Friday, November 15, 2019

China lifts ban on U.S. poultry, but trade talks still rocky

Yesterday brought good and bad news about trade talks between the U.S. and China.

The good news: China agreed to lift its ban on imports of U.S. poultry, in return for the U.S. allowing sales of cooked poultry processed in China. Jim Spencer reports for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, "China ranked as the state's second-largest foreign market for turkeys and its third-largest export market for all poultry before January 2015, when the Chinese banned the purchase of U.S. birds after an outbreak of avian flu."

The bad news: The U.S. and China are having a hard time agreeing on how much China should commit to in terms of buying U.S. agricultural products. President Trump has said that China agreed to buy up to $50 billion of soybeans, pork, and other U.S. farm products, "but China is leery of putting a numerical commitment in the text of an agreement, according to people familiar with the matter," The Wall Street Journal reports. "Beijing wants to avoid cutting a deal that looks more favorable to the U.S. than to China, some of the people said, and also wants to have flexibility within the agreement should trade tensions escalate again. 'We can always stop the purchases if things get worse again,' said one Chinese official." The sides are also far apart on intellectual property issues.

Over a year after the shooting, Capital Gazette journalists keep publishing to 'do the work we love' and honor the fallen

The Capital Gazette staff on Dec. 9, 2018.
(TIME photo by Moises Saman)
On June 28, 2018, five newspaper staffers died when a man opened fire in the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md. Time magazine has followed the survivors in the aftermath, covering their trauma, their efforts to keep doing their jobs in the wake of tragedy, and their unusual role as journalists who have become the subject of stories.

"Journalists, as a species, generally despise being the subjects of the news. We sign up to see our names in the bylines, not the headlines. But events put the staff of the Capital Gazette in a new place," Sean Gregory reports. "As journalists, they were a new addition to the expanding annals of American gun violence—uniquely positioned to register all its impacts, from the initial moments so horrifying they draw the attention of the entire world, through the far longer period when that attention has moved on, and they don’t get to."

Capital Gazette staffers opened up to Gregory about how they're dealing with the trauma. Many have sought therapy and medication. One began making pottery. Above all, they kept doing their jobs. "Putting out the paper has value besides what’s in the paper," editor Rick Hutzell told Gregory. "Every day you’re here is another day farther away from what happened. Every day you’re here is another day when you’re alive. And we have friends who are not. Every day here is another day we can honor their memories, and do the work we love."

National Rural Health Day, next Thursday, will be celebrated with a week of events starting Monday

The Federal Office of Rural Health Policy is planning a week of events to observe National Rural Health Day on Thursday, Nov. 21.

Monday, Nov. 18: From 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. ET, the National Institutes of Health will hold a seminar on the state of rural health in the U.S. at the main NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland. For those who can't attend, the event will be videocast online here.

Nov. 19: From noon to 1 p.m. ET, The Health Resources and Services Administration will hold a webinar on addressing the opioid crisis in rural areas as it relates to women who are pregnant or have infants born addicted to opioids. Register here.

From 2 to 3 p.m. ET, the HRSA will host a Twitter chat on mental-health issues of agriculture workers. Find the chat using the hashtag #AgMentalHealth.

From 3:30 to 4:45 p.m. ET, the HRSA will host a webinar on suicide prevention in farm and ranch communities. Join the webinar here.

Nov. 20: From noon to 1 p.m. ET, the Rural Health Information Hub and the Norc Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis will hold a webinar to discuss the new Rural Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Toolkit. Register here.

From 1 to 2 p.m. ET, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the HRSA will hold a webinar aimed at rural health providers on improving antibiotic prescribing practices in critical-access hospitals. Register here.

From 2 to 3 p.m. ET, the HRSA will host a Twitter chat on rural substance-use-disorder issues. Find the chat by searching for the hashtag #RuralSUD.

From 6 to 10:15 p.m. ET, HRSA will host a virtual job fair aiming to bring more health-care providers to rural areas. Learn more here.

Nov. 21: From 9:45 a.m. to 3 p.m. ET, HRSA will celebrate National Rural Health Day in its D.C.-area office, including roundtables, lectures, and interactive sessions. The event will be livecast online.

At 1 p.m. ET, the Rural Health Information Hub will host a Twitter chat on how rural health organizations can access funding. Find the chat with the hashtags #RuralHealthChat and #PowerofRural.

From 2 to 3 p.m. ET, the National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health will air The Providers, a documentary about rural health-care providers, and lead a live discussion about it. Find out more here.

Quick hits: why farmers support Trump; Don Blankenship running for president; Calif. college offers wildfire classes

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

California college offers class to teach rural homeowners how to prepare for and cope with wildfires.

An online class is offered for rural librarians:

Former West Virginia coal baron Don Blankenship announced he's running for president as a Constitution Party candidate. He placed a distant third in the Republican U.S. Senate primary in 2018 after a campaign in which he portrayed himself as "Trumpier than Trump." Read more here.

Rural America needs more than better broadband access to address its problems, Rick Dalton writes for the High Plains Journal.

"Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, said Catholic clergy and lay leaders can play a role in bringing together people along the rural-urban divide to build understanding of the need for sensible policies that can end the scourge of gun violence," Dennis Sadowski reports for Catholic News Service.

There are three reasons Midwest farmers hurt by the U.S.-China trade war still support President Trump, write a trio of Iowa State University agriculture professors. Read more here.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Journalism prof and students provide online news for town that gradually became 'news desert'; hoping for print edition

Can journalism schools restore local news in places that lose it? That's the main question raised by The Eudora Times, a project of a University of Kansas professor and her students.

Eudora has a population of about 6,000 and its own school district. It had a weekly newspaper until 2009, when The Eudora News was closed by the company that owned the daily in the county. "In 2010, the Eudora Reporter launched online. It stopped publishing by 2015," Kristen Hare reports for The Poynter Institute. Assistant City Manager Leslie Herring "started issuing regular press releases with city updates, and sometimes they’d get picked up by newsrooms in the region. But not often." She quit that, and Eudora "lost even more news when the Lawrence Journal-World reporter who covered the city was moved to a different beat. In early January, between semesters, Herring got a call from an assistant professor at KU, Teri Finneman."

Teri Finnerman
“I couldn’t believe that a city of over 6,000 people didn’t have its own newspaper,” Finneman told Hare. So she had a social-media class promote local events for the local tourism agency, "and people loved it," Hare writes. Hinneman told her, “It became evident that this was a town that really wanted to see coverage of what it was doing,” so she started the Times with two students who get class credit and $250 for travel. Eudora is about 15 minutes from the KU campus in Lawrence.

To cover expenses, the Times raised $1,400 from readers, exceeding its $1,250 goal. Now it will become part of Jayhawk Media Group, publisher of the university's Daily Kansan, "a home we hope will give us the stability we need and allow us to grow more quickly," Finnerman told readers this week. "The Eudora Times will immediately have access to critical tools for us to grow: accounting systems, website systems and – what I know many of you want most – access to a printing press that could allow us to have a printed product in the future. . . .We hope to hire an advertising representative to work with Eudora businesses to start advertising." But she warned readers that the move "is going to require – on an annual basis – 10 times the financial resources of our initial $1,400 seed money."

Randall Smith, the Donald W. Reynolds Endowed Chair in Business Journalism at the University of Missouri, who had worked with Finnerman at MU, went to Eudora with some of this students last summer, and they are working on ideas for the Times. "He thinks it could be one blueprint for how to rebuild news in places that need it," Hare reports.

“I do think if you look at what’s happening around the country, universities need to play and are playing a much larger role in news coverage,” Smith told her. “There is a demand out there for this coverage, and I think it’s just a matter of rethinking the content, rethinking the delivery and rethinking the revenue. And I think a university is the perfect place to do that.”

If the Times becomes a viable business, it will take the project beyond some similar, longstanding efforts at other universities. Washington and Lee University students and professors have been producing The Rockbridge Report for Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge County, Virginia, since 1985, and  the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues (publisher of The Rural Blog) has been publishing the Midway Messenger for the town of 1,650 since 2008. (For a 2013 report on the Messenger, click here.) Rockbridge County has a weekly newspaper, The News-Gazette, but the Report also includes video reports. Midway lost its newspaper in 1942 and is served by The Woodford Sun, a weekly in the county seat of Versailles. The Messenger provides more in-depth coverage, including a print edition each semester, and the town is also served by a "secret" Facebook group, Midway Musings, that steers clear of politics and controversy but has a large following. For a recent report on news media and social media in Midway, click here.

Second round of trade aid may be on its way soon

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently signaled that another round of trade bailout money will be available to farmers in late November or early December. The first round of Market Facilitation Program payments this year authorized up to $14.5 billion in direct payments to farmers hurt by the trade war. The USDA has sent out about $6.8 billion so far, economist John Newton reports for Feed & Grain.

"The second round of trade assistance provided direct payments to growers based on planted acres (2018’s assistance was based on actual production with commodity-specific payment rates). For non-specialty crops, payments were announced at the county-level and ranged from a low of $15 per acre to a high of $150 per acre," Newton reports. "Cover crops planted on acres prevented from being planted were also eligible for an MFP payment of $15 per acre, in addition to top-up payments on prevent-plant indemnities."
County-level payment rates for the second round of MFP payments, remaining dollars for rounds two and three.
(American Farm Bureau Federation map; click on the image to enlarge it.)
"Importantly, while up to $14.5 billion will be delivered to help agricultural producers offset losses due to multiple years of unfair retaliatory tariffs, little of this support will likely remain on the farm," Newton reports. "With a projected $416 billion in farm debt, bankruptcies rising and loan repayment terms increasing, a large portion of the trade assistance dollars will probably be used to meet immediate financial needs, paying down debt and paying creditors."

Philanthropies organize food-systems initiative to generate support for small farmers and sustainable practices

Rural America gets the short end of the stick from philanthropy, but a new network of organizations is working together to invest in efforts that benefit small farmers, social justice, and sustainability.

It started with Jennifer Astone, the executive director for the Swift Foundation, which supports biocultural diversity and community resilience efforts. She became frustrated when she learned that similar foundations were often investing in companies that damaged the environment and exploited communities. "All this led Astone to look more closely at where foundations were investing their endowments—and how they could better use them to support small farmers and sustainability," Diana Hembree reports for Inside Philanthropy. "What she learned was disheartening: that when it comes to sustainable agriculture and human rights, foundations were often investing their endowment funds at cross purposes from where they were directing their program funds."

Astone wondered how foundations could better invest their endowments in a way that would support their missions, and how they could better support small farmers and other groups committed to greener agricultural practices. "With Tim Crosby of the Thread Fund, which taps multiple forms of capital to generate social and environmental returns, Astone convened a meeting in Minneapolis of 20 like-minded foundations," Hembree reports. "This eventually became the Transformational Investing in Food Systems Initiative, a network of funders committed to creating a community of practice where they could share investment opportunities, learning and insights into investing in small farmers, social justice and sustainability. Astone also led the Swift Foundation’s work with the AgroEcology Fund and the Global Alliance for the Future of Food." Read more here.

Summit highlighted rural women's often bold, unconventional approaches to problem-solving in their communities

A presentation at the first Rural Women's Summit. (Photo by Shawn Poynter, Center for Rural Strategies)
Husband and wife team James and Deborah Fallows have roamed the country in their small plane for years, reporting on small towns and their residents (and sometimes their papers) for their Our Towns series in The Atlantic. Meeting a wide variety of exceptional women along the way has been a particular joy, Deborah Fallows writes. Recently she "hit the motherlode" when attending the first ever Rural Women's Summit in Greenville, S.C., in late October.

"They met to talk about civic life, incarceration, health, water, education, poverty, faith, relationships, conservation, family, entrepreneurship, all in the context of women living in rural America," Fallows writes. "They framed their comments from their experiences as women in the military, as organizers of movements, as filmmakers, journalists, artists, nurses, lawyers, civic leaders, mothers, convicts, politicians, faith leaders, actors, and more."

Fallows grew up in a small town near Cleveland, but remembers visiting her grandparents' farm in rural Minnesota as a small child. Though she writes that her rural connections are more removed than those who actually grew up on a farm, she felt a "deep bloodline sense" when listening to women speaking at the summit.

She came to appreciate some things she had never considered about rural women's lives. "The first is how aggravations from a single issue can quickly cascade into a series of complications that make problems worsen toward intractable," she writes, noting the water crisis in Martin County, Kentucky. "This story of water there is intimate to the lived experience of the women who tell it and those who report it. By and large, it is the women who open the taps for water they use to cook, to do the laundry, to bathe the children, to drink. If the faucets deliver, which is not a given, the water often runs brown, sulfury, and smelly."

Fallows also learned that rural women have a particularly practical way of addressing problems, that they aren't afraid of being emotional or vulnerable when approaching an issue, and that they often seek solutions in unconventional ways. "On the contrary, I heard women suggest that these 'women’s ways' (my words), when they emerge comfortably and naturally, are powerful tools to make actions effective and arguments accessible to more people," Fallows writes. "The message I heard: Do not shy from showing vulnerability, caring, or emotion. Do not apologize for it. Use it. Go into the places that are your comfort zones for work that is uncomfortable and requires you to be brave."

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

States save federal funds meant for needy families instead of distributing the money—too much, some say

In 1996, the federal government replaced traditional welfare with a block grant program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Federal law allows states to bank unused TANF money for recessions or natural disasters, but some say states are holding onto too much money that could go to families in need.

"Between 2015 and 2018, the 38 states holding back welfare money boosted their TANF reserves by 41%, according to the Congressional Research Service. One reason is the historically low unemployment rate. But tighter state requirements also have reduced caseloads," Teresa Wiltz reports for Stateline. "Tennessee’s 2019 welfare surplus is the largest in the country, according to a recent report by the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a fiscally conservative think tank. Last year, Tennessee spent only $71 million of the $191 million it got from the federal government." The state-level numbers can be found in the Appendix of the CRS report, linked above.

The issue came to a head in Tennessee recently, where nearly 1 in 6 residents live in poverty. U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Memphis, sent the state's Republican governor, Bill Lee, an open letter demanding to know why the state wasn't spending more of its funding, Wiltz reports. "When 15.3 percent of Tennesseans are living in poverty, it is inexcusable for the state to withhold millions of federal dollars allocated to help this exact population," Cohen wrote.

"When Tennessee’s surplus first came to light, state officials said they were being fiscally prudent. They also noted that earlier this year, they increased monthly cash assistance by a fifth," Wiltz reports. "But last week, Lee told reporters the state was working on a plan to spend more of its welfare reserves."

Dean Foods files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy; its biggest customer, Dairy Farmers of America, is likeliest buyer

Dean Foods, the nation's largest milk processor, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, blaming low dairy prices and the associated decline in consumer demand for dairy products.

"Dean and dairy farmers for years have grappled with consumers’ decades-long move away from traditional cow’s milk, as beverage sales shift toward bottled water, fruit juices and milk alternatives made from soy and oats," Jacob Bunge reports for The Wall Street Journal. "Within the milk business, Dallas-based Dean’s brands have struggled as grocery chains push low-price store brands and in some cases build their own milk plants, reducing their reliance on Dean. A recent jump in milk prices, up 10 percent over the past three months, boosted costs while Dean has worked to close plants and reduce expenses.

Though Dean has cut its workforce and closed under-performing plants in recent years to stay solvent, it lost several major customers as big retailers like Kroger and Walmart opened their own plants to supply store-brand milk. "Dean had reported five straight quarterly losses, and some analysts anticipated the company would continue losing money throughout 2020," Bunge reports. "The company’s 2018 sales of $7.8 billion were down 38% from a decade ago, and its shares have been trading around $1 since May, down from above $21 at the end of 2016."

Dean, which has about 15,000 employees, has secured funding to continue operating during the debt restructure, and says it's in "advanced discussions" to sell most or all of its assets to Dairy Farmers of America, the nation's largest dairy cooperative. Dean is DFA's biggest customer and owes the cooperative nearly $173 million, Nathan Bomey reports for USA Today.

A deal between DFA and Dean could entail a lengthy process with an antitrust review, and other buyers could emerge, Lydia Mulvany and Katherine Doherty report for Bloomberg.

Ky. wildlife officials proceed with plans to shoot feral hogs from helicopters at Land Between the Lakes recreation area

Kentucky wildlife officials are proceeding with plans to shoot feral hogs from helicopters in the federal Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. "The winter campaign to eradicate feral hogs at LBL begins in November and also includes bait trapping and euthanasia, managed by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service," Chris Smith and Emma Austin report for the Louisville Courier Journal.

Officials began trapping feral hogs in 2014, but they couldn't keep up with the hogs' rapid reproduction rate; they can have two litters a year with five to 10 piglets, which will themselves be ready to breed in less than a year. The inspection service began euthanizing hogs two years ago: in 2018, 70 hogs were put down, and in 2019 the number grew to 124, Smith and Austin report.

It's important to keep feral hogs' numbers down, since they destroy crops, out-competes or kills native wildlife, foul waterways, desecrate cemeteries, and carry diseases that can infect humans, pets and livestock. Feral hogs were first reported in Kentucky in the 1990s, after hunters deliberately, and illegally, released them into the wild to hunt them for sport; now the hogs can be found all over the state, Smith and Austin report.

Because feral hogs can't be controlled by natural predators, wildlife officials must do it, said Brad Robbins, a USDA Wildlife Services district supervisor. And though trapping and euthanizing are common practices, hunting by helicopter can be more effective for large groups of hogs. But helicopter operations are finicky, he said. The equipment and manpower must be available, the weather must be good, and the trees must be free of leaves so the hunters can see the hogs, Smith and Austin report. Helicopter hunting has been employed in other parts of the state, but Robbins said this is the first time the strategy will be used at Land Between the Lakes.

"All the stars have to line up," Robbins told the writers. "However, when the stars line up, there's not a tool in the box that can compete with this. If you've got large pieces of contiguous real estate, and if you've got a population of pigs on that real estate, there's nothing that can compete with this."

Congress aims to curb surprise air ambulance bills

Use of air ambulances has declined over the past decade, and prices for their runs have soared, so many customers are stuck with massive, unexpected bills when their insurance fails to cover the ride. Complaints from constituents have prompted lawmakers at both the state and federal level to try to curb the surprise bills, Alma Almendrala reports for NPR.

An estimated one in six insured Americans are hit with surprise bills after a hospital stay, and air ambulances are a big offender. Tom Saputo, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., ended up paying more for a post-surgical ride back to the hospital than he did for the surgery itself, a double lung transplant. The air ambulance company, Mercy Air, charged his insurance company more than $51,000 for the 27-mile flight, leaving Saputo responsible for more than $11,000, Almendrala reports. Mercy Air blamed Saputo's insurer for not covering more of the bill, but forgave the bill after it caught the attention of ABC's "Good Morning America."

"The median cost of a helicopter air ambulance flight was $36,400 in 2017, an increase of more than 60 percent from the median price in 2012, according to a Government Accountability Office analysis. Two-thirds of the flights in 2017 were out of network, the report found," Almendrala reports. "The air ambulance industry justifies these charges by pointing out that the bulk of its business — transporting patients covered by the public insurance programs Medicare and Medicaid — is underfunded by the government."

Critics argue that market saturation is the real reason behind increasing air ambulance prices. "While the number of air ambulance helicopters in the U.S. has increased — rising more than 10% from 2010 to 2014 — the number of flights hasn't, which means air ambulance companies seek to raise prices on each ride," Almendrala reports.

State-level efforts to eliminate or limit surprise "balance billing," as it is called, have been generally unsuccessful; federal judges usually strike down such laws because they violate the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, which prohibits states from regulating air traffic. Congress is considering several bills to limit or ban balance bills. "One measure by Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., would ban balance bills from air ambulance companies," Almendrala reports. "The bill passed committee and is now headed to the Senate floor for a vote, pending approval from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky."

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Center for Journalism Ethics at UW-Madison will pay up to 10 journalists from afar to attend annual conference April 24

On April 24, the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin will host its 12th annual conference in Madison. "Journalism Ethics & The Crisis in Local News" conference will bring together news-media professionals, non-profit news leaders, media innovators, academics, students and the public to address the crisis in local journalism, with special attention to media ethics.

The conference is designed to provide a better understanding of the factors driving the crisis as well as concrete ideas for strengthening and protecting local journalism. The center is offering travel stipends, providing a way for local journalists from around the country to attend. The organizers seek up to 10 people who might attend with a $1,000 stipend. They want the group to be focused on local news in a meaningful way and to be diverse across such things as: race, ethnicity, gender and age; market size; medium; and pedigree (legacy newsrooms, startups, community publishers, ethnic press, etc.) If you would like to be considered, email us this week and we'll relay your interest.

More farmers turning to nontraditional, high-interest loans; 'shadow financing' with 'hot money,' ag-econ prof says

"Financial stress is mounting in the Farm Belt, pushing more growers to take on high-interest loans outside traditional banks to stay in business," report Jacob Bunge and Kirk Maltais of The Wall Street Journal. "With crop prices stuck at low levels, traditional farm banks are placing stricter terms on farm loans and doling out less money, leaving cash-strapped farmers . . . to seek capital from more lightly regulated entities."

Farmers have been struggling in the past few years. Five years of good harvests that lowered crop prices and farm profits, and the trade war with China, have left many with no customers. On top of that, record wet weather this year kept millions of acres unplanted, and now standing water in the fields is preventing harvest, Bunge and Maltais note.

"Farm debt is projected to hit a record $416 billion this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, up nearly 40 percent since 2012. Defaults and bankruptcies are rising as well, crimping the ability of cash-strapped farmers to secure funding for seed, fertilizer and fuel," Bunge and Maltais report. But some big banks are cutting back on farm loans, seeing them as too big of a risk. That has led many farmers to seek nontraditional, high-interest loans.

While such high-interest loan providers can be a lifesaver for farmers in the short term, their interest rates are double those of traditional farm lenders. "The funding can require closer monitoring of how farmers spend, as well as liens on each bushel of grain they produce," Bunge and Maltais report.

"For collateral, alternative farm lenders rely on crop-insurance policies, government payments and crop-sale proceeds rather than real estate, equipment and other assets. Lenders said that allows them to lend to farmers who don’t own much land or are working their way out of bankruptcy," Bunge and Maltais report. "David Kohl, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at Virginia Tech, estimated such firms supply about 2% of financing to U.S. farms. They can provide a financial bridge to struggling farmers, but their looser regulation allows the firms more control over rates and terms."

Kohl called the proliferation of nontraditional loans "shadow financing for ag," and told Bunge and Maltais that "It’s hot money trying to find a place to get a good return without a lot of oversight."

'Doonesbury' highlights importance of local news

Copyright 2019 by G.B. Trudeau. Click on the image to enlarge it.
Garry Trudeau's most recent "Doonesbury" cartoon is a pointed commentary on the value of local news. Over morning coffee, Mike expounds on why local news is important: "Did you know that cities that lose their local paper suffer a big drop in civic engagement?" he tells his wife Kim. 

That fact didn't come out of the thin air. Research shows that fewer people run for local office when there's a lack of local government coverage.

Other research shows that closure of local newspapers leads to more straight-ticket voting and political polarization. 

And partisan websites masquerading as local news are increasingly proliferating in battleground states, many attempting to fill the void left by shuttered local news. 

The bottom line? Support your local news publications. It matters for a lot more reasons than finding out about concerts.

U.S. corn growers and ethanol producers stagger under combined weight of refinery waivers and wet weather

Standing water, now iced over, in a Stutsman County, North Dakota, cornfield. (AgWeek photo by Jenny Schlecht)
Corn growers have had a rough year because of declining domestic demand for ethanol, driven partly by federal waiver policies that favor oil refiners. But a year of record wet weather has caused them even more headaches, delaying or preventing planting, and now preventing harvest and transport. The corn is often so wet that farmers must dry it out before shipping it, and that's if they can even get to the corn to harvest it: combines are getting stuck in muddy fields.

High water in cornfields is common throughout the Upper Midwest, making it a challenge for farmers to get corn out of the field and deliver it to ethanol plants, Jenny Schlecht reports for Forum Communications. Since less corn was planted (South Dakota led the nation in prevented-planting acres), delays in harvesting have left ethanol plants short of feedstock, cutting production, said Josh Mardikian, a merchandiser at Midwest Ag Energy's Blue Flint Ethanol in Underwood, N.D. "It’s been just as challenging for us to source corn as it has been for our producers to get it combined," Mardikian told Schlecht. "We’re with them all the way. When they struggle, we struggle."

This year's poor crop means a 50-million bushel drop in projected corn exports. "Corn export projections sit at 1.85 billion bushels, the lowest total for a marketing year since the drought-impacted crop of 2012-13," writes Todd Hubbs, an assistant agricultural economics professor at the University of Illinois. And because Brazil offered a much cheaper bumper corn crop this year, many traditional U.S. export customers were lured south.

The average price for a bushel of No. 2 yellow corn rose above $4.40 per bushel in June and July, but sank to $3.40 on Sept. 9. Yesterday it was $3.74, almost exactly what it was on Jan. 31. That is far below the five-year high of about $7.60 in summer 2013, when prices began falling.

A few factors will influence 2020's export trends. If U.S. corn growers get a better harvest next year and prices are low, exports will likely increase. But Brazil's soybean crop may also come into play. "Delays in planting the soybean crop in Brazil hold the possibility of pushing planting the second corn crop later than ideal for many regions of Brazil," Hubbs writes. "Depending on corn prices, Brazil may slash corn acreage or gamble on a later planted crop maturing in the dry season. A considerable amount of uncertainty looks to continue deep into 2020. A smaller second crop of corn in Brazil could benefit U.S. corn exports next summer."

Weekly reports on increasing tick-borne allergy to red meat

Map shows cases entered by site users and is not verified.
Click on the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.
A tick-borne allergy to red meat is becoming more common, the Adair County Community Voice in Kentucky reported Oct. 31 in a pair of front-page stories: one on the main front and the other leading its occasional Health and Wellness section.

The allergy is caused by a sugar molecule called alpha-gal. Anna Buckman writes: "Dr. Kourtney Gentry Gardner, an allergist-immunologist in Bowling Green, diagnoses about five people a month with the alpha-gal allergy, and it’s becoming increasingly more common, she says."

People bitten by the Lone Star tick, especially those bitten repeatedly, are at risk of "having allergic reactions to the molecule, which is found in most mammalian or red meat," Buckman notes. "It is relatively new to the allergy world," having been identified in scientific literature only 10 years ago.

Close-up of the Lone Star tick, which
is much larger when it is full of blood.
Buckman deals with the science but brings the story home by writing about some local victims, illustrating the varying manifestations of the allergy: "Tiffany Bean can no longer hang out at summer gatherings where friends grill burgers because, following a tick bite, she developed a food allergy so severe that she even has reaction being around the fumes of cooked beef. . . . Rick Wilson is also allergic to red meat but can eat dairy products. He only had occasional reactions when he was still consuming red meat."

"Five-year-old Joshua Wethington doesn’t like dairy-free pizza, but that’s the only kind he can have. Because of a tick bite at some point in his short life, he is so allergic to red meat that allergists recommended removing dairy from his diet because it is a byproduct of cows." Joshua’s mom, Dana Wethington, told Buckman, "I’m having a hard time getting him to eat things because it doesn’t taste the same to him."

Other differences: "Bean went from just having an itchy tick bite to having a stomach illness for
hours or breaking out into a rash if she consumed anything with alpha-gal. She has lost 40 pounds due to the allergy," Buckman reports. "Joshua got hives all over his body every day that he consumed red meat. Wilson experienced severe itching and nearly passed out during one of his few reactions. Speak to three people with alpha-gal and you’ll discover one thing is certain: it’s complicated. The only similar experiences that Bean, Wilson and the Wethingtons have are the difficulty of living with the allergy and dealing with its affects when they go out publicly."

Joshua Wethington (Adair Co. Community Voice photo)
Bean told Buckman, “People don’t seem to take it seriously. You tell people that you have it and that you could die from it, and people are like, 'Oh no, you can’t die from eating a hamburger or bacon.' Well, yeah, you can."

Alpha-gal victims use technology to help each other, including a smartphone app ("Is it Vegan?"), a Facebook groups ("The AlphaGal Kitchen" and "Alpha-Gal Support Kentucky") and an interactive map that locates cases (above).

"Recommended by a member on a Facebook support group, the Munfordville Pool Hall and Grill is a relief to alpha-gal sufferers and also sets a great example for other restaurants for being allergy-friendly in general," Buckman writes. "The pool hall has designated one fryer where no red meat or cheese is prepared. They have designated skillets to cook foods for separate consumption because people with alpha-gal allergy can have a negative reaction from even the residue from a mammal."

Pool-hall employee Justin Minton told Buckman that employees acted after noting that several people in the community have the allergy. "Speaking from experience, going to Subway is pretty much the only place my grandpa can go," Minton told Buckman.

Even though "people with alpha-gal are helping one another with useful information, Kandace Webster, an advance-practice registered nurse at T.J. Health Columbia Primary Care, "urges sufferers to seek professional guidance," Buckman reports.

Rural arts and culture scenes enhance small-town life, could improve communities' local economies

Artists Greta McClain and Natchez Beaulieu with the mural they installed in Grand
Rapids, Minn., for the arts and culture summit. (Emily Carlson/Grand Rapids Herald Review)
Rural communities and policy experts across the nation have spoken at length about things that can help rural areas: more jobs, improved broadband connection, better infrastructure. But one area that shouldn't be overlooked: the impact of the arts on rural communities.

A recent PBS NewsHour story showed how arts and cultural organizations can enhance life in a small town. Jeffrey Brown reports from the northern Minnesota town of Grand Rapids, pop. 11,000, the latest site of the biennial Rural Arts and Culture Summit. "This one brought together some 350 artists and community leaders from 25 states to exchange ideas, celebrate the role of creativity in small towns, and fight a national narrative about rural America in decline," Brown reports.

Laura Zabel, who heads Minnesota's Springboard for the Arts, said the reductionist narrative "kind of ignores the history and the complexity, and it often ignores all of the people who are working really hard to make what's next for that community." Rural artists can often find meaning in the hard parts of rural life, she said: "That's necessary for a community to move forward, that, rather than just telling people, get over it, people need outlets for their pain and their shame and their joy."

Beyond that, the arts can help improve the local economy, according to a recent National Governors Association study. Rural communities seeking to enhance their arts scene can look to the Indiana University Center for Rural Engagement, which was recently recognized for its work in developing a model for arts-based community and economic development that pairs university resources with rural communities' assets.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Perdue runs interference for Trump as trade war wears on; farmers may get more trade aid soon, but money is short

Secretary Sonny Perdue at Minnesota FarmFest
(DTN/The Progressive Farmer photo by Chris Clayton)
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has increasingly served as a key surrogate for President Trump on plowed ground, "traveling the country to give folksy pep talks to frustrated farmers who have seen their incomes drop and exports hit hard by tariff disputes," Annie Gowen and William Wan report for The Washington Post. "But patience is waning for Perdue’s sunny bromides in rural America, where farm bankruptcies and loan delinquencies are rising," possibly along with suicides. And Perdue has had some notable stumbles in his attempts to reassure farmers.

At a festival in Minnesota in August, crowds booed Perdue when he suggested in a joke that farmers were whiners. And in early October at a dairy expo in Wisconsin, Perdue predicted that small farms would be increasingly struggle to compete with large agribusinesses. "Critics said Perdue’s 'go big or get out' line played into existing fears that the Trump administration is more interested in helping large corporations than the little guys," Gowen and Wan report. "Perdue later said he was only acknowledging the current market reality."

However, Perdue might soon have some good news for farmers, sort of: a third round of trade bailout payments could be authorized soon. According to two anonymous Agriculture Department economists, "a third round of payments for farmers increasingly is seen as inevitable, particularly if a trade deal with China is not reached soon. The amount has not been determined," Gowen and Wan report. A trade deal, and the end of tariffs, would be the best scenario, but "a third round of aid could be crucial to shoring up Trump’s support in rural America as the election looms, analysts say."

Though a third round of bailout money would help, Missouri cattle producer Darvin Bentlage told the Post that "it won’t make us whole and we don’t want to be making our money at the mailbox. We’d rather be making it at the marketplace."

The money has come from the Commodity Credit Corp., an agency that was created in the Great Depression, but the authorized $28 billion is close to the agency's $30 billion limit. "White House aides for the first time are pressing Congress to increase how much the administration can distribute through the farm bailout before hitting the program's legal spending limit this fall -- even though farmers have already been promised billions in additional funding," Jeff Stein reported for The Washington Post in September. The issue is likely part of negotiations for appropriations to avoid a government shutdown.

Groups work to prevent veteran suicides, especially in rural areas, where VA says 51 percent of veterans live

Veterans Day is a time to remember that veterans are twice as likely as civilians to die by suicide, and nearly 17 veterans a day kill themselves. Greater awareness is leading to greater efforts to address it, and that's important in rural areas, where most vets live, says the Department for Veterans Affairs.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration announced a new federal task force to address the issue of veteran suicide, especially in rural areas, The group met a few weeks ago for the first time to discuss how to tackle the problem. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie said improving health care for rural veterans is one of the group's top priorities, Brian Tabick reports for KCRG-TV in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. That includes efforts to expand telehealth and mobile services, Wilkie said, noting that 51% of all veterans live in rural areas.

Veterans have long been able to get counseling from the VA, but Iraq War veteran and Kentucky resident Alex Randolph said he was told there was a six- to eight-week wait when he tried to get help there in 2017, WFPL-FM reporter Lisa Gillespie reports for Side Effects Public Health, a collaborative that works with Louisville's WFPL and other Midwestern public radio stations.

Instead, Randolph was able to get some short-term relief by posting on Veterans' Club, a Facebook group for Kentucky vets. The club's executive director, fellow Iraq War veteran Jeremy Harrell, was able to use connections to get Randolph seen at the Robley Rex VA Medical Center in Louisville the next day. Gillespie reports.

"In the few years since Harrell started getting a small group of vets together, the group has grown to some 2,000 members across Kentucky," Gillespie reports. "And in that time Harrell has fielded many calls from suicidal vets and their family members. Harrell said he draws from his own experiences with suicidal thoughts, and training he’s received on suicide prevention." Harrell also helps connect vets with VA counseling, as he did with Randolph.

Robley Rex officials say they've implemented a triage system since then that make it easier for vets in immediate danger to get counseling on the same day. The hospital's suicide prevention coordinator, Kelly Marcum, said the hospital is doing other things to prevent veteran suicide, like distributing gun locks to vets and better educate their families on signs to watch for, Gillespie reports.

USDA program aims to help suicidal farmers and ranchers

The past few years have been bad for U.S. agriculture, and farmers have struggled with a trade war that has eroded markets, plus bad weather and flooding. As farm bankruptcies and loan delinquencies rise, farmer suicides apparently are, too, Annie Gowen reports for The Washington Post.

"A 2017 study found that farm owners and workers were three to five times as likely to kill themselves on the job compared with other occupations," Gowen reports. "Researchers studying more recent data have not yet determined if farmer suicides are increasing, but leaders and social workers in rural America say that, anecdotally, they’re seeing more of these deaths."

An increase in calls to suicide hotlines from farmers has prompted state and federal officials to put more funding into programs aimed at improving farmers' mental health. "The Agriculture Department is setting up the first $1.9 million phase of a farm and ranch stress-support network to expand emergency hotlines, training and support groups for farmers and ranchers," Gowen reports. The Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network was authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill but was left unfunded for more than a decade.

USDA also started a $450,000 pilot program training workers on how to help farmers in extreme emotional distress and make mental health referrals for them, Gowen reports.

Here are some suicide-prevention and mental-health resources for farmers and others:

Secret reports on opioid sales to be released; last day to sign up for Fri. workshop on covering epidemic, recovery

"A special master in a landmark national opioid trial has ordered the release of previously secret reports that detail “suspicious” orders of powerful painkillers placed by pharmacies and purchased from giant drug suppliers," Eric Eyre reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and The Herald-Dispatch in Huntington, W.Va. Special Master David Cohen, who is assisting with more than 2,000 lawsuits against drug companies in Cleveland's federal court, also ordered the Drug Enforcement Administration to unseal two additional years of data tracking all prescription opioid shipments to U.S. pharmacies. He also unsealed the transcripts from hundreds of depositions, including testimony from DEA agents and executives of pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors.

"The unsealing of the records follows a yearlong legal battle by the Charleston Gazette-Mail, The Herald-Dispatch and The Washington Post to make the information public," Eyre reports. "The nation’s largest drug distributors and manufacturers fought for months to keep the pharmacy order reports and data under wraps. The reports and data single-out pharmacies that ordered unusually large numbers of prescription-opioid pain pills."

Prescription drug distributors are required under federal law to report to the DEA suspiciously large orders of opioids and then block such orders, but a congressional report last year said the drug makers routinely did not do this.

Though the DEA no longer opposed making the reports public, the companies wanted a judge to block their release, saying the reports were "confidential business data" that contained "trade secrets," Eyre reports.  They also said releasing the reports would violate privacy rights for pharmacies and customers, and said that unscrupulous pharmacies could learn from past reports how to "game the system" in order to avoid being flagged for suspicious orders in the future.

Cohen said some details in the suspicious orders might remain private if the pharmaceutical companies could show how the specific information in question would help rogue pharmacies divert drugs to the black market, Eyre reports.

Eyre will speak Friday morning at Covering Substance Abuse and Recovery: A Workshop for Journalists, in Ashland, Ky., just 10 miles down the Ohio River from Huntington. Registration is $60 and is still available, but will close for certain today.

Power shift in the Southwest: Rural electric co-ops in New Mexico, Colorado struggle to meet clean-energy mandates

New Mexico's reliance on Tri-State Generation
(Albuquerque Journal map; click to enlarge it.)
Some rural electric cooperatives in New Mexico and Colorado are struggling to meet new state mandates meant to make their power grids to greener and cheaper. New laws in both states require all co-ops to replace most fossil fuels with renewables over the next two decades and achieve carbon-free power generation by 2050, Kevin Robinson-Avila reports for the Albuquerque Journal.

However, many rural co-ops are running into a problem: they've signed long-term leases with Colorado-based wholesale supplier Tri-State Generation and Transmission, which sells electricity to 43 distribution co-ops spread over 200,000 square miles in Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Wyoming. But the co-ops can't meet the energy requirements while buying power from Tri-State, Robinson-Avila reports. Though Tri-State is phasing out coal and is pursuing an "aggressive" green energy plan, there are few specifics on the company's website, so co-ops could be gambling on whether they'll be able to comply with mandates by staying with Tri-State. The company says 30 percent of its electricity comes from renewables.

"The co-ops want freedom to build or purchase a lot more renewable energy independent of Tri-State, which limits self-generation by its member utilities to 5% of their total electric load, meaning 95% of their power must come exclusively from Tri-State under long-term agreements that stretch to 2050," Robinson-Avila reports. Paying a hefty exit fee to then sign with alternative providers . . . is becoming more appealing to some co-ops because they can rapidly integrate renewables onto their grids at potentially lower cost than the wholesale power Tri-State provides."

In addition to its efforts to ditch coal and embrace greener power generation, Tri-State is considering changing its bylaws to give co-op members more flexibility to pursue renewable power on their own while remaining customers, Robinson-Avila reports.