Friday, December 04, 2020

Coronavirus vaccine roundup: here's what we know

It's difficult to keep track of all the news about potential coronavirus vaccines and how and when they will be distributed. Here's some recent coverage that can help you get up to speed:

The two most promising vaccines thus far are by Moderna and Pfizer. AstraZeneca is also developing a vaccine but data may be unreliable because of a manufacturing error. Read more here for information comparing the three vaccines.

The Pfizer vaccine requires expensive, ultra-cold freezers for storage but the Moderna vaccine can be stored in a regular freezer. Since rural hospitals say they can't afford the pricey freezers for the Pfizer vaccine, the Moderna vaccine may make for easier distribution in rural areas.

A new study shows that people still had high levels of coronavirus antibodies three months after receiving the Moderna vaccine. Read more here.

Full immunity requires two shots a month apart, but that could make it more difficult to distribute the vaccine, especially among people with limited access to health care. Read more here.

A vaccine for children may still be many months away. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines haven't been tested on children, and Pfizer only recently allowed testing on those as young as 12. Read more here.

USA Today has a general explainer about coronavirus vaccines. Read more here.

Optometrists and dentists may be authorized to administer vaccines to make it easier for people to get it. Read more here.

Health-care workers and nursing-home residents should be the first to get vaccinated, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory group. Read more here.

The Trump administration will leave it up to states to decide how the limited, early supplies of coronavirus vaccines will be distributed. Read more here.

An interactive feature in The Washington Post shows how much priority you might receive for a coronavirus vaccination, based on your age, health, location, and profession. Read more here.

Vaccination distribution will be a "mind-blowing" challenge for Alabama and other poor, rural states. Read more here.

A former military coronavirus planner says vaccine distribution will be a "nightmare." Read more here.

A tool aims to help states and counties plan how to distribute the vaccine. Read more here.

House Democrats elect first Black chair of agriculture panel

Rep. David Scott, D-Ga.

The House Agriculture Committee has its first African American chair.

"Rep. David Scott of Georgia soundly defeated a California rival in a vote among majority-party Democrats on Thursday," Chuck Abbott reports for Successful Farming. "Scott, who represents a suburban Atlanta district with 313 farms, pledged to tackle an array of issues, most prominently climate change and the rural-urban split, in the new session of Congress opening on Jan. 3." He succeeds Collin Peterson of Minnesota, who was defeated for re-election in a district that went big for President Trump. Peterson endorsed Scott over Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno, Calif.

Scott’s election means that three of the four leaders of the agriculture committees will be new to the jobs, Abbott notes: "House Republicans voted on Thursday to make Rep. Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania their leader on House Agriculture. Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas is expected to be the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, either as chairman or the so-called ranking member from the minority," depending on the outcome of the Jan. 5 runoff elections in Georgia.

Trump gets bill to authorize Fallen Journalists Memorial

Congress has passed and sent to President Trump a bipartisan bill authorizing the planning and construction of a memorial in Washington, D.C., to slain journalists.

The Senate approved the Fallen Journalists Memorial Act, "co-sponsored by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., which authorizes the Fallen Journalists Memorial Foundation to begin planning and raising funds for the memorial’s construction," Brooks DuBose reports for the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., where five journalists were killed in an attack last year by a disgruntled subject of a story, in what is "considered the deadliest attack on journalist in American history." Other sponsors of the bill were Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Reps. Grace Napolitano, D-Calif., and Tom Cole, R-Okla.

"The foundation must raise tens of millions of dollars, meet with a half dozen commissions and search for a location," the Capital reports, citing former Rep. David Dreier, who chairs the foundation and is a former chair of Tribune Publishing, which owns the Capital and parent Baltimore Sun. "It takes, on average, about seven years to build a memorial. “Now the real work begins,” said Dreier, a Republican.

"Dreier said he expects Trump to sign the bill despite an adversarial relationship with the press," DuBose reports. "Trump did condemn the attack on the Capital Gazette’s newsroom. . . . The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment." Trump could veto the bill or allow it to become law without his signature.

Dreier said recognizing journalists' contribution to the United States and supporting freedom of information is more important than ever following the closure of the Newseum, which had a memorial for journalists killed on the job. To donate to the memorial, go to

White House task force tells public-health leaders to appeal directly to the public if state or officials are uncooperative

The White House Coronavirus Task Force wants public-health officials to appeal directly to the public if elected officials won't impose or enforce mask mandates or other pandemic preventives.

It's not an unfounded concern. Several states lack mask mandates, and some communities, perhaps more in conservative rural areas, do not enforce them, Emma Coleman notes for Route Fifty.

At least one Virginia county has taken things further than simply not creating or enforcing social-distancing measures. In Campbell County, near Lynchburg, the Board of Supervisors approved a measure rejecting Gov. Ralph Northam's coronavirus restrictions, declaring the county a "First Amendment Sanctuary," Gregory Schneider reports for The Washington Post.

Conservative activists are urging Virginia local governments "to pass so-called 'nullification resolutions' that attempt to follow the path scores of Virginia localities blazed a year ago when they adopted various resolutions declaring themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries," the Post's Norman Leahy reports.

Documents show how Monsanto and BASF sold dicamba even though they knew it would damage other crops

Dicamba herbicide manufacturers Monsanto and BASF knew their products would damage soybean and cotton crops that aren't genetically engineered to resist it, but sold it anyway, according to documents obtained by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

"Executives from Monsanto and BASF, a German chemical company that worked with Monsanto to launch the system, knew their dicamba weed killers would cause large-scale damage to fields across the United States but decided to push them on unsuspecting farmers anyway, in a bid to corner the soybean and cotton markets," Jonathan Hettinger reports. "Monsanto and BASF have denied for years that dicamba is responsible for damage, blaming farmers making illegal applications, weather events and disease. The companies insist that when applied according to the label, dicamba stays on target and is an effective tool for farmers."

The investigation also found that Monsanto limited testing that could delay or deny regulatory approval of dicamba, and that its investigations of drift incidents were designed to limit the company's liability or payouts to farmers, Hettinger reports. Read more here.

Eviction wave looms without another virus relief package

Nearly 16 percent of the nation's 43 million renters were behind on their rent in October, and about half of  renters surveyed say they're not confident or only moderately confident about paying on time next month. 

"Recent estimates found that between 6.7 million and 13.9 million households could be at risk of eviction," Emma Coleman reports for Route Fifty. "If 25% of newly evicted people become homeless, the costs to public health and social safety net programs would be astronomical—between $62 billion and $129 billion, according to a new report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Innovation for Justice program at the University of Arizona."

"Without another stimulus package providing renters with a direct infusion of cash or allocating money to local rent relief programs, housing advocates say they are worried that renters’ situations could grow more dire in winter months and lead to a wave of evictions," Coleman reports. "This is especially true if local or federal eviction moratoriums expire."

Princeton University's Eviction Lab has an interactive map and raw data files showing state- and county-level eviction data; click here to see how your county ranks.

Quick hits: Peabody Energy to eliminate retired miner benefits; USDA launches new customer-service portal

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

Americans flock to chicken, the nation's number one quarantine meat. Read more here.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has launched a new customer-service interface. Read more here.

Peabody Energy to eliminate a health-care benefit program for retired miners. Read more here.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in President Trump's case attempting to exclude undocumented immigrants from Congressional redistricting numbers. Read more here.

Teachers say election conspiracy theories rampant among youngsters in areas where Trump is popular, and say distance learning makes it harder to guide children through misinformation. Read more here.

A novel way of mitigating climate change: feeding cows red seaweed could help them burp less methane. Read more here.

U.S. shale operators looking for signs of optimism despite a year of bankruptcies and job losses. Read more here.

Trump administration moves to overhaul the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, relax rules on killing birds. Read more here.

Parler is bringing together mainstream conservatives with anti-Semites and white supremacists. Read more here.

A fact-check: a Danish study has been rumored to prove that face masks are useless in protecting against the coronavirus. That's false. Read more here.

Rural Texas clinic can't offer telehealth because they don't have broadband or enough staff. Read more here.

Federal government to allow private flood insurance for millions. Read more here.

Thursday, December 03, 2020

Policy paper shows how local strategies are helping revitalize three small cities: Wheeling, Emporia and Laramie

Part of the historic district of Laramie, Wyoming (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
A five-part policy paper aims to cut through stereotypes to show small-town America as it really is and discuss examples of local strategies for sustainable growth in three small cities (Wheeling, West Virginia; Laramie, Wyoming; and Emporia, Kansas) and surrounding rural areas. Its authors argue that this is more important than ever as such places struggle economically during the pandemic.

Pundits and policymakers (not to mention the general public) often paint rural and small-town America as a monolith of white people who depend on traditional industries and struggle with stagnation, decline and despair. "These characterizations are not just inaccurate; they actively obscure effective solutions for rural economic and community development and the local efforts underway to implement them," Hanna Love and Mike Powe write for the Brookings Institution.

Love is a senior research analyst for Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program. Powe is the director of research at Main Street America, a nonprofit focused on revitalizing older and historic commercial districts. They write, "For decades, local leaders have been implementing locally tailored economic development strategies that value and build upon place-based assets, and have garnered real successes in fostering recreation, amenity-based, and service economies that support rural places of opportunity." Here's a brief summary of each part:

Main Streets are a key driver of equitable economic recovery: Downtown revitalization of commercial corridors outside metropolitan areas can foster economic revival for small businesses and make small cities more equitable, dynamic and resilient. Love and Powe provide a framework for evaluating revitalization efforts and applying elsewhere the lessons learned in Wheeling, Laramie, and Emporia.

Non-metro small businesses need local solutions to survive: The pandemic disproportionately hurts small businesses, especially outside metro areas, places that were still rebounding from the Great Recession. They often had less access to capital, poor broadband connectivity, and were more likely to be the most immediately vulnerable industries than their urban counterparts, Love and Powe write. This section discusses the role downtown revitalization and government support can play in helping underserved rural small businesses develop, survive and grow.

A flexible, accessible and healthy built environment; Non-metro residents face persistent barriers, such as lack of access to health care, broadband, and fresh food, and they're disproportionately likely to be struggling with poverty, debt, and isolation. "Rural small businesses face similar challenges in connectivity and capital access, and are suffering further due to their concentration in the most immediately vulnerable industries," Love and Powe write. This section explores whether downtown revitalization can promote the improvements needed for the health and resilience of a broader swath of rural residents and small businesses.

Main Streets can't achieve true economic revival without bridging social divides: Non-metro revitalization and growth increasingly rely on immigrants, but many places struggle with racism or elitism that makes them feel unwelcome. "This brief examines whether downtown revitalization can help foster cohesive social environments that nurture racial and economic inclusion, reflect community identity, and enhance residents’ attachments to place," Love and Powe write.

Creating a shared vision of rural resilience through community-led civic structures: "As governmental responses to the covid-19 pandemic remain inconsistent and marked by disparate outcomes by race and place, people and small businesses are turning to local organizations for relief—seeking support from the community and civic structures they know and trust. While much attention has been paid to community-based actors in cities, less is known about how community organizations and coalitions are stepping up in rural areas, where residents and small businesses face similar barriers in accessing relief," Love and Rowe write. "This brief examines how the place-based entities behind downtown revitalization can not only provide relief to residents and small businesses, but also how they can support the development and capacity of other community organizations, coalitions, and networks to build resilience in the years to come."

Direct federal aid to farmers predicted to more than double in 2020, driving forecast of 41.3% rise in net farm income

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service has published the last of three 2020 Farm Sector Income Forecasts. The forecast is updated three times a year, usually in February, August and November. ERS released a webinar Wednesday discussing the findings. The recording is not yet available, but will be posted here soon. Here are some of the report's top findings:
  • Direct government farm payments (excluding USDA loans and crop-insurance payments) are forecast to total $46.5 billion, a $24 billion (107.1%) increase from 2019. That's mostly because of supplemental and disaster assistance for the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Net farm income, a broad measure of profits, is projected at $119.6 billion, a $36 billion (41.3%) increase from 2019. That figure is not adjusted for inflation.
  • In inflation-adjusted 2020 dollars, net farm income is projected to increase $35 billion, also up 41.3% from 2019.
  • Net cash farm income (a more precise measurement of profits) is predicted to increase $24.7 billion (22.6%) to $134.1 billion from last year. That figure is not adjusted for inflation.
  • In inflation-adjusted 2020 dollars, net cash farm income is predicted to increase $23.4 billion, or 21.1%, from 2019. 
  • Overall farm cash receipts are forecast to decrease $3.2 billion, or 0.9%, to $366.6 billion.
  • Total animal and animal product receipts are predicted to decrease $9.7 billion, or 5.5% from 2019.
  • Total crop receipts are forecast to increase $6.4 billion, or 3.3%, from 2019. Receipts for fruits, nuts, soybeans, vegetables, melons and sugar beets are projected to increase, while receipts for corn and cotton are expected to decrease.
  • Total production expenses are predicted at $343.6 billion, a $5.2 billion (1.5%) decrease from 2019.
  • Interest expenses are predicted to decrease $5.4 billion, or 25.9%, from 2019.
  • Spending on livestock, poultry, oils and fuels is also expected to decline, but fertilizer spending is forecast to increase $1.1 billion, or 5.1%, from 2019. 
  • Net rent to landlords is projected to increase $1.3 billion, or 7.6%, in 2020.
  • Farm sector equity is projected to decline by 0.1% after adjusting for inflation.
  • Farm sector assets are forecast at $3.12 trillion, a 1.5% rise from 2019, following increases in farm real estate assets and other investments and financial assets.
  • Farm sector debt is projected at $435.2 billion, a 4% increase from 2019.
  • Real estate debt is projected to increase 6.1% from 2019.
  • Farm sector debt-to-asset levels, which have been trending higher since 2012, are predicted to increase again in 2020 to 13.95%. 
  • Working capital is projected to increase 6% this year, after an 11.9% increase last year.
Here are the top findings from the September 2020 update and from the December 2019 update.

Unemployment benefits weeks late in almost all states; federal pandemic unemployment will expire soon

Labeled screenshot of Pew Charitable Trusts map; for the interactive version, click here.

Unemployment payments are running weeks behind in almost every state because of the increased caseload, and the backlog has caused some people to miss out entirely on the enhanced benefits offered by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act until next July.

"States were first slammed with benefit applications in March, when claims jumped from 282,000 to almost 6.9 million, and new claims continue to pour in at an unprecedented rate of more than 700,000 a week," Tim Henderson reports for Stateline. "Massive delays and a chorus of complaints led to shakeups in state labor departments, expanding computer capacity and even calling in the National Guard to answer phone lines . . . In some cases, it has taken legal action to break the logjam. It’s a problem states are wrestling with in different ways, ranging from adding phone staff to hiring contractors, and a challenge President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team has made a priority."

As of Nov. 1, only three states (North Dakota, Rhode Island, and Wyoming) met the federal standard of sending out payments to 87 percent of applicants within three weeks. "The 87% standard, set in 2005 by the U.S. Department of Labor, carries no penalties but requires states to have a plan to correct the problem," Henderson reports. "Before the pandemic, almost every state was at or above 87%."

South Dakota had the lowest timeliness rate in October, with only 18.8% of payments meeting the federal standard; that's compared to 98% of payments in January, Henderson reports. Kentucky was next slowest, at 27.1%, and Maryland was next at 27.9%.

In related news, unless new funding is approved, "approximately 12 million out-of-work Americans are expected to lose federal unemployment benefits this month when coronavirus aid programs established through the CARES Act expire," Andrea Noble reports for Route Fifty. "Around 7.3 million people will lose Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which was created to assist workers left out of the normal unemployment system, such as freelancers and gig workers, when the program expires Dec. 26, according to a new report by The Century Foundation."

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Biden says Democrats forgot rural Americans: 'We have got to rebuild the middle class . . . especially in rural America'

Biden toured Floyd Valley Healthcare in LeMars, Iowa, in July 2019.
(Photo by Tim Hynds, Sioux City Journal)
Democrats have forgotten rural Americans, and that's part of the reason they voted against them last month. President-elect Joe Biden told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

The topic came up as Biden discussed industrial policy and trade, sensitive subjects in many rural areas.

“I want to make sure we’re going to fight like hell by investing in America first,” Biden said, mentioning energy, biotech, advanced materials and artificial intelligence as areas needing big government investment in research.

“I’m not going to enter any new trade agreement with anybody until we have made major investments here at home and in our workers,” and in education, he told Friedman.

The columnist paraphrased Biden: "And this time, he insisted, rural America will not be left behind. There is no way Democrats can go another four years and lose almost every rural county in America. For their sake and the country’s, Democrats have to figure out what is going on there and speak to rural voters more effectively."

And then he quoted the president-elect directly: “You know, it really does go to the issue of dignity, how you treat people. I think they just feel forgotten. I think we forgot them.”

“I respect them,” Biden added, and indicated that he plans to prove it by going after the novel coronavirus and effectively distributing vaccines in “red and blue areas alike.”

Noting that he visited 15 rural hospitals and the trouble they have staying open, Biden said the federal government can “end the rural health care crisis right now by building on Obamacare, assuming it survives at all, with a public option [and] automatically enroll people eligible for Medicaid. There’s strong support for that — and particularly [from] people in rural states, like Texas and North Carolina, that reject expansion. We can boost funding. . . . The biggest problem is there’s not enough reimbursement for them to be able to keep open.”

He told Friedman that many rural hospitals and clinics that could benefit from telemedicine lack broadband connectivity. “We should be spending $20 billion to put broadband across the board,” he said. “We have got to rebuild the middle class,” but “especially in rural America.”

EPA misses Renewable Fuel Standard deadline, may punt biofuel blending decision to Biden administration

The Environmental Protection Agency missed the Nov. 30 deadline to issue biofuel blending requirements for 2021 under the Renewable Fuel Standard, and may punt the decision to the Biden administration. Normally the EPA proposes the blending requirements for the coming year in July, but did not do so this year. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler blamed the pandemic, saying the steep decline in gasoline sales this year made it difficult to predict next year's demand, Chuck Abbott reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

"The agency did send a proposed blending rule to the White House for review in May, but it was developed in a pre-covid world and requires substantial revisions, per industry sources," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's "Weekly Agriculture."

Growth Energy, an ethanol and biofuels trade organization, told Wheeler it will file suit if the EPA doesn't finalize the rule within 60 days. "Effectively, the 60-day deadline means Wheeler can choose not to finalize volume standards for 2021, and turn the decision over to the first few days of President-elect Joe Biden's administration," Todd Neeley reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "Biden has yet to announce a nominee to head EPA in his administration."

The missed deadline angered other ethanol and farming groups as well. National Farmers Union president Rob Larew said in a statement that the EPA's failure to act "is introducing yet more uncertainty to the biofuels industry – uncertainty that most farmers and biofuels producers can’t afford right now." Larew also accused the Trump administration of inappropriately using small-refinery exemptions to help the petroleum industry at the expense of ethanol producers.

Geoff Cooper, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, said it would probably be better to just let the Biden administration make the decisions, Abbott reports. "We are confident that the new EPA administrator, whoever it may end up being, will stop doing secret favors for oil refiners and ensure the RFS is implemented in a way that is consistent with the law and congressional intent," Cooper said.

New rural coronavirus infections appeared to drop last week, possibly because of holiday reporting schedules

New rural coronavirus infection rates, Nov. 22-28. Daily Yonder map; 
click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version

New infections of the novel coronavirus in rural areas appeared to decrease last week, after 10 consecutive weeks of record-high new infection rates, but it may be a mirage caused by the holiday: "the long-awaited decline occurred during a week when more than a third of U.S. states altered their reporting schedule because of the Thanksgiving holiday," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "The autumn wave has shown some signs of weakening in recent weeks, but the Thanksgiving reporting anomalies mean it’s hard to tell if this week’s decrease reflects changes in the actual number of infections or just a foreshortened reporting schedule."

Even with the apparent dip in new infections, new covid-related deaths rose last week to a record high of 2,581, a 6 percent increase from the week before and the fourth record-high week in a row, Murphy and Marema report.

Nationwide, new cases reported on Thanksgiving Day were about 25% lower than the daily average for the week. "Rural counties reported new covid-19 infections totaling 197,823 last week, November 22-28, That’s a drop of about 8% from the previous week," Murphy and Marema report. "But 19 states reported zero new cases on Thanksgiving Day. Five states missed at least three out of seven days’ worth of reports last week."

Click here for more data and insights, including an interactive map with the latest county-level data.

Workshop series, starting Dec. 8, aims to equip rural faith leaders to help people with substance-use disorder

The Office of National Drug Control Policy is launching a series of four virtual workshops meant to equip rural faith leaders with information and resources to help people in their communities with substance use disorder. The first workshop, "Substance Use Disorder and the Pandemic in Rural Communities," will be held from 1 to 2:30 p.m. ET Dec. 8

The main objectives of the series include:
  • Increasing faith leaders’ understanding of substance use disorder (SUD) and how to connect faith to prevention, treatment, and recovery.
  • Building capacity of faith leaders to take action by providing information to prepare and ready leaders and their congregants to provide the support needed to assist individuals with substance use disorder.
  • Helping faith leaders to find their lane and empower faith communities to put initiatives in place to help in the area(s) where they can make the most difference.
Click here for more information about the webinar series or for information about how to RSVP.

In related news, the Rural Health Information Hub has updated its Rural Prevention and Treatment of Substance Use Disorders Toolkit, which aims to help organizations and communities develop and execute prevention and treatment programs.

Appalachian farmers hurt by pandemic can get $500 grants

Appalachian Sustainable Development will award 28 grants of $500 each to Appalachian farmers who have been financially hurt by the pandemic. The Central Appalachian Family Farm Fund grants are possible through $14,000 ASD received from the Appalachia Funders Network in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. ASD awarded 19 farmers with similar grants in July.

Priority will be given to farmers most hurt by the pandemic, and who have been most disadvantaged before the pandemic because of race, gender, or other protected classes. The grants are meant to offset loss of income and help with farm and overall expenses. Applications are due by 5 p.m. ET Dec. 14, and award checks will be mailed to the winners within 30 days. Click here for more information or to apply. 

Trump administration to protect whitebark pine trees due to climate change, beetles and lethal fungus infection

A dead whitebark pine tree near Jackson Hole, Wyo. (Associated Press photo by Mead Gruver)

"Climate change, voracious beetles and [a lethal fungal] disease are imperiling the long-term survival of a high-elevation pine tree that’s a key source of food for some grizzly bears and found across the West, U.S. officials said Tuesday," Matthew Brown reports for The Associated Press. The Fish and Wildlife Service will publish a proposal in the Federal Register today to protect the whitebark pine tree as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

The whitebark pine's habitat spans more than 80 million acres across seven Western states and Canada, the largest geographic area of any other tree listed as an endangered species. But more than half of all standing whitebark pines are already dead, according to a 2018 Forest Service Study, Dino Grandoni reports for The Washington Post

"The decision to declare the tree endangered due to climate change is an unusual one for an administration that often dismisses that threat," Grandoni reports. And, the listing may have "implications for loggers who would have to work around the protected pine on U.S. Forest Service land. About 88 percent of the tree’s range in the United States is on land managed by the federal government."

Fish and Wildlife isn't protecting specific habitats as necessary to the tree's survival because the agency argues the fungus is the threat, not habitat decline.

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Support rural journalism on Giving Tuesday

Rural journalism matters more than ever, and not just in rural areas. Local journalists play a crucial role in keeping people informed during the pandemic and engaged in democracy, and that has far-reaching consequences for all Americans.

But rural journalists need your help. At a time when local journalism is more critical than ever, newspapers and broadcasters, including many in rural areas, are teetering on the brink after losing advertising revenue.

You can help by subscribing to your local community newspaper, buying gift subscriptions and donating to the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

Why give to us? We help provide rural journalists the professional resources that many of them lack. As news outlets are cutting staff, frequency and even closing, we provide information and inspiration for rural news operations. We work hard all year to help rural journalists all over the U.S. with training, news aggregation, resources and recognition.

Laurie Ezzell Brown, editor-publisher of The Canadian Record, a Texas weekly, writes: "The Rural Blog is that thing that I look for first each day, sifting through the mountain of too-often meaningless mail that populates my inbox, knowing there is a treasure there waiting. It is my clipping service, my fire-starter, my kick in the butt reminder to pay attention to the real stories that affect rural communities like mine. Dig deeper, it always tells me, and so I try."

Please support the Institute for Rural Journalism today. Your tax-deductible gift helps us continue creating a community of rural journalists nationwide. Please donate here.

Community newspapers need to stand up for truth, and community, during a national health crisis

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

What is the proper role of community newspapers at a time of national crisis?

Stand up for the truth. And for community.

This isn’t about the election, or about the presidential transition, which hopefully will have begun by the time you read this. It’s about the novel coronavirus.

With winter and the holiday season here, the virus is out of control, especially in rural areas, and we’re more at risk than ever – partly because millions of Americans have mistaken beliefs about it.

The most extreme example we’ve seen: A South Dakota emergency-room nurse told CNN that she has seen many covid-19 patients continue to deny that the virus exists, right up until they die from it. (That’s in a story on The Rural Blog.) 

Changing strongly held beliefs is not a job for newspapers. But not all beliefs are strongly held, and a lot of people aren’t sure what to believe – partly because social media dominate the debate and amplify the extremes.

News media can still play their traditional filtering and moderating roles as they provide factual information, and community newspapers are in an ideal position to do that because they have a higher level of trust among their audiences than news outlets in larger communities.

However, many community editors are naturally reluctant to get too far into the business of telling people what to do or what to believe, especially on a topic that is so politicized and so divisive – and probably growing more so in places where surges in cases have led to new restrictions.

Editors from Rapid City and Lincoln said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” Nov. 22 that they have three kinds of readers, as Lincoln Journal Star Editor Dave Bundy described them: those who say "Just give me the data;" those who say "Tell me what I can and can’t do;" and those who say "Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do. . . . There’s covid fatigue, there’s covid conspiracy; there’s a lot of things at work."

Most pandemic coverage in community newspapers seems to be about data: numbers of coronavirus cases, covid-19 hospitalizations, and so on. In chronological context, that conveys the local magnitude of the pandemic. But there are fewer stories about why the numbers are going up; is it bars, restaurants, social gatherings, or what?

Health officials have some idea of that, through their contact-tracing efforts. Unfortunately, many state and local health agencies haven’t done the best job of explaining the “why” or the specific reasons for emergency orders, such as mask mandates, or the research that supports them. They may make a point once or twice, but even important points need repeating to have impact.

Newspapers can and should do all of that, as well as debunk common misconceptions about the virus and measures to thwart it. Plenty of good information is available, but often it needs to be translated for general audiences. Too often, local newspapers just fill a hole with a medical article that is too dense or too long to get much readership.

Translating such information for the local audience is important. Stat, the medicine-and-science publication of The Boston Globe, says “Retention of health messaging is lower in rural areas,” so “It must be tailored to communities, recognizing cultural norms and engaging local community leaders.” The Rural Blog excerpted that article at

Newspapers need to go beyond the data and the science and write the stories of people affected by the virus, and the health-care workers who are fighting it, to bring home how serious it can be. With urban hospitals filling up, they can’t accept covid-19 patients who need to be transferred for a higher level of care, so “People are going to die,” the hospital chief of staff in Canadian, Texas, told The Canadian Record. The Rural Blog excerpted Laurie Ezzell Brown’s story at

Laurie put that story on her editorial page, and it’s an example of the leadership that newspapers need to exercise at a time like this. Too many local officials, fearful of controversy, aren’t leading enough on the issue, and in many communities they could use some bucking up. A well-argued editorial can do that. It can also be a voice of reason at a time when people are upset about new state mandates, as Les Zaitz of the Malheur Enterprise in very rural eastern Oregon showed in an editorial published on The Rural Blog at

Les wrote, “Those who doubt the virus is real or serious are deluding themselves and likely putting their families and friends at risk. . . . Too many people are still clinging to the fallacy that is it their right not to wear a mask and to hold large family gatherings. Every credible medical expert, from Dr. Anthony Fauci to our local hospital professionals, say the simple act of wearing a mask is now the single most important step we can all take. . . . We need to react as if a wildfire is burning towards town, threatening every home. We need to act as if we’re being invaded by an enemy – which we are.”

Of course, the people who most need this information are likely those who aren’t newspaper readers, and who are most likely to be misled by other media. So, to reach every household in your county, you should try a sample-copy edition, perhaps subsidized by local governments or health agencies. At least two newspapers in Kentucky have done this, and it’s helped their counties keep infections down.

Some may think wading into this battle is bad for business, at a time when business is already bad. Yes, that may be a risk, and each local publisher and editor has the best sense of that, so they must steer their own course. But what they cannot do, in my opinion, is ignore the fundamental changes in our media landscape. Social media are flooding us with divisive opinion and must be countered with a flood of facts, from trusted sources. Those are you.

This is the author's latest "Into the Issues" column for Publisher's Auxiliary, published by the National Newspaper Association.

Wednesday webinar to discuss CDC public-health worker training program that can help rural health departments

The Rural Health Information Hub will host a free webinar at 1 p.m. ET Wednesday, Dec. 2, to discuss the Public Health Associates Program and how it can benefit rural health departments. 

The PHAP is a two-year, paid training program through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in which public-health workers gain real-world experience working at public-health agencies and nongovernmental organizations around the country. 

Rural health departments may benefit from becoming a PHAP host site, especially since it's often difficult to find qualified health-care workers. The webinar will discuss PHAP's mission, goals and more. Interested organizations can apply to become a PHAP host site from Dec. 15 to Feb. 16.

Click here for more information about the webinar or to register.

Rural-urban statehouse divisions foreshadow policy fights

Blue counties got bluer and red counties got redder in the November elections, widening ideological divides as Democrats and Republicans dug in and became less likely to compromise on pressing issues in the 2021 legislative sessions, including dealing with covid-19 and budget deficits," Elaine Povich reports for Stateline. That ideological divide, often along rural-urban lines, foreshadows "the rancorous redistricting process that will set political boundaries for the next decade, particularly in states where the governor is of one party and the legislature the other."

The deepening political divide could affect a wide range of issues, from state budgets, minimum wages, marijuana, infrastructure funding, and more, Povich reports.

In Wisconsin, for example, political entrenchment is hampering pandemic response. "Democratic Gov. Tony Evers plans a new executive order requiring a mask mandate into 2021 and called on Republicans to drop a lawsuit against it," Povich reports. "Wisconsin is one of a handful of states without a statewide pandemic plan, due to GOP efforts to thwart Evers’ proposals, except for the mask mandate, so far."

A first of its kind pilot program aims to better coordinate investigations of missing or murdered indigenous people

A new first-of-its-kind federal pilot program aims to help federal, state and tribal agencies better coordinate investigations of missing or murdered Native Americans or Alaska Natives, Emma Coleman reports for Route Fifty

The exact numbers of missing and murdered indigenous people—especially women—is unknown because of faulty data collection, but it's a widely acknowledged problem (and one explored in depth by an impressive news package from the University of Montana's School of Journalism). Some states, such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Washington, have already taken steps in recent years to address the issue.

"Led by the Justice Department, the Tribal Community Response Plan will require federal, state, and tribal law enforcement agencies to work in coordination to create 'culturally appropriate guidelines when investigating emergent cases,'" Coleman reports. "The guidelines will include instructions for law enforcement, victim services, community outreach, and public communications."

Oklahoma will be the first state to join the program, which is part of a broader Justice Department effort to tackle disproportionate violent crime rates among Native American women and children, according to U.S. Attorney Trent Shores with the northern district of Oklahoma. Shores, another U.S. Attorney in Oklahoma, and representatives from the Muscogee (Creek) and Cherokee nations announced Oklahoma's participation this week.

After the project rolls out in Oklahoma, it will expand to five other states: Alaska, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana and Oregon. "Last year, the Justice Department stepped up its efforts to coordinate with U.S. Attorney’s offices on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Initiative, allocating $1.5 million to hire coordinators in 11 states," Coleman reports. "Six of those states will be in the pilot. The other five are Arizona, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, and Washington."

Monday, November 30, 2020

Hunger in U.S., which is disproportionately rural, at highest point since 1998, first year comparable data available

According to a Washington Post analysis of new federal data, "more Americans are going hungry now than at any point during the deadly coronavirus pandemic . . . a problem created by an economic downturn that has tightened its grip on millions of Americans and compounded by government relief programs that expired or will terminate at the end of the year," the Post reports in a story rich with graphics and maps. "Experts say it is likely that there’s more hunger in the United States today than at any point since 1998, when the Census Bureau began collecting comparable data about households’ ability to get enough food."

Nearly 26 million adults, or one in eight, said they sometimes or often didn't have enough to eat in the past week. That figure rose to one in six adults among households with children, the Post reports. The pandemic, and the government's uneven response to it, has driven the nationwide spike in hunger, according to Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty Executive Director Jeremy K. Everett.

"Hunger rates spiked nationwide after shutdowns in late March closed large chunks of the U.S. economy," the Post reports. "The situation improved somewhat as businesses reopened and the benefits from a $2.2 trillion federal pandemic aid package flowed into people’s pockets, with beefed-up unemployment benefits, support for food programs and incentives for companies to keep workers on the payroll, But those effects were short-lived. The bulk of the federal aid had faded by September, and more than 12 million workers stand to lose unemployment benefits before year’s end if Congress doesn’t extend key programs."

Though the Post story focuses on Houston, rural Americans often face hunger and food insecurity at higher rates than the overall population, according to recent research from Feeding America. The research highlights several reasons for the disparity: rural areas are more likely to be in food deserts, job openings tend to be low-wage, and there are higher rates of unemployment and underemployment. Rural hunger was declining in 2019, but the pandemic spurred a turnaround. 

"Congress left for its Thanksgiving break without making any progress on a new pandemic aid deal even as food banks across the country report a crush of demand heading into the holidays," the Post reports. That goes especially for rural food banks, Kyle Swenson reports for the Post.

Wed. webinar to cover farm income and financial forecasts

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will host a free webinar at 1 p.m. ET Wednesday, Dec. 2,  about its newest farm income and financial forecasts. You can view the reports here after they are released.

During the hour-long webinar, economist Carrie Litkowski of USDA's Economic Research Service will go over the newest figures, which cover a broad range of data and predictions concerning the farm economy for 2020. The forecast is updated three times a year, usually in February, August and November.

Click here for more information about the webinar or to register.

Here's a summary of the 2020 farm forecast from September, and here's the one from last December.

China's bought less than half what it promised in trade deal

In February, China promised to buy about $36.6 billion in U.S. farm goods as part of the "Phase I" trade deal with the Trump administration. But China is less than halfway to that goal as of October, with only two months left in the year, Chad Brown reports for the Peterson Institute for International Economics, an independent nonprofit organization.

However, Iowa State University economist Wendong Zhang said recently that China is buying large amounts of U.S. food, agriculture products and seafood that could total $31 billion in the 2020-21 fiscal year, which ends June 30. "The forecast included $11 billion worth of soybeans, $2.7 billion of pork, $1.8 billion of cotton, and $1.5 billion of corn," Chuck Abbott reports for Successful Farming.

Last week the Department of Agriculture predicted near-record farm exports of $152 billion in the fiscal year, based on expectations that the pandemic will recede and trade tensions with China will fade under the Biden administration, Abbott reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

States can improve rural broadband disparity by fixing FCC maps like Georgia did, says report from governors' group

"States can begin to address inequitable access to broadband by improving coverage maps that detail where connections aren't available or are too slow, similar to a pilot program implemented in Georgia, the National Governors Association said in a white paper released this month," Route Fifty reports.

Rural areas have had little access to reliable, affordable broadband for years, but the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted that disparity as people were forced to work and learn from home during shutdowns. 

The Federal Communications Commission bases broadband funding on self-reported data from telecommunications companies. That data often overestimates how many rural areas have broadband access. Another problem is that major telecoms often nab rural broadband grants and loans, but cut corners by installing slower DSL broadband instead of fiber-optic cable lines.

Even the FCC maps estimate that more than 18 million Americans lacked access to broadband in 2018. "The vast majority—14 million—of those unconnected people live in rural areas, with an additional 1 million residing on tribal lands," Kate Queram reports for Route Fifty. "Multiple studies have found that federal data undercounts those populations, the report adds, so the number of people affected by lack of reliable connectivity may be as high as 42 million."

Bureau of Land Management releases plan to reduce Western sagebrush wildfires, protect sage grouse habitat

"Officials on Friday released an overarching plan for removing or changing vegetation over a huge swath of the U.S. West to stop devastating wildfires on land used for cattle ranching, recreation and habitat for imperiled sage grouse," reports Keith Ridler of The Associated Press. "The plan released by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management aims to limit wildfires in a 350,000-square-mile area of mainly sagebrush habitat that includes parts of Idaho, Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada and Utah."

The Obama administration came up with the program, which originally cost about $2 million, as a way of protecting sage grouse habitat without formally listing the birds as an endangered species. That could have hindered mining, ranching and recreation, Ridler reports. 

"Giant rangeland wildfires in recent decades have destroyed vast areas of sagebrush steppe ecosystems that support some 350 species of wildlife," Ridler reports. "Experts say the blazes have mainly been driven by cheatgrass, an invasive species that relies on fire to spread to new areas while killing native plants, including sagebrush on which sage grouse depend." Cheatgrass expansion is driven not only by wildfires but by unsustainable populations of wild horses and burros. 

"The plan released Friday does not authorize any specific projects. Instead, its analysis can be used to OK treatments for projects involving prescribed fires, fuel breaks and other measures to prevent or limit massive blazes that have worsened in recent decades," Ridler reports. "Specifically, the agency said the document can be used to help local land managers comply with an environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act, when land managers seek approval for specific projects."

Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, an environmental watchdog group, worries the plan is essentially a BLM "blank check" that will help ranchers and harm wildlife without further input or detailed analysis. "This is an agency whose track record of vegetation manipulation has overwhelmingly resulted in habitat destruction," Molvar said in a press release.