Friday, August 14, 2020

Trump trashes mail-in voting, then says he would sign coronavirus relief deal with Postal Service funding

"President Trump stirred new questions on Thursday about whether he would seek to hold up new money to the Postal Service to impede mail-in voting this fall in the middle of the pandemic," Emily Cochrane and Hailey Fuchs report for The New York Times. "Repeating the unfounded claim that the election could be riddled with fraud if mail ballots were widely used, he made clear that he opposed Democratic demands for additional funding for both the post office and election-security measures because of his opposition to mail-in voting. Still, he left open the possibility that he could come to a deal as part of a larger negotiation over a new round of economic stimulus."

During his press conference on Thursday, Trump "said that he would in fact sign a coronavirus relief deal if it had funding for the U.S. Postal Service, after saying earlier in the day that he wouldn’t accept a bill with USPS money," Melanie Zanona reports for Politico. "But Democrats are still worried that Trump will try to impede mail-in voting efforts ahead of the election, especially after he explicitly said that was the reason he was opposed to USPS money."

House Democrats' relief bill would allot $25 billion to the Postal Service, while the Senate Republicans' bill includes no aid for the financially strapped agency, on which rural Americans disproportionately rely. Partly because of a drop in mail volume, the service projected in May that it will lose another $22 billion over the next year and a half, and could run out of money by September without a bailout.

The House and Senate are still reportedly "miles apart" on agreeing on the next pandemic relief package, according to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Since both chambers are out of town for the August recess, it'll be September before they even begin to negotiate on a reconciled coronavirus bill. They'll also be busy working on the omnibus spending bill that must be passed by Sept. 30 to avoid a government shutdown, Zanona reports, all of which will make for a "crazy September."

Writer, a longtime rural resident, says President Trump's attack on the Postal Service is a threat to rural America

President Trump's efforts to dismantle and further privatize the U.S. Postal Service are a threat to rural America, longtime rural resident Bill McKibben writes for The New Yorker.

Bill McKibben
"In 2012, when the Postal Service planned on closing 3,830 branches, an analysis by Reuters showed that 80 percent of those branches were in rural areas where the poverty rate topped the national average," McKibben writes. "You know who delivers the Amazon package the final mile to rural Americans? The USPS. You know how people get medicine, when the pharmacy is an hour’s drive away? In their mailbox. You know why many people can’t pay their bills electronically? Because too much of rural America has impossibly slow internet, or none at all."

The post office was once a federally funded cabinet-level department, but in 1971 Congress and President Nixon made it a self-funding independent agency that was meant to run like a business (partly as a swipe against its labor unions). However, the Postal Service has been hobbled by congressional constraints, such as a 2006 requirement to prefund employee pensions. By the end of 2019, nearly $120 billion of its $160.9 billion in debt came from that.

If GOP efforts to privatize the Postal Service succeed, it will "suck out what life remains from too many of the rural communities that many of those Republicans theoretically represent," McKibben writes.

Jane Kleeb, chair of Nebraska's Democratic Party, told McKibben that the mail "is a universal service that literally levels the playing field for all Americans. It is how we order goods, send gifts to our family, and keep small businesses alive. In the era of the coronavirus, mail is now our lifeline to have our voices heard for our ballots in the election. In fact, in eleven counties in our state, they have only mail-in ballots, because of how massive the county is land-wise."

A decade ago in McKibben's own small town, USPS tried to close the post office. That would have forced residents to make a 12-mile round trip to another town to pick up mail, but they came together and beat the idea. McKibben writes, "Robert Frost once lived in our town, and he maintained that good fences made good neighbors. But he was wrong: it’s the post office that does the trick."

Trump administration weakens drillers' responsibility to detect and fix leaks of methane, a major greenhouse gas

"The Trump administration formally weakened a major climate-change regulation on Thursday — effectively freeing oil and gas companies from the need to detect and repair methane leaks — even as new research shows that far more of the potent greenhouse gas is seeping into the atmosphere than previously known," Coral Davenport reports for the The New York Times. Methane has a much stronger greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide, but dissipates much more quickly.

Under the new rules, the Environmental Protection Agency effectively no longer has the authority to regulate methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that is the main component of natural gas. Instead, methane will now be regulated under the weaker standards of the Clean Air Act, Steven Mufson reports for The Washington Post. The Post's James Hohmann notes that Trump dispatched EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler to Pennsylvania to sign the order, in a bid to help him carry the state again.

Wheeler "has justified the move by citing EPA data showing that leaks from domestic oil and gas wells have remained steady over the past decade, even as oil and gas production boomed," Davenport reports. "However, numerous recent studies show the opposite: that methane emissions from drilling sites in the United States are far more extensive than the EPA’s official numbers. Overall, methane levels are in fact climbing steadily nationwide, according to the research, and have reached record highs globally in part because of leaks from fossil fuel production."

The move highlights a petroleum-industry divide between large oil and gas companies and smaller independents. "Giants like BP and Shell attacked the move, while trade groups including the Independent Petroleum Association of America and Western Energy Alliance embraced it," Ben Geman reports for Axios. But Geman notes that large multinational companies have more resources to become compliant, and many have already pledged to reduce methane emissions, so they have a competitive advantage over smaller drillers.

"The new methane rules worsen an already grim situation in one of the world’s largest regional climate emissions bombs," the Permian Basin in West Texas and southeast New Mexico, writes Candice Bernd of Truthout. "In June, environmental watchdog Environmental Defense Fund flew specially equipped helicopters above hundreds of Permian drilling sites as part of its Permian Methane Analysis Project, or PermianMAP. Researchers found that more than one in 10 flares in the Permian Basin could be unlit or malfunctioning, accounting for a majority of the 300,000 tons of methane vented from the region every year. The amount of vented methane is three times the annual total the EPA reports."

Aug. 19 webinar to discuss new toolkit to help explain how social and economic factors affect rural communities' health

A free webinar on Wednesday, Aug. 19, will discuss a new online toolkit meant to support organizations implementing programs that address social determinants of health in rural communities. Determinants include income, level of education, race, ethnicity and degree of rurality.

The webinar will begin at 1 p.m. ET and will take about an hour. The Rural Health Information Hub and the Norc Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis will present. Click here for more information about the webinar or to register. Click here to see the toolkit.

Quick hits: Podcast explores being Black in Appalachia; why some Tennessee tomatoes have worldwide fans

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

New podcast explores what it's like to be Black in Appalachia. Read more here.

Three Appalachian women tell their stories in new book about what makes Appalachian people "tick." Read more here.

Why the tomatoes grown in a rural Tennessee county attract fans from all over the world. Read more here.

Vermont bucks the trend of rural covid-19 growth. Read more here.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will hold a webinar Tuesday, Aug. 18, to discuss its new pilot program for rural health-care providers. Read more here.

Study finds that rural children with autism can be productively treated via telehealth. Read more here.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Rural school districts share creative solutions for lack of broadband, but they need more support, funding

Lack of broadband access was a big challenge for rural school districts this past spring, and it remains so for many districts that are continuing distance learning this fall, according to education policy analysts at the Brookings Institution, who worked with rural districts during the pandemic. But some rural school districts were able to come up with innovative strategies for getting around it, according to a National Center for Rural Education Research Networks study cited by the Brookings analysts; such examples might inspire other rural school districts.

Some solutions that urban and suburban school districts tried, like distributing hotspots, don't always work in rural areas; there may not be enough infrastructure to support broadband at all. Also, the Brookings analysts found that fewer rural districts expected teachers to provide distance instruction and monitor student progress.

Some creative solutions from schools cited in the NCRERN study include: mapping locations in the community that offer free internet access, buying cell phone data for students, connecting families with companies that offer free or inexpensive internet, and setting up hotspots and outdoor work areas on school grounds so students could work and remain socially distant.

Mortality rate remains high among Black men in rural areas

Americans' average lifespan has increased over the past half-century, but significant disparities remain among rural residents, especially Black men, according to a newly published cross-sectional data analysis.

The researchers examined data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration from 1968 to 2016. They note that the mortality rate has improved among rural Black men, but not as much as among people who are white, urban, and/or female.

Higher mortality rates in rural settings are likely because of the higher incidence of chronic illness and unintentional injuries, the researchers say. Those trends are more pressing among rural people of color, who are more likely to live in low-income neighborhoods, have chronic illnesses, and have blue-collar jobs (where physical injuries are more likely).

New rural coronavirus infections declined in first week of August, but rural covid-19 deaths grew by 52%

Covid-19 red zones, Aug. 1-8. Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.
The number of new coronavirus infections declined in rural counties over the first week of August, the first time that's happened since May. But the number of covid-19 deaths is still increasing.

Nonmetropolitan counties "had a 6 percent decline in new coronavirus infections from August 1-8. Rural counties had approximately 54,000 new cases during the period," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "The number of new cases in metropolitan counties started to decrease several weeks ago while the virus’ surge continued in rural areas. Metro counties had 314,000 new cases last week, a drop of 17% from the previous week."

The declining number of new cases is one of several indicators that the rural surge is leveling off. Additionally, the number of rural counties in red zones fell from 746 last week to 734 this week, Murphy and Marema report. Red zone counties are a White House task-force designation for counties with more than 100 new infections per 100,000 residents in a week (or one per thousand).

There are other hopeful signs: "Nearly two-thirds of all rural counties with new cases this week had a lower infection rate August 1-8 than they did the previous week," Murphy and Marema report. Also, "from August 1-8, only 817 rural counties had an increase in their new-case rate. The previous week, 888 rural counties had a higher new-case rate."

However, the Yonder notes that hundreds of rural counties have been on the red-zone list for weeks, some for more than a month, and that the rural death toll is rising. "The number of deaths in a one-week period grew by 52% August 1-8, with 1,035 fatalities. The total number of rural residents who have died from covid-19 stands at 11,313. That’s about 7% of the nation’s overall death toll of approximately 160,000 as of August 8," Murphy and Marema report. "Rural counties had a 70% increase in deaths from the end of June to the end of July."

Journalist shares her struggle with covid-19, and a warning

Jennifer P. Brown
The coronavirus pandemic hit unexpectedly close to home recently for Jennifer P. Brown, founder and editor of digital startup The Hoptown Chronicle in Hopkinsville, Kentucky.

Brown, former editor of Hopkinsville's daily newspaper, the Kentucky New Erawrites that she tested positive for covid-19 in July despite taking every precaution: "I was motivated to avoid an illness that could put me in the hospital and maybe on a ventilator. I am 58 years old, the same age my mother was when she died on a ventilator. That awful fate didn’t seem like a remote possibility to me."

She tested positive in early July after feeling exhausted for days. The fatigue and brain fog were her worst symptoms, though she writes that she was also more sensitive to heat and humidity, and it took her much longer to feel back to normal than she expected. She notes that covid-19 doesn't always present the classic symptoms; she only ran a fever for one night and never had the extreme respiratory distress many patients report.

She writes, "I’m writing about this now because it’s important to know that the coronavirus can reach almost anyone — including people who try hard to avoid it. Also, it seems odd for me to keep writing news stories about all the ways the pandemic is affecting my hometown without acknowledging that it has also affected me. In community journalism, there are fewer degrees of separation between reporters and the stories they cover than there are in large media markets. Often it feels like there are zero degrees of separation, especially when the news happens to a reporter."

Brown writes that, for example, the Christian County Health Department and the Jennie Stuart Medical Center are both major information sources about the local impact of the pandemic for the Chronicle, but both also gave her care and information. She shares other examples where her dual identities as a journalist and as a covid-19 patient (or potential patient) gave her conflicting perspectives on local health providers and agencies, public policy, and personal freedom. Read more here.

Brown is the programming co-chair of the national advisory board of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog.

Nearly half of Iowa corn crop damaged in derecho storm

Before and after satellite imagery reveals the magnitude and scope of crop damage in Iowa following Monday's destructive derecho. (NASA Worldview)
Before and after satellite images show the scale of crop damage in Iowa
from Monday's storm. (NASA Worldview images)

Monday’s derecho across the Corn Belt and Midwest laid siege to more than 10 million acres of Iowa’s corn and soybean crop, devastating farmers and capping off what has already been a difficult few years of farming for many," Matthew Cappucci reports for The Washington Post. "Up to 43 percent of the state’s corn and soybean crop has suffered damage from the storms that brought winds exceeding 100 miles per hour at times, a severe blow to a $10 billion industry that’s central to the Hawkeye State’s economy. The magnitude of the battered vegetation was even visible on the same weather satellites used to track Monday’s violent thunderstorms."

It may take weeks to understand the full scope of the damage, but initial reports say it's significant, said Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds at a news conference Tuesday. In the meantime, Reynolds declared 20 counties as disasters, allowing more state funding for disaster response and recovery. "The state is also making grants available to low-income families who find themselves faced with food, repair, or temporary housing expenses in the wake of the disaster," Cappucci reports.

The state is juggling storm response along with pandemic management efforts. Some drive-up coronavirus testing sites were closed earlier this week, but Reynolds said they will reopen as soon as possible.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Infections among children spike as schools try to reopen; in rural areas, in-person instruction is more likely

A new analysis by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association says "more than 97,000 children tested positive for the coronavirus in the last two weeks of July, a 40 percent increase in the number of children who have been reported to have the virus," Emma Coleman reports for Route Fifty. That could complicate schools' efforts to resume classes, especially in rural areas, which are more likely to reopen with in-person classes but are seeing increasing infection rates.

One rural Oklahoma school held in-person classes for two days, but then moved to online-only after a cafeteria worker tested positive, reports KXII-TV in Sherman, Texas. A photo of a crowded hallway in a high school in Paulding, Georgia, went viral after nine people in the photo later tested positive for the coronavirus, Laura Maggi reports for Route Fifty. The school moved instruction online.

Much still remains unknown about the virus's risk to children and their possible role in spreading the disease, The Washington Post reports.

But this is known: rural schools' "crumbling infrastructure" has been a health threat even before the pandemic, Whitney Kimball Coe and Mary Sketch write for The Daily Yonder. Coe and Sketch coordinate the Rural Assembly, a project of the Center for Rural Strategies. Rural Strategies also publishes the Yonder.

Pandemic threatens county fairs; most ineligible for aid

The pandemic has disrupted life in uncountable ways; county fairs are one. "Without the annual events, vendors, hotels and other small local businesses miss out on income they rely on. School-age children who spent the past year raising a pig or cow have no place to show or sell their work," April Simpson reports for Stateline. Many state fairs have also been canceled.

This year's cancellations or attendance limitations could put some county fairs' future in question. "Some fair operators fear for their fair's long-term survival, as many organizations are shut out of federal pandemic relief and receive little to no state money," Simpson reports.

Fairs generate about $4.7 billion annually, including money made on the fairgrounds for non-fair events such as RV shows, Simpson reports. Some fairs were able to get federal Paycheck Protection Program funds, but others were ineligible because they're quasi-governmental organizations or the wrong type of nonprofit. Only one-third of International Association of Fairs and Expositions members are eligible for federal aid. About 17 states provide some kind of financial aid to county fairs, often by subsidizing prizes for agricultural and other contests.

"A bill in the U.S. House, introduced by U.S. Rep. Josh Harder, a California Democrat, seeks $5 billion to create a new emergency grant program to help offset state and local fair losses," Simpson reports. "States would be able to apply for aid directly through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and then distribute it to fairs."

County fairs have been a linchpin of rural life. "Predating the founding of the United States, fairs began as markets designed to sell products. In the early 19th century, agricultural fairs became events for farm families to gather and share methods for improving crops and livestock," Simpson reports. "With educational and child labor policy changes, and other social shifts, fairs gradually became venues for agriculture education as more farmers in the 20th century went to college." Fairs also often serve as a platform for politicians to roll up their sleeves, glad-hand and give speeches.

In a nation with an increasing rural-urban cultural divide, county fairs help educate city dwellers about rural life. But more than that, "they’re celebrations of community where church dinners and stock car races provide opportunities to bump into friends and neighbors," Simpson reports. "Although the number of farmers has declined and fewer young people are choosing agriculture as a career, experts say fairs have become increasingly important."

Pilot program Trump asked for gives rural health-care providers looser rules and a chance for up-front investments

A pilot program offers rural health-care providers a chance to be part of a pilot payment model with up-front investments, Heather Landi reports for Fierce Healthcare. President Trump ordered the Department of Health and Human Services to set up such a model last week. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will choose a handful of rural communities to participate in the program in early 2021, with the program beginning next summer.

The Community Health Access and Rural Transformation model is meant to help rural providers by loosening certain regulations. "Through regulatory flexibilities, health-care providers will be able to expand telehealth to allow the beneficiary’s place of residence to be an originating site and waive certain Medicare-hospital conditions of participation to allow a rural outpatient department and emergency room to be paid as if they were classified as a hospital," Landi reports. The model also allows providers to help patients with transportation and provide gift cards for chronic-disease management.

"The CHART model will feature two options for provider participation: the community transformation track and the accountable care organization transformation track," Landi reports. "As part of the community transformation track, the Trump administration is investing up to $75 million in seed money to enable up to 15 rural communities to participate."

Some federal agencies can't or won't say how many wildland firefighters have covid-19

Coronavirus infections and quarantines have sidelined many wildland firefighters, but some federal agencies can't or aren't keeping track of such infections; that and disjointed tracking practices among state and federal agencies could not only endanger other firefighters and their communities, but it could also make it difficult to contain wildfires if firefighters are sick or forced to quarantine, Zoya Teirstein reports for Grist.

"Of the five federal wildfire-fighting agencies Grist reached out to, only the Forest Service, the National Parks Service, and the Bureau of Land Management responded to requests for information about covid-19 cases among wildland firefighters this season. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not respond by the time this article was published."

A BLM spokesperson told Teirstein it has had 32 covid-19 cases in its Fire and Aviation division, and said it had quickly isolated infected employees. A National Parks Service spokesperson refused to say how many of its wildland firefighters have tested positive, but said if one did, the agency would work with local authorities to limit the virus's spread.

The Forest Service, which manages 193 million acres of public hands and about two-thirds of the nation's wildfire resources, including 10,000 firefighters, told Teirstein that it doesn't have information on coronavirus cases among its wildland firefighters. The agency is "in the process of separating the fire employees from the non-fire employees who have tested positive," a spokesperson said.

Tracking infections among wildland firefighters is critical; because social distancing is difficult for the tightly packed crews, the infection is more likely to spread quickly. "That leaves contact tracing and isolation as firefighting agencies’ best tools for reducing covid-19 transmission among firefighters — but it’s impossible for an agency to use these tools when it doesn’t know who’s been infected in the first place," Teirstein reports.

Some states, such as Alaska and California, seem to be doing a more comprehensive job of tracking infections among wildland firefighters, Teirstein reports.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Struggling small dairy farmers in swing state Wisconsin could help determine the presidential election

Small dairy farmers everywhere are struggling, but in Wisconsin the pain is particularly acute because the industry makes up such a large part of the state's economy. That could hurt President Trump in November, since Wisconsin is a swing state, Dan Kaufman reports for The New Yorker.

Kaufman paints a grim picture: "Five years ago, the price of milk fell precipitously, accelerating the long unravelling of rural Wisconsin. Since 2010, the population in two-thirds of the state’s rural counties has decreased, leading to a shrinking workforce, fewer jobs and businesses, and slower income growth rates than in metro counties. More than 70 rural schools have closed, and for the past three years the state has led the country in family-farm bankruptcies."

Many banks have stopped loaning dairy farmers money, Angie Sullivan of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, told Kaufman. And Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue offered little hope for small dairy farmers in a town hall at the World Dairy Expo in Madison last October, saying that "In America, the big get bigger and the small go out," Kaufman notes.

Over the past decade, about half the dairy farms in Wisconsin went bankrupt; today there are about 7,000. "Yet the number of cows has remained constant, because of consolidation and the proliferation of factory dairy farms, some of which have herds of more than 5,000 cows," Kaufman reports.

Rural voters in Wisconsin and other battleground states proved decisive in 2016. Trump won Wisconsin by fewer than 23,000 votes, and got nearly two-thirds of the vote in rural areas. "The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that the largest shift in voting between Obama’s seven-point victory in Wisconsin, in 2012, and Trump’s one-point win came in communities that cast fewer than a thousand votes," Kaufman reports. But numerous polls show that Trump's support is down in such areas, and rural voters moved to the left in the Wisconsin primary.

One dairy farmer Kaufman interviewed, Jerry Volenec, said he voted for Obama in 2012 but went for Trump in 2016. He says he now regrets that vote: "If I had known the things I know about him now, I wouldn’t have voted for him."

Critics say Mississippi program meant to reward student achievement is unfair and exacerbates rural inequalities

Mississippi's legislature created the School Recognition Program in 2014, a merit-pay plan that rewards teachers with cash bonuses for improving student performance. Critics say the program is confusing, sometimes decreases morale for teachers, and may unfairly penalize teachers at schools where students underperform because of systematic inequalities—often in poor rural communities where Black students are a majority, Aallyah Wright reports for Mississippi Today.

"Under the School Recognition Program, teachers in A-rated schools or schools that improve from a ‘F’ to ‘D’ or a ‘D’ to ‘C’ receive $100 per student, and ‘B’ rated schools receive $75 per student," Wright reports. "Since 2017, the Legislature has funneled about $71 million into the recognition program. In fiscal year 2020, nearly 21,000 certified teachers and staff in more than 500 public schools collectively received $25 million, according to Mississippi Today’s analysis of program records. No administrators can receive an award."

The controversial program is now "at the center of a power struggle between the executive and legislative branch, and it’s the reason why the K-12 budget has not been appropriated this year," Wright reports. "Gov. Tate Reeves partially vetoed about $2.2 billion of the appropriation last month because, he said, the budget bill did not fund the program."

Reeves said in a Facebook post that the state's schools are improving in many areas and that the SRP was "a big reason why." However, "research shows merit pay systems have no effect on student outcomes," Wright reports. And a Mississippi Today analysis shows that 53 percent of the programs funds have gone to majority-white school districts.

Some teachers Wright interviewed said they appreciated the bonuses, but said they felt conflicted because poorer school districts need the money more. Some also said that money is helpful, but doesn't motivate teachers. "We’re inspired to keep our students growing and improving," said middle school teacher Amanda Reiser. "Would money be helpful? Absolutely … I feel like it needs to be across the board. Take all of that money and divvy it up to everybody and keep our teacher (shortage) rate low."

Trump presidency highlights the 'complete fusion of evangelical Christianity and conservative politics'

President Trump rose to power partly because he promised evangelical Christians more political power, and such voters could be his best shot at re-election, Elizabeth Dias reports for The New York Times.

"The Trump era has revealed the complete fusion of evangelical Christianity and conservative politics, even as white evangelical Christianity continues to decline as a share of the national population," Dias reports. "There are some signs of fraying at the edges of the coalition, among some women and young people. If even a small fraction turns away from Mr. Trump, it could make the difference to his re-election. But even if he loses in November, mainstream evangelical Christianity has made plain its deepest impulses and exposed where the majority of its believers pledge allegiance."

One January 2016 speech at Dordt University, a Christian college in Sioux Center, Iowa, was widely covered because Trump said he "could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody" without losing any voters, Dias reports. But some locals in the town of 7,500 keyed into another part of the speech: "Christianity will have power," Trump said. "If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power, you don’t need anybody else. You’re going to have somebody representing you very, very well. Remember that."

Though only 11 percent of Republicans in Sioux County caucused for Trump nine days later, 81% did in November, matching the 81% of nationwide white evangelicals who voted for Trump nationwide.

White evangelicals could be "Trump's best chance at re-election," Dias reports, since he has trailed presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden by double digits in nationwide polls for a month. Though Trump's approval rating has gone down slightly among white evangelicals, 82% said they intend to vote for him in November, according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted in late June.

Plenty of pundits, researchers and journalists have speculated, investigated, or gathered data on why evangelicals support Trump, with theories ranging from the "purely transactional" promise of appointing more conservative judges and ending legal abortion to hatred of Hillary Clinton.

"But beneath all this, there is another explanation. One that is more raw and fundamental. Evangelicals did not support Trump in spite of who he is," Dias writes. "They supported him because of who he is, and because of who they are. He is their protector, the bully who is on their side, the one who offered safety amid their fears that their country as they know it, and their place in it, is changing, and changing quickly. White straight married couples with children who go to church regularly are no longer the American mainstream. An entire way of life, one in which their values were dominant, could be headed for extinction. And Trump offered to restore them to power, as though they have not been in power all along."

White evangelicals Dias interviewed expressed fears that Christianity—which they often equated with rural values—was under attack, and said they felt that city dwellers looked down on rural residents, and didn't understand their way of life. Trump, they said, recognized that fear and would fight for them.

"The one group of people that people felt like they could dis and mock and put down had become the Christian. Just the middle-class, middle-American Christians," said Lisa Burg of Orange City, Iowa. "That was the one group left that you could just totally put down and call deplorable. And he recognized that, You know what? Yeah, it’s OK that we have our set of values, too. I think people finally said, 'Yes, we finally have somebody that’s willing to say we’re not bad, we need to have a voice too.'"

Registration open for Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference, to be held online

Registration is open for the Society of Environmental Journalists' 30th annual conference. This year's conference will be held online on Sept. 16, 17, 23 and 30; the theme is "Emergencies, Elections and the Environment." Click here for more information or to register.

Founder of Laura's Lean Beef wants to grow a new hyperlocal, self-sustaining agricultural economy

A Kentucky cattle farmer who founded an eco-friendly beef empire is setting her sights on a new project meant to "create jobs and wealth in rural Kentucky, build an alternative to the industrial agribusiness economic system, and remove the existential threat posed by greenhouse gases," Mark Green reports for The Lane Report, a Lexington-based business magazine.

When farmer Laura Ann Freeman founded Laura's Lean Beef in the early 1980's, she wanted to see if hormone- and antibiotic-free beef could compete in the supermarket with beef from larger suppliers. It turned out that people were willing to pay a little more for that. "By the time she sold the business in 2007, it had grown to a network of 600 organic beef farms across the nation and was doing $135 million in annual wholesale business," Green reports.

Freeman is using her seventh-generation, 1,500-acre family farm in Clark County as a test case, and if it works there, she hopes to recreate it across Kentucky, then nationwide. In essence, she wants to make her farm "the linchpin of a new, self-supporting hyperlocal agriculture economy that creates jobs and wealth, while also showing that regenerative land management practice sequesters carbon to reverse climate change," Green reports.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Ammonium nitrate, blamed for Beirut explosion, is all over U.S., and unevenly regulated, due to agriculture's influence

The explosion in Beirut last week that killed more than 130 people was fueled by 2,750 metric tons of an unsafely stored fertilizer. That fertilizer, ammonium nitrate, is common in the U.S., and it's unevenly regulated. That could put more people at risk, Joe Wertz reports for the Center for Public Integrity.

"A 2020 Center for Public Integrity investigation found uneven oversight of the chemical in the United States, even after efforts to strengthen federal rules," Wertz reports. Ammonium nitrate "has been a key component of catastrophic industrial accidents and terrorism, including the 2013 blast at an agricultural-products retailer that killed 15 and injured 260 people in Texas, and the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed 168."

After the Texas disaster, then-President Obama ordered officials to reduce the risks of hazardous chemicals, but agriculture lobbyists sought to block broad amendments to the Environmental Protection Agency's risk-management program, Wertz reports.

"When the EPA finally released its Chemical Disaster Rule, it didn’t add ammonium nitrate to the list of 'highly hazardous' chemicals. Many safety advocates said the regulations were too soft on chemical manufacturers and users, but conceded the changes were at least a slight improvement from previous rules," Wertz reports. "When President Donald Trump took office, his administration weakened the oversight with a 'reconsideration rule' that removed third-party audits and safer-technologies assessments — a move the EPA said would save industry $88 million." In contrast, the damage from the Texas explosion alone was $200 million.

The Trump administration has tried to eliminate the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which probes such industrial accidents; though he's not been able to convince Congress to defund the CSHIB,"he’s kept it from releasing its reports by not filling the board’s four vacant seats, Public Integrity reported," Wertz reports.

Investigation finds whites are over-represented in many Midwestern police forces, including rural ones

The police force is a lot whiter than the general populace in many Midwestern areas, according to a collaborative reporting project by Lee Enterprises newspapers.

Reporters at 14 newspapers and online media companies sampled 68 municipal, county and state police departments in Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and found that white officers were over-represented in 62 of those agencies. The gap is seen across urban, suburban and rural areas.

"Most police and other public officials interviewed for the Lee diversity analysis acknowledged diversity in proportion to community demographics is important on police forces," the story reports. "But challenges persist in recruiting that balance, and diversity within police ranks is no panacea for the systemic racism alleged by many who continue seeking reform throughout the nation's web of law enforcement agencies, many officials throughout the four states say."

Thu. webinar from Harvard to explore rural-urban economic divide, accuracy of metrics used to measure economy

A panel of journalists and policy experts will discuss the rural-urban economic divide in a free webinar at 1 p.m. ET Thursday, Aug. 13. Registration is required, and the webinar will last about an hour. Click here for more information or to register.

The webinar will be hosted by Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, and is part of a series aimed at exploring the difference in how people experience economic opportunity and how the economy is portrayed and understood by the media, government, and elite institutions using yardsticks (such as gross domestic product, the stock market, and unemployment rates) that don't always reflect economic reality for Americans.

From the website: "Divides – economic, racial, cultural, and educational, to name just a few – exist between communities across the country. But the perceived divide between rural and urban areas have been a lightning rod for our national conversation over the past several years. [The panelists] will dig into what is real about the divide between rural and urban America, and where we actually find more commonalities than differences across these communities. Come hear the real stories of what is happening economically in urban and rural America."

The panelists will be:
  • Connor Sheets, investigative reporter for the Alabama Media Group
  • Phillip Martin, senior investigative reporter for the WGBH News Center for Investigative Reporting in Boston
  • Dr. Gordon Hanson, Peter Wertheim Professor in Urban Policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government
  • Setti Warren, executive director of the Shorenstein Center and former mayor of Newton, Mass.
  • Tara Westover, author of Educated and a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School

Airbnb bookings outside top metros 25% higher than in 2019

Coronavirus infection rates soared in rural America in July, but in June, rural Airbnb bookings surged as vacationers sought to escape the pandemic.

"According to Airbnb, hosts in rural areas of the U.S. earned over $200 million in June 2020, an increase of more than 25 percent from the same period a year ago. Airbnb also said more than nine of every 10 dollars earned by hosts for June trips inside the U.S. were for sites outside the 10 biggest American cities by population," Michelle Gao reports for CNBC.

Airbnb defines "rural" very broadly, places (presumably counties) with fewer than 100 people per square kilometer, or 160 per square mile. That includes many small metro areas and outlying counties of medium-sized metros. 

"Airbnb’s data also supports hosts’ speculation that guests are choosing to stay local," CNBC reports. "In New York, for example, Airbnb hosts earned over $5.8 million from guests living within 300 miles during June, according to data from the company."

Other trends Airbnb noted were longer average stays and larger groups, most likely comprised of multi-generational families looking to stay together, Gao reports.

Farms that sell locally doing better during pandemic than farms that depend on longer supply chains

"While farms that rely on other businesses to ferry their products to consumers have struggled, farms that sell directly to consumers have not, farmers and experts said," Marissa Plescia reports for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. "The virus has upended supply chains: An Ohio Farm Bureau survey in April showed that about 45 percent of respondents experienced disruptions distributing their products. Dairy farmers dumped milk, and hog farmers euthanized piglets. But sellers in more local markets have, for the most part, been insulated, they said."

Many farmers are making the switch from wholesale to retail markets, according to Raghela Scavuzzo, associate director of food systems development at the Illinois Farm Bureau. "She’s also seen an increase in farms starting online stores and community supported agriculture, where consumers can become members of a farm, similar to becoming members of a grocery store, she said. There are also more partnerships between farms through vendor boxes, which combines products from several different farms into one package," Plescia reports.

Some corn and soybean farmers, who tend to rely more on long supply chains, are not faring so well, and that's on top of the pain already felt from the trade war with China and last year's record wet weather. Krista Swanson, a corn and soybean farmer in Illinois, told Pescia that there's only one planting season for soybeans in the spring, so she wasn't able to make big changes in her farm's production to respond to the market.