Friday, April 23, 2021

USDA to expand program that pays farmers to leave some land fallow; some environmentalists call for improvement

The Biden administration said Wednesday it will expand the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to leave land fallow. The program, created in 1985, is "meant to protect the environment by reducing agricultural runoff into streams and rivers, preserving wildlife habitats, and preventing erosion," H. Claire Brown reports for The Counter. "Today, the Department of Agriculture 'rents' about 21 million acres of farmland from landowners, typically for 10 years at a time—a tiny fraction of the total land farmed nationwide. In recent years, the number of acres enrolled in CRP has fallen, possibly because USDA’s rental payments have not been competitive with the open market."

USDA aims to get farmers to enroll another 4 million acres in the program, to bring it to its current limit of 25 million acres. "All told, the increased rental rates and expanded incentive payments—which pay farmers extra for growing buffer strips and promoting wildlife habitats—will increase CRP spending by about 18 percent, totaling $300 million or more in annual spending," Brown reports.

The program has drawn some criticism. Anne Schechinger, an Environmental Working Group senior economic analyst, noted in a recent report that many farmers don't renew their CRP contracts after a decade, and that many of the environmental benefits are gone as soon as crops are replanted on the land, Brown reports. Almost 16 million acres were removed from the program between 2007 and 2014 after farmers chose not to re-rent them to USDA, after the government had spent more than $7 billion preserving that land. Schechinger said "she’d like to see an expansion of the CLEAR30 pilot program, which rents land for 30 years at a time and requires farmers to implement water-friendly conservation measures. Other measures, like slightly higher payments for acreage that has been kept out production for one ten-year cycle, could further incentivize long-term conservation," Brown reports.

Free school lunch for all extended through next school year

The Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday it would extend universal free lunch through the 2021-22 school year, in an effort to reach more of the estimated 12 million youth experiencing food insecurity.

In March, USDA said these waivers, which made school meals more flexible to administer, would be extended only to Sept. 30, leaving schools and families uncertain about what next school year might look like," Laura Reiley reports for The Washington Post. "Child nutrition program waivers, which aimed to cut through red tape to allow kids to eat free even outside normal meal times, were implemented at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, at a time when millions of families faced financial strain, hunger and hardship. The waivers allowed schools and community organizations to adapt programs to better meet the needs of children and families."

USDA will also increase the reimbursement rate to school meal operators, which it did not do when it extended the waivers in March. Most school meal programs have operated at a loss during the pandemic because of significantly higher costs and no increase in the per-meal reimbursement, Reiley reported then.

A local editor pitches for public notices in newspapers, cites rural papers' pandemic performance as evidence of worth

In most states, local governments are lobbying state governments to reduce the requirements for paid public notices in newspapers, which have become a more important source of revenue for papers as their advertising bases have been eroded. Most of the lobbying action goes on in state capitals, but maybe more of it should happen at the local level, especially if local officials appreciate the value of the newspaper. We suspect that a lot of the pressure to reduce public notice comes from urban governments, who have to pay high ad rates, and that rural and small-town governments don't feel such a burden. We need to encourage local officials to speak up for local papers, as Editor-Publisher Laurie Ezzell Brown of The Canadian Record in the Texas Panhandle did this month. Then she shared it with readers, who are also potential allies. It's an example to follow. --Al Cross, director and professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

Laurie Ezzell Brown
By Laurie Ezzell Brown

The following message is one I delivered to the Hemphill County Commissioners Court Monday morning, a few days after Judge George Briant briefed the court on several bills filed in the Texas Legislature that might have an impact on local government. Public notices have been under increasing assault in this state for years, and this legislative session has proven to be no different. . . . Judge Briant and the county commissioners were gracious enough to allow me a few minutes in public comment to make a plea for the importance of public notice. I hope you will read this message, and will join this community newspaper and others around the state by contacting your state representatives and encouraging them to keep public transparency and accountability alive. It matters to us, and it should matter to you. 

PUBLIC NOTICES IN NEWSPAPERS do get read. They get read by an informed and aware and engaged public that cares about their community and their country, cares about good government that remains transparent and isn’t afraid to hold their actions up to the light of day, and I might add, cares deeply about their local newspaper, which makes sure they are well-informed about the issues that have the most impact on their lives.

None of those things is possible without a trusted, reliable and independent source of information, and community newspapers are that source. Never has the importance of community newspapers been more apparent than during the last very difficult year, when the coronavirus pandemic has swept this nation. Community newspapers like this one have ensured that their readers have the facts about Covid-19: about the efforts to combat it, the decisions made by public officials and local businesses to guard against its spread, the number of cases that are occurring in their community, and the lives have been lost or changed by it.

Throughout the pandemic, community newspapers have offered a reliable conduit to the public—in print, online, and in social media. It has been used by the medical community to relay timely public health information of urgent concern; by school officials to inform their staff and students about policy decisions that will affect how and where they will safely teach and learn; and by government officials to announce Covid-related decisions that will affect the public’s lives and livelihoods.

The reporting has been arduous, time-consuming and often heartbreaking. It is done at great cost to owners and publishers, at a time when newspapers are struggling from financial losses that resulted from economic slowdown and the pandemic. We are fighting for life, like many other small businesses that provide jobs and paychecks, that pay taxes to enable the good work our government officials do, and that are the heartbeat and life of their communities in so many ways. 

Taking away one more reliable source of revenue that enables us to perform that essential role may well be the death knell for many community newspapers. Far worse, it will be a fatal blow to public transparency and accountability, and an open door to government corruption. Public notices in community newspapers do get read. Their publication is monitored and verified by an independent source, and their content is often examined, explained and expanded upon by the newspaper that publishes it.

UPDATES: The Texas Press Association maintains a central, accessible and searchable online site for the publication of all public notices in this state at Recently, the Newspaper Association Managers created for direct access to 47 public-notice websites operated by newspaper associations across the nation.

Quick hits: Idaho Senate approves bill to kill 90% of state's wolves; federal pandemic aid isn't reaching some of the poor

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at

A Black high school baseball team in rural Virginia won the state championship in 1969, but their hometown didn't celebrate their victory. But last weekend county officials made sure they got their dues—and championship rings—over 50 years later. Read more here.

A study investigates severe lung injury among e-cigarette users in rural Appalachia. Read more here.

The Idaho Senate has approved a bill to kill 90% of the state's wolves. Read more here.

In a recent survey, nearly half of Americans who plan to move said climate change and associated issues like wildfires and rising sea levels were a factor in deciding where to move, and that they wouldn't relocate to an area with more climate risk even if it were more affordable. Read more here.

Though the federal government is expanding the social safety net, the funds aren't reaching many impoverished Americans. Read more here.

An increasing number of Americans believe in conspiracies, partly because of decreased trust in the news media and criticism of the news media from prominent figures, according to a recent poll. Read more here.

Rural migration during the pandemic may accelerate a trend of e-commerce expansion into rural America. Read more here.

A rural South Dakota high school rodeo club canceled its annual 'slave auction' fundraiser after local pushback about its name. Read more here.

Publishers of rural newspapers invited to take quick survey

Tony Baranowski
Research on rural journalism and small-town newspapers is lacking. Tony Baranowski of the Iowa Falls Times Citizen is trying to fill some of the gap with a survey of rural newspaper publishers, to wrap up his work in the NewStart program at West Virginia University. Because such research is relatively rare, it's important that he have a broad sample.

The survey has 19 questions, is easy to complete via SurveyMonkey. Tony would like to wrap it up in about two weeks. The heart of it is about revenue, so it's designed for publishers, but in community journalism the publisher and editor roles often overlap, so editors should feel free to take a look. It's at

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Closing the rural gap in high-speed internet could cost $60 billion to $150 billion, broadband execs tell House members

"President Biden proposed $100 billion in his infrastructure plan to make high-speed internet available throughout America, but industry officials said at a congressional hearing on Tuesday that it could cost up to $150 billion to fill the gaps in coverage in rural America," Chuck Abbott reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network. "The price tag could vary, depending on the equipment that is used – fiber optic vs. wireless, for example – and the speed of connectivity." 

Four broadband executives testified before the House Agriculture Committee. The $150 billion quote came from Johnny Park, CEO of the Indiana-based Wabash Heartland Innovation Network. Vickie Robertson, general manager of Microsoft's Airband initiative, said it might cost $60 billion to $80 billion, but acknowledged that the size of the broadband gap is unknown because of faulty data maps.

Tim Johnson, chief executive of Otsego Electric Cooperative in New York, said the co-op strongly believes it should provide broadband capable of downloading and uploading 100 megabits per second, Abbott reports. The Federal Communications Commission's minimum standard for broadband is 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. Jennifer Prather, general manager of Totelcom Communications in DeLeon, Texas, between Fort Worth and San Angelo, agreed that they didn't want to build to the FCC minimum. Prather and Johnson said customers had inundated them during the pandemic with requests for more capacity because so many were working and learning from home.

"The four broadband executives agreed optical fiber was the gold standard for reliable, high-speed service while advising against one-size-fits-all standards," Abbott reports. "Park’s company is experimenting with the use of a tethered 80-foot-long balloon, known as an aerostat, as a link between scattered households and broadband providers. Other companies use a mix of fiber optic and fixed wireless."

House Agriculture Chair David Scott, D-Ga., said he might draft a rural broadband bill that could advance on its own or be added to infrastructure legislation, Abbott reports.

Journalists are using more data visualizations to educate about the pandemic; here are some free tools you can use

Screenshot of US Covid Atlas home page; to enlarge, click on it; go to it here
The coronavirus pandemic spurred an increase in data visualizations as journalists worked to show readers trends in deaths, infections and vaccinations. A recent survey sheds light on what data visualization tools journalists have found helpful, and what challenges they've faced, Saima Sidik reports for the Global Investigative Journalism Network. We've included links to some free tools you might find useful.

Columbia University-based multimedia journalist Javier Sauras and Adrián Blanco of The Washington Post surveyed more than 50 data journalists and news-media visualization experts from around the world, including some from small newsrooms. They discussed their findings at the recent virtual Northeastern University Computation + Journalism Symposium, in which scientists, journalists, health-care providers and philanthropists discussed how the pandemic and data journalism have shaped each other.

Sauras and Blanco found that maps are the most popular data visualization, such as the US Covid Atlas made by the University of Chicago's Center for Spatial Data Science. "Survey respondents reported that — in addition to maps — bar charts and line charts were among their favorite tools for describing the pandemic, and that purple and orange were their go-to colors. Many of the journalists who were interviewed felt that the pandemic had shown their coworkers the importance of being able to put visualizations together — a silver lining for those attending the conference," Sidik reports. "Some survey respondents, particularly those from small newsrooms, said that finding reliable experts who could help them make sense of Covid-19 data had been challenging. Access to experts allowed journalists to break away from formulaic storylines and report novel information, while those without that access found themselves playing catch-up."

Dylan Halpern, principal software architect of the Covid Atlas, told attendees: "This pandemic will not be our last, and so having these sorts of accessible tools is critical." To that end, here's a list of free data visualization tools you might find useful in your coverage of the pandemic and other topics. Unless otherwise noted, the tools are free and you don't have to know how to code to use them.

Canva has free, customizable templates for infographics and charts, including ones tailored to different social media platforms.

Datawrapper provides customizable templates for graphs, charts, and certain kinds of maps.

Flourish has recently opened for free public use, but it also has a newsroom-only version, created in partnership with Google News Lab, with souped-up features.

Genially allows you to create charts, infographics, timelines, presentations and more.

Google Fusion Tables is an online database and mapping tool that helps you produce detailed data maps quickly. 

Google Public Data Explorer lets you create interactive graphics using publicly available data.

Google Spreadsheet Charts are a capability that comes with Google Sheets.

Piktochart allows you to embed customizable interactive content even if you're not tech-savvy. You can start from scratch or use one of the free templates. You can link up Excel or Google Sheets documents to populate maps and charts for easier use.

Tableau Public allows you to quickly and easily make complex data visualizations, though it can be picky about formatting.

Tableizer quickly turns your spreadsheets into an HTML table.

U.S. fossil fuel companies took billions in pandemic tax relief but still cut nearly 60,000 jobs

At least 77 U.S. fossil fuel companies claimed $8.2 billion in tax benefits greenlit by the CARES Act but still laid off nearly 60,000 workers, according to a recent data analysis by BailoutWatch, a nonprofit with a liberal bent. "Chris Kuveke, a BailoutWatch analyst, said the data shows that the aid to the industry failed to deliver the benefits that Congress had intended," Nicholas Kusnetz reports for Inside Climate News. The analysis comes as the oil and gas industry warns that Biden administration efforts to transition the economy to renewable energy will cost American jobs.

"These companies did not use that money they received through the CARES Act to maintain payroll," he told Kuznetz. Unlike with the Paycheck Protection Program, companies that claimed the new tax benefits weren't required to maintain employment. "Kuveke said that if companies had been focused on maintaining jobs, they could have chosen to cut costs elsewhere," Kusnetz reports. "Marathon, for example, increased its dividend in January 2020, and maintained it at that level as the pandemic spread, rewarding shareholders instead of maintaining employment."

Thornton Matheson, a senior fellow at Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, said the tax benefits weren't meant to keep jobs, but to help companies improve their cash flow even as revenues tanked, and that the U.S. spent more pandemic relief on this type of corporate aid than it did to keep people employed, compared to other developed nations. 

"You can question both the size of those measures and how effective they were," she told Kusnetz. "Are these tax breaks something that we want to give to large corporations, or do we want to focus them on small businesses?"

New rural coronavirus cases rose 2 percent last week, while rural Covid-19 deaths fell by more than half

Rates of new coronavirus infections, April 11-17
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version

New rural coronavirus infections from April 11-17 grew 2 percent from the week before, to 50,697 cases; that rate was about the same rate as the one for urban areas. Meanwhile, rural deaths related to Covid-19 fell by 53% from the previous week, to 711. The number is the lowest since mid-July, Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder.

The geographic distribution of rural Covid-19 hotspots remained consistent compared to the week before. Michigan led the nation in new infections, as it has for all of April. Other regions with high rates were Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New York, all of New England, the Florida peninsula, northern Illinois, and central Colorado," Murphy and Marema report. "The Texas Panhandle, which had multiple counties with very high rates of infection two weeks ago, cooled a bit last week, But 27 counties in the northwest portion of the state still have high rates of new infections."

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

Veterans Affairs mobile unit based in Spokane helps convince skeptical rural vets to get coronavirus vaccines

The unit has made three trips to Libby, Mont., an old mining town of 2,700 where 12 percent of the residents are veterans.
(Washington Post photo by Tony Bynum)
The Department of Veterans Affairs has deployed mobile medical clinics in an effort to get more vets their coronavirus vaccinations, But they're running into resistance in many rural areas, as demonstrated by a Washington Post story about a unit based in Spokane.

"Even as the Biden administration’s campaign to inoculate the country accelerates each day, the agency has struggled to persuade a vulnerable population to protect itself and help the country get to herd immunity," Lisa Rein reports for the Post. "The rugged communities that stretch from eastern Washington through the Idaho Panhandle into northwestern Montana include some of the country’s highest concentrations of former service members. Mostly conservative and white, they are also highly suspicious of coronavirus vaccines. In many cities and suburbs, millions are lining up for shots they have waited more than a year to get. Here, the political and cultural currents are pulling in the other direction, against the federal government, public health experts and a new president many of these veterans distrust. VA’s halting and labor-intensive effort may be a warning for the country as vaccine advocates seek to persuade unwilling Americans to sign up." Read more here.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

At Rural Assembly Everywhere, Biden's domestic-policy chief calls for 'historic' levels of rural investment

A top Biden administration official speaking at the virtual Rural Assembly Everywhere conference on Tuesday said rural America's success is critical for the nation's economic recovery and expansion, but it needs "historic" levels of public investment to do that, Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder.

"The road to [a] more prosperous future runs through rural America ... And the Biden administration stands ready to ensure we all reach it," said Susan Rice, head of the Domestic Policy Council, in a pre-recorded speech. "The president understands that rural communities have missed out on economic growth and government investment for years ... And he is determined to change that reality."

Rural America's economic issues are long-standing and will require "generational investment," Marema reports. Read more here.

UMWA backs Biden plan to shift from coal to renewable energy, but only if former miners get job transition training

The United Mine Workers of America "said Monday it would accept President Joe Biden’s plan to move away from coal and other fossil fuels in exchange for a 'true energy transition' that includes thousands of jobs in renewable energy and spending on technology to make coal cleaner," Matthew Daly reports for The Associated Press. UMW President Cecil Roberts "said ensuring jobs for displaced miners — including 7,000 coal workers who lost their jobs last year — is crucial to any infrastructure bill taken up by Congress." Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., appeared with Roberts at a recent event supporting the idea.

The union put out a plan for "significant expansion of tax incentives for renewable energy and preference in hiring for dislocated miners; full funding for programs to plug old oil and gas wells and clean up abandoned mines; and continued incentives to develop so-called carbon capture and storage technology that traps carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels and stores it underground," Daly reports. "The union proposal, and Manchin’s endorsement, comes as Congress is considering Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure package to rebuild the nation’s roads, bridges and power grid, promote electric cars and boost clean energy such as solar and wind power. A bipartisan group of lawmakers met with Biden Monday to discuss the plan."

Lagging coronavirus vaccination rates among rural seniors hint at emerging rural-urban divide

Top part of NPR chart; next states were Montana, North Carolina, Kansas, Oregon, Kentucky and North Dakota, at 6.4.
Coronavirus vaccination rates among rural adults are mostly within 5 percentage points of urban rates, but rural seniors are falling farther behind their urban counterparts, according to a county-level analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, Austin Fast reports for NPR.

"In some cases, data shows these rural-urban gaps are significant. Nebraska, Massachusetts and Louisiana have the largest gaps among seniors, with rural Nebraskan counties averaging about 19 percentage points behind the state's urban counties," Fast reports. "NPR's analysis reveals the gaps are already growing in some places. Urban counties in Missouri, Pennsylvania and Kansas all widened their lead over rural counties by more than 5 percentage points among seniors in the three weeks the CDC has been releasing daily county-level updates."

Several experts said that "the wider gaps in vaccination rates among senior citizens could foreshadow a brewing rural-urban divide," Fast reports. The lagging vaccination rates are likely due to a mix of hesitancy, lack of access, and messaging issues. Recent Kaiser Family Foundation polling found that rural Americans are 11 percentage points more likely than urban residents to say they definitely won't get a coronavirus vaccine.

However, NPR found some bright spots in its analysis of vaccination trends. "Rural counties in Arizona and Alaska have held sizable leads over urban counties since the end of March, when examining vaccination rates for the entire population, and rural counties in a handful of states like Wyoming, New York and Oregon have even gained a point or two over urban counterparts since the end of March," Fast reports.

Apr. 27-28 virtual meet to explore broadband access, equity

A Route Fifty virtual conference on April 27-28 will explore the state of broadband access in the U.S., where the disparities are, and some promising solutions to bridge the gap. 

The conference goes from 12 p.m. ET on April 27 to 3 p.m. April 28 and will feature Federal Communications Commission acting chair Jessica Rosenworcel and Center On Rural Innovation founder and executive director Matt Dunne. Several sessions have a rural focus (or discuss issues that disproportionately affect rural America). 

Click here for more information or to register.

Local jail operating costs rose by $25 billion over past 40 years, but recent cost-cutting could help long after pandemic

"The cost of operating local jails has increased by $25 billion in the last four decades despite drops in both crime rates and jail populations, according to recent research from the Pew Charitable Trusts," Kate Queram reports for Route Fifty. "But mandated population decreases during the Covid-19 pandemic helped jails in some jurisdictions find creative cost-cutting measures that could continue long after the threat of the virus has passed, local officials said last week during a webinar hosted by the National Association of Counties."

Some counties kept jail populations down by issuing citations instead of arresting people and, at the officer's discretion, keeping them on house arrest. Others began assessing mental health during intake, then offering diversions such as treatment centers, Queram reports.

"Reducing operating costs in jails can produce significant savings for county governments, which spend more on correctional services than on things like libraries, courts, parks and recreation, fire protection, and water and sewer, according to Pew," Queram reports. "In 2017, the most recent year data was available, one out of every 17 county dollars went to jails, accounting for roughly 6% of county budgets across the country."

Those costs kept rising even as crime and jail admissions fell by double digits from 2007 to 2017, Queram reports. Prisoner populations stayed mostly stable because they were staying longer, on average. But during the pandemic, governors in many states mandated a reduction in prisoner populations, which led to a 25% drop in jails from June 2019 to 2020. But that didn't immediately translate to big savings in operation costs because jails had to spend more on medical costs, cleaning and personal protective equipment.

The prompted some law enforcement officials to consider whether jails had been incarcerating the right people before the pandemic. "If they can be supervised in the community during covid, why can’t they be supervised in the community after covid?" Martha Travis, director of standards and accountability at the Davidson County Sheriff's Office in Tennessee. "It’s really an opportunity for each and every community to evaluate their processes. Who do they have in jail? Do we have the right people in the jail?"

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

PPP loans to be offered to some bankrupt businesses, including farms, following ProPublica investigative story

"The federal government has quietly reversed course on a policy that had kept thousands of businesses from applying for pandemic economic aid, with only weeks to go before funds are expected to run out," Lydia DePillis reports for ProPublica. Now, individuals and companies in Chapter 11, 12, or 13 bankruptcy are eligible for Paycheck Protection Program loans if a judge has approved their reorganization plan. The loans are forgiven if the loan is mostly spent on payroll.

Previously, the Small Business Administration "had battled in court against several bankrupt companies attempting to apply for PPP loans, and did not change course even after Congress explicitly passed legislation in December allowing it to do so," DePillis reports.

But in early March, ProPublica reported on the rule. "Referencing ProPublica’s story, the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys wrote a letter to newly installed SBA Administrator Isabella Guzman urging her to follow Congress’ suggestion and tell the Executive Office for U.S. Trustees — a division of the Justice Department that oversees most American bankruptcy courts — to allow debtors to receive PPP loans," DePillis reports. "The agency has not yet contacted the Justice Department. But on April 6, the SBA released new guidance as part of its frequently asked questions for the program, redefining what it means to be 'presently involved in any bankruptcy.' ... A spokesperson for the SBA said the explanation had been added for 'clarity.'"

W.Va. to pay remote workers $12,000 to move there; a pro has advice for towns that want to launch a similar program

West Virginia is trying to lure remote workers to move to the Mountain State with a healthy cash bonus. The Ascend West Virginia program, announced last week, will pay participants $10,000 in equal payments for 12 months, followed by a lump sum of $2,000 at the end of the year. "The package, which is worth $20,000, also includes a year's worth of free outdoor recreation, including whitewater rafting and downhill skiing," Sarah Dewberry reports.

Applications are open for the first 50 spots in Morgantown, the first of three host cities. Applications will open next January for Lewisburg, pop. 3,830, and next April for Shepherdstown, pop. 1,734, according to the website. Applicants must be 18 and work a full-time remote job for a company outside of West Virginia. The program is funded by the state and West Virginia University, along with a $25-million gift from Intuit executive and Kenova, W.Va., native Brad Smith and his wife Alys. The program is an initiative of WVU's Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative, which aims to boost state and local economies and develop and expand outdoor educational opportunities using the state's "outdoor assets."

The program is the latest example of state and local governments trying to attract the remote workers fleeing big cities for greener pastures during the pandemic. Some places, like Vermont, were trying the strategy even before the pandemic, and for good reason. The new residents can cause growing pains for towns, but the boost in population could prove transformative for local economies.

Many towns and cities (and likely some states) are also trying attract remote workers. The CEO of Atheseus, a company that helps communities create and execute strategies to attract remote workers, lists ten questions communities should ask themselves before creating such strategies. First of all, communities must figure out how they'll fund a remote worker program, and how much funding they'll realistically need, Deborah Cook Smith writes for Route Fifty. Read more here.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Farm economists call out land-grant schools and states for not keeping higher education accessible to rural students

Many rural students were once able to affordably graduate from college because of the low tuition and high acceptance rate of land-grant universities. But higher tuition and lagging wages, along with lower acceptance rates, make it more difficult for them to work their way through school or even get in, University of Tennessee agricultural economists Harwood D. Schaffer and Daryll E. Ray write in their latest "Policy Pennings" column. (UT is a land-grant university.)

It shouldn't be that way, they write, capitalizing the key term: "From our perspective. Land Grants are not like other institutions of higher education; they are held to a higher standard of responsibility. They are as essential as public elementary, middle, and high schools. Other state institutions of higher education have a role to play, but Land Grants have a singular set of responsibilities."

Such schools' primary responsibility ought to be educating youth and interested adults of the state, which can't happen with low acceptance rates, Schaffer and Ray write. Another problem: it's much harder for students to work their way through college and graduate with little to no debt since tuition has far outpaced minimum and prevailing wages for entry-level work. 

"State governments must step up and fully fund the educational and basic research functions of their respective Land Grant institutions," Schaffer and Ray write. "One of the reasons we have seen tuition hikes is the failure of federal and state governments to provide their share of educational costs for students attending Land Grants and other state institutions of higher education." Read more here.

Covid roundup: Alaska courts literal vaccine tourists; rural Colorado providers work to vaccinate homebound locals

Here's a roundup of recent news about the pandemic and vaccination efforts:

It can be difficult for people who are homebound or lack transportation to get a coronavirus vaccine. Medical providers in one Colorado town created a network to get vaccines to them. Read more here.

Tennessee tries out messaging that might overcome rural vaccine reluctance. Read more here.

New coronavirus infections drove up hospital admissions rates in 38 states last week. Read more here.

The most popular Facebook post about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine last week was from a conspiracy theorist. Read more here.

Covid-19 cases are surging in rural Oregon despite the availability of vaccines. Read more here.

Residents in an Oklahoma town hit hard by the pandemic are helping those in need with "giving walls" at restaurants. Read more here

Over half of U.S. adults have received at least one coronavirus vaccine. How does that compare with your local vaccination rate? Read more here.

In the race between coronavirus vaccines and the virus, hesitancy gives dangerous variants a leg up, says the surgeon general. Read more here.

Alaska is courting literal vaccine tourists: Starting June 1, the state will offer a coronavirus vaccine to out-of-state tourists at its four biggest airports. Rural areas elsewhere that depend on a tourism economy could do the same. Read more here.

More young people are being hospitalized as more contagious variants spread. Read more here and here.

Medicare payers and providers are clashing over reimbursements for telehealth, an increasingly popular avenue of treatment during the pandemic, as Congress mulls changes. Read more here.

Walter Mondale, whose rural roots helped make him a success in Minnesota but a flub for president, dies at 93

Walter Mondale in his hometown, 1984
Photo: Thomas Arndt/Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Walter Mondale, who was Jimmy Carter's vice president and lost the 1984 presidential election to Ronald Reagan in record fashion, died Monday at 93. He and Carter are the president and VP from the same administration who lived the longest since leaving office; Carter, 96, survives.

Mondale was Minnesota attorney general in 1964 when he was appointed to Hubert Humphrey's Senate seat after the ex-mayor of Minneapolis was elected Lyndon Johnson's vice president. Mondale's roots were different. He was the son of "a poor farmer who had become a Methodist clergyman," frequently reassigned by his denomination, reports Bart Barnes of The Washington Post.

"Winters in the country towns and villages of his boyhood were desolate and lonely, and the Scandinavian culture pervasive," Barnes writes." It was a culture that left a lasting imprint on the young Mr. Mondale, who learned the value of restraint and self-control. Years later, as a nationally known politician, he would recall only two acts that during his growing-up years were certain to result in a whipping: lying and boasting. The reserved youth grew into a low-key politician, never much good as a backslapper or a special pleader. He hated plastic smiles, and he was uncomfortable using the personal pronoun 'I'."

Mondale on his 90th birthday, with Jimmy Carter
(Photo by Anthony Souffle, The Associated Press)
Mondale shared credit with Southern ruralite Carter's 1976 win over President Gerald Ford of Michigan and Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas by helping carry Northern states, and Carter made Mondale the first VP to be a full-fledged member of an administration, but Reagan and George H.W. Bush swamped them in 1980. As the 1984 Democratic nominee, he told voters that he or Reagan would have to raise taxes, but “He won't tell you. I just did.” Later, he said, “My opponent was handing out rose petals; I was handing out coal. . . . I’m not trying to excuse what happened in 1984 on the basis of television technique, even though I think Reagan’s a genius and I’m not very good at it.”

Barnes concludes, "In 2002, Mr. Mondale was drafted into one more campaign, for him a sad last hurrah. He agreed to run for his former Senate seat after the incumbent, Democrat Paul Wellstone, was killed in a plane crash within a couple of weeks of the election. He was narrowly defeated by Republican Norm Coleman, a former mayor of St. Paul and a former Democrat. Years later, in an interview with the University of Minnesota Foundation, he begged off reflecting on his legacy. 'Well, you know, Minnesota doesn’t believe much in bragging. I did the best I could.'"

At left: Mondale sent this remarkable email saying farewell to more than 300 associates and staffers. Click on it for a larger version.

State legislatures are limiting governors' powers

One of the first things on the agenda this year for Republicans who control the Kentucky General Assembly was "kneecaping Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear," Nick Niedzwiadek reports for Politico. They passed bills that put new limits on his emergency powers that he is exercising in the pandemic, "overrode his veto and then fought him in court." In the months that have followed, lawmakers across the country — from Maine to California, Oregon to Florida — have proposed and, in many cases, passed similar measures to curtail the sweeping powers bestowed on their state executives."

It's happening in red and blue states, even in ones where the legislature and the governor are in the same party. "Lawmakers are only now realizing how much power they cede to the executive — and are attempting to reassert themselves in blunt ways. If 2020 marked the rise of the authoritarian governors, 2021 may be the beginning of their fall," Niedzwiadek reports. "The tug-of-war between legislators and governors has the potential to shape the boundaries of gubernatorial authority for years to come and raises substantive questions of how much leeway the state leaders should have during prolonged crises."

In some cases, legislators are asking voters to give them more power at governors' expense. In Kentucky, they "put on the 2022 ballot a constitutional amendment to let the legislature call itself into session for 12 extra days a year and extend its 30- and 60-day sessions past the current deadlines of March 30 and April 15," writes Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog. "In policy and in politics, the legislature has grabbed the wheel."

Veteran rural Minnesota journalist encourages editorials on local issues, offers guidance for writing them

Jim Pumarlo
A recent column
from journalism consultant Jim Pumarlo, a veteran rural Minnesota journalist, applauds newspapers that take courageous stands on local issues and offers a set of principles to guide editorial writing. 

The International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors' annual Golden Quill competition, which recognizes the top 12 editorials from non-dailies, "is a reminder that many newspapers – even the smallest – still wave the banner of local editorials. They are a bright note amid a disappointing landscape of more and more newspapers giving less attention to their editorial consciences," Pumarlo writes. "I have a passion for vibrant, local editorials. I believe energized, local editorials are at the foundation of energized communities."

Editorials "represent the best in community journalism," Pumarlo writes, but papers often fail to take stances on controversial local issues: "Courageous publishers and editors take those stances, regardless of potential repercussions. That does not mean advancing positions with reckless abandon. Editorials, especially those certain to generate strong reaction, should be thoroughly researched and carefully crafted."

Pumarlo offers several principles to guide editorial writing; here's a capsule summary: Think local when writing about broader issues; be consistent in your stances but be open to changing with circumstances; welcome rebuttals and don’t portray your view as “correct” or the final word on a subject; write some complimentary editorials so certain bodies aren't "always on the receiving end of an editorial rant"; and "Write with substance: Effective editorials, by definition, should leave an impression."

Survey of rural bankers shows confidence still high

Creighton University chart compares current month to last month and year ago; click here for the full report.
Creighton University's April survey of rural bankers in 10 heartland states that rely on farming and energy showed continued optimism for the economy, with nearly 38 percent of bank CEOs surveyed reporting an expanding local economy between March and April. The farmland price index advanced its highest level since November 2012, while the farm equipment-sales index rose to its highest reading since February 2013. The housing index, meanwhile, hit a record high that reflects the nationwide housing crunch, Creighton University economist Ernie Goss reports. Though the overall economic confidence index dipped from last month's record-high 71.9 to 69, the outlook is still well above growth-neutral. 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. Read more here. sheds light on the J & J vaccine pause and recent Tucker Carlson comments about Dr. Anthony Fauci takes a critical look at some recent coronavirus vaccine-related news and commentary, including Fox News talker Tucker Carlson's comments about Dr. Anthony Fauci and masking, and the current pause in administering the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

"All of the authorized Covid-19 vaccines are effective at preventing symptomatic disease," report Eugene Kiely and Saranac Hale Spencer of FactCheck, a service of the communications school at the University of Pennsylvania. "Carlson baselessly casts doubt on the effectiveness of the vaccines, because federal officials urge fully vaccinated people to wear masks in public settings."

On April 14, Carlson "repeatedly questioned why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that vaccinated people continue to wear masks, insinuating that vaccinated people aren't really protected from future infections, and that Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has not or could not address this 'most basic of all questions,' as Carlson called them," FactCheck reports.

Fauci has repeatedly addressed this question, noting that the vaccines are proven to keep people from becoming seriously ill with Covid-19, but may not protect them from becoming infected with the coronavirus and suffering mild symptoms and transmitting it to others. At a recent White House briefing, "Fauci said vaccinated people are not expected to show any symptoms and science needs to conduct more research on whether asymptomatic vaccinated people can make other unvaccinated people sick," Kiely and Spencer report.

FactCheck also lays out the facts on the recommended pause in administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Out of 7.2 million doses of the vaccine administered in the U.S., six recipients have had a rare, severe type of blood clot. Out of an abundance of caution, the Food and Drug Administration and the CDC recommended a pause in the use of the J&J vaccine while more research was done.

"All six cases involved women ages 18 to 48 and their symptoms — which included severe headache, abdominal pain, leg pain or shortness of breath — occurred six to 13 days after they received the J&J vaccine, the agencies said in a joint statement. One died and one remains in critical condition," Kiely and Jaramillo report. "The recommended pause only involves the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which uses a different type of vaccine technology than the other two vaccines that have been authorized in the United States and administered in much greater numbers." Read more here.

Earth Day is Thursday; here are resources for reporting on it

Thursday, April 22, is Earth Day. Here are a few resources for coverage:
  • The official Earth Day website includes news stories and resources reflecting this year's theme of "Restore Our Earth." Some stories have rural resonance, such as the one about reducing farming emissions with regenerative agriculture.
  • Track social media conversations by searching for the hashtags #EarthDay2021 and #EARTHRISE. The Earth Day Network, which organizes the observance, will post new content all week at @earthdaynetwork on Twitter.
  • USA Today has a piece with an overview of the observation, including some history.
  • The Verge has a guide to online Earth Day observations.
  • Amanda Gumbert, extension water specialist with the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, wrote an excellent piece in 2020 with ideas for celebrating Earth Day while socially distanced. “Take some time to get out into nature, even if it’s just in your backyard," she wrote. "Breathe in the fresh air, listen for birds, enjoy the many spring colors, and if you’re lucky enough to have a creek nearby, take a moment to appreciate the many benefits of clean water for both humans and wildlife.”
Gumbert suggested some other activities that people can do alone or with their families:
  • Plant a garden. Try containers for small patios or yards. Include both vegetables and some flowers for cutting. Another option is to join in a local farm’s community supported agriculture program.
  • Compost food scraps and yard waste, rather than sending them to the landfill. Before long a compost bin will provide rich, nutritious soil amendment for your garden.
  • Follow the 3 Rs to keep as much as possible out of the landfill. They are:
    • Reduce: Avoid using single-use, disposable items like paper plates, cups, napkins and utensils. “This is easier when eating most meals at home,” Gumbert said, “but try to create a new habit to avoid disposable items in the future. Also, avoid purchasing items with lots of packaging, which is usually wasted.”
    • Reuse: Find new uses for household items or share them with a friend.
    • Recycle: Look for opportunities to recycle items that can’t be reused or composted.
  • Take care of water resources. Planting along a backyard stream or neighborhood pond or lake will help reduce erosion, protect water quality and improve the beauty of the landscape.
  • Conserve water at home by taking shorter showers and turning off the faucet while brushing teeth.
  • Conduct a family litter cleanup. Grab some trash bags, sturdy gloves and boots and pick up litter along nearby streets and roads. Litter can create hazards for livestock, wildlife and waterways.
  • Save energy by turning out lights when leaving a room, unplug electronics when not in use, and switch to energy-efficient appliances when it’s time to replace old ones.
  • Check out nonprofit organizations with eco-friendly missions and support them if possible. “This Earth Day may be different than previous ones, but if we all take little steps, we can still make a big impact in improving our environment,” Gumbert said.