Friday, January 14, 2022

Rural U.S. not ready for electric vehicles, witnesses tell House committee; Jan. 19 webinar to discuss rural EVs

"Though the Biden administration is going full speed ahead at expanding the use of electric vehicles, witnesses told the House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday that rural America in particular faces a number of barriers to overcome," Todd Neeley reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "The committee held a four-hour hearing that featured witnesses from the auto industry, rural power interests and the ethanol industry, who painted a cloudy picture of just how rural areas will contribute to the Biden administration's goal of electric vehicles (EVs) making up 50% of all auto sales by 2030."

Rural residents worry about the cost and practicality of EVs. Many have to drive long distances for work, shopping or appointments, and fear EVs won't be feasible because the vehicles must recharge every so often, Manhattan Institute senior fellow Mark Mills said. Government subsidies could alleviate sticker shock, and fears about recharging are unfounded since most EVs on the market offer mileage rates comparable to regular cars, Neeley reports.

But, Mills said, a farmer with a heavy load might get far lower mileage. Another problem: recharging an EV battery takes about 10 hours, though supercharger stations can do it in 40 minutes. Upgrading available charging stations to superchargers would be an expensive proposition, especially since infrastructure costs more to upgrade in rural areas, Neeley reports.

Another problem Mills noted: Rural residents see 50% more power outages than urban areas. When the power is out, they rely on gasoline-powered generators. A good supply of gasoline is a few hundred dollars, but if homeowners had to rely on electricity, they'd have to spend over $30,000 on a home-based battery storage system, Neeley reports.

Renewable energy newsroom CleanTechnica will host a free webinar at 1 p.m. ET Wednesday, Jan. 19, to discuss EVs and electrification in rural communities. CEO Zachary Shahan will moderate a panel including representatives from Dominion Energy Virginia and ABB, a tech company that makes EV charging stations. Click here for more information or to register.

Pandemic roundup: Interactive database lets you track local cases; dark days ahead for nurses and hospitals

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

The pandemic highlights rural health-care disparities, writes the editorial board of The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Read more here.

The New York Times has a new interactive database that allows you to track coronavirus cases in any state, county or metro area. Check it out here.

A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that all vaccinated participants with severe Covid-19 had at least one other risk factor, including age, poor immune system, heart disease, and more. Read more here.

Hospitals and nursing homes are so short-staffed that some are asking infected nurses to come in to work. Some facilities are also asking nurses to use vacation and sick days to stay home if they test positive for coronavirus. That could put some infected nurses in an impossible position: risk financial ruin if they don't have enough paid time off, or go to work sick and endanger patients and coworkers. Experts warn that darker days are ahead for hospitals.

NBC News has a new interactive map tracking hospital stress. Check it out here.

Quick hits: Drought reveals 'lost national park' along Colorado River; podcast explores coal in Appalachia

Eric Balken, executive director of the Glen Canyon Institute, walks through a Colorado River canyon that was filled by Lake Powell until a few years ago, when drought began lowering lake levels. (NPR photo by Claire Harbage)
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

A recent Inside Appalachia podcast explores coal's economic and health impacts on Appalachian coal communities. The hosts will also discuss the industry's past and future with regards to labor and climate change, and will talk to Indigenous communities about the future of coal. Listen to it here.

Hunters killed 20 wolves that wandered out of Yellowstone National Park in recent months, the most killed by hunting in one season since wolves were reintroduced to the area more than 25 years ago. The kills mean a "significant setback for the species' long-term viability and for wolf research," park officials said. Read more here.

The megadrought in the West has shrunk Lake Powell so much that it's revealing America's "lost national park," Glen Canyon. Read more here.

Sacramento radio station that connected with rural counties in early pandemic offers tips for other public newsrooms

Sacramento State University radio station CapRadio usually focuses coverage on local and state government, but when the pandemic began, the station realized its wide-ranging signal could reach and inform rural audiences that might not have much, if any, local news coverage on pandemic-related topics such as infection rates, economic impact, supply chains, and more, Jesikah Maria Ross and Olivia Henry report for Current, a newsroom focusing on public media.

Wikipedia map, adapted by The Rural Blog
So in the early months of the pandemic, the station built relationships in Plumas and Sierra counties, mountain communities about three hours away. "About a half-dozen planning conversations resulted in a seven-part feature series based on community feedback. Stories were shared back with residents through email newsletters, local Facebook groups and community newspapers," Ross and Henry report. "Back then, it was challenging for engagement practitioners in public radio to forge new connections because of the pandemic. And it still is. Not only are people and organizations exhausted, but in-person meetings can be risky in the face of Covid, extreme weather and wildfires."

Since Covid-19 caseloads are skyrocketing again, Ross and Henry offer ideas for how other public radio stations can build sustained relationships remotely:

  • Establish community partnerships with groups people trust for information and support.
  • Find an engagement tool (possibly surveys) that works with partners' networks and bandwidth.
  • Bring community partners and local journalists into the editorial process.
  • Plan for how to share the stories back with residents.

New virtual platform set up by land-grant universities lets farmers help other farmers with greener farming practices

A new virtual platform allows farmers to swap tips and tutorials on greener farming practices.

"One Good Idea was created to increase farmer-to-farmer learning about methods to improve soil, land and finances. Topics cover an array of subjects such as cover crops, conservation tillage, rotational grazing and nutrient management," Jordan Strickler reports for the University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. Farmers can submit videos, podcasts or ideas in other formats sharing how they successfully adopted such practices.

Farmers can share how they improve soil health and other such practices to help farmers considering similar practices, Strickler reports. The project is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency and is a collaboration of land-grant universities: UK, Mississippi State University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Arkansas and the University of Illinois.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Gates is nation's largest farmland owner for 2nd year in row

A timber baron and a philanthropist now own more land in the U.S. than any other American, according to a new report showing the top 100 landowners in the United States. Tech maven Bill Gates remained largest owner of farmland for the second year in a row, Eric O'Keefe reports for Successful Farming. O'Keefe unveiled the Land Report 100 at the 2022 Land Expo in Des Moines Jan. 11.

"In 2021, California’s Emmerson family, owners of Sierra Pacific Industries, acquired 175,000 acres in Oregon from Seneca Jones Timber. That transaction, which was announced on Oct. 1, raised the family’s holdings to more than 2.33 million deeded acres," O'Keefe reports. "Liberty Media Chairman John Malone ranked No. 2 with 2.2 million acres of ranchland out West and timberland holdings in the Northeast. Washington’s Reed family ranked No. 3 with 2.1 million acres. CNN founder Ted Turner ranked No. 4 with 2 million acres. Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke ranked fifth with 1,627,500 acres. In recent years, Kroenke Ranches has become a major player in the renewable energy sector and is on track to be able to power more than 1 million households." Jeff Bezos of Amazon came in 24th with 420,000 acres, mostly in rural Texas.

Gates, founder of Microsoft, took 47th place for overall land ownership with 268,984 acres, but owns the most farmland in the U.S. "Instead of what he bought, of note in 2021 was what Microsoft’s cofounder did not buy: Easterday Farms and Ranches," O'Keefe reports. "The extensive operations in eastern Washington were at the center of a megamillion-dollar scam that defrauded Tyson Foods, among others. At a bankruptcy court auction, Farmland Reserve paid $209 million, outbidding an investment company owned by Gates by $1 million."

Gannett to stop Saturday print editions at 136 newspapers, but will give subscribers online access to all its papers

Gannett Co., the nation's largest newspaper chain, will discontinue Saturday print editions at 136 of its 253 dailies starting March 5. Instead, subscribers will gain "new, additional benefits" such as online access to all other Gannett papers, according to an email to staff Wednesday, Don Seiffert reports for the Boston Business Journal.

"The move is the latest in a series of cost-cutting actions newspaper owner Gannett has implemented over the last several years," Bob Joseph reports for WNBF in Binghamton, N.Y., long a Gannett town. "Many newspaper industry observers had expected Gannett to drop more print editions in 2022. The company started the process by eliminating several print editions around holiday weekends last year."

Gannett won't say when or if it plans to drop select weekday print editions, but Mondays and Tuesdays are likely targets because print advertising is light on those days, Joseph reports.

Gannett spokesperson Lark-Marie Anton said in a statement to the Business Journal: "Our business — just like any other — is adapting to a competitive digital world. With more of our readers engaging with our content online, we are embracing our digital future with this evolved Saturday experience while ensuring our subscribers have unlimited access to the news, sports, events and information they value most."

Rural America keeps gaining dollar stores, though some residents oppose them

Anderson's County Store in downtown Pittsgrove, N.J. (Philadelphia Inquirer photo by Alejandro Alvarez)

Dollar General Corp. is a rural juggernaut, with more than 18,000 stores in the United States. But some rural residents don't want its stores. Local organizers in Pittsgrove Township, N.J., have been fighting to keep a Dollar General from opening in the community of just under 9,000, Jason Nark reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The town's organizing board recently gave Dollar General preliminary approval to open, but some residents say the store would be an eyesore. Nick Mesiano, a 27-year-old web developer, has spearheaded efforts to keep Pittsgrove retain its character. Last year he launched a website, Save Pittsgrove, that organized locals to successfully fight off a proposed industrial trash facility. He later used the site to rally opposition to Dollar General, but since the store's construction seems inevitable at this point, he's trying to at least make sure it fits in with the township's historic buildings.

Pittsgrove Township in Salem County
(Wikipedia map)

A Dollar General spokesperson said the stores fill a retail void in rural America, but there are two other Dollar General locations within five miles of the proposed store. It's also half a mile from Anderson's County Store, "a quintessential general store that dates back to the 1700s. The store features plank floors worn smooth over the centuries, hot coffee, and a deli that makes sandwiches, things you wouldn’t find at Dollar General," Nark reports. Dollar stores often hurt locally owned businesses.

Pittsgrover resident Erik Cagle told Nark he thinks Anderson's will thrive even though Dollar General offers cheaper merchandise. "I guess they’ve created a recipe for creating revenue," Cagle said of Dollar General, “but I think they might be underestimating the closeness of the community."

What's happening in Pittsgrove is happening all over rural America, as rural areas increasingly lose grocery stores and gain dollar stores and super centers. Recently published research from the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service also found that "although single-location grocery stores outnumbered chains in 2015, they have been decreasing in share of food retailers," USDA reports.

"Results showed that of the 1,947 nonmetro counties in the contiguous United States, rural nonmetro counties had fewer of all five types of stores than large and small urban nonmetro counties. In 2015, there were 23 counties without food retailers of any type, and all of those were in rural nonmetro counties. Of the 44 counties with no grocery stores, 40 were rural nonmetro and 4 were urban nonmetro. There were 41 nonmetro counties with just one food retailer, and 115 with only one grocery store," according to the report. "Single-location grocery stores, as opposed to chain stores, made up a larger percentage of the grocery stores in rural counties than in nonmetro urban counties. In 2015, single-location grocery stores comprised about 82 percent of all food stores in rural counties, compared with about 70 percent in large urban nonmetro counties and 74 percent in small urban nonmetro counties."

State legislatures' pandemic precautions — or lack thereof — reflect gap between libertarians and public health

State legislatures' pandemic precautions for lawmakers — or lack thereof — "highlight a persistent partisan gap in pandemic policy as states begin a third year of legislative sessions amid a virus outbreak that many had assumed would be waning but is instead surging to near peak levels of hospitalizations because of the Omicron variant," David Lieb reports for The Associated Press. "As lawmakers in some Democratic-led states meet remotely because of renewed Covid-19 concerns, their counterparts in many Republican-led legislatures are beginning their 2022 sessions on a quest to outlaw vaccine mandates and roll back pandemic precautions.

For example, in Democrat-led Washington state, most House business this week was conducted remotely. Anyone who wants to step onto the House floor must get a coronavirus test three times a week and show proof of full vaccination and booster shot. "By contrast, Missouri’s Republican-led legislature began a fully in-person session with no Covid-19 screening at the Capitol and no requirement to be vaccinated or wear masks," Lieb reports. "One week into their session, lawmakers already have filed nearly three dozen bills banning, discouraging or providing exemptions from vaccination requirements."

Resistance to vaccination, masking, and/or mandates for either is mostly rooted in libertarian ideology, Lieb reports, quoting Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association: “In many ways, the data around vaccines, masks and all these things is kind of bearing out as a proxy for the role of government. . . . We have in effect pulled into two different camps with two different views of reality.” Benjamin sees an “intellectual schism” that is unlikely to be bridged and is “very disturbing. We have in effect pulled into two different camps with two different views of reality.”

Op-ed: Towns with schools need newspapers; without one, their young people's achievements 'are left unsung'

Lloyd Omdahl
Rural newspapers have been closing "left and right" over the past two decades, but it's important to keep them open, especially in communities with schools, according to a column in the Minot Daily News in North Dakota by former lieutenant governor and political-science professor Lloyd Omdahl. One big reason: local newspapers highlight and increase community pride. 

"Much of our community life revolves around the local school. Towns without newspapers still have young people competing in a full array of sports and extracurricular activities. For them, school days leave indelible memories, supported by clippings of their feats from the local newspaper – if there is one. Without the paper, they are left unsung," Omdahl writes. "Every city with a school has youngsters eager to excel and to be encouraged. The local newspaper gives enduring evidence of their efforts. Every town with a school needs a newspaper."

Because newspapers are so important to communities, Omdahl proposed several months ago that city treasuries pitch in some funding. Many editors were skeptical of the notion out of a desire to retain independent from even perceived government influence. But other local governments have invested in their newspapers after recognizing the critical role they fill, Omdahl writes.

"Most of the nostalgics like to think of the days when their home towns had a healthy sense of community. While it is not possible to retreat to earlier days, it seems that communities ought to preserve what is left and find new ways to build a sense of place and belonging," Ohmdal writes. "Many of our communities are surrendering their sense of community without a fight. To conduct this fight, perhaps newspapers may have to become reoriented to the changing demographics and economics by accepting different ways of financing."

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Feds relax rules for local and state governments' relief funds; 'a major win for many smaller communities'

"State and local governments receiving pandemic aid payments under a $350 billion federal program gained new flexibility and further clarity with how they can use the funding, under a final rule that the U.S. Treasury Department issued," Bill Lucia reports for Route Fifty. "The 437-page rule-making document released Jan. 6 provides additional information on how aid recipients can spend money from the American Rescue Plan Act on capital expenditures, employee pay and water, sewer and broadband projects, among other areas."

According to the final rule, local governments can use $10 million of their relief payments to pay down revenue losses. That allows them "to spend the money on a broad range of general government expenses without jumping through administrative hoops outlined in an earlier version of the rule. This is a major win for many smaller communities," Lucia reports. The guidelines also clarify that governments can use some funds for water, sewer, and broadband projects.

The final rule takes effect April 1, but aid recipients can start following the final guidelines now, the department said. "Treasury made clear that state and local government aid recipients are still barred from dumping their aid into "rainy day" reserve funds, using it for debt service payments, or depositing it into pension funds to pay down liabilities," Lucia reports. "The rule also specifies that states cannot use their funding to "directly or indirectly" offset reductions in tax revenue resulting from changes in law or policy, beginning on March 3 of last year. The law's restrictions around offsetting tax reductions have been facing legal challenges brought by multiple states."

Does your state spend more or less than average on health care? Leaders in per-resident outlays tend to be rural

Graphics by Self from Census Bureau survey of governments
State and local governments are spending an increasing share of the money on health care, and the numbers were rising even before the pandemic. In 2019, the overall share was 9.6 percent. Since then, the federal government has poured billions extra into health care due to the pandemic, so that will skew the data for 2020 and 2021 when they are compiled by the Bureau of the Census.

Rural states dominate the top five states in state and local health-care spending. The leader is Wyoming, at 19.7% of total spending, and it's by far the leader in spending per resident, $2,978. South Carolina is second, at 19.3% and $1,730. North Carolina is third in health care's share of total spending, 17.9%, and fifth in per-resident spending, at $1,536.

Kansas is third in per-resident spending, at $1,558, and sixth in share of total spending, at 16.1%. Mississippi is fourth in per-resident spending, at $1,547, and also fourth in share of total spending, at 17.3%. Alabama is ninth in per-resident spending, at $1,474, but fifth in share of total spending, 16.8%. For a report with a full table of the states, go here.

New rural coronavirus infections break single-week record last week as cases more than doubled from the week before

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, Jan. 1-8
Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

Nonmetropolitan counties reported 393,000 new coronavirus cases Jan. 1-8, setting a new record for infections in a single seven-day period and increasing more than 205,000 from the week before. "That’s the largest single-week increase in new cases since the pandemic hit rural America in March 2020," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder. "The previous record was 232,000 new cases, recorded one year ago this week at the height of the winter 2021 surge."

Though Omicron-variant infections were slow to infiltrate rural areas, "Rural counties are now seeing higher rates of infection increase than metropolitan areas," Marema reports. "New infections grew by 110% in rural counties last week. In metropolitan counties, new cases grew by 60%."

Deaths related to Covid-19 are rising in both rural and metropolitan counties. Rural counties reported 2,264 new deaths last week, an increase of about 20% over the week before. Metropolitan counties reported 8,407 new deaths in the same time period, a 25% jump from the previous week.

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

If you see a snowy owl, that doesn't mean it's starving

Martin Stoffel of Saskatchewan is one of two owl banders 
who provided data for the research. (Photo by Daniel Dupont)
You may see a snowy owl this month. Given the weather, you may think it's starving. It's probably not, according to research by according to University of Sas­katchewan scientist Karen Wiebe.

Many snowy owls spend winter in southern Canada and the northern U.S. "They pop up in odd places—hunkering down on haystacks in farm fields, just off the runways at airports, atop light poles in grocery store parking lots—to the de­light of birders and Harry Potter fans," writes Erica Cirino of All About Birds. "It’s also common for some people to feel anxiety over the snowies, believing them to be hungry vagrants." For example, a TV station in Michi­gan’s Upper Peninsula "re­ported that the owls’ southern travels were 'linked to food supply' and that 'Snowy owls often arrive in Michigan weakened and starving.' That first statement is often true, but the second is generally not true."

Wiebe and graduate student Alexander Chang published research in August that showed "most snowy owls wintering in southern Canada ap­peared to be doing just fine," Cirino reports. "Indeed, many of the owls actually put on weight over the winter by increasing their subcutaneous fat stores (fat that accumulates under the skin on birds’ chests and beneath their wings and is used for both insula­tion and energy)." Other studies have found likewise. At Logan International Airport in Boston, Norman Smith of Massachusetts Audubon says he’s banded more than 700 snowies since 1981. He has not experienced a single year where hatch-year owls have showed signs of starvation due to lack of food."

All About Birds is a publication of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Supreme Court blocks bid to revive year-round E15 sales

"The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday turned away an industry group's bid to revive a decision made by the Environmental Protection Agency under former President Donald Trump to allow expanded sales of gasoline that has a higher ethanol blend, called E15," Stephanie Kelly reports for Reuters. "The action by the justices dealt a blow to the ethanol industry, which wants to increase sales and access to E15. Growth Energy, a biofuels industry group that had filed a petition asking the justices to review a lower court's ruling vacating the Trump administration E15 policy, expressed disappointment in the Supreme Court's decision."

Until EPA reversed its policy in 2019, E15 sales were banned in summer because of concern that it contributes to smog on hot days. A federal appeals court panel ruled unanimously in 2021 that EPA overstepped its authority when it followed President Trump's order to allow year-round E15 sales.

"E15 is a small part of the U.S. fuel market, perhaps 520 million gallons a year, but proponents see it as a lever to expand ethanol’s share of the gasoline market, which totaled around 135 billion gallons in 2021," Chuck Abbott reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network. "The traditional blend of ethanol is 10%."

Children whose parents died from Covid-19 need better access to mental-health services, especially in rural areas

Hundreds of thousands of children have lost a parent or caregiver to Covid-19, but many lack mental-health services, especially those in rural and other underserved communities.

"From January 2020 to November 2021, more than 167,000 children under 18 lost a parent or in-home caregiver to Covid-19, according to a December report titled 'Hidden Pain' by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, Nemours Children’s Health and the Covid Collaborative," Aallyah Wright reports for Stateline. "Psychologists say this loss has caused an uptick in anxiety, depression, trauma- and stress-related disorders in some children. Mental-health professionals, like others in health care, have experienced burnout amid much higher caseloads. Last fall, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association declared a national state of emergency in children’s mental health."

Many children in underserved communities are having a harder time processing their grief because of existing stressors such as housing insecurity, hunger, and disruptions to schooling, Wright reports.

"The Biden administration has directed some pandemic relief aid to student mental health programs and some states passed related legislation, but none of the efforts have focused solely on children who have lost caregivers," Wright reports. "With states’ 2022 legislative sessions underway, mental health advocates hope the youth mental health crisis will push lawmakers to pass laws that increase access and availability of services, expand mental health awareness and alleviate a strained mental health workforce, especially in rural areas."

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Farmers urged to use clout on WOTUS rewrite; Biden says he's trying to help them; Vilsack touts cover-crop program

The American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation's largest agriculture organization, is holding its annual convention this week in Atlanta, through tomorrow. Here are some highlights:

Opening the convention on Monday, AFBF President Zippy Duvall urged members to use their political clout to ensure that Agriculture Department climate-change mitigation programs "respect farmers" and urged action on the Environmental Protection Agency's plan to rewrite the regulatory definition of "waters of the United States" in the Clean Water Act.

The Obama administration had rewritten the definition to protect intermittent and seasonal waterways under federal pollution regulations, which AFBF opposed, Chuck Abbott notes for the Food & Environment Reporting Network. The Trump administration rewrote the definition again to scale back protections, but a federal judge rejected it, saying it could lead to serious environmental harm. EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have sought farmers' input on the planned rewrite.

"It is critical that this administration understands that we should not need a team of lawyers and consultants just to farm our land," Duvall said.

In a recorded speech to delegates Monday, President Biden sought to assure them that he is trying to help farmers prosper and ensure they get fair prices for their crops, Abbott reports: "Biden, who has assailed meatpackers for high profits during the pandemic, pointed to a proposed $1 billion to expand slaughter capacity and efforts to keep ag exports moving despite port congestion."

Biden said, "This isn’t about Republicans or Democrats, red states or blue states. It’s about making sure that your contributions are recognized and your challenges are addressed," Biden said. "Every day, you feed and fuel our country. I want you to know that every day—I mean this —every day you have a partner in the White House."

Immediately after Biden's message, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack took the stage, saying USDA is committed to funding pilot projects to help farmers make more money while helping the administration meet its climate-change mitigation goals. He stressed that such programs must be "voluntary and incentive-based," Jeff Beach reports for AgWeek.

Vilsack announced a conservation program that aims to double the nation's cover-crop plantings to 30 million acres by 2030, Karl Plume reports for Reuters. The agency's Natural Resources Conservation Service has allocated $38 million to help farmers in 11 states plant crops in fields that would otherwise be left fallow. The practice can improve soil health, decrease soil erosion and capture and store carbon. "The investment, made through a partnership with the United Soybean Board, National Corn Growers Association, National Pork Board and others, is the latest farm-level effort by the Biden administration meant to address climate change," Plume reports. (In related news: A newly published study found that the Corn Belt has lost 35 percent of its topsoil since Europeans colonized the area).

Vilsack also called out China for being $16 billion behind on commitments to buy American farm products. In the "Phase One" trade agreement in early 2020, China said it would buy $80 billion in U.S. agriculture, food and seafood exports in 2020-21. But through November, with one month left in the agreement, China had purchased only $56.3 billion, Abbott reports.

First African American nominated to head Delta authority

Corey Wiggins
President Biden has nominated Corey Wiggins, executive director of the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP, to be federal co-chair of the Delta Regional Authority. If confirmed by the Senate he would be the first African American to serve as a presidential appointee at the DRA, a regional development agency serving parts of eight states from Illinois to Louisiana, according to the Delta Grassroots Caucus.

"Corey Wiggins grew up in rural Mississippi and has demonstrated a deep commitment to public service throughout his distinguished career," the caucus said in a press release. Wiggins, a native of Hazelhurst in southwest Mississippi, has a master's degree on public health with an emphasis in health policy and a Ph.D. from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Covid-19 infections at meatpacking plants slow production

Rising coronavirus infections among meatpacking workers "have forced meat plants to slow production and the government to replace slaughterhouse inspectors, meat companies and union officials said," Tom Polansek reports for Reuters. "Meatpacking, an early epicenter of the pandemic in 2020, is the latest sector to be disrupted by a surge in cases of the highly contagious Omicron variant, which has also left airlines, hospitals, and schools scrambling for staff."

As of Jan. 3, infections had increased over the previous two weeks in 26 of the 30 counties with the nation's largest beef production plants. The Agriculture Department "estimated beef processors killed 112,000 cattle on Friday, down about 6 percent from a year earlier and matching Jan. 3 levels that were the lowest since October. Pig slaughtering, meanwhile, was down about 5% from last year on Friday," Polansek reports. "Less slaughter capacity reduces U.S. beef supplies at a time of booming demand and means farmers must keep cattle longer in feed yards or on ranches. A sustained period of lower production could further increase high meat prices at a time of inflation fears."

It's not just the line workers getting sick: inspectors are increasingly getting infected too, and they could spread it to other plants. "USDA said it follows U.S. health guidelines and requires meatpacking workers in regions with high Covid-19 transmission to wear masks when inspectors are present," Polansek reports.

$10 billion Treasury program to help small businesses, especially minority-owned or those in poor or rural areas

The Treasury Department is reviving a program to hand out $10 billion to small businesses in a bid to help the nation's economy recover from the pandemic. The State Small Business Credit Initiative will set aside $1.5 billion for businesses owned by rural and other socially and economically disadvantaged groups; another $500 million is earmarked for businesses with fewer than 10 employees, Amara Omeokwe reports for The Wall Street Journal. Funding for the program comes from the $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package Democrats passed in March.

SBIC "will direct money to states, territories and tribal governments for programs that provide venture capital or encourage private lenders to issue loans to small firms. The program revives a policy put into place following the 2007-2009 recession, when banks cut back on lending to small firms," Omeokwe reports. "The $10 billion is more than six times as large the cost of the earlier program, in part because the administration and Congress wanted to dedicate funds to disadvantaged groups, said Adair Morse, the Treasury Department’s deputy assistant secretary of capital access. The groups include racial minorities, rural communities and veterans, according to program guidelines."

The first payments are expected to begin in the next two months, but will vary as states and other recipients were given wide latitude to design their programs. "Some Republicans have countered that the $10 billion program was unnecessary, given that more than $1 trillion in federal funding has already been directed toward small businesses over the course of the pandemic," Omeokwe reports. But "a Treasury Department official said the funds under the State Small Business Credit Initiative aren’t meant to fill revenue holes caused by the pandemic, but rather to help small businesses find sources of capital to support their long-term recovery and growth."

The Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection Program was meant to help small businesses get an economic boost with forgivable loans, but rural businesses and others owned by disadvantaged groups were less likely to receive the money, Omeokwe reports.

Rural home-health agencies get care started sooner but urban agencies better at keeping patients out of the hospital

A newly published study in the Journal of Rural Health examines rural-urban differences in home-health care using national home health data from 2014 to 2018 from 7,908 home-health agencies, 1,537 of which were rural. Here are some of the study's findings:

  • Rural agencies were less likely to be for-profit and accredited.
  • Rural agencies were more likely to be hospital-based.
  • Rural agencies were more likely to serve Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries.
  • Rural agencies were more likely to have hospice programs.
  • Rural agencies were consistently better at establishing timely care.
  • Urban agencies were better at keeping patients out of the emergency room or hospital.
  • Providers from rural home-health agencies often spend significant time traveling to and from patients' homes, which could result in less-efficient care.
  • Rural agencies also face persistent staffing and resource issues.
  • Rural home-health patients are also more likely to be in poorer health than urban patients.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Opinion: Self-driving tractor is a symbol of increasing automation, which has hurt the rural economy

The John Deere 8R autonomous tractor on display at the CES 2022 trade show. (Getty Images photo by Alex Wong)

The annual Consumer Electronics Show has been wowing audiences with tech innovations since 1967, with notable gadgets such as the CD player, the Nintendo Entertainment System, and the first home VCR all making their debut there. So it may seem odd that this year's headliner was an autonomous John Deere tractor, but "if that seems incongruous, think again. Farm equipment belongs at a technology fair," columnist David Von Drehle writes for The Washington Post. "Arguably, no technology matters more. From the days of the Fertile Crescent, agriculture has pushed technology along."

But, he warns, the trend of automation that's transformed agriculture over the past 75 years presages similar changes in other industries—and America must better manage those changes better than it has with agriculture.

The self-driving tractor—which can be controlled via smartphone app—continues a decades-long trend of automation, Von Drehle writes: "Since 1948, total agricultural output in the United States has more than doubled, while the number of self-employed and family farmworkers has dropped by roughly 75 percent. Put another way: One farmer today does the work of eight agricultural workers in the post-World War II generation. And that’s before the farmerless tractor."

Increasing automation has accentuated the divide between small-scale farmers who often work second jobs off the farm, and large-scale operators who can afford to buy a $500,000 self-driving tractor. "According to a paper by the agricultural economist Jayson Lusk at Purdue University, two-thirds of the nation’s farm output comes from operations with sales above $1 million per year," Von Drehle writes. "As a result, the wealth gap hit farm country early. U.S. spending on foods and fibers is robust, but the money goes into fewer hands." Absentee landowners who rent or sharecrop to small farmers also claim a percentage of the proceeds.

Because of this increasing agricultural wealth gap, "the rural heartland is struggling. Small towns and crossroads have dwindled to almost nothing. Surviving communities struggle to hold on to their young people, whose labor is no longer needed. Rural health care is suffering as hospitals consolidate. School districts are starved for students. County governments serve fewer citizens and therefore provide fewer jobs," Von Drehle writes. "Census data indicate that about 40 percent of Americans lived on a farm in 1900, and today the number is around 1 percent. That’s not because there’s no money in farming — there will be money in farming as long as humans need to eat. It’s because there is so little work left for farmers."

The same trend is hurting the economy as a whole, as other industries automate as fast as they can to maximize profit, he believes. "We cannot hollow out the entire economy as we’ve allowed rural America to be hollowed. We need to become much more sophisticated and much more vigorous about lifelong learning, acquisition of new skills, support for workers in transition (and their families). We need to understand that education is no longer preparation for a career, but preparation for disrupted careers: High school and college graduates must excel in teamwork, skill-building and adaptation," Von Drehle writes. "A species that can go from cast-iron to steel plows, and from there to autonomous tractors, is a problem-solving species. Which is a good thing, because the transformation of developed economies by technology is creating a whole lot of problems. We can do better with eventual, inevitable changes than we’ve done by rural America, but not without constant focus and the willingness to think and act in new ways. The future will not drive itself."

USDA boosts school meal reimbursement rate to help with inflation, supply-chain woes; will cost about $750 million

The Agriculture Department will spend another $750 million to help schools deal with the increased meal program costs brought on by inflation and supply-chain issues. "That’s an addition to the $1.5 billion in extra funding USDA recently directed out of the Commodity Credit Corporation," Ximena Bustillo reports for Politico's Weekly Agriculture. "It’s also on top of the higher than normal reimbursement rates schools have been receiving for much of the pandemic to help make things easier on their nutrition programs, which have been central in efforts to feed millions of kids as well as their families throughout the pandemic. Overall, USDA said schools are getting 22 percent more than they would normally."

The newly announced funds come in the form of a reimbursement rate adjustment; schools will get about 25 cents more per school lunch this year. "That might sound small, but it’s a big deal for school food operators struggling with increased costs, from food to labor and packaging, as well as upended supply chains," Bustillo reports,

Bill Lucia of Route Fifty reports: The "School Nutrition Association surveyed about 1,200 school nutrition directors between October and November about supply chain issues. Those findings, released [in December], showed that top challenges school lunch programs faced—cited by over 98% of respondents—included shortages or insufficient quantities of menu items, other supplies or packaging, as well as discontinued menu items. Over three-quarters of respondents said those challenges were 'significant.'"

SNA President Beth Wallace said in a statement that the $750 million "delivers desperately-needed relief to school meal programs" and that the organization "greatly appreciates USDA’s ongoing efforts to provide additional support for school nutrition professionals who are working so hard to ensure students continue to receive healthy meals at school," Bustillo reports.

State laws in Washington don't make utilities do much to prevent wildfires; see what your state's laws say

Wildfire Risk Index map (Federal Emergency Management Agency map; click the image to enlarge it)

Electric utilities have been implicated in wildfires, but in Washington state and elsewhere, state laws may not require them to do much to prevent such disasters or hold them accountable when they do happen, Rebecca Moss reports for The Seattle Times. That has grim implications in Washington, which had the second-most acreage burned due to human negligence in 2020. It also matters in other Western states and wildfire-prone areas across the South and Midwest, especially in cash-strapped rural communities that may have a hard time recovering from damage on their own. 

About 85 percent of wildfires in the U.S. are caused by humans, either deliberately or negligently. Poorly maintained utility electrical equipment falls under the category of negligent human behavior, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. California utility giant Pacific Gas and Electric is a prime offender: The company has been implicated in more than 20 wildfires in the state and was found responsible for the deadly 2018 Camp Fire and 2021 Dixie Fire; its liability costs for the Dixie Fire alone could reach $1.15 billion.

California and Oregon "have guidelines and requirements for companies to cut power in emergency situations, when conditions like high winds and drought escalate the risk of catastrophic fires, and they have stronger reporting requirements," Moss reports. But in Washington, "The state’s law and regulations are mostly silent about utility companies’ duty to prevent wildfire. Its regulators aren’t required to inspect power lines for fire risk, and have no power to impose fines if there are hazards. Utility companies don’t even have to report fires caused by their lines unless they cause serious injury or death. Those gaps leave Washington homeowners with a stark reality: When power line fires burn down homes, residents often have little recourse."

Wildfire survivors in Washington may have a hard time accessing aid. "The Federal Emergency Management Agency has consistently refused to provide individual assistance to Washington residents displaced by the state’s most destructive fires since 2014," Moss reports. "And insurance policies are increasingly costly and difficult to obtain in Washington’s fire-prone regions, especially for older and manufactured, lower-income homes."

A recent Arizona State University paper has an excellent overview of state laws concerning utility liability for wildfires and other considerations for rural areas; click here to read it.

Wed., Jan. 19 webinar to discuss new Rural Emergency Hospital model

The Rural Health Information Hub will host a free webinar at 2 p.m. ET on Wed., Jan. 19 to discuss a new type of rural hospital. Click here for more information or to register.

In December 2020 Congress created the rural emergency hospital as a new type of Medicare provider. The new model, which takes effect in 2023, aims to mitigate the loss of emergency services in rural areas where hospitals have closed. Some small rural hospitals or critical access hospitals can convert to REHs, facilities that provide 24-hour emergency services but no inpatient care. The new classification matters because rural hospitals rely on Medicare reimbursements, but in order to receive it they must maintain expensive inpatient beds so they can still be classified as hospitals.

From the website: "This webinar will highlight a new report from the National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services that summarizes the statutory requirements for REHs, examines implications for various federal entities likely to be involved in their administration, and makes recommendations to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to ensure the success of the REH model."