Friday, January 29, 2021

Quick hits: local investors saved two rural California papers; report showcases rural economic success stories

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 heather.chapman@uky.edu.

Local investors saved one rural California paper and then bought another. Read more here.

After the Trump administration relocated the Bureau of Land Management headquarters out West, more than 87 percent of the headquarters employees quit rather than move. Read more here.

A proposed bill aims to make sure rural critical-access hospitals are able to maintain that status to maintain access to higher Medicare reimbursements and special grant programs. Read more here.

Rural hospital closures not only hurt patients' ability to access health care, but also result in fewer providers and poorer health outcomes, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report. Read more here.

A report shows how three rural areas leaned on their strengths to survive and thrive. Read more here.

Dairy consumption is up during the pandemic. Read more here.

Data from the past three presidential elections in the Sun Belt and the Frost Belt states illustrates the widening rural-urban political gap. Read more here.

Rural communities are getting nationwide attention, but what should they do with it? Read more here.

Amazon employees in a town near Birmingham, Ala., are trying to unionize. Read more here.

While U.S. agricultural exports rose in the second half of 2020, mounting evidence suggests shipping companies are sending empty containers back to China instead of loading them up with American ag products. Read more here.

Burn Awareness Week is next week; here are some tips for parents and kids on how to stay safe around the home and the farm. Read more here.

A new non-fiction book, Big White Ghetto, takes a fairly unsympathetic tour of impoverished areas in the U.S., including many rural locales. Read more here.

An Obama fellow wants to boost the arts in small towns through theater. Read more here.

The pandemic is hurting the availability of child care, and parents are paying the price. Read more here.

Pandemic roundup: Biden to boost vaccine supply; rural areas get creative with vaccine efforts with fewer resources

The Biden administration will boost the coronavirus vaccine supply amid shortages. Read more here.

Anti-vaccine activists are peddling stories with misinterpreted and faulty data or fake deaths and injuries to discredit the coronavirus vaccine. Read more here.

Rural health care providers are getting creative with coronavirus vaccine delivery but are suffering from a lack of supplies. Read more here.

Public health workers, stranded on a snowy highway in rural Oregon, administered the vaccine to other drivers so as not to waste the shots. Read more here.

A public-health official discusses how vaccinations are going in Central Appalachia. Read more here.

Some health-care workers are refusing the vaccine. Read more here.

Rural America tackles vaccine distribution with fewer resources. Read more here.

Many in the rural San Joaquin Valley don't understand the seriousness of the pandemic nor the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine, medical professionals worry. Read more here.

How a rural hospital launched a coronavirus vaccine program in just one week. Read more here.

In rural Colorado, vaccines help nursing homes open their doors to limited visitors again, to lonely residents' relief. Read more here.

A video shows how clinics in rural Montana and Texas take on the tough task of distributing the coronavirus vaccine. Read more here.

A rural county in Washington state shares its secret for distributing the vaccine without wasting a single dose. Read more here.

High-tech rural Ky. greenhouse AppHarvest, which shipped its first tomatoes last month, begins public trading Monday

AppHarvest tomatoes are prepared for shipping. (Photo provided by AppHarvest)
AppHarvest
, a company that aims to bring more high-tech agriculture jobs and fresh produce to Eastern Kentucky, is on a roll. The start-up, which Fast Company says may transform Appalachia into an "agricultural powerhouse," shipped its first tomatoes a few weeks ago, got a plug from Martha Stewart, and now it's set to make its stock-market debut.

Novus Capital Corp. completed its merger with AppHarvest this week, and on Monday the freshly-minted entity (which will be called AppHarvest) is expected to begin trade on the Nasdaq. AppHarvest CEO and founder Jonathan Webb will continue to lead, Jayson Derrick reports for Benzinga.

Federal court strikes down Interior Department rule requiring paid permit to film in national parks

A federal judge has struck down a portion of the Interior Department's film-requirements, ruling that the National Park Service cannot require commercial filmmakers to obtain a paid permit to shoot video on National Park System lands, saying that such a rule violates filmmakers' First Amendment rights.

"In her ruling, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia declared that the statute and enacting regulations that require those engaged in 'commercial filming' to obtain permits and pay certain fees are unconstitutional," the National Press Photographers Association reports. "The court also found that the permit rules restrict speech in public forums, including the many National Park locations that are already considered traditional public forums such as the National Mall. The court found that the rules were content-based restrictions on speech, subject to strict scrutiny. Likewise, she found, the regulations and underlying reasons offered by the government—namely obtaining a 'fair market' payment on top of any administrative costs—do not meet that scrutiny."

Maple syrup farmers gearing up for sugaring season; did you know that other trees can produce syrup?

Photo by Sam Yu, Frederick (Md.) News-Post
Though spring is still a ways off, some farmers are already gearing up for harvest. Maple sugar harvest, that is. This time of year, sap begins flowing in trees, but only when temperatures are above freezing during the day and below freezing at night, Jason Doris reports for WBNG in Johnson City, New York.

Maples are the most popular source of sugar (and the resulting syrup), but other trees like black walnut, butternut, sycamore, and hickory can also produce niche market syrups, reports The Frederick News-Post in Maryland. 

Researchers at Cornell University and Virginia Tech are studying such non-traditional syrup sources to see if commercial syrup producers can use alternative species cost-effectively. That could provide an off-season source of income for farmers.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

New toolkit aims to help local journalists explain Covid-19 vaccine; Fauci to discuss pandemic in Feb. 9 webinar

The National Association of Broadcasters and the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute have launched an online toolkit meant to help local journalists craft coronavirus vaccine education messages that best resonate with their audiences. The toolkit is designed to provide journalists with information and resources to create news reports, public service announcements and other messages related to vaccine safety, effectiveness and distribution.

From the press release: "The toolkit provides in-depth insights into exclusive nationwide research regarding Americans’ attitudes towards the vaccines, what information the public is seeking about the vaccine and the potential effectiveness of various vaccine education messages. ... The toolkit also includes information from the Kaiser Family Foundation and others on how to reach key audiences, including African American, Latinx and rural communities."

A series of free informational webinars will be held, including one on Feb. 9 featuring Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Health's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Click here for more information.

USDA temporarily suspends collections, garnishments, non-judicial foreclosures and other penalties on farm loans

The Department of Agriculture is temporarily suspending non-judicial foreclosures, debt offsets, wage garnishments and collections on past-due farm loans, citing the financial stresses of the coronavirus pandemic, a USDA news release said. The action applies to borrowers under the Farm Storage Facility Loan and the Direct Farm Loan programs, which are administered by the Farm Service Agency.

"Additionally, USDA has extended deadlines for producers to respond to loan servicing actions, including loan deferral consideration for financially distressed and delinquent borrowers. In addition, for the Guaranteed Loan program, flexibilities have been made available to lenders to assist in servicing their customers," the release said.

More than 12,000 farmers, ranchers and producers—about 10 percent of the more than 129,000 FSA borrowers nationwide—should be eligible for the new relief, according to USDA data, the agency said. The suspension will remain in place until further notice, and is expected to continue as long as the nationwide coronavirus disaster declaration is in place.

Biden, Vilsack to push for greener farming practices that could mitigate climate change and help revitalize rural areas

President Biden and Agriculture Secretary nominee Tom Vilsack want farmers to adopt greener agriculture methods that can sequester carbon in the soil and help mitigate climate change. 

If farmers worldwide adopted such practices, "experts estimate they could sequester a sizable chunk of the world’s carbon emissions," Gabriel Popkin and Gabriella Demczuk report for The Washington Post. "But some doubt that farmed soils can reliably store carbon long enough to make a difference for the climate — or that changes in soil carbon can be accurately yet affordably measured. Others worry voluntary measures such as soil sequestration could make a polluting food and agriculture industry appear environmentally friendly while forestalling stronger climate action. Researchers and companies are now racing to reduce the scientific uncertainties and win over skeptics."

Another potential hurdle is that greener farming practices can be expensive and time-consuming. One Maryland farmer who uses such practices, Trey Hill, said he had to buy specialized equipment, and said greener farming hasn't led to higher crop yields or premium prices. "In early 2020, he became the first seller in a privately run farmer-focused marketplace that paid him $115,000 for practices that, over the past few years, had sequestered just over 8,000 tons of carbon in the soil," Popkin and Demczuk report. "The money came from corporations and individuals who want to offset carbon dioxide produced by their activities. Hill used the proceeds to buy equipment he hopes will allow him to squirrel away even more of the planet-warming gas."

Hill said greener farming practices make "life a lot more difficult, and not necessarily more profitable." However, he said, farmers would be more likely to adopt such practices if they're paid for the carbon accumulating in their soil. "But implementing that idea is challenging," the Post reports. "Carbon accumulates slowly in soil, and past attempts to pay farmers for it have failed when the costs of verifying carbon gains exceeded what buyers were willing to pay. Backers of new, private-sector carbon markets hope that computer models fed by data from farm fields, satellites and handheld carbon sensors can measure and predict soil carbon gains more cheaply and reliably."

Art Cullen
Vilsack told Art Cullen of The Storm Lake Times in Iowa that he sees a "fairly significant shift" in agriculture toward conservation, and says he will create projects demonstrating carbon sequestration incentive programs that can be incorporated as full programs into the next Farm Bill in two years. "He said USDA will help develop scientific standards for carbon sequestration that are fundamental to creating a cap-and-trade program," Cullen reports.

Many are skeptical of Vilsack's ability to implement such change, citing his previous term as agriculture secretary. "Yet the dynamic duo of Mr. Biden and Mr. Vilsack may well reverse the dwindling prospects for rural America through conservation agriculture and renewable energy. With swift action on climate change, the new administration can reboot rural regions left to decay over the past half-century," Cullen writes in an op-ed for The New York Times. "While rural dwellers don’t necessarily think the government is here to help, they do support clean water and wildlife habitat. They fret over rivers made toxic from agriculture runoff." Vilsack hopes that concern can be a bridge to help convert skeptics.

"A former small-town mayor, Mr. Vilsack knows where rural America’s future lies," Cullen writes. "His evangelization of regenerative agriculture — using diverse crop rotations, grass plantings and grazing with dramatically lower fertilizer and herbicide use — is an affront to the seed and chemical conglomerates, and he will need all the Republican help he can get. This type of agriculture sequesters carbon, prevents pollution and increases farm profit. By nurturing a more diverse economy revolving around regional food systems, it could help rebuild rural communities, something the Farm Bureau on the right and the Farmers Union on the left agree on."

Meth OD deaths and opioids in pregnancy spiked in past decade; study points to possible meth-addiction treatment

Two new studies illustrate the impact of drug addiction in rural America over the past decade. 

The first study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that the incidence of pregnant people diagnosed with opioid-use disorder increased 131 percent nationwide from 2010 to 2017, and the nationwide incidence of babies born with withdrawal symptoms increased 82% in that same period. Though increases were seen in almost all demographic groups, the groups with the highest rates of both diagnoses were rural, white and relied on Medicaid. 

The second study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, found that methamphetamine overdose deaths surged nationwide from 2010 to 2018, especially among Native Americans and Alaskan Natives (many of whom suffer health disparities linked to poverty and rural disparities such as lack of access to health care).

Researchers say they may have found an effective treatment for meth addiction. In a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, researchers outline how a combination of two relatively familiar medications (the antidepressant bupropion and the addiction treatment medication naltrexone) can safely and effectively treat adults with moderate or severe methamphetamine-use disorder. However, they caution, more research is needed.


Rural food banks find a way to deliver as hunger hits pandemic high in the US; Biden increases some food aid

For millions of low-income people living in rural areas around the country, getting to a grocery store or a food bank can be a major barrier to getting enough to eat," Samantha Fields reports for Marketplace. The coronavirus pandemic has compounded that problem, and food banks and pantries realized early on that they had to figure out ways to bring food to people, even though home delivery can be a logistical challenge in rural areas.

But, though hunger is up, private donations of food and money are generally up too, especially with fresh produce from farmers. The president of one rural food bank in Maine said the increased produce and the shift to home delivery are changes she hopes will stick around after the pandemic, Fields reports.

Though the relief package in December allotted $400 million to supply food banks, billions of dollars in food aid expired at the end of the year, meaning more people will need food banks. "The country’s largest network of food banks is bracing for a 50 percent reduction in food received from the government this year, even as demand soars," according to a multimedia story from The Washington Post that illustrates the problem of hunger during the pandemic.

Nearly 30 million adults reported they sometimes or often didn't have enough to eat in the last week, according to the latest Census Bureau data from Dec. 17, the Post reports. That number encompasses 14% of households overall and 18% of households with children. That's the highest number reported during the pandemic.

President Biden announced Friday a 15% increase in food aid payments for low-income families with children through the Pandemic-EBT program. P-EBT "was created last spring to help replace the subsidized or free meals that tens of millions of children normally get at school," Helena Bottemiller Evich reports for Politico. The program gives households benefits on a debit-like card that can only be used to buy groceries." 

However, payments under the program have been repeatedly delayed, and the "vast majority" of households hadn't received any P-EBT payments as of last month, even though the funds had been authorized in September. "Many states have not even sent USDA their plans for approval, which means the aid will be even further delayed," Evich reports. "It's not clear whether the increase will be applied to the many months of benefits that are owed to most families that are eligible."

Also, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it will work with the Justice Department to see whether it can increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program payments to the nearly 40% of recipient households that have seen no real increase in such benefits during the pandemic, Evich reports. The USDA is also working on updating the criteria used to determine SNAP payment levels, a task the 2018 Farm Bill directed the department to complete by 2022. A department spokesperson said the current criteria are "out of date with the economic realities most struggling households face when trying to buy and prepare healthy food," Evich reports.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Rural study shows in-person learning can be safer if schools are careful, but in many cases they have not been

Kaiser Health News illustration by Hannah Brown
Rural school districts all over the country are trying to help students learn safely, even as poor broadband connectivity and local sentiment often makes distance learning difficult or unpopular. A new study shows that in-person learning might be okay under the right circumstances, but an analysis of complaints about schools violating pandemic rules raises questions about those circumstances.

Many parents worry that distance learning is causing their children to fall behind academically. "It's unclear how far the pandemic has set back learning in the past year, as many states have put temporary holds on regular assessment tests. And many children are not in classrooms for educators to keep tabs on. But some initial research has not been encouraging, with students falling behind, most notably in math," Peter Cameron reports for Wisconsin Watch

"The push in many parts of the United States now is to put children back in classrooms. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that among the 62 percent of K-12 school districts that had either full or partial in-person instruction, outbreaks of Covid-19 among children 'have been limited' — although the agency said it lacked data to gauge the risk among staff."

In-person learning might not be too risky as long as social-distancing measures are strictly observed, researchers for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded from a recent study of 17 rural schools in a Wisconsin county, which found that only seven of the 191 coronavirus cases in among students and staff "resulted from in-school transmission, and no infections among staff members were found to have been acquired at school," Melissa Patrick reports for Kentucky Health News. "It also found that there was no in-school transmission between separate classroom groups, and that case rates among students and staff were 37 percent lower than those in the county overall."

The researchers wrote in a "Viewpoint" column for the Journal of the American Medical Association, "These findings suggest that, with proper mitigation strategies, K-12 schools might be capable of opening for in-person learning with minimal in-school transmission."

But the study had gaps, Patrick notes: "Student masking compliance was reported as greater than 92%, but only 54% of the teachers filled out the weekly survey on this topic. Staff masking compliance was not measured."

Patrick notes a Kaiser Health News analysis of federal and state workplace-safety data, which found more than 780 Covid-related complaints covering more than 2,000 public and private K-12 schools.

The number of complaints is likely under-reported, Kaiser's Laura Ungar writes, because a federal loophole prevents public-school employees from lodging complaints in 24 states that lack their own Occupational Safety and Health Administration agencies or federally approved OSHA programs.  Even when complaints are made, the vast majority are closed without an inspection. 

"Still, the complaints filed provide a window into the safety lapses: Employees reported sick children coming to school, maskless students and teachers less than six feet apart, and administrators minimizing the dangers of the virus and punishing teachers who spoke out," Ungar reports. 

Pressure to reopen schools has backfired in some cases. In Wausau, Wis., pop. 38,000, the school year began with distance learning, but parents pressured the school board to reopen schools in November. Though there were no staff or student deaths, the return to in-person classes triggered a rash of cases and a few school employees had to be hospitalized, Julie Bosman reports for The New York Times.

"Similar conflicts played out across the country, as school-board members accustomed to hiring superintendents and approving annual budgets struggled with the demand that they become instant public health experts, balancing teacher concerns about safety with the educational needs of students and burdens on working parents," Bosman reports. "The discord could leave many school leaders and their communities with the formidable task of rebuilding and repairing relationships — amid rifts that were previously unimaginable — after the pandemic recedes."

A big worry is the shortage of learning. A rural school district just outside of Lubbock, Texas, was so alarmed at students' performance that leaders decided to reopen schools, reasoning that the risks of the pandemic were less threatening than widespread academic failure, J. David Goodman reports for the Times. Though dozens of teachers, staff and students have been infected or exposed, and the absences have disrupted class time, teachers and school district leaders maintain that it was the best choice.

Biden to reopen enrollment for Affordable Care Act policies

"President Biden is scheduled to take executive actions as early as Thursday to reopen federal marketplaces selling Affordable Care Act health plans and to lower recent barriers to joining Medicaid," Amy Goldstein reports for The Washington Post. "The orders will be Biden’s first steps since taking office to help Americans gain health insurance, a prominent campaign goal that has assumed escalating significance as the pandemic has dramatized the need for affordable health care — and deprived millions of Americans coverage as they have lost jobs in the economic fallout."

One order will reopen HealthCare.gov, the online insurance marketplace, for at least a few months. Another order is expected to reverse Trump administration actions that critics say restricted Americans' access to Medicaid, Goldstein reports. 

"It is unclear whether Biden’s order will undo a Trump-era rule allowing states to impose work requirements, or simply direct federal health officials to review rules to make sure they expand coverage to the program that insures about 70 million low-income people in the United States," Goldstein reports.

Rural health-care experts suggest five creative ways the Biden administration can improve rural health care

The pandemic has pushed many rural hospitals and clinics to the brink of bankruptcy, or into it. To reverse the trend, say two doctors who study rural policy, the Biden administration must include rural advocates in policymaking and think more deeply about the root causes of rural health-care disparities.

"The solutions rural America needs aren’t just about expanding broadband or insurance coverage, both of which are critical to extend telehealth and health care access. Rural health care will have to transform to survive and then thrive," Lauren Hughes and Sameer Vohra write for The Conversation. Hughes is the state policy director at the Farley Health Policy Center and an associate professor of family medicine at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Vohra is a pediatrician and the chair of the Department of Population Science and Policy at Southern Illinois University.

Hughes and Vohra suggest five creative ways the Biden administration can improve rural health care:

1. Rethink how providers are paid. Normally hospitals bill patients per service, but a la carte billing encourages hospitals to focus on elective procedures and services that bring in more paying patients (and therefore profit). Pennsylvania launched a program in 2019 that pays participating hospitals a fixed annual fee that covers inpatient and outpatient service. "With a predictable budget, enrolled hospitals can focus on the care their communities need, such as treating addiction, increasing cancer screenings and improving the management of patients’ chronic diseases like diabetes to reduce the need for more expensive acute care. The goal is to reduce costs while improving care," Hughes and Vohra write. 

The Biden administration could help transform rural health care by encouraging creative solutions such as Pennsylvania's, they write. Specifically, the administration could create a division within the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation dedicated to designing and testing solutions to rural problems.

2. Expand mental health and addiction services. Rural residents often have difficulty getting mental-health care. "Expanding mental health and addiction services for Medicare and Medicaid recipients and integrating those services with primary care could improve access and reduce stigma. And that could avoid wasteful spending on preventable hospitalizations and medical transfers to larger facilities," they  write. "One way to do that is to change Medicare’s lopsided billing rules for mental health care."

Clinics designated as Federally Qualified Health Centers or Rural Health Clinics already get higher payments for primary care services to Medicare and Medicaid patients, but FQHCs can bill for a wider array of mental-health and substance-use treatment services than RHCs. "Rural clinics could better address higher rates of behavioral illness and substance misuse if they could fully bill for these services," Hughes and Vohra write. "Changing how telemedicine visits are billed by making them equal to in-person visits would also help rural patients access needed services."

3. Build transformational leadership. Rural hospitals already train and recruit physicians through various incentive programs; such pipeline programs should be created or expanded to bring in innovative health-care administrators. Hughes and Vohra suggest employer-supported master's degree programs and expansion of the National Health Service Corps.

4. Bring back pregnancy and childbirth services and improve them. Fewer than half of rural counties in the U.S. have hospitals that deliver babies. Obstetrics, which has high malpractice-insurance costs, is among the first to be cut when hospitals tighten their belts. But the lack of such services has made it more difficult for rural women to access prenatal care or give birth and increased poor outcomes. 

"The new administration could offset costs necessary for critical access hospitals – small, 25-bed hospitals that exist only in rural areas – to deliver babies through special maternity care payments tied to quality outcomes such as increasing breastfeeding rates," Hughes and Vohra write. "These payments would prevent the temptation for small hospitals to grow expensive surgical service lines to cover financial losses commonly associated with offering maternity care. Such payments would also allow rural hospitals to hire dedicated obstetrics nurses." They also write that more grants through the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute could encourage university hospitals to partner with rural health-care providers.

5. Invest in health-promoting rural infrastructure. Crumbling rural infrastructure makes it harder for patients to get health care, and health-care workers to get to work. Though the Trump and Obama administrations improved transportation and telecommunication, "these investments were often viewed as solutions rather than tools for innovation. Rural towns would benefit from infrastructure investments that also encourage healthy behaviors," Hughes and Vohra write. They cite examples of communities that have expanded bike paths and built accessible playgrounds.

Employment rates are dropping for Americans without a college degree; they are disproportionately rural residents

Change in employment compared to same month in 2019 (Washington Post map; click on the image to enlarge it)
Though employment for all types of workers has tanked in the pandemic, jobs for college-educated workers have grown steadily since April 2019. But for non-military workers over age 25 with a high-school diploma or less (more common in rural areas), employment began dropping again in November. 

"These workers tend to be concentrated in the sort of industries that are most directly affected by government restrictions in response to Covid-19, such as eating and drinking places, construction and hotels," Alyssa Fowers reports for The Washington Post. "Such restrictions became more common over the winter. In November and December, 13 states and the District of Columbia closed or restricted nonessential businesses, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Seven states and D.C. closed indoor dining in the same time period." 

Among the three previously mentioned sectors—construction, eating and drinking, and hotels and motels—overall employment was down more than a million jobs in December 2020, compared to December 2019, Fowers reports. But even lower-education workers who kept their jobs are having a harder time than their college-educated counterparts: wages tend to start lower and stay lower, and such workers are less likely to have paid leave, health care, and other benefits.

"To assist these workers, experts point to economic measures already proposed by the Biden administration, like eviction moratoriums and increases in the minimum wage and nutrition benefits," Fowers reports. "These could help low-education workers get through the immediate crisis. But a full economic recovery for workers with a high school education or less depends on ending the global pandemic."

Pamela Loprest, an economist at the Urban Institute, told Fowers that policymakers must also fix longtime challenges lower-education workers face with measures such as raising the minimum wage, implementing paid leave laws, making education more accessible, and helping workers move where their skills are in greater demand and they can get paid more.

Coal-state groups and national allies ask Biden for clean-power transition plan; Manchin may play key role in issue

Economic-development groups in coal states, joined by labor leaders and environmentalists from across the nation, are asking the Biden administration to fund and map out a "just transition" to renewable energy. Specifically, the groups want the administration to create a White House Office of Economic Transition that focuses on rebuilding coal communities' economies. The groups also asked for the creation of a task force on communities that depend on coal and power plants for jobs, something Biden promised to do during his campaign, James Bruggers reports for Inside Climate News

The groups will likely get at least part of their wish. White House sources say Biden "will establish an interagency working group to help communities transition away from coal and other fossil fuels . . . headed by Climate Coordinator Gina McCarthy and National Economic Council Director Brian Deese," The Washington Post reports.

Biden vowed to shift the nation toward greener energy, and has taken steps to show his commitment to that goal. "On his first day, the president moved to rejoin the Paris climate accord and directed his administration to review and begin rolling back more than 100 rules on the environment put in place by the Trump administration, many of which benefited the fossil fuel industry," Bruggers notes. "Biden’s plan includes the goal of a 'carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035'."

Biden signed a stack of executive orders today to tackle climate change, Dino Grandoni reports for the Post: "The moves on drilling for oil and gas, conserving nature and addressing the racial and economic disparities of pollution fulfill several campaign promises. They are meant to put the United States on the path to net-zero emissions by the middle of the century and come off the heels of Biden moving to rejoin the Paris climate accord and nix the Keystone XL pipeline on his first day in office."

However, Biden's green-energy efforts may depend on support from Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat with a history of supporting coal. "Because Manchin is expected to become the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and Democrats have only a razor-thin margin in the Senate, Manchin will likely have an oversized role in any climate legislation that might come out of Congress, including legislation to help coal communities," Bruggers writes.

Manchin didn't comment on the groups' request for a coal transition office and task force, but "earlier, in response to Biden’s initial climate moves, he said the president 'must renew America’s leadership on climate change through innovation' and that efforts to address climate change 'must create jobs in places like West Virginia and wherever traditional energy workers have been left behind,'" Bruggers reports.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Mail delivery delays linger, hurting many rural newspapers; postmaster general says more streamlining coming

The U.S. Postal Service usually experiences a surge in mail around the holidays. But the postal system, already hamstrung by employee illnesses and quarantines, cost-cutting measures implemented during the Trump administration, and increased mail volume due to the pandemic, is still dealing with bottlenecks and backlogs a month after Christmas.

"Art Sackler, who heads the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, which represents some of the nation's largest companies that rely on mail delivery, says the slowdowns pose a real threat to small businesses already on the edge financially," Quinn Klinefelter reports for NPR.

Rural newspapers depend on the Postal Service to arrive in mailboxes in time for late-week or weekend shopping, but "couldn't even drop 'em off [at some post offices]," Sackler told Klinefelter.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said in a recent video to postal employees that further streamlining initiatives are coming this year. "The postmaster general's message worries some members of the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees the Postal Service," Klinefelter writes. The committee's ranking Democrat last year, Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, "says the Postal Service is just that – a service — and can't be run like a business."

"I'm particularly concerned that the postmaster general is focused primarily just on cutting cost," Peters told Klinefelter. "Certainly cutting cost is important. But you can't do it in a way that impacts service."

New rural virus infections and deaths down 2nd week in row

New coronavirus infection rate, Jan. 17-23. Daily Yonder map.
Click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

A downward trend in new coronavirus infections and Covid-19 deaths in rural counties and nationwide from Jan. 17-23 suggest that the post-holiday surge is waning.

New rural infections "fell by 20% for the second week in a row, dropping to levels not seen since early November. The number of Covid-related deaths also declined, after reaching a record-setting high two weeks ago," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "New infections in nonmetropolitan counties last week totaled 148,302. The number is about 36% lower than the record high set three weeks ago. The number of deaths attributed to Covid-19 last week was 3,476. That’s 13% lower than the previous week’s death toll, which set a record high of 4,127. Since the start of the pandemic, 63,862 residents of rural America have died from causes related to Covid-19."

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

Biden to halt new oil and gas leasing on federal land, water

President Biden plans to halt new oil and gas leasing on federal lands and waters Wednesday, delivering on one of his campaign pledges, The Washington Post reports.

"The White House has prepared documents that would pause new oil and gas auctions on federal land and water as the new administration reviews the program," says anonymous administration sources, the Post's Juliet Eilperin and Dino Grandoni report. "The moratorium would not affect existing leases, meaning drilling would continue on public land in the West as well as in the Gulf of Mexico." One source said the administration considered halting new federal coal leasing, but probably won't.

"Fossil-fuel leasing on federal and tribal land accounts for nearly a quarter of the country’s annual carbon output. The drilling program also generated $11.7 billion in tax revenue for the federal, state, local and tribal governments last year, according to the Interior Department’s Office of Natural Resources Revenue," Eilperin and Grandoni report. "Environmentalists say the pause will allow the new administration to assess whether taxpayers are being adequately compensated for the minerals extracted from land they own."

Fossil-fuel industry groups say a freeze on new leases will hurt state and local economies, and deprive the Treasury of much-needed revenue, Grandoni and Eilperin report.

Biden also plans to outline steps on Wednesday "aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions and elevating the role of science in federal decision-making. Other new policies include protecting 30 percent of federal land and water by the end of the decade and identifying climate change as a national security priority," Eilperin and Grandoni report. 

Rising grain prices usher in surprising farm recovery, but could lead to higher prices in the grocery store

"A crop glut that battered American farmers is subsiding, fueling an unexpected recovery in the U.S. Farm Belt following a yearslong agricultural recession. Prices for corn, soybeans and wheat have soared to their highest levels in more than six years as dry weather and strong export demand from China drain U.S. stockpiles," Jesse Newman reports for The Wall Street Journal. "The rising commodity prices are rippling through the food chain, helping drive a sharp increase in U.S. farm income and lifting the prospects for a swath of rural businesses, from grain traders to equipment manufacturers and fertilizer suppliers."

The surge will probably increase food prices for consumers, as well as increasing costs and squeezing profit margins for the food and fuel producers that rely on corn and soybean purchases. 

The booming commodity prices are "a dramatic reversal from recent years in which bumper harvests swelled U.S. grain supplies, pushing prices lower and slashing farmers’ incomes. A wave of bankruptcies swept Midwestern farms, followed by trade disputes and the coronavirus pandemic, which deepened farmers’ struggles," Newman reports. "Now, China’s push to increase pork production and fulfill recent trade commitments are propelling huge volumes of U.S. crops overseas. American food processors and manufacturers also are racing to ensure they have adequate grain and oilseed supplies to meet burgeoning consumer demand. Inventories of corn, soybeans and wheat are on track this season to hit their lowest in at least six years, according to U.S. Agriculture Department forecasts."

Monday, January 25, 2021

As Biden picks people for rural policy positions, some say he needs an overseer for rural issues, and for good politics

The Biden administration "is facing growing pressure to appoint a rural envoy within the White House to oversee a national strategy to uplift rural communities facing severe health and economic challenges," Liz Crampton reports for Politico. "Members of Congress and advocates are making the case that the problems plaguing rural regions exacerbated by the pandemic run so deep that a coordinated federal response is critical."

The center of attention for the moment is the Department of Agriculture, where longtime Biden friend Tom Vilsack will return as secretary, the job he held for eight years under Barack Obama. Vilsack gave his first interview as secretary-designee to Art Cullen of the Storm Lake Times in his home state of Iowa, and listed eight areas "that need significant work or even historic work: Covid-19 relief, equity and inclusion, climate and regenerative agriculture, rural economic development, nutrition security and assistance, open and competitive market, USDA employee morale, and Forest Service management in an era of climate-driven wildfires."

Justin Maxson
The administration has already signaled that the Rural Development branch of USDA will be run differently, by picking to run it Justin Maxson, who has been executive director of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, based in Winston-Salem, N.C., and before that head of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (now the Mountain Association) in Berea. Ky. Under Maxson, the Babcock foundation ran a large rural grant program for Vilsack late in the Obama administration.

"The Rural Development branch of USDA has long been neglected by both Republican and Democratic administrations, as it’s been consistently underfunded and understaffed," Crampton writes.

Perhaps even more important appointments are Katharine Ferguson as Vilsack's chief of staff and Stefanie Feldman as a senior adviser to Susan Rice, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. Ferguson is associate director of the Aspen Institute's Community Strategies Group and director of the Council of State Governments' Regional and Rural Development Initiatives, and Feldman was policy director for Biden's campaign, deputy director of domestic and economic policy for him as vice president, and is a board member of the Center for Rural Strategies, where she was a college intern. She is a native of Georgia.

Democrats see rural action as essential for both policy and politics. “There has got to be definitive investments that are innovative or this administration will have no future in a rural vote,” said Charles Fluharty, founder of the Rural Policy Research Institute, which studies demographic trends and policy impacts on rural communities.

“I certainly think there has to be a big emphasis on developing rural America,” former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear told Crampton. “It has to come from the White House.” He added, “It is past time that the rural areas of this country be targeted for not only economic development, but for health care, for broadband access, for all of the things that will lift this whole country up.”

Crampton writes, "Democratic lawmakers say that embarking on a rural strategy is an immediate way for President Joe Biden to draw a contrast with former President Donald Trump, whose leadership they argue failed rural Americans, most clearly with the pandemic that has disproportionately impacted rural areas. Biden's platform lays out many ambitious goals for rural regions, such as having the agriculture industry play a key part in fighting climate change, which his advisers believe translates into paying farmers for improving the environment as well as generating more "green" jobs.

National News Literacy Week runs from today through Jan. 29; here's how your newsroom can participate

Today is the start of National News Literacy Week kicks, an initiative that the News Literacy Project and E.W. Scripps Co. designed to raise awareness of the importance of news literacy for students and the general public.

The observance comes at a critical time, as misinformation and conspiracies have driven public unrest over the recent presidential election. To that end, the NNLW website has created a new online-learning unit called "Conspiratorial Thinking." The lesson, available for the general public, helps people understand the factors that allow conspiracies to gain a toehold and flourish. It also shows people the key components of conspiratorial thinking, the tricks such a mindset can play on people's brains and what makes people vulnerable to it.

The website includes links to social-media campaigns, lesson plans for educators and the general public, and ideas for how newsrooms can participate in the initiative. Click here for more information.

Last-minute Trump administration proposal would define fewer areas as metropolitan; see county-level map

Proposed change in metropolitan county definition
Daily Yonder map; click here for the interactive version.

A proposal published in the Federal Register on the last full day of the Trump administration would change the definition of metropolitan areas, "potentially affecting the way scholars, policy makers, and federal funding agencies address rural needs," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder. "The proposal, posted on Jan. 19, would raise the minimum population of cities that constitute the core of metropolitan statistical areas from 50,000 to 100,000."

Under the Office of Management and Budget's proposal, 251 counties in 144 metro areas would be reclassified as nonmetropolitan. The counties have about 18 million residents, so the non-metro population of the U.S., the broadest and bluntest definition of "rural," would expand nearly 40 percent, from 46 million to 64 million, Marema notes. The OMB study committee's recommendation said the newly non-metro areas would be classified as "micropolitan," a definition that now applies to those with cores cities of 10,000 to 49,999.

The proposal, if approved by the Biden administration, wouldn't take effect until 2023. "The potential impact of the change is complicated and multifaceted, according to the rural researchers the Daily Yonder contacted. None of the four researchers contacted knew about the change before it appeared in the Federal Register on January 19," Marema reports. "It’s unclear how seriously the new Biden administration will consider the proposal."

Rural Midwest banker survey sees rising economic confidence amid concerns about inflation and interest rates

Creighton University chart compares current month to last month and year ago; click here to download the full report.

A January Creighton University survey of rural bankers in 10 Midwest states that rely on farming and energy showed overall increasing confidence in the economy amid concerns about excessive inflation, low loan demand and higher long-term interest rates. The index is a survey of bankers in about 200 rural communities with an average population of 1,300 in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

"Recent sharp improvements in agriculture commodity prices, federal farm support payments, and Federal Reserve’s record-low short-term interest rates have underpinned the Rural Mainstreet Economy in a solid and positive growth range. However, the rural economy remains well below pre-pandemic levels," writes Creighton economist Ernie Goss, who compiles the index.

The overall Rural Mainstreet Index climbed above growth neutral for the third time in the past four months, and the farm equipment sales index rose to its highest reading since April 2013. Moreover, for the first time since 2013, Creighton recorded four straight months of above growth-neutral farmland prices. 

However, bankers reported "anemic" loan volumes, and a plurality, 44 percent, said they expected low loan demand to be the biggest issue their banks will face in 2021. Only 4% said rising loan defaults and bankruptcies was the biggest issue. That's a near flip-flop from last January, when only 7% said low loan demand was their greatest concern, and 32% said rising loan defaults and bankruptcies were their biggest worry.

The new hiring index fell below growth neutral, and data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says non-farm employment levels in the Rural Mainstreet economy are down by 3.3%, or 145,000 from pre-pandemic levels, and down by 5.6%, or 251,000, from last January.

Tuesday webinar to explore future of telehealth

From 2-4 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Jan. 26, government and tech newsroom Nextgov will host a free webinar about the future of telehealth (a technology rural areas disproportionately rely on). 

Government leaders and medical experts will weigh in on how the government can use emerging technologies in telehealth, electronic health records and 3D printing to improve health care.

Click here to register or for more information, including the schedule and list of speakers.

China's 2020 Phase One agriculture purchases well below target, but back up to 2017 levels

In 2020, China purchased just 58 percent of the U.S. exports promised in the Trump administration's Phase One trade deal. That includes only $23.6 billion of agricultural products, compared with an expected $36.6 billion, according to an extensive round-up by Keith Good at the University of IllinoisFarm Policy News. Some of the highlights:

  • It's unclear whether the Biden administration will seek to enforce the trade deal or negotiate a new one. 
  • China's soybean imports from the U.S. in 2020 rose by 52.8% from 2019. That includes 25.89 million tonnes of oilseed from the U.S., up from 16.94 million tonnes in 2019.
  • China was the world's top soybean buyer in 2020 and the U.S. was its second-largest supplier.
  • Soybean import levels improved as China's pig herds grew after being decimated by African swine fever in 2018 and 2019.
  • Two new strains of African swine fever could hurt China's pig herds again though. The new strains don't kill pigs, but they cause a chronic condition that reduces the number of healthy piglets born.
  • China's grain imports rose to record highs in 2020.
  • China imported a record 11.3 million tonnes of corn in 2020, with 2.25 million tonnes of that in December alone.
  • China imported a record 8.38 million tonnes of wheat in 2020, just short of a quota of 9.64 million tonnes.