Friday, October 30, 2020

The life and work of a rural mail carrier, an election linchpin

The subject of the story runs his route in the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona. (Photo by Daniel Månsson)

"America’s presidential race could well be determined by postal votes," The Economist notes. "Those delivering ballots through inhospitable conditions are often overworked and underpaid."

That's the teaser for a story by Ellice Lueders in The Economist's 1843 magazine about her uncle, whom she calls Guy to protect his identity. U.S. Postal Service folks aren't supposed to talk about their work, so the story is a rare incisive glimpse into the lives of postal-route contractors, who serve rural routes on which the USPS doesn't want to spend health-insurance and pension money.

"He is paid the same rate no matter how long his delivery round takes," Lueders writes. "In recent years the amount he is obliged to deliver each day has increased significantly, meaning he has to spend even longer hours on the road. Lately every day has been 'worse than Christmas' as he struggles to cope with increased numbers of election advertisements, as well as parcels ordered by those wary of leaving their houses because of the pandemic. The USPS has never been more necessary or so thinly stretched."

Early on, Lueders tells family and marital history to get to a point: "The Postal Service, for the men in Guy’s family and many others across America, offers a career path for those without other options. . . . So, on every day but Sunday, Guy drives a minimum of 87 miles and delivers around 180 parcels to rural post offices and the homes that lie between them."

The Postal Service has made up for the decline in first-class mail with more parcel deliveries, "but in low-income areas such as the one Guy serves [customers] cannot afford to buy much stuff. In order to make up for the dearth of first-class mail, the Postal Service has doubled down on providing marketing circulars for businesses. Every day Guy sorts and delivers thousands of pieces of junk mail. Most people discard these before reading them, but sorting it takes up the majority of his time."

Leuders concludes, "With the election looming, Americans everywhere are depending on people like Guy to save their country, whichever way they are considering voting. For Guy, though, the future won’t change. He has no retirement savings. He confesses to me that he might work the route until the day he dies. He probably will."

Religion mixes with politics as hundreds of rural churches pledge to 'vote with values' and Patriot Churches pop up

Pastor Ken Peters prays with attendees at a Patriot Church in Lenoir City, Tenn.
(Photo by Stacy Kranitz for the Washington Post)

Churches are barred from endorsing political candidates if they want to keep their non-profit status, but as usual the presidential election has nonetheless prompted commentary and advocacy from many faith leaders and spurred the creation of a new evangelical group. 

President Trump enjoys broad support from white evangelicals, whom he promised more political power; 81 percent voted for him in 2016, and the latest Pew Research Center polling shows that 78% support him now. But some evangelicals and other Christians oppose him on moral grounds.

Earlier this month, a group called Pro-life Evangelicals for Biden launched, saying the Democratic challenger's overall agenda is more biblically sound though they disagree with the Democratic Party's stance on abortion rights, Sarah Pulliam Bailey reports for The Washington Post.

More than 100 faith leaders from rural and small-town churches from various denominations across the U.S. recently signed a pledge to "vote with values of compassion, love, mercy and love for their neighbors. The pledge endorses no candidate or party, but some tenets seem to signal or greenlight Democratic support, including a commitment to help victims of racial injustice and an emphasis on "the importance of family unity and reunification." The signatories are part of Church World Service, a non-profit organization that aims to help communities worldwide through "just and sustainable responses to hunger, poverty, displacement and disaster." The Rev. John McCullough, president and CEO of CWS, is affiliated with Vote Common Goodan organization urging people of faith to oppose Trump on moral grounds. McCullough, and 1,600 other faith leaders endorsed Biden earlier this month.

Some members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are reluctant to vote for Trump, citing his moral failings. In Arizona, the only toss-up state with a significant Mormon population, that could help swing its 11 electoral votes to Biden, Hank Stephenson reports for The New York Times.

However, some people of faith are embracing Trump more firmly, as new congregations affiliated with the Christian nationalist "Patriot Church" movement are starting to pop up, Bailey reports for the Post. The movement is nondenominational but decidedly straightforward about its conservative politics. For many at one Patriot Church in Tennessee, "The political boldness in worship is a breath of fresh air. They complain that social media restricts their free speech, and they fear government-mandated vaccines," Bailey reports. "Whether Trump wins or loses, religion experts believe these Americans are building powerful networks that are expected to endure long after Trump has left the White House."

Interior Department issues final rule removing Endangered Species Act protections from gray wolves, numbering 6,000

A gray wolf and pups in California's Lassen National Forest (U.S. Forest Service trail camera photo via Washington Post)

"The Trump administration announced Thursday that it is stripping gray wolves of their Endangered Species Act protections in the Lower 48 states, ignoring an outcry from conservation groups and scientists who say the animals will be slaughtered as a result and might not survive," Darryl Fears reports for The Washington Post. "Under a final rule expected to go into effect early next week . . . state wildlife agencies will assume control of managing an estimated 6,000 wolves, mostly in three Midwestern states — Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota." An estimated 1,800 are in other states.

“After more than 45 years as a listed species, the gray wolf has exceeded all conservation goals for recovery,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in announcing the decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Fears reports, "The population is up from 1,000 when gray wolves were listed as endangered starting in 1967, officials said. But their population is still so depleted that thousands of acres of historical wolf habitat in Utah, Colorado and Maine is uninhabited by any wolves, conservationists said."

This is "the second time in the last decade that federal wildlife officials have tried to remove gray wolves from the endangered species list, where they say the animals no longer belong now that they’re thriving in the wild," notes Anna Phillips of the Los Angeles Times. "Like the previous attempt, which took place under the Obama administration, this latest effort is expected to face legal challenges."

Firearm sales at or near record high amid rising tension; Walmart takes guns and ammo behind the counter for now

Amid rising anxieties about the pandemic, racial injustice and election-related fears, Americans are on track to hit a record high for single-year firearm purchases, according to groups that track Federal Bureau of Investigation background-check data and other analytics firms.

"Across the country, Americans bought 15.1 million guns in the seven months this year from March through September, a 91 percent leap from the same period in 2019, according to seasonally adjusted firearms sales estimates from The Trace, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on gun issues," Dionne Searcey and Richard A. Oppel Jr. report for The New York Times. "The FBI has also processed more background checks for gun purchases in just the first nine months of 2020 than it has for any previous full year, FBI data show."

Small Arms Analytics, a firearms analytics company, estimates Americans have purchased nearly 17 million firearms in 2020. "The previous record for estimated firearms sold in a single year was 16.6 million in 2016, when Hillary Clinton ran for president against Donald Trump and endorsed a strong gun-control platform," Lois Beckett reports for The Guardian.

Walmart has pulled guns and ammunition from store shelves, citing worries that civil unrest could prompt looting and theft of the merchandise, Vanessa Romo reports for NPR. The items are still for sale in stores that normally sell them, but they are not on the floor and customers must request them.

Former HHS secretary: Supreme Court case on Affordable Care Act could devastate the rural health-care system

A challenge at the Supreme Court to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act could devastate rural America’s fragile health-care system, according to Kathleen Sebelius, a former Kansas governor who was secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services "during the landmark legislation’s passage and rollout." Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder.

On Tuesday at the Rural Assembly Everywhere virtual conference, Sebelius said the pending case has created "a very precarious situation where all of that could be struck down . . . All of those provisions could vanish, including Medicaid expansion." Sebelius noted that Kansas has lost three rural hospitals in the past two years, partly because the state did not expand Medicaid under the law, Marema reports.

"Since 2010, 133 rural hospitals have closed nationally, according to the University of North Carolina Sheps Center. Most have been in states that did not expand Medicaid," Marema notes.

In 2018, Texas and 19 other states sued to have the ACA declared unconstitutional on grounds that Congress's removal of the individual mandate to buy health insurance had removed the linchpin of its constitutionality in a previous Supreme Court decision. Oral arguments in the case are set for Nov. 10.

Quick hits: Think tank says fiscal policy fails rural America; mobile clinics to bring health care to rural East Tennessee

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 new Wisconsin partnership focuses on farmers' health and well-being. Read more here.

A nonpartisan, independent think tank says fiscal policy is failing rural America. Read more here.

The rural-urban divide is growing in the primary-care workforce, says new study. Read more here.

Retrofitted RVs aim to bring mobile health care to rural East Tennessee. Read more here.

Similarly, retrofitted RVs aim to bring opioid addiction treatment to rural Colorado. Read more here.

A Kansas town that rebuilt as eco-friendly after a big tornado could be a model. Read more here.

How wind turbines are providing a safety net for rural farmers. Read more here.

A proposed wildlife center got a $12 million federal grant after promising jobs and tourists to eastern Kentucky. But four years later, it hasn't materialized. Read more here.

The World Trade Organization has given the European Union permission to impose tariffs on $4 billion worth of American products annually. The action is in retaliation for illegal subsidies given to U.S. airplane maker Boeing. Tariffs could be added to agricultural products, airplanes and other goods. Read more here.

A sociologist and dairy farmer says Democrats are missing one issue that led rural residents in Wisconsin and perhaps other states to vote for President Trump in 2016: Barack Obama failed to fulfill promises to counter increasing corporate power that hurts small farmers. Read more here.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Rural Democrats' advice for their candidates to 'just show up' in rural areas could work this time, giving them Senate

For more than a decade, as Republicans got more of the rural vote, rural Democrats have told their urban counterparts that there are still important votes to be won outside metropolitan areas, if only Democratic candidates would "just show up" instead of writing off rural voters. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post starts his latest column with that point, then looks at Senate races in three states that President Trump "carried handily in 2016" to show that the advice that may have found its time.

He starts with South Carolina, where Black Democrat Jamie Harrison is "in striking distance" of Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, in part, Harrison says, because the descendants of African Americans who moved north are moving south.

In Montana, rural voters are appreciative of the expansion of Medicaid under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act by Gov. Steve Bullock, who is challenging Republican Sen. Steve Daines. Health care is the main issue at town halls in Iowa, which also expanded Medicaid, says Democrat Theresa Greenfield, who is narrowly favored to unseat Republican Sen. Joanie Ernst.

"All three point to how rural America is changing in ways that are compatible with practical progressive politics, and how disappointment with Republican policies — particularly on health care, taxes and Social Security — is pushing many rural voters to reconsider their GOP loyalties," Dionne writes. Because every state has two senators, creating a rural bias, "For Democrats and progressives, the success of candidates such as Harrison, Greenfield and Bullock could spell the difference between real power in the Senate and either fragile control or no control at all."

Trump administration OKs logging and development in one of the world's largest intact temperate rainforests

Map by Lauren Tierney, The Washington Post; click to enlarge
As of today, the Trump administration has opened up more than half of Alaska's Tongass National Forest to logging and other developments, "stripping protections that had safeguarded one of the world’s largest intact temperate rainforests for nearly two decades," Juliet Eilperin reports for The Washington Post. The decision is "one of the most sweeping public lands rollbacks Trump has enacted" and rolls back protections Bill Clinton enacted in 2001.

Logging companies will be allowed "to build roads and cut and remove timber throughout more than 9.3 million acres of forest — featuring old-growth stands of red and yellow cedar, Sitka spruce and Western hemlock," Eilperin reports. "The relatively pristine expanse is also home to plentiful salmon runs and imposing fjords." The new rule says an additional 188,000 forested acres, mainly old-growth timber, will be made available for logging.

The U.S. Forest Service made the announcement in a Federal Register notice Wednesday.

"For years, federal and academic scientists have identified Tongass as an ecological oasis that serves as a massive carbon sink," Eilperin reports. "Its trees — some of which are between 300 and 1,000 years old — absorb at least 8 percent of all the carbon stored in the entire Lower 48′s forests combined." Dominick DellaSalla, chief scientist with the Earth Island Institute's Wild Heritage project, told Eilperin that "the Tongass is the lungs of North America."

The move highlights the administration's tenuous relationship with environmentalism. "While Trump has repeatedly touted his commitment to planting trees through the One Trillion Tree initiative, invoking it as recently as last week, his administration has sought to expand logging in Alaska and in the Pacific Northwest throughout his presidency," "Eilperin reports. "Federal judges have blocked several of these plans as illegal: Last week, the administration abandoned its appeal of a ruling that struck down a 1.8 million-acre timber sale on the Tongass’s Prince of Wales Island."

Fact-checking the presidential campaigns in the final stretch

With less than a week before Election Day, both presidential campaigns are scrambling to win over undecided voters—sometimes with less-than-truthful claims. Here's our weekly fact-check round-up:

President Trump has made repeated false and misleading claims about the coronavirus pandemic. He has also responded with denials and attacks when journalists fact-checked his claims on-camera, and has told crowds at rallies that media coverage of the pandemic is meant to damage him politically and should violate election laws, Salvador Rizzo reports for The Washington Post's Fact Checker. 

Though cases are spiking across the nation, especially in rural areas, Trump insists "We're rounding the corner." He also says numbers are rising because we do more testing than other nations, but health experts say it's because the U.S. has not controlled the spread of the disease as much as most other countries, Rizzo reports. Trump has claimed that Republican-governed states such as Arizona, Florida and Texas are weathering the virus successfully, while Democrat-governed states are faring worse, partly because of more stringent shut-down orders. That's false; read the article for more details.

At an Oct. 27 rally in Omaha, Trump insinuated that the news media began reporting that coronavirus immunity only lasts four months, not for a lifetime, only after he became infected. That's false, Rizzo reports. Public-health experts are still learning how long post-infection immunity lasts. 

In Oct. 27 in remarks to reporters, Trump said counting ballots for weeks after Election Day "is totally inappropriate, and I don't believe that's by our laws." He is wrong. "Time after Election Day to count absentee ballots, overseas military ballots, and provisional ballots is enshrined in both federal and state law,"  Louis Jacobson reports for Politifact. "In fact, federal law allows states until more than a month after the election to finalize their results before the casting of electoral votes."

Democratic challenger Joe Biden misspoke twice in the past week about his plan to pay for free community college through the corporate minimum tax. The plan is iffy in the first place: several independent tax groups say the move would raise half of what the Biden campaign estimates, at most. "But on two occasions in the last week, Biden has muddied things even further by flubbing the campaign’s talking point on how much the tax would raise, and how much his higher education proposal would cost," Robert Farley reports for

In a "60 Minutes" interview on CBS Oct. 25, Biden "grossly underestimated" how much it would cost to provide free community college; his campaign later said Biden misspoke. And at an Oct. 24 rally, Biden muddled the numbers again, this time mistakenly saying that a 15% corporate minimum tax would raise $40 billion. The plan on Biden's website estimates that the move would raise $400 billion.

Trump made repeated false and misleading claims at three Oct. 26 rallies about ballots and voting fraud, including a claim that the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania is responsible for counting mail-in ballots. Under state law, county election boards investigate possible fraud, count ballots, and certify the results. The governor has no such authority, reports

Politifact also has an excellent roundup of various social media memes and rumors. Click here.

Tips for safely participating in Halloween during a pandemic

Getty Images
With Halloween coming up on Saturday, many families are wondering how to safely participate in trick-or-treat during a pandemic. It's an especially urgent question for families in rural areas, where infection rates are higher and rising. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a list of recommended low- and moderate-risk activities, as well as a list of activities to avoid.

One important note first, though: The CDC warns that a costume mask isn't a substitute for a protective cloth mask, and suggests incorporating a Halloween-themed cloth mask into your child's costume. It warns that a costume mask shouldn't be worn over a protective cloth mask, since it can make it hard for children to breathe.

For those in high-risk areas, here are some low-risk activities that don't require you to interact closely with others:
  • Carving or painting pumpkins
  • Decorating your home
  • An outdoor scavenger hunt where children look for Halloween- or autumn-themed items while staying on the sidewalk
  • An indoor scavenger hunt or candy search in your home
  • A virtual costume contest
  • A Halloween movie night with the family—don't forget the candy!
Here are some activities the CDC recommends as moderate-risk, appropriate for those who live in lower-risk areas:
  • Socially-distanced trick-or-treating, where individually wrapped goody bags are lined up at the edge of a yard or driveway (not in a bowl where many hands will leave germs). Those preparing goody bags should wash their hands thoroughly beforehand.
  • A small, outdoor, open-air costume parade where people stay at least six feet apart
  • An open-air, one-way, walk-through haunted forest with people staying more than six feet apart and appropriate mask usage enforced
  • Visiting a pumpkin patch or orchard with plenty of hand sanitizer, social distancing, and protective masks
  • An outdoor Halloween movie night with, of course, everyone at least six feet apart. If the movie is likely to make people scream, the CDC advises distancing people more than six feet, since screaming can propel germs further into the surrounding space.
The CDC recommends people avoid these high-risk activities:
  • Traditional door-to-door trick-or-treating
  • Trunk-or-treat parties in parking lots
  • Crowded costume parties indoors
  • Indoor haunted houses where people may be crowded together and screaming
  • Hayrides or tractor rides with people who aren't in your household
  • Using alcohol or drugs, which can cloud judgment and increase risky behaviors
  • Going to a rural fall festival outside of your community, if you live in a high-risk area

A deeper look at how partisan sites that pretend to be reliable local news sources operate

There's a growing trend, especially in election-battleground states, of partisan outfits masquerading as local news websites and delivering highly biased content. In Texas, many of these "pink slime journalism" sites are operated by Metric Media, one of many companies overseen by internet entrepreneur Brian Timpone. With the federal government unlikely to step in, such sites are dangerous to democracy, political science professor Coda Rayo-Garza writes for Route Fifty.

Rayo-Garza provides a deeper look into how such sites mix in credible news with partisan content to pass readers' smell test, how Timpone exploits expanding news deserts with pink-slime sites, and provides updated statistics on how common such websites are.  

"Pink-slime journalism has the potential to exacerbate our already polarized political landscape," Rayo-Garza writes. "Hyper-partisanship has allowed fake news to threaten the underpinnings of our democracy by hampering society’s ability to agree on basic facts. When a society disagrees on what is true and false, achieving consensus on political solutions becomes virtually impossible."

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

NOAA's chief scientist fired after asking new political officers to acknowledge agency's scientific-integrity policy

The Trump administration fired the chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and "installed new political staff who have questioned accepted facts about climate change and imposed stricter controls on communications at the agency," The New York Times reports. "The moves threaten to stifle a major source of objective United States government information about climate change that underpins federal rules on greenhouse gas emissions and offer an indication of the direction the agency will take if President Trump wins re-election."

When NOAA's acting chief scientist "sent some of the new political appointees a message that asked them to acknowledge the agency’s scientific integrity policy, which prohibits manipulating research or presenting ideologically driven findings," he was fired by "a former White House policy adviser who had just been appointed NOAA’s chief of staff," Christopher Flavelle and Lisa Friedman report.

Charlotte Klein reports for Vanity Fair, "The Trump administration is also placing restrictions on internal and external messages at the agency. The policy change requires all communications—from social media posts to press releases to agency-wide emails—to be approved by political staff at the Commerce Department at least three days before they are released, a move meant to ensure communications 'serve the needs of your employees and mission while aligning with the over-arching guidance from the White House and Department,' a memo issued by the department said. The new limits underscore the environmental implications of next week’s vote—and offer a grim preview of what a second Trump term would look like for climate research."

EPA greenlights three types of dicamba herbicide through 2025, limits states' ability to further restrict its use

The Environmental Protection Agency has authorized three formulations of the herbicide dicamaba for over-the-top use for five years, running through 2025. On a Tuesday evening press call, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler "stated that EPA has granted five-year registrations to two canceled dicamba herbicides -- XtendiMax and Engenia -- as well as a re-registered dicamba herbicide, Tavium," Emily Unglesbee reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "All three now require a nationwide June 30 cutoff date for use in soybeans and a July 30 cutoff date for use in cotton, regardless of growth stage. The agency also announced it is limiting states' ability to add further restrictions to the federal labels."

In early June, a federal appeals court banned sales of dicamba-based products in the U.S. through late December, saying that the EPA did not do its due diligence when reauthorizing the controversial herbicide in 2018. That reauthorization expires Dec. 20. But soon after the court ruling, EPA told farmers they could use existing stores of dicamba through July. A federal appeals court upheld that call, but until now it was unclear whether dicamba would be legal in 2021. 

Rural-urban political divide widens; Ohio is an example

USA Today map; click on the image to enlarge it
Party politics have changed in Ohio and across the country, with the times and the demographics. "Democrats have lost ground in rural areas and Republicans have a hard time winning in urban areas," Jackie Borchardt and Céilí Doyle report for The Columbus Dispatch. "The best predictor of whether a state will vote red or blue is whether more people live in urban areas vs. rural places, said Will Wilkinson, vice president for research at the Niskanen Center, a moderate D.C. think tank."

USA Today journalists explored how the political leanings of four Ohio counties have changed over the past 20 years, including a discussion of the rural-urban political divide and what it might take to bridge the gap. "Most people spoke of national politics that don't reflect the cities and small towns they live and work in, as well as frustrations about the way in which their communities are represented," Borchardt and Doyle report.

Presidential-election votes in Hamilton (Cincinnati) and Franklin (Columbus) counties trended more Democratic between 1996 and 2016, while Scioto and Monroe counties, more rural, became more conservative, Borchardt and Doyle report. Read more here.

Rural counties hit record high for new coronavirus cases Oct. 18-24, fifth week in a row; metropolitan cases rising too

New coronavirus infections, Oct. 18-24
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

New coronavirus infections hit a record high in rural counties from Oct. 18 through 24, the fifth week in a row. "Rural counties had a record 17,818 new infections on Friday, Oct. 23. Even though metropolitan cases did not hit a record that day, rural America’s high number drove infections to a new nationwide peak of 82,887 infections in a single day," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "Rural counties also hit a one-week record for new infections last week at 91,961. That’s a 13% increase over the previous week and the fifth consecutive record-breaking week for rural counties."

The number of red-zone rural counties dropped slightly last week: 10 counties were removed from the list, but about 70% of rural counties, or 1,348, remain in the red zone. The White House Coronavirus Task Force defines red zones as areas with at least one new infection per 1,000 people.

Precedent-setting Colorado ballot measure would require state biologists to reintroduce gray wolves on public lands

A gray wolf in Wallowa County, Oregon (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife photo)

Gray wolves once roamed the southern Rocky Mountains but were hunted out of existence. Colorado voters are deciding whether to bring them back.

"If approved, a precedent-setting ballot measure would require state biologists to reintroduce the native carnivores to more than 17 million acres of rugged public lands in Colorado’s rural west by the end of 2023," Jennifer Oldham reports for The Washington Post. "The proposal is the capstone of a 40-year campaign by conservationists to return the animals to their former range along the Rocky Mountain chain from Canada to Mexico. And it could herald a paradigm shift in wildlife management, backers say, by giving Coloradans the nation’s first vote on reintroducing an endangered species to a place it once thrived — a decision typically reserved for government scientists." Read more here.

Food and farm workers need food, despite federal farm aid

President Trump has given farmers record amounts of pandemic relief, but many farmworkers, food-processing workers, and small family farmers need food assistance, according to dozens of food banks nationwide; meanwhile, hunger is rising in the U.S., particularly in states with a high proportion of rural residents, Christopher Walljasper and Gabriela Bhaskar report for Reuters.

"The Trump administration has paid farmers nearly $18 billion in direct payments since June through its Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, but nearly 92 percent of farmers in Wisconsin received less aid than it costs to run an average dairy in the state for a month," Reuters reports. "More than 54 million people in the United States could struggle to afford food during the pandemic, with the biggest increases in food insecurity in North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin, according to Feeding America, a network of 60,000 U.S. food shelters."

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the CFAP is meant to keep food on Americans' tables, but Reuters says much of the aid isn't reaching farmworkers, since the program doesn't stipulate that.

"The agriculture department has distributed 9.5 million food boxes since June under a program meant to funnel food quickly to those who need it, but food pantry workers say it will not be enough," Walljasper and Bhaskar report. "Weekly survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau and an annual study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that hunger is rising, particularly in rural states, after a decade of decline. By late September, Vermont, West Virginia and North Dakota topped the Bureau’s list, with a more than 50% increase in respondents saying they lacked enough to eat."

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Tennessee hospital group to begin deferring elective procedures because of covid-19 patient spike

Ballad Health, which owns a host of rural hospitals, will begin deferring elective procedures at three of its Tennessee hospitals because of a spike in covid-19 hospitalizations, CEO Alan Levine announced in a series of tweets. They might have to reschedule more if cases continue to rise. 

Ballad Health, which operates 21 hospitals in four states, said Oct. 26 it is caring for 166 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, 28 of whom are in the intensive care unit," Alia Paavola reports for Becker's Hospital Review. "On Oct. 26, Ballad began rescheduling up to 25 percent of elective services at Holston Valley Medical Center in Kingsport, Tenn. In a few days, procedures will begin being deferred at Bristol Regional Medical Center and Johnson City Medical Center."

The rising caseload likely reflects rising caseloads in not just the metropolitan counties where the hospitals are located, but the rural counties surrounding them, since rural residents with serious covid-19 cases are usually taken to larger regional hospitals.

Rural voters' approval rating for Trump's job performance is 53%, according to Zogby poll done for Progressive Farmer

A recent poll of rural American voters shows that just over half (53%) approve of President Trump's job performance, including how he's handling the pandemic, and 50% plan to vote for him—a lead of 18 percentage points over Democratic challenger Joe Biden, Dan Miller reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. The poll also provides a snapshot into rural voters' lives and what they care about most in the election.

"Support for the president is strongest in the critical Central Great Lakes region of the United States (55% of rural adults support him there), among those 65 years of age and older (60% support him), rural white people (55%) and married rural adults (57%)," Miller reports. Meanwhile, 42% of respondents somewhat or strongly disapprove of the president's job performance.

Here are some other findings, which Miller also discusses in this piece. Among respondents:
  • 40% identify as Republicans, but 49% say they'll vote for Republicans in congressional races.
  • 23% identify as Democrats, but 31% say they'll vote for Democrats in congressional races.
  • 62% said the strength of the economy is the issue that will most influence their vote; 48% said health care, and 39% said protection of Second Amendment rights.
  • Health care is the top issue for rural Democrats, with 64% saying it's the most important factor in their vote. That's the only demographic where health care has a significant edge over other issue. They are also the only rural demographic that considers climate change one of the top issues: 48% said it's important, compared to 27% overall.
  • 11% said they're undecided about their choice for president.
  • 29% are farmers or have family members who farm.
  • 39% said agriculture is worse off than it was four years ago; 23% said it's better off, and 17% are undecided.
  • Republicans (40%) and Southerners (29%) are more likely than other groups to believe agriculture is better off.
  • 56% of farmers believe Trump's trade deals with China, Mexico and Canada have led to higher income potential for their farm.
  • 59% said their farm would be struggling if not for direct federal aid given because of the pandemic and the trade war.

The DTN/Progressive Farmer Zogby Analytics Election poll surveyed 1,008 adults in rural counties and 120 completed surveys from the Progressive Farmer subscriber list; the margin of error is 2.9%. The article includes more details on respondents' demographics and political affiliations. Click here to read more findings from the poll.

Growing weariness with social-distancing spurs higher infection rates; how rural officials can help keep cases down

With the pandemic stretching into its tenth month, more and more people are shrugging off social-distancing measures, whether out of necessity or because they're tired of them. "With no end in sight, many people are flocking to bars, family parties, bowling alleys and sporting events much as they did before the virus hit, and others must return to school or work as communities seek to resuscitate economies," Julie Bosman, Sarah Mervosh and Marc Santora report for The New York Times. "And in sharp contrast to the spring, the rituals of hope and unity that helped people endure the first surge of the virus have given way to exhaustion and frustration."

That apathy threatens to drive up infection rates as colder weather comes and more people are indoors, where the virus can more easily spread, the Times reports. 

It's especially problematic in the rural U.S., where impatience with public health recommendations is coinciding with soaring infection rates, University of Colorado family medicine professors Lauren Hughes and Roberto Silva report for The Conversation

Rural infection rates are on the rise because of many factors, including politicization, misinformation, the presence of meatpacking plants and prisons, and lack of broadband (which makes remote work and schooling difficult or impossible), Hughes and Silva report.

Rural communities can tamp down on surging cases but must consider their unique demographics, economies and perspectives to develop policies that can prevent or address future outbreaks. "For example, allowing rural communities to exert control over their reopening and closing decisions based on local disease transmission dynamics would allow them to better balance disease mitigation with economic impacts," Hughes and Silva report. "Some states allow rural communities with few or no cases to apply for waivers from statewide public health orders. These applications generally look at local infection data, containment measures and health care capacity."

Local officials might also frame the pandemic differently to ensure higher compliance with public-health measures. "For example, a public service message could remind people that wearing a mask keeps your favorite business open and your grandmother healthy," Hughes and Silva report. "Framing levels of risk in understandable terms for different types of activities can also help, such as how to exercise or socialize safely. Working with trusted local messengers, such as business owners and faith leaders, can help convey evidence-based information."

Influx of city dwellers in Western vacation towns triggers growing pains; new initiative aims to help local officials

When the pandemic hit, towns that rely heavily on tourist revenue had some of the highest infection rates in the nation. But now, such communities are facing a different issue: people looking to move away from big cities. 

"Now, many gateway communities are facing an entirely new problem: a flood of remote workers fleeing big cities to ride out the pandemic, perhaps permanently. Like oil discovery led to western boomtowns, the pandemic has led to the rise of 'Zoom Towns'—and with this so-called amenity migration comes a variety of challenges," Lisa Potter reports for science website

Towns suddenly inundated with new residents could experience problems such as skyrocketing housing costs and overcrowded schools, and local authorities may lack the capacity to deal with the new residents. A newly published paper in the Journal of the American Planning Association outlines such challenges in depth, gleaned from a 2018 survey of public officials in more than 1,200 Western communities, Potter reports.

"In an effort to help gateway communities and the regions around them plan for and respond to covid-19 and planning pressures, [researchers] have launched the Gateway and Natural Amenity Region Initiative based at Utah State University in the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism. The GNAR Initiative will begin hosting a webinar series on amenity migration beginning Oct. 15."

The influx underlines the importance of quality broadband access in rural areas, since its availability could lure new residents to towns that need new blood badly.

Alltech launches 2nd Women in Food and Agriculture survey

Agricultural bio-tech company Alltech is launching its second annual Women in Food and Agriculture Survey today.

The 2019 survey was well worth the effort, according to the company's press release. It "revealed specific barriers for women in agriculture and a gap between female and male perceptions but reflected an optimistic outlook overall. As 2020 ushered in unprecedented challenges for agriculture, new questions have been added to the survey to gauge potential inequalities exacerbated by covid-19. To further globalize this effort and increase accessibility, the survey is available in multiple languages."

Click here for more information or to take the survey.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Former coal magnate Robert Murray, who long fought mine regulators, dies at 80 — possibly from black lung

Bob Murray
Former coal baron Robert Murray, who spent most of his career fighting against federal mine-safety regulations that could reduce black-lung disease, died this weekend, possibly from black lung.

Murray, 80, was the former CEO, president and board chairman of the now-bankrupt Murray Energy, the largest privately owned U.S. coal company. According to an attorney, he died at his Ohio home on Sunday morning, The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register reports

His death came less than a week after he announced his retirement. No official cause of death was released, but Murray had recently applied for black-lung benefits with the Department of Labor, and was heavily dependent on supplemental oxygen, The Associated Press reports.

Trump's support is lower in swing states than in 2016, and his rural backing has dropped over the past six months

"The big margin of support among rural voters that helped Donald Trump secure victory four years ago is looking less firm in 2020 with the potential to shift the outcomes in key battleground states," Mike Dorning reports for Bloomberg. Democratic challenger Joe Biden won't carry rural America, "but polls leading to Election Day show that enthusiasm for the incumbent has waned compared to 2016. In a race where the margin of victory may be slim and turn on the result in just a handful of states, even a slight dip for either candidate in a core constituency can mean the difference between winning and losing."

Though the Trump administration has increased farm subsidies, farmers and rural areas were already hurting before the coronavirus pandemic or the trade war with China. Meanwhile, the pandemic is disproportionately hitting rural America right now, Dorning reports.

"That helps explain why Trump’s 28-percentage-point margin among rural voters in 2016 exit polls has shrunk to a 15-point lead (56% to 41%) among rural likely voters in a Survey USA poll taken Oct. 16-19, the most recent poll where the breakdown is available," Dorning reports. "His latest reading is also below the 20-point advantage in 2012 for Republican Mitt Romney, who lost his bid for the White House. Other polls have shown similar drops. The president’s job approval among rural and small-town residents dropped in a Gallup Poll Sept. 30-Oct. 15 to 55% from 62% as recently as May."

Trump won the election because he flipped swing voting districts in rural and blue-collar areas of swing states. "Any erosion of that rural base could prove particularly dangerous for Trump in the three battlegrounds he dramatically flipped in 2016 to secure an Electoral College triumph: Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania," Dorning reports. "With suburban voters in those states, which have been traditionally blue in presidential elections, turning back toward the Democrats, it’s all the more urgent for Trump to shore up his rural backing." Trump has spent considerable time lately campaigning in those areas and in Ohio and North Carolina, trying to fire up his rural base.

George Clooney pleads with urbanites and progressives to keep fighting for red states, like his home state of Kentucky

George Clooney
(AP photo by Grant Pollard)
"Growing up as a Democrat in Kentucky helped George Clooney get used to fighting impossible battles. With the presidential election fast approaching, the activist and actor says progressives should not give up on fighting for deep red states—even if the challenge seems insurmountable," Anthony Breznican reports for Vanity Fair.

Clooney said real change takes a long time and that people must stick with it even through repeated defeats. "Of course you fight the losing fights, and of course you go into them fully expecting that you’re going to lose this fight," Clooney told Breznican. "But that’s how democracy works. You fight it, and fight it, and at some point it changes."

The current political division in the U.S. is as bad as Clooney has ever seen it, he says; internet misinformation, structural inequalities, and anger are at the root of it, and President Trump helped fan the flames: "The truth of the matter is, the United States has always been a tinderbox. We’ve always had a portion of the country that has issues, anger, and, in general, we usually have presidents who try not to foment that anger. We try to find common ground and peace . . . [Now] we have someone who is taking a blowtorch to it. You’re seeing 35 percent of the country getting furious. When we have someone not like that, things will calm down somewhat."

Administration says China has purchased 71% of trade-deal target for farm goods, but its metric for that is debatable

"The Trump administration says China has met 71% of its farm-good purchases under the phase-one trade deal. Whether that’s the most accurate way to measure the progress is still up for debate," Mike Dorning and Isis Almeida report for Bloomberg. That's more than $23 billion in agricultural products.

The agreement was not clear about how progress would be calculated; the text of the deal simply calls for products to be purchased and imported into China in 2020. "The agreement explicitly calls for the goods to be imported into China, so on its face, compliance would seem to require not just an outstanding sale, but also delivery within the calendar year," Seth Meyer, associate director of the University of Missouri’s Food & Agricultural Policy Research Institute and former chairman of the Agriculture Department's World Agricultural Outlook Board, told Bloomberg. Calendar-year delivery matters because it can take up to a month for goods to reach China, so some December sales may not count.

An Oct. 23 report from the USTR said that pork and corn sales to China are at an all-time high, and that sales of beef, soybeans, and sorghum are strong as well Keith Good reports for the University of Illinois' Farm Policy News. Moreover, according to inside sources, China is considering importing more corn next year due to increased animal feed demand, Naveen Thukral and Hallie Gu report for Reuters.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Jerry Jeff Walker, writer of 'Mr. Bojangles' and a godfather to 'Texas outlaw' and Americana music, dies at 78 in Austin

Jerry Jeff Walker at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium in 2016
(Photo by Erkia Goldring, Getty Images)
Jerry Jeff Walker, who was best known for writing "Mr. Bojangles" but was also an influential figure in the music of his adoptive Texas and the development of the genre now known as Americana, died of throat cancer Friday at a hospital in Austin. He was 78.

He was born Ronald Clyde Crosby in Oneonta, N.Y., "in northernmost Appalachia," The New York Times notes. He got his stage name (soon afterward his legal name) in New Orleans, reports Melissa Roberto of Fox News. He wrote 'Mr. Bojangles' in the mid-1960s after a night in a New Orleans jail where he met a man who 'danced a lick across the cell'," writes Peter Blackstock of the Austin-American Statesman. The song languished, and Walker "was ready to give up on the music business" in 1971 until the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had a Top 10 hit with it, reports Matt Schudel of The Washington Post. "It soon became recognized as a standard." More than 100 artists have recorded it, Blackstock reports.

Walker's own recording career "spanned 51 years and he released 36 albums, including compilations," Roberto notes. "He became known as a mentor to musicians such as Garth Brooks, Jimmy Buffett, Guy Clark, Todd Snider and Lucinda Williams." He "had some trouble with alcohol and drugs," and his obituary notes his "rowdy performances and offstage excess." He settled in Austin in 1971, and "The Austin outlaw music scene he helped launch came to include Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt," Schudel writes. He "formed a group called the Lost Gonzo Band, evoking the untamed spirit of 'gonzo' journalist Hunter S. Thompson." He told Rolling Stone in 1974 that “Texas was the only place where they didn’t look at me like I was crazy," The New York Times reports.

His 1973 album Viva Terlingua, recorded in the virtual ghost town of Luckenbach, Texas . . . practically defined the new Texas sound, combining elements of country, rock and folk music with a touch of sagebrush poetry," Schudel reports. Walked had only five songs on the album, and the best-known "were by other writers, including Guy Clark’s cinematic 'Desperados Waiting for a Train,' Ray Wylie Hubbard’s honky-tonk anthem 'Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother' and Gary P. Nunn’s 'London Homesick Blues,' about a Texan stranded in England who longs 'to go home with the armadillo, good country music from Amarillo and Abilene'."

None of Walker's songs "has had the staying power or emotional resonance of 'Mr. Bojangles,' Schudel writes, citing in part a 2004 profile in Texas Monthly: "He said he was reading the poetry of Dylan Thomas and was conscious of using internal rhyme. He strummed a descending chord figure in the lilting time signature of 6/8, and the words and music came together. . . . Many people assume that the dancer described by Mr. Walker was African American, like Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson, but that was not the case. In his autobiography, Mr. Walker noted that because the jails were segregated in New Orleans in 1965, the Bojangles he met was an elderly white dancer down on his luck."