Friday, December 20, 2019

Poverty rate grew in 30% of counties in 2019, most of them in the rural South; up 8.5 percentage points in a Ky. county

Despite a relatively strong economy, the poverty rate grew in 30 percent of U.S. counties between 2016 and 2018, especially in the rural South, says an analysis of new Census Bureau estimates.

"The poverty rate is the percentage of people in households earning less than the poverty threshold, currently $25,750 for a family of four," Tim Henderson reports for Stateline. "While the overall poverty rate dropped between 2016 and 2018, from 13% to 12%, states varied widely. In New Jersey and Rhode Island, the poverty rate grew in only one county, compared with 83 in Texas."

There was no overall trend as far as the political leanings or demographics of counties that fared the worst. The rural South saw most of the biggest increases in the poverty rate because those areas generally had industries that suffered economically and residents who lacked job training and/or skills. "For many counties, rising poverty rates underscore the importance of fully counting residents in next year’s census, since a count of low-income residents will help determine funding available to help them," Henderson reports.

The poverty rate in Carter County, Kentucky, saw one of the biggest increases, rising 8.5 percentage points to 31.1%. Longtime state Sen. Robin Webb, a Democrat who lives in the county, said the problem isn't an unwillingness to work. "This is rural America. We’re rich in self-sustaining nature and neighbors helping neighbors, but we don’t have resources," she told Henderson. The county is in northeastern Kentucky, between Ashland and Morehead; its coal and factory jobs have shrunk.

What other nations can learn from Finns' war on fake news

Americans have increasingly struggled with media literacy in the past few years as sources of false information, many of them Russian, have found ever trickier ways of aping news. But Finland, which has a long history with Russia, has been leading the charge against fake news for much longer. Its government launched a media literacy initiative in 2014 that aims to teach residents from all walks of life, including students, journalists and politicians, how to spot and counter false information meant to mislead the public, Eliza Mackintosh reports for CNN.

Though it's difficult to assess the results, the program appears to be working, and officials from all over Europe and as far away as Singapore are looking to copy Finland's success because they're worried about Russia and other potential disruptors. However, a Finnish school director told Mackintosh the curriculum might not work as well in other countries.

"The small and largely homogenous country consistently ranks at or near the top of almost every index – happiness, press freedom, gender equality, social justice, transparency and education – making it difficult for external actors to find fissures within society to crowbar open and exploit," Mackintosh reports. And, "Finland tops the charts for media trust, which means its citizens are less likely to turn to alternative sources for news."

That's far different than the landscape in many European countries, as well as in the United States. The U.S. has reason to worry about media literacy too; misleading and incendiary social media ads and posts were a key part of Russia's strategy to manipulate the 2016 presidential election.

A rural recap of the latest Democratic presidential debate

Last night, seven top-ranking Democratic presidential candidates met for the final debate of 2019 in Los Angeles. One notable facet of the debate: U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who often touts her competitiveness in rural areas—including in this debate—enjoyed more time in the spotlight than she's had in previous debates.

Klobuchar "was given a lot of time in the beginning of the debate and she used it well to make her case. In the end, she did what she needed to do: give centrist Democrats a third option after Biden and Buttigieg. In doing so, she changed her campaign in a way no other candidate did," James Pindell writes for The Boston Globe, giving her the only 'A' grade among the debaters.

Here's what the candidates had to say about some issues with rural resonance (along with some comments on journalism), according to The Washington Post transcript:

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont argued for a trade policy that helps farmers, and disparaged the newly approved NAFTA replacement for not discussing climate change.

Mayor Pete Buttegieg of South Bend, Ind., said any plan to fight climate change must include farmers as part of the solution, not "beating them over the head and telling them they're part of the problem."

Klobuchar said the Midwest saw unprecedented flooding in 2019 because of climate change. She said she had helped negotiate three farm bills and was responsible for major provisions in each of them.

Former Vice President Joe Biden said the economy isn't doing well for many people, and noted that 40 percent of Midwestern farmers "couldn't pay their bills last year."

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said her plan to increase taxes on billionaires would increase productivity and improve small-town and rural economies. She also said she would invest in more affordable housing in rural areas.

Businessman Andrew Yang noted that more people now die by suicide or drug overdose than die in car accidents. Yang said Americans can't agree on impeaching President Trump because "we're getting news from different sources, and it's making it hard for us even to agree on basic facts. Congressional approval rating, last I checked, was something like 17 percent, and Americans don't trust the media networks to tell them the truth."

Buttegieg said Trump's views on the news media are a problem: "When the American president refers to unfavorable press coverage as the product of the "enemy of the people," democracy around the world gets weaker. Freedom of the press not just here at home but around the world gets weaker."

Klobuchar said press freedom is "deep in my heart" since her father was a journalist. She criticized Trump's attorneys general for not promising they wouldn't jail journalists for doing their jobs.

EPA backs off on promised ethanol rule, angering farmers

On Thursday the Environmental Protection Agency released the final update to the Renewable Fuel Standard, which mandates that increasing amounts of ethanol are blended into the nation's fuel supply over time. However, the rule didn't include a provision—which President Trump had promised farming and ethanol interests—to increase the amount of ethanol in the fuel mix to offset waivers his administration had granted to oil refineries.

"Instead the final rule says EPA will base oil refinery exemptions on Energy Department recommendations," David Pitt reports for The Associated Press. "Ethanol and corn industry groups said language in the rule leaves too much at the whim of federal bureaucrats and could cause ethanol use to fall short."

Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, accused Trump of turning his back on farmers. "Every farmer and biofuel supporter I have talked to is deeply disappointed, frustrated, and quite frankly angry," Shaw told Pitt. "I don’t think the White House truly understands the depth of discontent in farm country."

An EPA spokesperson said the agency withdrew the proposed provision because it needs to consider more options, Liz McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture.

Evangelical magazine supports Trump impeachment

Prominent evangelical magazine Christianity Today, founded in 1956 by the Rev. Billy Graham, published an editorial Thursday calling for readers to support President Trump's impeachment. The magazine's editor-in-chief, Mark Galli, noted that CT normally stays "above the fray" but said Trump has engaged in "profoundly immoral" behavior and urged Christians to stop supporting him.

Galli writes that Trump clearly tried to use his political power for personal gain, which is not only illegal but immoral. That dovetails with Trump's personal and professional track record, Galli wrote: "He himself has admitted to immoral actions in business and his relationship with women, about which he remains proud. His Twitter feed alone — with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders — is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused."

Many evangelical Christians were urged to vote for Trump on the promise that he would appoint conservative, anti-abortion judges. But, Galli writes, such victories don't outweigh the damage Trump is doing to the office of the presidency and our nation's reputation and future. Galli further says that a nation of Trump-supporting Christians damages the reputation of evangelicals, and asks readers to consider how their support of Trump will hurt their ability to convert others to Christianity.

President Trump criticized the editorial in a pair of tweets this morning. Billy Graham's son, Franklin Graham, an ardent Trump fan, said his father "would have been disappointed."

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Study: methane leaks eclipse climate benefits of natural gas

The DCP Pegasus gas plant in Midkiff, Texas, on Nov. 5, shot with a regular camera (left) and with an infrared camera (right) to reveal methane leaks. (Screenshots from NYT video by Jonah Kessel)
Natural gas, which is mostly methane, has been touted as a bridge that can help wean the world from other fossil fuels. But a new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says extractors must reduce the leakage of methane to reduce its impact on climate change.

"The study shows that in order for natural gas to be a major component of the nation’s effort to meet greenhouse-gas reduction targets over the coming decade, present methods of controlling methane leakage would have to improve by anywhere from 30 to 90 percent," David Chandler reports for MIT News. "Given current difficulties in monitoring methane, achieving those levels of reduction may be a challenge. Methane is a valuable commodity, and therefore companies producing, storing, and distributing it already have some incentive to minimize its losses. However, despite this, even intentional natural gas venting and flaring (emitting carbon dioxide) continues."

For instance, in February 2018 a hydraulically fractured gas well in eastern Ohio had a massive methane leak that took 20 days to control and put more methane into the atmosphere than all but three European nations emit in one year, Steven Mufson reports for The Washington Post.

Chandler reports, "The study also finds policies that favor moving directly to carbon-free power sources, such as wind, solar, and nuclear, could meet the emissions targets without requiring such improvements in leakage mitigation, even though natural gas use would still be a significant part of the energy mix."

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that traps far more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, but dissipates much more quickly. Leaks of it can be difficult to detect and assess because it's colorless. A crew from The New York Times recently videotaped natural gas processing plants with an infrared camera to show the scope of methane leaks (see above).

Low-carb diet advocates aims to alter feds' nutrition advice

A group of people who advocate low-carbohydrate diets is trying to persuade the federal government to lower the recommended daily intake of "carbs." The Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services are set to update federal nutrition advice in 2020.

"The Low-Carb Action Network — launched on Wednesday by a small group of doctors, researchers and consumers . . . said scientific research shows the diet can help prevent diseases, particularly Type 2 diabetes, and should be included in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture. "The network does not receive funding from industry and plans to set up a donation page on its website to raise money, a spokesperson said."

Nutrition guidelines are updated every five years, based on a scientific report from an independent 20-member committee. The guidelines shape federal nutrition programs like school meals and the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, McCrimmon reports.

"The committee last year signaled it would review low-carb (and high-fat) diets, a move welcomed by a disparate group of nutrition experts, Atkins and keto followers, and the livestock sector," McCrimmon reports. "The research on low-carb diets that the advisory committee includes in its review is a top concern among the leaders of the Low-Carb Action Network."

Proponents of low-carb diets say they're a good way to lose weight and can help reverse and prevent diseases. The American Diabetes Association seemed to support this view with a report earlier this year saying low-carb diets have been shown to reduce the need for diabetes medication, McCrimmon reports. However, some nutrition experts say the long-term health impacts of low-carb diets are unclear and that research on them is so new that it's too early to base firm recommendations on it.

Rural Virginians assert gun rights after Democratic control

Gun-control laws have become an increasingly partisan issue over the past few decades. Perhaps no state illustrates that so clearly right now as Virginia. In November, Democrats took control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time since 1995, so with Democrat Ralph Northam as governor, the party controls state government for the first time since 1993.

Rural Virginians, fearing that Democrats will introduce tighter gun laws, have taken measures to assert their right to own firearms since then. "At least 60 of Virginia’s 95 counties have declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries in recent weeks. They follow counties in states such as Colorado and New Mexico," The Economist reports. "They have borrowed from the left the rhetoric of the 'sanctuary cities' movement, where local governments limit their co-operation with federal immigration authorities in an attempt to protect illegal immigrants from deportation. But, in practice, for a county to declare itself a Second Amendment sanctuary is little more than a howl of rage from rural gun owners."

Gun control was a big issue in Virginia's November elections; a gunman killed 12 people in Virginia Beach in May. Gov. Northam called a special legislative meeting on gun control soon afterward, but Republicans, who then controlled both chambers, ended it in 90 minutes.

Northam proposed modest gun-control measures in the special session, and Democrats say they plan to introduce tighter background checks and ban the purchase of some types of guns when they take office in January. "Yet what is popular in Virginia’s fast-growing cities and suburbs, where well-educated and immigrant newcomers have settled, is anathema in rural areas," The Economist reports.

"The problem is the people who have moved into the cities," Gary Colvan told The Economist at a recent Augusta County meeting on a "sanctuary" proposal. He said city dwellers didn't understand that guns aren't just a cultural issue, but that rural Virginians may need to protect their families. "Out here a police officer can be half an hour away," he told The Economist. He said mass shootings pained him but that armed citizens make for a safer country.

As 'The Rise of Skywalker' hits theaters, a reflection on the rural spirit of Star Wars

Luke Skywalker on the Tatooine moisture farm where he grew up. (Screenshot from Star Wars: A New Hope)
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker hits theaters tonight, concluding the nine-film arc that began in 1977 with A New Hope. In honor of the occasion, Adam Giorgi takes a moment to reflect on the rural underpinnings of the Star Wars universe. Giorgi is the director of digital strategy at the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes The Daily Yonder.

"There is a rural spirit at the core of Star Wars," Giorgi writes for the Yonder. Much of the scenery in the Star Wars movies is rural (when not in space, of course). Iconic settings like Tatooine, Hoth, Dagobah, Endor and Jakku are all "patently rural," Giorgi writes. "They’re frontier settlements, farmsteads, distant refuges and, in the character’s own words, 'backwater planets.' I for one can’t hear the indelible John Williams theme for 'the Force' without immediately picturing young farm boy Luke, set against the sprawling horizon and twin suns of Tatooine."

The planetside scenes often feel "pastoral, hardscrabble and, as many fans have noted, covered in a certain soot and grime," Giorgi writes, noting that this illustrates how Star Wars pulls heavily from Western and samurai story genres, which have their own rural tropes. That's especially apparent in the new Disney+ series The Mandalorian, which essentially plays out like a spaghetti Western in space.

Giorgi's essay has more insights, but the bottom line, he writes, is that Star Wars reminds us "how rural people, places and stories are pretty inspiring and indispensable too, here at home and in a galaxy far, far away."

The 2019 agricultural year in review

'Tis the season for articles looking back on the year behind us. Here's one discussing agriculture in 2019 and conjecturing where things could go next.

The biggest story of the year is likely the U.S.-China trade war, which continued to roil ag markets in 2019. "China occasionally decided to waive ag tariffs and import some goods, but by and large, the ag trade between these two countries ground to a halt," Brent Gloy and David Widmar report for Agricultural Economic Insights. "Then, an early Christmas present arrived as word came out that a partial phase-one agreement appears to be moving forward. For agriculture, the package is the big shiny box under the tree, but we will have to wait a bit to find out exactly what’s in it."

The spread of African Swine Fever is arguably the second-biggest story of the year, Gloy and Widmar write. China generally accounts for a bit under half of the world's production and consumption of pork, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that Chinese pork production dropped 14 percent from 2018 to 2019 and predicts it will fall another 25% next year. The disease is spreading across Asia and threatening other nations, which is impacting other nations' meat markets.

The article rates other important agriculture issues such as trade bailout payments, farm bankruptcies and the overall farming economy, record wet weather, and the impending U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal. Click here to read more.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Study finds cooperatives deployed most rural fiber broadband, recommends ways to help co-ops do more

Institute for Local Self-Reliance map; click the image to enlarge it.
New research has found that cooperatives are responsible for deploying nearly three-quarters of the fiber-optic broadband in the rural United States. Most of the co-ops were formed decades ago to provide electric or telephone service, but a few were established recently for building out broadband, Joan Engebretson reports for the trade publication Telecompetitor.

The report is an update of a 2017 report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which advocates for local-government solutions. "According to ILSR, there are approximately 260 telecom cooperatives and 900 electric cooperatives in the U.S. and they serve much of rural America. While telecom cooperative fiber deployments are quite common, such deployments are becoming increasingly common among electric cooperatives as well," Engebretson reports. "Currently, about 10 percent of electric cooperatives have a fiber internet access project and many more are considering such projects, according to ILSR. More than 110 rural electric cooperatives in the U.S. have embarked on fiber projects, according to the researchers."

In its report, ILSR provides several recommendations for policymakers to encourage more co-ops to build out broadband, including:
  • Designing funding programs with cooperatives in mind.
  • Encouraging partnerships with cooperatives and remove barriers to broadband implementation.
  • Talking to people in the community and make it clear that broadband isn't just about entertainment; it's important for farming and other jobs.

Medicare audit says hospitals may have to give back incentive payments they received by mistake

The federal government may have mistakenly given acute-care hospitals $93.6 million in Medicare incentive payments between January 2013 and September 2017, according to an audit from the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Inspector General, Jessica Kim Cohen reports for Modern Healthcare.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will try to get hospitals to pay some of the money back, Cohen reports. That could hurt some rural hospitals already hurting financially; many of them are especially dependent on Medicare.

The payments were distributed as part of an incentive program, last year renamed the Medicare Promoting Interoperability Program, that was meant to encourage hospitals to use electronic health record systems. "The OIG attributed the errors to Medicare administrative contractors not properly reviewing information from hospitals' cost reports, which are used to calculate incentive payments. Some cost reports included errors like hospitals using data for more than 12 months and incorporating services other than acute-care services," Cohen reports. "The CMS also neglected to include some required services in its incentive payment calculations, such as labor and delivery services, as well as some services related to intensive-care units."

The OIG reviewed a sample of 99 payments out of the 8,297 payments made in the audited time period. Those payments totaled $152.2 million, and $1.3 million were incorrect—less than 1 percent. They came up with the $93.6 million figure by extrapolation, Cohen reports. The OIG recommended that CMS instruct Medicare administrative contractors to review all hospitals' records to see if there are any more such errors and attempt to recover only non-final payments.

Project aims to capture the wide variety in Appalachian accents in North Carolina and instill pride in its speakers

Map by North Carolina Language and Life Project; click the image to enlarge it.
If you hear someone talk about an Appalachian accent, you might hear the echo of a Kentucky twang in your head. But accents and terminology vary widely even within Appalachia, which nearly 26 million people in 13 states call home. Mountains foster isolation, which has led to communities even a few miles apart having slightly different accents and vocabulary.

Walt Wolfram, a linguistics professor at North Carolina State University, is trying to showcase the variety in Appalachian speech in his state through the North Carolina Language and Life Project, Cass Herrington reports for Blue Ridge Public Radio.

"We celebrate our wonderful Southern writers, we celebrate our artists, we celebrate our songwriters, but we tend to stigmatize language," Wolfram told Herrington. "One of the things we need to understand is that language is part of our history, it’s part of our tradition and we need to start celebrating that." Because of that stigma, many Appalachians have worked hard to lose their native accent to gain an edge in the workplace.

The project also aims to capture the ethnic diversity that informs North Carolina Appalachian accents, contradicting the narrative that Appalachian means white. In fact, 18.2% of Appalachians were racial minorities in 2016, up from 16.4% in 2010, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission. "But there have been communities of color in the region all along," including the Cherokee, Herrington reports.

The project has produced material that teachers can incorporate in lessons. "Wolfram says he hopes instead of feeling shame, people will be encouraged to celebrate their heritage, to include how they sound," Herrington reports.

Oil production and jobs from shale slow down; Dallas Fed economist says boom is 'done' unless oil prices jump

Permian Basin oil drilling and production in Texas and New Mexico has fostered a big jump in hydraulic fracturing jobs over the past decade, but production is slowing and is dragging local economies with it. A new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas shows that Texas lost about 8,100 extraction jobs from December 2018 to October 2019, nearly double the losses estimated earlier this year by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"Fracking has made the U.S. the world’s top oil producer, buoyed the national economy and helped the country become a net exporter of crude and petroleum products for the first time in decades," Rebecca Elliott reports for The Wall Street Journal. "But the rapid production growth of recent years is waning as shale companies, many of which have struggled to make money, focus on profits over expansion to satisfy unhappy investors."

Michael Plante, senior economist at the Dallas Fed, summed it up for Elliott: "The boom time is done at this point, unless oil prices go up significantly."

According to energy analytics firm Rystad Energy, North American spending on fracking is expected to fall about 6 percent in 2019 and drop another 14% in 2020, Elliott reports.

"In Texas, the nation’s top oil-producing state, energy industry employment has dropped at an annualized rate of 2.1% in the year to date through September, Dallas Fed data show," Elliott reports. "Such granular figures weren’t available in other oil-producing states, but BLS data show that in North Dakota, seasonally adjusted employment in mining and logging, which includes the oil-and-gas industry, fell about 9% from January through October. Employment has been steadier in Colorado and New Mexico."

In Texas and New Mexico, "trucks carrying sand, water and crude still clog the highways, new homes continue to be built, and regional unemployment was 2.4% in October, up from a recent low of 1.9% in April but below the national average of 3.3%, not seasonally adjusted, according to the Texas Workforce Commission," Elliott reports. "Still, oil-and-gas workers have begun to see their hours cut, and hotel occupancy in Midland has fallen 14% through the first 10 months of the year from a year earlier."

House passes spending bill; what's in it for agriculture?

Tuesday the House of Representatives passed a $1.4 trillion appropriations bill for 2020. It's expected to clear the Senate and President Trump is expected to sign it by Friday, averting a government shutdown. Here's some of what's in the bill, according to Ryan McCrimmon of Politico's Morning Agriculture:
  • $23.4 billion in discretionary funding for food and farm programs in the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.
  • An extra $1.5 billion in aid for farmers and ranchers affected by this year's extreme weather. The aid will also help sugar beet growers in the Upper Midwest who are facing a bad harvest.
  • A ban on using federal funds to block interstate transportation of hemp or interfere with the processing, sales or use of legally grown hemp.
  • Revival of the biodiesel tax credit, including ethanol, which expired in 2017, for five years, retroactive to 2018.
  • Language ordering the Interior Department to provide more information and transparency about its relocation of Bureau of Land Management headquarters to Grand Junction, Colo.
  • House Democrats wanted language that would stop USDA from moving the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City, but the bill only includes a provision barring USDA from reorganizing its agencies from one branch of the department to another.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

ACA open enrollment has been extended until 3 a.m. ET Wed., but federal officials haven't made a very big deal of it

Open enrollment for "Obamacare" health insurance has been extended until 3 a.m. ET on Wednesday, Dec. 18, because of extensive computer glitches that happened over the weekend.

The original deadline was 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 15. The last day is always the busiest, but many people trying to enroll via the website or by phone ran into delays and other issues. Despite the problems, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said in a statement that more than half a million people were able to enroll on Sunday. According to CMS, "people who already left their names and contact information with the call center on Sunday don’t need to come back and reapply because a representative will follow up with them later in the week," Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar reports for The Associated Press.

The nonprofit Get America Covered urged the administration to extend the sign-up. The group was founded by ex-Obama administration officials to get the word out about ACA open enrollment after the Trump administration halved the sign-up period and slashed budgets for advertising, outreach and "navigators," people who help others sign up for coverage, Alonso-Zaldivar notes.

Get America Covered co-founder Joshua Peck applauded the extension, but said he worries that the administration isn't doing much to publicize or clarify it. The home page still says in big letters that open enrollment is over. A banner with much smaller letters at the top of the page says it has been extended, which could confuse users, Sarah Gantz reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

"Senior lawmakers of both major parties are urging the administration to publicize the availability of a redo for seniors who got inaccurate or confusing results using the Medicare Plan Finder. A redesign of the Medicare site produced search results that didn’t automatically rank the prescription drug plan with the lowest total cost first," Alonso-Zaldivar reports.

Peck noted that there were serious glitches on the first day of open enrollment too, and called on CMS to not only extend the deadline and publicize it more, but to also commit to being transparent about what caused the glitches and what the agency has done to ensure they won't happen again, Gantz reports.

Feral hogs spreading north; could threaten crops and more

Feral swine (U.S. Department of Agriculture photo)
Feral swine, which have plagued Southern states for years, have spread northward and have established colonies in places like Montana, North Dakota, and the Canadian prairie, Jim Robbins reports for The New York Times.

Feral hogs are more than a nuisance. They are "widely considered to be the most destructive invasive species in the United States. They can do remarkable damage to the ecosystem, wrecking crops and hunting animals like birds and amphibians to near extinction," Robbins reports. "They have wrecked military planes on runways. And although attacks on people are extremely rare, in November feral hogs killed a woman in Texas who was arriving for work in the early morning hours."

Feral hogs have roamed parts North America for centuries, mostly sticking to the southern half; about half of the six million feral swine in the U.S. live in Texas. But over the past 30 years, their range has expanded to 38 states from 17. "Many experts thought the pigs couldn’t thrive in cold climates. But they burrow into the snow in winter, creating so-called pigloos — a tunnel or cave with a foot or two of snow on top for insulation. Many have developed thick coats of fur," Robbins reports.

It's probably not an accident that feral hogs are appearing so far north, said Dale Nolte, manager of the feral swine program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "It’s not natural dispersion," Nolte told Robbins. "We have every reason to believe they are being moved in the backs of pickup trucks and released to create hunting opportunities."

Old-style Catholics' migration to Kansas town an example of 'cultural secession' that has implications for societal diversity

Students at the local Catholic school sing with Father
Paul-Isaac Franks (Atlantic photo by Bryan Schutmaat)
We've written more than once about how a person's political views can influence where they move, but a small Kansas town dominated by old-school Roman Catholics is an extreme example of the desire to live among like-minded people, Emma Green reports for The Atlantic.

In St. Mary's, Kansas, a town of about 4,000, the vast majority of people are Catholic. That's not an accident: In the 1960s, many Catholics objected to the liturgical changes made by the Second Vatican Council and sought to practice their faith more traditionally (saying Mass in Latin, for example). So they formed the Society of St. Pius X, commonly called SSPX, named for a pope (1903-14) who opposed modernism, and have settled in a number of small communities all over the world.

Catholics from all over the country have settled in St. Mary's over the past 40 years, drawn by the opportunity to practice their faith apart from mainstream America. The town isn't cut off from modern life—people watch Hulu and shop at Sam's Club—but SSPX Catholicism permeates the town. The mayor and the entire city council are SSPX Catholics. Few women work, and families are large, since they don't believe in using birth control; so many children have been born in St. Mary's that the SSPX population has more than doubled the town's size since the 1960s, Green reports.

SSPX communities aren't a new concept. "Throughout American history, religious groups have walled themselves off from the rhythms and mores of society . . . These groups ostensibly have little in common, but they share a sense that living according to their beliefs while continuing to participate in mainstream American life is not possible. They have elected to undertake what might be termed cultural secession," Green reports. "Katherine Dugan, an assistant professor of religion at Springfield College, in Massachusetts, who studies Catholicism in the U.S., describes the desire for protected, set-apart communities as 'a natural American response to not liking what the cultural context is.'"

St. Marys, Kansas (Wikipedia map)
SSPX followers told Green they felt isolated by their faith before they moved to St. Mary's, that they were concerned about being labeled bigots by co-workers or friends, and that they worried about raising children in an increasingly secular society.

It's hard to measure just secular a nation is, but there's something to the SSPX followers' fears that the U.S. is becoming more secular. Millennials (those aged 23-38) are almost as likely to say they have no religion as they are to identify as Christians, Daniel Cox and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux report for FiveThirtyEight. That's perhaps unsurprising, they note, since a new national survey found that millennials are less likely than other generations to have been raised with strong ties to religion in the first place.

"In 2000, 41% of the country said they attended religious services once a week or more, compared to 14% in 2000 who said they never did. This year we found less than 30%; 29% of Americans say they attend religious services weekly or more, compared with 26% who now tell us they never attend," said Chuck Todd on Meet the Press last week, referring to a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

So, SSPX residents of St. Mary's aren't wrong when they say American society is changing. But, Green cautions: "The rise of more radical self-sorting poses a challenge to America’s experiment in multicultural democracy, enshrined in the motto e pluribus unum—'Out of many, one.' The dream of a diverse society is replaced with one in which different groups coexist, but mostly try to stay out of one another’s way. The ongoing experiment in St. Marys suggests what might be gained by such a realignment—and what might be lost."

Webinar tomorrow at 1 ET on USDA rural broadband funds

The Rural Development office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture will host a free webinar at 1 p.m. ET on Dec. 18 to discuss USDA's ReConnect Program, which offers grants and loans to improve rural broadband buildout.

A second round of ReConnect funding was announced on Dec. 12. The USDA will provide up to $200 million in grants, $200 million in low-interest loans, and up to $200 million for 50/50 loan/grant combinations. Applications must be submitted by March 16.

In the hour-long webinar, Rural Development staff will go over types of funding, eligibility requirements, the application process, and more. They will also talk about the program requirements as outlined in the 2019 Funding Opportunity Announcement published on Dec. 12.

Click here to register. If you are unable to attend, a recording may be available afterward.

Speaker of Nebraska Legislature proposes increasing number of state senators to help rural districts

Jim Scheer, the Speaker of the Nebraska Legislature, has proposed increasing the number of senators in the state's unique, unicameral body, Paul Hammel reports for the Omaha World-Herald.

The state legislature now has 49 senators, the smallest number of such representatives in the nation. Scheer "said that allowing the body to expand to up to 55 senators would not only ease the process of redistricting after the 2020 Census but would also ensure that some rural districts don’t grow so large geographically as populations shift that constituents lose contact with their state senator," Hammel reports.

The state constitution requires districts to be evenly divided by population and calls for counties to be left as whole as possible, which can make for huge rural legislative districts that sometimes dip into suburban or urban areas. Scheer said some legislative districts in the central and western parts of the state spread over hundreds of miles, and that the problem is expected to worsen when the Legislature draws up new districts in 2021, Hammel reports.

While increasing the number of senators would not necessarily preserve rural influence, the mere fact that more individuals are in the Legislature could avoid a possible reduction of rural voices. 

Monday, December 16, 2019

How Sandy Hook helped alter the gun-control conversation: more state and local gun-control laws in the last 7 years

A snapshot of the range of gun-control laws in the states as of 2018.
(Business Insider map; click to enlarge it)
It's been seven years and two days since 26 people — 20 of them children — were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The shooting was so shocking that it touched off a major shift in the national conversation about gun control and has led to new laws in many states and localities, Reid Wilson reports for The Hill.

"In the years since Sandy Hook, 21 state legislatures have expanded background-check requirements on various types of gun sales," Wilson reports. "Seventeen states, mostly those controlled by Democrats, have passed red-flag laws that allow law enforcement to take guns away from someone who may pose a danger to themselves or others. And 28 states have enacted laws requiring those convicted of domestic abuse to give up their firearms."

The move toward more gun-control measures has also sparked pro-gun rights measures in more conservative states and localities. "Several states have passed measures expanding the right to carry concealed firearms, even without a permit, and others are moving to allow firearms on school grounds as part of a response to mass shootings," Wilson reports. "In the last seven years, the NRA counts more than 460 pro-gun measures that have passed state legislatures."

The biggest change is that guns are no longer the "third rail of American politics," Wilson writes. Gun control used to be mainly a rural vs. urban issue, and Reid notes that rural Democrats were once the source of some of the most vehement gun-rights legislation. But gun control has become increasingly a partisan issue over the past few decades, and these days, "backing stricter gun laws, once a sure path to defeat in rural and suburban communities, has become a winning issue — or at least a neutral issue — for some candidates."

That might have to do with the increased political spending from anti-gun and gun-safety groups as the NRA becomes less popular (and has less money to spend on lobbying). "In 2018, gun-control groups spent more than the NRA on campaigns and elections for the first time in recent memory," Wilson reports. "The following year, those groups outspent the NRA by a huge margin in Virginia, home of the NRA’s headquarters."

Agriculture-purchase details in trade deal remain murky

U.S. and Chinese negotiators unveiled an interim trade agreement last week, but some trade issues still remain unresolved, and the details of the agreement are unclear. The 86-page agreement, which hasn't been made public yet, is expected to be signed in January, Evelyn Cheng reports for CNBC.

Because trade issues between the two nations are so contentious and wide-ranging, negotiators agreed to break the talks into phases. Both countries announced they had agreed on a "phase one" deal that includes agricultural purchases, which could boost President Trump's re-election bid. China reportedly promised to buy $40 billion in U.S. farm goods per year; Trump said he expected that to increase to $50 billion "pretty soon" and "U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told reporters that China would buy at least $16 billion more agricultural goods in each of the next two years. The report said that could bring total purchases to near $50 billion in 2020 and 2021," Cheng reports.

But economists from Japanese finance company Nomura Holdings Inc., including its chief China economist, Ting Lu, said over the weekend, "That scale of purchases seems implausible and Chinese officials were reluctant to mention any specific target during their press conference," Cheng reports.

Both nations are making conciliatory gestures. "The U.S. held off raising tariffs on Chinese goods on Sunday, and Beijing did not go ahead with planned retaliatory tariffs," Cheng notes. "China has also been increasing its purchases of American soybeans this year, despite an overall expected decline in Chinese demand for the product, according to the U.S. Soybean Export Council."

However, "It’s still unclear how and when the U.S. will roll back other tariffs, a condition for a phase-one deal that the Chinese side has firmly maintained," Cheng reports. "The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said in a statement that the United States will keep 25 percent tariffs on about $250 billion of Chinese imports, along with 7.5% duties on roughly $120 billion of Chinese imports."

"Lighthizer said Beijing has also agreed to reduce longstanding non-tariff barriers to U.S. farm exports, including trade restrictions on beef, poultry, seafood, dairy, rice, infant formula, animal feed, pet foods, feed additives and a variety of biotechnology products," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture. "Farmers have long been frustrated by China’s slow approval process for approving biotech crops, which has impeded U.S. exports of certain corn and soybean varieties."

USDA releases 2019 report on family farms

On Friday the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service released a new report with updated data on family farms in the United States. "America's Diverse Family Farms: 2019 Edition" aims to give stakeholders a more granular view of farm life in 2018, since huge farming operations can skew averages. The report is based on a sample of about 15,800 farms.

"In 2018, the average value of production on the 2 million U.S. farms amounted to $174,038," the report says. "Few farms, however, are near the average; half of farms had production valued at $6,000 or less, while more than half of all production occurred on farms with at least $1 million of agricultural production."

USDA defines a family farm as one where the principal operator, and possibly some relatives, own the majority of the business and make most day-to-day decisions. Farm size is measured by gross cash farm income, which includes sales of crops and livestock, government payments, fees from production contracts, and other farm-related income. Here are a few highlights from the report:
  • Family farms accounted for 98 percent of farms and 88% of production in 2018.
  • Large-scale family farms accounted for the largest share of production, at 46%.
  • About 90% of U.S. farms were classified as small, meaning they have a gross cash farm income of less than $350,000.
  • Small farms accounted for 48% of the land operated by farms. 
  • Between 58% and 81% of small family farms, depending on type, were deemed at high risk of financial problems. However, the report notes that the operators of many small farms don't consider that their primary occupation and receive substantial income from off-farm sources.
  • Midsize and large-scale family farms accounted for 82% of cotton production, 74% of cash grains/soybeans production, and 66% of hog production.

FCC OKs 3-digit number for suicide and mental-health crisis calls, to start in 18 months; could also help thwart overdoses

The Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously Thursday to move ahead with a plan to set up a suicide-prevention and mental-health crisis hotline. It's similar to the 911 hotline, but "instead of dialing the police, the number would connect callers to experts in suicide prevention and mental health," Colin Dwyer reports for NPR. "The proposed number, 988, would link callers to an already existing network of crisis centers around the country set up by the Department of Health and Human Services."

The network of 163 call centers can already be reached through 1-800-273-TALK, or online, but the FCC believes that dialing 988 will be easier to remember, will make suicide prevention efforts more effective, and will reduce the stigma surrounding suicide and mental-health conditions, the FCC said in a study prepared in collaboration with the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. "Congress requested the report as part of the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act, passed and signed into law last year in a rare display of bipartisan agreement," Dwyer notes.

It could be a while before the 988 hotline goes live; the public comment notice proposes an 18-month time frame for the project. Right now, the proposal is open to public comment, then the commission will finalize the rules, Dwyer reports.

The notion of treating mental-health crises more like physical-health crises seems to be catching on, as more lawmakers and stakeholders recognize that stigma is a major barrier to treatment. In Kentucky, the chair of the state House Health and Welfare Committee, Rep. Kim Moser, has filed a bill to create a program to train people in first aid for mental-health and substance-use crisis situations, Melissa Patrick of Kentucky Health News reports.

Dec. 19 webinar to discuss 2020 agriculture outlook

A free webinar on Dec. 19 at 12:30 p.m. ET will discuss the 2020 agricultural economic forecast.

Purdue University ag economists Jim Mintert and Michael Langemeier will go over updated corn and soybean supply and demand estimates and price projections, marketing strategies for 2019 and 2020 crops, profit projections for 2020, and the relative merits of signing up for the different types of federal crop insurance.

The one-hour webinar is free, but registration is required. If you are unable to attend, the hosts say they will email you a recording afterward. Click here to register or for more information.

Rural Minn. woman sues after two pharmacists refuse to fill morning-after pill prescription because of religious beliefs

McGregor in Aitkin County (Wikipedia)
A rural Minnesota woman has filed suit after two pharmacists refused to sell her emergency contraception because of their religious beliefs. She says the issue highlights how religious-objection rules hurt rural women, Katie Shepherd reports for The Washington Post.

Andrew Anderson, 39, lives in McGregor, a town of about 400 people. She and her longtime partner have one biological child and four adopted or foster children. When their condom broke in January 2019, Anderson called her gynecologist the next morning and received a prescription for Ella, an emergency contraceptive. The prescription was sent to Thrifty White Pharmacy, the only one in McGregor.

The pharmacist at Thrifty White, George Badeaux, refused to fill Anderson's prescription because he said it would be against his religious beliefs. Badeaux, who is also a pastor at a nearby church, advised her not to go to a nearby pharmacy because the employees there would also probably refuse to fill the prescription, Shepherd reports.

"Anderson did not give up. She drove about 20 miles to a CVS pharmacy in a neighboring town, where another pharmacist declined to fill her prescription," Shepherd writes. "Anderson said that pharmacist, who is not named in the suit, told her the pharmacy did not have Ella in stock and could not get it from a wholesale provider in time for her to take the pill, which must be taken within five days of unprotected sex.

Anderson said the CVS pharmacist called a Walgreens in Brainerd, more than 50 miles from her home, and told her that it didn't have the pill. However, when Anderson called the Walgreens herself, the pharmacist there confirmed that the CVS pharmacist had just called, and said the store did have Ella in stock and would be happy to fill her prescription the next day, Shepherd reports. She and her young son made a three-hour round trip in a blizzard to fill the prescription, he writes.

Anderson sued Badeaux, Thrifty White, and the unnamed CVS pharmacist who refused to fill her prescription and misinformed her about its availability at the Brainerd Walgreens. She notes in her lawsuit that, though Minnesota allows pharmacists to refuse to fill emergency contraception prescriptions because of personal beliefs, the law requires the objecting pharmacist to help the patient find another way to fill the prescription, and neither pharmacist did that, Shepherd reports.

"The lawsuit argues that refusing to provide women access to the morning-after pill is a form of sex discrimination and violates people’s civil rights," Shepherd reports. "Anderson said she believes rural women are particularly at risk to have their medical needs overshadowed by a pharmacist’s personal beliefs because there are so few places to buy medication."