Friday, January 10, 2020

Stringed-instrument school in southeastern Kentucky helps give recovering opioid addicts a sense of purpose

Doug Naselroad works on a dulcimer.
(Photo from Appalachian School of Luthiery)
"With the opioid epidemic spreading across the country, programs are coming up with unique ways to help recovering addicts. One program in Kentucky is using Appalachian music and culture to heal," Tomas Hoppough reports for Scripps Media.

Every week at the Appalachian School of Luthiery in Hindman, Doug Naselroad teaches students of all ages how to make traditional stringed instruments like banjos, mountain dulcimers, guitars and more. Some of those students come from a nearby drug rehabilitation center.

Naselroad believes that teaching a hands-on craft like luthiery can give people a purpose and help subvert the despair that often leads to opioid abuse. Opioid abuse "has to do with filling your hands with the wrong thing because the right thing hasn’t come along yet for you to do," he told Hoppough. "We offer these individuals a way to focus on something other than their drug problem."

Hindman, in Knott County. (Wikipedia map)
Recovering opioid addict Jeremy Henne agrees. He told Hoppough that he became addicted after a doctor prescribed him opioids for back pain. Learning luthiery "really gave me a sense of direction, a sense of purpose," he said.

Naselroad said he also hopes that learning luthiery will help recovering addicts to appreciate traditional local culture more and inspire a sense of pride in being Appalachian. "There’s a lot that’s precious and excellent about Appalachian culture and we need people to understand that’s what we’re working toward," he told Hoppough.

Quick hits: old rural hospitals need widespread repairs; rural Italian restaurant gives felons a second chance

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at

An Italian restaurant in rural California gives felons a second chance. Read more here.

The absence of coordinated federal policies and little regulatory accountability are some of the reasons rural areas still lack broadband, writes the CEO of a fiber-optic internet service provider. Large telecoms have lobbied for laws to block restrict local broadband projects, and such laws have passed in 19 states. But local solutions tend to be better, he writes. Read more here.

America's aging hospitals need widespread structural repairs and aren't ready to be wired up for new health technology such as telemedicine, according to an op-ed. Read more here.

As part of its efforts to strengthen ties with law enforcement, Walmart stores have begun reserving prime parking spots for police officers. Read more here.

Report says federal drug laws and crackdown on undocumented immigrants fuel expansions of rural jails

The Grayson County Detention Center in Leitchfield, Ky., pop. 7,000, houses federal prisoners and is expanding.
Though the federal government has only a small role in state prison systems, it is "playing a large and overlooked role in the incarceration of people in jails in rural counties and small cities . . . across the country," Jack Norton and Jacob Kang-Brown report for the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit that promotes incarceration reform.

That's because an increasing number of people detained by the federal government are held in a network of locally run county jails. Federal prosecutors began going after drug offenders more aggressively in the mid-1980s, but federal prisons didn't have the capacity to hold all the new prisoners. So the the U.S. Marshals Service began contracting with county jails, Norton and Kang-Brown report. More recently, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been sending suspected undocumented immigrants to such jails while awaiting trial for deportation.

"In much of rural America, excess jail capacity is built to be rented to federal agencies and other counties," Norton and Kang-Brown report. "USMS and ICE have played a key role in jail expansion in the United States over the last few decades. The promise of per-diem payments from USMS and ICE has helped local administrators build larger jails and expand their operating budgets. Bigger jails enable counties to incarcerate immigrants and asylum seekers for ICE and pretrial detainees held for USMS, which in turn generates revenue that offsets the cost of detaining and incarcerating local people. County leaders also try to build up local jail capacity in order to avoid paying neighboring counties to hold people for them. The result has been an inter-county carceral arms race in much of the country, producing greater capacity to incarcerate at the local level and bigger and bigger jails."

Though the overall incarcerated population in the U.S. has decreased in the past decade, jail and prison capacity has increased, especially in rural areas that increasingly rely on jails for revenue, according to a recent Vera Institute report. That report also showed that expanding jails as a moneymaker could be a long-term financial risk.

China halts plans to buy more ethanol from the U.S.

China is halting plans to require its gasoline blend to contain 10 percent ethanol this year, dashing the hopes of Americans who had hoped to export more corn-based ethanol.

"China was expected to increase imports of U.S. ethanol after the recent announcement of Phase 1 of a trade agreement," Hallie Gu, Muyu Xu, and Shivani Singh report for Reuters. "But at a meeting in late December with ethanol producers and oil majors, China’s National Development and Reform Commission said it will now halt the rollout of ethanol-gasoline supplies beyond the current handful of provinces that have already implemented full or partial blends, according to two of the three sources briefed on the meeting."

Chinese officials announced in 2017 the plan to move to an E10 fuel mix starting in 2020. But in 2017 the nation had a huge corn surplus, and now it doesn't. China also lacks the infrastructure to produce enough corn-based ethanol to meet the E10 target, Reuters reports.

American corn and ethanol producers had hoped to revive trade with China. In 2016, the U.S. exported about 20% of its fuel ethanol to China, worth $300 million that year, but ethanol exports to China have slowed dramatically because of the tariffs added during the trade war. "In 2018, China was the eighth-biggest market for U.S. ethanol exports, taking up 52.9 million gallons of the corn-based fuel, according to the RFA. It also bought 290,173 tonnes of U.S. corn, U.S. Agriculture Department data shows," Reuters reports.

Trump administration proposal would nix federal environmental reviews for most construction projects

"The Trump administration on Thursday unveiled significant changes to the nation’s landmark environmental law that would make it easier for federal agencies to approve infrastructure projects without considering climate change," Emma Newburger reports for CNBC. The administration has argued that the overhaul is necessary to help businesses grow and protect jobs.

Under the White House Council on Environmental Quality's proposed changes to the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act, construction projects that don't have major government funding would no longer require any kind of federal environmental review. The category of NEPA-exempt projects would also be expanded, Newburger reports.

Response to the proposal was sharply divided. Business groups lauded it because they say the law has delayed or blocked projects like oil pipelines, dams, mines, and more. Environmentalists said the changes would hurt wildlife and put more greenhouse gases into the air, Newburger reports. 

"The move is the latest effort by the Trump administration to roll back a slew of environmental regulations in place to curb greenhouse gas emissions and protect natural habitats from drilling and development," Newburger reports. "The changes are expected to be published in the Federal Register on Friday. There will be a 60-day comment period and two open hearings before the final regulation is delivered." If approved, the proposed changes would be the first major overhaul to the rules in more than 40 years. Lawsuits are expected.

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Study says American businesses and consumers are bearing the financial brunt of tariffs on Chinese-made goods

Though President Trump promised that tariffs on Chinese goods would not hurt Americans, a new data analysis shows otherwise, Jeanna Smialek and Ana Swanson report for The New York Times.

"U.S. tariffs continue to be almost entirely born by U.S. firms and consumers," Mary Amiti, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, wrote in the new National Bureau of Economic Research paper.

To track the fallout of the tariffs, Amiti and her co-authors studied customs data through October. "The authors found that Americans had continued paying for the levies — which increased substantially over the course of the year," Smialek and Swanson report. "Their paper, which is an update on previous research, found that 'approximately 100 percent' of import taxes fell on American buyers." The trade war has hit farmers and the manufacturing industry particularly hard, though other factors have contributed to those sectors' difficulties.

Some economic fallout from the tariffs takes longer to hit; that's because it takes a while for companies to change their supply chains to avoid the tariffs, Smialek and Swanson report.

The analysis "joins a growing body of research examining the effects of the escalating tariffs Mr. Trump has imposed since the beginning of 2018," Smialek and Swanson report. "In previous research, the authors found that by December 2018, import tariffs were costing United States consumers and importing businesses $3.2 billion per month in added taxes and another $1.4 billion per month in efficiency losses. They did not update those numbers in the latest study."

Transportation, fear of stigma and lack of confidentiality biggest barriers to use of rural syringe exchanges: Ky. study

Counties in study are in red; click on the image to enlarge it.
Rural residents who inject drugs say they are less likely to access syringe exchange programs because of transportation problems, inability to get to the service at times it's open, and concerns about stigma, lack of confidentiality, and law enforcement. So says a newly published study examining barriers that can prevent people who inject drugs (PWIDs) from accessing syringe service programs (SSPs) in Appalachian Kentucky.

The researchers surveyed 186 PWIDs who used their local health department SSPs in three rural counties in 2018: Clark, Knox and Owsley (though Clark is in a metropolitan area, much of it is rural). Kentucky leads the nation in the number of SSPs, partly because it has 120 counties. As of July 2019, it had 52 SSPs that aim to reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis C by giving PWIDs clean needles and disposing of dirty ones, and often offer more information about addiction treatment services when the person is ready.

Among the study's participants, 53.2 percent were male, 92.5% were non-Hispanic whites, and 78.5% had Medicaid coverage. About 39% said they injected more than one drug; methamphetamine was the single most popular drug, with 45.2% reporting it as the primary drug they inject. The next most popular was non-prescribed buprenorphine, which is sold legally as Suboxone for drug treatment (25.8%), followed by heroin (16.1%), other non-prescribed opioids (11.3%), and various other drugs (1.6%).

The biggest barrier to SSP use was the lack of transportation, with 18.3% reporting it as the primary barrier. Other barriers were: inability to access the program during operating hours, which are often limited (12.9%); concerns about stigma, privacy, and/or law enforcement (9.1%), not enough syringes (5.4%); and the location of the program (4.8%).

Participants' concerns varied based on the degree of their county's rurality. In Clark and Knox counties, the least rural, transportation was the most frequently cited barrier. But in Owsley, the most rural county, fear of stigma and lack of confidentiality ranked highest.

Rurality also factored into participants' consistency in accessing the SSPs. Participants in Knox and Owsley were more likely to consistently use the program than participants in Clark. The researchers believe the more consistent uptake in rural areas is because people in rural areas tend to have higher residential stability. However, Clark County participants may be less likely to consistently use SSPs because they're more likely to have an alternate means of accessing clean needles.

The study is part of a larger National Institutes of Health-funded effort to learn about SSP uptake in rural areas. This study's authors recently published another study about PWIDs in the same three counties, focused on what kind of interventions are most effective and which drug users are most likely to seek treatment.

Deadlines listed for some journalism awards competitions

Rural journalists all over the country deliver great journalism and deserve recognition and funding for it. Here's a list of journalism awards and fellowships with upcoming deadlines.
  • Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc. is still seeking entries for its 2019 contest. Entries should highlight outstanding investigative reporting in print, broadcast and online media. Deadline is Jan. 12. Click here for more information.
  • The Society of Professional Journalists will accept entries for its annual Mark of Excellence Awards, which honors student journalism, through Jan. 14. Click here for more information.
  • The Religion Communicators Council is accepting entries for the 2020 Wilbur Awards until Jan. 24. The award honors excellence in secular media in communicating religious issues, values and themes. Click here for more information.
For a longer list of upcoming deadlines for award or fellowship applications, click here or here.

Many farmers seek old tractors that are more easily repaired than newer models with proprietary computer systems

A 1978 John Deere 4440, one of the most popular models on
the market. (Photo from Mecum Auctions)
New tractors come with a lot of bells and whistles, but many farmers are rejecting them in favor of 40-year-old models.

"Tractors manufactured in the late 1970s and 1980s are some of the hottest items in farm auctions across the Midwest these days — and it’s not because they’re antiques," Adam Belz reports for the StarTribune in Minneapolis. "Cost-conscious farmers are looking for bargains, and tractors from that era are well-built and totally functional, and aren’t as complicated or expensive to repair as more recent models that run on sophisticated software."

Farmers can't easily fix even simple problems with new tractors because the tractors come with proprietary software that requires a dealership to access it. For the past several years, many farmers have been hacking their newer tractors with black-market software so they can make their own repairs. "Tractor hacking is growing increasingly popular because John Deere and other manufacturers have made it impossible to perform 'unauthorized' repair on farm equipment, which farmers see as an attack on their sovereignty and quite possibly an existential threat to their livelihood if their tractor breaks at an inopportune time," Jason Koebler reports for Vice.

The older models can be easily fixed or retrofitted with modern features by a farmer or a local mechanic and can last decades, with proper maintenance. "These things, they’re basically bulletproof. You can put 15,000 hours on it and if something breaks you can just replace it," Greg Peterson told Belz. Peterson is the founder of Machinery Pete, a farm equipment data company with a used farming equipment sales website and TV show.

In the meantime, farmers are pushing for "right-to-repair" laws that would invalidate the licensing agreements Deere and other manufacturers force buyers to sign, Koebler reports. As of March 2019, about 20 states have considered right-to-repair bills.

How closing rural schools can hurt communities

When a rural public school closes, the fallout can be devastating to the students and to the community in general, Mara Casey Tieken writes for The Conversation. Tieken, who researches rural education, notes that schools are often closed to save money, but the minimal research that exists on the topic suggests that savings are minimal.

"As I explained in my book on rural schools, in many rural communities, schools are the largest employer," Tieken reports. "They provide political power, and they tie people together. Once the schools are gone, the community loses all of these benefits: There are smaller crowds at the diner and fewer seats on the school board. Property values may also decline." Moreover, she writes, "the demise of local schools can also lead to the closure of local businesses and expedite population losses."

Meanwhile, rural students often must spend a considerable amount of time on the school bus each day. In an example from rural Arkansas, Tiekan writes that students face a nearly two-hour bus ride each way. Students and parents are also less likely to get involved with after-school clubs and sports, even if their new school has more options. That's likely because of the longer commute, she writes.

School closure generally hurts students' grades in the short-term; long-term effects are mixed, and vary depending on the school district. "Closing a school can disrupt students’ relationships with peers and teachers and cause confusion and uncertainty. Some studies have shown an increase in absenteeism, though the effects may fade over time," Tieken writes.

School closures happen for a host of different reasons, often because of policies meant to save money, increase academic performance, and give disadvantaged students access to better opportunities. Other times, schools are forced to close because of laws that penalize schools with low standardized test scores. "These policies rest on two, usually unstated, assumptions. First, the threat of closure will encourage better teaching. Second, if a school closes, its students will get a better education elsewhere," Tieken writes. Also, some schools are forced to close when states require schools to offer new programs or pay staff more but don't provide extra funding, as happened in New York and Texas. 

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Rural residents have a hard time finding nursing homes nearby; often must place loved ones in facilities far away

Marlene Kennedy visits with her husband Earl in the nursing
home. (Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson)
Rural residents are having an increasingly hard time finding nearby nursing homes; that often means having to put loved ones in nursing homes far away where it will be more difficult and costly to visit.

More than 260 rural nursing homes across the nation have closed down in the past three years; those that stay open sometimes limit the number of residents who receive Medicaid, because it doesn't pay as much as private insurance. That often narrows options even further for people searching for a nursing home, Eli Saslow reports for The Washington Post.

Saslow illustrates the trend with the heart-wrenching portrait of a senior couple in rural Broken Bow, in central Nebraska. Marlene Kennedy was forced to put her husband Earl, who has Parkinson's disease, in a nursing home more than an hour away. Bad weather meant that their daughter couldn't drive her to see him for 10 days—the longest they had ever been apart in their 63-year marriage.

On the way to visit Earl, Marlene talked about her worries and how much she hates being separated from him, Saslow reports. "This drive always feels long," Marlene said. "You spend your whole life tied up right next to somebody, and then you don’t get to be there for the hardest parts. It doesn’t seem natural."

Alternative farm lender is single biggest trade-aid recipient, because it makes farmers assign payments to it

A high-interest alternative farm lender, Ag Resource Management, is the single largest recipient of federal aid to compensate farmers for low crop prices caused by China's retaliation in the trade war with President Trump, according to an analysis by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Over the past two years, ARM has received about $75 million bailout money out of the $15.5 billion the government has spent, under terms of its loans to farmers.

More and more farmers have been obliged to take out high-interest loans from lightly regulated alternative lenders like ARM. "Under USDA rules, farmers can assign government payments they’re eligible for to third parties. If a producer has debt with ARM, it’s required," Sky Chadde and Lucille Sherman report. Chadde is the Midwest Center’s Gannett agricultural data fellow, and Sherman is a Gannett data and investigations reporter.

ARM's loan volume has grown 40 percent over the past three years. Farmers seek such loans because they're easier to get than loans from traditional banks, especially if the farmer is financially stressed. Loans of some sort are often necessary to keep many farmers out of bankruptcy; farm debt was projected to hit a record $416 billion last year, up almost 40% since 2012.

"The development of turning to riskier loans shows how desperate some farmers have gotten to stay in operation," said Glen Smith, the chairman and chief executive officer of the Farm Credit Administration, which regulates some agricultural lenders. Many farmers are having a hard time making good on loans. "This year, the share of loans with 'major' or 'severe' repayment problems hit a 20-year high, according to a survey released in August by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, which examines economies in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin," Chadde and Sherman report.

California's oldest weekly finds local buyer, will stay open; plans nonprofit model, one alternative for saving papers

Downieville, Calif. (Wikipedia map)
Today's small, good thing: The oldest weekly newspaper in California was about to shutter, but has a new owner and will stay open, Brittney Mejia reports for the Los Angeles Times. The Mountain Messenger has been published since 1853 in Downieville, pop. 282; its main claim to fame is that Mark Twain wrote for the paper (as Sam Clemens) for a few weeks.

Editor and publisher Don Russell has been trying to find a buyer for the past year. He wanted to retire by mid-January, but was unable to find a replacement even after running ads locally and with the California Newspaper Publishers Association. In the paper's Dec. 12 edition, he put out a final plea for a buyer.

That's when Carl Butz stepped up. A fourth-generation Californian and a Downieville native, Butz has been a friend since Russell moved there in the mid-1990s. Russell tried to warn him the paper would cost too much to save, but "The next day, Butz came in with a check," Mejia reports. "Butz is aiming for a nonprofit model and wants to rely on more volunteers to help fill the paper, which for a long time has fallen on the paper’s two full-time employees, Russell and Jill Tahija."

Butz told Mejia it's important to save local newspapers. "There’s just been this rash of these things across the country; you lose the community," Butz said. "I think we need to have newspapers."

It's worth noting that Butz is pursuing a nonprofit business model. As Mark Glaser notes in a Knight Foundation article, "Local news publishers cannot depend on the old ways of doing business." The article offers five nontraditional business models for local newspaper owners to consider.

Some American dairy farmers put Mexican veterinarians in lousy, menial jobs through special NAFTA visa program

Veterinarian Leslie Ortiz was offered a job in the U.S.
as an animal scientist for Funk Dairy in Idaho. When
she arrived, she says she was told to perform menial
labor. (Photo provided by Ortiz to Journal Sentinel)
"As U.S. dairy farms struggle to find low-cost workers, some are using the special visa program to lure Mexican veterinarians and engineers with offers of high-skilled jobs, but then assign them to clean barns or other menial tasks — circumventing the visa rules for work requiring a college degree," Maria Perez reports for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "The work can be brutal and dangerous, the shifts long, the wages low. Sometimes there are no breaks — even in a 12-hour shift — and few days off."

Some vets quit after a few days or months, but others are stuck: they can't find a new, more suitable job unless another employer helps them get government approval, and they may lack money or transportation to move. Some stay with the job for years in hopes that the job conditions will improve or because they believe they'll still make more money in the U.S. than at home, Perez reports.

Perez found 23 Mexican university graduates who were hired by farmers through the program but who were assigned menial labor, but she writes that the real number is likely much higher. "Officials at dairy farms that use the TN visa program say they followed all of its requirements and made efforts to ensure those hired knew what type of work to expect," she reports.

TN visas (for Trade NAFTA) were authorized in 1994 by the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement; the number of TN visas increased rapidly after 2010; to date, more than 21,000 have been issued, Perez reports.

"The program has grown rapidly at a time the federal government has moved to restrict immigration," Perez reports. "Unlike some other visas, [it] doesn’t require businesses to first recruit Americans, pay thousands of dollars, or offer a prevailing wage. . . . Visa approval comes quickly, and there is no cap on how many can be issued, but a lack of scrutiny leaves the program open for abuse."

Study: coal-fired power plant closures may have saved 26,000 lives and improved crop yields from 2005 to 2016

Estimated number of lives saved by coal-fired plant closures, by county. (UC San Diego map; click on it to enlarge.)
Regardless of its impact on the job market, the decline of coal as an energy source in the United States may have saved lives. And probably improved local crop yields.

Electric utilities have increasingly switched to natural gas and renewable energy sources, forcing many coal-fired plants to close. According to a newly published study in the journal Nature, "More than 26,000 lives in the U.S. were saved over the course of a decade as a result of a drop in carbon emissions, along with smog and other pollutants tied with asthma and other ailments," Rebecca Beitsch reports for The Hill. "From 2005 to 2016, the period analyzed in the study, 334 coal-fired units were shut down, while 612 new natural gas-fired units came online across the U.S."

The study also found that, when coal-fired power plants closed, the drop in pollution tended to increase local crop yields, Beitsch reports. However, the study also notes that natural gas is "not entirely benign" and is a major source of the greenhouse gas methane.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Journalists discuss how to improve 2020 election reporting; concern voiced about rural parachute reporting

Journalists across the nation have been doing a lot of soul-searching since the 2016 election, concerned that poor coverage choices may have influenced the outcome.

"Nearly every major media outlet had spectacularly guessed wrong on the outcome, had failed to see the rise of the electorate that would elect Trump, and had not covered Trump as a serious candidate. Those sins, along with an obsession with Hillary Clinton’s emails and a wrongful dismissal of Russian involvement in the American election, pumped oxygen into the toxic political environment that helped produce the Trump presidency," write the editors of the Columbia Journalism Review. "This time around, the press has pledged to do better. Yet, with 11 months to go before Americans go to the polls again, there already are signs that journalists will repeat the mistakes of 2016."

So, CJR and The Guardian US teamed up to talk to 30 journalists who cover elections or monitor election coverage. Here's a sample what they had to say about 2016 coverage and what changes they plan or hope to see in 2020 on a range of subjects.

Sarah Kendzior, author of The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America, said coastal media outlets are "parachuting in here with the narrative pre-written trying to find people who fit their preconceptions of what people in the Midwest are like. . . . The best way they could fix this problem would be to hire people who actually live in these states."

The next quote comes from Al Cross, director of the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog: "You can’t have a parachute mentality. You have to have some rural sensibility or an appreciation of rural sensibility. You deal with them as people and you have an appreciation for how they live their lives, and be respectful of that. And if you show that to them, they will show that to you."

Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, said: "News media went from not noticing people whose life chances are impacted by the rustification of the Midwest to thinking that they are now the central story. It’s an absurd overcompensation. This is another instance of pack journalism, from ignoring a population to doubling down on a population. And in both cases, it’s a stampede reaction, not grounded in sociological knowledge or political science knowledge, but rather in a kind of feeling of having failed to get the odds right during the campaign."

In a discussion about polling, USA Today Washington Bureau chief Susan Page says, "You have to rely both on quantitative and qualitative interviews. Polling is really valuable, but it doesn’t tell you everything. You don’t want to go to a town, go to a diner, interview six people, and pretend like you know what people are saying. You want some quantitative data that enables you to say, ‘Hey, Pete Buttigieg is doing really well among older voters,’ then go out and talk to older voters about why that might be. In the USA Today/Suffolk poll, which is our big national poll, Joe Biden continues to do very well in the Democratic horse race. But we always do call-backs to people we polled to talk to them, to gather quotes. There’s just a different quality to the information you get in a conversation as compared to the data you get in a poll. And one thing we’ve noticed is that people who tell us they support Biden do not have the fervor of people who are supporting other candidates. And so by doing the callbacks, it makes us realize that that number is soft—we don’t know that it is going to change, but it might change."

New index offers better measurement of rural innovation

The latent innovation index. Map by Pennsylvania State University; click the image to enlarge it.
"Conventional measures of innovation suggest that only big cities foster new ideas, but a more comprehensive measure developed at Penn State shows that innovation is widespread even in rural places not typically thought of as innovative," Kristen Devlin reports for The Daily Yonder. "The 'hidden' innovation of rural areas brings economic benefits to businesses and communities, according to researchers, whose findings will help decision makers think in new ways about innovation and how they can support it."

The study on rural innovation, recently published in Research Policy, notes that innovation is typically measured by focusing on narrow parameters such as new products or processes that result in a patent or involve research and development spending. But that "overlooks another kind of innovation—the incremental improvements that businesses make to their products and processes as a result of information they obtain from outside their firm," said study co-author Stephan Goetz, an agricultural economics professor and director of the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development at Penn State. "Our measure shows that this latent, or hidden, innovation is at least as important to local income and employment growth as patent-level innovation."

You can read a longer description of their methodology in the Yonder, but essentially the study centers on the well-established fact that businesses commonly acquire information that prompts innovation through interactions with businesses in other industries. Goetz and co-author Yicheol Han wanted to examine those interactions to better understand where innovation opportunities are greatest, while accounting for geography and controlling for extraneous factors, Devlin reports. The "latent innovation index" they created assigns a score to each U.S. county based on the availability of latent innovation opportunities.

"They found that counties with higher innovation scores also had greater employment and income growth, even when they controlled for the number of patents held within a county. They also found that this type of innovation activity is present in both densely populated counties and sparsely populated, more rural counties," Devlin reports. "Goetz says that by understanding where and how this type of innovation is already happening, community leaders can foster it by providing venues to support the exchange of ideas among a variety of businesses. For example, they can host trade shows that encourage business interactions. They also can think more strategically about targeting industries for recruitment that complement local innovation spillovers based on existing industries."

Giant telecoms fighting requirements to provide higher broadband speeds under new rural subsidy program

Lobbyists for huge telecommunications companies such as AT&T, Verizon, and Windstream are fighting a proposed rule that would require telecoms to provide higher internet speeds in order to qualify for a rural broadband subsidy, Jon Brodkin reports for Ars Technica.

The Federal Communications Commission announced in December that it would scrap the 4G LTE rural subsidy plan and instead launch a $9 billion fund to bring 5G to rural areas. The 5G plan, called the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, plans to offer three tiers: a baseline tier with 25 megabytes per second download speed and 3 Mbps upload, an "above-baseline" tier with 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up, and a "gigabit performance" tier with 1Gbps down and 50 Mbps up, Brodkin reports.

Though most ISPs seem fine with the requirements for the bottom and top tiers, "it's the above-baseline tier of 100Mbps/20Mbps that providers object to," Brodkin reports. "They either want the FCC to lower that tier's upload speeds or create an additional tier that would be faster than baseline but slower than above-baseline. Companies pushing lower standards are trying to ensure that ISPs offering much slower speeds can get a large slice of that federal funding without making significant network upgrades."

According to a Dec. 23 comment filed with the FCC, the lobbying group USTelecom and other major telecoms proposed that the above-baseline tier's upload target should be 10 Mbps instead of 20 Mbps. They said that 20 Mbps upload speeds wouldn't benefit rural consumers much, and would make a negligible difference in HD streaming, video conferencing and gaming. They also said that lowering the target speed would incentivize telecoms to build out additional broadband and would save the rural subsidy fund money. However, Brodkin notes that the argument doesn't hold water, since advertised broadband speeds are "basically the best-case scenario" and consumers often see much slower speeds.

The Dec. 23 filing is the latest in a flurry of such filings. In October, AT&T filed a request for a slower tier of 50/6 Mbps up, and essentially advised "that the FCC should direct a larger share of the rural funding toward ISPs offering slower speeds," Brodkin reports. On Dec. 13, AT&T and other ISPs requested a new tier with 50/5 Mbps speeds and urged the FCC to prioritize lower-speed tiers. Such speeds would be a step back from what the 4G LTE program usually funds; more than half of the funds awarded are for 100/20 Mbps projects.

Notably, two groups representing smaller internet service providers (the Rural Broadband Association and ACA Connects) urged the FCC to reject proposals to lower speeds in a filing on Dec. 6, Brodkin reports.

The differing proposals reflect a schism in rural broadband providers: rural telephone and electric cooperatives are responsible for building out almost three-quarters of the fast fiber-optic broadband in the rural U.S., but the much slower Digital Subscriber Line broadband service, which transfers internet signals via existing telephone lines, remains the most common type of rural internet service. One big reason: big telecoms companies lobbied for and won major federal contracts to build rural broadband, then saved money by using the slower DSL technology instead of laying fiber-optic cable.

Dairy giant Borden files Chapter 11 bankruptcy

Borden Dairy Co. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Sunday, citing insurmountable debt that left it unable to cope with declining prices, rising costs, increasing competition and waning tastes for milk.

"In filing documents, Borden also highlighted eroding profit margins caused by industry consolidation and rising costs for fuel and the resin used in its bottles. A truck driver shortage has propped up transportation costs, too, it said," Niraj Chokshi reports for The New York Times. "Borden also said the cost of various pension and retirement obligations had contributed to its bankruptcy filing, including a $33 million pension settlement."

The Dallas-based company reported $1.18 billion in sales in 2018, but has been on rocky financial ground since at least 2017. Borden borrowed about $275 million that year, but then suffered net income losses for the next two years, Chokshi reports.

The announcement comes only two months after major Borden rival Dean Foods filed for Chapter 11 as well. Borden, which employs about 3,000 people, says it's in a better position than Dean to bounce back. Borden's chief executive, Tony Sarsam, told Chokshi: "Our operations are running in a way that gives us confidence that when we come out of this we’ll be in better shape."

An overview of agriculture issues to get attention in 2020

Though it's impossible to predict the future, a handful of issues are already contenders for the top issues facing agriculture in the coming year. Brent Gloy and David Widmar write for Agricultural Economic Insights. Here are a few on their "Top 11.5" list:

Farm income and Market Facilitation Program: "Ad hoc MFP payments in 2018 and 2019 have propped up farm incomes, but no such program is currently in play for 2020."

On the heels of farm income, farm finances will also be a top issue in 2020. "As we noted in 2019, the challenges in the farm economy go deeper than farm income," Gloy and Widmar write. "Specifically, the trends toward higher debt and lower working capital reveals an unfavorable trend on producers’ balance sheets. Will farm balance sheets stabilize in 2020?"

Other items on the list include the trade war with China, the U.S. economy, weather, and political issues. That last one encompasses a lot, Gloy and Widmar write: "USMCA. Impeachment. Tensions in the Middle East. Farm workforce modernization legislation. The EPA and RFS. Oh, and an election. There is a lot for lawmakers to get themselves distracted by in 2020. The biggest questions for agriculture – at least at this point – surround USMCA and the Phase 1 trade deal getting across the finish line. We also would not be surprised if farm policy and MFP get attention during the plethora of upcoming political debates."

Widmar and Gloy included a light-hearted entry for #11.5: What's up with those mysterious drones in Colorado and Nebraska?

Monday, January 06, 2020

Study finds that offering big tax breaks to lure businesses may not help broader economy, as local officials often say

Though state and local governments in the United States spend more than $30 billion every year to keep or attract businesses, a new study shows that the deals that offer the biggest incentives don't clearly help the broader regional economy, "The research calls into question the common practice of using narrow, firm-specific tax breaks to attract businesses and boost employment," Richard Rubin reports for The Wall Street Journal.

The researchers studied incentive deals from 2000 to 2017 that were worth at least $5 million. Counties that used incentives typically saw jobs in the targeted industry increase by about 1,500, but the researchers found no impact on countywide employment in other industries. That contradicts common rhetoric local officials often use to sell the public on the necessity of such incentives. "The motivation is often about the indirect jobs that are created," University of Texas government professor Nathan Jensen told Rubin. "You cannot make these decisions based on indirect jobs."

Moreover, the study found that "low-income areas often provide bigger incentives than more affluent areas, perhaps because they are seen as less attractive places to do business without such offers. Counties with average annual wages below $40,000 pay over $400,000 per job, while those with wages over $100,000 pay less than $100,000, according to the study," Rubin reports. "The researchers also found that larger, more profitable companies are more likely to get richer incentives."

The broad implications suggested by the research: "state and local governments should avoid tax breaks that pay out over many years and instead consider programs that invest more directly in job training and infrastructure that help businesses and have broader public benefits," Rubin reports.

VA puts telehealth sites at Walmarts and VFW posts

In an effort to reach more rural veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs is adding telehealth diagnostic facilities at selected Walmarts and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts.

The VA announced in August a partnership with health technology company Philips to implement the Accessing Telehealth through Local Area Stations (ATLAS) pilot program at rural VFW posts in Linesville, Penn.; Los Banos, Calif.; and Eureka, Mont., Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder.

Walmart donated space and equipment in five stores across the country for similar telehealth locations. In December, the first Walmart ATLAS site opened in Asheboro, North Carolina. Four more ATLAS sites are slated to open in Boone, N.C.; Fond du Lac, Wisc.; Howell, Michigan; and Keokuk, Iowa, Carey reports.

"The Veterans Administration has faced harsh congressional criticism for wait times for veterans to get in to see VA healthcare providers," Carey reports. "The VA estimates that nearly 5.2 million veterans, or about a third, live in rural areas and have to travel long distances to access care at a VA hospital. That’s up from 5 million veterans living in rural areas in 2017, according to the U. S. Census Bureau."

Nominate a delegate for the Rural Youth Summit by Jan. 31

The Rural Assembly will host the Rural Youth Summit from April 2-5 in McAllen, Texas. During the event, 50 delegates from rural places around the nation will gather to discuss rural and Native issues they believe are important to their lives and communities.

Mature, thoughtful youths from 16-24 years old are encouraged to apply to be a delegate by Jan. 31. Click here for more information on nominating a youth, or click here for more information about how to apply yourself. Here's some more insight on what the Rural Assembly is looking for in a delegate, according to their website:
We look for individuals who are willing to engage in respectful and sometimes challenging conversations, and are committed to finding common ground to create solutions. 
Most importantly, we seek participants who are excited and enthusiastic about making an impact in their local communities. 
At the Rural Assembly, leadership takes many forms. Some of us are meant to carry megaphones, others write commentary or policy memos. Some craft art and poetry, while others stuff envelopes and work behind the scenes. But all roles are key to building community and creating change. We want all young people, especially those often caught on the margins or those serving community in quiet ways.

Reporter who moved to rural Minnesota debunks five myths about rural America that misrepresent political reality

Politicians, the news media, and academics have been paying more attention to rural America since rural residents voted in unprecedented numbers for President Trump in 2016. But the focus on Trump has tended to result in articles and research that oversimplify rural America as mostly populated by white conservatives, Christopher Ingraham writes for The Washington Post.

But that narrative doesn't reflect the "messiness and complexity of rural life," Ingraham writes. He should know: he moved to a rural Minnesota town a few years ago after he offended residents by noting in a story that it was dead last in a nationwide ranking of most desirable places to live.

So, Ingraham offers a list of five myths about rural America to keep in mind when reading "sweeping pronouncements about rural America."

The first three myths are that rural is synonymous with Midwestern, white, and conservative. The fourth is that rural Americans don't care about the news, and the fifth is that rural America is the "real" America, Ingraham writes.

The first four myths build up to that last one, which Ingraham writes "may be the most pernicious myth — that life in rural America is more authentic, more American than life anywhere else. The intent of this narrative is to hold rural people up as exemplars of American life and ideals. But adhering to such simplistic avatars denies them much of their messy, complicated humanity. It reduces the rural experience to a crude caricature that advances the interests of a particular political viewpoint — a white, conservative one."

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Competing weeklies welcome county's new health director, who says human trafficking is a problem in rural areas

Grayson County Public Health Director Joshua Embry
(Photo by Matt Lasley, Grayson County News-Gazette)
By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

LEITCHFIELD, Ky. – Local health departments usually operate in the background, or under the radar of local news organizations, unless a health issue arises. But their work is important, so they deserve more regular attention, and both weekly newspapers in a west-central Kentucky county did that when it got a new public health director.

Some residents may have been startled when they read a headline in the Grayson County News-Gazette saying that Joshua Embry was going to "address human trafficking." He told reporter Matt Lasley, "Based on our clinic services, we know for a fact it is happening in our community. . . It's definitely happening in small, rural towns."

"According to Embry, human trafficking is not solely related to sex, it also includes human labor, and can be drug-related as well," Lasley reports. "In many instances, people are brought into the country and forced to provide unpaid labor to work off a debt to the person who brought them here."

Also, "Underage children can be victims of human trafficking without ever leaving their homes, by being deceived into sharing explicit images of themselves with people online. These images are then widespread, which falls under the umbrella of human trafficking, health department officials say."

January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and Embry "is beginning an awareness campaign aimed at educating the community on the issue and how to address it and report it," Lasley writes.

The front-page story in the county's other weekly, The Record, briefly mentioned human trafficking and was more general, reminding readers of the health department's wide range of services and responsibilities, which include "grief counseling services for families who've lost a child."

"People hear 'health department' and they automatically think STD tests" for sexually transmitted diseases, Embry told The Record's Rebecca Morris. "I want to be able to educate the community on all the programs we have. A lot of people just don't understand the great resource the health department is."

Embry, 32, began work last month after almost seven years at Breckinridge Health, which operates Breckinridge Memorial Hospital in nearby Hardinsburg. After a brief teaching career, he started as an emergency-room clerk and ended as coordinator of compliance, emergency preparedness and safety. He told Morris that health care is a "field you definitely have to be called to."

One could say that about the weekly newspaper business, too. I was editor of the News-Gazette (and general manager of a predecessor, The Leitchfield Gazette) before the Louisville Courier Journal hired me away in 1978. One of my successors as editor, Jenny Searcy, started The Record a few years later.

Grayson may be the only county in the U.S. with weekly newspapers operated by competing chains, which usually don't buy papers with less than $1 million in annual revenue, and certainly not in competitive markets. But Landmark Community Newspapers of Shelbyville bought The Record to give advertisers in its Elizabethtown daily, The News-Enterprise, an opportunity to buy combination ads. It ran a circulation campaign, managed by Searcy, that won it the local circulation lead and thus the public-notice ads. The News-Gazette went through several owners and is now owned by Paxton Media Group of Paducah, which bought in a 2017 package deal with two other nearby papers and moved it from twice-weekly to weekly publication. The county of 27,000 also has an AM-FM radio station with an active news department, WMTL-WKHG in Leitchfield, a town of about 7,000.