Friday, August 12, 2022

Couple who persevere with weekly win Kentucky's Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism

Allison Mick-Evans and Chris Evans at of their newspaper, The Crittenden Press
The owners of a weekly newspaper in West Kentucky, who have persevered for almost 30 years in the face of increasing challenges to the industry – and to them and their community – are the winners of the 2022 Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by Kentuckians.

Chris Evans and Allison Mick-Evans own The Crittenden Press in Marion, a town of 3,000 and the seat of Crittenden County, pop. 9,000. It is one of Kentucky’s smaller newspaper markets, and is losing population, but the Press shows that a paper doesn’t have to be big to be good, said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues in the University of Kentucky’s School of Journalism and Media. (The Institute publishes The Rural Blog.)

“The Crittenden Press has long been a standout newspaper in West Kentucky, from the days when Allison’s family, the Micks, owned it,” Cross said. “It has always punched above its weight and set an example for others to follow.”

The Institute presents the Smith Award with the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Chapter President Tom Martin said, “The Press is the embodiment of a vital community newspaper.”

That has been especially evident in the last few months, as the City of Marion has endured a water shortage. The Crittenden Press has been a lifeline of information for citizens, digging into the reasons for the crisis, broadcasting City Council meetings, doing live interviews with emergency responders and giving news updates in real time.

The paper was an early adopter of online journalism, as evidenced by its URL,; during a major ice storm in 2009, Editor-Publisher Chris Evans ran it on generator power and published a special news flyer with updates on electricity status and aid stations. The paper's innovations are cited in a Publishers' Auxiliary column by Chip Hutcheson, a retired publisher in the area.

During the pandemic, Evans found discrepancies in data from the district health department and coordinated with it to correct the numbers, and the Press was one of 14 Kentucky papers to publish a special vaccination section sent to all households in the county, in cooperation with the Institute, the Kentucky Press Association and UK’s Cooperative Extension Service.

A 2006 episode is an example of Evans’s investigative reporting. He revealed misuse of more than $200,000 by the local economic development director, who was indicted and forced to repay most of it.

When a drug bust prompted false, online rumors of shootings and murder, Evans countered them with online postings that carried credibility because they were not anonymous, and because people respect him and his newspaper. “Our task is to be in a position to provide credible information in whatever form people want it in,” he said in 2011. “You’ve got to embrace technology, understand where your audience is at, and get there—and the credibility you have will draw people back to you.”

Chris Evans “is everything to this paper, and the paper is everything to him,” Allison wrote. “He insists that content in The Crittenden Press be hyperlocal. No canned news, no state filler. It’s time-consuming, but it’s important to him.” Away from the paper, he has served nearly 30 years on the local park board, where he “essentially serves as the volunteer maintenance man: and orchestrated a major lighting renovation of the park with city, county and school partners to complete the project,” she wrote. “He has also served in various leadership capacities in his church.”

Cited as a community-journalism exemplar in Harvard University’s Nieman Reports in 2011, Chris described his journalism philosophy simply: “We are here to serve people. Then he quoted Bryant Williams, the Tennessee publisher for whom he had worked: “The only higher calling is the ministry.”

At a time when most newspapers are owned by chains that are struggling to meet profit goals and still provide public service, Chris and Allison have continued their local, independent ownership, even as they have had to reduce staff due to declining revenue, a burden for almost all local newspapers.

“We have never had any desire to sell, but I have to admit that with Chris’s retirement not too many years away, we’ve been talking about an exit plan,” said Allison, who is the paper’s advertising manager. “Sadly, seeing the decline of papers in our region that have sold to large conglomerates makes us uneasy. It’s like a parent thinking they, and only they, can adequately take care of their child.”

The sustainability of rural journalism, and the maintenance of local, independent newspaper ownership, are newly adopted goals of the Institute for Rural Journalism, which was founded in the UK College of Communication and Information 20 years ago.

Al Smith, 1927-2021
The Smith Award is named for the late Albert P. Smith Jr., who was the driving force for creation of the Institute, headed its advisory board and was its chair emeritus until his death in March 2021 at the age of 94. He published newspapers in Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, was founding producer and host of KET’s “Comment on Kentucky,” and federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission. He was the first winner of the award.

The award will be presented at the Al Smith Awards Dinner Nov. 3 at the Embassy Suites Lexington on Newtown Pike, near Interstate 64/75. Winners of the Institute’s national Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism, to be announced soon, will also be recognized at the event.

Previous winners of the Smith Award, and their affiliations at the time, are:
2011: Al Smith
2012: Jennifer P. Brown, Kentucky New Era; and Max Heath, Landmark Community Newspapers
2013: John Nelson, Danville Advocate-Messenger
2014: Bill Bishop and Julie Ardery, The Daily Yonder
2015: Carl West, The (Frankfort) State Journal
2016: Sharon Burton, Adair County Community Voice and The Farmer’s Pride
2017: Ryan Craig, Todd County Standard, and the late Larry Craig, Green River Republican
2018: Stevie Lowery, The Lebanon Enterprise
2019: David Thompson, Kentucky Press Association
2020: Becky Barnes, The Cynthiana Democrat
2021: WKMS News, Murray State University

Recent Ky. disaster the deadliest non-tropical flash flood since 1977; FEMA criticized for being too stingy with relief

The flooding in Eastern Kentucky last week was the nation's deadliest non-tropical flash flood since 1977 (meaning one not tied to a tropical storm or hurricane), Jonathan Erdman reports for The Weather Channel. At least 39 people died and more than 1,300 people had to be rescued. 

Most who survived the flood will have a long road to recovery—one likely made longer by limited government assistance and lack of flood insurance.

On Thursday Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency for denying too many requests for assistance from flood survivors. Specifically, "The governor criticized the application process, saying flood victims were being denied assistance when lacking necessary documents," Bruce Schreiner reports for The Associated Press. "FEMA Press Secretary Jeremy Edwards responded Thursday night that agency personnel will be in the flood-stricken region 'as long as it takes' to help Kentuckians recover. Edwards said the agency’s leadership is working to 'reduce barriers and cut red tape'."

Meanwhile, most survivors will have a hard time rebuilding because only 2.3 percent of the population in the 10-county disaster area had FEMA flood insurance. Many decline to buy the insurance, which costs about $1,000 a year, because they think the premiums are too expensive in relation to the risk of flooding. "Flood coverage is sold separately from homeowners’ insurance policies and is considered vital to disaster recovery because policyholders can collect up to $250,000 in claims payments," Thomas Frank reports for Energy & Environment News. "Federal disaster aid, on the other hand, typically pays residents just a few thousand dollars and covers only temporary home repairs."

Quick hits: Q&A on Mar-a-Lago search; 'corn sweat' boosts Midwest heat wave; rural German gun culture different

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 has a Q&A on the search of Mar-a-Lago. Read more here.

Many suspected the story of a 10-year-old rape victim in Ohio who sought an abortion in Indiana was a hoax, but local journalists were the key to proving it wasn't. Read more here.

One more reason for the heatwave in the Midwest: 'corn sweat' is making the air incredibly humid. Read more here.

Westerners struggle to manage booming wild horse populations. Read more here.

Nearly 40% of Americans in a recent poll said they're tired of the two-party political system. Read more here.

A writer who grew up in rural Germany says guns were ubiquitous there but mass shootings weren't. That's because of key differences in gun culture and government regulation, she writes. Read more here.

New rural coronavirus infections down last week; deaths up

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, Aug. 2-8
Map by The Daily Yonder; click on the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

The number of new coronavirus infections "fell significantly last week, resulting in rural and metropolitan counties have virtually the same rate of new infections over a seven-day period," Sarah Melotte reports for The Daily Yonder. "New infections in rural counties dropped by about 3% last week compared to two weeks ago, while the number of new infections in metropolitan counties fell by about 9%. Rural counties reported 107,000 new infections while metropolitan counties reported 664,000 new infections. The rate of new infections in metropolitan counties has been higher than the rural rate since early April."

Meanwhile, "Covid-related deaths, a trailing indicator, jumped by 26% in rural counties last week, while metropolitan counties reported a 1.4% rise in deaths. Rural counties reported 625 deaths, up 130 from two weeks ago. Metropolitan counties reported 2,700 deaths, up 38 from two weeks ago," Melotte reports. "The rural death rate was 42% higher than the metropolitan death rate last week. The weekly death rate has been higher in rural counties for all but one week in the last year. The cumulative rate of deaths from Covid-19 is about 37% higher in rural counties than metropolitan ones."

As farmland values rise, so do fears of a price bubble

"Flush with cash, farmers and investors have driven up farmland values this year at breathtaking rates — a 12% gain nationwide and more than 20% in three Farm Belt states. 'Given recent experiences with fluctuations in the broader economy and prior farmland price dynamics, many market participants express concern that the rapid increase in farmland prices is a signal of a speculative bubble,' said three Purdue University economists," Chuck Abbott reports for the Food & Energy Reporting Network. "While two-thirds of the agricultural professionals who took part in Purdue’s annual land-value survey said prices for top-quality farmland in Indiana were too high, 27% of respondents said they expected prices to climb higher still this year and through 2027." Read more here.

    Thursday, August 11, 2022

    More Americans are going hungry than last summer, due to inflation, but 16 states have ended pandemic food-aid boost

    States in gray opted out. (Stateline map; click to enlarge.)
    More Americans are going hungry than last summer because of soaring food prices, but at least 16 states are refusing extra federal money meant to help the hungry, who are disproportionately rural.

    This July, food costs rose an average of 10.9 percent from the previous July, the biggest single-year jump since 1979, Molly Smith reports for Bloomberg. Eggs and grain-based foods saw some of the biggest increases, owing to the recent avian-flu epidemic that took out millions of laying hens and the Russian invasion of Ukraine that has stalled grain shipments. Overall food prices rose 1.14% from June to July, the highest month-over-month increase since April 2020.

    In July, more than 15 million Americans sometimes went hungry because they couldn't afford food, and nearly 6 million often did, according to the Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey. In July 2021, nearly 12 million sometimes went hungry because they couldn't afford food and 3.6 million often did.

    "Those numbers would have been higher if millions of families hadn’t received extra food aid through a pandemic-related expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps," Kristian Hernández reports for Stateline. "At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic . . . Congress temporarily increased SNAP benefits by raising all benefits by 15% and boosting every household to the maximum benefit allowed for its household size. In April 2021, the Biden administration bumped up the extra aid to a minimum of $95 for all households."

    The 15% increase expired last September, but the maximum-benefit boost will continue as long as a state is still in a state of emergency or disaster due to the pandemic. "As of mid-July, 30 states had ended or allowed their health emergency orders to expire, but 18 of those states continued to qualify for emergency SNAP benefits because they are citing disaster declarations. According to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency website, every state has at least one active disaster declaration due to Covid-19," Hernández reports. "But at least 16 states now have opted out of providing the emergency allotments, with Republican leaders in some of those states arguing that the extra food aid and other pandemic-related help are contributing to worker shortages across the country."

    Three-quarters of households getting SNAP benefits had at least one adult working in 2018, the most recent data available, "and some researchers have long argued that while Medicaid and other welfare programs might include disincentives to work, SNAP does not," Hernández reports, adding that even with the recent increases in benefits, recipients in over 20% of counties still couldn't afford three modest meals a day last fall—and that was before inflation sent food prices skyrocketing.

    Georgia cut off the extra benefits in June; a spokesperson for Gov. Brian Kemp said Georgians don't need it because of the strong economy and low unemployment rate. "But food banks across Georgia say they have seen an increase in clients since the emergency benefits were cut off," Hernández reports. "Danah Craft, executive director of Feeding Georgia, a network of food banks across the state, said food banks are so overwhelmed they are no longer able to feed people with their usual donations, forcing them to buy food instead." The CEO of another Georgia food bank nonprofit — one which serves mostly rural counties — said households reported getting an extra $89 per month in emergency benefits, but it's not helping much because of higher food prices, Hernández reports.

    "I think some of these benefits are ending because there is an assumption that as we're emerging from the pandemic, that things have returned to normal," Craft told Hernández. "But the reality is that people are faring worse than they did pre-Covid."

    Election security webinar for Ky., N.C., Tenn., Va. and W.Va. set Aug. 18; agency issues guide to digital election threats

    "Promoting elections accuracy and bolstering voter roll maintenance and cybersecurity" is one of six major policy trends to watch in state governments, Bloomberg Government reports, and local, state and federal elections are less than three months away. Next week, five Appalachian states will be the focus of a webinar for journalists and others interested in the topic.

    The Election Cybersecurity Initiative of the University of Southern California will hold the webinar aimed at Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday, Aug. 18. Zoom login information will be provided upon registration, available here.

    Topics of the webinar will include cybersecurity, cyber safety, disinformation, misinformation, and crisis response. Scheduled speakers are:
    • Sarah Mojarad, lecturer, USC Viterbi School of Engineering
    • Clifford Neuman, director, USC Center for Computer Systems Security
    • Dave Quast, adjunct faculty, USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism
    • Marie Harf, international elections analyst, USC Election Cybersecurity Initiative
    • Maurice Turner, election security analyst, USC Election Cybersecurity Initiative
    • Michael Coden, associate director, cybersecurity, MIT Sloan School of Management
    The webinar will be hosted by Adam Clayton Powell III, executive director of the Election Cybersecurity Initiative. Questions? Email

    Meanwhile, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has released a guide to digital threats facing election officials and how to mitigate them. The Cybersecurity Toolkit to Protect Elections "aims to help election administrators and their staffs protect themselves against threats including phishing, ransomware, email scams, denial-of-service attacks and other vectors that could potentially disrupt the voting process or confuse voters," StateScoop reports.

    More farmers are switching from herbicide dicamba, but that leaves their crops vulnerable to those who still use it

    "Among the many moving targets to keep an eye on this season is off-target dicamba injury in soybeans. And it’s already evident in Midwestern states," Megan Schilling reports for Successful Farming. Agronomists and others in Iowa say they've seen what appear to be dicamba injuries to soybeans that aren't genetically modified to resist the herbicide. "There are reports of widespread damage to soybeans in southern Illinois and complaints of pesticide misuse that specifically mention damage to trees. The signs are cupping in soybean leaves and bare trees in July and August."

    Agronomists had hoped to see less off-target damage this year since many farmers switched from using dicamba-based herbicides to Enlist, a Dow Chemcial system developed to replace Roundup (both contain glyphosate), Schilling reports. The widespread adoption of Enlist means that, even though less dicamba has been sprayed overall, more acres are vulnerable to it.

    "As long as we have dicamba, it's not a question of if we ever will see off-target injury in a year, the only unknown is how extensive it will be," Aaron Hager, associate professor and faculty Extension specialist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, told Schilling.

    The heat doesn't help, Hager said: "When there is widespread use of a volatile product like dicamba at times of the growing season where temperatures are much higher than normal, we continue to see the effects across the landscape." Researchers have found that plenty of rain or weekly irrigation are the best ways to help dicamba-injured soybeans recover, but drought can put those options out of reach. Windbreaks with multiple rows of perennial trees and shrubs have also been found to minimize damage, Schilling reports.

    Heat roundup: States help farmers in drought; industries resist mitigation for workers; mountain snowpack shrinks

    While Central Appalachia struggles to recover from record flooding, parts of the western U.S. face the opposite problem: a searing drought that's drying up water sources, killing livestock and withering crops. Here's some of the latest related news:

    Farmers in rural Arizona and Minnesota complain that mega-dairy operations (both owned by the same Minnesota company) are depleting and polluting the aquifers they rely on for irrigation. Read more here.

    As of last week, 234 million acres of crops in 42 states were in varying levels of drought. Route Fifty looks at how three states—Iowa, Kansas, and Utah—are trying to help their farmers. Read more here.

    Extreme heat is making outdoor work more dangerous, but most industries are pushing back against efforts to ensure safe working conditions in the heat. Read more here.

    Experts say climate change threatens farmworkers' health in several ways. Not only is working in extreme heat dangerous, but the heat increases the risk of wildfires; even farmworkers hundreds of miles away can be injured from inhaling the smoke. Read more here.

    Heat and drought are drying up the mountain snowpack that feeds rivers vital for irrigation and drinking water. Losing that snowpack threatens to upend the lives of 76 million Americans. Read more here.

    FCC denies funding to Starlink and LTD, which won rural broadband subsidy auction but don't meet requirements

    "LTD Broadband and SpaceX subsidiary Starlink emerged as two of the top 10 winners in the $9.2 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund broadband subsidy auction, but the Federal Communications Commission announced they won’t be taking home any winnings," Diana Goovaerts reports for Fierce Telecom. "In a decision issued a year and a half after the auction’s close, the FCC concluded neither would be able to provide the services they promised when bidding in the proceeding."

    LTD was in line for $1.3 billion to bring gigabit internet to 528,000 locations in 15 states, but critics questioned whether a small company could provide services at such a scale, Goovaerts reports. Then LTD was unable to complete the paperwork to show it was an eligible telecommunications carrier in seven of those states by the June 7, 2021, deadline. FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel warned auction winners that they would lose the funding if they couldn't meet their obligations.

    With Starlink, which was to get $885.5 million to provide broadband to nearly 643,000 locations in 35 states, the FCC had several concerns. "In a public notice, the FCC cited recent Ookla data which showed Starlink speeds declined" from the fourth quarter of 2021 and the second quarter of 2022, "well below the promised 20 megabits per second," Goovaerts notes. Though signal reliability doesn't appear to have been a factor in the FCC's decision, a telecoms consultant recently warned that Starlink's satellites are too low in the sky to provide an unobstructed signal to many houses.

    Starlink's affordability was also a key issue for the FCC, Emma Roth reports for The Verge, "Starlink increased the price of its starter kit and internet service earlier this year. To get set up, Starlink users now have to pay a $599 upfront fee for the satellite dish . . . on top of the $110 per month price for internet service. (It previously cost $499 for the starter kit and $99 per month.)"

    Rosenworcel said Starlink's technology is promising, but not ready for large-scale development: "We must put scarce universal service dollars to their best possible use as we move into a digital future that demands ever more powerful and faster networks. We cannot afford to subsidize ventures that are not delivering the promised speeds or are not likely to meet program requirements."

    Wednesday, August 10, 2022

    States nationwide face teacher shortages, especially in rural areas, which have a harder time hiring

    Schools nationwide are facing teacher shortages, and though no official database keeps track, anecdotal and historical evidence suggests rural areas are harder hit.

    "Why are America’s schools so short-staffed? Experts point to a confluence of factors including pandemic-induced teacher exhaustion, low pay and some educators’ sense that politicians and parents — and sometimes their own school board members — have little respect for their profession amid an escalating educational culture war that has seen many districts and states pass policies and laws restricting what teachers can say about U.S. history, race, racism, gender and sexual orientation, as well as LGBTQ issues," Hannah Natanson reports for The Washington Post.

    The pandemic proved to be a tipping point for many teachers, a 2021 study shows: Nearly one in four teachers said they were likely to leave their job at the end of the 2020-2021 school year, up from one in six before the pandemic.

    "The stopgap solutions for lack of staff run the gamut, from offering teachers better pay to increasing the pool of people who qualify as educators to bumping up class sizes," Natanson reports. "But many of these temporary fixes are likely to harm students by diminishing their ability to learn, predicted Dawn Etcheverry, president of the Nevada State Education Association."

    In rural school districts, which have an even harder time hiring new teachers, "one idea is to stop recruiting people to move and just focus on getting them to stay," Neal Morton reports for The Hechinger Report, which covers education. "Many of the recently funded government efforts have been aimed at convincing people who grow up in these towns to stay and teach. It’s harder than it sounds, since rural areas tend to produce fewer people with the education levels necessary to become teachers. Those who do earn advanced degrees can be loath to return. And there’s little evidence to say how well 'grow your own' efforts work."

    But teacher apprenticeship programs show promise as a long-term solution, writes Lois Kimmel for Route Fifty. Kimmel is a technical assistance consultant to the nonprofit American Institutes for Research's Center on Great Teachers & Leaders. Tennessee, Iowa, and West Virginia all have apprenticeship programs. In Tennessee, which launched the nation's first such program in 2019, "650 participants have completed the program, which officials calculate is enough to fill one third of the state’s teacher vacancies," Kimmel writes. "Registered apprenticeship programs will not solve the teacher shortage crisis immediately, but they will put additional people in school buildings who can support current teachers of record while these apprentices hone their craft."

    Few hospitals have complied with law requiring them to post prices online; is your closest hospital one of them?

    Starting Jan. 1, 2021, a new law required U.S. hospitals to post on their websites the prices for services negotiated with insurers, as well as the discounts offered to patients who pay with cash, in an easily readable format. It's meant to lower medical costs and empower Americans to shop around for services, but over a year and a half later, few hospitals have complied. Is your nearest hospital one of them?

    As of this month, only 319 of the 2,000 hospitals reviewed had complied with the law, according to a new report from nonprofit And though 793 of the hospitals reviewed had posted negotiated prices on their websites, 407 of them weren't compliant because most of their pricing data was missing or incomplete.

    A recent ad from a patient-advocacy nonprofit claims that the government isn't enforcing the new law. But that's not true: "Turns out there is some enforcement, although the process is more complicated and slower-moving than some observers would like," Julie Appleby reports for Kaiser Health News and PolitiFact. Regulators hadn't fined any hospitals when the ad began running in mid-April, but in early June the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services fined the owner of two Atlanta-area hospitals about $1.1 million.

    "As of late July, the agency had sent 368 warning notices to hospitals and issued 188 corrective action plan requests to hospitals that had previously received warning notices but had not yet corrected deficiencies," Appleby reports. "But enforcement is neither a quick nor an easy proposition. Each step in the process gives both sides time to work out the details."

    Representatives from CMS and the American Hospital Association told Appleby compliance is taking longer because regulators and hospitals both face a learning curve in implementing the new law. However, the slow pace "means hospitals feel little pressure to comply despite fines that could reach $5,500 a day, patient advocates say," Ken Alltucker reports for USA Today.

    In the meantime, CMS enforcement is driven mostly by complaints filed on its hospital price transparency website, Alltucker reports, with priority given to the most flagrant violators of the law.

    Airbnb listings that advertise Southern culture a surprisingly decent way to define the South, data journalist writes

    Share of a state's Airbnb listings that mention terms such as "Southern hospitality," "Southern cooking" or "Southern charm," to name a few. (Washington Post map using Airbnb listing data)

    It can be kind of hard to specifically define the South. "The South isn’t just geographic. Plenty of states in the southern half of the United States aren’t even remotely Southern. It’s not entirely historical — it probably goes beyond the boundaries of the Confederate States of America, but doesn’t encompass every former slave state on the Union side. It’s entirely cultural. And culture is notoriously hard to measure," Andrew Van Dam reports for The Washington Post. "Normally, an argument like this would be settled by the Census Bureau, the ultimate arbiter of all things dweeb. But the Census definition of the South seems wildly generous, sweeping up every state from Delaware in the East to Oklahoma in the West."

    Data journalists such as himself have been trying—and failing—to find a decent yardstick for some time. But "a final answer remained elusive until we noticed just how many places on Airbnb advertise their 'Southern hospitality' or their 'Midwestern charm,'" Van Dam writes. "All those Airbnb hosts were, we realized, creating a one-of-a-kind map of America’s true cultural boundaries. Airbnb listings represent hundreds of thousands of pages of text capturing exactly how Americans describe their home regions to outsiders, and every single word of it has a geographic location attached."

    Black farm leader says USDA should halt farm foreclosures

    "Senators were wrong in repealing a program for $4 billion in debt relief for socially disadvantaged farmers, said John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, on Tuesday," Chuck Abbott reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

    "A Virginia farmer, Boyd called on President Biden to declare a moratorium on [Agriculture Department] farm foreclosures while Congress worked on a new relief plan. The program has been tied up in court for months by lawsuits claiming it was unfair to white farmers. The Senate repealed the 2021 language on Sunday at the same time it approved $5.3 billion to help financially distressed farmers and farmers who suffered discrimination in USDA farm lending programs. The new package was tucked into the USDA section of the mammoth climate, health-care and tax bill that was passed by the Senate and faces a House vote on Friday."

    The $5.3 billion approved Sunday would disproportionately help farmers of color, but does not address race directly. Instead, Abbott notes, "it offers $3.1 billion in 'immediate relief' to 'distressed' borrowers of money through USDA direct or guaranteed loan programs, and $2.2 billion, in payments of up to $500,000 per producer, to 'farmers, ranchers or forest landowners determined to have experienced discrimination' in USDA farm lending programs before last Jan. 1."

    USDA has acknowledged that it has discriminated against non-white farmers in administering its programs, Abbott reports. So it's appropriate to offer such farmers direct loan forgiveness, Boyd said: "To acknowledge and correct racism is not unconstitutional or racist."

    Tuesday, August 09, 2022

    Gun roundup: Rural firearm death rates rose 88% in 2010-2020; a profile of 'good guys with guns' in rural Georgia . . .

    Gun homicide rates per 100,000 residents
    (Washington Post charts sourced from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data).

    Gun death rates rose in urban, suburban and rural areas of the U.S. from 2010 to 2020, and much more in rural areas, the Post reports. The rural rate rose 88 percent; suburban and urban rates rose 67% and 58%, respectively. States with easier access to firearms tend to show steeper increases in gun deaths, the data show. Rural gun deaths are more likely to be due to suicide than homicide.

    Stephanie McCrummen of The Washington Post has an interesting and nuanced profile of two cousins in rural Georgia, ages 23 and 18, who worry about gun violence, but believe a "good guy with a gun" can help in emergencies. Read it here.

    Marshall County, in rural North Carolina, is stocking its schools with AR-15s to try to prevent a mass shooting, Joe Marusak reports for The Charlotte Observer. The sheriff said the caches will give deputies quick access to more high-powered firearms in such emergencies. County officials welcomed the notion, which county residents paid for with private donations. However, an education professor who has long studied school safety warns that the presence of the firearms increases the likelihood of accidents and violence.

    'Basic physics' of global warming makes rainfall more frequent and more intense; U.S. infrastructure isn't prepared

    Strip mining surely worsened the recent flooding in Appalachia, but we don't know how much. The same applies to climate change, and a warming world means it will continue to do so.

    Rainfall in many areas is more frequent and intense than in decades past. "An analysis of weather data by the nonprofit group Climate Central found that nearly three-quarters of locations the group examined around the country have experienced an increase in the amount of rain falling on their annual wettest day since 1950 — particularly along the Gulf Coast and Mid-Atlantic. The numbers show that 2021 was a record-setting year for extreme rainfall events, with dozens of places logging their wettest day in generations," Brady Dennis reports for The Washington Post. "A separate Climate Central report this spring found that of 150 locations the group analyzed, 90 percent now experience more average rainfall per hour, compared with 1970. Those increasing bursts of extreme precipitation carry profound economic and human health risks, the likes of which have been on display most recently in Eastern Kentucky."

    "Basic physics" explains why climate change causes this increased precipitation, says North Carolina State University atmospheric sciences professor Kenneth Kunkel. "For every degree Fahrenheit that the air temperature increases, the atmosphere can hold about 4 percent more water," Brady reports. "The world already has warmed more than 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) since pre-industrial times. That increased heat means more moisture in the air — in the United States, much of which comes off the Gulf of Mexico — and more fuel for more intense rainstorms."

    The rainfall "is posing serious challenges in a nation where the built environment is not only outdated but increasingly outmatched," Brady reports. "From populated cities to rural outposts, the United States has long struggled with antiquated sewage and wastewater networks, outdated bridges and crumbling roads and culverts. But as more water falls from the sky more quickly in many places, those challenges have become only more urgent."

    Kids Count Data Book has data on factors that influence children's well-being; state-level books have county data

    The Kids Count Data Book, an annual report on American children's well-being, has just been released; this year's edition focuses this year on the nation's growing mental-health crisis. The coronavirus pandemic has contributed to that crisis, but many factors that make children's lives harder have been an issue since long before the pandemic, the report says.

    "In the 2000s, experts estimated that 14% to 20% of young people in America were experiencing a mental, emotional or behavioral disorder at any given time. Conditions for the current generation appear to be worse," writes Lisa L. Hamilton, president and chief executive officer of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which does the study. Racial and ethnic disparities disproportionately contribute to and result in worsened mental health among children, the report notes. And though data is limited, it indicates that LGBTQ+ youth are also underserved.

    The report ranks children's overall well-being at the state level through 16 measures in health, education, economic security and a category called "family and community" — all of which affect mental health. Though the report doesn't break the data down by rurality, rural areas usually rank low in such measures, including access to health care, quality child care, and adequate nutrition.

    The Kids Count project publishes state data books with county-by-county information. Kentucky Health News reports on one here. Kentucky and other states in Appalachia, the Southeast and the Southwest, plus Alaska, comprise the bottom 17 in overall child well-being. The report primarily uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, a continuing national poll, and the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The project's partner organizations are listed on Page 44 of the report. You can view the interactive version of the report here, overall interactive data here, and past years' reports here.

    2,000 acres of farmland per day was lost or 'compromised' from 2001 to 2016, American Farmland Trust says

    "From 2001 to 2016, the U.S. lost or compromised 2,000 acres of farmland and ranchland every day." So says the American Farmland Trust. (The figures really mean per day, not every day.) "That adds up to 11 million acres of farmland that has been paved over, fragmented or developed, according to research" by the trust, Sara Schafer reports for Ag Web. If that trend continues another 18.4 million acres, nearly the size of South Carolina, will change between 2016 and 2040.

    Its latest report, Farms Under Threat 2040, the trust "says this trend could accelerate further, due to high housing prices in metro areas and new opportunities for remote work," Schafer reports. Farmers' deaths  also contribute to farmland loss. "Around 40% of the nation’s farmland is owned by people over 65, so up to 370 million acres of farmland could change hands in the next 20 years," Schafer reports. "That increases the possibility the land will be sold for development, according to the research."

    To reverse the trend, the report recommends: embracing "smart-growth" principles to improve land-use planning; permanent protection of farmland; advancement of solar projects that boost renewable energy and farm viability; and the creation of more opportunities for new farmers, particularly from historically marginalized groups.

    In each state, the trust has held or will soon hold a webinar with specific data and recommendations. Click here to find yours. You can also explore state- and county-level data through AFT's interactive map.

    CNBC ranks best, worst and so-so states for doing business

    "North Carolina is the No. 1 state for doing business while Mississippi is ranked last, according to a recent study by CNBC," Jean Dimeo reports for Route Fifty. "North Carolina rose to first on the America’s Top States for Doing Business list from No. 2 last year because of its 'solid finances,' CNBC said. The state’s credit rating is 'pristine'; plus, its economic growth (6.7%) and job growth (3.6%) last year were among the strongest in the nation, the media organization added."

    Mississippi is the lowest-ranked state. "While the state offers the lowest cost of living and the lowest wage costs, Mississippi’s workforce is among the nation’s least educated. It is also the least productive state in terms of economic output per job, CNBC said," Dimeo reports.

    States were scored on 88 metrics in categories such as workforce, infrastructure, business-friendliness, health and inclusion, and quality of life. "The workforce category carried the most weight in the 2022 rankings, CNBC said, because so many employers are having a tough time retaining and recruiting workers," Dimeo reports. "Rebuilding the domestic supply chain made infrastructure the second most prominent category while worries about inflation put the cost of doing business into the third spot."

    Monday, August 08, 2022

    Appalachians ask: How do we prepare for floods bound to come as climate change appears to be making them worse?

    Flooding aftermath in Neon Junction, Kentucky. (Mountain Eagle photo by Ben Gish)
    "Devastating floods that killed at least 37 people in Kentucky and recent damage in other parts of Appalachia, including Virginia and West Virginia, are fueling urgent questions about how to mitigate the impact of hazardous flooding that is only expected to increase as climate change fuels more extreme weather," report Chris Kenning of USA Today, Connor Giffin of the Louisville Courier Journal and James Bruggers of Inside Climate News.

    The damage is nearly indescribable. Ben Gish, publisher of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., told The Rural Blog after a trip to Neon and McRoberts: "I keep looking for a way to put it into words, but can’t think of any that would do it justice, except annihilated. People are still living in the ruins of their homes, and some who don’t have a home are somehow sleeping in the remains of their flooded cars. Double-wide mobile homes, which is often the symbol of success for many since the banks rarely finance new housing, have crashed into each other and worse. . . . At this point, I think it would be much easier to count the people whose homes were not flooded than those homes that were." The Eagle is being distributed free again this week, in print and on its website.

    Solutions for the flooding are elusive for many reasons, including "the region’s mountainous landscape, high poverty rates, dispersed housing in remote valleys, coal-mining scarred mountains that accelerate floods and under-resourced local governments," Kenning, Giffin and Bruggers report. "Measures such as floodwalls, drainage systems or raising homes are expensive for cash-strapped counties. Buyouts or building restrictions are difficult in areas where safer options and new home construction are limited. Many are unable or unwilling to uproot. And tamping down extreme weather by reducing climate-changing emissions nationwide is a goal that is politically fraught, including in a region with coal in its veins, that promises no quick relief."

    Former mining regulators say decades of surface mining have left Central Appalachia uncommonly vulnerable to such flooding and made the floods deadlier, Bruggers reports for ICN. Coal companies are supposed to reclaim the land when they shutter, making it more resistant to flooding, but some states and judges have not forced them to do so. Billions of dollars will be required to full reclaim abandoned mines, and though the infrastructure bill had $11.3 billion for the task, President Biden, who is in Eastern Kentucky today, has not nominated a director for the Office of Surface Mining. Bruggers reported in April that very few Kentucky coal mines are current on reclamation.

    Meanwhile, Appalachians have one advantage in the fight: each other. Neil Middleton, vice president and general manager of WYMT-TV in Hazard, said in a recent commentary: "That's what we mountain folk do. We survive, we rebuild, we take care of our own, whatever it takes, in any way possible." Jessica Tezak of The Washington Post has a feature story on one of the helpers, Pastor Brad Tezak of Clay County. If you want to contribute to flood relief, The Daily Yonder has a list.

    What's in the tax and climate-spending bill for agriculture

    The bill that Democrats titled the Inflation Reduction Act, and that Republicans said was misnamed, got some eleventh-hour additions for farmers, Politico's Weekly Agriculture reports. The bill is expected to pass the House and be signed by President Biden this week.

    The Department of Agriculture would get $3.1 billion to forgive “distressed” debtors, $2.2 billion to administer aid to farmers who have experienced USDA discrimination before Jan. 1, 2021, and the Forest Service would get $5 billion to fight wildfires and boost carbon sequestration via forestry. The Bureau of Reclamation in the Interior Department would get $4 billion for drought resilience.

    "The bill would dump $20 billion into various existing oversubscribed USDA agriculture programs to reduce environmental impact," Garrett Downs reports. That includes $8.45 billion for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, $6.75 billion for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, $3.25 billion for the Conservation Stewardship Program and $1.4 billion for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.

    USDA Rural Development will get $14 billion for clean energy and economic growth, including $9.7 billion in grants and loans for renewable energy projects by rural electric cooperatives, $1 billion for forgivable loans for electric generation from renewable sources for resale, and $500 million for biofuels infrastructure. The electric co-ops would also get direct-pay credits for investing in renewables, which would bring them "into parity with for-profit counterparts that have reaped renewable energy tax credits for years," Downs notes.

    Republican Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas said the bill "sets a particularly bad precedent for Farm Bill programs. If they go down this road, we very well might be looking at reconciliation as the only way future farm bills get written."

    But Jim Mulhern, CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, told Politico that the bill is a “game-changer” and “will better position dairy farmers to effectively implement the dairy sector’s Net Zero Initiative and fulfill its 2050 environmental stewardship goals.”

    Several other farm lobbies also praised the biofuels provisions, but the American Farm Bureau Federation opposes the bill. President Zippy Duvall said it “has serious concerns about the proposed increase in taxes on American businesses at a time when the country is entering a recession.” The bill would set a new 15% corporate minimum tax, and levy a 1% excise tax on stock buybacks. "Democrats scaled back the corporate minimum tax to shield individual companies operating under the umbrella of a single owner," The Wall Street Journal reports. "They had also previously altered it to allow companies to continue to accelerate depreciation for tax purposes."

    President Biden said the bill keeps his promise not to raise taxes on households earning less than $400,000 a year. Andrew Duehren and Siobhan Hughes of the Journal note, "The proposed taxes wouldn’t raise taxes directly on middle-class households, but higher business taxes can add costs elsewhere that affect individuals."

    'School choice' and public support of charter schools faces rural resistance even in Republican-controlled statehouses

    "School choice," a favorite issue for many conservatives, especially religious ones who want public support for private schools, has had a hard time getting traction in some states because of opposition from rural legislators.

    The Kentucky General Assembly authorized privately organized but publicly recognized charter schools years ago, but only this year did it provide funding for them, and by a very narrow margin in the state House. Rural lawmakers saw little if any benefit for their communities, which are unlikely sites for charter schools.

    Much the same is happening in Texas, Brian Lopez reports for the Texas Tribune: "Rep. Gary VanDeaver, a Republican whose district includes 30 rural school districts, is still unconvinced. He was one of several lawmakers who helped kill school-choice legislation in 2017. He said one of the concerns he’s hearing from parents is that they’re paying property taxes, which fund public schools, but have opted for either home schooling or sending their kids to private school." He told Lopez, “I prefer to reduce their property taxes, so they have the option of spending that money any way they choose, whether it be alternative education choices, saving for college or purchasing a new car.”

    Lopez reports, "Conservative efforts to pass school choice measures have failed largely because there are few private schools or charter schools as alternatives outside the state’s larger urban areas. Also, the public school systems are a large economic and employment driver for most small towns. . . . VanDeaver has been informed that the religious private schools in his area are uninterested in public money. He also worries about the damage to the local public school district a voucher program could cause."

    Farmers Market Week begins today; U.S. has over 8,000

    This is National Farmers Market Week, an Agriculture Department celebration in its 23nd year.  

    In his proclamation affirming the observation, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the markets "continue to provide access to safe and nutritious food in the face of market disruptions while also shortening supply chains and reinforcing a competitive food system benefitting producers and consumers."

    According to the 2019 National Farmers Market Managers survey, the U.S. has more than 8,000 farmers' markets.  Farm vendors benefit in a number of ways, including:

    • 67% increased overall production.
    • 33% increased the number of workers employed on the farm.
    • Nearly 40% were able to sell imperfect products that would otherwise go unsold.
    • 77% diversified the types of agricultural products they grew.
    The Farmers Market Coalition has a toolkit and other resources with data you can use.

    Rural patients with early-onset Alzheimer's are less likely to get treatment from specialists, who can mitigate disease

    Rural Americans with early-onset Alzheimer's disease are less likely to get specialized care, according to a newly published study.

    "Ohio State University researchers found rural patients with the disease, which occurs between the ages of 30 and 65, were typically seen exclusively by a primary-care physician and were less likely to undergo testing that would help doctors manage the condition," Adam Barnes reports for The Hill. "Researchers noted that patients with early-onset Alzheimer’s make up only 6 percent of Alzheimer’s diagnoses, but they said this form of the condition is usually more aggressive and leads to accelerated cognitive decline."

    Early diagnosis can help patients and families make financial arrangements, seek support, and make other plans to prepare for the progression of the disease, according to lead author Wendy Yi Xu. But the testing required to make such a diagnosis is often unavailable to patients exclusively treated by a family doctor.

    Researchers "said treatments could also overburden rural health care systems that are already stretched too thin, adding 'community health care leaders and policymakers must explore innovative solutions to deliver needed specialty care to early-onset patients,'" Barnes reports.