Friday, February 18, 2022

Bird flu found in wild ducks in N.H., indicating spread beyond Midwest and Southeast; Ky. is composting chickens

UPDATE, Feb. 18: "A dangerous strain of avian flu has been detected in wild ducks in New Hampshire, raising concern among poultry producers in the region," David Brooks reports for the Concord Monitor. "Eurasian H5 was detected this month in 20 mallards in Rockingham County that were 'collected through normal surveillance activities,' New Hampshire Fish and Game has reported. This appears to be the first time the disease has been detected north of Delaware, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics." Meanwhile, Kentucky temporarily suspended certain restrictions on trucks "delivering wood chips for composting chickens."

Original item, Feb. 15:
A Tyson Foods farm in Kentucky and a backyard flock in Virginia "were confirmed to have birds infected with a highly lethal form of avian flu, federal agriculture officials said Monday, days after a flock of turkeys in Indiana tested positive" and was destroyed, The Washington Post reports. The Kentucky outbreak was near Fulton, on the Tennessee border, so that state also went on alert.

The last national bird-flu outbreak, in 2015, killed about 50 million birds. "The outbreak also led to a $1.1 billion decrease in exports of broiler chickens in 2015, compared with the prior year," Andrew Jeong reports for the Post. "Egg export income declined by $41 million, while income for turkey export fell by $177 million during the same period."

The disease poses no food-safety risks, as long as poultry and eggs are properly cooked, but birds from flocks identified with it will be banned from the food system. No human cases of bird-flu viruses have been detected in the U.S.

"Anyone involved with poultry production from a small backyard to a large commercial producer should review their biosecurity activities to ensure the health of their birds," the Kentucky Department of Agriculture said in a news release. "In addition to practicing good biosecurity, all bird owners should prevent contact between their birds and wild birds." More information on biosecurity for backyard flocks is at

Internet providers want federal broadband cash, but ask states to let them say who qualifies for 'low-cost' broadband

The recently signed infrastructure package had $42.5 billion to expand broadband in rural and other underserved areas. To ensure that the money helps lower-income people access broadband, companies that get that funding must offer new customers a low-cost option. "But in a debate that will be played out in statehouses across the country, the broadband industry and consumer advocates are clashing over how states should define 'low-cost'," Kery Murakami reports for Route Fifty.

In general, Republican-led states and internet companies want the money with minimal oversight on how to spend it. In particular, the companies don't want the federal government to dictate how much they should charge for "low-cost" broadband, Murakami reports. It's worth noting that large internet providers often maximize profits by getting federal contracts for rural broadband buildout and then installing the cheapest (and slowest) equipment that meets the federal minimum for broadband speed.

Under the terms of the infrastructure package, "whatever definition states come up with for whether companies’ prices are 'low cost' could be rejected by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration as not low enough. NTIA is the agency overseeing the roughly $42 billion available for broadband projects through the law’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program," Murakami reports. But industry lobbying group NCTA — The Internet & Television Association — "said NTIA should judge companies to be offering a 'low-cost' option if they are giving low-income households a $30 monthly discount through an existing Federal Communications Commission initiative known as the Affordable Connectivity Program."

Consumer advocates reject that reasoning. "They see the 'low-cost' requirement as an opportunity to do exactly what the companies oppose—get the government to force companies to offer inexpensive broadband for low-income customers," Murakami reports. As consumer groups have noted, a study found low-income households may only be able to afford $10 a month for broadband. And since popular broadband plans cost an average of $47.15, even a $30 discount would leave such households unable to afford broadband.

"As a result, groups like Public Knowledge and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, are urging the NTIA to require broadband companies receiving infrastructure funds to charge low-income customers no more than $30-a-month," Murakami reports. "They would also be required to offer the $30 discount—essentially making access to the internet free for those in need."

Stakeholders are also debating who should qualify for the low-cost plans. Internet lobbying groups believe only those who qualify for the existing $30 federal discount plan should get the low-cost option. That means households whose incomes are under 200% of the federal poverty level ($27,180 for a single adult or $55,940 for a family of four), and those who qualify for other federal aid such as Medicaid, Murakami reports. But even if internet providers build out broadband to rural areas, such families still might not be able to afford the service without a very low-cost or free option; that would undermine the main goal of the funding.

Rural Midwestern bankers say local economies remain strong, but they predict a decline in the next six months

Creighton University chart compares current month to last month and year ago; click here to download it and chart below.
A February survey of rural bankers in 10 Midwestern states that rely on agriculture and energy marked 15 straight months of a positive economic outlook. The Rural Mainstreet Index rose to 61.5 from January's 61.1 on a scale of 100; anything over 50 is growth-positive. The index surveys bankers in about 200 rural communities with an average population of 1,300 in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

"Strong grain prices, the Federal Reserve’s record-low short-term interest rates, and growing agricultural exports have underpinned the Rural Mainstreet Economy," writes Creighton University economist Ernie Goss, who compiles the index. Farmland prices are still strong and agricultural equipment has sold at the fastest pace since the spring of 2011.

However, bankers said they expect corn and soybean prices to fall by more than 2 percent over the next six months, and more than 70% said they expect the Federal Reserve to raise short-term interest rates by 1% this year. The confidence index, which predicts the state of the local rural economy six months from now, fell to 51.9 from January's 61.1.

Study suggests nearly half of U.S. bald eagles have chronic lead poisoning; population growth estimated stunted by 4%

A lead-poisoned bald eagle is treated at The Raptor Center
at the University of Minnesota (Associated Press photo)

Nearly half of the bald and golden eagles tested in the United States show signs of chronic lead poisoning, according to a study published this week in the journal Science.

"Lead is a neurotoxin that even in low doses impairs an eagle’s balance and stamina, reducing its ability to fly, hunt and reproduce. In high doses, lead causes seizures, breathing difficulty and death," Christina Larson reports for The Associated Press. "Harmful levels of toxic lead were found in the bones of 46% of bald eagles sampled in 38 states from California to Florida. Similar rates of lead exposure were found in golden eagles, which scientists say means the raptors likely consumed carrion or prey contaminated by lead from ammunition or fishing tackle."

Eagles are very sensitive to lead. Modeling suggests that such high lead-poisoning levels have reduced annual population growth of bald eagles by 4% and golden eagles by 1%, Larson reports.

“This is the first time for any wildlife species that we’ve been able to evaluate lead exposure and population level consequences at a continental scale,” study co-author Todd Katzner, a U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist, told AP, which notes, "Lead ammunition for waterfowl hunting was banned in 1991, due to concerns about contamination of waterways, and wildlife authorities encouraged the use of nontoxic steel shot. However, lead ammunition is still common for upland bird hunting."

Quick hits: How states are spending pandemic relief money; a prescription for a national park pass?

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

A shortage of special paper used for ballots, envelopes and other voting materials may be in short supply this year, which could hamper elections. Read more here.

Here's some great visual data showing how states are spending pandemic relief money. Read more here.

Here's an idea worth emulating: Canadian doctors can now prescribe national-park passes to patients for mental-health treatment. Read more here.

The pandemic has increased farmers' need for mental-health services, but many are reluctant to admit they need help. Programs that teach peer-to-peer counseling can be especially effective, but those and other programs may need more funding to remain sustainable. Read more here.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Hedge funds and other private-equity firms degrade local journalism, but may have kept some newspapers from dying

Chart by The Economist
By Al Cross
Director and Professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

The conventional wisdom about hedge funds and other private-equity companies buying newspapers is that they're bad for journalism. But might they also be good for papers, by keeping them afloat?

So argues some research in progress at the California Institute of Technology and New York University, and reported by The Economist, which states flatly, "Private equity is keeping newspapers in business." That's based on the researchers' analysis of papers that have been bought by private-equity firms compared with those that were not. "They found that newspapers that were bought were 75% less likely to shut down. Daily papers were also 60% less likely to become weekly publications."

The paper is still in progress, so it's not published, much less finished with the peer-review process of an academic journal. The researchers and reviewers might want to consider other reasons that papers bought with private equity would be less likely to close, such as a stronger cash flow, which made them more attractive than weaker papers to private equity. As for conversion to weekly, there could be a similar reason, that the papers in smaller markets are less attractive to private equity.

The authors should have considered those factors, said Northwestern University Visiting Professor Penny Abernathy, who has done the most comprehensive studies of newspaper ownership and trends. She told me in an email that there's also a question about the definition of a newspaper: "Is it a stand-alone newspaper, or has it been merged with another newspaper and become merely a zoned edition of another paper? Both Alden [Global Capital] and Gatehouse have extensively merged smaller newspapers with one another and with a larger paper. As a result, when we do our annual survey, we often find between two, three or even more newspapers published under separate banners, but carrying identical 'local' news stories – even though they may be located miles apart or in different counties."

Also, what is private equity? "Are they including the large private regional chains (Adams, Paxton, Ogden, Hearst), as well as the large national chains (Gatehouse, Alden, Civitas, CNHI)? The large national chains have a very different focus and management philosophy. As I have pointed out in all my reports, dating back to 2016, the family-owned chains tend to have journalistic roots and mission (balanced with shareholder return), whereas the large national chains are solely focused on shareholder return. The large private regional family-owned chains tend to have tended to have many fewer closures." For Abernathy's full email, click here.

The Economist reports, "The authors caution that they cannot estimate the general causal effect of private-equity buy-outs, but only the effect on the newspapers in their sample. Private-equity firms do not purchase newspapers randomly. They target failing newsrooms with potential for turnaround; papers with low circulation but high advertising rates were more likely to be bought, they found."

What seems more certain is that the researchers have latched onto a very worthwhile topic and are rendering some useful facts, as described by The Economist: "After private-equity buy-outs, papers laid off reporters and editors. Across a sample of 766 American newspapers (accounting for around 45% of total circulation), the researchers found that payrolls were about 7% lower at papers with new private-equity capital than if they had not been bought out. They also found a 16.7% relative decline in the number of articles written within five years of the buy-outs (though, admittedly, that is better than going out of business). And they identified a change in focus from local to national news: the share of articles on local politics dropped by about a tenth."

So, private equity appears to be bad for local journalism, which is in trouble not just because newspapers are in trouble but because Americans have become less interested in local news and more interested in national news in the era of social media that make geography less meaningful, and at a time where the intensity of national politics is having deleterious effects at the local level.

"Local reporting is expensive, because it requires journalists on the ground and cannot be syndicated," The Economist notes. "In a study published last year, researchers at Colorado State University, Louisiana State University and Texas A&M University concluded that when readers consume national news their views become more polarized. Poor local coverage is also associated with less competitive mayoral elections, and newsroom staff shortages are linked to lower voter turnout."

Inflation expected to negate farmers' income gains; Vilsack wants iffy production-cost increases investigated

Higher commodity prices since mid-2020 have boosted American farmers' incomes, but inflation and higher production costs are expected to outstrip those gains, according to a recent report from the Federal Reserve Board.

"American farmers are paying significantly higher prices for their weed-killing chemicals, crop seeds, fertilizer, equipment repairs and seasonal labor, eroding some of 2021’s windfall from rising crop prices. Higher farm costs could help push up grocery bills further in 2022, analysts say, following a year in which global food prices rose to decade highs," Patrick Thomas reports for The Wall Street Journal. "Supply-chain constraints and staffing problems are leading to higher prices for products and supplies across a variety of industries, especially food. U.S. inflation hit its fastest pace in nearly four decades last year. Food prices surged 7% in January, the sharpest rise since 1981, the Labor Department on Thursday said, as meat and egg prices continued to climb at double-digit rates."

In a speech to state agriculture officials Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he wants the Justice Department to investigate whether production cost increases are justified or whether companies are exploiting widespread supply-chain disruptions to unfairly raise prices, Chris Clayton reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer.

Elections need more funds, officials and advocates warn, but Congress dithers, and some states may ban donors

"When a global pandemic threatened to throw the 2020 presidential election into chaos, hundreds of millions of dollars flowed to state and local election agencies to ensure they had the resources to conduct a fair and accessible election, ultimately allowing administrators to manage record turnout with relatively few hiccups," Mike DeBonis and Amy Gardner report for The Washington Post. "Two years later, that money is gone, and while the pandemic has ebbed, it has not disappeared, and new challenges have arisen, including rising security threats, supply-chain disruptions and escalating costs for basic materials such as paper ballots, which have gone up by as much as 50 percent around the country, according to some estimates."

Election departments need tens of billions of dollars to ensure safe and fair elections, said Tiana Epps-Johnson, executive director of the Center for Tech and Civic Life. CTCL is a nonpartisan nonprofit funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that gave out more than $300 million in grants to election agencies in 2020.

"With a new round of funding in doubt, Epps-Johnson is among those calling for a major new federal infusion of election cash and warning that shortfalls could mean fewer polling places, reduced access to early voting or mail ballots, delayed security upgrades and other setbacks — even in states that have embraced expanding voter access, let alone those that have moved since 2020 to restrict it," DeBonis and Gardner report. "But lawmakers and the private donors who stepped up in 2020 appear increasingly likely to remain on the sidelines as election administration has evolved over the past two years into a fiercely partisan issue, largely because of unfounded attacks on the last election from former president Donald Trump and his Republican allies," DeBonis and Gardner report. "Meanwhile, Democrats’ year-long push for national voting rights legislation failed in the Senate last month, leaving the party without a clear path to close the funding gaps."

A bill moving in Kentucky would ban counties from accepting grants like they did in 2020, Austin Horn reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Zuckerberg-backed nonprofits gave at least $7.1 million to Kentucky county clerks and $1.6 million to the State Board of Elections in 2020, according to lobbyist Bryan Sunderland, who was a staffer in then-Gov. Matt Bevin's Republican administration.

Sunderland said banning such grants would protect elections against private interests, but Jason Denny, the clerk in rural Anderson County, said the $10,000 from CTCL "was much-needed and led to the highest turnout of any county in the state," Horn reports. Denny used the money for drive-up polls.

"In a perfect world, elections would be fully funded. They have not been," Denny told Horn. "During 2020, we saw a different style of an election. … We as county clerks were able to work through this and pull off a nearly perfect election, one of the smoothest-run elections that Kentucky’s ever seen."

Some Democrats say they fear their party will become politically extinct in the rural U.S., 'the brand is so toxic'

"The Democratic Party’s struggle in rural America has been building for years. And it’s getting worse," Steve Peoples of The Associated Press reports from the often-pivotal Keystone State, where "Some Democrats here in rural Pennsylvania are afraid to tell you they’re Democrats."

With a dateline of Smethport, population 1,600, Peoples writes, "The party’s brand is so toxic in the small towns 100 miles northeast of Pittsburgh that some liberals have removed bumper stickers and yard signs and refuse to acknowledge their party affiliation publicly. These Democrats are used to being outnumbered by the local Republican majority, but as their numbers continue to dwindle, the few that remain are feeling increasingly isolated and unwelcome in their own communities.

“The hatred for Democrats is just unbelievable,” accountant Tim Holohan told Peoples. “I feel like we’re on the run.”

In Tennessee, where the Republican legislature split up Rep. Jim Cooper's Nashville district, prompting him to forgo a re-election bid that would have been futile, the veteran Democrat "warns that the party is facing extinction in small-town America," Peoples writes, quoting him: “It’s hard to sink lower than we are right now. You’re almost automatically a pariah in rural areas if you have a D after your name.”

Joe Biden won 527 counties in 2020. That was 348 fewer than Barack Obama did in 2008, and 260 of those counties are rural, Peoples reports: "The worst losses were concentrated in the Midwest . . . At the same time, recent Republican voter registration gains in swing states like Florida and North Carolina were fueled disproportionately by rural voters. . . . Even if Democrats continue to eke out victories by piling up urban and suburban votes, former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota fears her party will have 'unstable majorities' if they cannot stop the bleeding in rural areas."

Heitkamp "criticized her party’s go-to strategy for reaching rural voters: focusing on farmers and vowing to improve high-speed internet," Peoples reports. "At the same time, she said Democrats are hurting themselves by not speaking out more forcefully against far-left positions that alienate rural voters, such as the push to 'defund the police'." Peoples writes, "The Democratic Party continues to devote the vast majority of its energy, messaging and resources to voters in more populated urban and suburban areas."

In some rural places, the ugliness of national politics has become local. Peoples reports that in Clarion, Pa., pop. 5,600, "a group of voters said they’ve been effectively ostracized by their community — and even family members, in some cases — for being Democrats. One woman brings her political signs inside at night so they aren’t vandalized or stolen."

“You have to be careful around here,” said Barbara Speer, 68, a retired sixth-grade teacher.

Kansas City Fed: Midwest farmland values up more than 20% in 2021; non-farmer investors increasingly buying in

Change in Tenth District farmland values (Charts by Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City )

"Fueled by strong farm income and low interest rates, farmland values soared more than 20% in the Central Plains during 2021, according to a quarterly survey of ag bankers by the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank," Chuck Abbott reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network. "A majority of the lenders said they expected values to increase this year, but an equally large number 'also indicated that farmland values were currently overvalued, suggesting there may still be future risks of declines,' said the regional Fed." The Kansas City Fed's Tenth District is Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Wyoming, northern New Mexico and western Missouri.

Nonirrigated farmland value was up an average of 24%, irrigated farmland and ranchland were up 22% last year, mostly because of "strong demand, historically low interest rates, and vastly improved conditions in the farm economy," according to the report. The higher prices and greater interest in farmland often make it difficult for new and minority farmers to buy in.

The report also noted that non-farmer investors account for an increasing share of farmland sales. "Despite a higher volume of sales, farmers accounted for a smaller share of the total farmland purchased in the District," says the report. "Farmers still accounted for more than 70% of farmland purchases in 2021, but unlike the prior period of strengthening farm income immediately after 2010, the share of land purchased by farmers declined slightly. The modest pullback in purchasing activity from farmers alongside broad strength in the agricultural economy suggests strong interest in farmland from non-farmers and outside investors."

Harvard study concludes that it's too soon to lift mask mandates in most elementary schools

As the Omicron surge wanes, many school districts are lifting mask mandates. But coronavirus transmission rates are still far too high to lift such mandates in elementary schools, according to a study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Lifting them sooner would put students, staff and families at too high a risk of transmission, say researchers from Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Massachusetts General Hospital.

The study notes that little information exists that can help school districts figure out when it's safe to lift and reinstate mask mandates. So the researchers created simulations to quantify how mask mandates could affect virus transmission. They based the models on the virulence of the Delta variant; that's noteworthy, since the Omicron variant is even more transmissible, though less likely to cause serious illness.

Researchers said the appropriate time to lift or reinstate mandates varies based on what goals the school district is aiming for, such as keeping the number of cases low, or minimizing absences due to isolation and quarantining so schools can continue in-person learning. It also varies based on the size of the school, the number of vaccinated students and teachers, and more. In general, the researchers said that instituting weekly screening or increasing vaccination rates would allow schools to lift mask mandates even when there are higher rates of transmission in the community.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Rural residents, Republicans and white evangelicals report being less vaccinated than their counterparts

Pew Research Center graphs; click any image  to enlarge.
Rural Americans are significantly less vaccinated against Covid-19 than other Americans, according to the latest Pew Research Center poll.

Only 68 percent of rural residents in the Jan. 24-30 online survey said they were vaccinated, compared to 80% of suburbanites and 82% of urbanites.

White evangelical Protestants, who live disproportionately in rural areas, show a similar pattern; only 62% of them reported being vaccinated. The figure was 77% for non-evangelical white protestants, 80% for the religiously unaffiliated and 85% for Roman Catholics.

Rural residents are disproportionately Republican, and another big difference in the results was seen by party affiliation. "Democrats and those who lean to the Democratic Party are 26 percentage points more likely than Republicans and Republican leaners to say they’ve received a Covid-19 vaccine (90% vs. 64%)," Pew reports. Among Democrats, ruralites are only slightly less vaccinated; among Republicans, the differences are similar to the overall sample. (See bottom of chart.)

Parton shouldn't have to rescue rural Tenn., activist says

Dolly Parton performs at the CMA Awards in 2019
(Associated Press photo by Mark J. Terrill)
Dolly Parton has long been beloved for her philanthropy. The country music legend has given free books to young children through her Imagination Library, donated $1 million to Vanderbilt University to help develop Moderna's coronavirus vaccine, and established a bald eagle sanctuary. And she's been generous in her home of East Tennessee: she gave every student in Sevier County a $500 scholarship in 1989, raised $500,000 for a new hospital, and recently announced free tuition and books for any Dollywood theme park employee who wants to pursue a high-demand field in college.

Though Tennesseans owe Parton a debt of gratitude for her largesse, she shouldn't have to do so much to help East Tennessee, Skylar Baker-Jordan writes in a recent 100 Days in Appalachia newsletter. Instead of relying on Parton to pick up the slack, he writes, state and local laws should promote a more equitable society where such benevolence is unnecessary.

"As Appalachians well know, the problem with noblesse oblige is that it ties the fate and fortune of the working-class to the whims of their economic betters. Under our current model, in which private charity is expected to pick up the slack for the state, what is and is not funded is determined not by democratic mandate but by the impulses and interests of the wealthy. And just as the rich giveth, the rich can taketh away," Baker-Jordan writes. "Relying on private capital and capitalists – even those with hearts as big as Dolly’s – is not a viable long-term strategy for meeting society’s needs. Rather than being dependent on the benevolence of the wealthy, the people of Appalachia need a revolutionary change to our economy – one that empowers rather than indentures the working-class. No one should have to rely on the goodwill of their employer or philanthropists for education and healthcare. These basic needs should be met by society."

Judge says publisher Lee Enterprises can ignore hedge fund's board nominees, hindering hostile takeover attempt

Hedge fund Alden Global Capital's attempt to stage a hostile takeover of major newspaper publisher Lee Enterprises was dealt a blow on Tuesday when a judge ruled that Lee could ignore Alden's two nominees to the board of directors.

According to Lee, "A Delaware judge supported its decision to reject Alden’s nominees because the hedge fund didn’t meet Lee’s technical requirements to nominate board members," Josh Funk reports for The Associated Press. "Late last year, Lee rejected Alden’s $141 million offer, saying that it 'grossly undervalues' the publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Tulsa World, Richmond Times-Dispatch and dozens of other newspapers." (Lee is based in Iowa, but incorporated in Delaware.)

Alden, which owns 6.3% of Lee's stock, "said it will press the fight by urging shareholders to vote against Lee Chairman Mary Junck and one other longstanding board member at the company’s March 10 annual meeting," Funk reports. Alden "said it is looking out for other shareholders because it believes Lee has underperformed since it bought all of Berkshire Hathaway’s newspapers in 2020 and has been struggling with the transition to publishing news online."

Lee countered that it is growing digital subscriptions and online revenue. Its fourth-quarter 2021 financials showed a 65% increase in digital-only subscriptions from the prior fiscal year and a 34% increase in total digital revenue (including subscriptions and advertising) in the same period.

Lee has resisted Alden's attempts at a takeover since November, adopting a "poison-pill" strategy that would devalue its stock in the event of a takeover. Alden is known for imposing extreme cost-cutting measures and layoffs at other publications to increase profits. If Alden took over Lee, a clear majority of U.S. dailies would be owned by hedge funds. The move would also create a "local news duopoly" between Gannett (which merged with Gatehouse in 2019) and Alden, Sara Fischer reports for Axios.

New coronavirus infections fell more than 40% in rural areas last week, and deaths fell 6%, as Omicron retreated

New cases of the coronavirus, in ranges by county, Feb. 6-12
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 more than 40 percent in the week of Feb. 6-12, hitting the lowest level of 2022. Rural counties reported about 221,000 new infections last week, down form 378,000 the week before. "Since peaking three weeks ago, new infections have fallen by two-thirds in rural counties," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder. "The rural infection rate remained higher than the metropolitan infection rate, a trend that started a month ago. Before mid-January, the metropolitan infection rate was higher because the Omicron variant struck one to two weeks earlier in urban counties than it did in rural counties." That also means it peaked later in states with large rural populations; the current top five are Kentucky, Alaska, West Virginia, Idaho and Tennessee.

Rural Covid-related deaths fell by about 6% in the same time period. Metropolitan counties saw similar declines in infections and deaths. However, the coronavirus remains common: "Ninety-five percent of U.S. counties, both rural and urban, remain in the red zone, defined by the White House as having 100 or more new infections over a one-week period," Marema reports.

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

After the company that produced iconic reporter's notebooks closed, Iowa journalist launched his own line

Nic Garcia's new reporter's notebook closely
echoes the iconic Stationers Inc. notebooks.
(Photo from First Draft Notebooks)
Nic Garcia, 36, is the politics editor of the Des Moines Register, but he recently picked up a new side gig: producing and selling reporter's notebooks, Bill Lohmann reports for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

It came about after Garcia learned last year that Stationers Inc., a Richmond office-supply store that produced iconic reporter's notebooks, was closing following owner Tom Edwards' death. "Stationers notebooks weren’t the only brand of notebooks reporters used, but they became popular, in part, because of their spirals at the top, the good quality paper and their sturdy covers — better for writing on as you stand and talk to someone and scrawl notes with one hand while holding the notebook with the other," Lohmann writes.

Garcia "soon began working on the idea of starting his own notebook business early last year and in October launched First Draft Notebooks, which bear a resemblance to the Stationers notebooks. Full disclosure: The Times-Dispatch placed an order in January."

Lohmann takes a deep dive into the role that reporters' notebooks in general, and Stationers notebooks in particular, have played in history, and reminisces about their practical and nostalgic pull.

It's a sentiment Garcia shares. He first noticed the distinctive mustard-yellow notebooks when watching "All the President's Men" as an aspiring journalist in the sixth grade. "He started calling around to different newspapers — remember: he was in the sixth grade, which, I guess, proves he really was a budding reporter — and asked about the kind of notebooks they used," Lohmann reports. "All roads led to Stationers, and his grandmother mail-ordered his first two dozen Stationers notebooks, which he found to be as high-quality as they appeared on the big screen." He's been using them ever since.

The notebook is still a quintessential part of journalism, Garcia told Lohmann: "It’s a tool of our craft ... Any reporter knows having your notebook in hand is an invitation to talk to anybody about anything."

Popular journalist in western Massachusetts dies at 54; 'When you heard what he said, you believed him'

Chris Collins
(Greenfield Recorder photo by Paul Franz)
Western Massachusetts broadcaster and newspaper columnist Chris Collins died over the weekend after recent surgery for longstanding heart problems. He was 54.

Those who knew Collins "say he made a big mark as a small-town journalist," Alden Bourne reports for New England Public Media. "Over a career spanning decades, Collins served as program director at WHMP radio in Northampton, news director at WHAI radio in Greenfield and as a columnist for the Greenfield Recorder. He was also a regular guest on New England Public Media's 'The Short List.' Most recently, Collins was the general manager for Frontier Community Access Television in Franklin County."

Collins was instrumental in launching local news site Franklin County Now, Domenic Poli reports for the Recorder. Several local politicians praised Collins, saying he was "very fair and impartial" and "a just-the-facts man."

"You know the old saying, 'You got the pulse of the county?' You know you put your thumb down and you knew exactly what was going on? That was like Chris," longtime friend Bobby Campbell told Bourne. "People trusted him so much that when you met him, you trusted him. So when you heard what he said, you believed him."

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Rural residents are more likely to doubt Covid-19 science

CSP graph, with place-type rates highlighted; to enlarge, click on it.
Residents of the rural United States are more likely than other Americans to doubt scientifically proven statements about the coronavirus, says an online poll by the Covid States Project, a consortium of Northeastern University, Harvard University and its medical school, Rutgers University and Northwestern University.

People in the poll were asked to identify vaccine misinformation statements as true or false, and were given the option of "not sure." They were later asked if they thought most scientists or health experts would consider the statements true or false. If they said "not sure" about a statement but thought experts would support it, they were counted as doubting science. If they said a statement was true but experts would say it was false, they were counted as disbelieving science.

Among rural residents, 25% doubted at least one of the misinformation statements; in suburbs, that figure was 21%, and in cities, 20%. The "disbelieving" results differed little by type of area.

The poll surveyed 18,782 people in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, with state-level quotas. The results were weighted to reflect demographic characteristics: race/ethnicity, age, gender, education, and living in urban, suburban, or rural areas. The researchers reported that they found a decline in belief of misinformation since early 2021, when Covid-19 vaccines became widely available, but "16 percent of Americans still hold vaccine misperceptions. Close to half (46%) are uncertain about the veracity of at least one vaccine misinformation statement."

As new-case rates fall in states, they drop mask mandates

Stateline chart; for a larger version, click on it.
"As Omicron fades and scientists consider when to declare Covid-19 endemic—and, therefore, here to stay—in the United States, governors in 10 states last week leapfrogged federal recommendations and dropped mask mandates," Christine Vestal reports for Stateline.

"Governors and health officials in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Rhode Island broke ranks and announced an end date for masking requirements in indoor public spaces such as grocery stores and restaurants and, in some cases, schools," breaking from federal guidance amid plummeting rates of new cases, Vestal reports. "Cities, counties and school districts are free to maintain their own restrictions and requirements in those states."

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "is probably only a month or two away" from declaring SARS-CoV-2 "an endemic virus like a cold or flu that can’t be eradicated but is no longer a serious threat to most people, scientists and public health officials predict," Vestal reports. "Even so, the CDC has asked states to maintain Covid-19 restrictions until slammed hospitals can get back on their feet and declining transmission rates reach a low level and stay there for a few weeks.

Some states where new-case rates remain high are sticking with their masking recommendations. In Kentucky, which has the nation's fifth highest rate, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear said Monday that he expects to ease his recommendations in about a month, Melissa Patrick reports for Kentucky Health News. Beshear lacks the power to issue mask mandates, except in his branch of state government, after the Republican-controlled legislature took that authority away from him in September.

National online poll shows how Biden rates in your state

A national online poll says Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts and Vermont are the only states in which President Biden had a positive job rating over the last three and a half weeks, and in Maryland it's only a 1-percentage-point advantage, 44% to 43%, well within the margin of error.

The survey of almost 166,000 self-described registered voters by Civiqs, taken Jan. 20 through Feb. 14. Biden's overall rating was 34% approval and 57% disapproval, in the range of other recent national polls. Online polls are becoming more common; Civiqs explains its methodology here.

The state-level samples are broken down by age group, education level, gender, party and race. There is no urban-suburban-rural breakdown, but Biden fared poorly in several states with large rural populations. His positive rating was only 16% in West Virginia, 18% in Wyoming and 19% in North Dakota. But his biggest advantage, 49% to 40%, was in highly rural Vermont. His approval is under 50% in every state.

Monday, February 14, 2022

Lower cost of living, natural beauty and Tennessee Tech spark economic revival in Tennessee's Upper Cumberland

Part of Tennessee's Upper Cumberland region
(New York Times map)
Some small-town economies are on the upswing, fueled by an influx of new residents in search of a lower cost of living. In Gainesboro, Tennessee, for example, revenue from sales and occupancy taxes nearly doubled in the last fiscal year, and the mayor expects another 20 percent increase this year, Eduardo Porter reports for The New York Times:

"Economists have long voiced fear that rural places like this are being left behind. The last of the textile businesses, once an economic mainstay, departed in the 1990s. Jackson County and several other counties in the Upper Cumberland [named for the river] are considered 'distressed' or 'at risk' by the Appalachian Regional Commission. But the newcomers are fueling a boomlet in the area, based on a simple economic proposition: It is pretty, and it is cheap. While Jackson County’s typical household makes $35,207 a year, just over half the national average, the low cost of living allows residents to punch far above their weight in economic terms."

The natural beauty of Tennessee's Upper Cumberland region brings in outsiders too. "It has long drawn summer tourists for hunting and fishing, as well as retirees who come from as far away as Ohio to settle among the rivers, lakes and hollers," Porter reports. 

Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville is another draw. The 10,000-student school added more than 7,300 jobs to the Upper Cumberland region in the 2019-2020 academic year, and contributed an estimated $860 million to the regional economy, Porter reports. Many workers are drawn to the area by the promise of remote work jobs, affordable housing, and a reasonable commute to Nashville. 

Blue-collar workers can prosper in the Upper Cumberland far more than their big-city counterparts, too, thanks to the lower cost of living. "Workers without a four-year college degree earn little in the Cookeville commuting zone — their income puts them among the poorest 10 percent of households in hundreds of commuting zones across the country," Porter reports. "After adjusting for the local cost of living, however, their purchasing power rises to the top 10 percent.

The region's economic turnaround could provide an example for other rural areas to reverse decline, but "whether the area’s budding prosperity will continue remains an open question. The explosion in sales filling the coffers in Jackson and Putnam Counties was propelled in part by the multitrillion-dollar economic rescue packages passed by Congress in 2020 and 2021. That stimulus is largely over," Porter reports. "It is also unclear how big and permanent a change remote work will bring about in the Upper Cumberland. Some early research suggested that the workers who were leaving cities during the pandemic mainly moved to nearby suburbs and exurbs."

In honor of Valentine's Day: relationship tips for farmers

If you're the punning type, you might also download
these farming valentines from Farmer's Weekly.
In honor of Valentine's Day, here's a trio of items on romance and marriage on the farm from Successful Farming Family Editor Lisa Foust Prater.

Gary Chapman's popular book "The 5 Love Languages" posits that people tend to express their love for others in five different ways, and that learning your and your partner's love languages can pave the way for greater harmony, Prater reports. She goes over the five love languages—acts of service, gifts, physical touch, quality time, and words of affirmation—what they look like, and how farming couples can best speak to each other in their partner's love language.

In addition to learning your partner's love language, Prater reports, farming couples should learn five broad skills to build a stronger marriage: learn to navigate work conflicts, make it a point to connect with each other, look for the positive in trying situations, learn to talk about money, and fight fair. 

Prater's advice is drawn from the Marriage Matters publication series, a collection of articles from university Extension offices that aims to help couples deal with common relationship issues. (The original link in the article leads to a jumping-off page with mostly dead links, but one of those links, from the University of Georgia, has an excellent, still-working roundup of relevant articles.)

Finally, Prater has a roundup of readers' submissions sharing the most romantic thing their farming partner has ever done. One farmer, for example, brought his wife a cold drink and lunch to the hayfield just to give her a hug and tell her he was proud of all the hard work she was doing. Another farmer cleans his wife's tractor windows every morning during harvest. And one creative farmer celebrated his first Valentine's Day with his wife by hanging a hand-made heart made of baling wire and red silk roses on the side of the barn. Now that's romance!

Pandemic early retirements create frontline worker shortage

A shortage of frontline workers has made it more difficult to respond to the pandemic, and early retirements account for a large chunk of that labor shortage, recent research found. In rural America, which tends to have an older population, the trend has probably been greater.

More than 4.2 million people had left the workforce and didn't return as of October, according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank. That includes vital frontline workers such as health-care workers, police officers, truck drivers, school bus drivers and more, Tim Henderson reports for Stateline.

A healthier generation of older workers has been a vital part of the workforce in recent years, so cities and states should consider public-health and workplace-safety requirements that could make seniors feel safer returning to work, suggested economist Monique Morrisey at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. "As the pandemic drags on, we would be wise to add more protections for workers, assuring people they will be protected if they come back to work, that would be the single most important thing we can do," Morrisey told Henderson.

Health-care workers, activists say White House plan for free Covid-19 tests shortchanges some rural communities

Critics say President Biden's plan to send out four free coronavirus tests to each household overlooks some of the hardest-hit areas, including rural areas, Silvia Foster-Frau reports for The Washington Post. In some cases, it's because there are more residents living in multi-generation housing, meaning far more than four residents per household. Some would have to go without, critics note.

"In eastern Nevada, the predominantly Latino town of West Wendover also has struggled with the four-tests-per-residence rule," Foster-Frau reports. "There, the common practice in rural areas of using post office boxes instead of mailboxes has had an unintended consequence in the community of 4,500. To save money, multiple families sometimes share one P.O. box, even if they don’t live in the same household." That renders them ineligible to receive more tests.

"Some public-health officials and activists said it would have made more sense to send the tests to community organizations where workers could help make sure those who need the tests get them," Foster-Frau reports. "They also would be able to show residents how to properly use them. Using community and faith-based organizations would help break down the barriers that are preventing people from getting tested, they said. These organizations are typically trusted by their communities and in many cases have already been working to educate residents about the virus. Their staffers often speak the residents’ language and share similar life experiences."

One public-health official said that relying on community-health organizations would have another benefit: many uninsured or underinsured residents who have come to a local primary-care organization for coronavirus vaccinations or testing found out while they were there that they had unaddressed health issues such as asthma or high blood pressure, Foster-Frau reports.

Here are some tools to expand rural access to health care

Rural counties face widespread health-care disparities, and the pandemic has exacerbated them, but states have many tools at their disposal that can help alleviate those disparities, Thomas Waldrop and Emily Gee write for the Center for American Progress.

Waldrop and Gee outline the issue in stark detail: "While only 14 percent of Americans—almost 46 million people—live in rural areas, rural communities represent nearly two-thirds of primary care health professional shortage areas (HPSAs) in the country. This amounts to more than 4,100 primary care HPSAs in rural areas. A 2018 report by Pew Research Center found that the average time to drive to a hospital in rural communities was 17 minutes, nearly 65 percent longer than the average drive in urban communities. The coronavirus crisis highlighted this gap in access: These long-standing disparities have resulted in clear health differences between more rural and more urban areas, increasing rural residents’ risk of Covid-19 and severe illness from it."

The report breaks down issues causing health-care disparities, such as barriers to practice for physicians, and notes ways states can address those issues, such as increasing telehealth access. Read more here.