Friday, February 12, 2021

Federal Reserve: Electric co-ops, wireless systems and partnerships most promising ways to better rural broadband

Broadband access is transformative, but rural areas still lag because they're more costly to serve. It's worth it, though, according to a recent report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.

"The economic case for rural broadband infrastructure, though, is compelling despite its cost: Broadband access and adoption in rural areas is linked to increased job and population growth, higher rates of new business formation and home values, and lower unemployment rates," Alexander Marré reports. "Unlike with many other types of infrastructure, the long-run benefits of broadband access could grow exponentially, given the potential for innovation and productivity gains it provides."

Electric cooperatives, fixed satellite and wireless providers, and public-private partnerships are the most promising avenues for building out quality broadband in rural America, according to the report. But each approach has its pitfalls. Some states bar co-ops from providing broadband, and legal issues can make it tricky for co-ops to operate outside their service areass. Satellite and wireless don't require expensive house-to-house fiber installation, but can be slower and more expensive. Public-private partnerships are useful where there is no interested provider, but it can be challenging to build the right partnership with effective, interested parties. 

Connecting all of rural America to broadband will cost at least $85.6 billion, but current federal funding is about $30 billion, Marré reports. The Federal Communications Commission's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is the largest source of funding, at $20.4 billion over 10 years. However, the RDOF has been plagued with faulty data maps that can waste money. The FCC also provides $4.9 billion through its Alternative Connect America Fund. The second-largest source of departmental funding is through the Agriculture Department's eConnectivity Pilot Program, or ReConnect Program, which provides loans, grants, and loan/grant combos to broadband service providers. ReConnect has distributed more than $1.3 billion; all told, USDA funds about $2.3 billion for broadband buildout through ReConnect and other Rural Utilities Service programs. Other major sources of funding include state spending (less than $2 billion in 2018-2019) and the CARES Act, which allocated about $600 million to broadband funding projects.

The report notes that the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the necessity of broadband for all, and recommends increasing federal subsidies to help close the rural gap. 

Analysis concludes that 453 rural hospitals are vulnerable to closure, partly because of the pandemic

States ranked by percentage of rural hospitals losing money
New research and analysis from the Chartis Center for Rural Health, part of health-care analytics consultancy The Chartis Group, provides a detailed look at how the coronavirus pandemic has affected rural hospitals and weakened the rural health safety net. Since 2010, 135 rural hospitals have closed, and this new research found that 453 more are vulnerable to closure. 

Rural communities nationwide face health and health-care disparities because of a wide range of factors such as transportation, underlying health conditions, age, difficulty in recruiting and retaining health-care professionals, government policy, and prolonged resistance to Medicaid expansion.

"All of the key metrics we track to assess the stability of the rural health safety net indicate that the situation for rural hospitals continues to be tenuous,” said Michael Topchik, national leader at the Chartis Center for Rural Health. "Nearly half of all rural hospitals operate in the red; the speed with which closures are occurring has not abated; services are disappearing; and rural hospitals are struggling to provide the operational and financial resources required to adequately respond to Covid-19.”

More insights from the report:
  • 46% of rural hospitals have a negative operating margin. 
  • In states that haven't expanded Medicaid, 50% of rural hospitals are in the red.
  • Services are on the decline in rural communities as 166 rural hospitals have ceased to provide obstetrics and 252 rural hospitals stopped providing chemotherapy services.
  • 62% of rural hospitals lack intensive care unit (ICU) beds, and outpatient services represent 77 percent of total revenue.
  • By January 8, 2021, 34% of adult hospitalizations at rural hospitals were related to Covid-19, and 83% of staffed rural ICU beds for adults were occupied.

Pandemic roundup: anxiety and depression skyrocketing, why reopening restaurants is a terrible idea, and more

Here's a roundup of some of the pandemic and vaccine-related news stories we've seen this week:

Millions of counterfeit N95 masks have been distributed to health-care workers. Read more here.

A sluggish vaccination program could delay a return to normal and invite vaccine-resistant coronavirus variants to emerge. Read more here.

Many rural clinics are having a hard time coping with the increased demands of mass vaccinations. Read more here.

What if we never reach herd immunity? Vaccines can still help. Read more here.

Why re-opening restaurants is a terrible idea. Read more here.

South Texas lawmakers want a vaccine hub for underserved rural border communities. Read more here.

Online vaccination signups cater to the tech-savvy, leaving out many. Read more here.

Depression and anxiety have skyrocketed during the pandemic. Read more here.

Snug-fitting and double-layered masks can help reduce coronavirus transmission. Read more here.

Quick hits: milk production increasing too fast; EPA tells Amazon to stop selling illegal pesticides (again)

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

West Virginia students are some of the first in the nation to connect with the new satellite Starlink internet service. Here's how it's going. Read more here.

School gardens are linked with kids eating more vegetables. Read more here.

Milk production is increasing faster than demand is recovering. Read more here.

Federal aid is finally coming to a Washington town wiped out by wildfire last year. Read more here.

The Environmental Protection Agency has again ordered Amazon to stop selling illegal pesticides. Read more here.

Towns in the Deep South are counting on President Biden to keep his climate promises. Read more here.

A newly published research paper compares rural-urban disparities in deaths among low-income Medicare beneficiaries. Read more here.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Community Newspaper Summit, online March 8-19, features new Country Editors' Forum at 2 p.m. Central March 11

The pandemic still prevents most in-person conferences, but we've become accustomed to online meetings, and many have proven valuable and successful. Those are the prospects for Community Newspaper Summit 2021, to be held March 8-19 by the National Newspaper Association, the main trade group for rural papers.

The event is this year's version of NNA's annual meeting in and around Washington, D.C., that is held mainly to help local publishers and editors lobby their federal representatives on issues surrounding the U.S. Postal Service, freedom of information and more. NNA encourages publishers and state newspaper associations to set up online meetings with state delegations or individual senators and representatives, and says it will provide briefing materials.

The summit will inaugurate NNA's Country Editors Forum, with live interviews with newsmakers, at 2 p.m. CT March 11. The speaker will be Ben Ginsberg, who is not only the leading Republican expert on election law but has worked for several family-owned newspaper companies. He chaired the Presidential Commission on Election Administration in 2013 and "has been actively writing this year about election fraud and the many unfounded allegations about illegal voting," NNA says.

On International Women's Day, March 8, the summit will have a program, "How Women are Leading Congress."  Details on that and other sessions will be forthcoming.  "Join when you can. Leave when you must," NNA says. Members pay $50, non-members $100. Register here.

Job gains in rural America over the previous year dried up in November and December, especially for women

Percentage change in jobs from December 2019 to December 2020, compared with the 5.3% national increase in jobs for that time period. Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

"The nation stopped adding jobs at the end of last year, reversing a months-long trend of employment gains. The drop-off in jobs in the last two months of 2020 was a trend found in big cities and rural communities alike," Bill Bishop reports for The Daily Yonder. "The number of jobs plummeted with the spread of the coronavirus a year ago, but the economy began adding jobs by late spring 2020. Those gains continued until this fall, and then stopped. In November and December, rural and urban America began shedding jobs again."

Though communities of all sizes lost jobs, the trend was most pronounced in urban counties. The largest cities had 6.2% fewer jobs in December 2020 than in December 2019, whereas rural counties had 3.2% fewer jobs over the same time period, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics figures. "Nationally, there were 8.4 million fewer jobs this December than in December 2019," Bishop reports. "Rural counties have 650,000 fewer jobs this year than at the same time in 2019."

As CNN recently noted, the nation lost 140,000 jobs in December, and all of them were women. Women lost 156,000 jobs that month while men gained 16,000.

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

The most rural counties had the highest rates of coronavirus infections through January; see county-level data

Coronavirus cases per 1,000 people as of January 30, 2021
American Communities Project map; click it to enlarge or click here for the interactive version.

An analysis of pandemic data shows that the most sparsely populated communities, especially those that are unwilling to socially distance or that have reduced access to health care, had the highest rates of coronavirus infections through January, Dante Chinni reports for the American Communities Project, a social-science and journalism project by George Washington University's School of Media & Public Affairs meant to highlight the issues faced by different types of communities.

ACP divides communities into 15 types: African American South, Aging Farmlands, Big Cities, College Towns, Evangelical Hubs,Exurbs, Graying America, Hispanic Centers, LDS Enclaves, Middle Suburbs,
Military Posts, Native American Lands, Rural Middle America, Urban Suburbs, and Working Class Country. Evangelical Hubs and Hispanic Centers had high infection rates, but the three community types with the highest infection rates are Native American Lands, LDC Enclaves, and Aging Farmlands.

"Those three community types hold very different kinds of populations in terms of age and race, but they share one common factor: They tend to be fairly sparsely populated," Chinni reports. "At the outset of the pandemic, that spread of population was seen as an advantage with a virus that spreads through close contact between people. Now that we’ve passed the one-year anniversary of Covid-19, the data suggest that initial theory didn’t account for many other important factors. These numbers suggest that differences in community attitudes on issues such as masking, gatherings and, in a broader sense, politics (since Covid-19 has become politicized) likely have bigger impacts than sheer density."

North Carolina weekly uses Facebook grant to bring in Latinx readers, offering valuable lessons for other papers

"Over the last nine months, the Chatham News + Record has leveraged a $30,300 Facebook grant to receive an $8,000 commitment from a local hospital by giving voice to a voiceless Latinx community on a health issue, namely the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic," University of Kentucky associate journalism professor Buck Ryan reports.

"As weekly community newspapers, suffering financially from the pandemic’s jolt to advertising revenues, struggle to stay afloat, the News + Record (3,800 paid circulation, about half from street sales) provides some valuable lessons on how to improve quality news coverage that gets recognized with financial support from a community institution," Ryan writes.

Rural whites more likely to get emergency rent relief through December stimulus package

Rural, white Americans are more likely to benefit from an emergency rent assistance program passed in the December stimulus package, according to a USA Today analysis.

"Nearly 40 million Americans behind on rent and threatened with eviction have been waiting on aid from the federal government for nearly a year. Many believed help was on the way after Congress passed on Dec. 21 $25 billion in rental assistance that was supposed to pay rental arrears –in some cases covering up to 12 months of back rent," Romina Ruiz-Goiriena and Aleszu Bajak report for USA Today. "But the Emergency Assistance Rental Program won't benefit all Americans equally . . . The government payments will overwhelmingly benefit white Americans living in less populated states even though most Americans and most Americans affected by the pandemic and the recession live in the most populated states."

Part of the problem: the federal government calculated aid for the most-populated states according to total population but gave less-populated states a set amount. That means renters in more rural states like Vermont and Wyoming end up getting more aid per person, Ruiz-Goiriena and Bajak report.

"A USA Today analysis of rental allocation to all 50 states found Alaska, Vermont and Wyoming will receive substantially more money per eligible renter than other states. Vermont and Wyoming each received over $2,600 per renter compared with the national average of $837," Ruiz-Goiriena and Bajak report. "At $3.8 billion, heavily populated states New York and California received the highest amount of total aid overall but the least in per-renter funding, at $378.76 and $443.56 respectively." 

That amount won't cover the huge amounts of arrears many renters owe, most of whom are aged 40-54 and live in the South, the Northeast, or California, according to a Moody's Analytics report. The average renter is almost four months behind on rent and owes $5,600 on rent and utilities, plus another $50 per month for late penalties. "In all, Americans need $57 billion to pay off their back rent, about $32 billion short of the aid deployed to states," Ruiz-Goiriena and Bajak report. "The package Congress passed, according to Moody's analysis, will only be able to help some 3.5 million renters pay back rent and utilities."

Webinar with House Agriculture Committee members at 11 a.m. ET Friday will discuss rural issues in Congress

At 11 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 12, Agri-Pulse will host a bipartisan virtual discussion about the major rural issues before Congress, including the pandemic, unemployment, broadband, farming, and the environmental impact of natural disasters and wildfires. 

The free webinar, which will last about an hour, will feature House Agriculture Committee members Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., and Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., with lobbyist Kip Eidberg of the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (which is sponsoring the webinar). Agri-Pulse managing editor Spencer Chase will moderate. 

Spanberger and Johnson both serve on the committee's Commodity Exchanges, Energy, and Credit subcommittees. Spanberger chairs the Conservation and Forestry Subcommittee, and Johnson serves on the Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations Subcommittee.  

Click here for more information about the webinar or to register. Pre-registration is required.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Weekly editor in Tenn. commits to monthly series about opioids, starting with family spurred by its loss to help others

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

Labeling a story "First in a series" often leaves wiggle room. The series can be as short as two stories, and it doesn't have to be regular, just occasional. But when Editor Brad Martin of the Hickman County Times in Centerville, Tenn., used that label, he set a public marker for himself and the weekly: "Once a month during 2021, my goal is to report on an aspect of drug addiction."

The story labeled first wasn't actually the first. On Dec. 7, Martin reported on a local family that had lost a member to drugs a month before, and their creation of a foundation to fund drug treatment to keep other families from suffering the same tragedy.

"The foundation has put its thumb on Hickman County’s most crippling problem: drug use," Martin wrote. "Too many folks, mostly young adults, are rendered helpless by their dependency on illegal substances. Employers have a hard time finding workers who can pass a drug test; how will we attract industry if we can’t create responsible employees? This is one of those problems that cannot be solved by anyone but us. I can assure you that Superman is not coming."

In late January, Martin did a feature story about the life and death of Dalton Beard, who died at 25, and his family. He reported that the foundation had obtained and distributed 28 doses of Narcan, which can reverse an overdose, and provided insight into just how hard it is to reverse addiction.

"Rehabilitation, for all of its benefits, lacks effectiveness if the addict is not ready to change," Martin writes, quoting father Floyd Dalton: “One thing I did learn -- all that time taking him back and forth to rehab -- if they’re not ready to go, you’re wasting your time.”

In his column, Martin wrote, "Addiction can happen to anyone, and breaking free from it is a Herculean challenge. What the Beard family is doing is the only way to attack this problem: Get involved. Drug addiction is one of those dilemmas that demand hands-on attention from people who live close by."

It also demands attention from local news media, to help overcome the stigma that is an obstacle to action by individuals, families and communities. "More information about any problem can help solve it," Martin wrote, concluded his column with some possible story ideas:

"I want to write the story of an addict who has recovered, and explain what it took. Same for drug counselors: What do we need to know, and how can we help addicts? Rehab centers: What do they see, and what can they tell us back here about addiction, including what to look for?

"Plenty of drug users end up in the criminal justice system; how does that work, or not work? I want to know whether spending tax dollars for more rehab, instead of more prosecution, might be a way to go. Does drug court work?"

All good questions, and good story ideas. And they're not unique to Hickman County. You can read his stories and column here.

New coronavirus infections in rural counties declined last week, but deaths rose slightly

New infection rates over Jan. 31-Feb. 6
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

In the week of Jan. 31 through Feb. 6, new rural coronavirus infections declined for the fourth straight week, but rural Covid-19 deaths increased a little. The rural Covid-19 death rate was 34% higher than the urban rate.

"The death toll reached 3,547 in rural counties," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "That’s up by about 1% from the week before. Rural counties averaged 541 deaths per day in the first seven days of February. The daily average is slightly higher than it was in January, the deadliest month so far for rural America. The number of new infections, meanwhile, fell by about 8% last week compared to two weeks ago. There were 115,359 new infections reported in rural counties last week, according to USA Facts." Click here for more data, analysis and charts from the Yonder, including nationwide and regional trends. 

White House hikes states' coronavirus vaccine shipments, ensures some go to rural community health centers

In an effort to make sure under-served and rural areas get their fair share, "The Biden administration will boost the number of Covid-19 vaccines distributed to states next week to 11 million doses and begin allocating a portion of the weekly shipments directly to community health centers," Andrea Noble reports for Route Fifty. "At least one federally qualified community health center in each state will begin receiving allocations of the vaccine next week, and the goal for the initial phase of the project is to distribute 1 million vaccines to 250 centers, said Marcella Nunez-Smith, the head of the administration’s Health Equity Task Force."

The health centers serve about 30 people nationwide, two-thirds of whom live at or below the federal poverty line. Patients include homeless people, people who live in public housing, and migrant farm workers, Noble reports.

"The White House has sought to increase the number of vaccines shipped to states each week, from 8.6 million doses during President Biden’s first week in office to 11 million doses next week," Noble reports. "In addition to setting aside allotments of vaccine for community health centers, the federal government will also set aside 1 million doses of vaccine for pharmacies participating in the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program—a previously announced public-private partnership with 21 national pharmacy chains."

Coal production in Central Appalachia hit 37-year low in 2020, but overall production may see a small bump this year

"Coal mines in Central Appalachia produced over a 37-year low 46.04 million short tons in 2020, down 36.7 percent from 72.7 million short tons produced in 2019 and the lowest on record, dating back to 1984, according to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration data," Tyler Godwin reports for S&P Global. "The region has seen eight quarterly decreases in the last 10 quarters. Nine of the top 13 mines in Central Appalachia saw quarterly declines in Q4."

Overall though, coal is slated for a small bounce-back from pandemic lows, though it could be smaller than federal analysts previously predicted. "The latest Energy Information Administration estimates show U.S. production rising 9% this year, down from their prior guess of 12%," Ben Geman reports for Axios. That translates to a predicted total of 589 million short tons, and a little more than that in 2022.

Coal is still trending downward in the long-term, but Geman notes that expected increases in oil and coal output in 2021 and 2022 "illustrate an irony. President Biden, who has vowed aggressive steps on climate change, is initially likely to preside over an increase in coal and oil production."

Climate change will continue to help a pest flourish and hurt California nut tree crops, university study predicts

A navel orangeworm fly on a pistachio.
(University of California photo)
California is the world's leading producer of almonds, walnuts and pistachios, but climate change may render a pest that threatens these crops an even bigger threat, according to a new scientific paper. 

The navel orangeworm costs nut growers millions of dollars in losses every year. The insect produces three or four generations per year, but a recently published study from the University of California predicts that a warming climate will help the pest thrive, Liza Gross reports for Inside Climate News

According to the study, "warming temperatures may help the dreaded pest wreak even more havoc in at least two ways, including expanding their range into previously inhospitable areas and accelerating their reproductive rates, boosting their numbers," Gross reports. "A fifth navel orangeworm generation will emerge in almonds and walnuts in three southern counties by 2040 and eight more by 2100, according to the predictions. But in pistachios the fifth generation appeared in seven southern counties by 2040 and 17 counties by 2100. The findings flag the state’s pistachio crop—valued at nearly $2 billion—as the most vulnerable to damage and economic losses. "

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Focus on W. Va., driven by Manchin's pivotal role, could also help the rest of Appalachia and other distressed rural areas

Manchin and then-VP Biden in 2017
(Photo by Tom Williams, Roll Call)
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin's pivotal position in the federal government – "He can shoot down filibuster reform, shape the economic recovery or moderate liberal hopes for the minimum wage" – makes Democrats "laugh uneasily" and say "So just give the man what he wants," writes Emily Badger of The New York Times. "But there is a deeper possibility in this unusual alignment of one senator, one struggling state and one suddenly attentive capital." And it could make a difference in more than West Virginia.

“West Virginia and Appalachia deserve an outsized piece of any federal recovery policy,” Kelly Allen, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, told Badger, who writes, "That’s because the region’s decades-long role in powering the nation through coal, she said, came at enormous cost to the health of local residents, their environment and their economy. A serious federal response to that history could both bolster the state and be a model for other parts of the country that have been left behind."

Appalachian liberals like Allen "dream of broadband, vast brownfield cleanup efforts, greater aid to community lenders who operate where traditional banks won’t, more resources for high-quality housing and health clinics — investment on a scale that would return to the region all the wealth that was taken out of it by resource extraction," Badger writes. That happened mainly in West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, which is represented by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and a conservative but relatively spending-friendly Republican, Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers of Somerset, member and former chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

Appalachia has lessons for the rest of the nation. It was one of the first rural regions that have fallen further behind "as other places grow more prosperous," as "globalization and knowledge work began to reorder the economy, with tremendously unequal consequences depending on where you live," Badger writes. "Today, however, no one in Washington is responsible for confronting that pattern, said John Lettieri, the president of the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington think tank that has proposed a new cabinet-level office to do that." Members of Congress and others have made similar proposals, and the Biden administration appears to be listening.

Badger offers examples of why high-level coordination is needed: "Some health programs devote extra resources to rural communities, but misclassify which ones are “rural.” The federal government incentivizes banks to invest in struggling neighborhoods. But those incentives don’t work well in rural communities with no local bank branches. The government also has an array of tax credit programs to support development. But they work best with large-scale urban projects, not small rural ones."

This map from the Appalachian Regional Commission, adapted by The Rural Blog, shows Eastern Kentucky is the heart of economic distress in Appalachia. To enlarge, click on it.

How the VA is helping rural vets get a coronavirus vaccine

The Department for Veterans Affairs, which serves about 9 million veterans, is trying to figure out how to fairly distribute the 1.5 million or so doses of coronavirus vaccines it has been given. Since many rural areas are having a hard time obtaining vaccines, the VA is making a special effort to reach rural vets with initiatives such as pop-up clinics, Aaron Bolton reports for Montana Public Radio.

But not just any vet can show up and get a shot. "At this point, the VA is only offering vaccines to those age 75 and older and those with certain underlying medical conditions," Bolton reports. They're using medical records to reach out to the most vulnerable vets.

So far, the VA has administered the vaccine to about 7 percent of the nation's enrolled vets. "The VA's national office says its weekly allocation of about 125,000 shots likely won't increase until March," Bolton reports.

47 states reach $573 million opioid settlement with McKinsey, which advised Purdue on OxyContin promotion

"Consulting company McKinsey and Co. has agreed to pay $573 million to resolve investigations into its role promoting prescription opioid sales for drug companies—with the bulk of the settlement money headed to states in the next two months," Andrea Noble reports for Route Fifty. For 15 years, McKinsey worked with Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, on "how to maximize the drug company’s profits from prescription opioids, according to court documents filed in the case. As part of its marketing efforts, McKinsey told Purdue to target high-volume opioid prescribers, use specific messaging to get physicians to prescribe more OxyContin to more patients, and to work with mail-order pharmacies to circumvent retail pharmacies’ restrictions on high-dose prescriptions."

The bulk of the settlement, $558 million, will be divided among the plaintiffs: 47 states, five territories, and Washington, D.C. Most must be paid to the states within 60 days. States can use the money to cover opioid prevention, treatment and recovery plans, Noble reports. It's unclear how states will distribute that money, and whether rural areas that were especially hard-hit by the epidemic will be targeted.

"The deal represents the first opioid-related settlement for states since Purdue Pharma agreed to an $8.3 billion settlement with the Department of Justice last year," Noble reports. "But Purdue declared bankruptcy and disagreements among state and local governments over how to use opioid settlement funds have hamstrung efforts to distribute awards."

Thwarted but possibly deadly hack of Florida water plant highlights dangers of poor cybersecurity for utilities

A recent cyberattack on a Florida water treatment plant highlights the threat hackers can pose to utilities and municipalities with inadequate cybersecurity. 

On Friday, an unknown hacker twice broke into a program that gives authorized users full, remote access to the Oldsmar water treatment plant in Pinellas County, and ordered it to increase the amount of lye in the water to extremely dangerous levels, Kevin Collier reports for NBC News. A plant operator noticed and reversed the change immediately, but if that hadn't happened and the plant's alarms didn't detect it either, the lye could have made it into people's taps within 24 to 36 hours.

The close call in this Tampa suburb serves as a reminder of the danger hackers pose to smaller jurisdictions. Small-town governments, utilities and hospitals are increasingly getting hit with cyberattacks in which hackers encrypt data and demand a ransom to unlock it. Since rural areas often have older systems and less tech-savvy workers, hackers see them as easier targets.

Rural utilities may be especially hard-pressed to pay for security upgrades right now, as financially struggling customers have a hard time paying their bills. 

2021 USDA farm income forecast: cash receipts to rise, but lower direct federal aid expected to drive drop in net income

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service has published the first of three 2021 Farm Sector Income Forecasts. The forecast is updated three times a year, usually in February, August, and November. You can read the full report here, but below are the highlights. Click here for the December 2020 report for comparison.

  • Net farm income, a broad measure of profits, is forecast to decrease $9.8 billion (8.1 percent) to $111.4 billion in 2021.
  • In inflation-adjusted 2021 dollars, net farm income is forecast to decrease $12 billion (9.7%) in 2021 after increasing $37.8 billion (44.2%) in 2020 to its highest level since 2013.
  • Net cash farm income (a more precise measurement of profits) is forecast to decrease $7.9 billion (5.8%) to $128.3 billion in 2021.
  • Inflation-adjusted net cash farm income is forecast to decrease $10.4 billion (7.5%) from 2020 and would be 15.3% above its 2000-19 average ($111.3 billion).
  • Cash receipts are expected to increase in 2021, but lower direct government farm payments are predicted to drive most of the decline in both net income measurements.
  • Direct government farm payments are forecast at $25.3 billion in 2021, a decrease of $21 billion (45.3%) in nominal terms. The expected decrease is because of lower supplemental and ad-hoc disaster assistance for Covid-19 relief in 2021 relative to 2020.
  • Higher production expenses are also expected to contribute to the 2021 decline in net income. Total production expenses, including operator dwelling expenses, are forecast to increase $8.6 billion (2.5%) to $353.7 billion (in nominal terms) in 2021. Most of this reflects higher spending on feed, fertilizer, and labor.
  • Cash receipts for all commodities are forecast to increase $20.4 billion (5.5%) to $390.8 billion (in nominal terms) in 2021.
  • Total animal/animal product receipts are expected to increase $8.6 billion (5.2%) with increases in receipts for cattle/calves, hogs, and broilers.
  • Total crop receipts are expected to increase $11.8 billion (5.8%) from 2020 levels following higher receipts for soybeans and corn.
  • Farm business average net cash farm income is forecast to decrease $6,100 (6.2%) to $91,800 per farm in 2021. Farm businesses in all resource regions are forecast to see declines in net cash farm income except the Heartland. 
  • When farm businesses are categorized by commodity specialization, most see average net farm income fall in 2021. The exceptions are farms specializing in wheat, corn, soybeans, and hogs.
  • When adjusted for inflation, farm sector equity and assets in 2021 are relatively unchanged from 2020.
  • Farm debt is forecast to increase by $9.6 billion (2.2%) to $441.7 billion (in nominal terms), led by an expected 3.1% rise in real estate debt. 
  • The farm sector debt-to-asset ratio is expected to rise slightly from 13.84% in 2020 to 13.89% in 2021. 
  • Working capital, which measures the amount of cash available to fund operating expenses after paying off debt due within 12 months, is forecast to decrease 12% from 2020. 
  • Total median farm household income, forecast to increase to $86,086 in 2020, is expected to remain relatively flat in 2021 at $86,917. The income increases in 2019 and 2020, driven by direct government aid, bucked a trend of declining income from 2015 through 2018.
  • Economic relief programs such as the Paycheck Protection Program and the latest Covid-19 aid package are expected to boost income among those affected by the pandemic.
  • Many farmers rely on off-farm income. The average amount of off-farm income was expected to rise 1.5% to $69,784 in 2020 and to rise 2.3% in 2021 to $71, 407. If that prediction pans out, it will be the highest median off-farm income level since 2014.

Monday, February 08, 2021

'When Covid-19 surged through a N.D. community, a battle with the pandemic became a battle among its residents'

"When Covid-19 surged through a North Dakota community, a battle with the pandemic became a battle among its residents," The New Yorker says in a subhead atop a story by Atul Gawande from Minot, population 48,000, "in the worst-performing county in the worst-performing state in the worst-performing country in the world," writes Gawande. "I wanted to understand what made it so difficult for people to come together and address a deadly crisis."

Gawande, a native of Ohio, is a surgeon and a public-health researcher who writes about health for The New Yorker. He was a member of President Biden's Transition Covid-19 Advisory Board. He traces Minot's pandemic experience from the start to the Feb. 1 meeting of the City Council meeting, which voted for a mask mandate in city buildings after state "legislators prepared bills that would strip municipalities of the ability to adopt mask mandates when the state hadn’t done so, and the governor had declared the state to be in the low-risk category" and the mayor said he would lift the citywide mandate.

Pandemic roundup: How a tiny county made big vaccine gains; community public-health workers are a trusted source

Here's a roundup of some of the coronavirus pandemic- and vaccine-related stories we've seen this past week:

Many vulnerable people who need the coronavirus vaccine will have a hard time accessing it without transportation. Read more here.

Mental health supports help rural care providers weather a Covid-19 surge. Read more here.

Trump officials actively lobbied to deny states money for vaccine rollouts last fall. Read more here.

Dubious websites and viral posts claim that the World Health Organization changed virus testing protocols for political reasons when Trump left office, and that the WHO said false-positive cases had inflated the case count. That's false. Read the real story here from

USA Today has a dashboard with frequently updated data on state vaccination rates and other critical pandemic info. Read more here. It also has a general information resource guide to the vaccine here

Alpine County, a rural county that with 1,100 people is the least populated in California, is making big vaccination gains. Here's how it happened. Read more here.

Community public-health workers, often overlooked, are a trusted source for locals during the pandemic. Read more here.

Some health workers say they're not refusing the coronavirus vaccine outright; they just need a little more time to feel confident that it's safe. Read more here.

A clinic in rural Georgia is in shock after the state suspended its access to vaccines after it violated state guidelines for vaccinating teachers. Read more here.

Many patients who are terminally ill with Covid-19 or other diseases are choosing to die at home so they can be with their loved ones, rather than in a hospital where they might have to say their goodbyes via screen or behind glass. Read more here.

Coronavirus cases nationwide are dropping at nursing homes and other long-term-care facilities. Read more here.

Many businesses quietly charging pandemic fees to make up for lost profits; attorneys general say that may be illegal

"Nearly a year into the pandemic’s gutting of the economy, businesses across the country are increasingly charging coronavirus-related fees, ranging from a $5 disinfection charge in a hair salon to $1,200 for extra food and cleaning in a senior living center, which are often undisclosed until the customer gets a bill," Hannah Denham reports for The Washington Post. "Adding surcharges as a temporary Band-Aid to help cover store closures, employee salaries and health benefits, personal protective equipment for staff, and increased sanitation, utilities and reopening costs is one approach some small businesses and franchises have taken to offset financial losses and stay open during the pandemic."

Though it's unclear how widespread the practice is, it seems to be most common among health-care providers and residential facilities. Many restaurants appear to be doing it, too. "Small businesses and franchises have had to get creative out of desperation when gift card drives, individual tipping and fundraising by local chambers of commerce aren’t enough to pay the bills," Denham reports. Dental offices have some of the highest number of complaints about hidden fees.

Hidden fees are a legitimate concern for consumers, especially for economically vulnerable Americans or senior citizens without much income, but not every state protects consumers from them. While medical insurance law in some states requires health-care providers to offer refunds to patients who have been unfairly charged for personal protective equipment, other states allow for businesses to tack on extra fees, as long as they’re disclosed upfront," Denham reports. "Starting in August, a handful of state officials — in New York, Connecticut, Arizona, Michigan and Massachusetts — issued guidance warning residents of hidden fees and businesses and insurers of the consequences of violating consumer protection and insurance laws."

Farmers must pick federal safety-net program by March 15; experts advise them to start the sign-up process now

Starting with the upcoming crop season, farmers must now choose the Farm Bill safety-net program they want—either Agriculture Risk Coverage or Price Loss Coverage—on an annual basis. March 15 is the deadline, but experts say it's best to start the process now, especially if records must be updated. 

University of Illinois economists say neither program is likely to "make payments for the next crop season. based on current price forecasts and trend yields for corn and soybeans," Dehlinger reports. "Still, the deadline to make elections is fast approaching."

Illinois Farm Service Agency chief program specialist Randy Tillman said in a recent webinar that "if everyone in Illinois who enrolled in ARC or PLC last year wanted to change their elections, 170,000 contracts would need updating. With less than a month of business days to the deadline, that works out to nearly 6,000 farm updates each day," Katie Micik Dehlinger reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. But the pandemic has limited how many FSA employees can be in the office at one time, and many states require farmers to make appointments to complete paperwork.

"If we wait until the last few weeks, and then we find out you have farm records that you need to have updated before we can do an election, there's the possibility you'll miss out," Tillman said. Farmers who don't update their ARC/PLC elections by March 15 will be re-enrolled in the same program as the previous year. Tillman noted that farmers can choose one now and change their mind before the 15th.

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Springsteen's ad for Jeep from the center of the contiguous states was no masterpiece, but didn't deserve urban insult

A marker for the nearby geographic center of the 48 contiguous states (Photo from Google Maps)
By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

As the not-so-Super Bowl was winding down, one of the two-minute commercial breaks was occupied by one ad, by a superstar who had never done one before: Bruce Springsteen. The musician from the country's most urbanized area went to a very rural place, the geographic center of the 48 contiguous states, to make a pitch for Jeep, and for healing the country.

Google map, adapted
Just northwest of Lebanon, Kansas, population 218, stands a monument marking the center (which is on a nearby farm). On the same plot of ground is a tiny chapel that, inside and out, is the centerpiece of the ad, now on Jeep's website

"All are more than welcome to come meet here in the middle," Springsteen says. "It's no secret the middle has been a hard place to get to lately, between red and blue, between servant and citizen, between our freedom and our fear. Now, fear has never been the best of who we are, and as for freedom, it's not the property of just the fortunate few, it belongs to us all. Whoever you are, wherever you're from, it's what connects us, and we need that connection. We need the middle. We just have to remember the very soil we stand on is common ground, so we can get there. We can make it to the mountaintop through the desert, and we will cross this divide. Our light has always found its way through the darkness. And there's hope on the road up ahead." The ad ended with a dedication: "To the ReUnited States of America."

Chris Richards, The Washington Post's pop music critic, was not impressed. "Springsteen was famous for refusing to cave to advertisers across his 48-year career, but now here he is on our Super Bowl screens, squinting into the middle distance like a parody of himself," Richards wrote after seeing a preview. "Despite the healing sound of his voice, Springsteen is ultimately preaching reconciliation without reckoning — which after January’s Capitol siege is no longer an acceptable path toward progress. Plus, this is Bruce Springsteen. Isn’t he the guy who’s supposed to know everything about hard work? Suggesting that we should all swiftly and metaphorically travel to the nucleus of White, rural America to make up and move along feels insulting and wrong."

It's Richards who is insulting and wrong. Hard work and rural America go hand in glove, and while Jeep's message is heavy on clichés and light on memorable points, we don't need liberal urbanites (Richards also slammed fossil fuels, though Jeep is developing electrics) discouraging multi-million-dollar messages that are aimed at helping people in our country find common ground – especially those from an urban Democrat reaching out to increasingly Republican rural America.

"Springsteen is a Democratic Party donor and was a sharp critic of former President Donald Trump," CNN reports. "He voted for President Joe Biden and performed "Land of Hope and Dreams" at his inauguration last month."

In The New Yorker, Amanda Petrusich has a better take: "Whether or not the Jeep commercial inflates your sense of national unity will likely have something to do with whether or not you’ve fully metabolized that [Jan. 6] event and have somehow—bless you—already arrived at a place of magnanimity and healing. There is, at least, something exquisitely and singularly American about a message of political unity being delivered by a rich and cloistered celebrity who has long been positioned as an Everyman savior, while he is simultaneously selling cars, partway through a football game being held before a not insignificant crowd in the midst of a global pandemic."

Springsteen was more than just paid talent, based on what Oliver Francois, chief marketing officer for Jeep parent Stellantis, told Brian Steinberg of Variety. It took Jeep 10 years of persuasion to get The Boss to do his first TV commercial, and he agreed to do it only last month, Steinberg reports: "Jeep offered to let him film scenes at his home in New Jersey, then mix them in with footage captured at the Kansas church, but Springsteen insisted on flying out to the chapel a week ago."

Francois said Springsteen thought the concept was spiritual: “He looked at this as a prayer,” and “felt it was time for him to be this guy in the middle of America, talking to America from this little chapel in the epicenter of America, and stand for the middle and nothing else. . . . He spent 12 hours on site. He was totally hands-on about the editing. He was very, very, very active with the editing and the process. He knew what he wanted, and he got what he wanted. . . .I hope, really hope, that this will be understood. We acted in good faith, and as good people, and trying to do this thing for the greater good. Now, it will be in the public domain and we will see what happens, but I have no regrets.”

Google map