Friday, July 24, 2020

Map shows which states are allowing in-person prison visits; database shows state-level impact of covid-19 in prisons

Map by The Marshall Project; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.
Though prisons are a major vector for the novel coronavirus, some states are gradually easing restrictions on in-person visits from family and lawyers, according to The Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism outlet focused on criminal justice. The story includes an interactive map and detailed updates for where each state's corrections systems stand.

The Marshall Project, in partnership with The Associated Press, also maintains a frequently updated database showing how many people have been sickened and/or died from covid-19 in prisons, both nationwide and within each state.

It should be noted that most of this data concerns state and federal prisons only, and not local jails. However, six states have unified prison and jail systems (Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Vermont) so in those cases, the data includes testing and case numbers from both pre-trial detainees and sentenced prisoners.

Survey details the heavy toll of covering the pandemic on many journalists' mental health

A small but in-depth survey highlights the emotional toll covering the pandemic has had on journalists all over the world, Meera Selva and Anthony Feinstein report for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

The study was led by Selva, director of the Journalist Fellowship Programme at the Reuters Institute, and Feinstein, a psychiatry professor at the University of Toronto, along with a team of researchers. Feinstein has done similar work on how journalists have been affected by covering other extreme events such as the 9/11 terror attacks and organized crime in Mexico. They sampled 73 experienced journalists at large news organizations, almost all of whom considered themselves to be in good physical health.

"The majority of our respondents, around 70 percent, suffer from some levels of psychological distress and responses suggest that 26 percent have clinically significant anxiety compatible with the diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder which includes symptoms of worry, feeling on edge, insomnia, poor concentration and fatigue," Selva and Feinstein report. "Around 11 percent of respondents report prominent symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which include recurrent intrusive thoughts and memories of a traumatic covid-19-related event, a desire to avoid recollections of the event, and feelings of guilt, fear, anger, horror and shame."

Though the sample is small and the results preliminary, "the top-line findings are so striking that we feel it is important to flag up the pressure many journalists are working under so that news media and others can consider how to respond to the problems we identify," Selva and Feinstein report.

They note that the emotional toll could be much worse for journalists who are less experienced, in worse physical health, and working for "less privileged" news organizations (such as rural papers). Read more here.

Study shows disparities that hurt rural children's health

Though rural living offers some benefits to health, such as increased community cohesion, many of the approximately 1 million infants and toddlers living in the rural U.S. face challenges that can hurt their health and stymie their development, Jessie Laurore, Gayane Baziyants, and Sarah Daily report for Child Trends.

The brief relies on national- and state-level data compiled by the State of Babies Yearbook 2020, which in turn gets its data from national data sets such as the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey and the National Survey of Children's Health. Click here for state-level data about race, poverty, family structure, rurality, and more for infants and toddlers in each state.

Some key takeaways from the Child Trends report:

  • Rural ares have higher infant mortality and preterm birth rates.
  • Low birth weight is a significant challenge in rural areas for some states, more so than in urban areas.
  • Rural infants are less likely to be breastfed. 
  • Rural mothers are less likely receive timely prenatal care and more likely to give birth outside of the hospital. 
  • Rural infants and toddlers are less likely to receive preventative medical or dental care and less likely to receive recommended vaccines.
  • Rural infants and toddlers in low-income families are less likely to have health insurance than their urban counterparts.
The report recommends that lawmakers identify any existing barriers that rural families may face in enrolling their children in their state's Children's Health Insurance Program. CHIP covers families that make too much to qualify for Medicaid but don't earn enough to afford private health insurance. Medicaid and CHIP, which cover more than one-third of children in the U.S., can help ensure more children in rural areas can access health care, but rural families are less likely to be enrolled in CHIP.

The report also advocates options like mobile health clinics and telemedicine to increase rural access to health care. It also recommends promoting timely vaccinations for rural children and finding ways to pay for it using existing programs.

They also recommend that states identify whether there are gaps in how existing in-home visiting support programs serve rural children and families and, if so, find ways to bridge that gap.

Finally, the report recommends that states work to increase rural prenatal care by working with community hospitals, doulas, birthing centers, and mobile health clinics.

Quick hits: Appalachian New Deal offered; rural homelessness could rise after federal pandemic aid runs out

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

A coalition of left-leaning environmental and economic policy groups have published an "Appalachian New Deal" meant to give federal lawmakers ideas on how to bring more jobs and clean energy to the region as they consider the next stimulus bill. Read more here.

Drillers are increasingly declaring bankruptcy and sticking taxpayers with the cleanup costs, while executives pocket millions and workers lose jobs. Read more here.

Will rural homelessness hit after benefits and eviction moratoriums end? Read more here.

Because rural physicians are older on average, they could be at an increased risk of severe outcomes if they catch covid-19. Read more here.

Halliburton looking beyond U.S. shale oil as fracking remains unprofitable

The pandemic has soured the outlook on the U.S. shale oil industry, but there's evidence it was running out of steam already, if energy giant Halliburton is any indication.

"Way back in January (it’s been a long year) Halliburton was already souring on shale. Way before the novel coronavirus put the final nail in the coffin of the West Texas shale revolution, the multinational corporation and one of the largest oil field service companies in the world had very publicly been going through a rough patch with shale oil," Haley Zaremba reports for Oil Price. "January 2020 marked the posting of Halliburon’s third straight quarterly loss during the national shale slump that also caused the corporation to take a $2.2 billion charge to its earnings. As a result of this massive shale slump, Halliburton laid off a whopping eight percent of its North American staff in the middle of last year, before dismissing even more employees in the Western U.S."

Bloomberg reported this week that Halliburton "is looking away from its traditional North American heartland for sales growth as the fracking behemoth works its way through an historic oil bust." Though U.S. shale was once a major income source for the company, Halliburton suggested to investors that it may limit or eliminate U.S. shale. That a company the size of Halliburton is moving away from U.S. shale entirely "could certainly be seen as a harbinger of doom," Zaremba reports.

Because U.S. shale prices have recovered somewhat, some other drillers are reopening and creating more wells, but that may not be enough to pay down the coming debt for companies that were only able to meet growing demand through heavy borrowing, Zaremba reports.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Register to join four rural editors next Thursday morning for a free webinar, 'Success Stories in Rural Journalism'

By Al Cross
Director and Professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

It’s a stressful time for our country, and especially for journalism. At the Institute, we think our best path forward is what we have always stood for: quality journalism, paid for by news outlets with a commitment to public service.

That is often difficult in rural journalism, but there are many good examples of success, and we’d like to share them with you – and start a discussion about how we can play a larger role in the sustainability of journalism.

Readers of The Rural Blog are invited to register for a Zoom webinar, “Success Stories in Rural Journalism,” to be held at 11 a.m. ET Thursday, July 30. It'll run about an hour. Our panelists will be:
  • John Gregg, news editor of The Valley News in Lebanon, N.H., which far out-performed its sister papers in raising philanthropic money from its readers to make sure its quality journalism can continue.
  • Laurie Brown of The Canadian Record in the Texas Panhandle, one of America’s greatest rural newspapers, whose quality work is recognized and rewarded by her readers, most of whom don’t agree with her philosophically;
  • John Nelson, a former weekly and daily editor who is now executive editor of Landmark Community Newspapers, a 10-state group that puts a premium on the autonomy of local editors, managers and publishers, while expecting them to serve their communities;
  • Jennifer P. Brown of The Hoptown Chronicle, a digital startup in Hopkinsville, Ky., where she was editor of the Kentucky New Era, a formerly independent daily that is now part of a chain. She’s the programming co-chair of the Institute’s national advisory board.
Laurie is a member of the Ezzell family that won our Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism, and Jennifer Brown and John Nelson and are winners of the Al Smith Award, which the Institute and the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists give to Kentuckians who render great public service through community journalism. We know they and John Gregg will offer much insight and inspiration, and we hope you will join us for a useful discussion.

The webinar is free, but registration is required. To register, click here.

Rural residents, worrying about pandemic, may be more hesitant than urbanites to go to hospitals

A hospital chain CEO in Georgia says he and other rural health care professionals are worried that rural residents are so concerned about the pandemic that they may not be seeking medical care when necessary, Ashton Packer reports for WGXA-TV in Macon, Georgia.

Jonathan Green, CEO of Taylor Healthcare Group, told Packer that hospitals stopped providing non-essential services in the early days of the pandemic to reduce the spread of the virus, but thinks that may have scared some into believing that hospitals were no longer a safe place to go for treatment.

Green also believes that rural residents may be less likely to seek treatment because many live at least half an hour from the nearest hospital. But fear of the coronavirus itself may be the main culprit, he told Packer: "I think the hesitation just came from the virus itself. Just the not knowing. Really, the unknown is what makes people hesitate. I think sometimes people are afraid to know if they have covid-19 or something else."

Juliette, Ga. (Wikipedia map)
In Juliette, an unincorporated community just north of Macon where the popular movie Fried Green Tomatoes was filmed, residents said they feel conflicted about whether to go to a hospital (the nearest one is about 20 minutes away). "I don’t have insurance, so I probably wouldn’t go," Juliette resident Angela Marlow told Packer. "And then if I did go, I wouldn’t believe the results, one way or the other. I just don’t believe in the numbers. I think they’re exaggerating the numbers. Everything is covid, covid, covid, regardless of whether or not it’s covid.”

Green stressed that his and other hospitals are observing masking, social distancing, and extra cleaning procedures to reduce the spread of the virus, and told Packer "The last thing we want is for you to come to the hospital and get sick."

Push to remove Confederate statues stalls in rural areas

Map and legend by The Washington Post, enhanced by The Rural Blog; for a larger version, click on the image.
In the wake of protests about racism and police brutality over the past few months, at least 63 Confederate statues nationwide have been taken down by protesters or removed by local officials, but that's mostly happened in liberal, urban areas. Rural communities are far less likely to push for their removal, according to an exclusive tally kept by The Associated Press. For instance, "North Carolina still has at least 69 monuments on public land. Of those, 56 are in counties that voted for President Donald Trump in 2016; 52 are in towns of fewer than 20,000," AP's Rebecca Santana and Jonathan Drew report.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, more than 700 Confederate statues remain standing, many in the rural South, with the largest shares in Georgia and Virginia. The AP list shows that 2020 has been one of the busiest years yet for removal of such statues.

"Still, in a sign that the removal movement might be spreading, local governments in several less populous areas of Mississippi, Louisiana and South Carolina have recently approved removals but not yet taken down the monuments," Santana and Drew report.

Laws in some Southern states, counties and communities may make removing the monuments difficult, Bonnie Berkowitz and Adrian Blanco report for The Washington Post.

One-third of rural counties in 'red zone' for covid-19 cases, according to White House task force; see county-level data

New covid-19 cases from July 11-18. Daily Yonder map; click image to enlarge it or click here for interactive version.
"A third of all rural counties are in a 'red zone' for covid-19 cases, according to a definition devised by the White House Coronavirus Task Force," Bill Bishop reports for The Daily Yonder. "In a document prepared for the White House group, 'red zones' were defined as places that had 100 or more covid-19 cases per 100,000 people in the last week. The document was dated July 14 and found that 18 states met that definition."

The task force's state-level map jibes with the Yonder map, which shows new case rates for all U.S. counties from July 11-18, calculated using data from USA Facts.

Bishop notes that "urban America was in worse shape" over the past week, and that a higher proportion of urban counties were in the red zone this week: "Just over 41 percent of urban counties were in the 'red zone' compared to 32.2% of rural counties. Also, 12% of rural counties reported no new cases in the week we studied. Only 1.6% of urban counties reported zero cases during this week."

Map shows which states have adults at higher risk of serious illness with covid-19

Estimate of U.S. prevalence of adults aged 18 and over with any serious medical condition, as of 2018. (CDC map)
A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a map showing which counties have populations with an increased risk of severe outcomes from covid-19. Many are rural, since rural populations tend to be older, more obese, and are more likely to have underlying medical conditions. Read more here:

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Child hunger up in U.S.; about 14 million kids eating less

With so many people losing their jobs, overall food insecurity has remained at record levels since the pandemic began. "Though food insecurity among households with children decreased from April to June, it is still far above its Great Recession peak," Lauren Bauer reports for Brookings. "In fact, new data show that an unprecedented number of children in the United States are experiencing food insecurity and did not have sufficient food as of late June."

According to U.S. Census Bureau polling data from late June, 16.5 percent of households with children said their children sometimes or often didn't eat enough within the past week befause they couldn't afford enough food. "These high rates of child food insecurity should not be confused with the even higher share of food insecure households with children (27.5 percent); these households may but do not necessarily have food insecure children because parents buffer children from deprivation if able," Bauer reports. "This means that last month, in about two-thirds of food insecure households with children, there was evidence of child food insecurity."

It's unclear how the pandemic has affected rural child hunger specifically. However, even before the pandemic, rural households were more likely to rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. In 2018, 85 of the 100 counties that relied most on SNAP were rural. It's not an exact metric for hunger, but suggests that hunger is disproportionately rural.

With future legality of dicamba in doubt, farmers struggle to make decisions as seed-buying season approaches

With the legality of the weed killer dicamba in question, many farmers are struggling to make decisions about next year as the fall seed-buying season approaches. Dicamba use in the U.S. is at or near a record high this year, with 60 million acres of dicamba-tolerant crops planted, but it's unclear what next year will look like, Emily Unglesbee reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer.

A federal court recently banned sales of dicamba-based products in the U.S. until late in December, ruling that the Environmental Protection Agency didn't do due diligence when reauthorizing the herbicide in 2018. Reauthorization expires Dec. 20, and EPA is expected to try to reauthorize it then, if not sooner. EPA told farmers they could use existing stores of dicamba-based herbicides through July, and a federal appeals court upheld that call, but it's still unclear what legal footing dicamba will be on next year.

"The most pressing question facing farmers and the industry is whether two companies, BASF and Bayer, will be able to get new registrations approved for XtendiMax and Engenia, two over-the-top dicamba herbicides whose registrations were vacated by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in early June," Unglesbee reports. "With no clear timeline from EPA on when it might make those decisions -- nor any information on what new labels would look like -- the Xtend cropping system is faced with uncertainty as farmers near the fall seed-buying season, with some opting to switch to other herbicide-tolerant platforms."

Many rural-focused charities step up in pandemic

"While the many efforts of funders in response to covid-19 have been deservedly recognized, the work of those responding to rural communities’ covid-19 crisis is less well known. Rural cases continue to grow at a quicker rate than urban cases do—and like in urban areas, the impacts are disproportionately on rural communities of color," Allen Smart reports in Health Affairs.

Smart recognizes rural-focused funders that have stepped up during the pandemic to help rural areas, highlighting organizations operating at the state and federal level. Click here to read some examples.

New toolkit aims to help rural communities develop (and journalists cover) paramedicine programs

A new toolkit from the Rural Health Information Hub aims to help rural communities develop community paramedicine and mobile health programs. Community paramedicine is a health-care delivery field in which paramedics and emergency medical technicians become certified to provide more in-depth services to patients, a great boon for patients far from hospitals.

The guide also serves to inform journalists who want to learn more about and cover such programs, especially since it discusses the unique challenges rural communities face in implementing them.

The Rural Community Paramedicine Toolkit compiles emerging practices and resources, highlighting successful existing programs. It also offers guidance on implementing, evaluating, disseminating and sustaining such programs. Click here for more information.

Rural hospitals struggling as pandemic hits them; federal aid may far outstrip relief from federal government

Small, rural hospitals are in the midst of a rocky year: earlier this year, when few had any covid-19 patients, hospitals that were already cash-strapped had to stop elective surgeries and other services that are their main money-makers. And now that the pandemic is hitting some rural communities, they're struggling to provide the supplies and staffing to deal with the influx of patients.

"Pandemic-related federal money has helped struggling rural hospitals stay afloat. But as Congress considers additional aid this month, advocates and policymakers would like to move beyond stopgap measures to change the hospitals’ long-term trajectory," April Simpson reports for Stateline. "As the pandemic persists, it’s unclear how long struggling rural hospitals can hang on."

The pandemic was hardly the beginning of rural hospitals' financial struggle. "Since 2010, 128 rural hospitals have closed, including a record 18 hospitals last year. Even more rural hospitals were on track to shut down this year until Congress in March approved $100 billion to health care providers in the CARES Act," Simpson reports. "The support included $10 billion in targeted funding that was allocated based on operating expenses before covid-19. Earlier this month, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department announced another $1 billion targeted to certain hospitals that serve rural populations." Some small rural hospitals also got aid from the Paycheck Protection Program and from a $150 million grant program meant to help hospitals with increased expenses related to the pandemic.

But hospitals' losses and needs may far outstrip federal relief. "The American Hospital Association estimates hospitals and health systems lost $202.6 billion between March and June and are projected to lose an additional $120.5 billion through the end of 2020. The slow recovery of inpatient and outpatient volumes adds to the strain," Simpson reports. "The association’s findings are based on an electronic survey representing 1,360 member hospitals across 48 states and Washington, D.C. Rural hospitals and health care systems represented about one-third of respondents."

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Investigative reporters in N.D. uncover names of dozens of drillers who owe millions in royalties to state education fund

In a win for accountability reporting, investigative reporters in North Dakota were able to obtain the names of 34 oil and gas companies operating in the state that owe tens of millions of dollars in overdue gas royalty payments meant to help fund the state's public schools. 

"The names of the firms on the hook for old royalty payments have not been publicly released in the past, but the state Department of Trust Lands provided them following a request by Forum News Service," Jeremy Turley reports for Inforum, an online partnership between The Forum newspaper and TV station WDAY in Fargo. The companies include Continental Resources, "which is chaired by billionaire businessman Harold Hamm, was the state's top gas royalty payer in fiscal year 2020."

The exact amount of money owed is unclear because companies are responsible for looking through their records and calculating the amount. Also, the amount is increasing for many of the companies that are fighting overdue payments in court, racking up interest and penalties on the principle all the while., Turley reports.

"Once repaid, the money goes to the Common Schools Trust Fund, which supports public K-12 education in the state. The fund that also receives income from land leased to ranchers, a tobacco lawsuit settlement and earnings on investments provided nearly $367 million toward the state's school funding during the current two-year budget cycle," Turley reports. "The amount for schools was increased to $419 million for the next two-year cycle to soften any blows to state aid resulting from the coronavirus, low oil prices and overall economic downturns."

As Congress considers rural aid in next stimulus bill, survey shows how much 2019's wild weather hurt rural Nebraska

As Congress considers rural and agricultural aid for the next stimulus bill, a new survey illustrates how rural areas in the big farming state of Nebraska were already hurting before the pandemic, due to record wet weather in 2019. Parts of other Midwestern states suffered likewise.

According to the latest annual survey from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Department of Agricultural Economics, severe weather harmed more than half of Nebraska's rural communities in 2019.

"Last year, flood damage in the state was estimated at more than $1.3 billion, including $449 million in damage to roads, levees and other infrastructure. Twenty-seven bridges were damaged," The Grand Herald Independent reports. "Agricultural damages included $440 million in crop losses; and $400 million in cattle losses. Livestock losses included 700 hogs who drowned on a farm near Fremont."

State pandemic maps in Georgia disguise skyrocketing cases; watch out for similar manipulations in your state

Georgia Department of Public Health maps
Georgia's Department of Public Health was criticized in May for posting inaccurate or misleading data on coronavirus case counts, covid-19 death counts and other metrics critical to tracking the pandemic. But on Sunday someone in Atlanta with the Twitter handle "Georgia Person" tweeted that cases in the state jumped 49 percent in 15 days, but state-published maps disguised the surge.

First, he noted, the the maps' color key is all blue except for the very worst counties, which are red. That may suggest that they are the only ones in serious trouble. A graduated color scheme with shades all the same color would show the data more clearly, he and others in the discussion argue. (Or one with a logical color progression from blue to red, implying cold to hot.)

He also notes that the values for each color change because it's set up in quintiles, five equivalent segments of the dataset. The numbers that those quintiles represent change over time as case numbers change. For example, in the July 2 map, red counties had between 2,961 and 4,661 cases per 100,000 residents. But on the July 17 map, red counties have between 3,769 and 5,165 cases per 100,000.

The state's website says the charts are "meant to aid understanding whether the outbreak is growing, leveling off, or declining and can help to guide the covid-19 response." Georgia Person argued that, by not formatting the maps to show the increase in cases, the state is abdicating its responsibility to highlight important information, whether it was done by poor design or with malicious intent.

Rural areas of Georgia have been particularly hard-hit, especially counties with majority African-American populations. Rural African Americans are more vulnerable to dying from covid-19.

Staffing is a big hurdle for child care, scarce in rural areas

A story from rural Illinois neatly encapsulates the hurdles rural areas face in finding or providing reliable, qualified, affordable child care, Nat Williams reports for Illinois Farmer Today.

It's difficult for small towns to sustain a child-care center, according to Lori Longueville, director of Child Care Resources and Referrals at John A. Logan College in Carterville. The agency is one of several in the region that focus on child-care needs. "For rural areas the top challenge is to find qualified staff," she told Williams.

Low pay is a big part of the problem there; though lead day-care teachers must have certain qualifications under state law, the pay isn't often enough to justify the time and expense to obtain those qualifications, Williams reports. Those with associate degrees are generally more inclined to try for better-paying substitute teacher jobs in the public schools instead.

Ensuring the availability of rural child care is becoming more important, especially as more farmers and farming spouses seek work off the farm, Williams reports. Some rural communities are considering non-profit options.

Monday, July 20, 2020

'I don't know if the virus will kill me or it's going to be my rage" at anti-maskers, asthmatic clerk in rural store says

Lori Wagoner at her workstation (Photo by Eamon Queeney, The Washington Post)
Lori Wagoner, 63, never expected that her job as a retail clerk in a small North Carolina town would become so dangerous. But as she told The Washington Post for a July 18 package of 12 oral histories from the pandemic, covid-19 has drastically changed her job responsibilities.

Wagoner told reporter Eli Saslow that she has asthma, and if she got the novel coronavirus, she’d have an increased chance of developing a severe version of its disease. Thus, North Carolina’s mask mandate is crucial to her health, and she says about 95 percent of her customers have followed signs outside the store and worn a mask, but many of those who don’t have not been kind to her. Many are coastal visitors from cities: "They come here to have a good time and maybe they’re drinking. Some of them would see our signs, open the front door, and just yell: “F--- masks. F--- you.” Or they would walk in, refuse to wear a mask and then dump their merchandise all over the counter."

She relayed one encounter that spiraled downhill: “He rolled his eyes and ignored me, so I knew where it was going. . . . He said he just wanted to buy a drink. I said, ‘Okay, that means I will get your drink while you wait outside and I will bring it to the door.’ But he’s still moving into the store, and I’m trying to stay in front of his path and keep him from going down the aisle. He said, “Come on, lady. I just want water. I said: I’m tired of this. Just leave the store now.’ He kept moving toward me, yelling, ‘ADA exemption, ADA exemption’,” referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act that protects people with disabilities -- but not mask mandates.

“And now my body was starting to shake. It was fear and so much anger. My co-worker was yelling for him to get out, and another customer started yelling, and finally he stomped around for a while and then turned back outside. We locked the front door and my co-worker and I went back into the storage room. We sat there and sobbed.”

Now, at this small store on the coast of North Carolina, in a town Wagoner apparently didn't want to name, a customer has to ring a doorbell to enter. And next to her, behind her register, is pepper spray. With the local sheriff’s office refusing to help enforce the mandate, she said, she is now acting as enforcer of the mask mandate and ultimate defender of her own life; a retail clerk intimately trained in an array of behaviors from the public in response to a scientific and public-health effort.

“I don’t know if the virus will kill me or if it’s going to be my rage,” she said. “Sometimes I want to cut America into different pieces, and all these anti-maskers can live together, and we’ll see how it works.”

July survey of rural bankers shows fourth straight month of recession-level readings, drop in customer visits

Creighton University chart compares current month to month and year ago; click here to download it and chart below.
The economy in the rural Midwest improved slightly but remained weak and below pre-pandemic levels in the past month, according to the newest update of Creighton University's Rural Mainstreet Index. The index is a survey of bankers in about 200 rural communities with an average population of 1,300 in 10 states where agriculture and energy are critical to the economy: Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

July's report was the fourth straight month that had readings consistent with a recession. "The overall index for July climbed to 44.1, well below growth neutral, but up from June’s 37.9 and April’s record low 12.1," reports Creighton economist Ernie Goss, who does the index. "Farm commodity prices are down by 12.5 percent over the last 12 months. As a result, and despite the initiation of $16 billion in USDA farm support payments, only 6% of bankers reported their area economy had improved compared to June while 17.6 percent said economic conditions had worsened."

Farmland prices continue to drop, and though farm equipment sales increased marginally to 34.4 from 32.8 in June, it's the 82nd straight month the category has been below growth neutral reading of 50.0, Goss reports.

Of the bankers surveyed, 55.9% said they expect 1-9% of farm loans in their area to default over the next 12 months. And during the last two weeks of the pandemic, 38.2% said they'd seen a decline in customer visits and 32.4% said they'd seen fewer loan applications.
Creighton University chart

Rural hospitals unsure about how to spend CARES Act money, and whether they'll have to return some of it

Rural hospitals have been allocated tens of billions of dollars from the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, but the aid has barely kept many rural hospitals afloat, and many are seeking guidance about how they're allowed to use the aid and whether they'll have to return some of it if they don't spend it quickly enough, Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder.

One problem is that many rural hospitals didn't see any covid-19 patients, so they're not sure how funds meant to help with covid-19 expenses can be spent and should be reported, and some rural hospital CEOs say the Department of Health and Human Services guidelines are unclear, Carey reports.

Rural hospitals got CARES Act funds n several ways; $10 billion was appropriated to help rural hospitals treat covid-19 patients and cover revenue shortfalls from canceling normal business such as elective surgery. Some rural hospitals also received funds allocated for providers with a higher historical share of revenue from Medicare compared to total net patient revenue from all sources.

Rural hospitals rely more on Medicaid and Medicare, but often get less funding because the formula Congress used to allocate the money ended up disproportionately helping providers that have many privately insured patients, the Kaiser Health Foundation reports. Rural hospitals are generally more vulnerable to Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement policy changes since they rely so much on it.

"For hospitals who received Paycheck Protection Program loans from the Small Business Administration, there are even more questions," Carey reports. "The biggest of these is whether hospitals that use the PPP program to pay for salaries will have to return some reimbursements from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services."

Some new funding is coming, too: "On July 10, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the federal government would be providing another $1 billion to some rural hospitals, as part of a larger $4 billion in funding to hospitals serving vulnerable populations," Carey reports. "The funding would go to 500 hospitals, health clinics and health centers in rural areas, as well as to some health-care facilities in urban areas that provide services to patients in rural areas. Payments will range from $100,000 to $4.5 million for rural designated providers and between $100,000 and $2 million for other providers."

Rural home prices rise as people consider leaving cities during pandemic

New data from suggests that people may be increasingly interested in moving to rural areas during the pandemic.

The data, "which compared this June to June of 2019, found that homes in rural and suburban zip codes saw the biggest jump in average views per property," Dante Chinni reports for NBC News. "Homes in urban zip codes had a 19 percent increase in views compared to last year. But homes in suburban zip codes had a much larger 30 percent jump. And homes in rural zip codes saw a 34 percent increase in views."

Chinni cautions that property views don't necessarily translate to sales, and it's difficult to imagine the pandemic reversing the larger trend toward urban migration. "But these numbers show there is at least an interest in getting out of the most densely packed areas and into communities that are more spread out. Anecdotal evidence suggests some of it may be about searching for second-home getaways in more remote communities," Chinni reports.

Absentee landowners who know little about farming may stymie farmers from protecting water and soil

Absentee farmland owners may be preventing farmers from embracing conservation practices because they don't net as much profit, Dan Charles reports for NPR.

Midwestern farmers only own about half the land they use, on average, and rent the rest. Many landowners are retired farmers themselves, but many are urban investors who don't know much or anything about farming. "That means when it comes to managing that land . . . it often plays out like this: say that someone owns 160 acres, of which 30 acres are ill-suited for growing crops. The landlord still will rent out the whole parcel," Charles reports.

Steve Bruere, president of Peoples Company, an Iowa company that buys, sells, and manages farmland across the nation, told Charles that they create detailed maps of each farm to assess how much money farmers earn on every acre, using both publicly available data and proprietary data collected by farmers' GPS-equipped machinery.

Bruere said about 10 percent to 15% of all acres in Iowa aren't profitable because of various factors. "These can be hillsides with eroded soil, or parts of a field where water sits in a big puddle after every rain. That's where Bruere's company advises farmers to cut their losses and maybe bring back some prairie instead," Charles reports.

So-called "prairie strips" are unprofitable chunks of land within soybean or corn fields where farmers plant tall-stemmed grasses and wildflowers. The strips allow native wildlife to maintain a toehold and help protect the farmland from water and wind erosion. But urban landowners pressure farmers to till all available land to make more money, even if it's lousy land, Charles reports.

The practice of renting farmland can discourage farmers from planting cover crops in the off-season, according to environmental advocate Sarah Carlson with Practical Farmers of Iowa. Cover crops can protect and enrich the soil, and is good for the environment, she told Charles, but it costs money up front. "Farmers who rent land, and who may not have access to that land in the long run, are reluctant to spend that money," Charles reports.