Friday, October 18, 2019

Where GateHouse Media closed two rural Arkansas papers last year, a new, locally owned one thrives

Hempstead (left) and Nevada
counties (Wikipedia map)
In September 2018, GateHouse Media closed two papers in rural Arkansas: The Hope Star, a twice-weekly in Hempstead County (where Bill Clinton was born), and the weekly Nevada County Picayune. But soon afterward, the weekly Hope-Prescott News began publication and is celebrating its first anniversary this month, according to Arkansas Publisher Weekly.

The Hope-Prescott News was established by Hope businessman Wendell Hoover and radio advertising salesman Mark Keith. "Both men believed that communities of Hope and Prescott needed a viable print product after the two other newspapers closed," reports the weekly publication of the Arkansas Press Association. "The first edition was published Oct. 4, 2018, with a 1,000-copy press run. According to the publishers, they now publish a 12-page per week newspaper with a press run of 2,500."

The paper could see a financial boost from ads soon; because it has been continuously published for one year, under state law it qualifies it to publish paid public-notice advertising.

Judge blocks Trump administration plan to weaken sage grouse protections, open up habitat to extraction industries

Sage grouse mating dance (BLM photo by Bob Wick)
A federal judge blocked the Trump administration's plan to weaken protections for the greater sage grouse in 10 Western states. The sage grouse is an unforgettably odd-looking bird whose sagebrush habitat happens to cover a lot of public land the government wants for drilling, mining and logging, Lisa Friedman reports for The New York Times.

The preliminary injunction against the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management is temporary, but District Judge B. Lynn Winmill of Idaho indicated in his decision that the environmental organizations that filed suit are likely to prevail. The environmental organizations had filed suit on the grounds that the BLM didn't consider reasonable alternatives or thoroughly examine the environmental consequences of its actions, Friedman reports.

Sage grouse permanent habitat (Dakota Birds map)
Though the Interior Department argued that new leasing won't happen immediately, Winmill said the Court disagreed, and wrote that the plan was "designed to open up more land to oil, gas, and mineral extraction as soon as possible. That was the expressed intent of the Trump Administration and then-Secretary Ryan Zinke. There is no indication that current Secretary David Bernhardt is proceeding at any slower pace," Friedman reports.

"The decision is the first major legal ruling on the Trump administration’s plan to lift protections for the sage grouse," Friedman reports. "It represents a significant win for environmental activists, who have criticized it as a giveaway to the oil and gas industry that would devastate the nesting habitat of the bird."

Study blames some West Texas earthquakes on fracking

Federal Reserve Bank base map, adapted by The Rural Blog
"A new study from the University of Texas at Austin blames hydraulic fracturing for causing some earthquakes in the Permian Basin of West Texas, dispelling the widely held view that oilfield wastewater disposals wells were solely responsible for the man-made tremors," Sergio Chapa reports for the Houston Chronicle. While the study doesn't prove a cause-and-effect relationship between earthquakes and fracking, it found a strong correlation.

It says fracking could have caused some earthquakes in Reeves, Pecos and Culberson counties. "Previous studies had blamed the earthquakes in oil-producing regions on disposal wells, into which wastewater from drilling, hydraulic fracturing and production activities is injected," Chapa reports.

Because of the assumption that disposal wells are responsible for the earthquakes, state authorities tightened regulations on them in late 2014. Steve Everley, a spokesperson for the industry-funded group Texans for Natural Gas, said the industry has supported those regulations, and noted that most of the earthquakes are too weak to cause damage or be felt by most people, Chapa reports.

U.S. authorities guarding against African swine fever

African swine fever has killed as many as half of China's 300 million pigs over the past 13 months, and the disease, which has spread to more than 50 countries, is now advancing throughout southeastern Asia. 

"With these developments, the American pork industry has begun mobilizing. Experts say the risk of a domestic outbreak of African swine fever is increasing," Laura Reiley reports for The Washington Post. "The Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service led several functional exercises and drills late last month, working off a scenario of an outbreak of the virus in Mississippi that traveled across state lines before it was discovered. Fourteen states participated in the drill." Between 85% and 95% of pigs that catch it die within two weeks. Humans can't catch it, though. 

If the disease spreads to the U.S., the pork industry could suffer billions of dollars in losses, but the damage wouldn't end there. "Widespread loss of pigs could devastate the corn and soy industries, which are primary feed sources, and industries such as beef could be affected by a loss in consumer confidence," Reiley reports.

There is no vaccine or treatment of the disease, and the virus that causes it can live for weeks on tainted slaughtered meat, animal feed, or animal feed additives. That's one reason American authorities are alarmed. "There is insufficient American organic soy, so hog farmers wishing to feed their animals organic soy often import it from China," Reiley reports. "And there are feed ingredients — B vitamins and trace minerals — that are manufactured only in China. The virus can survive for up to a month on these products, so they must be quarantined and heated to kill the virus." The disease could also spread via humans illegally smuggling meat or other infected food into the U.S.

Sen. Kamala Harris announces plan to help rural America

Kamala Harris (Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris has released a plan to help rural America. Sen. Harris, a senator from California, said President Trump has been fighting a "war on rural America" and that his actions since taking office are a "betrayal" of his campaign promises.

"She said her goal is to 'reverse' those policies by investing $100 billion in a fund for businesses that prioritize hiring from rural communities and support their development," Justine Coleman reports for The Hill."

Here are the highlights of the plan:
  • A rural jobs tax credit for companies that hire people from rural areas. Businesses would receive a $10,000 credit for each new full-time employee per year, with a $250,000 cap.
  • End the trade war with China, which Harris says hurts rural communities and family farmers.
  • Reinstate the Farmer Fair Practice Rules to protect family farmers from large agribusinesses.
  • Incentives for farmers and ranchers to adopt more environmentally friendly practices.
  • Re-establish the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration as an independent office in the Agriculture Department.
  • Crack down on major agriculture mergers.
  • Increased investment into existing and innovative rural-focused federal programs, including the Small Business Administration's rural area programs.
  • Clamp down on Renewable Fuel Standard hardship waivers for oil refiners.
  • Pass Medicare for All to increase rural health-care access.
  • Provide incentives for hospitals to provide women's and children's health services.
  • Reduce child-care expenses and invest in child-care programs.
  • Allow rural health-care providers more flexibility to treat patients in different settings.
  • Incentives to provide more and better health care for rural seniors.
  • More funding for mental health, substance abuse treatment, and telemedicine.
  • Go after pharmaceutical companies that encouraged the opioid epidemic.
  • Increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits for families with children.
  • An $80 billion program to build out broadband to rural America.
  • Create a new agricultural worker visa program to address the shortage of farm workers.
  • Direct more funds toward agricultural sciences in colleges to encourage young people to farm.
  • Strengthen rural housing support. 
Click here to compare Democratic candidates' rural policy plans, via The Daily Yonder's 2020 Rural Policy Tracker.

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

Quick hits: 'West By God' play a love letter to West Virginia; banking challenges for cannabis farmers, and more

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

The new play "West By God" is a love letter to West Virginia, writes Thomas Floyd of The Washington Post. Read more here.

Hemp and marijuana growers face challenges in banking, Sophie Quinton and April Simpson report for Stateline. Read more here.

The trade war with China crushed a growing Chinese market for American cranberries, Adrian Ma reports for NPR. Read more here.

In a recent episode of the About South podcast, co-producer Kelly Vines talks to Dwight Billings, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Kentucky, about what drew the coal mining industry to central Appalachia and the future of the region. Listen to it here.

In the most recent episode of the American Farm Bureau Federation's Farmside Chat podcast, AFBF president and podcast host Zippy Duvall talks to Tennessee first-generation farmer and family nurse practitioner Matt Niswander about his work to address the opioid crisis in rural America. Listen to it here.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Federal Reserve's Beige Book notes economic trouble in farming sector because of weather, trade, and more

Federal Reserve Bank districts, with regional headquarters
In its recently released Beige Book, a summary of current economic conditions by Federal Reserve district, the Federal Reserve Board reports that agriculture is in trouble.

Farm conditions across the country "deteriorated further due to the ongoing impacts of adverse weather, weak commodity prices and trade disruptions," the report says.

Key farming regions, like the Corn Belt, are especially hurting. Seventh District industry sources interviewed by the Federal Reserve "had mounting concerns about how much of this year’s crop would be able to fully mature before a hard frost hits," according to the report.

In states like Missouri and Arkansas, farm conditions have declined "modestly" since the last report on Sept. 4, and there has been a sharp drop in corn, rice and soybean production. "The outlook among contacts remained relatively pessimistic due to depressed commodity prices and trade uncertainty," says the report.

Heavy rains in the Upper Midwest hurt crop planting, and may harm harm harvests. "Recent forecasts indicated that corn and soybean production in [Ninth] District states may decrease 10 percent and 20 percent, respectively, in 2019 compared with last year," according to the report, noted  by Ryan McCrimmon in Politico's "Morning Agriculture."

Rural Wisconsin doctor in largely Amish and Mennonite town sees some of the world's rarest genetic diseases

Dr. James DeLine outside a home in La Farge, Wiusconsin.
(Milwaukee Journal Sentinel photo by Mark Hoffman)
James DeLine grew up in a rural farming community in Illinois, and gravitated toward rural practice after graduating from medical school. But when he accepted a job as the sole physician in La Farge, Wisconsin, in 1983, he never could have dreamed that his practice would lead him to the cutting edge of genetic disease study, Mark Johnson reports for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

La Farge, pop. 750, is a hotbed of rare genetic diseases because of its large Amish and Old Order Mennonite population. Sometimes known collectively as the Plain People, the Amish and Mennonites generally marry within their communities, which increases the chances that rare genetic diseases will be expressed, Johnson reports. La Farge has the second-largest cluster in the world of sitosterolemia, a very rare disease that causes blood-vessel linings to thicken, and a much higher than average incidence of other rare genetic diseases. As a result, DeLine has worked with geneticists from as far away as England to help diagnose and learn more about such diseases to help his patients.

Four years ago, the La Farge Medical Clinic opened its Center for Special Children, "which focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of children born with rare genetic and metabolic diseases. Many, but not all, of the center’s children come from Amish or Mennonite families," Johnson reports.

La Farge in Vernon County, Wisconsin
(Wikipedia map)
DeLine didn't find out about the high incidence of genetic diseases for some time. Plain People are often wary of outsiders and rarely seek medical help. It took DeLine and his staff years to gain their trust. "Often, they fear that going to a hospital or clinic will mean surrendering the decision-making to doctors who neither respect their beliefs nor understand their financial limitations," Johnson reports. "DeLine, not a religious man himself, accommodates the beliefs of patients and parents; he has always viewed them as the ultimate decision-makers. As a result, the clinic has become a magnet for Plain People. Some travel eight hours from Missouri or Iowa just to see him."

DeLine was on his own for years, but in 2003 his clinic was purchased by Vernon Memorial Healthcare in the nearby town of Viroqua, so now the clinic has two more doctors and a staff of 25, Johnson reports. DeLine says he hopes to practice for another five years or so before retiring.

It will surely be difficult to fill DeLine's shoes, according to Byron Crouse, retired associate dean for rural and community health at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "He’s maintained the Norman Rockwell bedside manner skills, and yet he’s working on the cutting edge of 21st-century medicine, the very newest science,"Crouse told Johnson. "I can’t think of anybody else who has that ability."

Award-winning weekly looks at local homelessness

A homeless veteran gathers his things after officials evicted him from his camp. (Malheur Enterprise photo by Joe Siess)
The Malheur Enterprise, an award-winning rural Oregon weekly, took an unflinching look at the issue of homelessness in the town of Ontario with a story and a photo essay. Homelessness is an increasing problem in rural areas but it's not often discussed or addressed.

On Oct. 14, city workers forced a number of homeless people to abandon encampments along the Snake River because of a cleanup procedure near the local water plant. "The cleanup was prompted by a break-in at one of the wells that pertains to the city’s water treatment plant, causing concern that water could be contaminated," Joe Siess reports for the Enterprise.

City Manager Adam Brown said there was also concern about homemade toilets in the encampments that could leak into the river and contaminate it. He estimated that as many as 60 people live in the woods near the river, Siess reports.

City employees gave the campers several days' notice and passed out a tip sheet listing services available to those being evicted. But, Brown acknowledged, "The folks down there have lots of needs . . . And there’s not a single answer right now to address it."

UPDATE, Oct. 24: The latest Enterprise story on the topic gives the views of the homeless.

Stunning American entries among winners of annual wildlife photography contest

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition has been showcasing outstanding nature photography from all over the world since 1965. Among this year's 15 winners are several from the United States, Alan Taylor reports for The Atlantic. Here are the American winning photos (though you should look through the whole list—there are some stunners in there).

Snow Exposure, above, won in the Black and White category. Photographer Max Waugh shot the stark, black-and-white image of a bison weathering a snowstorm in Yellowstone National Park.

Tapestry of Life, by Zorica Kovacevic, won in the Plants and Fungi division. It shows a Monterey cypress covered in orange algae and gray lichen in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve in California.

In Creation, winner of the Earth's Environments category, huge plumes of noxious steam and fine glass rise as lava from Hawaii's Mount Kilauea hits the ocean. Photographer Luis VilariƄo Lopez had to hire a helicopter to get the shot.

Some Iowa farmers and academics see a need for more efforts to make agriculture environmentally sustainable

Politicians pay much attention to Iowa because comes first in the presidential nominating process, but the state's agricultural issues still don't get the attention they deserve, Lisa Schulte Moore, an Iowa State University natural-resource ecology and management professor, writes for The Conversation.

Schulte says Iowa is well-placed to tackle the environmental and economic issues associated with monoculture farming. "Iowa is a leading global producer of corn, soy, pork, beef, eggs, ethanol, biodiesel, biochemicals and agricultural technology," she writes. "Iowa farmers export the vast majority of what they produce. Most multinational agricultural businesses have Iowa offices, and the state also has considerable influence on U.S. Farm Bill legislation."

Iowa farmers are well aware of issues in modern farming (including soil degradation, water contamination, flooding) and many are trying to reduce them as much as "operational, financial and social conditions allow," Schulte writes. Plenty of groups are pitching in to help, including Iowa State University scientists, Practical Farmers of Iowa, and the state chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

A growing number of Iowa farmers are adopting more environmentally sustainable practices in hopes of preserving the state's water and soil resources, Mark Bittman reports for PBS NewsHour Weekend. For instance, sixth-generation corn and soybean farmer Sam Bennett has begun adding small grains like oats and rye into his crop rotation. Such rotations are a longstandign practice among many farmers, but "Bennett says he plants them closer together, so there are more of them. That means more roots in the soil, which improves soil and water quality," Bittman reports.

Schulte predicts that market demand, federal policies and new technologies will keep moving agriculture toward more economically and environmentally sustainable methods, but a more unified and widespread effort could yield impressive results, she writes: "Such an effort could usher in a new era of economic and environmental wealth in Farm Belt states. It would start with investing in regenerative systems – farming methods that produce agricultural goods and services while also improving soil and water resources, unique habitats and pastoral countrysides. And it would require simultaneous investments in rural infrastructure, new businesses and local and regional markets."

Sam Bennett thinks it's time for a shake-up in agriculture. "I think my dad comes from a generation that [believed] if you work harder you'll be more successful," he told Bittman. "And I think what I'd like to say in my generation is that if you work smarter, you'll be more successful, and taking on some of these newer practices some of these sustainable practices is working smarter."

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Nov. 1 is deadline to seek four-month, $15,000 fellowship for in-depth accountability reporting project in Appalachia

The GroundTruth Project is seeking a reporter for its new four-month, $15,000 Galloway Fellowship for Reporting in Appalachia. Journalists in all media are invited to apply to work on an in-depth accountability reporting project in the region that aligns with at least one of GroundTructh's focal areas: environment, health, politics, rights, religion "or any place these issues collide," the fellowship page says. The application deadline is Nov. 1 and the project must be done by June 30.

"The reporter may be a freelancer or staff reporter. A successful proposal will be one that pursues reporting as a public service and that seeks to hold power accountable," the page says. "We would also welcome local editorial partnerships and fellows may submit their application with a commitment from an affiliated publishing or broadcast outlet."

The fellowship honors the late Tom Galloway, a Kentucky-born lawyer who appreciated in-depth, investigative reporting who died this summer. He was a public-interest lawyer in Appalachia, "taking on big coal companies to protect the environment and the people who lived there," the page says. "He always believed investigative reporting provided a critical watchdog role that led to many of his biggest court cases."

Climate shift may force some state birds out of their states

The common loon, the state bird of Minnesota (Alamy photo)
The brown thrasher, the state bird of Georgia,
has a repertoire of more than 1,000 songs.
(Alamy photo by Dan Johnston)
"Each state in America has an official state bird, usually an iconic species that helps define the landscape," Brad Plumer reports for The New York Times. "But as the planet warms and birds across the country relocate to escape the heat, at least eight states could see their state birds largely or entirely disappear from within their borders during the summer, according to a new study."

Nearly 400 North American bird species—about two-thirds—will likely make a drastic shift in their ranges in the coming decades because of climate change, the National Audubon Society study predicts. Many will struggle to survive the shift to unfamiliar or shrinking habitats.

"If global temperatures rise a plausible 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels this century, Minnesota will no longer enjoy the local climate conditions that loons are accustomed to as they arrive each summer to breed and hunt for food, the study found," Plumer reports. "As a result, the birds may bypass the state altogether and head farther north."

Goldfinch, New Jersey (Alamy photo)
Audubon President David Yarnold said this is "one way we’ll see the effects of climate change right in our own backyards . . . If you’ve ever been around a lake in the upper United States, you can probably hear the sound of a loon in your head. It’s hard to imagine a Minnesota summer without them. It’s hard to imagine a New Jersey summer without goldfinches."

The study has a neat interactive map that shows you how birds in your state and even your ZIP code could be affected by the shift, as well as a map showing how some common bird species could be affected. Click here for more.

Small-time hemp farmers forming cooperatives, fear new industry will consolidate like rest of agriculture

Tony Silvernail, left, and Shawn Lucas with hemp that is drying. (Ohio Valley ReSource photo by Liam Niemeyer)
Hundreds of Ohio Valley farmers have begun growing hemp after the 2018 Farm Bill made it legal on a nationwide scale; some of them are banding together to help figure out the business.

Long-time organic farmer Tony Silvernail in Frankfort, Kentucky, and business partner Shawn Lucas, a Kentucky State University professor, founded a cooperative for organic hemp farmers with smaller operations. "The cooperative purchases hemp seed and other supplies in bulk to get a better deal," Liam Niemeyer reports for Ohio Valley ReSource, a public-radio consortium. "It sells the members’ collective hemp harvest to processors, using the strength in numbers to bargain for better prices. And the cooperative helps farmers figure out how to even grow the crop in the first place."

The co-op has only 15 farmers so far, with about 30 acres among them. They've run into difficulties with buying the right seed, and thwarting thieves (who likely thought the hemp was marijuana) stealing plants from fields. "Silvernail said it’s all part of the learning process," Niemeyer reports.

The small-time farmer co-op is also an effort to stay standing in an industry where larger corporations have already been trying to corner the hemp and cannabidiol market by lobbying for legislation that would have favored them. "Regional agriculture leaders are championing hemp’s potential for farms of all sizes," Niemeyer reports. "But these hemp farmers worry that the sort of corporate consolidation they’ve seen in other agriculture sectors will soon come to the new hemp industry."

State House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins applauds as the Hemp
Hawk is unveiled. (Morehead News photo by Stephanie Ockerman)
Meanwhile, two companies in Morehead, Ky., have invented a hemp cultivator that can also be used on other crops, reports Stephanie Ockerman of The Morehead News. "The tractor-powered Hemp Hawk was loaded to a truck that day headed for the CBD Expo in Denver."

Max Hammond, CEO of A-1 Implements, told, “We are creating a new economy for Eastern Kentucky. We will revitalize our hillside farms. We will have other developments come to Eastern Kentucky because of this agri-tech industry and because of the hemp that will be coming to Eastern Kentucky.” The Hemp Hawk was manufactured at 4-C Innovations.

Wildlife officials recommend you kill this air-breathing, invasive fish on sight. We say: 'Cook 'em up!'

Northern snakehead fish (Getty Images photo by William Cain)
Georgia wildlife officials are trying to figure out how to prevent an invasive species of fish, the northern snakehead, from spreading to other rivers and lakes in the state. The problem is, it can breathe air. That allows it to travel over small stretches of land to other bodies of water, Lateshia Beachum reports for The Washington Post.

A northern snakehead was caught earlier this month in a pond in Gwinnett County, near Atlanta; it's the first time the species has been found in the state, but it has been reported in 14 other states and is abundant near the Chesapeake Bay. It's native to eastern Asia and was sold in American pet stores and live-food fish markets before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned it in 2002. "Invasive fish like the northern snakehead are often introduced through unauthorized release, according to Georgia wildlife authorities. In Georgia, it’s illegal to import, transport, sell, transfer and have any species of snakehead without a valid wildlife license," Beachum reports.

The northern snakehead can grow to three feet and weigh up to 18 pounds. Because it's a voracious predator with a varied diet, it's well-placed to crowd out native species, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. "Should the species succeed in establishing more populations of predatory offspring, it could alter food webs and ecological systems that could leave a permanent change to other species in water bodies," Beachum reports.

"Wildlife officials in Georgia are asking anglers to learn how to identify, kill and photograph the fish and reporting their catch to the Georgia Department of Natural ResourcesWildlife Resources Division Fisheries office," Beachum reports. Bonus: since northern snakeheads are pretty nutritious, fishermen can help the local ecosystem and take care of dinner in one shot. We suggest a nice cornmeal dredge.

Republican columnist says some Democratic presidential candidates 'disdain' rural Americans and their values

Scott Jennings
We recently wrote about an op-ed from an Arkansas woman who was frustrated with the conservative bent of rural America. As a bookend to that, here's an op-ed from a Republican political adviser who says Democratic presidential candidates are killing their party's chances in rural areas. (Here's a recap of what the candidates had to say about rural America in last night's debate.)

"I’m not sure what’s more jaw-dropping — the disdain Democratic presidential candidates have for rural Americans and their values, or their willingness to make it a centerpiece of their campaign to unseat Donald Trump," Scott Jennings writes in his regular column for the Louisville Courier Journal.

Democrats' blindness to rural values cost them the 2016 election, Jennings writes, saying that this year's candidates are doubling down on the sentiment: "Beto O’Rourke’s plans to confiscate guns from law-abiding citizens and to put churches out of business, combined with Elizabeth Warren’s stinging insult that conservative religious people are too ugly to find a suitable mate, are good reminders that the national Democratic Party has simply abandoned rural and Middle America."

Democratic candidates' failure to respect rural values will mean religious African Americans won't show up for them on Election Day, Jennings writes.

Recap on rural issues in last night's Democratic debate

Twelve of the top Democratic presidential candidates met last night at Otterbein University in central Ohio for a fourth major debate, moderated by CNN's Anderson Cooper and Erin Burnett and New York Times National Editor Mark Lacey. Here's a run-down of what they had to say about issues with rural resonance, taken from The Washington Post's transcript.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said she supports impeaching President Trump because she believes Trump "has not been standing up for the workers of Ohio. He’s not been standing up for the farmers in Iowa."

On her Medicare-for-all plan, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was pressed to say whether it would result in higher taxes for the middle class. She did not directly answer the question, but said overall out of pocket expenses for middle-class families would not increase. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said his Medicare-for-all plan would cause tax increases, but, like Warren, stressed that almost everyone would be paying less out of pocket because they would no longer be paying for insurance.

Klobuchar noted that Baby Boomers are hitting retirement age and said health insurance must better cover long-term care. She also advocated further expansion of Medicaid and going after drug companies responsible for the opioid epidemic, which has harmed many rural areas.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang said he wanted to decriminalize the possession and use of small amounts of opioids, including heroin, as a way of combating the epidemic. That would help keep addicts out of jail and instead encourage them to seek treatment, he said. 

Noting that a recent study predicted about a quarter of U.S. jobs could be lost to automation in the next 10 years, Burnett asked Sanders if he could think of a way to employ those who lose them. He said they could be put to work rebuilding America's crumbling infrastructure and renewable-energy facilities, and noted the need for more teachers, childcare workers, tradesmen, and health workers.

Warren said bad trade policy is a bigger threat to American jobs than automation, and said corporations move factories to other countries to save money without considering the harm they're doing to the workers and their community. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey agreed that America must not make it so easy for companies to move jobs overseas.

Yang said automation is a major threat, and said self-driving vehicles will put long-haul truck drivers out of work: "What is that going to mean for the 3.5 million truckers or the 7 million Americans who work in truck stops, motels, and diners that rely upon the truckers getting out and having a meal?"

In the last debate, former Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas said "Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47." Asked how he would do that, he said: "If someone does not turn in an AR-15 or an AK-47, one of these weapons of war, or brings it out in public and brandishes it in an attempt to intimidate . . . then that weapon will be taken from them. If they persist, they will be other consequences from law enforcement. But the expectation is that Americans will follow the law. I believe in this country. I believe in my fellow Americans. I believe that they will do the right thing." O'Rourke and several other candidates said they support buyback programs.

Sanders criticized fossil-fuel industries for making "huge profits" while hurting the environment. He also said agribusiness mergers are "resulting in the decline of family-based farming in this country."

Booker said state anti-abortion laws infringe on women's liberty and punish people for poverty: "This is disproportionately affecting low-income women in this country, people in rural areas."

Klobuchar said she could beat Trump in the election because she has won in rural districts that usually vote Republican.

O'Rourke, asked the same question, touted his record of improving mental-health-care access for veterans in El Paso and noted that he had done well in Texas, traditionally a red state, in his recent bid to claim Ted Cruz's Senate seat.

John Hudak of the Brookings Institution writes that the debates "have been imperfect," but "their absence would be devastating for the Democratic Party. That’s because criticism of ideas is essential to strengthening the policies of the candidates. Pushing candidates—of either party and for any office—to think about their proposals in terms of actual effect, viability, and detail is critical to improving American public policy. At the heart of many of the punches landed among the candidates was a genuine critique of ideas."

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Rural broadband poll finds farmers need more connectivity

United Soybean Board graphic
Most farmers say they don't have enough broadband connectivity to run their businesses, according to a recent survey by the United Soybean Board. It found:
  • 78% of farmers do not have a choice of internet service providers.
  • 60% of farmers say their service is slow, with most relying on cell signals or personal "hotspots" to connect.
  • 40% of farmers have a fixed internet connection, while others rely on satellite connections.
  • In the 18 months before being surveyed, nearly one-third of farmers said internet connectivity has affected their decisions on upgrading farm equipment.
  • 67% of farmers believe it is at least moderately important to be able to transfer data wirelessly from the field.
  • Only 32% of farmers consider their office internet reliable.
  • 59% of farmers want to incorporate more data in their operation, but lack the connectivity to do so.
The survey was conducted online and by mail, and got more than 2,000 responses. Among the respondents, 86% grow field or row crops such as corn and soybeans, 21% grow specialty crops like fruits and vegetables, and 55% raise livestock.

Georgia lawmakers now require most rural hospital CEOs to take financial management and planning classes

Georgia lawmakers are taking a novel approach to stem the tide of rural hospital closures in the state: They're "requiring executives and board members at almost all the state's rural hospitals to receive training on subjects like financial management and strategic planning to improve their decision making and avoid missteps that can precipitate their hospitals' decline," Sudhin Thanawala reports for The Associated Press. "Nearly 60 rural Georgia hospitals must ensure their board members, CEOs and chief financial officers complete at least eight hours of classes by the end of next year or risk being fined and losing a valuable state tax credit." Health care experts told Thanawala that Georgia is the only state they know of that requires such classes.

Dr. Skip McDannald, now retired, attested to how poor rural hospital management in Georgia can be. Having served as CEO of a hospital system, he was asked to help troubleshoot at Taylor Regional Hospital in Hawkinsville in 2015. "I don't want to run down previous management, but the hospital was struggling," McDannald told Thanawala. "They were not judicious in the way they were spending money nor were they knowledgeable about the things they were not collecting."

"Only about a third of rural hospital CEOs and board chairs surveyed in a 2010 study strongly agreed that their board members understood financial reports or had the ability to spot poor financial performance early," Thanawala reports.

Poor decision-making isn't the only reason rural hospitals close, noted Jimmy Lewis, CEO of rural hospital network HomeTown Health. The seven rural hospitals that have closed in Georgia since 2010 shuttered because "they simply ran out of money, and the system got too complex for small community hospitals like that," Lewis told Thanawala.

Grocery makers' lobby changes name, reflecting fractured food industry often at cross purposes on Capitol Hill

The Grocery Manufacturers Association announced recently that it's changing its name to the Consumer Brands Association, reflecting a shift in focus and a new landscape in which there is no unified group representing foodmakers on Capitol Hill.

The move "comes nearly two years after about a dozen major food companies left the group amid deep disagreements over how to handle thorny food policy issues like GMO labeling," Helena Bottemiller Evich reports for Politico. "The association is now pivoting to focus on representing companies that produce consumer packaged goods — a broad sector that extends well beyond food to personal care products like shaving cream and even over-the-counter drugs."

Changes in consumer tastes drove the splintering of the once-powerful lobby, as people increasingly question ingredients, country of origin, farm and processor labor laws, and environmental impact of the food they buy. “The intense pace of change has left major food companies unable to agree on all sorts of issues, from mandatory labeling of genetically modified ingredients to whether the federal government should nudge foodmakers to reduce salt in their products," Evich reports. Among food companies, "consensus on pressing policy issues is nearly impossible to achieve, and things are likely to stay that way, according to interviews with more than a dozen industry leaders."

Some specialized food-industry groups have been unable to agree on policies. Dairy behemoth Dean Foods, which is struggling with declining sales, said last week it's leaving the International Dairy Foods Association because the lobby hasn't fought to keep plant-based products from being marketed with dairy terms like "milk" on the label.

Dean left GMA a few years ago, Evich notes. She writes, "Today, GMA is half the size it once was, in terms of revenue — an almost unheard of level of decline for a major trade association — and none of the companies that quit the group have rejoined, even after a complete leadership shake-up last year. The group’s new strategy is to seize on more unifying, less controversial issues like supply-chain logistics, sustainable packaging and recycling."

'One of the most powerless places' in the U.S. bears many burdens, but shows it has the moxie to stand up for itself

Lisman's float rolls down the streets at the parade in Butler, Alabama. (Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson)
The Washington Post's Stephanie McCrummen, chronicler of rural places, offers an evocative, in-depth portrait of Lisman, Alabama, an increasingly marginalized Black Belt community of about 500 people, struggling with the burdens of their circumstances: "At a moment when American politics has become a raw and racially polarized struggle for power, Lisman is one of the most powerless places of all. It is small. It is rural. It is mostly poor and mostly African American, and it exists in Alabama, where those characteristics remain the very things that still make people forgotten."

Washington Post map
Democrats have been gaining steam in some parts of the South, "but that is not the case in Alabama, where the state’s Democratic Party — the traditional means to power for black voters — has become so dysfunctional that the only Democrat elected statewide, U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, recently said the party was being 'destroyed from within,'" McCrummen reports. "Alabama is where an electorate that remains solidly white, conservative and evangelical delivered President Trump one of his most resounding victories, and gave the GOP near-total control of the state legislature, every statewide office and every congressional seat except one."

Lisman has a history of pushing back, though. "In 1962, Lisman residents had put their names to a federal lawsuit challenging the white Choctaw County registrars who were rejecting 95 percent of black voters’ applications," McCrummen reports. "In the summer of 1971, people from Lisman had joined the demonstrations at the courthouse square to demand access to county jobs that blacks had been denied." The community incorporated in 1979 in an attempt to gain some local control over how their tax dollars were being spent, since most was going to other communities in the county.

McCrummen's story is structured around the mayor, Jason Ward, planning and making a float for a parade at the county seat. Ward told her that many of the most powerful people in the county and the state would be in attendance, so he knew it was important to enter a float; for residents of Lisman, showing up "was the only way they had ever gotten anything." And so they did.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Weekly editor says he'll be at Nov. 15 workshop on drug coverage because 'We cannot continue to wear blinders'

Why should journalists attend a workshop on covering local drug problems?

"We cannot continue to wear blinders and ignore this problem that is now affecting every member of our communities," writes Dennis Brown, editor and publisher of the weekly Lewis County Herald in Vanceburg, Ky. who has signed up to attend the Covering Substance Abuse and Recovery workshop in Ashland, Ky., on Nov. 15.

Dennis Brown
"I’m looking forward to attending the workshop to get some tips on covering what has truly become an epidemic for our area," Brown told the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog and is holding the workshop with Oak Ridge Associated Universities.

"The vast majority of law enforcement activity in Lewis County is directly related to substance abuse. Our jail is overflowing," Brown wrote. "The number of deaths in our community attributed to overdosing or long-term substance abuse has skyrocketed."

Brown reported that he has written stories "on school teachers, politicians, and otherwise 'good' community members who have fallen victim to this demon. . . . I feel we should be directing much more of our attention to this matter and exploring ways we can help curb the spread of addiction and provide our community members with information on helping themselves and/or family members through the limited available avenues of recovery."

The workshop will be held at the Marriott Delta hotel, 1441 Winchester Ave., Ashland, from 8:30 a,m. to 5:15 p.m. Nov. 15. space is limited, and the early-bird registration rate of $50 is good until Nov. 1. Registration will close Nov. 8. Click here to register

Sharon Burton
The presenters include Pulitzer Prize winners Eric Eyre of the Charleston Gazette-Mail and Terry DeMio and Cara Owsley of the Cincinnati Enquirer. Beth Macy, award-winning author of Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America, will appear via Skype. Sharon Burton, editor and publisher of the Adair County Community Voice in Columbia, a national leader in substance-abuse coverage by weeklies, will discuss her recent efforts.

"The lineup of presenters for the workshop have the background and experience to arm journalists with the information we need to do the job we should be doing," Brown writes.

Research by ORAU 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.

The workshop will be preceded by informal gathering at the Delta hotel on Thursday evening, Nov. 14. A room block with a favorable rate of $109 a night is available at the Delta. The registration site has a link to the hotel reservation site. Please contact Institute Director Al Cross with any questions:

Manufacturing in recession, but jobs in other sectors plentiful; 4 in 10 heartland bankers see local recessions

The manufacturing sector of the U.S. economy is in recession, if one goes by the common definition: its output shrank over two straight quarters this year. That measurement is according to the Federal Reserve, but other indicators show that manufacturing is in trouble, Don Lee reports for the Los Angeles Times.

"A separate, widely followed index drawn from purchasing managers showed September’s contraction in manufacturing was the steepest since June 2009, with production, inventories and new orders all falling," Lee writes. "And after adding nearly half a million jobs in the prior two years, which Trump frequently stressed in hard-hat rallies throughout the Midwest, manufacturing employment has stalled."

Manufacturing accounts for about 10 percent of economic activity, but it's more important to rural economies than urban ones, according to a 2017 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. Nationwide, jobs are still widely available—so much so that there's a labor shortage hampering economic expansion, Tim Henderson reports for Stateline.

However, in the 10 middle-America states where agriculture and energy are essential to the economy, four in 10 community bankers say their local economy is in a recession, according to the latest Mainstreet Economic Report from Creighton University in Omaha. The report covers Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri and Illinois. 

Deja vu: U.S. trade negotiators agree to hold off on tariffs as China promises to buy more American farm products

China has again promised to buy more American farm products while U.S. trade negotiators have again said that, in return, they will hold off on a planned tariff increase on imported Chinese goods, William Mauldin, Chao Deng and Vivian Salama report for The Wall Street Journal.

President Trump said the Chinese agreed to buy between $40 billion and $50 billion in American agricultural goods, though "he has in the past promised trade talk breakthroughs that did not materialize," The Washington Post's David Lynch notes.

China recently boosted purchases of U.S. farm products in anticipation of a deal, but has much ground to make up: U.S. soybean sales to China fell from $12.2 billion to $3.1 billion in the past year.

"The two sides left many details to be worked out in the weeks or months ahead on tough issues including China’s enforcement of intellectual property rules, U.S. access to Chinese markets, Chinese government support for state-owned enterprises, and the fate of U.S. tariffs on nearly $360 billion worth of Chinese imports already in place," the WSJ reports. "The planned tariff increases in December on electronics, apparel and other imported consumer goods—a big uncertainty for many U.S. firms—haven’t been shelved so far, Mr. Trump’s trade adviser, Robert Lighthizer, said."

President Trump said on Twitter that the U.S. had reached a “very substantial phase-one deal” worth $50 billion in agricultural sales to China, but Bloomberg News reports, "China wants to hold more talks to hammer out the details . . . before Xi Jinping agrees to sign it."

Darin Friedrichs, senior Asia commodity analyst at brokerage INTL FCStone in Shanghai, told Dominique Patton of Reuters, "I think it's a meaningless big number, thrown out to get headlines, and won't happen." Patton reports, "Boosting purchases so substantially will depend on further progress on other, more thorny, issues still to be dealt with in the talks, said Friedrichs and others."
Grace Shao of CNBC reports, "Chinese state media appeared cautious about celebrating" the deal.

Kansas town gives away free land to lure new residents

Local leaders in Marquette, Kansas, are trying to bring in new blood to the town of 650 by offering free plots of land for them to build a home and install utilities, Nathan Vickers reports for KCTV.

When the program first launched in 2005, the city offered 80 lots on about 50 acres at the edge of town, paid for through donations and grants. About 30 families moved onto the lots in the first few years, including Susan McDonald and her husband. "She noted that the move to Marquette wasn't just about the free land. She was impressed by the tightly knit community and its walkability," Vickers reports for the Kansas City station. There are more than 30 free lots remaining.
Marquette, Kansas, in McPherson
County (Wikipedia map)

Steve Piper, mayor when the city first had the idea, said it was driven by fears that the local school district, with its dwindling number of students, would have to consolidate with a nearby town. That happened anyway, but Piper and others still consider the program a success, and say it's an example of one way small towns can get creative in boosting their populations.

"Every town can't do the same thing we did," local banker Allan Lindsfors told Vickers. "But everyone can find something that's unique about their town. Small towns don't have to die."

FCC adjusts rural health program to boost telehealth; Democratic members say changes could hurt rural providers

"The Federal Communications Commission is making changes to the Universal Service Fund’s Rural Health Care Program in a bid to boost support for telehealth expansion," Eric Wicklund reports for mHealth Intelligence.

The FCC voted last year to add more money to the program and adjust its allocation formula, citing a need for more efficiency and less fraud and abuse. "Launched in 1997, the fund was designed to finance broadband expansion in rural regions and other parts of the country where online connectivity is weak," Wicklund reports. "The fund included a $400 million annual cap, but the agency voted last year to change that cap and add $171 million to match a surge in requests for support."

The decision wasn't unanimous; all three Republican commissioners voted for the changes, but the two Democrats voted against it. "Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks, while both approving the plan, also offered dissenting comments. Both said the agency’s plan to create new methods for determining and prioritizing funding requests could end up doing more harm than good for rural health-care providers," Wicklund reports.

Kroger and other chains ditch newspaper and magazine racks, prompting outcry from free-circulation publishers

Several major grocery stores and retailers have stopped selling newspapers or making space for free magazine racks, drawing protests from local publishers, Laura Owen reports for Harvard University's NiemanLab.

Kroger, the nation's largest supermarket chain by revenue and a major presence in rural America, announced recently it will no longer carry free papers and magazines. Tom Lappas, publisher and editor of The Henrico Citizen in Virginia, said he's worried about the future of his paper because he distributes about 18 percent of his papers via Kroger and doesn't have much money to spend on distribution, Brendan King and Katey Mooney report for WTVR of Richmond, which has Henrico County on three sides if it. (Henrico has no incorporated municipalities.) "It's a non-lucrative endeavor, it's a constant grind," Lappas told King and Mooney.

"Free publications rely on a paid advertising business model: Advertisers buy ads with certain assurances that their marketing messages will reach a certain number of customers. This is why having a reliable, wide-ranging distribution point such as Kroger is so important," Susan Ellis reports for the Memphis Business Journal.

Kroger says it's removing the racks because more people are reading digital news, so offering print publications no longer brings in more customers. "This pushback in grocery stores is only the latest case of retailers stepping away from print; what was once seen as a tool to pull in daily customers is increasingly seen as something taking up valuable floor and counter space," Owen reports.

"The Association of Alternative News Media launched a campaign last month to try to get Kroger to keep free pubs like its member alt-weeklies in stores, and individual news outlets are asking their readers to call Kroger and complain," Owen reports. Some free alt-weeklies have broken important stories that local newspapers didn't catch, like the Lansing City Pulse in Michigan that broke the story about a district judge involved in sexual misconduct, Tana Geneva reports for LA Progressive.

Kroger isn't the only chain to stop distributing or selling publications: Aldi and Starbucks also stopped selling newspapers and magazines in September, Owen reports.