Friday, February 25, 2022

Nominations for Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism will be accepted until April 1

Tom and Pat Gish in 2005, when the award named for
them was started and they became the first recipients.
Each year the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues presents the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism, named for the couple who exemplified those qualities as publishers of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., for 52 years.

Nominations for the Gish Award may be made at any time, but the deadline for new nominations to be considered for this year's award is April 1. To make a nomination, send a detailed letter explaining how the nominee shows the kind of courage, tenacity and integrity that Tom and Pat Gish demonstrated at their weekly newspaper in the Central Appalachian coalfield. They withstood advertiser boycotts, business competition, declining population, personal attacks, and even the burning of their office to give their readers the kind of journalism often lacking in rural areas, and were the first winners of the award named for them. Tom died in 2008 and Pat in 2014; their son Ben is editor and publisher of the Eagle and serves on the award selection committee.

Documentation can be submitted after the nomination, and additional documentation may be requested or required. Send your nominating letter, initial documentation and any questions to Institute Director Al Cross at

The Institute seeks nominations that measure up, at least in major respects, to the records of the Gishes and other previous winners. Other winners have been the Ezzell family of The Canadian Record in the Texas panhandle; Jim Prince and Stanley Dearman, current and late publishers of The Neshoba Democrat in Philadelphia, Miss.; Samantha Swindler of The Oregonian for her work at The Times-Tribune in Corbin, Ky., and Jacksonville Daily Progress in Texas; Stanley Nelson and the Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, La.; Jonathan and Susan Austin of the now-defunct Yancey County News in western North Carolina; the late Landon Wills of the McLean County News in Kentucky; the Trapp family of the Rio Grande Sun in northern New Mexico; Ivan Foley of the Platte County Landmark in northweste Missouri; the Cullen family of the Storm Lake Times in northwest Iowa; Les Zaitz of the Malheur Enterprise in eastern Oregon; in 2019, three reporters whose outstanding careers have revealed much about the coal industry in Central Appalachia: Howard Berkes, retired from NPR; Ken Ward Jr., then with the Charleston Gazette-Mail; and his mentor at the Gazette, the late Paul Nyden. In 2020 the award went to the late Tim Crews of the Sacramento Valley Mirror, and in 2021 to the Thompson-High Family of The News Reporter and the Border Belt Independent in Whiteville, N.C.

Russian invasion of Ukraine sends wheat and crude oil prices soaring, disrupts trade; impact on fertilizer unclear

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has disrupted regional export shipments, sent grain futures and crude-oil prices soaring, and may trigger higher fertilizer prices.

Russia and Ukraine together account for a third of global wheat exports, a fifth of corn exports and more than three-quarters of sunflower oil, Keith Good reports for the University of Illinois' Farm Policy News. Russia is also a major exporter of fertilizer components nitrogen, phosphorus and potash.

Though sanctions against Russia haven't banned food or agricultural exports, "that hasn’t stopped global grain prices from soaring," Politico reports. "Wheat futures prices at the Chicago Board of Trade, the global benchmark, surged 6 percent earlier this week, to about $9.34 a bushel, the highest in nine years. Wheat futures are up 10 percent since the start of the year."

Even without trade sanctions, farm exports from those countries have slowed to a trickle, since Russia and Ukraine have suspended most commercial railways and ports near the conflict, Good reports. And many ships will be reluctant to trade there for fear of getting caught in the conflict.

"It is not clear if the West would hit Russia's fertilizer industry with sanctions, but it is possible. Ukraine's neighbor Belarus is the world's second-largest exporter of potash fertilizer and was hit with sanctions from Europe and the U.S. in 2021," Chris Clayton reports for Progressive Farmer/DTN. "Because of ethanol and biodiesel, crop prices are also influenced by swings in energy prices. Crude oil prices have surged to their highest levels in seven years as Russian troops threaten Ukraine. The main concern is Russia may hold back oil production as a lever against any punitive response from the West."

Local community foundations create funds for local news

Report for America has issued a report that identified what it called "a major new trend – the creation of 'Community News Funds' – and outlined how the new funds can be created," Sam Kille reports for Report for America. "The new strategy involves community foundations working in conjunction with local news leaders in creating a single, permanent fund that draws upon donations from multiple sources, to support local news for years to come."

Several case studies in the report show how such funds are making a difference in communities. That matters more than ever when the pandemic has accelerated rural newsroom closures. The seven communities in the report that use variations on the community news fund model have raised $15 million in three years, Kille reports.

In addition to a specifically rural example—the Traverse City Record-Eagle in Michigan—the paper highlights a newsroom that covers statewide issues in Pennsylvania, and one that covers the state's Lancaster County (which has a substantial Amish population).

Are we polarized? Or just isolated, disoriented and reacting with 'flight or fight' responses? New report argues the latter

Rich Harwood discussed his "civic virus" theory on "Meet the Press Daily" on Feb. 15. To watch it, click here.
It's become conventional wisdom that American society has become polarized, politically and culturally, but is that the whole truth? Richard C. Harwood, whose business is helping communities improve their civic life, doesn't think so; he explains his view in a new report, Civic Virus: Why Polarization Is a Misdiagnosis, from his Harwood Institute for Public Innovation and the Kettering Foundation. News media have an essential role to play in fostering civic life, and the report could be good fodder for commentary that serves your community.

Harwood says polarization is a misguided assumption. Instead, he says, we are isolated, disoriented, and reacting with "fight or flight" responses. He bases this on 16 in-depth focus groups he held across the country, asking these questions: How do people describe the nation today? Who are the individuals, groups, institutions, or leaders whom people believe and trust? Where do people get their information and news about what’s happening around them and in the larger world? What community actions did people see in response to Covid-19, and what, if any, lessons might these hold for the country moving forward? And what does it mean to be an American?

The report on these conversations offers some thoughts on how to combat what Harwood calls "the civic virus" and inoculate the nation moving forward, and local journalism has roles to play. To download a free copy, click here.

Free online class trains locals to do community journalism

Many rural newspapers struggling to stay afloat must rely on untrained volunteers to report the news, often going for presence and quantity rather than quality and professionalism.

"Enter the University of Vermont. Building on a 3-year-old journalism program for undergraduates, in February the school launched a series of free online classes for anyone interested in learning how to write for local newspapers," Anne Wallace Allen reports for Seven Days. "Participants who follow through and volunteer at a local media outlet can get free coaching and editing help from the experienced editors employed by the UVM program."

Richard Watts, director of UVM's Center for Research on Vermont, began an undergraduate program for reporting and documentary storytelling in 2019, which has "grown quickly into a de facto journalism school with the companion purpose of bolstering local news reporting in Vermont," Allen reports. "With a team of professional editors to guide them, students are deployed to selectboard and school board meetings for about a dozen local newspapers, including the Hardwick Gazette, the Barton Chronicle and the Shelburne News. The program known as the Community News Service . . . is expected to have 40 students this semester [and] produces an online newspaper devoted to Winooski news."

Watts expanded the class to an online offering after the publisher of a rural paper said she and her editor, neither of whom had formal journalism training, had been unable to get a spot in the class. "There's clearly an interest," Allen reports. "A few hours after registration opened for the first class, News Fundamentals + Intro, all 20 slots were filled with teachers, librarians and volunteer journalists. Another two dozen or so people were on a waiting list for the next six weekly sessions, which will include instruction on such basics as interviewing techniques, how to write a news story, working a beat and journalism ethics."

Quick hits: Rural hospital guide updated; we keep sorting ourselves into places we find more politically sympathetic

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

The Rural Health Information Hub has an updated resource guide on rural hospitals. Read it here.

Most small towns in Vermont are limiting big spending this year, partly because they voting by mail-in ballots rather than at their traditional town meetings. Read more here.

Hemp-farm neighbors in Navajo country complain about smell, lights, and water use. Read more here.

The Big Sort continues: Red political districts are getting redder and blue districts are getting bluer; part of that trend comes from people moving to places that align more closely with their political views. Read more here.

Immigrants and refugees are a growing part of small communities across the U.S. Read more here.

Agri-Pulse will host a webinar on March 2 to discuss how data is driving innovation in crop insurance and conservation. Read more here.

A recent podcast discusses young Americans' renewed interest in agriculture in a post-pandemic world. Listen to it here.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Digital startup spurred by local newspaper's conflicts of interest failed, maybe because it saw ad sales as conflict

Sierra County, New Mexico
(Wikipedia map)
The rise and fall of the Sierra County Sun, a nonprofit news start-up in a New Mexico county of 12,000, illustrates the struggles many such news organizations must contend with, Anandita Bhalerao reports for Northwestern University's Medill Local News Initiative.

When magazine journalist and author Diana Tittle and her husband retired to Sierra County in 2012, there were two newspapers: the Sierra County Sentinel and the Sierra County Herald. The family-owned Herald closed in 2018, citing a decline in advertising. The Sentinel owner Frances Luna has also been a county and city commissioner, which Tittle considered a conflict of interest, Bhalerao reports.

The Herald's investigative reporter, Kathleen Sloan, who had left to work in Iowa and Florida before the Herald's closure, returned to launch the Sun as an online-only publication in October 2019. From the beginning, the Sun was overwhelmed and underfunded. Tittle, impressed with Sloan's reporting, stepped in as a reader and launched a "Save the Sun" fundraising campaign, Bhalerao reports. The paper survived and was reborn as a nonprofit. That wasn't the only change: Tittle, a journalism graduate of Northwestern, became the editor (as well as reporter and grant wrangler). And fellow retiree Deb Nichols, a scientist, joined as a reporter to cover the county beat, allowing Sloan focus on long-form stories.

Kathleen Sloan
But even with Tittle working for free, the publication still wasn't sustainable, even after scoring a $12,000 grant that the New Mexico Local News Fund gave them in order to have six months to figure out a solution. The Sun relied on donations and a few subscriptions from wealthy families, but Sierra County is a poor county in a poor state.

"In an unusual move for a news organization, Sloan said she never considered advertising as a business model for The Sun because it was too big a conflict of interest in a county as small as Sierra County, with limited local businesses," Bhalerao reports. "Tittle said as a very small newsroom they could either focus on the news or sell advertisements, and they chose the former." Besides, Tittle told Bhalerao: "There are only so many advertising dollars, and [The Sentinel has] a lock on it, so we were never really able — or even interested — in selling advertising."

After a fruitless nationwide search for a new operator—no one wanted to work for free—the Sun shuttered in December 2021. Mark Glaser, innovation consultant at the Local News Fund, said many emerging newsrooms must contend with the same financial realities. "The issue with startups is that it’s very easy to start putting content out in the world," Glaser told Bhalerao. "It’s a lot harder to figure out the business part of it."

Clamor to cap travel-nurse pay could keep rural nurses at local hospitals

Many registered nurses, feeling overwhelmed and underpaid during the pandemic, have jumped at the chance to double or triple their salaries as travel nurses. Cash-strapped rural hospitals are having a hard time retaining them. "In a nationwide survey late last year, 99% said they were experiencing staffing shortages," Melissa Phillip reports for the Houston Chronicle.

But some lobbyists and legislators are calling for an investigation in hopes of capping travel nurses' compensation; if successful, that could help stanch the flow of rural nurses to wealthier urban hospitals that can better afford to pay travel nurses' higher salaries.

"In the last few months, several groups, including the American Hospital Association, the American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living and 200 members of Congress, have called for an investigation into claims that agencies that place travel nurses around the country have been 'price gouging' hospitals in need of staff," Chabeli Carrazana reports for The 19th. "The AHA has requested the Federal Trade Commission investigate the agencies, and late last month, a letter signed by a bipartisan group of legislators also asked the White House to investigate the claims."

Two representatives from largely rural districts—Democrat Peter Welch of Vermont and Republican Morgan Griffith of Virginia—"wrote that they have received reports saying staffing agencies have inflated prices by 'two, three or more times pre-pandemic rates' while taking 40 percent or more being charged to hospitals in profit," Carrazana reports. "At least eight private-equity firms have bought at least seven staffing agencies since early 2021, according to a report in STAT News."

"The White House did not comment on whether it was responding to the contents of the letter, and the Federal Trade Commission also declined to comment on whether an investigation was underway," Carrazana reports.

New rural coronavirus infections fell 35% last week and 75% over past month, but 80% of rural counties still in 'red zone'

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, Feb. 13-19
Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

The rate of new infections in rural America fell 35 percent during the week of Feb. 13-19, "the third consecutive week of significant declines. Since the second half of January, new infections in rural counties have dropped by more than 75%. The metropolitan infection rate fell by a similar amount," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder.

"Despite the dramatic gains of the last month, more than 80% of the nation’s rural counties remain in the red zone, meaning they have weekly infection rates of at least 100 new cases per 100,000," Marema reports, but things look a lot better than they did a month ago: "The percentage of rural counties with very high rates of infection (defined as 500 or more cases per 100,000 for the week) has fallen from 94% the week of Jan. 22 to just 14% last week."

Rural counties reported 2,744 deaths related to Covid-19 last week, an increase of less than 1% from the week before. "The rural death rate was 50% higher than the metropolitan death rate last week (5.96 vs. 3.92 deaths per 100,000 residents)," Marema reports. "The rural death rate has been higher than the metropolitan death rate for 76 of the last 81 weeks."

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

Local meteorologists are trusted sources on climate issue

Many Americans don't believe in anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change, or in climate change, period, but local TV meteorologists ae uniquely placed to help educate them. 

Nearly one-third of American adults say they don't worry much or at all about climate change. Many of them—disproportionately older, white Republican men—are drawn to conservative news media that firms up such opinions, Dan Schwartz reports for The Atlantic.

"These Americans, among others, are stuck in what researchers have called 'reinforcing spirals.' Social scientists have long assumed that most of the Americans misinformed about climate change were protecting a constructed reality, but that view is shifting," Schwartz reports. "A more recent study suggests that many in this cohort, which could include the 'dismissive,' are sincerely interested in the truth. These people aren’t suspicious of the evidence because it contradicts their view of the crisis, but because they don’t trust the available messengers—namely the scientific community and the mainstream media." 

But local news media are more trusted than nationwide news, so in 2010, scientists and journalists formed a nonprofit called Climate Central that aims to better educate meteorologists, and through them Americans, about climate change, Schwartz reports.

"By 2012, Climate Central was working with 10 weathercasters. By the end of 2013, it was working with 100, and it had quadrupled its production of localized reports. The number of participating weathercasters continued to grow, and with more exposure to trusted climate-change information, they began to see climate change for what it was. By 2017, 95 percent of TV weathercasters agreed that the climate was indeed changing," Schwartz reports. "By 2020, 80% acknowledged that human activity was a major reason.

"    The facts here did what facts sometimes do when people are actually searching for the truth: They changed minds. Now weathercasters, with their eyes open to the crisis, are better positioned than anyone else to guide the remaining Americans through the same transition. One 2013 study, frequently cited, found that the more people liked a TV weathercaster, the more likely they were to be positively influenced by that weathercaster’s discussion of climate change."

"We never looked at it like, 'We’re the ones in charge'," Program Director Bernadette Woods Placky told Schwartz. "It was a relationship. It was a partnership."

Research: Meat alternatives gaining in popularity but not denting beef sales; poultry and fish may be another story

Plant-based meat alternatives have been growing in popularity for years, with global sales expected to top $30 billion by 2026. That has meat and poultry producers and processors nervous, spurring bills and laws to segregate such products in the grocery store.

But, a recently published study shows, beef and pork producers don't have to worry—at least not yet. Poultry and fish producers may have cause for concern though. Researchers analyzed Nielsen sales data from U.S. grocery and convenience stores from 2017-2020 and found that only a small percentage of consumers have tried meat analogues. They also found that "consumers were often purchasing plant-based meat alternatives alongside beef and pork and instead used the plant-based meat alternatives as a substitute for chicken, turkey and fish," Katie Pratt reports for the University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.

Though meat analogue sales have grown more than 200% since the beginning of the pandemic, one of the researchers told Pratt that such foods only make up 0.5% of the fresh meat market share. The study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, was recently published in Applied Economics Perspectives and Policy; read it here.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Rural U.S. lost population for first time ever in 2010-20, but some rural areas grew, mostly through adult people of color

Population change in nonmetropolitan counties from 2010 to 2020
(University of New Hampshire Carsey School map; click the image to enlarge it)

We've known that most rural areas lost population in the last decade, but a new analysis of Census data found that rural America overall lost population for the first time in history, and the trend could continue, according to new analysis of 2020 census data by the University of New Hampshire's Carsey School of Public Policy. But some rural areas are gaining population, mostly from adult people of color, according to an analysis by The Daily Yonder.

Nonmetropolitan counties lost 289,000 residents out of about 46 million from 2010 to 2020, Kenneth Johnson reports for the Carsey School. In the previous decade, rural America gained 1.5 million new residents and in the 1990s grew by nearly 3.4 million.

"If rural outmigration is ongoing, and deaths continue to exceed births in many rural areas due to low fertility and higher mortality among the aging rural population, then population losses are likely to continue in much of rural America," Johnson reports. "And the onset of Covid-19, which generated additional social, economic, and epidemiological turbulence, is likely to contribute to more rural population loss because it significantly increased rural deaths and discouraged births. Rural counties with sustained population loss face significant challenges maintaining critical infrastructure needed to provide quality health care, education, and a viable economy for the remaining residents."

Though rural America as a whole has fewer people, "Parts of rural America are adding population, and some segments of the rural population — especially adults, people of color, and Hispanics — are growing," Sarah Melotte reports for The Daily Yonder. "Rural America’s adult population (ages 18 and up) increased 1.2%, according to a Daily Yonder analysis. During the same period, the share of the adult rural population composed of people of color and Hispanics grew by 22%, from 17.1% in 2010 to 20.8% in 2020. Diversity in the adult population increased in over 95% of the nation's rural counties since the last census -- about the same percentage as urban counties."
Percentage change in non-white and Hispanic population by metro status, 2010-2020
(Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version)

Holy Hereford! Bull survives being swept 49 miles down a river and over a 33-foot waterfall after a New Zealand flood

The bull was built Hereford tough. (Photo provided to
"A young bull that was swept into a surging river during flooding on New Zealand’s West Coast has miraculously survived the ordeal, turning up unharmed a week later, 80 kilometres (49 miles) downstream, snuffling about in a blackberry bush," Eva Corlett reports for The Guardian.

Owner Tony Peacock said the 18-month-old bull and two others were swept away—along with hundreds more in the surrounding area—after the biggest rainfall he'd ever seen on his farm, Corlett reports. He assumed his bulls were gone for good, but a farmer in the oceanfront town of Westport called him a week later after spying a bull with an unfamiliar ear tag in the brush.

"It’s a fairly long trip and amazing he survived," Peacock told Corlett. "I was quite happy when I got the call he was alive. I think he will get legend status now and be put in a paddock to retire with some cows."

As rural areas lose grocery stores, some towns have responded by opening cooperative groceries

The interior of Market on the Hill in Mount Pulaski, Illinois (Investigate Midwest photo by Darrell Hoemann)

Rural towns "have lost grocery stores while dollar-store chains have been on the rise, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The departure of food stores leaves residents, especially those in areas with high poverty rates and dwindling population, with fewer options to buy food," Amanda Perez Pintado reports for Investigate Midwest and Report for America. "With the closure of grocery stores, rural populations are forced to drive longer distances to purchase food. This may be a larger issue for low-income residents who are not able to afford transportation to get groceries. In 2015, according to a USDA report, about 5 million people who lived in rural areas had to drive 10 miles or more to reach the nearest food store."

The story explores the trend with a portrait of Mount Pulaski, Illinois. The town of 1,500 lost its last grocery store in 2016, and locals found it so difficult to continue that a local farmer spearheaded the creation of a grocery cooperative. Market on the Hill, which opened in June 2020, has "fresh produce, meat and deli items. Many of the goods in stock are locally sourced," Pintado reports.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Magazine's 'short, selective biography' of Berry has lines from forthcoming book, which will 'offend most everyone'

Wendell Berry (Guy Mendes photo)
Wendell Berry, advocate of the largely rural fundamentals that formed humanity before the Industrial Revolution, gets a big write-up in the Feb. 28 issue of The New Yorker, from none other than the magazine's executive editor, Dorothy Wickenden. For her, it completes a cycle of nearly 60 years.

The daughter of Berry's first commercial editor, Wickenden draws on his and Berry's correspondence from 1964 to 1977, when the writer, as he acknowledged then, was still discovering himself. But it also offers glimpses of his next book and looks at his legacy, which includes The Berry Center, which promotes “prosperous, well-tended farms serving and supporting healthy local communities” and the Wendell Berry Farming Program of Vermont's Sterling College, which offers a tuition-free college degree in sustainable family farming.

Wickenden's expansive, 9,384-word article amounts to a short, selective biography of one of America's most loved and yet also scoffed-at writers. She sums up what we know: "Berry’s admirers call him an Isaiah-like prophet. . . . Critics see him as a utopian or a crank, a Luddite who never met a technological innovation he admired." But this is not just history; it offers insight into the land, culture and neighbors that made Wendell Berry, now 87, who he is -- and why he is what he is.
After visiting Berry at his Kentucky farm, Wickenden wrote, "From this sliver of vanishing America, Berry cultivates the unfashionable virtues of neighborliness and compassion. He divides his time between writing and farmwork, continuing his vocation of championing sustainable agriculture in a country fueled by industrial behemoths, while striving to insure that rural Americans—a mocked, despised, and ever-dwindling minority—do not perish altogether."

Berry let Wickenden read, and quote from, his forthcoming book, due this summer: The Need to Be Whole, in which "He argues that the problem of race is inextricable from the violent abuse of our natural resources, and that 'White people’s part in slavery and all the other outcomes of race prejudice, so damaging to its victims,' has also been 'gravely damaging to white people.'"

Wickenden says the book "contains something to offend almost everyone," and her major example is a man Berry calls “one of the great tragic figures of our history,” Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. "He presents Lee as a white supremacist and a slaveholder, but also as a reluctant soldier who opposed secession and was forced to choose between conflicting loyalties: his country and his people." She quotes from the book: “Lee said, ‘I cannot raise my hand against my birthplace, my home, my children.’ For him, the words ‘birthplace’ and ‘home’ and even ‘children’ had a complexity and vibrance of meaning that at present most of us have lost.”

Wickenden writes, "If readers were incredulous about Berry’s [1977] claim that a pencil was a better tool than a computer, it’s not hard to imagine how many will react to his plea that we extend sympathy to a general whose army fought to perpetuate slavery in America. Several of Berry’s friends urged him to abandon the book, anticipating Twitter eruptions and withering reviews."

“My friends, I think, were afraid, now that I am old, that I am at risk of some dire breach of political etiquette by feebleness of mind or some fit of ill-advised candor,” Berry writes. “They are asking me to lay aside my old effort to tell the truth, as it is given to me by my own knowledge and judgment, in order to take up another art, which is that of public relations.”

Berry's politically incorrect truth-telling does not extend to his Trump-voting neighbors, 30 miles northeast of Metro Louisville, because that wouldn't be neighborly. He writes, “If two neighbors know that they may seriously disagree, but that either of them, given even a small change of circumstances, may desperately need the other, should they not keep between them a sort of pre-paid forgiveness? They ought to keep it ready to hand, like a fire extinguisher. . . . A society with an absurdly attenuated sense of sin starts talking then of civil war or holy war.”

Wickenden probably didn't realize it, but for some readers those lines will echo in another part of her story, about Berry's connections to Appalachia and the town of Whitesburg, including Tom and Pat Gish, who published The Mountain Eagle every week for 52 years, even after their office was firebombed by a local policeman who state police said was hired by coal operators. But even as the Gishes revealed the Tennessee Valley Authority's role in strip mining and helped visiting journalists explore the region's ills, they were always careful not to publish demeaning pictures of local residents like those that typically illustrate such national stories.

That's community journalism. Berry once defined "community" this way: “A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other's lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.”

The nation's electric grid is becoming less reliable as its sources change; see where your state gets its power

Power production by source, by state. (Wall Street Journal map; click the image to enlarge it.)

Age and climate change are driving the nation's power grid to become less reliable even as Americans become more dependent on it in an increasingly digital world.

"Large, sustained outages have occurred with increasing frequency in the U.S. over the past two decades, according to a Wall Street Journal review of federal data. In 2000, there were fewer than two dozen major disruptions, the data shows. In 2020, the number surpassed 180," Katherine Blunt reports for The Wall Street Journal. "Utility customers on average experienced just over eight hours of power interruptions in 2020, more than double the amount in 2013, when the government began tracking outage lengths. The data doesn’t include 2021, but those numbers are certain to follow the trend after a freak freeze in Texas, a major hurricane in New Orleans, wildfires in California and a heat wave in the Pacific Northwest left millions in the dark for days."

Meanwhile, "the grid is undergoing the largest transformation in its history. In many parts of the U.S., utilities are no longer the dominant producers of electricity following the creation of a patchwork of regional wholesale markets in which suppliers compete to build power plants and sell their output at the lowest price," Blunt reports. "Within the past decade, natural gas-fired plants began displacing pricier coal-fired and nuclear generators as fracking unlocked cheap gas supplies. Since then, wind and solar technologies have become increasingly cost-competitive and now rival coal, nuclear and, in some places, gas-fired plants."

Some experts worry that the transition could cause old power plants to "retire more quickly than they can be replaced, creating new strain on the grid at a time when other factors are converging to weaken it," Blunt reports.

Aging power lines are also a concern, with 70% nearing their expected 50-year lifespan, according to a 2021 American Society of Civil Engineers report. "Utilities across the country are ramping up spending on line maintenance and upgrades. Still, the ASCE report anticipates that by 2029, the U.S. will face a gap of about $200 billion in funding to strengthen the grid and meet renewable energy goals," Blunt reports.

Ukraine conflict raises grain, energy prices; fertilizer next?

Russia's recognition of two separatist Ukraine provinces as independent countries, and its military move into the region, could presage a full-scale war that is already affecting world markets for grain, energy and fertilizer.

"With the two countries accounting for around 29 percent of global wheat exports, 19% of world corn supplies, and 80% of world sunflower-oil exports, traders worried that any military engagement could impact crop movement and trigger a mass scramble by importers to replace supplies from the Black Sea region," report Naveen Thukral and Gavin Maguire of Reuters, "Chicago wheat futures jumped more than 2% on Tuesday, corn hit a seven-month high and soybeans also gained ground." 

Reuters quoted an unnamed trader as saying that ships are avoiding the Black Sea, but Bloomberg reported that "Cargoes are flowing freely and there's no indication of significant disruptions."

Fertilizer prices, already at record highs and threatening farmers' profit margins, may increase even more because Russia is a major exporter of fertilizer. "If Russia invades Ukraine, and the U.S. and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries retaliate with trade sanctions, that could cause shortages and drive up prices," Andrew Ozaki reports for Omaha's KETV.

The Associated Press reports that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Saturday that "American wheat farmers will boost production and prevent supply chain problems in the event that a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine chokes off agricultural exports from the global grains powerhouse."

AT&T shuts down 3G service tomorrow; transition will hurt rural Americans most, especially vulnerable populations

"Starting on Wednesday, phones and other devices connected to AT&T’s 3G cellular network won’t work anymore. The company is the first major U.S. telecom provider to shut down its 3G service to free up space for faster 5G networks," Savannah Maher reports for Marketplace. T-Mobile will shut down its 3G networks on March 31 and Verizon will follow on Dec. 31.

That will disproportionately hurt rural America, it seems. More remote areas are less likely to have 4G or 5G network coverage, and even in areas that do, many rural residents don't have the money or tech-savvy to get newer devices that can catch a 4G signal. Some older 4G phones that don't support Voice over LTE will also be affected, Kristi Eaton reports for The Daily Yonder.

Some rural populations will be particularly hard-hit: the poor, the elderly, people of color, and those living on reservations. Domestic violence survivors may also be affected: "They may soon not have a working phone to be able to call 911 and ankle monitors for perpetrators may not work sufficiently because they are also on the 3G network and smaller communities may not have the resources to upgrade them," Eaton reports.

Wireless providers have warned about the change for years, and have tried to smooth the way by offering free phone upgrades, but the pandemic has complicated those efforts. Seniors, who often need technical support the most, have been leery of admitting service technicians from wireless carriers or home-alarm companies, and backed-up supply chains and a computer-chip shortage have made it difficult to replace old devices, Cat Zakrzewski reports for The Washington Post.

Phones and tablets won't be the only thing affected. Some farming and industrial equipment relies on 3G networks. "You might use it to monitor what’s going on with an oil rig or a wind turbine or an irrigation system," Carri Bennet of the Rural Wireless Association told Maher. Also affected: some cars, life-alert systems, school bus trackers, court-ordered breathalyzers, and more, Zakrewski reports. It's unclear how many Americans still rely on 3G networks; the most recent data show that nearly 20% of Americans were still on 3G networks as of 2018.

Pandemic roundup: why Covid can cause stillbirths; peer-to-peer mental health services for farmers; nearly 1 in 5 health-care workers have quit since the beginning of the pandemic

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

It's already well established that stillbirths have increased in many areas with high Covid-19 rates. Now a new study suggests why: A coronavirus infection can invade and destroy the placenta, likely leading to stillbirths, the study says. Read more here.

Nearly a fifth of American health-care workers have quit since the beginning of the pandemic as they get increasingly burned out by the demands of overcrowded hospitals. A portrait of a Minnesota hospital shows what that stress looks like. Read more here.

Worker burnout is only one reason hospitals can't handle the new normal, says one analysis. Rural hospitals especially will continue to lose out: Urban hospitals with deeper pockets will keep poaching rural staff (example: traveling nurses), enabling lucrative elective surgeries. Smaller hospitals will continue to shoulder a disproportionate share of mild-to-moderate Covid-19 patients and will be more likely to have to pause elective surgeries and other non-Covid care. Read more here.

During the Delta variant surge last summer, rural counties with low vaccinations rates were hit the hardest, researchers found. Counties where the coronavirus vaccination rate was below 30% saw nearly double the case rate of counties where vaccination rates were over 50%. 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.

In January, more than 3,000 hospitalized patients became infected with the coronavirus during their stay, more than in any other month of the pandemic, new data show. Read more here.

The Food and Drug Administration delayed its review of Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine for children under 5 years old earlier this month. Sources familiar with the decision now say it's because a few children in the study got breakthrough infections of the Omicron variant after two doses of the vaccine. Since so few people get breakthrough infections, even a handful could be statistically significant. FDA officials and Pfizer agreed it would be better to wait for a larger sample size to assess the vaccine's effectiveness for that age group with both two doses and three doses. Results are expected in early April. Read more here.

Skagway News is thriving online after being sold at start of pandemic; mayor says 'the professionalism is back'

Skagway, Alaska (Wikipedia map)
A year ago, Columbia Journalism Review recounted how the new owners of the Skagway News were struggling to keep the rural Alaskan news outlet afloat during the pandemic. According to a new update? They're doing great.

The odds were stacked against former teachers Melinda Munson and Gretchen Wehmhoff when they took over the twice-monthly publication. They were new in town and didn't know the community, and the pandemic shutdowns were about to begin (killing advertising revenue from local businesses that relied on cruise ship tourists). But the newspaper is thriving these days, Fiona Skaggs reports for Northwestern University's Medill Local News Initiative.

"Since taking over in March 2020, the pair have fully digitized the paper, introduced subscription renewals by email instead of postcard and provided PDFs for readers online. Plans to install a paywall are on hold during the pandemic, but still on the agenda," Skaggs reports. "Other changes include live-streaming Assembly meetings for those uncomfortable attending in person, increasing coverage of the Skagway Traditional Council and other native Alaskans in the community and adding an alternating editors’ column. In a town where internet access is not a given, the pair decided to display a home-printed copy of the paper in the windows of a bookstore on the first floor of the newspaper office for passersby. Munson personally delivered printed copies to seniors who had no other way to obtain it."

Community support for the paper and its owners is high. "The professionalism of the paper is back," Mayor Andrew Cremata said. "It’s focused locally, which is what it should be. If there’s a basketball game that’s important, that’s covered. If there’s an Assembly item that’s important, that gets covered."

The paper's transformation fascinated filmmaker and former Skagway resident Stan Bush, who was a reporter for the paper while in high school. "His documentary, 'The Last Front Page,' aims to show Skagway as it navigates the depths of the pandemic through to recovery. Filming began in September 2020, and production is set to wrap in July 2022."

Monday, February 21, 2022

Republican county supervisor recalled over pandemic mandates warns, 'Don't think this can't happen to you'

Official election results have confirmed that a far-right militia successfully ousted a Republican county supervisor this month in Shasta County, California. "It was a ballot-box success for ultra-conservatives, one that could be repeated in local elections this year as well as primaries and the midterms as Republicans decide whether to skew right with former President Donald Trump or hew to a more traditional course," CNN reports.

Leonard Moty, who lost the recall vote, is a former law-enforcement officer, and fiscal conservative who supports the Second Amendment, but the militia went against him and two other supervisors after they wouldn't defy mandatory shut-down restrictions imposed by the governor for the pandemic.

Moty "says his loss is a win for extremists and warns other Republicans that the rage of the far right is driving them to take on local governments," CNN reports. "I think it's the Republican Party falling apart," Moty said. "Don't think it's just going to go away. Don't think this can't happen to you."

Shasta County in pink,
Nevada County in red
on adapted Wikipedia map
The militia that led the recall effort has a podcast with a nationwide audience (which in one episode compared journalists to Nazi war criminals, using misinformation to make its point), and has said they want other counties to follow their example in recalling local leaders.

A group in rural Nevada County, in the Sierra Nevada southeast of Shasta County, appears to be doing just that. It "is seeking to recall five county supervisors, saying that contact tracing efforts and the promotion of lockdowns and vaccines violate 'religious freedoms and individual liberty'," Dani Anguiano reports for The Guardian. The campaign has also "accused supervisors of 'promoting corruption' and enabling 'crimes against humanity'."

"I did not enable 'crimes against humanity', I sought to protect citizens’ health in the face of a deadly virus," Nevada County Supervisor Dan Miller said in response to the recall effort. Anguiano reports, "Experts say extreme language is becoming increasingly common in local politics and public meetings, even those that have historically been staid and orderly affairs."

Opioid treatment programs are inaccessible for many rural Americans, and many don't offer the full range of treatment

Percentage of opioid treatment programs than accept Medicaid coverage, by state
Map by The Pew Charitable Trusts; click the image to enlarge it.

Opioid overdose deaths have shot up during the pandemic, topping a record-setting 100,000 in the 2021 fiscal year. But only 11 percent of the 2.7 million Americans with opioid-use disorder received medication-assisted treatment in 2020, and opioid treatment programs remain out of reach for many Americans with opioid-use disorder, including those in rural areas, Sheri Doyle and Vanessa Baaklini report for The Pew Charitable Trusts. Not only are OTPs scarcer in rural areas—Wyoming, one of the most rural states, had none at all as of 2020—but rural programs may not do much good if they don't accept Medicaid, offer buprenorphine, or have mental-health care that goes beyond drug treatment,

Pew found significant disparities among the states. OTPs are the only health-care facilities that may offer patients all three types of medication-assisted therapy for opioid addiction, but 60.5% didn't offer injectable naltrexone and 24.2% didn't offer buprenorphine.

Buprenorphine availability may have been hampered because medical providers once had to obtain special training and a waiver to prescribe it, but in April 2021 the Department of Health and Human Services largely did away with the waiver. However, the treatment still may be hard to get because the Drug Enforcement Administration also began cracking down on pharmacies suspected of improperly dispensing it, so many pharmacies subsequently refused to dispense it all.

Medicaid acceptance among OTPs also varied widely, from 100% in several states to none in Mississippi and South Dakota; 83.2% of OTPs overall accept Medicaid, Doyle and Baaklini report. When Medicaid is not accepted, the poor must pay out of pocket or seek charity.

Mental-health issues are common among those with opioid-use disorder, and treating such problems—which are often at the heart of opioid misuse—can help make drug treatment stick. But only 46.1% of OTPs offer mental-health treatment, Doyle and Baaklini report.

The study found wide disparities in the availability of OTPs that cater to specific populations: 64.1% offer treatment in other languages, 56.9% offer treatment specially for pregnant people, 24% for LGBTQ Americans, 24% for veterans, and 4.7% for adolescents.

Pew has recommendations for improving access, including a re-conception of the programs. OTPs have "punitive rules that reflect a distrust of patients—such as observed daily dosing, regular urine drug screens, and limits on access to take- home medication—rather than encouraging a collaborative setting in which the provider and patient work in partnership," says a Pew brief published with the study.

Also, state laws "prevent or discourage new OTPs, such as prohibiting OTPs near schools, requiring new OTPs to obtain a certificate of need (a legal document demonstrating public need for new facility services), or requiring licensure by the state board of pharmacy, a level of oversight not required by the federal government," Pew reports. "West Virginia law even prohibits new clinics from opening at all."

To increase access, Pew recommends that all OTPs accept Medicaid, that states should encourage mobile methadone clinics, and that more OTPs in general should be opened.

USDA resource guide aims to help rural businesses grow

The Agriculture Department's Rural Development branch has unveiled a resource guide aimed at helping rural Americans start and grow businesses.

The guide has first-hand stories from business owners about how USDA programs helped them start or expand businesses. It also tells how rural entrepreneurs can access USDA and other federal programs to get financing and other assistance to help start and expand their businesses. It includes tools to help them:

  • expand their access to capital to create small business incubators
  • create value-added agricultural products
  • access high-speed internet to connect their businesses to national and global markets
  • cut energy costs
  • access health care resources to enhance the quality of life for their employees
  • access workforce development and training opportunities to improve their skills, products and services, and more
Though recently surveyed Midwestern rural bankers reported strong local economies, chronic labor shortages remain a significant problem. New local businesses could help with that.

Friday, Feb. 25 webinar on rural broadband policy features author of book about failure to bridge the rural digital divide

A free webinar at 1 p.m. ET on Friday, Feb. 25, will discuss rural broadband laws and policy. It's part of the Rural Reconciliation Project, a University of Nebraska College of Law initiative that seeks to cut through popular narratives on both sides of the rural-urban divide and assess the past, present and future of big structural issues in rural America. Previous sessions have addressed rural jobs, power and infrastructure policy. An upcoming session in March will address water.

During the webinar, Dr. Christopher Ali will share his research on rural broadband policy. Ali, an associate professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, recently published a book examining how U.S. policy has failed to bridge the rural digital divide. Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity analyzes broadband providers and policies, and has case studies from the rural Midwest. Click here for more information or to register.