Friday, September 09, 2022

GAO: USDA pandemic farmer-assistance program lacked anti-fraud safeties; over 1/2 of audited claims lacked backup

In 2020 and 2021, the Agriculture Department's Farm Service Agency distributed $31 billion in aid through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program to more than 950,000 farmers and ranchers to help offset losses and increased costs in the pandemic. But the FSA didn't adequately guard against fraudulent claims, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

"We found problems in the process the Farm Service Agency used to review the claims the producers submitted for payment—potentially making it harder to identify payment errors and fraud," says the report from the auditing arm of Congress. "We reviewed the claims of 90 producers, and over half didn't provide support for their payments."

The report recommends the FSA do four things to better guard against fraudulent claims:

  • Conduct more spot checks of CFAP payments and try to focus more on claims for large payments and claims involving commodities FSA generally doesn't cover.
  • Issue guidance directing the agency to identify factors that county offices should consider when choosing producers for spot checks.
  • Direct agency officials who conduct spot checks to seek proof generated by third parties or, if that's not available, document why self-generated proof from the producer was acceptable.
  • Direct state offices to monitor the quality of county offices' spot checks to ensure their accuracy.

The bicoastal view doesn't match rural reality, but at least longer-range electric vehicles are coming, Iowa editor writes

OPINION By Art Cullen
Editor, Storm Lake Times Pilot

Storm Lake is 150 miles from the Iowa Capitol and 240 miles from the major leagues, and we have two electric vehicles. So this headline in The New York Times caught our attention: “You want an electric car with a 300-mile range? When was the last time you drove 300 miles?”

Clearly, the headline writer does not know the Midwest or Great Plains.

The paper's van gets a charge. (Storm Lake Times Pilot)
We love our Ford E-Transit van. It has a range of 150 miles in perfect weather. To get to Iowa City, you would have to stop in Fort Dodge and charge for at a half-hour and again in Waterloo for a half-hour. Nobody is going to do that when you can burn gas and go like heck.

Range matters out in the sticks. There are no fast-charge stations between here and Mankato that I see. And we’re not even talking Nebraska or Wyoming.

It’s just one example of a bicoastal view of things that doesn’t account for rural reality. Why don’t you hay-balers live on a plant-based diet? Okay, maybe, but recognize that about half of Iowa’s pork goes to Asia. And, cattle not only are tasty on the grill but they can play a critical role in healthy prairie ecosystems if you are interested in such things.

That is not to say that cramming hogs in a building nine stories high is a sustainable idea (they do that in China). Neither is it realistic to expect that you can ban feeding livestock in confinement — even in California, the debate is over square footage for porkers, not the industrial model itself.

It is simply to illustrate that our narratives are shaped by people who have no clue what an Eritrean is doing in Storm Lake, or what becomes of her if you break up the Big Four meatpackers. On Fox News, she might be called an invader if they paid her any attention at all. If you don’t appreciate the facts on the ground, it’s hard to derive answers that work.

Of course, that is the real problem in America: an informed democracy, and keeping authoritarians at bay in Mar-A-Lago. Let’s say we can do that: hold democracy intact, and survive Trump’s assault on the Constitution — the vital mission du jour. Then, the policy makers have to deliver if we are going to save America amid a climate emergency.

They have to deliver affordable electric vehicles that can run you to Des Moines and back in the dead of winter. They have to be able to do it without destroying the Land of Sky Blue Waters mining nickel. They have to do it fast and cheap. The survival of the species is at stake. We can do it.

It begins by shaping policies that take into account the vast interior of the nation where so few of us live. We are so sparse outside of Chicago that our concerns can be disregarded as data noise.

That is not a governing strategy.

If you cannot conceive that Storm Lake exists distant from any place important, or what we do for a living and how we get our work done, you have a hard time understanding why there would be resentment among isolated Whites whose prospects and relative position in society are eroding — told by the noise machine 24/7 that that they have a certain birthright denied by the Brown interloper.

When the well-intentioned talk about rural broadband, they call a conference for Des Moines. It’s rural. There’s corn all around it. Where is Storm Lake?

We’re here. We’re part of the problem, and could be part of the solution. Cover crops? I don’t see hardly any. Help to get a geo-thermal pump at my house? It must be in the rules promulgation stage. They say the bridge will get fixed soon, and I hope before it falls into the Little Sioux River with me on it. Is the federal government helping Storm Lake secure its water supply and safety? Not really. But why don’t you people out there eat your vegetables?

Someone someday will explain to Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden that the Senate is controlled by the vast interior where Sinclair Broadcasting owns the airwaves and the New York Times is not in the media diet.

Fortunately, Chevy is headquartered in Detroit and apparently has its bearings. It will roll out an Equinox next year with an electric range greater than 300 miles at a cost of around $30,000 (net $22,500 after an EV tax credit). I bet they sell like hotcakes.

Monthly newspaper in rural Colorado goes nonprofit, part of a trend that encourages supporters of local news

The latest rural newspaper to go nonprofit is the Crestone Eagle in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. Founder-owner Kizzen Laki sold the monthly to Crestone Eagle Community Media, and is gradually retiring. "The paper, however, has been given a new lease on life," reports Dan Boyce of Colorado Public Radio. "It’s the latest positive sign for local news in Colorado, which until recently had been dominated by decades of steady decline."

“I would say right now is one of the most optimistic times that I have seen in my career as a journalist,” Laura Frank, who co-founded the Institute for Nonprofit News after losing her job during the closure of the Denver-based Rocky Mountain News in 2009, told Boyce, noting several examples across the country. He reports, "Frank says she and her INN colleagues are now fielding calls every month from other news sources of all sizes looking to do the same."

“And Crestone — tiny Crestone, Colorado — has been at the forefront of that,” Frank said. “They are on the leading edge of a growing trend all across the country.”

Laki, 70, found a few years ago that people in her tiny community were willing to dig into their pockets to support the paper, which asked, "We need $10,000 to survive the winter, can you help us?" That raised $15,000.

Wikipedia maps, adapted
The town is on the foot of the western slope of the Sangre de Cristo range. "There’s only one road leading in and out of Crestone," Boyce reports. "The 2020 census recorded 141 inhabitants. Yet, the Crestone Eagle still boasts a circulation of about 2,500 paying readers across its print and digital products per month, and its pages are heavy with columns submitted by unpaid local writers on subjects ranging from stargazing tips to birdwatching reports."

The Eagle is one of two newspapers in Saguache County, population 6.368. The other is the weekly Saguache Crescent, thought to be the only newspaper still produced with a Linotype. It's in the county seat of Saguache, pop. 550, says Wikipedia.  

Rural Covid-19 death rate was over 1/3 higher than metros' last week, but rural infection rate fell about same as metros'

Newly reported coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, Aug. 23-30
Map by The Daily Yonder; click on the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

New coronavirus cases fell in metropolitan and rural counties from Aug. 30 to Sept. 5, but the impact of past infections was felt as death rates climbed, particularly in rural counties.

"Rural America had a 15% decline in infection rates after a 3.7% increase two weeks ago. Rural counties reported 89,689 new cases, dropping the rate from 228 two weeks ago to 194.7 new infections per 100,000 residents last week," Sarah Melotte reports for The Daily Yonder. "New infections in metropolitan counties fell for the fifth consecutive week, declining by about 14% compared to two weeks ago."

Meanwhile, "The rural death rate was 37% higher than the metropolitan death rate last week," Melotte reports. "Rural counties reported 632 Covid-related deaths last week, an increase of about 3% compared to two weeks ago. Deaths in metropolitan counties also climbed by about 3% last week, to 2,823 deaths. Cumulatively, the rural death rate remained about a third higher than the metropolitan death rate."

Quick hits: How the nation's most extreme anti-vaccine law hurt a Montana hospital; learning to live with beavers; housing market cools; gaps found in pesticide regulation

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

When a superintendent in a rural Michigan school district spoke up about systemic racism, some locals were supportive, but most of the response was hostile. Read more here.

Rural southwest Kansas has a growing population of Muslims, but the new Kansans are struggling to develop culturally relevant resources such as a cemetery and a mosque. Read more here.

In 2021, Republican lawmakers in Montana passed the nation's most extreme anti-vaccination law, banning all mandates, even for health-care workers. ProPublica takes a deep dive into the tragic fallout of that decision for a hospital as the Delta wave hit. Read more here.

Some farmers and ranchers destroy beaver dams on their property, believing they cause flooding and other damage. But a growing number of ranchers, scientists and others are coming to believe that beavers are not only helpful, but "furry weapons of climate resilience." Read more here.

The housing market is starting to cool off and prices are coming down. That's good news for rural areas near cities: high housing prices are a major reason people move to more rural areas, but the influx of city-dwellers makes rural housing scarcer and more expensive. Read more here.

A new report exposes key gaps in pesticide regulation enforcement and its impact on farmers. Read more here.

Funding from the climate-and-tax bill aims to bring more renewable-energy jobs to rural Appalachia. Read more here.

Thursday, September 08, 2022

Ky. publisher's bailiwick ended at the county line, but she set an example and spurred a bill that helped rural newspapers

Blanche Bushong Trimble
Blanche Trimble, who died in June at 86 and was memorialized in many tributes Sunday afternoon in her Kentucky hometown, where she published the Tompkinsville News, never sought the spotlight. But it was clear at the end of Sunday's celebration of her life that she had meant a lot to her county, and to rural journalism.

"She was the person who did the most for Monroe County, as far as I was concerned," said Myrna Herron, who was the family and consumer sciences Extension agent in the Southern Kentucky county from 1969 to 2005. She and others recounted how Trimble was involved in almost every civic effort to improve the place, a persistent-poverty county on the western edge of official Appalachia. Trimble's sister, Carolyn Bushong Jordan, told the crowd at the First Baptist Church, "If you want her legacy to live on, get involved in something in the community that you are really passionate about."

Despite her civic activism, Trimble was a very private person who didn't enter Kentucky Press Association contests and never expressed an interest in serving on KPA's large board. Her newspaper world ended at the Monroe County line – until about a year before her death, when she helped get her hometown congressman, James Comer, on board with a successful national effort to expand the ability of newspapers to mail sample copies to non-subscribers at subscriber rates.

Comer was a key player because he oversees the Postal Service as ranking Republican on the Oversight and Reform Committee. "There was but one person I would contact seeking his help," KPA Executive Director David Thompson said of Trimble. "There was such a mutual respect between those two that I knew Blanche was key to getting his help." When Thompson gathered all the publishers in Comer's district for a Zoom call arranged by the National Newspaper Association, "I told them I would invite all of the 42 newspapers to be represented on the call, but there was only one who was key to getting Congressman Comer’s support. That, of course, was Blanche Trimble. And how pleased Congressman Comer was to see his hometown newspaper publisher participating in the call. It didn’t matter if all the other 40 or so publishers each pleaded with 'Jamie' to support the Postal Reform Act; we only needed Blanche’s presence to show him how important this issue was to community newspapers. That effort paid off earlier this year when Congress enacted the Postal Reform Act and newspapers across the state have already seen the benefit of that effort."

Monroe County (Wikipedia map)
Monroe County is known in Kentucky for no-holds-barred politics, but Trimble negotiated that tricky landscape skillfully, said former Louisville Courier Journal political writer Al Cross, who runs the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog. A native of nearby Clinton County, Cross noted that when Blanche and Joe Trimble bought the paper and moved to her hometown in 1976, they registered to vote as independents, which she said "blew everybody's mind" in the heavily Republican county. She told an interviewer in 1980 that she disliked being unable to vote in primary elections, but Cross told the crowd, "I think that’s one reason she did register independent – so candidates wouldn’t ask her for her vote, or wonder how she and Joe might have voted," Cross said. "For her, being an independent was more than voter registration; that was just a symbol of how she approached the job of editing and publishing The Tompkinsville News."

Telehealth roundup: HHS says rural Medicare patients were less likely to use it early in the pandemic, and fraud was rare

Medicare beneficiaries in metro areas were more likely than their rural counterparts to use telehealth during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new report form the Health and Human Services Department's Office of Inspector General. The report didn't report or speculate on why rural beneficiaries were less likely to use telehealth, but did say that beneficiaries almost always used telehealth from home or in other non-health-care settings. Given widespread rural broadband disparities, it's possible rural patients may not have been able to get a good enough signal to access the tech. And some rural seniors may have lacked the tech savvy to access telehealth, a problem seen with switching them to newer phones during the 3G transition. Read more here.

Another report from the inspector general found that telehealth fraud was rare in the first year of the pandemic. Read more here.

In July, the House overwhelming passed a bill that would extend through 2024 the expanded pandemic-era Medicare benefits and reimbursements for telehealth services. However, the Senate hasn't passed the legislation, and while supporters say they're confident it will happen, there are still some obstacles (mainly a lack of time before the midterms). Read more here.

Expanded telehealth services during the pandemic reduced the risk of overdose for those struggling with opioid use, according to a newly published study by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. Read more here.

Telehealth brings important services to rural long-term care facilities. Read more here.

Hundreds of law officers, military and elected officials on leaked membership rolls of extremist Oath Keepers group

"The names of hundreds of U.S. law enforcement officers, elected officials and military members appear on the leaked membership rolls of a far-right extremist group that’s accused of playing a key role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, according to a report released Wednesday," Alanna Durkin Richer and Michael Kunzelman report for The Associated Press. "The Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism pored over more than 38,000 names on leaked Oath Keepers membership lists and identified more than 370 people it believes currently work in law enforcement agencies — including as police chiefs and sheriffs — and more than 100 people who are currently members of the military."

The organization "also identified more than 80 people who were running for or served in public office as of early August. The membership information was compiled into a database published by the transparency collective Distributed Denial of Secrets," Richer and Kunzelman report. "The data raises fresh concerns about the presence of extremists in law enforcement and the military who are tasked with enforcing laws and protecting the U.S. It’s especially problematic for public servants to be associated with extremists at a time when lies about the 2020 election are fueling threats of violence against lawmakers and institutions."

Though more than two dozen people associated with the Oath Keepers have been charged in connection with the Jan. 6 attack, the inclusion of a name on the list doesn't prove that person was ever actively involved with the group or approves of its ideology. "Some people on the list contacted by The Associated Press said they were briefly members years ago and are no longer affiliated with the group. Some said they were never dues-paying members," Richer and Kunzelman report. One Colorado sheriff said he distanced himself from the Oath Keepers years ago because of its increasingly extreme views.

"The Oath Keepers, founded in 2009 by Stewart Rhodes, is a loosely organized conspiracy theory-fueled group that recruits current and former military, police and first responders," Richer and Kunzelman report. It asks its members to vow to defend the Constitution 'against all enemies, foreign and domestic,' promotes the belief that the federal government is out to strip citizens of their civil liberties and paints its followers as defenders against tyranny."

Consumer finances in rural Appalachia have fallen even farther behind the rest of the nation in the last 20 years

A new report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau examines the financial challenges faced by residents of rural counties in Appalachia. "On average, rural Appalachians earn less than other rural people across the country and significantly less than non-rural consumers," CFPB says.

Strikingly, the income gap is growing: "While the median rural Appalachian household income was 89% of the national median in 1999, it was only 69% of the national median in 2020." 

A possible contributing factor: "The share of rural Appalachians attending at least some college lies far below the national average—53% compared to 67% nationally."

Appalachians also have far less access to high-speed internet, says the report: "Only 76% of households in rural Appalachia have access to broadband, compared to 85% of households nationally. Eighteen counties—overwhelmingly in rural areas—lag with rates below 60%."

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau map, adapted by The Rural Blog
Credit-card statistics suggest that Appalachians from the poorest rural counties, those classified as "persistent poverty counties," are less likely to qualify for a card, and that those who do have a card are less likely to be able to pay it off, even though they tend to have lower than average balances on their cards. Appalachians in persistent-poverty counties were less likely to have a credit card and carried a lower average credit card balance than other rural Appalachians, other rural non-Appalachians, or the nationwide average. But those in rural persistent-poverty counties who did have a credit card were more likely to use it than those in other groups, and were more more likely to have delinquent debt on at least one credit card.

"Rural Appalachians are more likely to have a subprime or deep subprime credit score compared to all consumers nationally and consumers in the rest of rural America, which typically leads to a higher cost of credit," the report says. "Rural Appalachians are also more likely than consumers in other parts of the country to have medical debt collections on their credit record."

Wednesday, September 07, 2022

Reports: Pandemic expansions of SNAP (food stamps) and child tax credit helped families' nutrition and well-being

"Temporary increases in federal aid during the Covid-19 pandemic had a 'highly positive impact on overall family well-being' and made it easier for low-income families to afford sufficient and healthy food, according to two reports released on Tuesday by Hunger Free America," Bridget Huber reports for Successful Farming. "But as these supports were gradually withdrawn, respondents reported skipping meals and struggling to feed their families." Rural families often struggle more when such expanded benefits are withdrawn.

The first report included the results of a survey of 800 low-income parents. Participants were asked how they were affected by temporary pandemic expansions of the Child Tax Credit and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (often called food stamps). "More than 90 percent of respondents said the extra SNAP benefits helped them buy enough food and make more healthy, nutritious choices. More than three-quarters said they used the extra benefits to buy more fresh produce and that the extra grocery money freed up funds to spend on rent, transportation or childcare," Huber reports. "Eight in 10 also said they favored having SNAP benefits increased so that people could afford healthier food rather than prohibiting purchases of certain foods with SNAP."

Though the Child Tax Credit isn't a nutrition program, 83% of respondents said the expanded benefit—which expired at the end of 2021—helped them get enough food or healthier food. "Extra SNAP benefits — called emergency allotments — remain in place across much of the country, though at least a dozen Republican-led states have effectively opted out of them," Huber reports. Some respondents said losing the expanded benefits has caused them extreme stress, and some said they skip meals so their children can eat.

The second report recounts the results of 60 in-depth interviews with people who received federal aid such as SNAP or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) before and after the pandemic. "Respondents said that expanded SNAP benefits let them buy healthier food and also lasted longer into the month. Many respondents with children said the extra aid was 'a relief' that let them pay for basic needs more easily. But a lack of reliable transportation remained a major barrier to getting food, particularly for people living outside major metropolitan areas," Huber reports. "Despite the increase in aid, respondents reported visiting food banks and food pantries more often during the pandemic, with 55% more respondents accessing emergency food during the first year of the pandemic than previously."

Also, many college students did not realize that they qualified for SNAP, despite temporary changes that made it easier for them, Huber reports. Those who did get the extra benefits during the pandemic said the funds, which averaged about $250, were nearly enough to cover food expenses with careful budgeting. Many respondents said they felt stigmatized for using federal aid such as SNAP benefits, and that grocery or farmers' market employees often disrespected their privacy.

Local news outlet spurs civic organizations to improve voter turnout and educate people about the election process

Jennifer P. Brown of the Hoptown Chronicle, an online news site in Hopkinsville, Ky., population 33,000 and the seat of Christian County, pop. 73,000, writes in response to yesterday's Rural Blog item about democracy as a beat:

Christian County (Wikipedia map)
"A couple of weeks ago, I wrote my Sunday column about Christian County's troubles with voter turnout. It's been going on for several years, but things were especially bad in May because of confusion over polling sites. In my column I said it's about time for some groups that carry the civics banner in Hopkinsville to get involved in voter education. The poor turnout says a lot about us that no one wants to admit. At the most, I thought a few groups that I called out might share on their social-media sites some info about where and when to vote in November. So you could have knocked me over when [Nikki Chambers,] the president of the local League of Women Voters contacted me and said she had set up a meeting with Chamber of Commerce president Taylor Hayes and some other groups. She said the column instigated this, and she asked me to be at the meeting later this month."

In her column, headlined "Christian County’s civic talent needs to get behind a voter education campaign," Brown wrote: "As news and social media options grow and splinter, the attention of community members becomes more and more fragmented. We cannot count on any outlet or government office on its own to carry a message that reaches a majority of residents. We need more organizations to step up and use their connections and resources to speak directly to their constituents about the very practical aspects of this upcoming election."

Brown argued that voter turnout doesn't just support democracy: "As long as I’ve been a journalist in Hopkinsville (about 35 years now), I’ve heard about the importance of community behaviors and assets when economic development officials recruit new industries. I’ve been told again and again that large corporations want to bring their employees to a vibrant community that shows it cares about good schools, infrastructure and recreational facilities. But shouldn’t we also wonder what it means when fewer than 10% of our registered voters care enough to go to the polls?"

Apply by Sept. 15 for Education Writers Assn. fellowship of up to $5,000 to support an education-related story

If you cover education, this might be for you: The Education Writers Association is still accepting applications for reporting fellowships through Sept. 15.

The micro-fellowships pay up to $5,000 to support an education-related story, and are open to journalists from all types of media outlets (including freelancers). The money can be used for a wide array of expenses such as travel, attending workshops to build knowledge and expertise, or even contracting with a data journalist, photographer or writing coach.

There is no fee to apply, and reporters don't have to be on a full-time education beat to apply. Fellows retain full editorial control over the content of the reporting. EWA expects to award about six micro-fellowships. Click here for more information or to apply.

USDA predicts 2022 median farm household income to fall slightly from 2021 because of inflation, less government aid

U.S. net farm income and net cash farm income, inflation adjusted, from 2002 to 2022 forecast
 (Agriculture Department chart; click the image to enlarge it.)
In its latest Farm Income Forecast, the Agriculture Department said it expects farm income in 2022 to rise 5.2%, to $147.7 billion, from last year, "with cash receipts for agricultural commodities at a record level. But higher production expenses and lower government Covid-19 payments are presenting some headwinds," Samuel Fromartz reports for Successful Farming. "The slight bounce in income comes after 2021, when farm income shot up $45.9 billion, or more than 48%, to the highest inflation-adjusted level since 2013. If 2022 income were adjusted for inflation — now at the highest level in decades — it would have declined 0.9 % from 2021 levels." Click here to read the report.

Other highlights from the report, which is released three times a year:

  • Net cash farm income, a more precise measure of profits, is forecast at $168.5 billion in 2022, an increase of $22.1 billion (15.1 percent) relative to 2021. The 2021 value was $29.6 billion (25.4 percent) above 2020.
  • When adjusted for inflation, 2022 net cash farm income is forecast to increase by $13.5 billion (8.7 percent) from 2021 and be at its highest level since 2012. Net cash farm income in 2022 would be 34.5 percent above its 2002–21 average of $125.3 billion.
  • Cash receipts from the sale of agricultural commodities are forecast to increase by $91.7 billion (21.2 percent, in nominal terms) from 2021 levels to $525.3 billion in 2022. Total crop receipts are expected to increase by $36.4 billion (15.3 percent) from their 2021 level following higher receipts for soybeans, corn, and wheat.
  • Total animal/animal product receipts are expected to increase even more from the previous year, by $55.3 billion (28.3 percent), following increases in receipts for all categories of animal/animal products. These increases would put total cash receipts in 2022 at their highest level on record, even after adjusting prior years for inflation.
  • While cash receipts overall are expected to increase in 2022, lower direct Government payments and higher production expenses are expected to moderate income growth.
  • Direct Government payments are forecast to fall by $12.8 billion (49.7 percent) from 2021 to $13.0 billion in 2022. The decrease is expected largely because of lower supplemental and ad hoc disaster assistance for Covid-19 relief in 2022 compared with 2021.
  • Total production expenses, including operator dwelling expenses, are forecast to increase by $66.2 billion (17.8 percent) to $437.3 billion (in nominal terms) in 2022.
  • Spending on all categories of expenses is expected to rise with the largest increase in fertilizer-lime-soil conditioner expenditures, up 44 percent.

Lewis, 'grandmother of Appalachian studies,' dies at 97; paper in her native Ga. county paid tribute before her death

Appalachian historian, sociologist, and women's rights activist Helen M. Lewis died Sunday at age 97 following complications from Covid-19. From her obituary: "Helen spent a lifetime as a radical educator and activist, working for justice from the Deep South to Appalachia and internationally. Helen taught in colleges and prisons; went to jail for civil rights and stood on picket lines; planted gardens and wrote poetry. In all her work she connected, supported, and pushed people to work together and go a little farther to build communities and make change."

Helen Lewis in a coal mine in the 1960s
(Appalachian State University photo)
Lewis often advised organizations such as the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes The Daily Yonder. The Yonder called Lewis a "towering figure in the fields of Appalachian studies and scholar activism," and noted: "In the late 1960s and early 1970s, while on the faculty of Clinch Valley College in Wise, Va. (now the University of Virginia College at Wise), she pioneered new courses that opened mountain students’ eyes to their history, culture, and pressing social issues like the environmental cost of strip mining. She later joined the Highlander Research and Education Center, where she developed techniques for communities to conduct their own solutions-oriented research on local social and civic issues. Her areas of scholarship and activism included environmental justice, community development, empowerment of women, and community health."

Mike Buffington of the Jackson Herald in Jefferson, Ga., in Lewis's native county, wrote a tribute to her last year, which concluded: "While she lived in Georgia with her sister, she gave a sermon to the small church she attended in Cherry Log. In that sermon, she said the following: 'We don't all have to be protestors, but let us remember those who have confronted pharaohs, governors, county commissioners, corporations and unjust laws. Let us remember those who broke the law to do the right thing, and those who are developing alternatives and building and rebuilding communities.' Helen Matthews Lewis lived a remarkable life of purpose and protest."

In its tribute, the Yonder excerpted two of Lewis's essays from a 2012 book with writings by and about her. In the essays, "She argues that rural community development must begin with a moral economy," the Yonder says. From "Rebuilding Communities: A Twelve-Step Recovery Program":

Rural communities are still part of national and international economies, the agendas of which do not include preserving or reviving small rural communities. Until the needs and agendas of these communities are included in national and international development plans, community efforts will be stalled and short-circuited. Rural communities will continue to be disposable, and the creativity and participation, which these grassroots movements encourage and develop, will be ignored. That is why communities must also enter the policy arena, change development policies so that this vigor, energy, and social capital can be used to develop socially responsible, democratic, and sustainable communities throughout the world.

From "The Highlander Center: Working for Justice and a Moral Economy": I am seeing the beginnings of a new social movement of students and young people questioning the status quo and asking for a new social order. There are many community grassroots groups trying to rebuild their communities, deal with environmental problems, develop coalitions. Many women have emerged as leaders trying to rebuild communities. But people seem less confident of what to do about the many problems. The inaccessibility of economic decisions leaves people feeling both frustrated and very vulnerable. We need something today to bring people together to deal with the destruction of our communities, degradation of the environment, growing poverty, economic distress and alienation and not just in our country but worldwide. We cannot hide from the fact that we are part of a global economy, but we can work to be cooperative, helpful and not exploitive. We live on a fragile planet—we are all spinning around together and need to come together to save us all.

Tuesday, September 06, 2022

Democracy is a new beat for some national-level reporters, but it needs to be a state and local beat, too

By Al Cross
Director and professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

There's a new beat in American journalism: democracy. The most specific topic on the beat is election administration. So far, the beat is only national, but it also needs to be one at the state and local level, because that's where elections are governed and run.

Last week, The Rural Blog noted that The Associated Press recently expanded its politics team to include democracy. Today, Editor & Publisher Contributing Editor Gretchen Peck notes several similar shifts, and reports on interviews with journalists, including Tom Verdin, editor of AP's team.

Tom Verdin, AP elections editor
“There’s been a change in the country that has compelled us to focus intently on the attack on American democracy,” Verdin said. “This is the first time in the nation’s history that we had a president who was actively trying to stop the peaceful transfer of power. . . . Before and after Jan. 6, you have a former president who is continuing to peddle this false narrative, this lie … that has had profound effects on millions, if not tens of millions of Americans who believe that. And it’s not just rank-and-file Republican voters. As we’ve seen through the primary season this year, we have Republican candidates for office, for Congress, governor and on down the ballot, who continue to promote this lie that the 2020 election was stolen.”

Peck also reports on interviews with Sam Levine of The Guardian; Yvonne Wingett-Sanchez, who recently joined The Washington Post’s democracy team after almost 20 years with The Arizona Republic; and Tamar Hallerman, a senior reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which uncovered the recording of then-President Trump asking the Georgia secretary of state to find him just enough votes to win the state's electoral votes. She's covering the state investigation of Trump and others.

Levine told Peck, “This belief that the election was stolen is getting at something that people feel, and it might not be something that a set of facts is ever going to dissuade them, but we have to report on where those emotions are coming from, where the belief is coming from, the rhetoric that people are using to encourage that belief. But it might not be something that a fact check is ever going to dissuade them from. This is much more complicated than people having simply looked at the wrong set of facts.”

Levine said the best way to fight misinformation is to "stick to the facts" and report "how ballots are counted, what processes elections offices use to make sure your ballot is counted, and all the steps along the way to make sure that I am who I say I am when I show up to vote. Figuring out ways to explain those processes and make them more accessible to people — to help people understand how these systems work — is becoming more important than ever."

And it's important at the local level, too, particularly in rural counties, which Trump carried by a record margins in 2016 and 2020. Election controversies have arisen even in relatively small counties where the elected and appointed officials are well known and widely trusted, so we can no longer take for granted that the public will have confidence in elections. That's a cornerstone of democracy, as is journalism, but there is still a shortage of coverage of state and county election-board meetings, where the workings of elections are discussed and reporters can learn a lot. And they should read up on the issues.

Peck notes, "Protect Democracy — a non-partisan, nonprofit group — published The Authoritarian Playbook in June 2022, designed to inform journalists about how authoritarianism takes hold, to recognize the symptoms and report on the threat in a measured, thoughtful and effective way. Its authors describe how cult-of-personality politicians and enablers corrupt elections, stoke violence, target vulnerable communities, politicize independent institutions, spread disinformation, aggrandize executive power and quash dissent — all now eerily familiar to the American people."

The book says the news media have “an essential role to play that is unbiased, but not neutral in applying a consistent standard about the threats to democracy. In light of the authoritarian threat, the ongoing process of media evolution and adaptation necessitates that the media may draw on a different toolkit today than it did in the eras of Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion, the Pentagon Papers or Watergate.”

Lippmann's book is 100 years old this year. Even in the age of social media, it still has much to say about the imperfections of democracy and the essential role of journalism in finding the facts to help created the "consent of the governed" called for in the Declaration of Independence. Misinformation, even disinformation, about elections is probably circulating in your community. Local journalists should find the facts and report them, and consider an analysis, column or editorial on the topic. You may have no other more important responsibility. Our form of government may be at stake.

One last thing: Last December, AP published several stories on its investigation of vote-fraud claims in the six states that decided the presidential election, and found that there was far, far too little fraud to make a difference in any of the elections. I asked AP to allow non-subscribing weekly newspapers to reprint those stories, and the wire service agreed. Those stories are, perhaps unfortunately, still news. I encourage weeklies to take advantage of AP's generosity and report the facts.

UPDATE: If you're reading this on Tuesday, be aware that "Frontline" begins its season on PBS tonight with "Lies, Politics and Democracy," a two-hour documentary on how we got into this pickle.

Wildfires plague Oregon and California; here's the latest

Smoke from the Mountain Fire in Siskiyou County, Calif., covers the sun on Sept. 2. (Cal Fire photo)

Wildfires are blazing across Oregon and California. Here's the latest:

Record heat has pushed the power grid to its limits this past weekend in California. State officials said the amount of conservation by consumers needs to double or triple to avoid rolling blackouts.

Meanwhile, the Mill Fire has exploded in size and forced more than 2,500 residents in northern parts of the state to evacuate. The fire has killed at least two seniors in the historically Black community of Weed, The Sacramento Bee reports.

The Mill Fire has burned 4,263 acres since starting Friday afternoon in Siskiyou County and is now about 55 percent contained. Firefighters expect to have the fire fully contained on Sept. 14, the Redding Record Searchlight reports. Three civilians have been injured, 91 single structures have been destroyed, and another 17 structures damaged. Another 411 structures remain threatened.

The Mountain Fire, also in Siskiyou County, has burned more than 11,000 acres since starting on Sept. 2 and is now about 20% contained, KRCR in Redding reports.

On Monday a vegetation fire sparked what's now called the Radford Fire near Big Bear Lake in San Bernardino County. The fire has grown to nearly 333 acres as of last night and is 0% contained, the Record Searchlight reports. About 140 firefighters are assigned to the fire, with more requested.

The Fairview Fire in Riverside County was first reported yesterday afternoon and has now grown to at least 2,700 acres. Two people have been killed. Read more here.

The fires are forcing many Californians to make tough decisions about whether to fight or flee, The New Yorker reports.

In northeastern Oregon, 401 firefighters are now battling the Double Creek fire, which grew tenfold in size over the weekend from six square miles to sixty square miles. As of yesterday morning, the fire was not contained at all, and had burned 68 square miles in a rural area near the Idaho state line. The fire prompted evacuation orders in some areas nearby, The Associated Press reports.

Walmart buys into planned meatpacking plant in effort to lower costs; move could presage vertical-integration trend

Walmart is getting into meatpacking, marking "a new shift of vertical integration for the country's largest big-box store and the cattle industry," Chris Clayton reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "Walmart signed an agreement for a minority stake and board representation in Sustainable Beef LLC, a $325 million planned beef packing plant that will process 1,500 head a day in North Platte, Neb., where Walmart already operates a major distribution center."

A group of feedlot operators and ranchers created Sustainable Beef two years ago, early in the pandemic, out of concern about their access to processors. "With Walmart's backing, Sustainable Beef's project gets a leg up on a series of independent proposed packing plants looking to add capacity to process anywhere from 6,000 to 14,000 head a day — depending on which facilities can get off the ground," Clayton reports. "The investment from Walmart locks in Sustainable Beef's funding, allowing the project to start moving dirt this month and set a target date to open in late 2024, Walmart stated. For Walmart, the investment helps lock in beef supplies for some of their retail stores after facing tighter meat supplies and high boxed beef prices over the last two-plus years."

The move could presage a trend of retailers forming partnerships with midsized regional plants independent of the Big Four (Cargill, JBS, Marfrig and Tyson) that control about 85% of fed-cattle processing nationwide. "This is a dramatic shift in the beef industry, but I think it's completely inevitable," Chad Tentinger, developer of Cattlemen's Heritage Beef Co. in Iowa, told Clayton. "I've had my eye on this for a couple of years in the beef industry. We've seen it in the hog industry, and we've seen it in the poultry industry. So I think it was just a matter of time before it came up in the beef industry." Tentinger and other cattle producers and processors told Clayton they don't want a scenario where retailers control plants and feedlots, giving them too much control.

Walmart made a similar move in 2018 when it began bottling milk in Fort Wayne, Ind., for 500 stores in surrounding states. The move was meant to cut out middlemen to maximize profit, since milk is generally sold for little to no profit to lure shoppers into stores. The move hurt small dairy farmers.

Other efforts to break up the Big Four's power are afoot. The Agriculture Department announced last week "it was awarding $21.9 million in grants to 111 smaller livestock and poultry processors, boosting total awards to $54.6 million under the Meat and Poultry Inspection Readiness Grant Program," Clayton reports. USDA is also "expected to announce roughly $425 million in larger grant and loan awards sometime before the end of the year through multiple meat and poultry processing programs."

Group that helps with abortion access in Midwest, including flights from small, rural airports, sees a spike in interest

A group called Elevate Access arranges transportation to abortion clinics from small airports. (Photo via The Daily Yonder)

"An organization that facilitates safe abortion access in the Midwestern United States says that it will most likely double the number of clients they support this year compared to last year," Kristi Eaton reports for The Daily Yonder. "Midwest Access Coalition assists with the costs of obtaining an abortion, including transportation, gas, food, medication and child care. . . . In 2021, the organization supported 800 people seeking abortions. This year, that number was reached in mid-July, meaning that they will more than likely double the number for 2022." So says Alison Dreith, the organization's director of strategic partnerships.

Dreith told Eaton that while Midwest Access serves rural and urban residents alike, rural clients often have the hardest time getting care because they live far from clinics. Many don't have the time or money to travel such long distances; in the wake of the overturn of Roe v. Wade, more are getting abortion pills online and self-managing their abortions at home because of travel difficulties.

"Midwest Access Coalition recently started a partnership with Elevated Access, which works with volunteer pilots to provide flights to patients seeking abortions and gender-affirming care," Eaton reports. Most Americans live within 30 minutes of a municipal airport, though many don't realize it because the airfields are so small, Dreith said. 

An Elevated Access employee told Eaton that these small airports offer clients privacy not found at larger airports. "There’s no TSA, there’s nobody asking you all these questions," she said. "When you drive up to the plane, the pilot welcomes you on board, flies you to where you need to go, you do your medical procedure."

"Currently, Elevated Access works with 800 volunteer pilots, but is hoping to recruit additional volunteers. Some may be more concentrated in certain areas, like California," Eaton reports. "They are specifically looking for pilots who can fly out of rural communities with patients."

FEMA director says agency's flood maps underestimate risk from extreme weather triggered by climate change

Another estimate: Counties ranked in ranges of percentages of property at risk for flood damage
First Street Foundation map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

Flood maps used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency are outdated and understate the risks from flooding and extreme rain triggered by climate change, FEMA Director Deanne Criswell said" on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday.

Criswell cited flooding in Jackson, Miss., that overwhelmed the city's main water plant and rendered city water unsafe to use. "We have to start thinking about what the threats are going to be in the future as a result of climate change," Criswell said. Victoria Cavaliere of Bloomberg has a report.

This summer's flash flooding in Eastern Kentucky is another example. Nicolas Zegre, an associate professor of forest hydrology at the University of West Virginia, recently called Appalachia 'climate zero,' saying it is among the first to face the climate consequences of decades of coal mining.

"A 2020 evaluation of flood risk by nonprofit group First Street Foundation that analyzed every property in the 48 contiguous U.S. states found that federal maps underestimate the number of homes and businesses in significant danger by 67%, Cavaliere reports.