Saturday, December 12, 2020

Charley Pride, country music's first major Black star and writer of a song about a weekly newspaper, dies of Covid-19

Charley Pride in 2008 (Rogelio D. Solis, AP)
One of the greatest voices in country music is silent. Charley Pride, its first major Black star, died Saturday in Dallas of complications from Covid-19. He was 86.

Pride's talent was husbanded by early stars of modern country music. Red Sovine "was struck by Mr. Pride’s magnetism and the enthusiastic response he evoked from the White audience," reports Terence McArdle of The Washington Post. "He suggested that Mr. Pride take his chances in Nashville," where racism stood in his way. "Country guitarist Chet Atkins, who was also an RCA Records executive, saw promise in the singer. Radio stations received his first singles, credited to Country Charley Pride, without publicity photos, a cautious move by Atkins. Disc jockeys latched onto the records, and country fans listened" to his deep baritone. At one point, he was RCA's top-selling country artist.

He had 30 No. 1 hits, including “Kiss An Angel Good Mornin’,” “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone” and “Mountain of Love.” He was the Country Music Association’s entertainer of the year in 1971, and its top male vocalist that year and the next. The CMA gave him a lifetime achievement award in 2020, after he was featured in the Ken Burns documentary series, "Country Music." He "shattered a show-business barrier, paving the way for subsequent black entertainers — Stoney Edwards, Big Al Downing and Darius Rucker, among them," McArdle notes.

Pride was born March 18, 1934, in Sledge, Miss., one of 11 children. He wrote many songs about his native area, two of particular interest to rural journalists: "Hickory Hollow Times and County News," recorded in 2011, about "our tiny hometown paper" sent to him by a childhood friend who'd married one of Pride's former girlfriends; and "Guntersville Gazette," a Richie McDonald song on the same album, with a similar line. The refrain to "Hickory Hollow Times and County News" goes:
Got the farm report, the high school sports
Fishing news and bowling scores
The weather and the ladies' gossip too
Who's left town and who's come home
Who's been born and who's passed on
Who's divorced and who's married who
In the Hickory Hollow Times and County News.

Reporter and wife leave $3 million to community foundation

Carol and John Willard
A longtime newspaper reporter in the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois and his wife have left a $3 million estate with their local community foundation to benefit nine local organizations.

John Willard of Davenport, Iowa, retired in 2007 after 34 years at the Quad-City Times, and died unexpectedly in November 2017. His wife Carol died in July. "Those who knew the quiet and soft-spoken Willards are surprised by the amount of the bequest, but not by the entities they chose to befriend, as they had a wide range of interests and causes," Alma Gaul reports for the newspaper.

One of the beneficiaries was a hospice program where Willard volunteered, interviewing veterans and writing stories their military service, which were presented to each veteran in a ceremony. "With his professional skills, as well as his military skills — he was a Vietnam veteran — it was a natural fit for him," said Lori Bruning, volunteer coordinator at Genesis Hospice. "What made him especially good at what he did is that he was a listener, not a talker. He really listened to what people said." 

Other beneficiaries are the Davenport library; the Iowa PBS Foundation; a park the couple loved; their alma maters, George Williams College of Aurora, Ill., and the University of Illinois; Grace Lutheran Church of Davenport; the Humane Society of Scott County, and the community foundation itself, to use at its discretion. Community foundations are increasingly used by donors to help their hometowns by leaving their money to a local organization they trust.

"People who knew the Willards were unaware of their substantial wealth because the couple did not live a showy lifestyle," Gaul writes. "Carol Willard worked as an administrative assistant and they shared one car, with Carol often taking the bus or John dropping her off and picking her up. . . . The couple did not have children; survivors were a brother for John and a sister for Carol. That is a big reason the Willards came to the foundation," according to President and CEO Sherry Ristau.

Friday, December 11, 2020

As covid-19 surges in West Texas, hospital care is lacking, but residents of the wide open spaces don't social distance

Big Bend Regional Medical Center in Alpine, Texas (New York Times photo by Joel Angel Juarez)
It's a tale likely being repeated in many rural areas of the United States: the coronavirus pandemic is overwhelming the Big Bend region of West Texas, and even though there's little local hospital care available, many residents in the region still aren't taking social-distancing precautions seriously.

The area is one of the most remote parts of the contiguous U.S. and one of the least-equipped to handle an outbreak. The Big Bend Regional Medical Center in Alpine, which has 25 beds and a makeshift Covid-19 ward at the end of a hallway, is the only hospital in 12,000 square miles, Sarah Mervosh reports for The New York Times.

Alpine and Brewster County
(Wikipedia map)
Coronavirus cases are surging in the area; Big Bend counties ranked among the top 20 in the nation last week for highest new infection rates. One big reason for that: many are carrying on business as usual, and not consistently wearing masks and observing other social-distancing measures, Mervosh reports.

"The area’s limited contact tracing shows more localized spread — in bars, in multigenerational homes and through people who ignore positive test results and continue to work and socialize as normal," Mervosh reports. "In Alpine, the largest city, with a population of 5,900, residents wear masks with their cowboy hats to shop at Porter’s grocery store, but take them off to eat indoors at restaurants in town. There is far from universal agreement about whether masks are necessary and effective. In a sign of the dispute that has played out on and off social media, the county was left without a local health authority when the doctor in the position, a pediatrician working on a volunteer basis, quit this fall after facing pushback from residents who opposed mask orders and other restrictions."

Open enrollment for Obamacare plans ends Tuesday, Dec. 15; rural customers have more choices than last year

Open enrollment for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act marketplace ends Tuesday, Dec. 15 in most states (14 states and the District of Columbia run their own marketplaces and will be open longer). Rural customers, especially those who are suffering side effects of Covid-19 or fear exposure to it, should remember that they may have increased medical expenses in the future because of it.

"The good news for those shopping for their own coverage is that the Affordable Care Act bars insurers from discriminating against people with medical conditions or charging them more than healthier policyholders," notes Julie Appleby of Kaiser Health News. "Former Covid patients could face a range of physical or mental effects, including lung damage, heart or neurological concerns, anxiety and depression. Although some of these issues will dissipate with time, others may turn out to be long-standing problems."

Rural customers don't have as many choices for insurance as their urban and suburban counterparts. "Researchers noted that rural counties have always struggled to secure a range of payer options and 2021 is no exception: while metro-area counties will have 3.1 payers each on average, non-metropolitan counties will have 2.5 payers per county on average," Kelsey Waddill reports for Health Payer Intelligence. But the situation has improved; only 10% of counties will have access to only one insurer in 2021, down from about 25% in 2020.

Report: When growing rural counties are reclassified as urban, that makes rural America look less successful

Headwaters Economics map shows in light blue counties that were classified as rural from 1970 to 2018, those that were reclassified from rural to urban in dark blue, and those that were always urban during that period in white. 

Rural America suffers many disparities compared to metropolitan counties, but it's misleading to compare rural counties from one year to the next, because the most successful rural counties are often reclassified as metropolitan—leaving only the less-prosperous counties to be counted as rural, according to a new report by Headwaters Economics.

"Rural America is reported as declining in part because we no longer count as Rural those counties that grew into a Metro classification. We are measuring those counties that stay Rural which, by definition, have not grown," says the report.

"The research showed that 48% of counties that were classified as rural in 1970 grew into metropolitan counties by 2018," Jan Pytalski reports for The Daily Yonder. "But the ones that remained rural had their share of success as well. For example, the average poverty rate in rural counties overall dropped 26% between 1970 and 2018."

Quick hits: pharmacists could administer kids' vaccinations; what post-pandemic food supply chains could look like

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

The federal government will allow pharmacists to administer routine immunizations to children as young as three. Read more here.

Residents of Alabama's Lowndes County lack adequate wastewater systems and must regularly deal with sewage backing up into their yards and homes. Environmental activist Catherine Coleman Flowers, who has spent the past 20 years bringing attention to the issue, says it's only one of many such rural areas. Read more here.

A California lawsuit alleges that kids are falling behind because of distance learning, and that the state hasn't done enough to provide students with technology like computers or hotspots so they can learn. Read more here.

A policy expert discussed what post-pandemic food supply chains could look like. Read more here.

In rural areas, Covid-19 is an obstacle to healthy development for children of color. Read more here.

The Department of Health and Human Services has published new hospital-capacity data that it says is more accurate than previous estimates. Read more here. A scientific probe in November found that HHS data varied wildly from state-aggregated data. Read more here.

Nearly one in four North Dakotans know someone who has died from Covid-19. Read more here.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development is seeking applications for Rural Energy for America program. Read more here.

An editorial in the Las Vegas Sun cites rural issues the Biden administration and other Democrats must address, including reducing the power of large agri-businesses. Read more here.

Dec. 15-17 webinars will help journalists cover the environment and other beats, using new tools from Google

From noon to 12:30 ET Dec. 15, 16 and 17, Google News Labs' Maggie Farley will present free webinars on how journalists can use Google's new tools to cover the environment and other beats. Participants can learn to use the tools to find and analyze data, then use clear, powerful data visualization tools to tell stories. For instance, Google Pinpoint can help you instantly find connections among documents, and Google Earth and other tools can create historical time lapses to show environmental change over time.

The Society for Environmental Journalists and the Earth Institute of Columbia University's Resilience Media Project are sponsoring the webinars. To participate, sign up first for the free Google tools that will be demonstrated: Google Pinpoint and Google Flourish

Click here to access the meetings.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Report for America announces more than 300 reporter positions for 2021; applications open until Jan. 31

Report for America announced more than 300 local reporter positions at more than 200 newsrooms across the nation for 2021. That's an increase of more than 100 positions and 64 newsrooms over last year. "The program also opened the application window for reporters to apply as corps members in 2021. Information about how to apply can be found here," Sam Kille reports for Report for America. "While Report for America is geared toward emerging journalists, it is also piloting a small “experienced corps” for 2021, with positions available for mid- to late-career journalists with eight or more years’ experience."

Here are a few of the positions with rural resonance:

  • Southwest Times Record—Food insecurity around Fort Smith, Arkansas
  • Granite State News Collaborative—Statehouse coverage for 20 New Hampshire newsrooms
  • Bozeman Daily Chronicle—Photographer covering rural Montana
  • Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting—Agribusiness and workers’ status in Illinois
  • California News Deserts & Trust Initiative—five newsrooms, two foundations, fielding reporters in Butte, Kern, Madera, North Siskiyou, San Bernardino, Tulare, Yolo and Yuba counties
"Report for America, which is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, is a two-year program (with an option for three) that delivers a wide-range of benefits to its corps members. Beyond paying up to half of the journalists’ salaries, it provides ongoing training and mentorship by leading journalists, peer networking, and memberships to select professional organizations," Kille reports. "Applications are being accepted now until Jan. 31. Corps members will be selected from a highly-competitive, national competition. Last year, more than 1,800 applications were received. Those hired become employees of their respective newsrooms and will begin their employment June 1, 2021."

The brainchild of Steven Waldman, Report for America launched in 2017 and aims to place 1,000 journalists in local newsrooms by 2024. "It is supported in its efforts by a number of philanthropic leaders, including the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Facebook Journalism Project, Natasha and Dirk Ziff, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Joyce FoundationCraig Newmark Philanthropies, the Lumina Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Henry L. Kimelman Foundation, the Tow Foundation, the Peter and Carmen Lucia Buck Foundation and more."

Dry-ice supply could complicate coronavirus vaccine distribution in rural areas; see your state's plan

The Pfizer Inc. coronavirus vaccine could be authorized for emergency use tonight, and states are rushing to get ready to distribute it, Stephanie Kelly, Lisa Baertlein and Carl O'Donnell report for Reuters. Pfizer's vaccine must be transported and stored at -70 degrees Celsius, -94 Fahrenheit, so states are scrambling to get enough dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide) to get the job done. 

The dry ice is needed not only for transport, but for storage in rural areas and other places that can't afford pricey ultra-cold freezers. "More than a dozen U.S. states, including Washington, New Mexico, Mississippi, Louisiana and Indiana, told Reuters they are rushing to secure dry ice to replenish suitcase-sized shipping containers from Pfizer," the reporters write. Once opened, if used in temporary storage, the vaccines can last 30 days if re-iced every five days, Pfizer said. "The company said it believes there is sufficient dry ice supplies to serve the needs of all 50 states without serious constraints."

Distribution plans vary widely by state, Elizabeth Weise reports for USA Today (click here to see your state's plan). This CNN video explores how vaccines will be distributed in the rural U.S.

'Balancing of individual liberty and public health may now be the most contentious issue in American life,' doctor writes

In 1905, Supreme Court Justice John M. Harlan, a Kentucky Republican, wrote a landmark decision affirming 11 states' authority to require vaccinations. Harlan's decision is the starting point for an article in The New Yorker magazine by Dhruv Khullar, a physician and medical-school professor, titled "The Deadly Cost of America's Pandemic Politics."

"The balancing of individual liberty and public health may now be the most contentious issue in American life," Khullar writes. "Vaccines for the novel coronavirus are on the way, but until they arrive tens of thousands of lives depend on community-based intervention—such as masks, distancing, and isolation—that must be carried out by ordinary Americans. Their willingness or unwillingness will determine how many people die. Our differences of opinion, therefore, have concrete, immediate, and drastic consequences."

Gov. Mike DeWine (Photo by J.D. Pooley, Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune)
Khullar's first example is his home state of Ohio, where Gov. Mike DeWine faces strong pushback from many of his fellow Republicans for "one of America’s more aggressive Covid-19 responses. . . . Although DeWine has relatively high approval ratings statewide, he is struggling to position his decisions within a conservative movement that sees pandemic restrictions as ideologically objectionable."

After writing about some folks in his old home Stark County (Canton) who think DeWine has over-reacted, Khullar writes, "In the face of scientific uncertainty, economic pain, and conflicting values, it’s understandable that we disagree. But it’s also true that we know a lot about how the virus works, and that some views are beyond reasonable debate. Their persistence reflects a triumph of tribalism and the cowardice of those elected officials who have misused their influence, failing to protect the people they serve. . . . Disrupted education, vast unemployment, profound isolation—skeptics are right to say that the collateral damage of the pandemic is severe and troubling. But the cost of letting the virus run free is also vast."

Drawing on his medical knowlege, Khullar writes, "Pandemic skeptics often underestimate the sheer contagiousness of SARS-CoV-2 and, therefore, the risk that their behavior poses to other people. The virus’s ability to be transmitted asymptomatically makes it even riskier: even if we feel perfectly well, we could be spreading it. . . . Vaccines are coming, but the harsh reality is that they are arriving too late for tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Americans this winter. Those people’s survival depends on the public coalescing around policies that are both effective and sustainable. If anything, the coronavirus vaccines heighten the communications challenge. With the end of the pandemic in sight, dissenters may hold more ardently to the view that continued restrictions are unwarranted; advocates may lose the will to persuade. And yet the virus killed ten thousand Americans last week, and will kill at least as many each week until we correct course. Amid this devastation, the battle for buy-in remains indispensable."

Khullar concludes, "The Biden presidency is an opportunity to reset how we talk about the virus, not just at the federal level but also in statehouses, hospitals, and public-health departments across the country. Biden has said, repeatedly, that he hopes to unify Americans. Almost certainly, this will require listening and responding to the concerns of the millions of people who see and experience the pandemic from a skeptical perspective. . . . We cannot stop talking to one another."

Coronavirus rural hospital roundup: staffing shortages; providers plead with locals to take pandemic seriously

It's difficult to keep up with the deluge of news articles about rural hospitals' struggles with the pandemic. Here's a sampling of the most recent:

Amid a Covid-19 surge, a rural Mississippi hospital verges on full capacity. Read more here

North Carolina rural hospitals, seeing a Covid surge, plead with their communities to do its part in slowing the spread of the disease: Read more here.

The Department of Health and Human Services has posted hospital capacity data. Read more here. However, the data are questionable, says to a scientific investigation. Read more here.

As the virus spreads, a Kansas hospital runs out of staff. Read more here.

The pandemic is straining rural hospitals, where there's no Plan B. Read more here.

Rural nurses talk about what it's like to fight the pandemic in small health systems. Read more here.

States are paying to hire nurses for struggling hospitals. Read more here.

The pandemic ravages small rural hospitals, including this one in Missouri. Read more here.

Will rural hospitals have to return the money Congress gave them for the pandemic? Read more here.

As hospitals fill with Covid-19 patients, medical reinforcements are hard to find. Read more here.

NBC News reporter Dasha Burns shares in a Twitter thread what she saw and heard while spending three days with frontline workers in an Appalachian hospital. "Hospital staff say many in their hard-hit communities still don’t believe Covid is real. Misinformation is rampant," she writes. Read more here.

Appalachia's hospital closures are a slow-motion health-care emergency. Read more here.

With hospitals slammed by Covid-19, doctors and nurses plead for governors to act. Read more here.

The ripple effect of one rural Colorado doctor catching the coronavirus. Read more here.

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

Covid-19 deaths in Mitchell, S.D., and other Midwest towns prompt mask mandates, over anti-maskers' stout objections

The death of Buck Timmins, “a mild-spoken 72-year-old who had worked with hundreds of local kids during six decades as a Little League and high school coach and referee," shook Mitchell, South Dakota, "just as its leaders were contemplating something previously denounced and dismissed: a requirement that its staunchly conservative residents wear masks,” writes Annie Gowen of The Washington Post, citing his news obituary in the Mitchell Republic.

As those at Timmins' funeral sang “Jesus Loves Me,” “the rumble of an approaching helicopter cut through the sound of the singing and the mourners’ soft tears," Gowen reports. "In Mitchell, the medical emergency helicopter, once a rare occurrence, now comes nearly every day, ferrying the growing number of people desperately ill with Covid-19 to a hospital that might be able to save them. Sirens echoing through the empty streets of New York marked the pandemic’s first phase. Swirling blades of helicopters on the American plains is the soundtrack of a deadly fall."

Buck and Nanci Timmins
Timmins' wife, Nanci, told Gowen that he fell ill Oct. 24, probably at one of the many school athletic events he attended. “You may need a mask to get in the door, but once you were inside, you looked around and there were 300 people in the seats watching volleyball, pretty much going maskless,” she said. “Mitchell, South Dakota, is a small town. We trusted each other.” But the virus isn't about trust.

Timmins never even got to a hospital, Gowen reports: “Nanci had a mild case. Buck seemed okay, too, until about a week in, when he became weaker and weaker and didn’t want to eat or drink, or leave his old brown leather recliner. . . . Because Buck was not having trouble breathing and the hospital had patients who were far sicker, he stayed at home. Nanci, a retired X-ray technologist, administered his oxygen and insulin treatments. That morning, Nov. 16, Buck woke after a restless night and called out for his wife. He mumbled something — she thought he said, 'I love you' — so she wrapped her arms around his head and said, 'I love you, too!' Just after noon, he was gone.”

One of Timmins' friends was City Council President Kevin McCardle, who ridiculed a council member when she had proposed a mask mandate, something South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has refused to impose. But Timmins was one of several well-known people to die as cases and deaths surged in Mitchell, and the council voted 5-3 for a mandate. McCardle wavered, but couldn't bring himself to vote for it, Gowen reports, after he heard at a meeting from many anti-maskers, including a National Guard member who had been deployed twice overseas "to protect our country’s freedoms — how could McCardle vote to take them away?"

Gowen reports, "Throughout the autumn, towns all over the Midwest in conservative states where Republican governors have avoided mask mandates have tried to pass their own restrictions, often prompting virulent community debate. The town of Huron, S.D., just up the road, passed one, as did Washington, Mo.  In Muskogee, Okla., the City Council finally passed a mandate after several tries; one of its pro-mask members had even wheeled in a casket as a prop."

Weekly publisher in North Carolina is detained and handcuffed while seeking access to a court proceeding

Tom Boney Jr. on Tuesday. (News &
Record photo by Woody Marshall)
The publisher of a North Carolina weekly newspaper was handcuffed and forcibly removed from an Alamance County courtroom Tuesday after protesting that a hearing should be open to the press, The Alamance News reports. Tom Boney Jr., a long-time crusader for open government, publishes the News from the county seat of Graham, pop. 14,153. (Burlington, pop. 54,000, is the largest town.)

The event was a plea hearing for a white woman accused of driving her truck at two 12-year-old African American girls, a case that has been one of interest to Black Lives Matter activists and the press, The Associated Press reports.

Boney was delivering a document requesting a hearing on whether it’s appropriate to close the court to the news media, the Raleigh News & Observer reports.

UPDATE, Dec. 10: The N&O's Carli Brosseau reports, "When Boney tried to explain why the courtroom should not be closed to reporters, Wilkins threatened to hold him in contempt." The Alamance News, the N&O and Triad City Beat, an alternative weekly, asked the North Carolina Court of Appeals to "open judicial proceedings to the public, or at least a representative of the news media," citing a series of cases in which judges in the county have refused to do so, citing the pandemic.

Biden picks Tom Vilsack to lead USDA for a second time

Tom Vilsack
President-elect Joe Biden has chosen former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack to once again lead the Department of Agriculture. Vilsack was secretary under Barack Obama until the last week of Obama's eight-year administration. 

Vilsack is expected to bring institutional knowledge to the role, and he'll need it, Dartunorro Clark, Geoff Bennett, and Kristen Welker report for NBC News: "If confirmed, Vilsack, 69, would lead an agency at a time when American farmers have been hit hard by Trump's trade war with China, but still largely remain loyal to the outgoing president, and as the poorest Americans are struggling with food security during the coronavirus pandemic."

Bloomberg Government takes a deeper dive into the issues Vilsack will need to address as secretary. If confirmed by the Senate, he would be the first person to serve non-consecutive terms in the job, but even if he served eight more years, he would still fall a week short of the 16-year tenure of James Wilson, also from Iowa, who served under William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, the longest service of any Cabinet member. 

New rural Covid-19 deaths hit record for fifth straight week

New coronavirus infections, Nov. 29-Dec. 5.
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

"The number of people from rural counties who died from Covid-19-related causes in a one-week period topped 3,000 for the first time last week, marking the fifth consecutive week of a record-setting number of fatalities," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder.

During the week of Nov. 29-Dec. 5, rural counties reported 3,613 Covid-related deaths, a 34 percent increase from the week before. New infections last week stayed just below the record set three weeks ago. The number of new infections nationwide last week was 211,960, a 7% increase from last week, Murphy and Marema report.

"Rural counties broke another record last week for the number of counties in the red zone, defined as 100 new cases per week per 100,000 residents," they report. "Ninety-four percent of rural counties (1,857 of 1,976) exceeded that threshold last week. The red-zone definition comes from the White House Coronavirus Task Force and indicates that localities have lost control of the spread of the virus."

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

SpaceX awarded $885 million for satellite internet to rural areas, but has to demonstrate reliability and affordability

SpaceX has just secured $885 million for a novel approach to building out rural broadband in the Federal Communications Commission's recent $9.2 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I auction. 

SpaceX's Starlink satellite service "could be a game-changer for places where laying fiber isn’t an option," Devin Coldewey reports for TechCrunch. To get the money, SpaceX has to demonstrate over several years that it can provide reliable service to the targeted rural areas for a reasonable price.

Starlink's big advantage is that it doesn't require major construction projects or laying lines. "All that’s needed is a dish and for their home to be in the area currently covered by the rapidly expanding network of satellites in low-Earth orbit. That means the company can undercut many of its competitors — in theory anyway," Coldewey reports. "Starlink has not had any major rollout yet, only small test deployments, which, according to SpaceX, have gone extremely well. The first wave of beta testers for the service will be expected to pay $99 per month plus a one-time $500 installation fee, but what the cost of the commercial service would be is anyone’s guess (probably a bit lower).

Farmers, ranchers and their workers (officially essential) bear some of the hardest burdens in the pandemic

The Washington Post's Laura Reiley takes a deep dive into how the coronavirus pandemic is hurting two farming communities that serve the two major coasts of the U.S.: Moorefield, W.Va., pop. 2,500, and Salinas, Calif., in one of the No. 1 agricultural state's most productive river valleys.

"Named essential workers, the country’s small farmers, ranchers and farmworkers are coping with the pandemic without a corporate safety net, persevering through shutdowns, slowdowns and supply-chain meltdowns," Reiley reports. "In both Salinas and Moorefield, the coronavirus has contributed layers of complexity to an already backbreaking professional path. Several years of historically poor planting conditions and retaliatory tariffs under the Trump administration have cut off potential for agricultural exports and left farmers with few reserves before the pandemic began to hopscotch across the country."

Small farmers and ranchers have far less power and funding than the large agricultural operations that dominate the market, and have been disproportionately hurt by the pandemic. "Many didn’t qualify for Paycheck Protection Program loans or the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program payments, which excludes those who rely on direct-to-consumer sales," Reiley reports. "And while tens of billions of dollars have been funneled to large-scale ranches and meat processing companies and commodity row crop farmers in the South and Midwest, those who grow 'specialty crops,' the fruits and vegetables humans eat, have frequently not qualified for support."

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Program that aims to boost advanced-degree rates among rural students is producing big results and expanding

A program to encourage rural students to attend and graduate from college is producing big results. 

"Federal data shows that less than 30 percent of rural residents age 25 and up have an associate degree or higher; more than 43 percent of urban residents do," Laura Pappano reports for The Washington Post. "That’s a problem: Two-thirds of all jobs and 80% of all 'good' jobs (paying a median wage of $65,000) demand a post-secondary credential, according to research by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce."

Hope Perry is college access counselor
for the Ayers Foundation. (Photo by
Laura Pappano, Hechinger Report)
Jim Ayers, a businessman from rural Tennessee, started the Ayers Foundation in 1999 in an effort to reverse that trend. "The Ayers Foundation model is ridiculously simple. It starts with putting a counselor — someone raised rural and connected to the community — in a local high school to help every student craft a career plan and then guide them through the tasks required to apply for — and pay for — a post-secondary degree," Pappano reports. "There are a few important details, however. One is that while many college-access programs focus on helping high-performers reach top schools, this model goes broad. The goal is for everyone to have a path."

That means that counselors don't just encourage all students to go for a four-year university degree; they invite students to consider the best fit for them, whether it's an associate's degree at a community or technical college, or joining the military.

The program's results in several small, rural Tennessee counties are "eye-popping," Pappano reports: "By 2019, Ayers had helped impoverished Perry County reach an 86% college-going rate, the highest in the state, according to government figures. At Decatur County’s Riverside High School, where the foundation has been working since 1999, postsecondary enrollment (including military and technical training) has risen from 24%to 84%. In two other counties, three rural high schools reached that enrollment for 76%, 82 percent and 87% of their 2019 graduates, the foundation reports."

A two-year-old philanthropic initiative, rootEd Alliance, is expanding the Ayers-style model to other rural areas in Tennessee, Missouri, and Texas, Pappano reports for the Post and the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent newsroom focused on inequality and innovation in education.

EPA proposes restrictions on use of chlorpyrifos pesticide

On Friday the Environmental Protection Agency proposed restrictions meant to make it safer to use chlorpyrifos, an insecticide that has been linked to brain damage in children. The proposal comes after a September risk assessment the agency issued in September.

"EPA is proposing labeling amendments to limit applications associated with drinking-water risks as well as requiring additional personal protection equipment and application restrictions to address handler risks," Todd Neeley reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "The agency is also proposing spray drift mitigation in addition to use limitations and application restrictions to reduce exposure for off-target organisms."

Chlorpyrifos has long been a popular pesticide, but increasing safety concerns and state-level bans have made it much less so in recent years. Corteva, its leading manufacturer, announced in February that it would stop making the chemical because of "significantly" declining demand.

"Once the proposal is published in the Federal Register, the EPA will accept public comments for 60 days on the draft risk assessment and the additional proposal, according to a news release from the agency," Neeley reports. "That assessment identified dietary risks in adults and children, as well as risks to professional handlers of the chemical. The EPA's draft assessment also identified potential adverse effects to mammals, birds, fish, and terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates."

Friday webinar to discuss 2020 edition of USDA's 'America's Diverse Family Farms' report, to be issued Thursday

On Friday, Dec. 11, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service will host a free webinar to discuss findings from the 2020 edition of its "America's Diverse Family Farms" report, which describes in detail the different kinds of farms in the U.S., providing stakeholders a better understanding of the nation's agriculture sector. Click here for more information or to register for the webinar.

ERS economist Christine Witt will host the webinar, which begins at 1 p.m. ET and will go for about an hour. The 2020 report will be released Thursday; here's the 2019 report for comparison.

Federal and West Virginia regulators rewriting environmental rules to pave the way for Mountain Valley Pipeline

Federal regulators and West Virginia agencies are once again rewriting environmental regulations to facilitate construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, Ken Ward Jr. reports for ProPublica and Mountain State Spotlight.

The proposed gas pipeline has been repeatedly delayed by court rulings that regulators improperly approved key permits. In November, "the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that environmental groups are likely to prevail in a case arguing federal and state regulators wrongly approved the Mountain Valley Pipeline through a streamlined review process for which the project isn’t eligible," Ward notes.

The same court blocked the same pipeline in 2018 for similar reasons. "But rather than pausing or rethinking the project at the time, the state Department of Environmental Protection rewrote its construction standards so that the pipeline would qualify," Ward reports. "After their most recent court loss, West Virginia officials are once again rewriting their restrictions to help pave the way for the pipeline to qualify for that streamlined permitting process."

Almost two-thirds of local governments in U.S. don't have modern building codes; it could cost them after disasters

"Constructing homes and other structures to meet modern building codes has saved billions of dollars in losses from natural disasters like flooding and hurricanes over the past two decades, according to new estimates. But many local governments are behind getting these standards in place," Bill Lucia reports for Route Fifty. "Research that the Federal Emergency Management Agency released late last month looked at a database of about 18 million buildings constructed between 2000 and 2016 and found that cities and counties with modern building codes avoided around $27 billion of estimated losses from natural disasters over those years, compared to places that didn’t have updated codes.

The FEMA research found that 65% of counties, cities and towns don't have modern building codes, and that 30% of new construction is happening in places with no building codes or obsolete codes. How does your town or county stack up?

Monday, December 07, 2020

Federal air monitors routinely miss pollution, even refinery explosions; some firms get to pick 'cleaner' monitor sites

Communities rely on a federal air-monitoring network to raise the alarm when there are dangerous levels of pollution, but budget cuts and monitoring practices that favor polluters mean that Environmental Protection Agency air monitors sometimes miss even large disasters such as oil refinery explosions, and practices such as allowing companies to decide the placement of their own monitors make it less likely that pollution is detected.

"Over the past five years, the number of government monitors nationally has declined by 4 percent as state and local environmental agencies cut spending, according to EPA figures. Federal grants to state and local air-quality agencies have not increased in 15 years," Tim McLaughlin, Laila Kearney, and Laura Sanicola report for Reuters. "The EPA said it has improved the system despite what it acknowledged was flat funding for the past decade. The agency said it has replaced some labor-intensive, manual monitors with automatic monitors that provide round-the-clock, real-time data. The continuous monitors cost less to operate, but can also be less reliable than manual monitors in measuring particulate matter, according to EPA quality control audits."

The network has a lot of problems, according to academics and current and former regulators. "Monitors are sparsely and poorly placed; the program is underfunded; and the network is not equipped to meet current pollution threats," Reuters reports. "The monitoring program emerged piecemeal after the 1970 Clean Air Act, mainly to track acid rain, smog and ozone pollution. Those hazards have largely subsided, replaced by more localized threats including toxic compounds and particulate matter from a wide range of industry and natural hazards, such as wildfires.

Also, individual monitors are often inaccurate with wildly varying results, partly because state regulators have wide discretion over monitor placement, and often put them in "cleaner" areas, Reuters reports. Monitors are often programmed to work only once every 12 days (for example) to save on operating costs, and some monitors max out at too low a pollution level, so actual levels are much higher than those recorded. And when monitors do record excessive amounts of pollution, the EPA sometimes simply tosses the results for the purposes if its air-quality assessments, Reuters reports.

Ambulance operators seek $2.6 billion in pandemic relief, say emergency medical services stretched to breaking point

"Ambulance services in the U.S. have been pushed to a 'breaking point' as the country stares down another surge in coronavirus cases, advocates warn," Hayley Fowler reports for McClatchy Newspapers. "Without additional funding, they fear the industry is on the brink of collapse."

In a Nov. 25 open letter to the Department of Health and Human Services, Aarron Reinert, president of the American Ambulance Association, said emergency medical services are under serious strain because of an increase in calls and lack of federal funding during the pandemic, Fowler reports.

"The letter seeks $43,500 per ambulance, or $2.62 billion for ground ambulance service providers, from the Provider Relief Fund — a $175 billion coffer established for hospitals and health care providers under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act," Fowler reports. "Ground ambulance providers were allocated $350 million under the Provider Relief Fund, the American Ambulance Association said. Nursing homes and rural hospitals, by comparison, received $7.4 billion and $11 billion, respectively, the letter states."

According to the AAA, private ambulance services, which mostly serve small, local businesses, "account for 28 percent of all emergency services nationwide, an in rural areas with no fire departments, EMS-only services account for about 65% of all responders," Fowler reports. "But those companies reportedly received almost no funding from grants associated with Federal Emergency Management Agency" for staffing for adequate response. "Funding for personal protective equipment from state and local coffers has also been virtually nonexistent, according to the letter."

Even before the pandemic, rural areas often had trouble accessing adequate emergency medical services. 

Many schools noticing worse grades with distance learning

"Experts have warned since the beginning of the pandemic, and the unexpected national experiment in online learning, that remote schooling would take a serious academic toll on children," Hannah Natanson reports for The Washington Post. "Now, evidence of poor achievement in virtual classrooms is beginning to emerge nationwide." Many districts in the Post story were urban or suburban, but all signs point to an across-the-board drop in performance (which could be investigated by journalists anywhere). 

The pandemic has accentuated the rural-urban broadband gap, especially on tribal lands, The Associated Press reports. It's also drawn attention disparities such as teacher shortages, infrastructure weaknesses, and a disconnect with state and federal legislators, Phyllis Coulter reports for Illinois Farmer Today.

Jack Schneider, a public-school testing expert and associate education professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, told the Post that the pandemic has reached a "tipping point," and that schoolchildren with scarce resources are likely to be so far behind that the nation should make everyone repeat their current grade next year. "The default should be, once we’re in-person again, everybody could go back to the grade they were in March of 2020," Schneider told the Post. "We need to slow the pace down in the name of equity."

Less highway traffic in pandemic may have boosted rural car-wreck mortality rate by encouraging speeding

There were fewer traffic fatalities in 2020's second quarter than in 2019's, but that's because fewer vehicles were on the road during the pandemic. The traffic fatality rate, however, has increased. 

According to recent state and national data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, several factors contributed to the fatality-rate increase. "First, there is evidence of an increase in ejection rates among people who were in crashes, suggesting a decrease in the seat-belt use rate of vehicle occupants. This increase was heavily tilted toward males, people 18 to 34 years old, and people in rural areas," the report says. "Second, according to state data and other reports, speeding was more prevalent on the roads. The reduction in traffic volume coupled with community efforts to reduce law enforcement personnel exposure by implementing changes in law enforcement activity provided drivers a greater opportunity to speed."

Moreover, there is evidence of higher usage of alcohol and drugs such as marijuana and opioids among 2020 crash victims compared to those who died in 2019. Survey research indicates that this may be because many people have begun to use such substances or increased their use to cope with pandemic-related stress, the report says.

Wildfire risk in California leaves many without home insurance; unclear whether trend will spread to other states

2020 wildfire risk map from; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version. 

After years of costly wildfires, homeowners' insurance in California has become more expensive, less comprehensive, and harder to get, report Katherine Chiglinsky and Elaine Chen of Bloomberg. More insurers are dropping clients and/or refusing to insure new policies in higher-risk areas. 

In October, California’s insurance regulator reported that insurers refused to renew 235,250 home insurance policies in 2019, a 31 percent increase from the prior year. In ZIP codes that had a moderate to very high fire risk, non-renewals jumped 61%, Chiglinsky and Chen report. "The deepening insurance crisis underscores how that market is trying to grapple with a risk that’s escalated in recent years, driven by what the California governor has deemed a climate emergency. Insurers say they can no longer shoulder the losses at current prices, so they’re seeking to raise rates for some homeowners. But insurers have also been dropping homeowners, refusing to renew policies in high-risk areas for fears that the losses would continue to pile up no matter how much they charge."

The trend leads many homeowners with no choice but to purchase pricey back-up options or move to more affordable (but still high-risk) rural areas, Chiglinsky and Chen report.