Friday, July 09, 2021

Paper draws the line at feeding the beast of social media

Newspapers need to stop feeding the beast that is devouring them. That's one way to summarize what the Adair County Community Voice in Columbia, Ky., announced last week.

Sharon Burton
"We won’t be promoting social media pages unless there is a good reason to," Editor-Publisher Sharon Burton wrote. "For instance, if a government entity or an organization is part of a news story, we usually offer readers a way to gather more information by going online to…….

"What you probably won’t be seeing very often at the end of that sentence is the name of a social media platform. Social media can be good but it also appears to offer a whole lot of bad. We use social media to promote our publication and promote links to our website, so it wouldn’t be accurate to say I am banning social media. I am simply saying we only use it when it is necessary."

Alluding to the threat that social media pose to newspapers, Burton continued: "Social media platforms hope to control all content so that everyone starts there. They are being very successful in that, and statistics show that an alarming number of people only read news if they see the news item as part of a social media link. That’s a problem because that social media page is deciding what readers do and do not see. A computer algorithm is feeding readers information with the sole purpose of keeping them entertained, thereby keeping them online."

And she sees a broader threat: "Because those social media companies have been under pressure for promoting false information, they have gotten into the censoring business, so now that algorithm might even be designed to get you to think a certain way, a way in which the people designing those algorithms believes is the right way to think. That’s just downright scary."

But her decision seems driven mainly by self-interest, and she takes the opportunity to remind readers of the difference in social media and news media: "Those sites take the hard work of others and generate money but they don’t share the revenue with the ones creating the content. Reporting the news well takes a qualified journalist, and journalists need to eat and pay the bills just like everyone else."

Burton then urged local organizations to stop relying on social media and "get their own websites," which can be done for "a reasonable monthly fee" to a vendor, and she named several. "After building your own website, you will use social media to promote your page and generate readers, but you will gradually become less reliant on social media and develop your own web presence. That is smart business, because who knows what platform will be popular in the future?"

Burton combined her announcement with one saying that her paper would no longer publish press releases about events that "take money out of Columbia at no benefit to local businesses," and concluded, "We treasure our role in this community, and we constantly review how we do what we do to try to be fair and balanced. While we may be the watchdog of local government, we are also your source for reliable news and information on local events, and we are a conduit between consumers and local businesses. We take all those roles seriously, and we thank you for allowing us the privilege of being your newspaper!" 

Opinion: Let's unleash farmers to fight climate change

By Matt Russell and Robert Leonard

Producing environmental benefits will become an important enterprise for American farmers, giving them the ability to monetize their response to climate change and other environmental challenges. But as these new enterprises get going, farmers, agribusiness professionals, researchers, policymakers, and rural leaders need to ask how these solutions can be created by farmers — not just be something that happens to farmers.

Will ecosystem services, following the conventional model of agriculture, be driven by a top-down model prescribing how farmers will farm? Will it leave them holding the costs while those further up the supply chain reap the benefits? Or will ecosystem services be developed by farmers innovating on their land, with significant value staying on the farm? If so, farmers will be empowered to pursue the best innovations to accelerate the disruptive changes that the science clearly indicates need to happen.

Over the past 50 years, America minimized or excluded those innovations and that entrepreneurialism. Success was defined in terms of efficiency, with the aim being the highest crop yields and the most productive livestock systems. But there were also costs to these systems that have long been coming due, in water quality, soil health, and now climate change.

This economic model has also been built on scale and consolidation, which means the bigger have only gotten bigger, driving others out. This vicious cycle works only if farmers adopt top-down technologies; it prevents farmers from innovating within these systems to try and improve them. But even for farmers who do manage to tinker within the system, innovations are often appropriated by the supply chain, and profits pulled upwards.

Just look at the equipment industry, where farmers used to fix their own tractors; now they are dependent on proprietary technology and software that only the manufacturer can use. The same could be said of seeds or chickens, where producers are locked into a system that requires them to follow prescribed steps — and if they fail, they are left holding the losses.

Is this going to be the model for ecosystem services, too? We hope not, since the systematic removal of farmer creativity and problem-solving from modern agriculture systems has yielded shortcomings in soil health, water quality, agricultural labor, animal welfare, and greenhouse gas emissions that can no longer be ignored.

We can already see examples of where farmers innovated to buck this model, creating just the kind of environmental benefits we’re now celebrating.

Take no-till farming, which helps reduce soil erosion. Agribusiness didn’t invent it, farmers did — by tinkering with equipment, welder in hand, and then doing trials in their fields. Equipment manufacturers weren’t exactly excited by the prospect of farmers no longer buying tillage machinery until they realized there was a market for new planting equipment.

Nor have the big three agrochemical companies been leading in the development of cover crops, which build soil health, improve water retention, and reduce runoff. Farmers working with Practical Farmers of Iowa have been doing that. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, farmers have been pioneers in developing and implementing “best management practices” that include keeping roots growing all year long, even as farm organizations and agribusiness fought the public policy efforts pushing farmers into action. New businesses, some developed by farmers themselves, are selling cover crops and expanding.

The dairy industry hasn’t thrown many parties for farmers developing managed grazing systems, but farmers keep creating more successful grazing strategies. An entire fencing industry has grown to empower farmer and rancher innovations. Premier1 in Iowa serves that growing industry. Organic Valley is another farmer-led dairy cooperative built by innovating farmers on the leading edge of alternative dairy operations.

Although corn and soybeans are still king in Iowa — grown on a near-record 23 million acres — we still see innovation. Farmers are experimenting with new crops, extending rotations, and even planting less corn to get higher yields (with 60-inch corn rows that are twice as wide as normal rows but allow in more sunlight to turbocharge the crop).

And because the biofuels industry no longer seems to be led by farmers themselves, it’s easy to forget that farmers built that industry with their own investments and dogged political efforts to shape public policy and support its birth. We’ve seen farmers lead the development of the wind industry in Iowa; they have also been instrumental in the emerging solar industry.

Now imagine if farmers were unleashed to help develop individual, field-specific solutions to the climate crisis rather than simply adopting a top-down approach. Not only would this approach win buy-in among farmers, but it would also be the fastest and most effective way to develop solutions to the crisis. Investing in farmer leadership and innovation isn’t just good for farmers; it’s actually critical to achieving the goals we must reach to sustain the global community of up to 10 billion souls.

Historically, we have invested in approaches that dictate what farmers must do. Farm policy from state legislatures and Congress; regulating through USDA and EPA; providing credit to farmers through private, cooperative, and public ag lenders; advocating by farm groups; negotiating and promoting trade policy — all of it has been in service to the top-down approach. We must do better.

As American agriculture celebrates the bipartisan passage of the Growing Climate Solutions Act encouraging farmer access to carbon markets, we must also ensure that we’re creating mechanisms to economically reward farmers for creative, disruptive solutions that don’t fit neatly into the systems being developed by these emerging markets. The billions of dollars and dozens of programs delivered and administered by USDA are a great place to start paying farmers for the value of their own great ideas.

The advantages of focusing on and rewarding farmer innovation are many and include increased economic benefits for farming families and in their communities and dismantling the model of agribusiness as usual. Most important is accelerating ecosystem services in a way that shifts agriculture from being a polluting industry to being a regenerative one in the fastest and most cost-effective way possible.

This will disrupt vertically integrated global industries and the elected leaders across the political divide that enable them. However, those disruptions are exactly what the world needs for climate action, democracy, and new opportunities for farmers and rural communities.

Matt Russell is a co-owner of Coyote Run Farm, near Lacona, Iowa. Robert Leonard is news director of radio stations in Iowa and the author of Deep Midwest: Midwestern Explorations. This was first published by the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

Appalachian nurses fight Covid-19 and community mistrust

Abingdon, Va. (Wikipedia map)
During the pandemic, some Central Appalachian hospital employees have endured "the traumas known to ICU workers across the world: days filled with death, nights ruined by dreams in which they found themselves at infected patients’ bedsides without masks. But they were also enduring a trauma that many doctors and nurses elsewhere were not: the suspicion and derision of those they risked their lives to protect," Peter Jamison reports for The Washington Post. "Conspiracy theories about the pandemic and lies recited on social media — or at White House news conferences — had penetrated deep into their community. When refrigerated trailers were brought in to relieve local hospitals’ overflowing morgues, people said they were stage props. Agitated and unmasked relatives stood outside the ICU insisting that their intubated relatives only had the flu. Many believed the doctors and nurses hailed elsewhere for their sacrifices were conspiring to make money by falsifying covid-19 diagnoses."

The Post interviewed registered nurse Emily Boucher and some of her co-workers in the Johnston Memorial Hospital ICU in Abingdon, Va. Boucher told Jamison that she and her colleagues were fighting not just for their patients' lives, but "against misinformation and reckless practices that have led to this virus getting so out of control. . . . It is like having fought in a war that many believe never took place."

Jamison does note: "Not everyone dismissed the suffering and death caused by the coronavirus. Churches and community groups had sent food and homemade masks to Johnston Memorial, and families had tearfully thanked Boucher and her co-workers for saving lives."

New rural coronavirus infections up 11% from week before

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, June 27-July 3
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

"New Covid-19 infections inched up for the second week in a row in rural counties last week, while deaths related to the coronavirus continued a five-week decline," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. That's similar to the trend in metropolitan counties.

Rural counties saw 15,471 new infections during the week of June 27 to July 3, an 11 percent increase from 13,983 two weeks ago. "A total of 324 Covid-related deaths were reported in rural counties last week, a decline of 16% from two weeks ago, when rural counties reported 387 Covid-related deaths," Murphy and Marema report. The Midwest and South saw the biggest increase in rural infections, with Arkansas and Missouri at the epicenter.

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

Quick hits: Appalachian man rescues over 1,000 'lost' apple varieties; Purdue Pharma closer to settlement...

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

As many as one-third of Wisconsin's gray wolves likely died from hunting and poaching in the months since the federal government ended legal protections for the species, according to a newly published study. Read more here.

Climate change has worsened flooding across the Midwest, and is linked to a rise in rare crop diseases. Read more here and here.

Purdue Pharma is moving closer to a $4.5 billion court settlement as the attorneys general in 15 states drop their objections to the proposal. Read more here.

A new report highlights the best practices for building and maintaining more environmentally sustainable rural road infrastructure (a particularly timely consideration, since infrastructure spending is on deck in Washington). Read more here.

A retired North Carolina man has rescued and catalogued more than 1,000 "lost" apple varieties. Read more here.

One reason rural areas face health-care professional shortages: many general surgeons in rural America are getting older and retiring, and not enough younger ones are taking their places. Read more here.

It's sometimes difficult to be young and LGBTQ+ in rural areas; teens and experts offer ideas on ways to make it easier. Read more here.

Thursday, July 08, 2021

Rural editor jailed over reporter's use of recorder in court

Gavin Stone
"A North Carolina Superior Court judge put a small-town newspaper editor behind bars last month after one of his reporters used an audio recorder for note-taking purposes at a murder trial — a punishment the paper and media rights groups consider excessive," Bryan Anderson reports for The Associated Press. "Judge Stephan Futrell sentenced Gavin Stone, the news editor of the Richmond County Daily Journal, to five days in jail before having the editor hauled off to jail. Stone was released the next day but still faces the possibility of more time in lockup. 

The Superior Court's rules allow electronic media and photography of public hearings, but judges may prohibit them on a case-by-case basis. A different judge sent Stone a letter in January 2020 reprimanding him for taking a photo in a courtroom, so he was aware that cellphones, cameras and other recording devices were not allowed without the judge's permission, Anderson reports. 

Stone only remembered the cellphone ban, so he told reporter Matthew Sasser it would be OK to bring an audio recorder to court. Sasser did so on June 21 and 22. When Futrell found out Sasser had the recorder, he told the reporter to take it out of the courtroom. After Sasser went back to the newsroom, a bailiff told him to come back to court to talk to the judge. Stone went with him. The judge found Sasser and Stone in contempt of court, sentenced Stone to five days in jail, and fined Sasser $500.

"Brian Bloom, the paper’s publisher, acknowledged that his reporter shouldn’t have had the recorder in court because it was not allowed but criticized the judge’s move to imprison an editor for a minor infraction committed by a colleague," Anderson reports. "The newspaper’s appeal is scheduled to be heard July 16. Futrell has removed the original penalties on Stone and Sasser and is allowing an appeals court to decide whether to make the editor and reporter pay as much as $500 each and serve up to 30 days in jail."

Fresh analysis of 2020 votes shows Trump got a bigger slice of rural votes than exit polls had shown

A detailed analysis of votes in the 2020 election gives a more accurate picture than exit polls of the Republican party's increasing rural popularity, writes William Galston of the Brookings Institution.

The Pew Research Center analyzed a huge sample of "validated" voters, or those whose participation has been independently verified. According to those numbers, President Trump was favored by 65 percent of rural voters, up from 59% in 2016—a larger bump than the 62 percent found in exit polls.

Other findings with rural resonance:
  • Rural voters were less likely than their suburban or urban counterparts to have voted absentee or by mail ballot.
  • The political split between rural areas and suburban and urban areas remained substantial in 2020, especially among white voters. Trump got 71% of the vote from rural white voters, compared to 62% in 2016.
  • Overall, Biden voters were younger, more racially and ethnically diverse, and less likely to live in rural areas than Trump voters.

Feds offers grants for police body cameras in rural areas

The Justice Department announced Wednesday that it will release $7.65 million in competitive microgrants to fund body-worn cameras to small, rural and tribal law-enforcement agencies. 

The funds must be used to buy or lease body-worn cameras, and can include reasonable related expenses. Funds can also be used to support body-cam pilot programs, establish new implementation, or expand existing programs. Click here for more information or to apply. Applications are due Aug. 31.

"The grant solicitation today will help law enforcement agencies and their communities improve evidentiary outcomes, and enhance the safety of, and improve interactions between, officers and the public," Bureau of Justice Assistance Acting Director Kristen Mahoney in a press release. "Importantly, this grant program will make it easier for small, rural and Tribal law enforcement agencies to apply for funding. It’s an online application that will streamline the grant process for these agencies."

Coal bounces back, probably briefly, as economies rebound

"Coal use is surging in some of the world’s largest economies as electricity demand rebounds from the pandemic, illustrating the challenges to countries looking to wean themselves off the dirty but reliable fossil fuel," Sarah McFarlane and Katherine Blunt report for The Wall Street Journal. "Coal was in decline for years in many countries, but its use is now picking up in the U.S., China and Europe despite growing pressure from governments, investors and environmentalists to curb carbon emissions. The leading reason for the uptick—which has pushed coal prices to multiyear highs—is rising power demand as economies reopen rapidly from pandemic hibernation."

Analysts and executives agree that coal's resurgence probably won't last, but it highlights the world's continued reliance on fossil fuels while renewable-energy capacity hasn't yet grown robust enough, McFarlane and Blunt report.

"Countries have spent billions adding renewable-power capacity at record rates, but solar and wind projects generate electricity only when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, and can’t be ramped up when demand rises," McFarlane and Blunt report. "Those limitations mean the world is still reliant on fossil fuels, especially when there is a surge in electricity demand. Analysts say this will remain the case until more renewable capacity is added, along with storage such as batteries."

This month, TCM spotlights films about small-town America

Meet Me in St. Louis, a 1944 Christmas film, features
classic Judy Garland hits such as "The Trolley Song."
Turner Classic Movies is celebrating films about small-town America in a special series airing each Wednesday in July. If you have a cable package that includes TCM, you can watch all the films in the series online. If you don't have a cable package with TCM, you can watch all the films listed with a subscription to Sling TV, Hulu, or YouTube TV.

The first Wednesday of the "From Hollywood to the Heartland" series was all about drama, with films such as Peyton Place, East of Eden, Picnic, and Our Town. The second week lightened things up with beloved small-town comedies such as The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and Theodora Goes Wild.

Next week's theme is "Small Town Musicals," featuring classics such as The Music Man, Bye Bye Birdie, and Meet Me in St. Louis. The final night of the series is five critically acclaimed films full of crime, drama and betrayal, with hits like Bonnie and Clyde, The Last Picture Show, and Paper Moon.

In a video made for TCM's series, singer John Mellencamp, a native of Seymour, Indiana, reflects on portrayals of small towns on the silver screen. Watch it here:

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

Pro-Trump sites masquerading as local news push election misinformation, which gets picked up by news organizations

Conservative websites that aim to look like local news sites are publishing false and misleading content about the election and other hot-button political issues—content that's often picked up by real news organizations.

The Star News Network is an "expanding network of pro-Trump sites seeking to influence local politics with conservative opinion by mimicking the look and feel of local newspaper sites. The group operates eight state-focused news sites, including in key Electoral College states such as Michigan, Arizona, Ohio and Florida," Stephen Fowler reports for NPR. "The Star News sites are part of a larger pro-Trump media ecosystem that emerged over the course of his four years in office. Since last year's election, some of those sites have spent months churning out false content suggesting Trump won the election and claiming that massive electoral fraud will be uncovered. Many of the Star News sites have been around for a while, but the 2020 election — and an intense focus on swing states like Georgia — has helped the sites' stories reach a much a larger audience."

Such sites, often called "pink slime journalism" after the iffy ground-beef additive, have proliferated in recent years, exploiting growing local news deserts to sow misinformation.

Star News Network sites are published by Star News Digital Media, owned and operated by conservative activist and talk radio host Michael Patrick Leahy, whose HarperCollins author bio touts him as "an innovative leader in both the tactics and strategy of grassroots conservative new-media activism." Both Leahy and Star News co-founder and executive editor Christina Botteri are early organizers of the Tea Party movement.

Rural labor force is 2% under pre-pandemic levels, and is bouncing back more slowly than in metropolitan areas

May 2021 employment as a percentage of May 2019 employment; the greener the better
(Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here to view the original)

The nation is almost back to pre-pandemic employment levels, but rural areas are lagging in several ways, according to a Daily Yonder analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Essentially, metropolitan counties lost a greater share of the labor force in the early months of the pandemic than rural counties did, but metro counties gained back a greater share of jobs than rural counties did, Bill Bishop and Tim Marema report.

"In metropolitan counties, the size of the labor force bounced back from May 2020 to May 2021 and is now only 0.9% lower than it was in May 2019, before the pandemic," they report. "In rural counties, however, the size of the labor force took a similar nosedive in May 2020 but barely grew in the subsequent year. The May 2021 rural labor force was down 2.1% compared to the pre-pandemic level. That’s more than twice the rate of decline in the metropolitan labor force." The labor force includes people who have a job or are unemployed and job-seeking.

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

Black farmers the least likely to get USDA direct loans over past three years, also got lower share of pandemic relief

Black farmers were denied USDA loans at higher rates than
other groups in 2020 (Politico chart; click to enlarge it)
"Not only have Black farmers received the least amount of direct loans of any ethnic and racial group over the past three years, but also that the number and share of direct loans hit a 10-year low last year," Ximena Bustillo reports for Politico's Weekly Agriculture. That matters because Agriculture Department direct loans "are supposed to be a sort of last resort for farmers who cannot get credit elsewhere. Yet, white farmers have an acceptance rate that is nearly twice as high."

The issue goes beyond loans. Also, though farmers of color represent about 5 percent of American farmers, they got less than 1% of Coronavirus Food Assistance Program funding, according to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Bustillo reports.

"The department continues to fight legal battles in multiple courts to ensure that a congressionally authorized program to provide about $4 billion in debt relief to farmers of color is carried out," Bustillo reports. "But advocates for Black farmers say USDA needs to take steps beyond debt relief to address barriers at the Farm Service Agency level including racial bias, inexperienced personnel and lack of bandwidth to help with applications. Farmers recalled FSA agents misleading them about available loan applications and being overall absent to help guide the process."

White farmers have voiced widespread resentment of the program, who say they are also suffering during the pandemic. Under the plan, a farmer who meets the 1990 Farm Bill's definition of "socially disadvantaged" could be paid 120% of the amount owed on a USDA loan (the extra to cover taxes on the money) without having to prove discrimination.

"USDA is conducting internal and external investigations, which are supposed to review all programs and agencies of the department to pinpoint where access may be lacking not just for Black farmers, but all producers including beginning farmers and other socially disadvantaged producers and ranchers," Bustillo reports. "USDA has previously said it plans to start reviews with the consumer-facing branches, which includes FSA. The external review is not expected to start until the fall, but the internal one is underway and is expected to wrap up over the summer."

Biden executive order to give farmers more clout in livestock negotiations, right to repair farming equipment

"President Joe Biden wants to give U.S. farmers more power in negotiating the sale of livestock to big processors and in deciding who repairs their tractors, the White House said on Tuesday," David Shepardson and Diane Bartz report for Reuters. "The executive order, expected within days . . . would encourage the Federal Trade Commission to limit the ability of farm-equipment manufacturers to prevent tractor owners from using independent repair shops or repairing their own equipment."

Right-to-repair legislation has been long-coveted by farming advocates, and in 2020 was a policy goal for both the American Farm Bureau Federation and the Democratic Party.

Farmers have grown increasingly exasperated at the proprietary software on tractors and other large farming equipment that leaves them unable to make even simple repairs. Instead, a dealership must access the machine and diagnose the problem—often costing farmers extra time and money. Many farmers have resorted to hacking their tractors with black-market software, or buying tractors made in the 1970s and 1980s that can be repaired locally.

A John Deere representative said the company doesn't support right-to-repair laws because they could be unsafe for farmers, reduce engine performance, and make machinery noncompliant with emissions standards, Shepardson and Bartz report. The representative also said that farmers can make most repairs easily, and that less than 2 percent of all repairs to its machinery require a software update.

"Separately, Biden plans to direct the USDA to write rules to boost competition in agricultural industries, including one under the Packers and Stockyards Act making it easier for farmers to bring claims, the White House said," Shepardson and Bartz report. "There will also be anti-retaliation protections for farmers who raise concerns about bad practices."

The four major meat processors in the U.S., Cargill, JBS, Tyson Foods and National Beef, are under investigation for allegedly colluding to boost beef prices while livestock farmers barely profited.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

NNA webinar on newspaper sample copying Thursday

Sample copying, a key audience-building tactic for newspapers that could become much more important, will be the topic of a National Newspaper Association webinar at 3 p.m. ET Thursday.

"The nonsubscriber rules in the Domestic Mail Manual are there to allow you to promote your newspaper to nonsubscribers and grow and maintain your mail delivery, but too many papers fail to use this tactic," NNA said in announcing the webinar. "You need to provide your advertisers and potential advertisers with more reasons to spend their dollars. A regular sampling program increases your distribution and your worth to advertisers. A program of total market sampling at key times of the year can also be a good advertising tool. This could be to your entire county or to key Zip codes within the county."

NNA is supporting postal-reform legislation that would allow up half of a newspaper's annual home-county circulation to be mailed to non-subscribers at subscriber rates. The current limit, more than a century old, is 10 percent.

The panel will be NNA Postal/Government Relations Chair Matthew Paxton, publisher of the News-Gazette in Lexington, Va.; Max Heath, postal consultant and former executive editor, Landmark Community Newspapers; Brad Hill, CEO of Interlink Inc.; and Tonda Rush, NNA public-policy director.

The webinar is free to NNA members, and $30 for non-members, but only NNA members will have access to the recording of it. Register here.

Bipartisanship alive in Washington as Congress works to help farmers, others hurt by pandemic, writes rural editor

Art Cullen
Though Democrats and Republicans are often miles apart in their ideology (and say so loudly, for the benefit of their constituencies), bipartisanship is alive and well in Congress as lawmakers work together on pressing issues such as climate change, writes Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Art Cullen for The Washington Post. Cullen co-owns and edits the Storm Lake Times in northwest Iowa.

For example, the Biden-supported Growing Climate Solutions Act passed the Senate 92 to 8 last week, co-sponsored by Mike Braun, a conservative Republican from Indiana, and supported by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "The bill paves the way for a national carbon-credit trading market, something that Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) has pursued for years," Cullen reports. "The bill, which enjoys bipartisan support in the House, directs the Agriculture Department to establish a framework based in science by which polluters could buy offset credits from farmers and foresters to plant crops that sequester carbon."

But such widespread support wasn't always feasible, he writes. "What changed? In a word: farmers. They’ve been buffeted by floods, devastating spikes of heat and drought all in the span of a year, for several seasons now. They’re ripping out crops in California. Cattle herds are thinning in the parched Dakotas. Iowa producers are digging deeper wells to slop 23 million hogs as aquifers drop. Drought stalks half the country," Cullen writes. "The Senate Agriculture Committee has always been driven more by regional interests than party allegiance. The South protects cotton and rice, the Upper Midwest corn and ethanol, the Great Plains wheat and water. Now, almost everyone is climbing aboard the climate action wagon because time is short, and they recognize it."

In 2017 Cullen and his family won the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues' Tom and Pat Gish Award for excellence in rural journalism.

Amendment to ban horse transport across state or federal lines for consumption passes in House infrastructure bill

Last week the House passed a $715 billion infrastructure package with an amendment to ban the transport of horses across state or federal lines for slaughter for human consumption.

Rep. Troy Carter, D-La., was the lead sponsor of the bipartisan amendment, first conceived by nonprofit organization Animal Wellness Action.

"This is not a new issue for Congress," Carter said in a press release. "A lot of work has been done by great members on both sides of the aisle to put an end to this horrible practice, and a lot of ground has been gained. However, a legal loophole allowed tens of thousands of American equines to be exported each year to Canada and Mexico for slaughter. The conditions on these journeys are particularly inhumane, with horses crammed inside trailers for long journeys without adequate water, food, or rest. I offered this amendment because it was a chance to end this heinous practice once and for all and I am glad to see its successful passage."

Marty Irby, executive director of Animal Wellness Action, told The Rural Blog he has discussed the amendment with several high-ranking senators and believes there's a "very good chance" it may be included in the final Senate bill.

Rural vaccine resistance goes beyond politics and media, to class, access and distrust of system that has let them down

The resistance of many rural Americans to coronavirus vaccines is often attributed to their politics (support of Donald Trump) or their media habits (skepticism of science), but it has deeper, wider roots, Timothy DeLizza writes for Undark, which defines itself as a foundation-funded "non-profit, editorially independent digital magazine exploring the intersection of science and society."

"Many poor, rural whites have legitimate reasons to distrust the health care system — and real barriers to access," Undark says in its subhead on DeLizza's story, which says, "Vaccine hesitant conservatives are also disproportionately rural. This creates unique access problems, including shortages of health-care workers to administer the vaccines and long driving distances to vaccination sites."

Also, "Class is far more predictive of vaccine hesitancy than either politics or race, with working-class white people being twice as likely to be hesitant as White college graduates," DeLizza reports, citing polling by the Kaiser Family Foundation

"Poor White people expressing hesitancy typically have strong religious beliefs, face disproportionate economic and access barriers to vaccination, and have legitimate reasons to mistrust the medical system," DeLizza writes. "Historically, the same sterilization programs that the Nation of Islam members evoke also purposefully targeted poor white people. When Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote “Three generations of imbeciles are enough” in a [1927] Supreme Court ruling upholding Virginia’s involuntary sterilization law, he was describing a poor White woman with no mental impairment."

Screenshot of top part of NYT graph; click to enlarge. For interactive version, click here.
DeLizza also notes the opioid epidemic, which was disproportionately rural and caused by elements of the health-care system "pushing painkillers like OxyContin," and has left a legacy of distrust. The health-care analytics firm Surgo Ventures found that "Arkansas, the state with the most 'Covid skeptics' . . . "is second in the nation in dispensing opioids. Other states such as Alabama and Louisiana also significantly exceed the national average on both lists," DeLizza reports. (Surgo's research and the Kaiser polling were reported in May in The New York Times.)

DeLizza concludes, "The suspicions felt in Black and brown communities likely aren’t all that different from the suspicions felt by white people. In each case, focusing on outlandish vaccine conspiracy theories glosses over genuine underlying concerns. In each case, vaccine hesitant Americans are being asked to take a drug developed at unprecedented speed under unfathomable pressure using novel techniques based on short-term studies. Taking such a vaccine requires trust in the medical system and in society more broadly. Most unvaccinated groups have been let down by both."

USDA wants your feedback on how its programs can best advance racial justice deadline is July 15

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is seeking public feedback on how its programs can best advance racial justice. The request is meant to help implement an executive order President Biden signed on his first day in office that aims to promote racial equity in underserved communities. The deadline is July 15. Click here to read more about why USDA is seeking feedback, and click here to leave feedback.

Teresa Purcell, a consultant who works primarily in rural America with people of color, writes for The Daily Yonder that most people don't learn in school about the racist policies that have long held back non-white Americans. "Our family is an example of what some people think of as “living the American Dream” — the ability to lift your family out of poverty in just a few generations due to things like public education and effective government programs," Purcell writes. "The mythology of the American dream passed down in families and in history classes is that if you worked hard and accessed things like the GI Bill and other government programs, you could achieve anything. While that was true for white families like mine, most families in communities of color were not able to live this same dream."

Such policies factor into modern rural poverty, she writes, citing USDA data showing that every U.S. county experiencing extreme poverty in 2018 was rural, and that a disproportionate share were in areas with large populations of racial minorities. 

Monday, July 05, 2021

Court nixes year-round sales of gasoline with 15% ethanol

A federal appeals has thrown out a Trump-administration Environmental Protection Agency rule change that allowed sale of a 15% ethanol gasoline blend in the summer. "The decision deals a significant blow to the ethanol industry and corn farmers who grow the crop from which the fuel additive is made. They had anticipated increased ethanol demand through year-round sales of the higher blend," David Pitt reports for The Associated Press.

Most gasoline sold in the U.S. has 10% ethanol, but the EPA changed the rule in May 2019 to fulfill Trump's promises to Midwestern corn farmers. "Provisions of the Clean Air Act have prohibited the sale of certain fuels with a higher volatility from June 1 through Sept. 15 to limit smog," Pitt reports. "Congress has allowed 10% ethanol, and the EPA in its 2019 ruling revised the interpretation of the exemption to federal law to include the 15% ethanol blend."

Hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas created fewer jobs than anticipated in Appalachia, and most of them are gone

The hydraulic fracturing boom is waning in Appalachia. Though advocates have touted fracking as a manufacturing-jobs booster in recent years, it created "startlingly few" jobs in the region, and most no longer exist, Colin Jerolmack reports for MIT Technology Review. Jerolmack is a New York University environmental studies and sociology professor and author of the new book Up to Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town.

"What happened? As a Bloomberg report put it, 'The numbers never added up.' Fracking has always been expensive; extraordinarily generous fossil-fuel subsidies helped hide the true cost. With new wells facing average production declines of 60 percent in the first year, petroleum companies had to frantically drill more of them. The entire model was premised on high oil and gas prices. But nationwide, the glut of gas (and, to a lesser extent, oil) precipitated by the fracking boom depressed prices to their lowest levels since the 1990s," Jerolmack reports. "The result? Frackers pumped the brakes. A wave of consolidations and bankruptcies swept across the sector. The stock prices of premier energy firms like Chesapeake Energy Corp. crashed (it declared bankruptcy in 2020). Some, like Anadarko Petroleum Corp., liquidated their shale gas holdings. Chevron announced in December 2019 that it would write down up to $11 billion in shale-gas assets."

More than 100,000 oil and gas jobs were lost in 2020, and about 70% of them may not come back this year or ever, according to a Deloitte report. And even those jobs may not have helped local economies the way fracking supporters promised. A recent Ohio River Valley Institute report "details how fracking boosters’ promise of jobs and prosperity for the broader Appalachia region was a mirage," Jerolmack reports. "In the 22 Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia counties that produce most of America’s natural gas, economic output grew by 60% from 2008 to 2019, but little of the income generated by that growth stayed in local communities. The region saw only 1.6% job growth, compared with 9.9% nationally; its share of the nation’s population fell by 11%."

Fracking is still a major factor in the Permian Basin of Texas and New Mexico, but wastewater disposal problems may hinder its growth.

Tyson recalls 8.5 million pounds of frozen chicken for listeria

"Tyson Foods is recalling approximately 8.5 million pounds of frozen, cooked chicken products for possible listeria contamination. The company and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service announced the recall Saturday night. The recall includes Tyson branded products and private label products for restaurants, which include Jet’s Pizza, Casey’s General Store, Marco’s Pizza and Little Caesars," Kelly Tyko reports for USA Today. "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also issued a food safety alert saying the products – which were shipped nationwide to retailers and institutions including hospitals, nursing facilities, restaurants and schools – may be linked to a listeria outbreak that has caused three illnesses and one death."

The products were produced at a Dexter, Mo., plant between Dec. 26 and April 13. "Each package of the recalled products has the establishment code P-7089. A full list of the recalled products is posted on the USDA website and," Tyko reports. "The USDA said consumers should not eat the products and should throw them away or return them."

The recall comes after three people were sickened with listeriosis, two in Texas and one in Delaware. All three patients ate chicken from the Dexter plant at a hospital or long-term-care facility between April 6 and June 5, Tyko reports. It can take up to 10 weeks to show symptoms after eating contaminated food, though most severe food poisoning or listeriosis symptoms show up in one to four weeks.

Trump boat parades last summer resulted in injuries and accidents; some boaters want to organize more this summer

A 2020 rally at Lake Travis in Texas, where five boats capsized
(Photo by Bob Daemmerich)
Trump supporters across the nation staged many boat parades in lakes and rivers last summer, but law-enforcement officials, rally organizers and boaters say the events were often disorganized and a major source of boating accidents, Jose Pagliery reports for The Daily Beast. That could happen again this summer.

"In Tennessee alone, the state’s database shows that Trump flotillas made up a third of all 'congested water' accidents there last year," Pagliery reports. "National figures aren’t available that identify events as Trump flotillas, but a state-by-state review of incident reports in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Texas showed that most accidents never made the news." 

It's been difficult to find information on Trump boat parade accidents because "some government agencies claim to be missing records of publicly reported disasters. One docked boat sank into the St. Croix River in Wisconsin during a Labor Day weekend parade there, according to the local CBS Minnesota station, but the state’s Natural Resources Department said it has no log of an incident there that day," Pagliery reports. "The vast majority of the parades we reviewed took place on dammed bodies of water managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issues permits. But it did not respond to questions or provide data."

Inexperienced or inattentive boaters were a big part of the problem, according to Rob Crafa, the waterfront director at the State University of New York’s Maritime College. "When you have boat parades like rallies, the energy there creates a different vibe," Crafa told Pagliery. "People standing in parts of the boat where they’re not supposed to, flags that may limit visibility for the operator of the boat, and if there’s loud music, bright sun, maybe alcohol involved … all these factors contributed to dangerous situations."

The choppiness of the water is another culprit, said George Birdwell, an investigator with Tennessee's Wildlife Resources Agency. "Big boats show up, and they try to go slow. But they’re still throwing a big wake, and small boats show up too, and they have to deal with those large wakes," he told Pagliery. That has caused injuries—some requiring hospitalization—and damage to boats. 

The boat parades, which President Trump reportedly loves, are still happening and may continue. Every Trump boater Pagliery interviewed said they're working on bringing them back.

Health experts worry about rural summer surge of Covid-19

Rural/urban vaccination rates as of June 28, compared to national average and adjusted to account for vaccinations not assigned to specific counties. Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or here for the interactive version.

Lower coronavirus vaccination rates in rural America and the increasing threat of the Delta variant could lead to a summer surge in the disease, Margy Eckelkamp reports for AgWeb.

As of June 28, only 34 percent of eligible rural Americans are vaccinated, compared with a national average of 67% and a 44.3% rate in metropolitan counties, Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. The rural vaccination rate rose only 0.6 percentage points from the week before, compared to a 1.1 percentage-point increase in the metro vaccination rate.

The lower rural vaccination rate goes hand-in-glove with higher hospitalization and death rates, National Rural Health Association CEO Alan Morgan said in a recent AgriTalk podcast. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show that rural Americans face a 28% higher mortality rate from Covid-19 compared to urban counties, he said, and noted rural hospitals consistently tell him that unvaccinated people account for nearly all of the hospitalized Covid-19 patients in their small towns.

Any summer surge will likely be regional, not nationwide, and worse in areas with a vaccination rate under 35%, said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on NBC News' "Meet the Press" on Sunday. He noted that 99.2% of people who have died Covid-19 were unvaccinated.

"No vaccine is perfect," Fauci said. "But when you talk about the avoidability of hospitalization and death ... it’s really sad and tragic that most all of these are avoidable and preventable." Fauci and Morgan say higher vaccination rates are the best way to head off a potential surge, and also urge people to wear masks indoors if they're unvaccinated or living in an area with a low vaccination rate.

Sunday, July 04, 2021

Sunday special: Writer tells of visit with unvaccinated kin

By Teri Carter

Seven of us are crowded around a table for six in a packed Missouri restaurant called The Southerner, waiting for entrees that are taking forever to arrive. “Aw, they can’t help it, that’s for sure,” Dad says. “Nobody wants to work.”

I take a sip of Diet Coke and ask what I’ve been wanting to ask since we got here: “So, are all of you guys vaccinated?”

My brother Chuck is sitting across from me. “Hell, no,” he says. I ask why not. “Because it’s bull, that’s why,” he says (but more profanely). “These vaccines ain’t even approved, and coronavirus ain’t new. They ain’t sticking that thing in me. Who knows what’s in it.”

Map on Cape Girardeau floodwall
I am visiting my hometown of Cape Girardeau, Mo., having dinner with my family. I know Dad is vaccinated but have no idea about anyone else. My brothers and I were separated by divorce when we were little — I went with Mom, they went with Dad — and we are far from close. At 55, I’m the oldest. Butch, 53, and his family aren’t here. This is the first time I’ve seen Chuck, 48, since our grandfather’s 2011 funeral, where we did not sit together. Tonight, Chuck has brought his new girlfriend, his 19-year-old daughter and his 25-year-old daughter and her husband.

I look to the girlfriend next. “Oh, I am,” she says, holding up both hands. “But not by choice. My former employer made us.”

A busboy arrives to refill our water glasses. At the other end of the table, my nieces shake their heads no, and my niece’s husband says to me: “I’m not an anti-vaxxer or anything. I get a flu shot every year. This is just stupid and there’s no science. It’s all politics.” Then he turns to the whole table: “Hey, is this where we get to talk about how Biden’s not the real president?”

“Don’t start,” Dad says, and soon enough the waitress arrives with an armful of plates to put us out of our misery.

It is June 24. A day before, The Associated Press had published a story reporting: “Missouri is becoming a cautionary tale for the rest of the country: It is seeing an alarming rise in cases because of a combination of the fast-spreading delta variant and stubborn resistance among many people to getting vaccinated. Intensive care beds are filling up with surprisingly young, unvaccinated patients, and staff members are getting burned out fighting a battle that was supposed to be in its final throes.”

I live in rural Kentucky, so Covid denial and vaccine refusal are no surprise. But other than my husband, I have no family in Kentucky. Which means we have no required gatherings there. If I go to a restaurant, I go by choice and with people I know, and those people are vaccinated.

When I arrived in Missouri, I’d thought my dad and I were having dinner alone, just the two of us. After all, it was the first time I’ve been home — the first time I’ve seen him — since November 2019. He would meet me at The Southerner, he had said, next to my hotel. It wasn’t until I arrived at the restaurant that I saw the reservation was for seven — Dad being our dad, hoping not-for-the-first-time that getting us in the same room might miraculously fix us.

Sadly, on top of our already fractured and dyspeptic personal history, my family has added Trumpism and a global pandemic to the long-standing influence of local-boy-done-good Rush Limbaugh — dead now but lionized here in our shared hometown — who spent decades sowing falsehoods, selling victimhood and convincing southeast Missourians like my family that Democrats are big-government, baby-killing socialists who can’t be trusted. And now their president wants us to take a brand-new vaccine?

My family should be eager to take the shot: Missouri reportedly had the highest share in the nation of the new delta variant among its coronavirus cases late last month. But in Cape Girardeau County, another stat may be more relevant: Trump won Missouri with about 57 percent of the vote last November, but he got almost 72 percent in the county.

That was no surprise. I recall the time in 1999 that I flew home from Minnesota, where I was living then. My luggage got lost. I woke up in my hotel and went straight to the beauty supply store across the highway to get some basic toiletries. Limbaugh’s radio show was playing loud behind the counter. As she checked me out, the clerk swooned, “Don’t you just love Rush? I could listen to him all day. He says everything I think.”

The Southerner restaurant
As our family dinner at The Southerner comes to a close, everyone stands, and Dad nudges me with his knuckles: “Come with me a sec. I found one of your scrapbooks.” On the way out, Chuck says, “We’ll see y’all Saturday.”

It is 90 degrees, and a hard, hot wind whips at us the instant we step outside. In the full parking lot, we stand behind Dad’s truck, and I wait while he struggles with a tiny lighter to light his Marlboro. When it finally catches, he takes a long draw, and I ask what Chuck meant. I thought my dad and I were driving over to Illinois on our own to see more family. But it turns out Butch and his wife Donna are coming, too, and Dad thinks we should ride with them for the 90-minute drive each way.

I haven’t seen or heard from them in about a decade, so it seems like that would be weird. But I have another question: “Are they vaccinated?”

The hot wind continues to blow in all directions. We are both sweating. I have to keep pushing my hair out of my face. Dad flicks his ashes at the parking lot.

They’re not vaccinated, he explains, because they already had it, and so did one of their kids — back in September, Dad thinks. But they didn’t get all that sick.

I tell him I wouldn’t choose to get together in a big crowd of unvaccinated people, even though I’m vaccinated myself. Dad shrugs, flicks his cigarette into the wind and lights another. I am trying not to cry. We continue to stand in the full parking lot, cars pulling in and out, him smoking, me stewing. We are silent. I wonder if it sounds petty that I don’t want to share meals or ride in a car for three hours with a brother and sister-in-law whom I barely know anymore and who refused to be vaccinated.

Of course it sounds petty. Because it is petty.

But then I think about the 14 months that my cancer-surviving husband and I took the virus seriously, followed guidelines, stayed home, never ate at a restaurant (even outside), refused invitations from good friends, missed every holiday and birthday with our kids and two baby grandsons. I think about how we struggled online to get vaccine appointments and how I stood in that long line, twice, to get shots. I think about how excited we were to finally get out in the world again, to get on with our lives.

Until today, until this family dinner, I did not realize the depth and breadth of the envy and resentment I still hold for those like my own brothers and their families — the Covid deniers, the willfully unvaccinated, who spent those same 14 months going happily and carelessly about their lives as 600,000 died.

Even as I understand the toxic and steady influence of professional prevaricators like Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh, I want to place blame on the familiar. I wonder when we will get past all this. And if.

“All right, kiddo,” Dad says, taking his last drag, hugging me with one arm, and climbing into his truck. Through the window he hands me my scrapbook, which looks to be from about eighth grade. “Good God,” I exclaim, “where’d you find this?”

Teri Carter
He asks me if I remember that time I was in college and my car wouldn’t start, so he had to come meet me at the crack of dawn to help me get to class.

I do not remember, but I say yes anyway. “Come on over Saturday,” he says, pulling away, “and we’ll figure all this out.”

Teri Carter lives near Lawrenceburg, Ky. This was first published in The Washington Post.