement. "Nearly a decade of relentless litigation has strained the legitimacy of this state’s institutions, and the relationship between its leaders, to the breaking point. It’s time to move on."

Judges gave the legislature until Sept. 18 to draw new maps, and said that, though the lines can be drawn to keep incumbents from having to face each other, no other political data may be considered. If lawmakers can't come up with new maps in time, the judges said lawmakers might reschedule 2020 state legislature elections, Doran reports.

Trump caught between corn and oil interests over changes to Renewable Fuel Standard, small-refinery waivers

President Trump is once again caught between the interests of the Corn Belt and those of the petroleum industry in the continuing battle over the Renewable Fuel Standard.

The Environmental Protection Agency determines how much ethanol and biodiesel must be mixed into the nation's fuel supply; the amount of ethanol and biodiesel is supposed to increase over time, but the administration announced in July that it would not increase the amount of corn-based ethanol next year (but would increase the amount of cellulosic ethanol made from grass and woody plants), a proposal that infuriated corn and ethanol producers. On top of that, the groups believe EPA is trying to help oil producers get around the ethanol requirement by granting numerous "hardship" waivers to small oil refiners, Donnelle Eller reports for the Des Moines Register.

Corn growers and other biofuel producers are particularly angered by the EPA's approval of 31 such waivers in August. "The action last month sparked a backlash from producers who say the exemptions undermine demand for ethanol, exacerbating economic challenges in agriculture including low crop prices and the trade war with China," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture. "The National Corn Growers Association on Friday said Trump’s ethanol moves have cost 2,700 rural jobs and affected demand for 300 million bushels of corn due to lower ethanol production and plant closures."

The recent waivers also mean that 1.4 billion gallons of ethanol and biodiesel will not have to be blended into fuel. "Since taking office, the Trump administration has granted 85 refineries a pass from buying 4 billion gallons of renewable fuel, killing demand for 1.4 billion bushels of corn used to make it," Eller reports. "The exemptions are driving 15 ethanol plants to close nationwide. Others are throttling back production, industry groups say."

"It’s unclear if a compromise the White House is now considering will be enough to placate farmers," McCrimmon reports. "Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and White House aides are negotiating details of a plan to boost both corn ethanol and soy-based biodiesel by raising blending requirements for next year. The plan under consideration would add about 875 million gallons to refiners’ obligations, but that accounts for just a third of the volume affected by the EPA waivers."

Walmart, Sam's Club and Kroger announce changes meant to curb gun violence, get mixed reactions

Yesterday retail giants Walmart and Kroger announced steps aimed at curbing gun violence. Walmart and Sam's Club made the first announcement, saying it will discontinue all sales of ammunition for short-barrel rifles, which can be used in military-style firearms, and handgun ammunition after their current stock runs out. The chain will also stop handgun sales in Alaska, the only state where it sells them, and will ask customers to not carry firearms openly unless they are law enforcement officers, even in "open carry" states, Lauren Thomas reports for CNBC.

The announcement came more than a month after two deadly shootings in Walmarts this summer. The company initially responded by removing displays for violent video games, but did not alter its gun sale or carry policies, Thomas reports. But yesterday, CEO Doug McMillon said that, though the company has stopped selling military-style rifles and most handguns, has raised the purchase age to 21, and placed more stringent background checks on buyers, "It’s clear to us that the status quo is unacceptable." The new policy will reduce Walmart's market share of ammunition from about 20% to 6-9%, he said.

Walmart will continue to allow customers with permits to carry concealed, but "if someone opts to openly carry a gun into one of its stores, it's up to the store manager's discretion as to how to react," reports Kate Gibson of CBS News. "In states like Alaska or Wyoming, where 'open-carry' is more common, the manager might pull the customer aside and ask him or her to leave the gun in their vehicle the next time. ... The reaction might be stronger 'if it's a situation where it's causing alarm'," a Walmart spokesman told Gibson.

McMillon also called on the nation's leaders to strengthen background-check laws and take weapons from people who pose an immediate danger. He equivocated on reauthorizing the assault-weapons ban, but said the U.S. must do more to determine the root causes that lead to shootings. He also offered to work with other retailers to make the industry safer, Thomas reports.

Kroger followed Walmart in asking non-law-enforcement customers to not carry openly, Thomas reports for CNBC. "We are also joining those encouraging our elected leaders to pass laws that will strengthen background checks and remove weapons from those who have been found to pose a risk for violence," Kroger Group Vice President of Corporate Affairs Jessica Adelman said..

Kroger began phasing out all firearm and ammo sales at its Fred Meyer stores in March 2018 after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which Adelman said demonstrated that "we recognize the growing chorus of Americans who are no longer comfortable with the status quo and who are advocating for concrete and common sense gun reforms," Thomas reports.

The announcements brought mixed reactions. On Twitter, many high-profile users interpreted the anti-open carry policy as mainly symbolic, though proponents of the move hailed it as a step in the right direction, and opponents panned it as virtue signaling, Aine Cain reports for Business Insider

One shopper at a Scranton-area Walmart said he disagreed with the decision, Peggy Lee reports for WNEP. "People have to protect themselves in the street. The street is bad right now, and if you don't have any bullets or something to defend yourself, how are you going to defend yourself?" Michael Caseo told Lee. But shopper Jessica Petche said she approved the move: "I think that's absolutely needed. I don't think weapons should be available everywhere."

Hemp farmers dealing with increased theft

Hemp farmers are running into an increasing problem: crop theft. Hemp and marijuana are physically identical, except marijuana has more than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol. But thieves are apparently unaware of that, so many hemp farmers are now forced to consider increased security measures. "Cannabis thefts have been reported in York, Pennsylvania; Clarksville, Tennessee; Georgia, Vermont; Edgecombe County, North Carolina; and many more," Dan Nosowitz reports for Modern Farmer.

James Jenkins, who grows 525 acres of hemp near Bowling Green, Kentucky, said he's installing cameras and will eventually hire armed guards. Theft has become such a problem that he's offering a reward for the capture and prosecution of anyone caught trying to steal his hemp, Trey Crumbie reports for The News-Enterprise in Elizabethtown.

"They can smoke the whole ... farm and can’t get nothing out of it," an exasperated Jenkins told Crumbie.

The thefts are not just misguided, but also a huge financial hit for farmers. In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, hemp farmers Crysta and Brendan Stehman recently suffered the loss of nine large hemp plants worth $1,000 apiece. Thieves also fully or partially damaged another 28 plants, Carter Walker reports for Lancaster Online.

On the day of the theft, the Stehmans encountered three teenage males on their property whom they believe stole the plants. The couple are "investing in new security and will be keeping a close eye on their crops until harvest in a few weeks. They hope their story will help other farmers be aware of the risk of theft," Walker reports.

Cherokee Nation names first delegate to U.S. House

Kimberley Teehee
(AP photo by Sue Ogrocki)
The Cherokee Nation has named Kimberly Teehee as its first ever delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. The former Obama administration official's nomination was approved by the tribe's council last week. Though the 1835 Treaty of New Echota—the document that led to the Trail of Tears—established the right to a non-voting delegate to the House, the Cherokee have never named one, Graham Brewer reports for NPR.

Teehee is an Oklahoma native who interned for the Cherokee Nation's first female chief, Wilma Mankiller, in the 1980s. After graduating from law school, Teehee worked for the Democratic National Committee, as a Capitol Hill staffer, and then in the Obama administration. "Teehee has been an outsized figure on Capitol Hill for decades when it comes to Indian Country policy," Brewer reports. "Her fingerprints are on a wide variety of policy and laws affecting Indigenous people, from the Violence against Women Act to the creation of Congress's first Native American caucus."

New Cherokee Nation Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. made appointing Teehee one of his first priorities, and said he chose her because of her reputation for embracing bipartisan work. Teehee has close relationships with Oklahoma Republican Reps. Tom Cole, a member of Chickasaw Nation, and Markwayne Mullin, a fellow Cherokee, Brewer reports.

"For her part, Teehee says she understands her appointment will help bring visibility to a nearly invisible part of American society," Brewer reports. "And that could have a lasting impact on areas like Indian Health Services funding, education expansion on tribal lands and treaty rights, like the one that led to her appointment."

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Unpaid coal miners' protest gets more attention, could give their cause leverage in Blackjewel bankruptcy case

When Blackjewel LLC abruptly declared bankruptcy on July 1, about 1,800 workers at its mines in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming were left unpaid. In Harlan County, Kentucky, fed-up miners blocked railroad tracks July 29 to keep the company from transporting coal until they had been paid. A month later, they are still blocking the tracks, and though their principal beef is with Blackjewel, the protest has "also become a declaration against corporate bankruptcy laws that they say de-prioritize workers’ interests," Tim Craig reports for The Washington Post.

The protest has garnered nationwide attention as a symbol of the decline of coal-mine unions. It's especially potent because Harlan miners staged a bloody uprising in the 1930s in the attempt to get a union contract. "As mines shut down in recent decades, amid declining reserves and more stringent environmental regulations, they have been replaced with smaller, less labor-intensive operations that relied on non-unionized workers," Craig reports. Now the state has no union coal mines.

William Londrigan, president of the Kentucky State AFL-CIO, said the protest shows workers can fight back against big corporations by organizing. But Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley, a Democrat, said the local economy had been doing well in recent years and that the Blackjewel closure doesn't reflect on President Trump, who supports "right to work" laws. “This is an issue of one failed company, and one failed executive who didn’t manage his company the right way,” Mosley told Craig.

The Trump administration has gone to great lengths to help the coal industry, but analysts expect annual U.S. production to drop from 711 million tons to less than 600 million tons in the next five years because of competition from natural gas and renewable energy, Craig notes. And though coal industry employment has remained fairly steady since Trump took office, it will likely take a dive along with production. The Democrats are no rural heroes either, but the ruling elites from neither party seem in touch with the working class they aim to rule, T.A. Frank writes for Vanity Fair.

Trump won 85 percent of Harlan County's vote, so the protesting miners have a rule against talking politics. "That is the main reason we have gotten as far as we’ve got now; it’s because we have kept the nonsense down," miner Chris Rowe told Craig. Rowe predicts that coal will make a comeback, "though maybe not a big comeback," and said he hopes other coal companies will remember their protest and understand that "guys are going to start standing up again."

The miners' protest gives them leverage that could resolve the issue more quickly than in other bankruptcy court cases, Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf writes in an op-ed in the Lexington Herald-Leader. "I have no idea how this will turn out — all I know is that the Widow Combs would approve of the way the miners have taken a stand," Pillersdorf writes, referring to Ollie Combs. In 1965, Combs and two of her sons sat in front of bulldozers to prevent them from strip-mining her Knott County land. A Louisville Courier Journal photo of state troopers hauling Combs, 61, to jail shocked American audiences nationwide and influenced Kentucky's governor to pass a law forbidding state police from assisting coal operators in ending non-violent protests.

Like the widow, the miners have no leverage other than as a symbol, but that's still powerful, Pillersdorf writes. Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell has taken their side, Frank notes, pointing out that few Democratic presidential candidates have done likewise. He also questioned scant news coverage, but now the Post story follows a New York Times story on the protest.

Paper in rural Maine succeeds with local and regional content, twice-monthly frequency and national audience

The editorial and business office of The Quoddy Times in Eastport, Maine (Photo by James Fallows)
Husband and wife team James and Deborah Fallows roamed the country in their tiny plane for four years, reporting for The Atlantic on innovation and renewal in small cities and towns. Their book about the first leg of the project, Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey Into the Heart of America was published in May 2018. This year they began the second part of the project, and aim to explore a wide range of themes, including how local news media are faring.

Local journalism is important, James Fallows writes in their newest piece, "because so much of the future of American economic, cultural, and civic life is now being devised and determined at the local or state level . . . Voters, residents, and taxpayers need to know what is happening (or not), and what is working (or not), in their school systems, and their city councils, and their state capitals. It is imperiled for obvious reasons. What has happened to media revenues in general has happened worst, fastest, and hardest to local publications, newspapers most of all."

Eastport, Maine (Wikipedia map)
The newest piece profiles The Quoddy Tides, a thriving, twice-monthly, family-owned and family-run paper in Eastport, Maine. Eastport is the easternmost city in the U.S., scattered over several islands and with a population of about 1,300; the QT has a paid print circulation of just under 5,000. "It is run on a shoestring, but it has some 20 contributors and correspondents in the region, and it is full of both articles and ads, and it matters in its community," Fallows writes.

The QT is successful because it aims for a regional audience and market and has a "substantial" mail circulation, delivering papers to subscribers in 49 states. Extraterritorial circulation is not unusual for papers on the Maine coast and other vacation and second-home areas. Its family ownership "means that it can spend its modest resources as it chooses. It is not under external-ownership pressure to meet regular profitability targets, which has sent so many small papers into cycles of cutback and decline," Fallows writes. However, the husband and wife who own and run the paper, Edward French and Lora Whelan, emphasized to Fallows that the kind of journalism they provide has kept the paper alive.

French's mother, Winifred, started the QT in 1968, more than a decade after she and her husband moved to Eastport from Arizona. "She had no newspaper experience," Whelan told Fallows. "But she thought these communities really needed a voice. So she talked to other small newspapers and had correspondence with people all around the country about how she should set this up." French grew up helping with the family business and stepped in to run the paper as an adult.

The paper is packed with local content, including tribal issues, high-school sports, impact of state and federal laws, fishing industry news, editorials, letters to the editor, obituaries, births, church notices, tide tables, city-council coverage, and more. "I think it’s important for newspapers not to keep cutting," French told Fallows. "If you keep cutting, there’s less and less reason for people to buy the paper. If you want to keep a healthy circulation, you have to make the investment in reporters and providing the news that people can’t find anywhere else."

House Agriculture Committee chair, seeking re-election in most pro-Trump Democratic district, draws strong GOP foe

Minnesota's Seventh District
(National Atlas map via Wikipedia)
House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson of Minnesota, whose represents the Democratic-held district with the largest 2016 majority for President Trump, has drawn a strong Republican opponent in former state Senate President and Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach.

"Trump won it by 30." Minneapolis StarTribune columnist Patrick Coolican notes. "She'll have a huge supply of money from national Republican groups, including presumably the anti-abortion network her husband is part of as executive director of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life."

Fargo's KFGO notes, "David Hughes has also announced to seek to the Republican nomination to challenge Peterson. Hughes has challenged Peterson twice before."

Rep. Collin Peterson
If Peterson seeks re-election, he will have "the advantage of name recognition, and his perch as chair of the Agriculture Committee during a time of deep uncertainty about the farm economy given the trade conflict with China. He'll frame the race as a risk of giving up the gavel to the district's most important committee."

The Star Trib's Jeremy Olson reports, "Peterson has maintained popularity and strong support from farmers and rural voters in his district. Peterson is considered a Blue Dog Democrat with conservative positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. He voted against the Affordable Care Act that was championed in 2010 by his own party and President Barack Obama, but also against Trump’s legislation in 2017 that would have repealed it."

Monday, September 02, 2019

Wyoming seeks federal approval to treat air ambulances like a public utility; idea aims to cut costs for patients

"Wyoming, the reddest of Republican states and a bastion of free enterprise, thinks it may have found a way to end crippling air ambulance bills that can top $100,000 per flight," Markian Hawryluk reports for Kaiser Health News. "The state’s unexpected solution? Undercut the free market by using Medicaid to treat air ambulances like a public utility."

Wyoming relies disproportionately on air ambulances because of its sparse population and often difficult terrain. But patients there (and across the nation) have been facing huge surprise bills as profit-seeking investors have inundated the industry. The Airline Deregulation Act, which bars states from regulating any part of the air industry, has prevented other states from bringing prices under control, Hawryluk reports.

"So, Wyoming officials are instead seeking federal approval to funnel all medical air transportation in the state through Medicaid, a joint federal-state program for residents with lower incomes," Hawryluk reports. "The state officials plan to submit their proposal in late September to Medicaid’s parent agency, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services; the plan will still face significant hurdles there. If successful, however, the Wyoming approach could be a model for the nation, protecting patients in need of a lifesaving service from being devastated by a life-altering debt."

"The free market has sort of broken down. It’s not really working effectively to balance cost against access," Franz Fuchs, a policy analyst for the Wyoming Department of Health, told Hawryluk. "Patients and consumers really can’t make informed decisions and vote with their dollars on price and quality."

Sunday, September 01, 2019

Save the date: Covering Substance Abuse and Recovery, a workshop for journalists, will be held in Ashland, Ky., Nov. 15

UPDATE, Oct. 1: Registration for the workshop has opened; click here for information and registration.

Covering Substance Abuse and Recovery: A Workshop for Journalists is designed to help rural journalists cover a difficult subject, but one that needs covering to help their communities deal with it. It will be held by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and Oak Ridge Associated Universities in Ashland, Kentucky, on Friday, Nov. 15.

More details and online registration will be available soon, but we have lined up several award-winning speakers who have been leaders in covering these topics in Appalachia and adjoining areas:

  • Beth Macy, award-winning author of Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America, just released in paperback.
  • Terry DeMio and Liz Dufour, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists from The Cincinnati Enquirer; DeMio has been the newspaper’s opioid beat reporter for five years, and Dufour is the lead visuals person on the beat and the Pulitzer-winning series, "Seven Days of Heroin."
  • Eric Eyre, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter from the Charleston Gazette-Mail, who revealed opioid distribution patterns in West Virginia.
  • Sharon Burton, editor publisher of the Adair County (Ky.) Community Voice, a national leader in substance-abuse coverage by small newspapers.
Research by Oak Ridge Associated Universities has shown that the stigma attached to drug use and addiction are major obstacles to news coverage of the problem, which makes it harder for communities to find solutions.

Attendees will learn about the issues from a variety of experts in the field including award-winning journalists, authors, researchers, officials and people in recovery. Our goals are to make sure you:
  • Understand the depth and breadth of the problem and how it affects local communities
  • Know how to get reliable data and other local information for your reporting
  • Develop local, state, regional and national sources for stories and story ideas
  • Hear reporters explain how they cover the problem and the people affected by it
  • Appreciate the role of local news media in reducing the stigma that inhibit local action
The workshop will be held on Friday, Nov. 15 in Ashland, Kentucky, with a welcome reception on Thursday evening, Nov. 14. Online registration will be required, with an early-bird registration rate of $50 to cover meals, snacks, and materials. Please contact Al Cross at the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues with any questions:

Rural users of syringe exchanges who say they can quit or cut use (and don't use meth) are more likely to get treatment

One of the first studies to explore syringe-service programs in rural counties found that the participants who consistently used a syringe exchange and voiced high confidence in their ability to decrease substance use -- and did not first inject methamphetamine -- had significantly higher odds of participating in treatment, according to a new study.

"These findings support the notion that providing brief motivational and targeted, goal-setting interventions may improve treatment seeking and enrollment," says the study.

The study, published in The Journal of Rural Health, looked at 186 people who injected drugs (PWIDs) and used syringe-service programs, (SSPs) in two rural southeastern Kentucky counties, Knox and Owsley, and Clark, a rural-suburban county near Lexington. The study involved voluntary, on-site, face-to-face interviews about behaviors, injecting practices, syringe service program utilization and treatment services.

Data were collected through an ongoing National Institute on Drug Abuse-funded study designed to examine uptake of SSPs among PWIDs in Appalachian Kentucky.

Partly because it has so many small counties, Kentucky leads the nation in the number of syringe-exchange programs, which allow drug users to swap dirty needles for clean ones to thwart the spread of HIV and hepatitis C, as well as offering other "harm reduction" services.

Among the 186 study participants, 83, or 44.6 percent, reported using a SSP more than six times over six months, which was considered "consistent use" for the purposes of the study. Asked about the importance of quitting or reducing their substance use, 69.9% of the participants said that was highly important; 17.7% said it was of medium importance and 12.4% said it was of low importance.

However, their confidence in their ability to quit or reduce their substance use was much lower, with 48.4%, (90) of them reporting high confidence; 28.5% (53) voicing medium confidence and 22.6% (42) expressing low confidence.

The researchers found that 21% (39) of the study participants had participated in treatment in the month before they were surveyed. They also found that participants in rural exchanges had a higher proportion of newer clients and a higher proportion of repeat users, compared to some urban studies.

The researchers said they couldn't pinpoint the reason why high confidence to change made consistent injectors of drugs more likely to get treatment. They writes, "It is plausible that the association is a result of active, intentional treatment referrals from the SSP, an indirect effect of general social and recovery support available at the SSPs, or increased agency for behavior change that accrues from ongoing successful participation in the SSP. These findings are nevertheless promising and warrant additional investigation."

They also noted that because Kentucky has such high rates of methamphetamine use, it is of particular concern that the study found that people who inject meth were less likely to be treated.