Friday, July 02, 2021

Map of state vaccination rates shows clear partisan divide; stronger Delta variant is dominant in Ark., Colo., Mo., Utah

Screenshot of interactive CDC map; click in to enlarge. Mississippi has the lowest rate. Interactive site has rates by county. 

"The vaccination gap still looks a lot like America’s political divide," Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann report for NBC News. "There continue to be Two Americas when it comes to the country’s race to get vaccinated against Covid-19. You have the blue, highly urban and mostly college-degree-heavy states that have met – or exceeded – President Biden’s goal of 70 percent of adults having at least one dose by July 4. And you have the red, highly rural and mostly college-degree-light states that have come up way short."

Of the 19 states (including the District of Columbia) that have already hit the President Biden's goal of 70 percent vaccination by July 4, Biden carried every one of them, they note. "And of the 17 states that have yet to surpass even 60 percent, Donald Trump won them all with one exception: Georgia."

Lack of vaccination gets riskier daily because the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus is spreading rapidly, health experts warn. The variant "represents about one-quarter of all confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States, and is now the predominant variant in Arkansas, Colorado, Missouri and Utah, say public health experts," reports Dan Diamond of The Washington Post. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said Thursday, “In some regions of the country, nearly one in two sequences is the delta variant.”

Feds not keeping up with wildfire prevention and firefighting; folks on the ground say policies need revamping

Washington Post map shows extent of Southwest drought. Click on it to enlarge.
"On the heels of one of the worst wildfire years on record, the federal government is struggling to recruit and retain staff as firefighters grapple with low wages, trauma and burnout from increasingly long and intense fire seasons," reports Sarah Kaplan of The Washington Post.

Firefighters are already battling 48 big blazes over more than half a million acres in 12 states, as "land management agencies are carrying out fire-mitigation measures at a fraction of the pace required, and the funds needed to make communities more resilient are one-seventh of what the government has supplied," Kaplan reports.

Fire experts told Kaplan that the federal government needs to transform its land-management and firefighting polices. “As our seasons are getting worse and worse … it feels like we’ve reached a tipping point,” said Kelly Martin, a wildfire veteran and president of the advocacy group Grassroots Wildland Firefighters. “We need a new approach.”

The federal government is the nation’s largest employer of wildland firefighters, Kaplan reports: "Most are temporary workers, their salaries as low as $13.45 per hour for a starting forestry technician. They spend summers traveling the country, working 16-hour days, 12 days at a time, often relying on overtime and hazard pay to make ends meet. For decades, they’ve relied on a months-long offseason to rest and recover. But now there is no offseason; one fire year simply bleeds into the next, as winter rain and snow is delayed and diminished by climate change."

Rural coronavirus cases keep falling, but there are hot spots

Rate of new coronavirus cases, June 20-26
Daily Yonder map; click on it to enlarge, or click here for the interactive version.

With major exceptions such as southwest Missouri and the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains, the coronavirus continued to ebb in the last full week of June, according to The Daily Yonder.

From June 20 through 16, new cases in rural counties dropped 2 percent, from 14,200 two weeks ago to 13,983 last week, Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report: "Covid-related deaths in rural counties also declined, falling by 20%, to 395 – the lowest number of fatalities since the earliest days of the pandemic in March 2021."

Missouri's rural infection rate climbed 17%, driven by an outbreak of the Delta variant in counties near Springfield and Joplin. "Cases also climbed in nearby Arkansas," the Yonder notes.

Quick hits: Libraries lining up 'digital navigators' for telehealth; FactCheck delves into origin of the coronavirus

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 heather.chapman@uky.edu.

"Digital navigators" may soon be available at rural libraries to help residents access telehealth services. Read more here.

Many rural communities are celebrating Pride day/week/month for the first time. Read more here.

FactCheck.org says it has "a detailed and authoritative piece" from its science editor, who has a Ph.D. in immunology from Yale University, about the origins of the coronavirus in China.

Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance enters Ohio Senate race

Vance announced at Middletown Tube Works, in front of an
Ohio state flag. (Cincinnati Enquirer photo by Jim Didion)
Hillbilly Elegy
author J.D. Vance made his expected entry into Ohio's U.S. Senate rate Thursday.

Vance, now a venture capitalist, "joins a slew of other Republicans clamoring for the chance to replace retiring Sen. Rob Portman, including former Ohio Republican Party chair Jane Timken, former state treasurer Josh Mandel, car dealer Bernie Moreno and investment banker Mike Gibbons," The Cincinnati Enquirer reports. Running so far on the Democratic side is U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan."

Vance, 36, "is a difficult candidate to pin down," Haley BeMiller and Jessie Balmert write. "He can often be seen on Fox News or voicing conservative talking points on Twitter [but] is best known for his memoir depicting his family's struggles in Appalachian Kentucky and his mother's addiction during his childhood in Middletown," where he made his announcement at a plant where family members worked.

"Natives of Appalachia have criticized Vance's take as inaccurate and exploitative," the Dispatch notes. "Supporters who gathered Thursday to cheer on Vance's announcement said they appreciated his perspective on economic issues and wanted to support a candidate with local ties." 

Venture capitalist and Vance mentor Peter Thiel has put $10 million into a super PAC to support Vance's campaign, but former president Donald Trump looms over the race, and "Vance has a complicated history with Trump," the Dispatch notes. "He was publicly critical of Trump during the 2016 election cycle — calling him noxious in an interview with NPR — and ultimately voted for independent Evan McMullin." In October 2016, he said, "Trump makes people I care about afraid: immigrants, Muslims, et cetera. Because of this I find him reprehensible." But this year, "Vance courted Trump at Mar-a-Lago and attended his rally in Lorain County in the hope of securing his support."

Thursday, July 01, 2021

Rural publisher: Newspapers are democracy's clean energy; they don't pollute public knowledge as social media does

By Reed Anfinson

Print is dead. We've heard it too often.

We've heard dinosaurs mentioned in the same sentence as print. Buggy whips, too. Print is obsolete, having outlived its usefulness in the face of the digital revolution, it is said. Social media — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram — are now the primary source of "news" for many young people.

Reed Anfinson
A friend of ours recently asked a group of young people if they read the local newspaper. The looks on their faces communicated a single message: "You're kidding, aren't you?" Facebook. That's where they get their news.

Obviously, we in the industry don't believe print is dead. Nor do we think that a person can get the news needed to be an informed citizen through social media. What passes as news today is entertainment, gossip, rumor and the latest crime news. Give a person who doesn't read the local newspaper a quiz on the most important news stories in their community, and they will fail miserably.

Not all old technology is buried by innovation. In its simplicity, the windmill remains relevant through refinement. At its core it is the same, but with enhanced productivity. Drive around the countryside, and you will see giant windmill blades sweeping slowly in circles pushed by the wind, creating clean energy that feeds into the nation's electric grid.

Standing windmills have been used for more than 800 years. They are an ancient technology that provided water for human consumption, as well as for livestock and crops. They were used to grind grain into flour. It was in 1888 that the windmill was first used to generate electricity.

As the nation turned to coal, hydroelectric dams and nuclear energy, with a nationwide grid connecting their power to homes and businesses, windmills disappeared from the landscape. Why the resurgence of this ancient technology? Because its simple design has been improved to provide cheap, clean energy at a scale that allows it to replace more expensive and polluting sources of power.

We like to think of print newspapers as windmills. Print is still relevant.

Print book sales continue to rise, having gone up every year since 2013, while sales of digital books have flattened out. Even with significant price breaks on the digital books, people still want the print edition.

Studies have shown that while students prefer to get their textbooks digitally, they do better when their books are in print. Multiple studies have shown reading print increases a person's retention and understanding of what they have read. At the same time, digital reading leads to shallow comprehension.

Then there are all those catalogs you get in the mail.

There is a reason L.L. Bean relentlessly sends you catalogs in the mail. It knows that if it stops sending magazines and relies on e-mails or its website to try to get you to buy its products, you'll soon forget about it. Competitors like Eddie Bauer will then dominate the market.

The people who run L.L. Bean know they must constantly keep their brand fresh in your memory. They know you will page through their magazine and maybe see something you like, then go to their website to buy it. They know their magazine on the counter is a constant reminder to shop with them.

While the wind is free, the technology to turn it into renewable energy is not. Windmills cost money. They must be repaired when their generators or gears wear out. The powerlines that bring electricity to homes and businesses must be serviced.

Essential to providing the information crucial to an informed electorate is revenue earned through advertising and subscriptions. They are the wind, the water and the sun that support us.

Today, Google, Facebook and other internet sites hoard and block our sources of energy. They are a blight on democracy, eroding our sources of reliable news. Rather than creating a sense of community, they isolate and divide us.

Covid-19 was devastating to our already financially wounded newspapers. As businesses shut down or dramatically cut back on expenses, they eliminated or reduced their print advertising. Newspapers suffer "long-hauler" symptoms today, weakened further by the virus' lingering economic impact even as the disease recedes.

The accelerated loss of community newspapers due to the pandemic underscores the imperative to separate newspapers from reliance on subscribers and advertising. Newspapers are a public good and must be financed with the help of citizens.

We are not self-sustaining in today's digital world, though we remain the most important source of newsgathering and reporting in America. In many of our communities, we are the only source of local news.

Like newspapers, democracy is not self-sustaining.

"We also may have become too complacent, too sure of democracy's robustness or of its long-term viability," Margaret S. Branson and Charles N. Quigley wrote in a piece for the Center for Civic Education. "History, however, teaches us that few countries have sustained democratic governments for prolonged periods, a lesson which we as Americans are sometimes inclined to forget."

They paraphrase the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, a French student of American democracy in the 1830s. "Each new generation is a new people that must acquire the knowledge, learn the skills, and develop the dispositions or traits of private and public character that undergird a constitutional democracy," they write. "Democracy is not a 'machine that would go of itself,' but must be consciously reproduced, one generation after another."

We are clean energy for democracy — we don't pollute citizen knowledge with false information. We don't print vitriolic rants filled with bitterness that polarizes friends, neighbors and fellow citizens. We inform, educate, entertain, and hold power accountable.

What happens to democracy without us?

Reed Anfinson is a past president of the National Newspaper Association and owns the Swift County Monitor-News in Benson, Minn. This was first published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

See how far American Rescue Plan aid goes in your state

How ARPA aid compares with the size of states' budgets (Pew Charitable Trusts map; click the image to enlarge it.)

States are starting to receive some of the funds from the $193.5 billion in state aid in the American Rescue Plan Act. But the money isn't split equally, nor will it affect states equally: States with higher unemployment rates are getting more aid, and the aid makes up a larger share of some states' budgets, Barb Rosewicz, Mike Maciag, and Melissa Maynard report for the Pew Charitable Trusts.

"For states such as South Dakota and Wyoming, the federal aid represents a huge boost for their budgets—about one-fifth of what they spent in fiscal year 2020," Pew reports. "In states where the aid equates to a low of about 5% of state spending, such as Oregon and Wisconsin, the infusion of federal cash is still significant, enough to offset most pandemic-driven general fund revenue declines so far. Plus, the money positions some states to make investments with large price tags, such as broadband, water system, and sewer upgrades, or to address issues such as depleted unemployment insurance accounts."

When calculated as a share of state budgets, it becomes clear that "ARPA provides critical breathing room that was rare in the slimmed-down budgets that lingered after the Great Recession, which started at the end of 2007," Pew reports. "For states that entered the pandemic-driven downturn with robust reserves or otherwise escaped significant budget squeezes, the aid offers even more: an unexpected one-time investment opportunity."

However, the funding doesn't take revenue losses into account, so the states getting the most funding as a share of state spending aren't necessarily the ones hurting most, Pew notes.

Pandemic roundup: some moms having trouble returning to work; state incentives to boost vaxes have mostly failed

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

Many moms left the workforce during the pandemic. But many find it difficult to return to work because of issues like a lack of childcare. Read more here.

Rural coronavirus vaccinations continued at roughly the same pace in late June, The Daily Yonder reports. Click here for an interactive map, regional analysis and more.

State efforts to increase coronavirus vaccination rates via lotteries and other incentives have mostly failed to do the trick. Read more here.

President Biden said he doesn't expect the emerging delta variant to force another lockdown, but said he worries that areas with lower vaccination rates "will be very hurt" by it. Read more here.

The Chamber of Commerce in a rural Tennessee county encouraged locals to get vaccinated because (among other benefits) a lower infection rate helped businesses reopen. Read more here.

The Washington Post extrapolated current vaccination rates to estimate when each state will hit the 70% vaccination rate. Read more here.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines may provoke an immune response that protects people against the coronavirus for years, according to a new study. Read more here.

Opinion: Mainstream media should cover Indian Country's good news more, including recovery from the pandemic

Kyle Edwards
The mainstream news media frequently did stories about pandemic disparities faced by Native Americans; they ought to cover tribes' recovery from the pandemic just as much, Kyle Edwards writes for NiemanReports. Edwards is a 2021 Nieman Visiting Fellow and managing editor of Native News Online.

"It’s no secret that Native Americans receive very little national news coverage and are often simply erased from nationwide conversations about race in this country. (Take CNN’s usage of the phrase 'something else' to refer to voters who are not white, Latinx, Black or Asian during last year’s presidential election, for instance.)," Edwards writes. "But even when Native Americans do make national headlines, the reporting often relies on age-old stereotypes. The story becomes about our suffering, about all the problems that exist in our communities, or about how we stand in the way of America’s pipelines and its future." Read more here.

Feature article lauds Institute for Rural Journalism

Al Cross speaks to Latin American journalists visiting Bardstown,
Kentucky, in 2019. (Photo by Forrest Berkshire, Kentucky Standard)
A new feature article from the University of Kentucky provides a lovely retrospective on, and overview of, the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

UK co-founded IRJCI in 2004 with Al Smith, longtime friend and mentor of political reporter Al Cross who became director and started The Rural Blog shortly thereafter. "Hampered by socioeconomic conditions and population decline, local newspapers in Central Appalachia had been weakened," Akhira Umar reports for UKNow. "Cross saw the need for reliable journalism that provided leadership on local issues. Shortly after its inception, Cross broadened the reach of The Rural Blog to rural journalists across the nation, who were feeling the same pressures as those in Eastern Kentucky."

"I can’t overstate the value of the IRJCI and the impact it has on rural newspapers and rural journalists,” Kentucky Press Association President Sharon Burton told Umar. Burton, of Columbia, Kentucky, is the publisher of the Adair County Community Voice and The Farmer’s Pride, a statewide agricultural newspaper. "I’ve attended seminars; I’ve picked up the phone because I needed sound advice from a trusted friend; I’ve learned of news topics of interest to my community — all through the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. When rural journalists are invited to the table, it reminds us that what we do is just as important as providing national or state news coverage."

The story also highlights IRJCI's other publications. Kentucky Health News, launched in 2011 with funding from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, "has been an invaluable source of information to the entire state throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. This publication focuses on health issues in a state that is one of the nation’s least healthy," Umar reports.

In 2008 Cross began the Midway Messenger, a mostly online newsroom for nearby Midway, Kentucky, run entirely by journalism students. "It’s hard to overstate the importance of The Midway Messenger to our community,” Midway Mayor Grayson Vandegrift told Umar. "While we get good coverage from The Woodford Sun, The Midway Messenger has become our paper of record. I can tell anecdotally that more people in Midway are getting their local news from the Messenger than from the Sun."

"Having led the IRJCI from its inception, Cross has ensured a solid foundation for the benefit of rural communities across the nation and for a healthier Kentucky," Umar writes. "Although he does plan to reduce his numerous responsibilities in his phased retirement starting in the 2021-2022 academic year, his effect on rural journalism through the IRJCI will be his legacy."

Hilarious posters advertise national parks with verbiage from bad reviews; pre-order the book coming out July 13

Less-than-glowing reviews of Grand Canyon and Isle Royale national parks (Amber Share posters)

Visitors hit state and national parks in record numbers during the pandemic, many of them first-timers who simply wanted to get out of the house. One wonders whether any of them left the negative Yelp reviews for the parks featured in a series of satirical posters.

More terrible reviews, for Sequoia & Kings Canyon and Crater Lake national parks
Artist Amber Share created the project, called Subpar Parks, after reading a slew of terrible reviews from unimpressed visitors such as one for Yellowstone National Park that said "Save yourself some money, boil some water at home."

The project has one poster for each national park, and it's a real treat to read. You can purchase prints on Share's website, or pre-order the book coming out on July 13.

Posters for Capitol Reef and Cuyahoga Valley national parks

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Study: Court fines and fees, which some states use to fund their judicial systems, disproportionately hurt the rural poor

A recently published study exposed what authors say is an "unhealthy conflict" in judicial systems, "between using fines and fees as both a source of revenue and punishment, and said they imposed an inequitable burden on the rural poor and communities of color," Andrea Cipriano reports for The Crime Report, a publication of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

The study, published in the Idaho Law Review, noted that Idaho funds its judicial system largely through penalties and fines. Commissioned in 2019 by the Idaho Legislature Office of Performance Evaluations, the study is the latest in a decade of research showing that "has documented how skyrocketing court fines and fees cause harm to those least able to pay them, and make future justice involvement more likely," Cipriani reports. "The study recommended that Idaho abolish juvenile court administrative fees as a first step towards reform."

"For people caught up in the criminal system, fees simply operate as another layer of punishment on top of fines," the study said. "Enforcing monetary sanctions with the threat of additional fines, fees, and jail time merely recriminalizes financially precarious people, without any legitimate policy goal or discernible benefit to the state. . . . Mostly white and rural states like Idaho regularly impose substantial monetary sanctions on people without the means to pay them." Idaho has more than $195 million in uncollected court debt.

The authors found that, in effect, "Idaho is trying to squeeze 'blood from a turnip' — essentially forcing people to give money that they don’t have, Cipriani reports. "Worsening the problem, the escalating fees have contributed to overzealous policing, prosecution and punishment, the study said."

Progressives' push for renewable-energy measures in Biden policy worries moderate Democrats from major oil states

Progressive Democrats are urging President Biden to include in his infrastructure agenda steps to encourage use of renewable fuels, but "The more the progressives succeed, the more moderate Democrats in energy-producing states become vulnerable to losing seats that are crucial to the party’s hold on Congress, current and former House members say," Siobhan Hughes and Aaron Zitner report for The Wall Street Journal

Last week Biden announced he had made a roughly $1 trillion infrastructure deal with a bipartisan group of centrist lawmakers. However, "on a separate track, Democrats are advancing a second bill—without Republican input—that among other goals aims to eliminate greenhouse-gas emissions from electric power generation by 2035," Hughes and Zitner note. "The Democrats have a similar target of 2050 for other emissions sources, including factories, trucks, automobiles and homes. That is a political headache for moderates such as Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D., Texas), who in 2018 flipped a Republican-held House seat. Ms. Fletcher’s Houston-area House district ranks second in the nation for employment tied to the oil and gas industries, according to the American Petroleum Institute."

In January Fletcher and three other House Democrats from Texas wrote to Biden asking him to nix an executive order suspending new petroleum leases on federal public lands and waters. "Texas is the nation’s top producer of natural gas, according to U.S. government statistics, and gas production is a key economic driver in the country as a whole," Hughes and Zitner note. "A fracking boom in recent decades enabled the U.S. to tap into vast new sources of domestic energy. Gas displaced coal in 2016 as the biggest source of U.S. electricity and helped the U.S. become a net fuel exporter for the first time since the 1950s. Natural gas not only fuels power grids but is used in factories and homes by businesses and consumers alike. Revenues from natural gas production contribute to federal, state and local government budgets. And gas industry jobs pay about twice as much as the U.S. average."

New federal model for rural hospitals could help some of them stay afloat, but it could take a while to catch on

Last year Congress passed a measure to help rural hospitals stay afloat, and now they're urging the Biden administration to implement it.

Rural hospitals have been struggling financially for years, with more than 130 closing since 2010. "Those closures have devastated local communities, resulting in long drives for emergency care, worse health outcomes for residents and job losses for the surrounding area," reports Alexandra Ellerbeck of The Washington Post. "An influx of federal aid to rural hospitals during the pandemic has not been enough to halt the trend. Last year was a record year for closures, even as rural communities relied on their hospitals more than ever for Covid-19 care and vaccination outreach."

Surviving rural hospitals rely on Medicare reimbursements, but in order to receive it they must maintain expensive inpatient beds so they can still be classified as hospitals, Ellerbeck reports. But many rural hospitals don't need the beds, since locals tend to go to bigger, urban hospitals for inpatient procedures. The average rural hospital makes about 80 percent of its patient revenue from outpatient procedures.

That's where the new measure comes in, which establishes a new category called the rural emergency hospital. "The new model, which will go into effect in 2023, is aimed at maintaining at least some access to care, especially in places where the local hospital might otherwise close," Ellerbeck reports. "It will allow existing small rural hospitals and critical access hospitals to forgo inpatient care and convert into a new type of stand-alone emergency room and outpatient service center that can quickly transfer patients, if needed, to the closest trauma centers."

Earlier this month, the program's sponsor, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., sent an open letter to the administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, asking that she spearhead the implementation of the new measure as soon as possible.

Some hospital administrators told Ellerbeck they aren't sure the new model is generous enough to be worth it, since converting has costs. The new model could help rural hospitals, though, said George Pink, a rural health expert at the University of North Carolina. He told Ellerbeck it adds a middle ground between inpatient hospitals and primary-care facilities. 

About 68 hospitals in the U.S. would likely convert to the new model, but it could take a while for the notion to catch on, according to preliminary research from Pink and other UNC researchers. "Brock Slabach, of the National Rural Health Association, said that rural emergency hospitals may come to play a bigger role over the long-term," Ellerbeck reports. "The last time Congress created a new category for rural health care, with critical access hospitals in 1997, few hospitals adopted the new designation right off the bat. Now, there are 1,300."

Wide range of researchers warn social media, other poorly understood new tech could endanger democracy, health

In a newly published paper, 17 researchers from widely different fields say academics should study the impact of new technology—like social media—on society as a "crisis discipline" tantamount to the way scientists try to protect endangered species or stop global warming. 

"The paper argues that our lack of understanding about the collective behavioral effects of new technology is a danger to democracy and scientific progress," Shirin Ghaffary reports for Vox. "For example, the paper says that tech companies have 'fumbled their way through the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, unable to stem the 'infodemic' of misinformation' that has hindered widespread acceptance of masks and vaccines. The authors warn that if left misunderstood and unchecked, we could see unintended consequences of new technology contributing to phenomena such as 'election tampering, disease, violent extremism, famine, racism, and war.'"

One of the authors, Carl Bergstrom, studies infectious disease epidemiology. "My sense is that social media in particular — as well as a broader range of internet technologies, including algorithmically driven search and click-based advertising — have changed the way that people get information and form opinions about the world," he told Ghaffary. The paper, he said, is "a call to arms. It’s saying, 'Hey, we’ve got to solve this problem, and we don’t have a lot of time.'"

Remote work as rescue for rural economies draws doubts

West Virginia and other heavily rural states are hoping to lure remote workers to live in rural areas. And while recent studies from Apple and Google have raised hopes about such workers revitalizing rural economies, "new evidence raises questions about the true potential of the remote-work-driven renewal storyline," write researchers from the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program.

Anecdotal evidence seems to show that, while many tech firms are moving inland, they're mostly going to metropolitan areas with existing tech centers rather than truly new places. On the worker side, "The current narrative is that the widespread shift to remote work amid the Covid-19 pandemic has created a massive pool of footloose workers who are rapidly exiting the big coastal tech hubs and heading for the heartland, where they will boost the inland economy," the researchers write.

"Plenty of anecdotes and commentators have pushed this narrative over the past 15 months," but an April data analysis based on U.S. Postal Service data found that, while there was an uptick in migration from big cities, the numbers were modest and most people moved only a short distance to a nearby county, not to the nation's heartland, the researchers report.

"Given that, 'attraction' strategies seem like a long shot for the places most in need of growth as the pandemic eases and remote work declines. Communities across the country should instead focus on the kind of basic block-and-tackling that will lead to more robust growth overall and a higher quality of life for residents," the researchers report. "This includes the harder work of building authentic growth sectors; developing a skilled and diverse digital workforce; deploying robust transportation infrastructure for local residents; and enacting policies that support workers and their families, such as investment in education, accessible child care, and universal paid sick and family leave. New and better place-based and place-conscious federal policies would also help, such as the creation of sizable regional tech hubs in new places, or new investments in the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and minority-serving institutions (MSIs)."

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Postal Service's money-saving plan could slow delivery by a day; see how your Zip code would be affected

Where mail delivery would slow the most (Washington Post map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version, which allows you to enter any Zip code and see the effect of the plan)

Many Americans might have to wait longer for their mail if the U.S. Postal Service's strategic restructuring plan is approved, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.

"The new delivery regimen, for which the agency seeks regulatory approval, disproportionately affects states west of the Rocky Mountains and the country’s mainland extremities, including large swaths of southern Texas and Florida," Jacob Bogage and Kevin Schaul report for the Post. "The new plan eliminates most air service and adds four- and five-day standards, increasing the time it takes the average letter to get delivered to some parts of the country by a day."

Officials in both parties said they worry about how the new standards would slow mail delivery to rural communities, though a USPS analyst said in written testimony to the Postal Regulatory Commission that the changes would affect urban areas and rural areas about equally; the Post’s analysis found the same thing. Still, some lawmakers say they're concerned because rural residents tend to rely more on mail service.

"I’m telling you that the mail, in my opinion, in my state has not gone by where the Pony Express is. It is really important," Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., told the Post. "So what are you trying to do here? I mean, you’re trying to just eliminate rural America, is that what the goal is? Because where I come from . . .  people still depend upon the mail."

The Post has an interactive feature where you can plug in your Zip code and see how the slowdown will affect your area.

July 4 cookout prices about the same as last year; cattle farmers say they're not profiting from higher beef prices

Americans will pay about the same as they did last year for favorite Independence Day cookout foods, but 8 percent more than in 2019, according to a new American Farm Bureau Federation analysis. The average cost of a cookout for 10 people is $59.50 this July 4, down 16 cents from 2020.

"AFBF’s summer cookout menu consists of cheeseburgers, pork chops, chicken breasts, homemade potato salad, pork & beans, strawberries, potato chips and fresh-squeezed lemonade with ice cream and chocolate chip cookies for dessert," AFBF reports. "The year-to-year direction of the market-basket survey tracks closely with the federal government’s Consumer Price Index report for food at home. Both the index and the market basket remain relatively flat compared to year-ago levels."

Strawberries saw the largest year-to-year price increase: Two pints costs $5.30, a 22% increase from 2020 that analysts chalked up to high demand and poor weather that hurt crops. A two-pound bag of boneless, skinless chicken breasts is $6.74, up 1% from 2020, and two pounds of ground beef is $8.20, down 8% from 2020, AFBF found. The AFBF prices come from Bureau of Labor Statistics food price data and more than 160 volunteer rural shoppers across the country.

Changes in meat prices are "more nuanced" than those of other foods, according to AFBF economist Veronica Nigh: "Beef and pork processing plant disruptions that occurred in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic have been resolved, leading to lower retail ground beef and pork chop prices in 2021 compared to 2020. . . . However, consumers looking a bit farther back to compare prices are seeing higher prices for ground beef, pork chops and chicken breasts compared to pre-pandemic (2019) prices. That’s due to continued strong demand for American-grown beef and pork from both U.S. and international consumers."

Though ground-beef prices are down a little from last year, the year-to-year figures fail to register a dramatic drop in beef prices last year that was followed by recently surging prices. Cattle farmers complain that, despite the high demand, they're barely breaking even or even losing money. 

"Since mid-March — as restaurants reopened, global demand accelerated and grilling season started — wholesale beef prices have shot up more than 40 percent, with certain steak cuts skyrocketing more than 70 percent, according to the Department of Agriculture," Julie Creswell reports for The New York Times. "Grocery stores, aware that consumers can easily grab a pack of chicken or pork instead, have increased prices for ground beef 5 percent and steaks more than 9 percent from a year ago, according to NielsenIQ. Some restaurants, facing a quandary as diners return in certain parts of the country, are slightly raising prices while others are removing beef from the menu."

Many farmers and lawmakers blame meat processors Cargill, JBS, Tyson Foods and National Beef, which account for more than 80% of the processed beef in the U.S. "On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry will hold a hearing on transparency and pricing in the cattle market," Creswell reports. "The hearing follows numerous lawsuits filed in recent years by grocery chains, ranchers and others that claim the meatpackers have colluded to increase the price of beef by limiting supply." 

Processing, transportation and packaging are major components of the cost of foods, AFBF notes. Farmers only get from 2%-35% of every marketing dollar. 

U.S. hog prices down as China quashes African swine fever

Though beef prices have soared in recent months, pork prices are down because of China's cooling interest in hog exports.

"Prices for hogs in the U.S. are tumbling in the wake of China’s announcement that the country’s herds have recovered from the African swine fever," Kirk Maltais reports for The Wall Street Journal. "Through last week, the most-active hog futures contract trading on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange has fallen nearly 17 percent, bringing the price down to 99 cents a pound—the first time it has fallen under a dollar since March. Futures posted a slight rebound Monday, rising 3% to $1.03 a pound. U.S. prices for pork cutouts—parts of the pig such as loin or ribs—have posted a steep dive in recent weeks. Loin prices have fallen 15% in the past 10 days, while ribs have declined more than 31%. Pork butt—commonly used for pork barbecue—has declined 14%, while pork bellies, used to make bacon, have dropped 18% in that time."

A 2018 outbreak of African swine fever forced China to cull about 40% of its hog population. "The nation’s agricultural ministry now says that its hog herd is back to more than 98% of its pre-disease levels—which was roughly 420 million head," Maltais reports. "The recovery comes well ahead of schedule, as China wasn’t projected to complete this rebuild until 2023." U.S. pork exports to China are expected to sharply decrease in the second half of 2021. Some analysts expect the trend to drag down demand of U.S. grains, as hog producers use less feed.

California drought may have big consequences for the state's farmers — and American consumers

Water shortages brought on by the drought presage big changes for California farmers and American consumers nationwide. "By 2040, the San Joaquin Valley is projected to lose at least 535,000 acres of agricultural production. That’s more than a tenth of the area farmed," Somini Sengupta reports for The New York Times. "And if the drought perseveres and no new water can be found, nearly double that amount of land is projected to go idle, with potentially dire consequences for the nation’s food supply. California’s $50 billion agricultural sector supplies two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts and more than a third of America’s vegetables — the tomatoes, pistachios, grapes and strawberries that line grocery store shelves from coast to coast ... Glimpses of that future are evident now. Vast stretches of land are fallow because there’s no water. New calculations are being made about what crops to grow, how much, where. Millions of dollars are being spent on replenishing the aquifer that has been depleted for so long."

In Central Valley, the state's most profitable agricultural area, years of over-reliance on aquifers is compounding water shortages. "Across the state, reservoir levels are dropping and electric grids are at risk if hydroelectric dams don’t get enough water to produce power," Sengupta reports. "Climate change is supercharging the scarcity. Rising temperatures dry out the soil, which in turn can worsen heat waves. This week, temperatures in parts of California and the Pacific Northwest have been shattering records."

Agri-Pulse's Food & Ag Policy Summit West on July 12 will focus on California agriculture's drought woes. The seminar, which will take place in Sacramento and online, will feature lawmakers and industry experts. Click here for more information.

Most internet service providers aren't participating in new federal discount program for low-income people

The Federal Communications Commission's new Emergency Broadband Benefit offers a discount for low-income residents, but many rural folks' internet providers aren't participating in the program. 

EBB gives people in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid, or certain other benefit programs "a $50 discount on their monthly internet bill, or $75 if they reside on tribal lands," but fewer than half of the nation's internet providers are participating, Adilia Watson reports for The Daily Yonder.

"According to BroadbandNow, a company that finds and compares internet providers, there are 2,782 internet service providers in America," Watson reports. "Only about 1,100 are participating in the EBB program, according to an FCC spokesperson. An FCC Fixed Broadband Development map allows users to find providers all the way down to a town or city level."

Manistee County (Wikipedia map)
Watson focuses on the lack of participation by internet service providers in Manistee County, Michigan, which got $13 million in federal funds in 2019 to help those providers improve and expand local broadband service, according to the Manistee County Advocate.

Another possible issue: The program has no minimum speed requirement for broadband providers, so the government could end up subsidizing sub-par internet. The FCC defines broadband speed as 25 megabytes per second download and 3 Mbps upload.

Monday, June 28, 2021

House sends Biden measure to reverse Trump's weakening of Obama rule aimed at methane from oil and gas wells

The House voted 229-191 Friday to reinstate rules "aimed at limiting climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas drilling, a rare effort by Democrats to use the legislative branch to overturn a regulatory rollback under President Donald Trump," reports Matthew Daly of The Associated Press.

The Trump-administration rule relaxed a 2016 Obama-administration rule. The resolution, passed under the Congressional review Act, now goes to President Biden, "who is expected to sign it," Daly reports. "Twelve Republicans joined 217 Democrats to support the measure."

Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, said the legislation "will restore common-sense safeguards to limit methane pollution from oil and gas production. It’s a modest and straightforward step in the right direction, but it’s a very important one."

But Republicans said the resolution unfairly punishes oil and gas companies that are working to reduce emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases. Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-N.M, said it would "nickel and dime the most essential business in my district" and maybe put them out of business.

However, the oil and gas industry "largely supported the Obama-era rule," Daly notes. "Oil giant BP said Friday it supports direct federal regulation of methane emissions. . . . The American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s top lobbying group, said it will work with the Biden administration to support direct regulation of methane from new and existing sources."

Pandemic crisis is over but the political division it worsened remains; rural writer looks for kindness where she can find it

Item: Kentucky, Oklahoma, New Mexico named kindest states: "Researchers surveyed thousands of people from all states and backgrounds on what acts of kindness they would be willing to do."

Teri Carter

"Unkindness involves a failure of the imagination so acute that it threatens not just our happiness but our sanity." ― Adam Phillips, On Kindness

By Teri Carter

The board meeting to approve or disapprove a motor sports venue is barely underway when my friend turns to the man behind us to whisper sternly, “Sir, excuse me. Sir, you are being unkind.”

We are in the basement of the Anderson County extension office for a meeting of the Board of Zoning Adjustments. The chairs are mostly full and the microphones aren’t working. You can feel the tension amongst neighbors, those for and against a proposed track which will feature tractor pulls, truck pulls, and more. Folks are speaking out of turn, in violation of the rules, including a gentleman who is not only talking but approaching the board chairman and refusing to sit. It is this elderly man behind us who is making fun of until my friend shushes him.

In the end, the board approves a conditional use permit and that’s it. It’s over. The woman who owns a wedding venue near the proposed track rushes out a side door, in tears. Another woman whose house stands a half mile from the track looks bereft, defeated. “Our house will shake,” she tells me. We disperse, mostly in silence. Neighbors with nothing more to say to one another.

Sadly, this was not an anomaly. Two days earlier I’d attended a packed-to-capacity library board meeting. The pastor of a small church had voiced his opposition to the library’s Pride Month display—two tiny tables in the back of the room—prompting an outcry. And like the gathering to witness the vote on the motorsports venue, there we all were, crammed into the library, nerves on edge, neighbors at odds.

Call me naive (really, go ahead) but this is not the way I envisioned re-entry into small town life after four years of political division and a year-plus of pandemic separation. It all feels heavy. What happened to taking the temperature down? Surely we missed one another, didn’t we? We would come out of this more generous, more gracious, more kind, right?

I am reminded of a paragraph from the final pages of Wendell Berry’s “The Memory of Old Jack”: “He walks with the effort of a man burdened, a man carrying a great bale or a barrel, who has carried it too far but has not yet found a place convenient to set it down. Once he could carry twice this weight. Now half would be too much.”

Had these last years been too much? What were we all carrying in those meetings? What is still weighing us down?

On the road out of town, on my way home from the zoning fracas, I spot a friend on his porch. He is a new friend, one I don’t know well, but I whip my car into his driveway and walk right on up. He calls for his wife to come out, “Teri’s here!” and returns to the swing. His wife offers me a chair. Their two dogs wag their tails and beg for pets. And it is in that moment I realize, I am not solely in search of community. I am in search of kindness.

For the next hour, we visit on their front porch like our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents used to do. Every now and again a car or truck drives by. Rarely does anyone wave. The couple tells me how someone “just this week” slowed their truck and yelled “F*** Biden!” The wife takes in a big, visible breath. “We talk about moving,” she says, “but where would we go? I mean, we love South Carolina but then we think, they may not want us there either. And I love this house!” We all laugh, but it is more a laugh of uncertainty than joy. I know it well. Being a Democrat in Anderson County, where your neighbors still fly giant Trump flags and randomly yell obscenities at you or your house, can weigh a person down.

As dusk settles along the tree tops, I stand. Time to let these nice people get back to their evening. On the 10-mile drive home, I keep an eye out for deer and I think about the kindness of most speakers at the library and of my friend in the zoning meeting, the friend with the courage to shush the elderly bully behind us and the temerity to walk up there, to gently and with no drama get the out-of-order gentlemen to take his seat.

That’s a start, I think. That, and front porches.

Teri Carter lives in Central Kentucky. This was first published in the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Senate passes bill to help farmers, forest owners get paid in private markets for taking steps against climate change

By an overwhelming bipartisan vote, the Senate has approved legislation "intended to encourage greater use of farming and forestry practices that prevent greenhouse gas emissions and remove planet-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, reports John Flesher of The Associated Press.

The bill, sent to the House 92-8, authorizes the Agriculture Department to help farmers and forest owners "earn payments through private markets for planting offseason cover crops, reducing tillage and taking other steps to lock up carbon in soils and trees," Flesher reports.

"Federal policies have long supported environmentally friendly practices such as planting buffer strips to prevent soil and nutrient erosion that feeds harmful algae blooms in waters. Some of those actions also work against climate change. Pulling marginal lands out of crop production, for example, can make way for carbon-absorbing grasses, trees and wetlands."

The private markets have been created by companies that buy credits for carbon and other greenhouse gases stored in farmlands and forests, "working through brokers who contract with farmers to use the best-management practices," Flesher notes. The USDA program "would certify those who provide technical assistance to farmers entering carbon markets — and third-party experts who verify that the emission-preventing steps are taken."

Some Republicans say the measure would interfere with private markets, and some climate-change activists say voluntary actions aren't enough, "But the bill drew support from other environmentalists — and farm groups which which they are often at odds," such as the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Have poultry in your backyard? Beware of Salmonella


Getty Images photo via CDC
Outbreaks of Salmonella bacteria among backyard poultry have affected almost 500 people and caused more than 100 hospitalizations in 46 states, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"One in three sick people is a child younger than 5 years," the CDC warned Thursday. "Don’t let young children touch chicks, ducklings, or other backyard poultry."

Poultry can carry salmonella "even if they look healthy and clean," the CDC said. "These germs can easily spread to anything in the areas where the poultry live and roam. You can get sick from touching your backyard poultry or anything in their environment and then touching your mouth or food."

The CDC said owners of backyard poultry should:
  • Wash your hands
    • Always wash your hands with soap and water immediately after touching backyard poultry, their eggs, or anything in the area where they live and roam.
    • Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not readily available. Consider having hand sanitizer at your coop.
  • Be safe around backyard flocks
    • Don’t kiss or snuggle backyard poultry, and don’t eat or drink around them. This can spread Salmonella germs to your mouth and make you sick.
    • Keep your backyard flock and supplies you use to care for them (like feed containers and shoes you wear in the coop) outside of the house. You should also clean the supplies outside the house.
  • Supervise kids around flocks
    • Always supervise children around backyard poultry and make sure they wash their hands properly afterward.
    • Don’t let children younger than 5 years touch chicks, ducklings, or other backyard poultry. Young children are more likely to get sick from germs like Salmonella.
  • Handle eggs safely
    • Collect eggs often. Eggs that sit in the nest can become dirty or break.
    • Throw away cracked eggs. Germs on the shell can more easily enter the egg through a cracked shell.
    • Rub off dirt on eggs with fine sandpaper, a brush, or a cloth. Don’t wash them because colder water can pull germs into the egg.
    • Refrigerate eggs to keep them fresh and slow the growth of germs.
    • Cook eggs until both the yolk and white are firm, and cook egg dishes to an internal temperature of 160°F to kill all germs.

Call your health-care provider right away if you have any of these severe symptoms:

  • Diarrhea and a fever higher than 102°F
  • Diarrhea for more than three days that is not improving
  • Bloody diarrhea
  • So much vomiting that you cannot keep liquids down
  • Signs of dehydration, such as:
    • Not urinating much
    • Dry mouth and throat
    • Feeling dizzy when standing up