Friday, October 15, 2021

Study affirms the broad watchdog role of local newspapers: When they close, corporate misbehavior goes up

"A study of misbehavior among publicly traded companies illustrates the critical watchdog role that newspapers play, and the problems that arise when publications go out of business," Avery Forman reports for Working Knowledge, a publication of the Harvard Business School. "When local newspapers shutter, some businesses evidently treat the lack of press coverage as permission to act badly and end up committing more illegal violations, including pollution, workplace safety infractions, and financial fraud," according to research by Harvard associate business professor Jonah Heese, University of California San Diego professor Gerardo Perez-Cavazos, and Erasmus University professor Caspar David Peter.

They undertook the study because, while previous research showed that the lack of local news results in less-informed voters, not much was known about how it affected corporate conduct. They "found that after a newspaper shuts down, violations at publicly listed companies in the paper’s circulation area increased by 1.1 percent and penalties from regulators rose by 15 percent. [They] also found that the nature of many violations was more severe in towns without newspapers," Forman reports. Those percentages translate to real money: over three years, the average company saw a $30,000 increase in penalties, and the average community whose paper closed saw about a $1.2 million increase in corporate penalties.

"The results also suggest that when firms felt they could get away with something, they went big," Heese told Forman. "The severity of the violations companies committed after newspapers vanished was more alarming than the increased volume, he says. And, because the data only captures wrongdoings that are detected, the real figures are likely higher, he notes."

Provision in Democrats' big spending bill has up to $1 billion over five years to subsidize local journalists' salaries

"As the $3.5 trillion federal spending bill slowly makes its way through the House and Senate budget reconciliation process, tucked inside is as much as $1 billion to help local journalism," Rick Edmonds reports for The Poynter Institute. "Specifically, lawmakers have picked up on one of three provisions of the proposed Local Journalism Sustainability Act — a payroll tax credit for journalists employed by local newspapers, digital-only sites or broadcast outlets. The government would subsidize half of salaries up to $50,000 the first year and 30% for four subsequent years."

It's unclear whether the provision will stay in the package, but if passed, it could provide a "life-saving infusing of cash" for struggling newsrooms. It's still unclear who will be eligible for the funding, but "right now, things look good," says Dean Ridings, CEO of America's Newspapers, which has been lobbying for the bill for more than a year. He told Edmonds that the bill has bipartisan House support, but no formal support among Senate Republicans. However, moderate Senate Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona signed on as co-sponsors earlier this month.

"A tough two years make a powerful case that now is the time to break with the long tradition that journalism should be financially independent of the government. Newspaper advertising has been in steep decline for years. Then came the Covid-19 recession of 2020 and some fresh hits to the remaining ad base as the delta strain emerged in the U.S. this summer," Edmonds writes. "The financial pressure is not as intense on other parts of the local news ecosystem, but all could get a huge boost if their news payroll gets a subsidy. The act provides a strong incentive to keep news staff intact — and even to expand it, since new hires would also qualify for the payroll tax credit."

Rural coronavirus infection and death rates still dwarf metro rates; Georgia, Idaho have highest non-metro death rates

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, Oct. 3-9
Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

New coronavirus infections in non-metropolitan counties fell about 12 percent during the week of Oct. 3-9, marking the third consecutive week of falling rates, and Covid-19 deaths dell 14% in non-metro counties and 12% in metro counties, Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. Overall, the rural infection rate was about two-thirds higher than the metropolitan rate as of Oct. 9, while the rural death rate was 89% higher.

Some states' rural areas fared better than others. Rural counties in 12 states had higher infection rates last week than two weeks ago, led by Nevada's 84% increase. "Other states that saw double-digit percentage increases in rural infection rates were New Hampshire, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, North Dakota, and Montana," Murphy and Marema report. "States that reduced their rural infection rates by more than 30% were Nebraska, Alaska, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, West Virginia, and Maine."

Among the Yonder's interactive features is a chart comparing metro and non-metro infection and deaths rates by state. It's sortable by column; this screenshot shows the top 25 states by non-metro death rates. Nevada has the highest infection rate.

Screenshot of chart by The Daily Yonder; click here for the interactive version.

Quick hits: Today is Rural Women's Day; program helps new farmers learn business; SCOTUS takes major 2nd Am. case

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.

Today the United Nations celebrates the International Day of Rural Women. This year, organizers emphasize rural women's role in lowering hunger and poverty through agriculture. Read more here.

Pollution from North Carolina's commercial poultry farms disproportionately harms rural communities with majority Black, Latino or Native American populations. A bill to better regulate the operations died without a vote this year. Read more here.

Former U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico has been confirmed as the Agriculture Department's Rural Development undersecretary. "Rural Development offers loans, grants, loan guarantees and technical assistance to support essential aspects of rural American communities including business, economic development, infrastructure, housing, first responder services and equipment and health care," Michael McDevitt reports for the Las Cruces Sun-News.

The National Farmers Union is offering a free, year-long training program to help new farmers learn the business side of agriculture. Read more here.

The Supreme Court will consider its first major Second Amendment case in more than a decade. A ruling in favor of the plaintiffs, which include a National Rifle Association affiliate, could loosen gun restrictions in much of the country. The ruling is expected in mid-2022. Read more here.

A study of Colorado teens suggests that rural communities would benefit from interventions that limit access to firearms for youth suffering from mental health crises. Read more here.

A recent study from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies details opportunities for increasing the affordability and availability of broadband in Black-majority areas of the rural South. Read more here.

Minority communities saw more hunger during pandemic

Percentage of food-insecure households by race and ethnicity
in 2020 and 2019 (Investigate Midwest chart)
"The Covid-19 pandemic was expected to drive many families into hunger as jobs were lost and supply chains were interrupted. The prediction held true, but mostly for minorities," reports The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. "The nation's overall food insecurity rate remained the same between 2019 and 2020, but Black and Hispanic households fared the worst, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data released last month. Fewer white households' struggled with food insecurity last year than the year before. Experts attributed the steady rate to government programs, such as the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program (P-EBT), intended to fight hunger. However, some of these programs are slated to end next year, which has advocates worried about what could happen to families struggling to access food."

Minority households likely fared worse because of existing disparities at the beginning of the pandemic, such as a lower median income and higher poverty rate than other groups. Other groups more likely to suffer from food insecurity include seniors, people with disabilities, people experiencing homelessness, and families with children, the Midwest Center reports.

Hunger is also disproportionately rural, previous data show. And though federal aid helped overall rural hunger go down in 2020, more children went hungry, more people used food banks, and overall food insecurity rose in nine states.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

EPA, Corps of Engineers seek participants for 10 regional forums on again redefining 'waters of the United States'

The Environmental Protection Agency is planning 10 forums to hear from the public as it rewrites its regulatory definition of "waters of the United States" in the Clean Water Act, and wants suggestions for people who should participate.

EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a notice seeking nominations of a "slate of participants" for regional roundtables from representatives from agriculture, other industries, conservation and environmental groups, developers, and mangers of drinking-water and wastewater systems.

"The agencies said they want the roundtables to highlight how WOTUS definitions affect various regions," Todd Neeley reports for DTN/Progressive Farmer. "The agencies said in a public notice they anticipate the roundtables to be held in December and January."

EPA and the Corps said in their official notice, "The agencies are committed to learning from the past regulatory approaches -- the pre-2015 regulations and guidance, the 2015 Clean Water Rule, and the 2020 Navigable Waters Protection Rule -- while engaging with stakeholders to develop an enduring definition of WOTUS."

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Markets, not politics, rule coal business; consumption and prices are up, especially in Central Appalachia, a sore spot

Bloomberg graph, adapted by The Rural Blog
Burning coal for energy in the United States has rebounded under President Biden in a way it never did under Donald Trump, who promised to revive the industry, Will Wade of Bloomberg reports.

"U.S. power plants are on track to burn 23% more coal this year, the first increase since 2013, despite Biden’s ambitious plan to eliminate carbon emissions from the power grid. The rebound comes after consumption by utilities plunged 36% under Trump, who slashed environmental regulations in an unsuccessful effort to boost the fuel," Wade reports.

"The boom is being driven by surging natural gas prices and a global energy crisis that’s forcing countries to burn dirtier fuels to keep up with demand. It’s also a stark reminder that government policy can steer energy markets, but it can’t control them. . . . As the world emerges from the coronavirus pandemic, reopening economies are driving a huge rebound for power demand. But natural gas is in short supply, creating shortfalls at a time when wind and hydro have been unreliable in some regions."

Central Appalachia, the major coal region that has been hurt most by the decade of downturn under Trump and Barack Obama, the most anti-coal president ever, has benefited most from the rebound. Coal prices there have risen 39% since Jan. 1 to $75.50 a ton, the highest since May 2019, Wade reports: "Prices in other regions are lower, but also on the rise."

Coal is a boom-and-bust business, but the trend is expected to continue, due to market forces and forecasts of a colder-than-usual winter. "Demand for coal will likely remain strong into next year, said Ernie Thrasher, CEO of Xcoal Energy & Resources, the biggest U.S. exporter of the fuel," Wade reports. "Supply is already constrained, and Thrasher said he’s hearing some utilities express concern that they may face fuel shortages over the next several months as colder weather pushes energy demand higher to heat homes."

MIT-inspired nonprofit in Kentucky is holding its first conference for entrepreneurs and innovators Friday

Rural areas need more entrepreneurs, and the entrepreneurs who are already in rural America often need help to make the most of their assets and find more of them, including innovators with ideas. In Kentucky, there's a nonprofit that aims to connect them to each other and the resources they need; informing them about opportunities, risks, and research; and, perhaps most important, inspire them and other Kentuckians "with visions for the state’s future."

Sam Ford
So says the website of AccelerateKY, which is holding a conference tomorrow in Bowling Green that is named for its mission: "Connect. Inform. Inspire." The keynoter will be Phil Budden of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program, which chose the region as its first U.S. site. That study led to creation of the nonprofit.

AccelerateKY is the brainchild of Sam Ford, a former rural journalist who teaches at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. In 2016, when he was a media researcher at MIT, world-renowned robotocist Daniela Rus said "I feel like there's a lot of pessimism about the future of work" and asked him if his native state was marked by "the bitter pessimism evident in other parts of Middle America" in the presidential election, as Jeff Howe of The Boston Globe put it. Ford replied, "It's hard to be excited about the future of work if you don't think you're in it."

To view details of Friday's conference and register for it, click here.

Next week is National Forest Products Week; bourbon's one

Oct. 17-23 is National Forest Products Week, designated by Congress in 1960 as the third week of October as to recognize the value of American forests and the products they create. "It also acknowledges the value of woodlands, commitment to good stewardship and conservation practices," says a news release from the University of Kentucky, a state more heavily forested than most.

A forest product, imparting color and flavor (Distiller.com photo)
Forests provide timber, water, wildlife habitat, opportunities for recreational activities, take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and add back oxygen. In Kentucky, "Forests provide white-oak wood for [charred] barrels, which impart 70 percent of the flavor and all of the color in bourbon," the release says, giving you a reason to observe National Forest Products Week that may not have occurred to you.

"We see it as a time to recognize and support how important forest and forest products are not to just our daily lives, but to our future," says ForestProud.org, which says it is "committed to making choices that keep forests as forests. . . . By offering renewable, sustainable, plant-based alternatives to plastics, concrete, and fossil fuels, forests and forest products provide some of the most innovative and powerful solutions we have to climate change. And we think that that is something worth supporting."

DHS stops large-scale immigration arrests at workplaces

Large-scale immigration raids at workplaces, not an uncommon occurrence at meatpacking plants, are no longer part of the Department of Homeland Security's strategy, the agency said Tuesday.

The Biden administration "said it is planning a new enforcement strategy to more effectively target employers who pay substandard wages and engage in exploitative labor practices, reports Nick Miroff of The Washington Post. "Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’s memo ordered a review of enforcement policies and gave immigration officials 60 days to devise proposals to better protect workers who report on their bosses from facing deportation."

Miroff notes, "Immigrant advocates and many Democrats who oppose the raids say they punish vulnerable workers, sow fear in immigrant communities and rarely result in consequences for employers. . . . Worksite enforcement practices have flip-flopped between Republican and Democratic administrations over the years. In 2019, the Trump administration swept up 680 workers at seven poultry and other food processing plants in Mississippi, the largest single-state immigration enforcement action in U.S. history. Four managers were later indicted."

According to Mayorkas' memo, "the department’s shift in focus to employers will reduce the demand for illegal labor by delivering stiffer consequences for companies and managers while making it easier for workers to step forward and denounce exploitation," Miroff reports.

Nearly 42,000 potential sources of water pollution from 'forever chemicals' found in the U.S.; see interactive map

PFAs contamination in the U.S. Blue dots are drinking-water sites, purple are military, and orange are others. Environmental Working Group map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

Nearly 42,000 locations in the U.S. may be sources of water pollution from long-lasting toxic chemicals called per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAs, according to new research from the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

PFAs are sometimes called "forever chemicals" because they build up in organisms and never break down in the environment. They are linked to birth defects, cancers, infertility and reduced immune responses, but most water systems lack the technology and funds to filter them out, and there are little or no legal requirements for them to do so.

The chemicals can be found in everyday items such as cosmetics and non-stick cookware. They're also present in much higher concentrations in the fire-fighting foam used for decades on military bases, ships and airports. That's why most of the contaminated water EWG found was near military bases or factories that manufacture products with PFAs.

Along with the study, EWG published an interactive map showing where it found water polluted with PFAs; click on it to see how your local water system fared.

Drought makes some towns slow or halt development

Oakley, Utah, a community of 1,470
near Salt Lake City in Summit County
(Wikipedia map)
The nation's five fastest-growing states are all in the Mountain West or Southwest, and all are facing severe drought. That drought has prompted many Western communities to halt development. In Oakley, Utah, for example, the drought has "depleted the natural springs that supply water to the community. During each of the past several summers, local leaders worried that quenching any major fire might empty the city’s water tanks," Alex Brown reports for Stateline. Though the city issued water-use restrictions this spring, constituents complained that the city continued issuing building permits, since new construction means more households using water, including newly-laid sod that would need to be watered.

"A rainy autumn has helped replenish Oakley’s water, and the city plans to drill a new well later this year. That should allow the city to double its water capacity and rescind the building moratorium," Brown reports. "But even as Oakley’s fortunes improve, communities throughout the West are facing difficult questions about water scarcity and what it means for future growth—especially because climate change is expected to make such droughts more frequent and intense."

Thur. webinar to discuss economic justice in Indian Country

L-R: Heather Fleming, Vanessa Roanhorse, Lakota Vogel, and Steve Dubb (Nonprofit Quarterly photo montage)
A Nonprofit Quarterly webinar on Thursday, Oct. 14, will feature three Native American non-profit executives discussing their work in economic justice in Indian Country as well as the challenges they face. The webinar is the first in NPQ's 2021-2022 Remaking the Economy series; it's presented in partnership with the First Nations Development Institute, which aims to improve economic conditions for Native Americans through direct financial grants, technical assistance and training, and advocacy and policy. Click here for more information about the webinar or to register.

NPQ senior editor and economic justice program director Steve Dubb will moderate the webinar. Here are the panelists:
  • Heather Fleming (Navajo), executive director of Change Labs, the only business incubator and accelerator on Navajo land. Fleming works with Hopi and Navajo (DinĂ©) citizens to create a supportive business ecosystem for Native entrepreneurs.
  • Vanessa Roanhorse (Navajo), CEO of Roanhorse Consulting, a firm co-designing a character-based lending program, with a vision of redesigning underwriting to meet Native community needs. She is also a cofounder of Native Women Lead.
  • Lakota Vogel (Cheyenne River Sioux), CEO of Four Bands Community Loan Fund, a community development financial institution (CDFI) in South Dakota. The CDFI she leads is redesigning lending to enable Native residents to build homes on trust lands.

Chiropractors can be sources of anti-vaccine misinformation

"At a time when the surgeon general says misinformation has become an urgent threat to public health, an investigation by The Associated Press found a vocal and influential group of chiropractors has been capitalizing on the pandemic by sowing fear and mistrust of vaccines," The AP reports. "They have touted their supplements as alternatives to vaccines, written doctor’s notes to allow patients to get out of mask and immunization mandates, donated large sums of money to anti-vaccine organizations and sold anti-vaccine ads on Facebook and Instagram, the AP discovered."

In many rural communities a chiropractor is one of the few specialists, and they may appeal to people who are wary of traditional doctors. It should be noted that many of the nation's 70,000 chiropractors endorse vaccination, but "the pandemic gave a new platform to a faction of chiropractors who had been stirring up anti-vaccine misinformation long before Covid-19 arrived," The AP reports. Since 2019, "chiropractors and chiropractor-backed groups have worked to influence vaccine-related legislation and policy in at least 24 states."

It's unclear how many chiropractors are anti-vaccine, but a recent survey pegs it around 20%. And though there are no nationwide numbers on vaccination rates among chiropractors, Oregon tracks vaccination rates among all health-care providers. As of September 5, only 58% of chiropractors in the state were vaccinated, compared to 92% of medical doctors and 75% of the general public, AP reports.

Anti-vaccine chiropractors commonly say their care can help patients weather viral infection or even keep them from being infected, and at least one allegedly said the pricey supplements he sold would do the trick. "Public-health advocates are alarmed by the number of chiropractors who have hitched themselves to the anti-vaccine movement and used their public prominence and sheen of medical expertise to undermine the nation's response to a Covid-19 pandemic that has killed more than 700,000 Americans," AP reports.

"People trust them. They trust their authority, but they also feel like they’re a nice alternative to traditional medicine," Erica DeWald of Vaccinate Your Family, which tracks figures in the anti-vaccine movement, told AP. "Mainstream medicine will refer people out to a chiropractor not knowing that they could be exposed to misinformation. You go because your back hurts, and then suddenly you don’t want to vaccinate your kids."

Medical marijuana boom strains rural Oklahoma utilities

Medical marijuana has exploded in popularity since it became legal in Oklahoma in 2018. Nearly 10 percent of Oklahomans have a medical marijuana card, which has ushered in a boom in the cannabis industry: there are more than 8,000 growers statewide. But marijuana is a thirsty crop, and indoor operations need grow lights, so the higher demand for water and electricity is straining some rural utilities, Seth Bodine reports for Harvest Public Media.

Iris Farms, just north of Oklahoma City, outside Stillwater, is a good example. Head grower Adam Miller told Bodine the farm raises about 5,000 cannabis plants, and says his electric bill can be up to $3,000 a month. But his water bill isn't too bad because the plants are raised indoors, where they can keep the plants watered more efficiently.

Sheldon Tatum, a rural water district manager in Hughes County, southeast of Oklahoma City, "says one of the eight growers that recently moved to his area used 223,000 gallons last month. Compare that to an average household of four that uses about 10,000 gallons a month," Bodine reports. "Tatum worries the surge in water demand could cause old pipes to break, raising maintenance costs that will lead to higher utility bills for everyone."

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Anti-mask protesters disrupt local school boards and other agencies; 'It's like a time of war,' N.H. board member says

Mask and vacine mandates have sparked widespread, often heated debate in public meetings for town leaders, school boards and more all over the country, even in places known for town-meeting civility.

“Our meetings have been the victim of politicization,” Lorrie Carey, a Merrimack Valley School Board member who has held local elected and volunteer positions in New Hampshire for 30 years, told the New Hampshire Bulletin. “We have to consider the behavior of those who will attend. You have to think about, how will I get in or out of the meeting? It’s like a time of war. I never thought I’d see that in the United States of America.”

Things have gotten so bad at school board meetings that the National School Boards Association recently wrote a letter to President Biden saying that board members, officials and students are under "immediate threat" from malice, violence and threats that are "a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes," Brendan O'Brien reports for Reuters.

In response, Attorney General Merrick Garland ordered the FBI to "work with local leaders nationwide to help address what he called a 'disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence' against educators and school board members over highly politicized issues such as mask mandates and interpretations of critical race theory," Timothy Bella and Devlin Barrett report for The Washington Post. Garland wrote in the memo that, while "spirited debate" about policy is legal, threats against public servants are not. He also wrote that the Justice Department will hold strategy sessions with law enforcement over the next month and is expected to announce measures to combat the trend.

More than 20 right-wing advocacy groups, who say they represent 427,000 members, responded with an open letter blasting NSBA's request and Garland's answer. They are angry, they say, that school boards are restricting access to public meetings and sometimes violating state open meeting laws in order to duck debate. They "unequivocally oppose violence" and say the "tiny number of minor incidents" cited by the NSBA do not justify the DOJ's response. 

However, the incidents are not so rare nor so minor as the letter claims. "At a school board meeting in Illinois, a man was arrested after allegedly striking an education official. At another in Virginia, one man was arrested for making a physical threat, a second was issued a citation for trespassing and a third was injured," Brittany Shammas reports for The Washington Post. "And at other meetings in states such as Washington, Texas, Wisconsin, Wyoming and Tennessee, school board members have had to adjourn early after being confronted by angry mobs."

A growing number of school board members, who are mostly unpaid volunteers, "are resigning or questioning their willingness to serve as meetings have devolved into shouting contests between deeply political constituencies over how racial issues are taught, masks in schools, and Covid-19 vaccines and testing requirements," Carolyn Thompson reports for The Associated Press. NSBA interim executive director Chip Slaven "said there isn't evidence of widespread departures, but he and several board members . . . said the charged political climate that has seeped from the national stage into their meetings has made a difficult job even more challenging, if not impossible."

Carey told the Bulletin's Annmarie Timmins that she listened in disbelief at an August meeting as parents swore and yelled at board members during a mask-policy discussion. The board canceled a meeting the next month and called for police backup when attendees who declined to wear masks also declined to watch the meeting from the cafeteria, a designated mask-free zone.

The protests have reached the state level, Timmins reports: "Angry protesters shut down an Executive Council meeting last week where law enforcement escorted state employees to their cars. Some of the same angry protesters stopped the state Department of Health and Human Services from rewriting the vaccine registry’s rules they believed expanded the state’s reach. Gov. Chris Sununu canceled a '603 Tour' stop last month, citing a concern for attendees’ safety."

'Dopesick,' from book about Appalachia's opioid epidemic, makes TV debut tomorrow as eight-part Hulu miniseries

"Dopesick" premieres on Hulu Oct. 13
Former Roanoke Times reporter Beth Macy took a deep dive into Appalachia's opioid epidemic with her best-seller Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America. Now the story is making its television debut, as the first episode of premieres on Hulu tomorrow. 

The eight-part series, which stars award-winning actors such as Michael Keaton [the executive producer], Rosario Dawson and Peter Sarsgaard, "takes viewers to the epicenter of America's struggle with opioid addiction, from the boardrooms of [OxyContin makers] Purdue Pharma, to a distressed Virginia mining community, to the hallways of the Drug Enforcement Agency," according to IMDB.

The series premieres less than a month after a jury found the Sackler family of Purdue Pharma culpable for their role in perpetuating the opioid epidemic. Though the evidence presented was enough to force the Sacklers to give up ownership of the firm and pay $4.3 billion, Eric Eyre of Mountain State Spotlight notes that a federal judge blocked even more damning evidence from being included in the trial: a bipartisan 2018 congressional report that condemned major opioid distributors for dumping pills in West Virginia. Eyre, formerly of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, wrote his own account of the opioid crisis in the state in Death in Mud Lick.

The book was published in 2018.
Danny Strong, executive producer and writer of the Hulu series, said he wanted "to give Purdue and the Sacklers the trial that they never got . . . to show the crimes of this company that was micromanaged by [members of] this family," he told The Guardian's David Smith. "When people see the rampant criminal behavior, which is so egregious, so shocking, they will understand how this happened and then simultaneously that the institutions of government that are supposed to protect the public from a flagrantly criminal company like this failed. And they didn’t fail by accident."

Macy, also an executive producer on the series, hopes it will keep attention on a problem that has gotten worse during the pandemic. "We still have so much work to do," she told NPR's Michel Martin. Macy was the keynote speaker at "Covering Substance Abuse and Recovery," sponsored by Oak Ridge Associated Universities and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, in November 2019.

Rural poverty, economic development and race are topics of Aspen Institute webinars scheduled Wednesday, Oct. 13

Two Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group webinars on Wednesday, Oct. 13 will discuss different aspects of rural economic development through the lens of race:

The first, at 11:30 a.m. ET, is "Shared Prosperity: Building Power Towards an Equitable Rural Economy", held in conjunction with the Rural Local Initiatives Support Corporation's annual National Seminar. It will explore the positive economic and social potential that comes with improving racial equity in rural places. From the website: "Come hear stories of power and capacity building at the community level and take away lessons on how rural places have united to become more inclusive and economically vibrant." Register here.

At 2:30 p.m. ET, the Urban Institute and leaders from six community development financial institutions will share opportunities for transforming poverty into opportunity in rural and Native communities in "What Does It Take to Transform Persistent Rural Poverty Into Opportunity?" From the website: "This virtual event will cover broad and diverse regions of rural America, discussing the critical role that CDFIs play in bringing capital and capacity to marginalized communities and towns." Register here.

Rural coronavirus shots down by nearly half in past 3 weeks

Vaccination rates as of Oct. 7, compared to the 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 click here for the interactive version.
Though new coronavirus vaccinations surged in nonmetropolitan counties for most of August and September, rates are down by nearly half in the past three weeks. About 240,000 rural residents completed their vaccinations in the first week of October, compared to nearly 450,000 three weeks ago, Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder.

"As of Thursday, Oct. 7, 42.6 percent of the total rural (nonmetropolitan) population was completely vaccinated against Covid-19. That’s an increase from two weeks ago of 0.5 percentage points," Murphy and Marema report. "The gap between the rural and metropolitan vaccination rates remained at about 12 percentage points."

Click here for more charts, maps and regional analysis from the Yonder, including an interactive map.

Meatpacking magazine takes deep dive into processor concentration and how it affects beef industry's resiliency

A recent feature piece in Meatingplace, a meat-industry magazine, takes a deep dive into major meatpackers' increasing market concentration, how that has hurt cattle producers, whether the federal government's response will help, and whether that might bring back small meatpacking plants.

Meatpackers were forced to briefly close early in the pandemic, but were back up and running within seven weeks, "racing like hell to work through inventory backed up at the feed yards," editor Tom Johnston reports. "Meatpacking leaders and regulators have hailed the relatively rapid rebound as a sign of the industry's durability even in the worst of times. But independent cattlemen say the supply-chain shocks resulting not only from the pandemic, but also the Tyson Foods' Holcomb, Kan., plant fire that preceded it and the JBS USA cybersecurity breach that followed it, spotlight its flaws."

Agricultural economists have begun to research the beef industry's resiliency in the face of such threats and what it means in the long term. It's tempting to think that redistributing processing capacity to smaller plants would increase the industry's resilience, but it's not that easy, said Azzeddine Azzam, a University of Nebraska agricultural economist who has applied to the Agriculture Department for a research grant to study the concept and told Johnston:

"First of all, resilience to what? Is it resilience to pandemic? Resilience to earthquakes? Resilience to floods? We really don't know. I think the pandemic has given us some tunnel vision. Yes, we have to protect ourselves against the next pandemic, but to me, resilience has to be resilience to a lot of unforeseen events that are going to close plants and back up cattle in feedlots."

Because resiliency means different things to different stakeholders, that confuses the debate over whether the supply chain needs fixing. Major meat processors enjoying "windfall margins" think the current structure is working fine, but "cowboys left in its dust say it doesn't work for them; packers' market power has eliminated competition and fair pricing for their cattle, an imbalance due for a course correction," Johnston reports.

Sympathy for ranchers has prompted a "groundswell of activity" from the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, including President Biden's recent executive order meant to increase competition among meat processors, "but packers are holding their ground, arguing that adding new policies — and packing capacity — in an attempt to change the industry's structure and shift market share could make it less 'resilient' in the long run," Johnston reports.

Severe drought in the West could ultimately swing power back towards ranchers, analysts say. A late July survey of farmers and ranchers from the American Farm Bureau Federation found that 85% of respondents said they're selling off portions of their herd or flock. "CattleFax analysts, at the 2021 Cattle Industry Convention and National Cattlemen's Beef Association Trade Show in Nashville in August, said the trend should tip leverage back to the producer," Johnston reports. "Randy Blach, the firm's CEO, expects a three-year liquidation to reduce feed yard placements, pushing the value of calves, feeder cattle and fed cattle up several hundred dollars per head over the next few years."

Monday, October 11, 2021

Rural school-bus driver shortage, worse in South, may cause issues for families without cars or good internet

Photo by Russ Dillingham, The Sun Journal, Lewiston, Maine
A bus-driver shortage is hurting rural school districts, and may especially hurt impoverished students," Aallyah Wright reports for Stateline. "Bus routes have been shortened or extended, drivers are working longer hours, and in some cases administrators, mechanics and even teachers are climbing behind the wheel. Some districts have offered hiring bonuses, increased drivers’ wages and paid families to bring kids to school."

The problem is widespread, according to an August survey by the National Association for Pupil Transportation, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation and the National School Transportation Association. "About 78 percent of respondents, including school administrators, transportation directors, bus drivers, mechanics and other managers said the shortage is getting 'much worse' or 'a little worse,' while 51% described their shortage as 'severe' or 'desperate,'" Wright reports. "Sixty-four percent of respondents in rural Southern states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and Oklahoma reported much more difficulty in retaining drivers, a higher percentage than respondents in the Northeast, Midwest and West."

A number of factors influenced the shortage: many older drivers retired early because they worried about catching the coronavirus. "Vaccine mandates have prompted some drivers to quit and dissuaded some would-be drivers from applying for the job," Wright reports. Some in the survey cited concerns with obtaining or updating a commercial driver's license, not getting enough work hours to make a living, and lack of benefits as issues that can impede hiring. One driver Wright interviewed said she knows drivers who have quit because of the lack of respect for the profession.

Rural education experts worry the shortage will exacerbate rural inequalities and leave many children—especially in high-poverty areas—even further behind academically, Wright reports. Families that don't have a car have a harder time getting their kids to school without school bus service, and many such families also may not have home internet access.

Rural Women Everywhere virtual conference Oct. 19-20

There's still plenty of time to register for Rural Women Everywhere, a free virtual conference to be held Oct. 19-20 celebrating rural and Native American women and what they bring to their communities.

The programming will include roundtable conversations, breakout sessions spotlighting women's experiences and reflections, and a keynote address from Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a Native American. According to the website, you'll also "hear from women journalists, organizers and activists, indigenous leaders, artists and poets, lawyers and professors, faith leaders, and young women, who are building bridges and crossing borders to connect us to one another and the places we call home."

The event is sponsored by the Rural Assembly, a Center for Rural Strategies program that produces the twice-yearly Rural Assembly Everywhere conference.

New system categorizes rural census tracts by their assets; chief designer in online event Wednesday afternoon

Census tracts in nonmetropolitan counties, categorized (Urban Institute map; click on the image to enlarge it)
The federal government measures rurality in several ways, such as population, commuting destination, and market areas. But the nonprofit Urban Institute concluded that most federal definitions tend to focus on what rural areas don't have (i.e., population and/or proximity to cities) rather than reflecting the wide variety of rural resources and economic drivers. So it created a new system of categorizing rural America that aims to reflect such assets.

Most data analyses of rural areas rely on county-level data, which "can fall short in describing rural realities," so the new typology uses census tracts "that may have different assets and strengths than what overall county data might show," Corianne Scally, the lead researcher, told The Daily Yonder. "Our typology compares rural areas to one another and leaves out urban ones. This allows diverse rural realities to stand out more clearly."

At the same time, any such system of categorization has its pitfalls, "and a close look at some of the categorizations illustrates that," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog. "Many rural census tracts are so small that categorizing them can be tricky. In this case, most of south-central Kentucky, where I grew up, is categorized as 'remote, energy-rich tracts' though they have no coal and most of their oil and gas production has faded in recent years."

Scally told Yonder Editor Tim Marema, "Even if we could perfectly capture the spirit of the framework nationally with numbers, they don’t provide the needed nuanced context of local histories and capacities someone would need to make well-informed decisions on investments and supports." Marema writes, "The new typology defines different groups of rural communities based on a wide range of physical, financial, environmental, and social assets. The hope is that the assets-based analysis will guide how public and private institutions can invest most effectively in rural communities." Essentially, the new system superimposes Purdue University's Community Capitals Framework divisions onto census tracts in nonmetropolitan counties (based on the U.S. Agriculture Department's rural-urban continuum). 

Scally will be among the speakers at an Urban Institute online event, “What Does It Take to Transform Persistent Rural Poverty into Opportunity?” from 2:30 to 3:30 ET Wednesday, Oct. 13.

Biden restores Bears Ears and other national monuments to Obama-declared sizes and protections, reversing Trump

Bears Ears National Monument in Utah (Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey)
"President Biden on Friday restored full protections to three national monuments that had been slashed in size by former president Donald Trump, including Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah — known for their stunning desert landscapes and historical treasures of Native American art and settlements, as well as a rich fossil record," Joshua Partlow reports for The Washington Post.

Invoking the 1906 Antiquities Act, "Biden used an executive order to protect 1.36 million acres in Bears Ears — slightly larger than the original boundary that President Barack Obama established in 2016 — while also restoring the 1.87 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante monument," Partlow reports. "Biden also reimposed fishing restrictions in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument . . . off the coast of New England that Trump had opened to commercial fishing."

President Biden campaigned on restoring protection to the monuments, and in June Interior Secretary Deb Haaland recommended that Biden do so, but conservationists and tribal activists had become frustrated that he hadn't done it yet, Partlow reports.

"Biden’s decision on the monuments, while expected, remains controversial, particularly in Utah. Miners are interested in the area for its stores of uranium and other minerals. Ranchers also use the land for grazing cattle. The area is popular with tourists, RV campers and those who ride off-road vehicles," Partlow reports. "Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (R) and the state’s congressional delegation have argued that land use rules for the area should be established by legislation, rather than executive order, to avoid regular changes to the boundaries by future presidents."

House Agriculture Committee largely yawns at Grassley's call for reform in livestock markets; USDA regs in the works

In an unusual across-the-Capitol appearance, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa urged the House Agriculture Committee to reauthorize mandatory price reporting by livestock markets as "the ideal vehicle for ensuring cattle producers get a fair price from meatpackers," Chuck Abbott reports for Successful Farming. "But few committee members got on board with the idea, preferring to switch topics and complain that the USDA’s proposals for fair play in the marketplace would boomerang and mean lower sale prices."

The National Farmers Union, noting that that consumer prices for beef have not meant stronger prices for cattle, said in July that Congress and federal regulators should ensure that meatpackers offer producers prices or, “if need be, bust them up.” Abbott notes, "Four packers dominate beef processing."

Committee Chairman David Scott, D-Georgia, said he was working with Republicans on a long-term extension of the price-reporting law, which was to expire on Sept. 30 but was extended through Dec. 3 by an omnibus spending resolution.

"Cash sales are a small portion of cattle sales, but spot prices are often the starting point for sales made under pricing agreements," Abbott notes. "Cattle activists say a larger volume of cash sales is needed to assure fair prices." Grassley's reauthorization bill "has been idled in the Senate Agriculture Committee since it was introduced in March."

Abbott reports "Only a couple of House Agriculture members spoke up for Grassley’s approach. Republicans tended to warn that USDA proposals to give farmers more leverage in dealing with packers would backfire, an argument also made by a meat industry witness. . .. In particular, Republicans pointed to a proposal that would make it easier for producers to win a complaint of unfair treatment by processors. The change in standards might overturn contracts and other arrangements that pay a premium to producers who, for example, raise cattle yielding high-quality beef, they said."

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who followed Grassley as a witness, said “The goal is to assure there is a fair price for producers,” while seeing that “as we try to provide greater transparency, we don’t necessarily sacrifice the benefits of the existing system in terms of efficiency.” USDA is working on three regulations on livestock marketing.

To watch a video of the House Agriculture hearing, click here. Written testimony of witnesses is here.