Friday, January 20, 2023

Newspaper public notices take hit as big Fla. county shifts to online; some papers' mishandling of ads undermine industry

Notices of public hearings in Sarasota County, Florida, will no longer appear as paid advertising in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, which could be the canary in the coal mine for newspapers in the state, and perhaps beyond. The county commission acted under a new state law that is "the most significant piece of public-notice legislation in modern history," says the Public Notice Resource Center, an advocate for the "legal ads" that have become a much more important revenue source for local newspapers as their advertising bases have shrunk.

Sarasota County will shift the notices on its own website, just as local governments all over the nation are lobbying their state legislatues to authorize. Newspapers argue that citizens won't go to government sites to look for such notices; governments stress cost. Sarasota County officials say they have averaged spending $200,000 a year on the "legal ads" and have hired a full-time employee to run the legal-ad program at an annual cost of $80,000.

Florida Press Association President Jim Fogler told the commission that newspapwer publication provides third-party verification that state law is being followed, and "that allowing the county to post the notices would create a conflict of interest," the Herald-Tribune reports. “We believe that there’s definitely a transparency issue there,” Fogler said. Most state newspaper associations have websites where papers post public notice free of charge.

The public-notice news wasn't all bad for newspapers in 2022, but some papers are causing trouble for the industry by not running notices when they should be run. "It's an isssue that affects a small but significant cohort of papers, and it appears to be growing worse," the Public Notice Resource Center reports. "The scope of the problem is evident any time a group of press-association directors meet and talk about public notice. During a roundtable discussion at the Newspaper Association Managers convention this summer in Austin, the topic dominated conversation. One director after another complained about member papers that have little connection to the communities they serve and make it more difficult for their press association to protect newspaper notice in the state legislature. . . . The biggest offenders are corporate newspaper chains."

Noting papers' staff cuts, PNRC reports, "There are now multiple papers in every state that don't even employ a publisher, which attenuates local relationships and accountability at those publications. Those factors played a significant factor in the Florida Legislature's passage of HB 7049, and they threaten to torpedo newspaper notice in other states as well. If newspapers hope to continue to serve as the government's official provider of notice, they need to make it as easy as possible for customers to publish their statutorily required notices. It's as simple as that."

Dollar stores are fastest-growing food retailers, doubling their rural share; N.C. fines biggest chain for overcharging

UPDATE, Jan. 31: North Carolina has fined more Dollar General stores, along with Family Dollar, Circle K, Target, Walmart and 7-Eleven, The Charlotte Observer reports.

Dollar stores are a help for rural families, but consumers need
to be watchful at checkout. (Photo by Bob Bawdy, Tri-City Herald)
Rural town, two-lane road, open swaths of land on either side, some homes, a small post office and . . . a dollar store. Of course, there's a dollar store! Researchers have "found that dollar stores are now the fastest-growing food retailers in the contiguous United States—and have doubled their share in rural areas," reports Tufts University in Boston, where the researchers work. "Households with more purchases at dollar stores also tend to be lower-income and headed by people of color." The study was published Jan. 19 in the American Journal of Public Health.

The study, "which the researchers believe is the first to look at this trend over the past 10 years, could have meaningful implications for nutrition policy. Food and beverages stocked by dollar stores are typically lower in nutrients and higher in calories, while only a small percentage of such shops carry fresh produce and meats," Tufts says. "Their growing footprint, especially in the remote South, is also important: These regions already have higher baseline levels of obesity and food insecurity."

Wenhui Feng, the study's first author, said “Dollar stores play an increasingly important role in household food purchases, yet research on them is lacking. Many localities have established policies such as zoning laws aiming to slow dollar store expansion even though we don’t fully understand the role that they play. Our study is one of the first to use nationally representative data to see the role of dollar stores at the household level.”

The study confirms that rural towns and dollar stores go hand in glove. Researchers Wenhui Feng and Elina T. Page "analyzed how Americans use dollar stores to access food by analyzing food-purchase data from the IRI Consumer Network. The data captured purchases from 2008 until 2020. . . . In general, as people’s income goes up, they spend less of their budget at dollar stores. . . . In rural and low-income areas, people spend on average more than five percent of their food budget at dollar stores.  . . . rural non-Hispanic Black households spend 11.6 percent of their food budgets in dollar stores. Households in the rural South also spend in large numbers."

“The South is a hot spot,” said Sean Cash, food economist and senior author of the study. “The dollar-store business model originated in the South. They have more distribution centers there, and there’s also more consumer demand.”

The chain is not without its problems. North Carolina fined Dollar General Corp. for over-charging customers at the register. In Ohio, Attorney General Dave Yost is seeking a temporary restraining order against the company, reports Kevin P. Curran of Seeking Alpha: "Yost said that the discount retailer has habitually charged higher prices at registers than advertised on shelves. This trend has continued despite his filing of a suit against the chain in November."

Wind farms bring windfalls to rural areas, but not everyone agrees that the massive structures are a positive thing

Screenshot of interactive map from the Wind Turbine Database of the U.S. Geological Survey; its display can be filtered by tower height, generating capacity and year erected, and zoom to particular locations to view project specifications.  
Unseen. Ever moving. Wind. Across the central U.S., wind power has changed the fate of many rural areas. "Coke County, Texas, which has a population of about 3,300, had the biggest increase in economic output of any county in the country between 2019 and 2021, according to a Stateline analysis of Bureau of Economic Analysis statistics," reports Stateline's Tim Henderson. "Coke County’s gross domestic product, or GDP, increased from $128 million to $235 million, or 83%. . . . Rural counties in Colorado and South Dakota saw similar increases, reflecting a record year for wind turbine construction in 2020. Landowners also get annual royalties for hosting the turbines, typically around $10,000."

County Judge Hal Spain, the top elected official in Coke County, told Henderson, "We’re just a poor West Texas county. We don’t get much economic stimulation here. We’re tickled pink about this.” Henderson reports, "Texas has used tax abatement incentives to attract wind farms, including allowing local governments to grant 10-year abatement deals like the one Coke County used."

Henderson reports, "In rural areas such as Coke County, where ranchers’ herds are suffering from drought and oil production is dwindling, wind farms are generating cash to fix roads, recreation centers, senior centers, swimming pools and other aging infrastructure, Spain said." Eric Brunner, an economics professor at the University of Connecticut who studies the economic impacts of wind farms on local governments, told Henderson, “The incentive is to use it for one-time capital costs. It doesn’t work well for buying books, recurring things.”

Not everyone is tickled; some rural residents don't like the look and sound of wind farms, and wildlife defenders note that they kill birds. Sarah Mills, a senior project manager at the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan, told Henderson, "For communities that want to go all in on agriculture, wind fits well. For those that want to see a bunch of residential development or have economies based on tourism and the landscape, they may need to look more closely.”

Henderson reports, "The conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation opposes such tax abatements as 'corporate welfare,' arguing that the abatements have allowed wind farms to take over too much of the power capacity in Texas, said Brent Bennett of the foundation, which is partly funded by oil and gas interests. About a quarter of the energy Texas uses is generated by wind . . . . Some local residents have organized in Texas and around the country to oppose the farms, and have even sued to fight nearby installations they contend are ugly and noisy."

As of late 2022, Texas led all states in the number of wind turbines, with 18,315, followed by Iowa (6,205), California (5,981), Oklahoma (5,370) and Kansas (3,962), Stateline reports.

Rural Covid-19 deaths hit a four-month peak last week

"Rural Covid-19 death rates climbed by 90% during the week of January 5th, reaching a rate rural America hasn’t seen since last September," reports Sarah Melotte of The Daily Yonder. "Rural counties reported 803 deaths last week, 382 more [than] the previous week. The rural rate of deaths was 1.74 per 100,000 residents. . . . In metropolitan areas, there were 3,087 Covid-19 deaths last week, a 38% increase from the previous week. The urban rate of deaths was 1.09 deaths per 100,000 residents."

Since the start of the pandemic, the rural death rate is 415 deaths per 100,000, "while the cumulative urban death rate was 303 deaths per 100,000," Melotte reports. "The cumulative rate of deaths is still 37% higher in rural counties than metropolitan counties, but the disparity between rural and urban deaths has not widened since April of 2022."

Flooded Eastern Kentuckians seek higher ground, which coal firms own; radio station and others tell story of recovery

Logo for WEKU series
The record flash flooding in Eastern Kentucky last July has prompted a search for higher ground on which people can live and remain in the region. That's one upshot of an ambitious, collaborative reporting series that began on WEKU, the public radio station of Eastern Kentucky University, this week.

The "Rise" series is about "present realities and future prospects" in the 13 affected counties, host Tom Martin says: "As extreme weather seems to become more frequent, how will efforts to prevent future losses of life and property affect a mountain culture characterized by deep, strong ties to place, family and neighbors? Will enough people remain in the region to keep local tax bases above water for the resources they need to respond when crisis strikes?"

There is a strong consensus that housing is the immediate need, with many people still in temporary housing, Martin reports. Mike Harrison of First Christian Church in Pikeville, said he expects that it will take "two or three years to get people back to normal."

With $37,000 the maximum grant avalable from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, not enough to build a home, many residents are being urged to relocate, but many don't want to leave the region: "This is my home, my everything," one woman said. "I just want people know we still need help, and we're deserving people."

From their devastated hollows, residents look up, to ridgetops and reclaimed surface coal mines, where new neighborhods could be built. But such places generally lack utilities, and most of them are owned by coal and landholding companies that have demonstrated little if any interest in making it available for housing. Kentucky River Properties, former Kentucky River Coal, is the largest landowner in the four hardest-hit counties, lawyer Joe Childers told WEKU. The company has donated $500,000 to housing-development nonoprofits that are building and rehabbing homes.

Rebuilding in Knott County, Kentucky (Photo by Jeanne Marie Hibberd)
Some landowners recently donated 75 acres for a new housing development, which encouraged Gerry Roll, president of the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky: "If this gives even a handful of people in our region some hope there is a better time ahead, there is a better opportunity coming, that gives me joy."

Gov. Andy Beshear said donations are still needed for relief and recovery and the state is "in active negotiations in every county" to find land for housing. UPDATE, Jan. 24: Beshear announced another high-ground development, on 50 acres near Hazard.

"Rise" is produced with the help of several other newsrooms that pay attention to Appalachia: Sam Adams of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader, Anya Slepyan and Joel Cohen of The Daily Yonder, Jared Bennett and Justin Hicks of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, Alexa Beyer of West Virginia's Mountain State Spotlight and Katie Myers of WMMT, the Appalshop radio station in Whitesburg.

UPDATE: The second segment "focuses on a pre-existing housing shortage made far worse by the destruction and damage of the flood; flood-insurance issues; floodplain mapping; leadership exhaustion and stress; and the work of some of the key non-profit organizations in the region," WEKU says. "The episode is capped by a Chris Begley essay about the nature of mountain communities and how this event is forcing difficult change." Feb. 18: The final segment asks important questions: "While still adjusting to such heavy loss and amid much uncertainty, Eastern Kentuckians are giving careful consideration to the future. In addition to addressing the immediate need for housing on higher ground, that future includes preparing for the possibility of more frequent extreme weather. Is this a turning point? Or just another turn on the curvy road ahead? Residents demonstrate the most important key to a strong community is knowing how to show up for your neighbors."

Quick hits: Wikipedia gets a makeover, unions' share keeps falling, religion is changing, best ideas do come in showers

Wikipedia's subtle makeover includes an updated
table of contents section
. (Image by Wikipedia)
Wikipedia is one of the world’s top 10 most visited websites, and a resource used by billions every month, is getting its first desktop makeover in more than a decade, TechCrunch reports.

The share of American workers in a labor union in 2022 was 10.1 percent, the lowest figure since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking it almost 40 years ago. In 2021 the figures was 10.3 percent. The decline "comes despite the highest labor union approval rate — 71 percent, according to Gallup — since 1965," Politico Nightly notes.

A Waterloo, Iowa, sports reporter who doesn't like filling in on the weather beat returns to it reluctantly, after a viral rant: ‘It’s pandesnownium!’

Insights on seven common farm shop tools include this: Created by engineers who never actually assembled or disassembled anything.

Engrossing photo essay in The Daily Yonder of Jace Charger, land defender. The piece documents a sage harvest on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, a critical form of self-care for them and their Indigenous community.

Climate change and dairy cows' stomachs: A climate solution is gurgling in there somewhere. A new partnership will work to reduce methane emissions from production of milk around the world.

Although routines can be magical, there is no magic routine. Using a little science can help.

1.6 million acres of U.S. corn is missing. Where did it go?

Ailing Earle, Ark., elected an 18-year-old mayor. Residents hope that Jaylen Smith’s youthful energy and sense of purpose can improve their fortunes. First goal: getting a town supermarket.

Orange you glad you're buying bananas? Here's the juice on orange prices.

You do get your best ideas in the shower. The science of shower thoughts teaches us the importance of mind-wandering for creativity.

American religion is not dead. It's changing. Traditional worship may be in decline but meaningful growth can be found, Wendy Cadge and Elan Babchuck write for The Atlantic.

The 411 on electric tractors, is John Deere pushing them? AgWeb has an exclusive interview with Jahmy Hindman, the company's chief technology officer.

Ready for a reset? 13 tips to make your job less stressful.

Opinion: Instead of dissing them, hug those election deniers

Before you feel annoyed and then dismiss the next election denier you hear, think about all the deniers you know, some of whom you love. Reach out in kinship and ask that denier for a hug, graphics columnist Sergio Pecanha shares an opinion piece in The Washington Post.

Pecanha, a citizen of the U.S. and Brazil, begins with Jan. 6, 2021, which he says wasn't the beginning, but a pinnacle Americans can recall: "Americans know the feeling: It’s hard to believe the sight of a capital vandalized by a mob of people who won’t accept the result of an election because their side didn’t win. It’s our country — our democracy, ourselves — under attack." Pencanha looks to the Jan, 8 mob action in Brazil's capital and sees the similarities, "How bizarre to hear election deniers halfway down the planet expressing, in another language, the same sentiments felt two years earlier by American rioters. 'We invaded what is ours — by right,' one Bolsonarista said in a video posted online. . . . It’s as though the rioters come from another planet."

If only that were true. "But that oversimplification hurts us. Many of those involved in the attacks on democracy in the United States and Brazil were led to believe that their elections were stolen," Pencanha writes. "That they were standing up for freedom. That we are the aliens. We shouldn’t ignore them. Brazil and the United States are still democracies — the people who hold these beliefs have the right to vote, too. . . . Besides, who among us these days doesn’t have an acquaintance, a sibling, a cousin or an otherwise lovely whatever-in-law who fell for the conspiracy theories?"

Pencanha says of them, "They are decent people (mostly). People we love (mostly). Maybe people who have become so detached from reality that we prefer to just avoid them. We don’t choose our relatives. Among my friends, it was different — not one supported Bolsonaro. But this is another sign of trouble: the information bubbles we live in. . . . We need to pop these bubbles."

Why? "It is only because I know and love many of those inside the other bubbles that I can empathize and make the effort to try to understand them. I invite you to do the same," Pencanha implores. "Maybe you think this is in vain, because you know you won’t change their minds. That might be true. But that’s not the only good thing that can happen."

What else? "It is not new for voters to feel anger, sadness, disillusion, confusion. Nor are these emotions unique to Brazil or the United States. But it has become so easy to spread lies to take advantage of the people who feel these things," he notes. "It is natural to want to brush off those who fall for the kind of lies spread by the Bolsonaros and Trumps of the world. It’s an understandable defense, but it won’t make the problem go away."

Pencanha suggests, "What if, instead, we pull them in closer? Draw them to us. Look them in eye." And offer them love.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Editorial: The consequences of an uninformed electorate

By Reed Anfinson
Excerpted from the Swift County Monitor-News, Benson, Minn.
    Republican voters duped into casting their ballots for a congressional candidate whose entire resume was a lie are outraged. How could someone make it through a whole campaign season without the falsehoods being revealed? It was too late for them to take back their votes, and George Santos now serves as the U.S. representative from New York’s 3rd District for the next two years. ...
    “This would all have been exposed before the election if local newspapers were not running on fumes,” former Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri tweeted. Across the country, those fumes consist of decimated reporting staff -- if a newspaper still exists.
Reed Anfinson
Before you feel comfortable in that this deception took place in a faraway East Coast city, consider the following story.
    As the two-person mayoral race we were reporting on a decade ago got underway, we talked with a citizen questioning the background of one of the candidates. The candidate had posted campaign flyers around the community claiming to have a doctorate in substance abuse and a master’s degree in psychology from St. Cloud State University. He claimed to have a Bachelor of Arts degree in education.
    A call to St. Cloud State found it did not offer doctoral or master’s degrees in psychology. When questioned about his degrees, he insisted they were real. Further, he said he was working on master’s degrees in K-12 education and special education at St. Cloud. “I wanted to teach in college, but that didn’t pan out,” he told us.
    His story became more convoluted as we pointed out the facts didn’t support his claims. He said he first attended Ridgewater College in Willmar and then studied at St. Cloud State University. But now he claimed his doctoral and master’s degrees were later earned at the University of Minnesota, Morris.
    A call to the U of M in Morris established it didn’t offer either doctoral or master’s degree programs in any subject. We again met with the candidate. He finally admitted not having a Ph.D. but continued to claim he possessed a master’s degree.
    In the end, it was established he hadn’t even graduated from high school. The county attorney charged him with violations of the state’s Fair Campaign Practices law with our reporting cited in the complaint.
    If the community newspaper didn’t exist, who would do this research to inform citizens and report to them the facts about candidates?
    Is a candidate or public official a resident of the district in which he or she is running for office? Has the candidate moved since winning the election?
Without the community newspaper to dig into these claims, a dishonest official can deceive constituents, and a good representative is maligned.
    When state District 12 Republican state Sen. Torrey Westrom was accused of not being a district resident last summer, the Grant County Herald, The Stevens County Times and the Swift County Monitor-News dug into the story.
    Before last November’s election, a panel of the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled while Westrom’s proof of residency was less than “overwhelming,” he had met the requirements of the law. The short time between the creation of the new state legislative districts based on the 2020 U.S. Census and the very tight housing market were two reasons cited for the challenge faced in establishing his new residency.
    Again, the community newspapers educated the public on the claims and findings.
    Some say that Santos’ election is a failure in opposition research by the New York Democratic Party. But political parties also rely on community newspapers to provide leads on which they build. Big city media rely on us, but their outstate news coverage has been gutted. At The Associated Press, the staff has been thinned, narrowing its coverage of rural Minnesota.
    “One consequence of this hollowing out is that voters have little to no information on which to base their choices in local elections,” writes Steve Waldman, who runs Report for America. “This would seem to be a fairly significant problem for, you know, democracy. And ironically, the more local the election, the worse the coverage is likely to be.”
    It isn’t only the backgrounds of political candidates that are important to citizens, but also the histories of people we hire as our superintendents, county administrators, and city managers. There are many other positions of trust and responsibility in our communities where the local press informs and educates the public on the quality of those who serve us. . . . 
    When local newspapers close or are so weakened by staff cuts, they no longer report the stories citizens need to make important decisions, protect their finances, or keep their families safe, we all suffer. When the newspaper is gone, the void is filled by internet sites with local-sounding names but content that is deceptive, outright false, and believable to too many people. Twisted information misshapes our beliefs and motivates us to act for misguided causes.
    Newspapers are a public good and demand support to protect citizens and the information essential to them in our representative democracy.

Trying to tame comments at meetings becomes tricky as officials weigh free-speech rights vs. aggressive tactics

Many in an angry crowd objected to Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’s
school mask mandate. (Photo by Melinda Deslatte, Associated Press)
"You have the floor." The phrase opens the mic to an opinion, but across the country, that has become a tricky exercise. "Governing bodies are restricting — and sometimes even halting — public comment to counter what elected officials describe as an unprecedented level of invective, misinformation and disorder from citizens when they step to the microphone," reports Karin Brulliard of The Washington Post. "As contentious social issues roil once-sleepy town council and school board gatherings, some officials say allowing people to have their say is poisoning meetings and thwarting the ability to get business done."

Public bodies try to strike a balance: "In Rochester, Minn., City Council President Brooke Carlson said the council’s once-monthly limit on commenting has helped, though it did not please regular speakers," Barulliard writes. In response to Rochester's restrictions, one citizen told the board, "You are supposed to be servants of the people. You should be here to listen to us for as long as you need to because we are technically your bosses."

Barry Sanders, a city council member in Taunton, Mass., agreed: "Last fall, the council briefly suspended public input after a speaker chastised a council member by name over a dispute that began on social media, violating a requirement that comments be 'respectful, courteous and not personal in nature.'" Brulliard writes. "Sanders opposed the suspension."

Sanders told Brulliard, “That’s what the First Amendment speaks to: the right of the public to have their grievances heard. Not the right of the public to say nice things about their elected officials." Bruilliard reports, "A local progressive group, Taunton Diversity Network, was also concerned. The council has now settled on a policy that limits speaking time and prohibits threats or incitement, but also eliminates the civility requirements."

School-board chairs and superintendents have also taken notice of the "rising threats of violence and aggression at community meetings," Brulliard notes. "Francisco Negron, the chief legal officer for the National School Boards Association, said he advises members that time and topic limits are fine . . . . But generally, Negron said, he tells boards: 'Parents care deeply about children, so let them have their say.'"

Brulliard notes that Christy Perry, a superintendent in Oregon, had to halt open comments when aggressive behavior between speakers erupted after the meeting. Perry told Brulliard, "It used to be, ‘Come in, sign up. We’ll call on you.’ No big deal, right? That changed during the pandemic. You want that personal connection, so I think that is what’s missing when the public is not in the room. I think I’ve been known for that over my career and saying, ‘How can we bring this together and find that common ground?’ And I haven’t really figured that out yet. … We are living in really polarized times."

Many rural counties, mainly those with recreation amenities, are growing again; 80% of such counties gained in 2021

Custer National Forest in Powder River County, Montana,
near the state's southeast corner (U.S. Forest Service photo)

After the first decade in which U.S. rural population fell, many rural counties are growing again, but the growth is concentrated in counties with recreational amenities.

"In an article in Rural Sociology, University of New Hampshire demographer Ken Johnson says that about a third of nonmetro counties gained population from 2020 to 2021, despite a spike in deaths from Covid-19," reports Sarah Melotte of The Daily Yonder. "The growth was most pronounced in counties like Powder River, Montana, where recreational activities like hunting are a major part of the economy, or where there are attractive natural amenities like mountains, lakes, and seashores."

Powder River County is quintessential Montana, big-sky country with prime attractions, Melotte notes: "Visitors travel from all over the country to hunt big game." While visitors come and go, some have stayed. "Reports from the U.S. Postal Service show that 37 people moved to the area between 2020 and 2021, compared to 15 people between 2018 and 2019. The numbers may seem small, but they amount to 2% growth last year." The county's population fell 3% from 2010 to 2020. but grew 1.9% in 2021, "from 1,682 in 2020 to 1,702," Melotte reports. "That growth would not have occurred if it were not for migration, since deaths outnumbered births."

Overall, "Rural, or nonmetropolitan, counties grew by 0.13% from 2020-21, according to Census estimates," Melotte reports. "Johnson found that almost all of rural growth happened in retirement destinations or in counties with economies dependent on recreation; 80% of recreation and retirement-dependent counties experienced population growth because of migration between 2020 and 2021, compared to 36% of counties dependent on manufacturing and 43% of counties dependent on farming."

Daily Yonder map

Growers unconvinced that carbon-capture farming can be profitable; agribusiness execs remain focused on investment

Soil can retain carbon for years if left undisturbed. (Photo by
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds, Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
Fact: Undisturbed soil can safely retain converted carbon for years. But farmers are skeptical that it is a profitable use of farmland, reports Patrick Thomas of The Wall Street Journal: "Agriculture companies are investing millions of dollars to develop farming programs designed to capture more carbon dioxide in fields, as a possible solution to mitigate climate change. "The challenge: convincing farmers that it is worth their time, the costs of new farming practices and potentially losing out on some of their harvest in the process."

Thomas cites Iowa corn farmer Chris Edgington, chairman and a former president of the National Corn Growers Association, who "said he has looked at various carbon programs over the past year, calculating the risk of reduced crops as he adjusts the way he manages his crops and the potential compensation for the carbon his fields could capture. So far, he said, he hasn’t signed up." Edgington told Thomas, "At the current economics, it will be a real challenge to grow."

Carbon-capturing crops use photosynthesis to push carbon back into the soil via their roots after harvest. "The agriculture industry, which has come under increased environmental scrutiny in recent years, has said that paying farmers to maximize those natural processes can help make them part of a potential solution. Carbon programs also give companies a potential new revenue stream, as they project farm-generated carbon offsets will draw demand from food manufacturers, airlines and tech companies seeking to offset their own carbon emissions."

So far, farmer participation has not matched investor enthusiasm: "Less than 5% of the more than 1,300 U.S. farmers surveyed by McKinsey Consulting in 2022 said they participated in a carbon program, and more than 50% of farmers said an unclear return on investment was one of their top reasons for not participating," Thomas writes. "Agriculture executives said their farmer sign-ups are on track or exceeding expectations.  . . . Corteva officials said the seed supplier’s program is on track and that demand for carbon credits is expected to rise along with the price farmers are paid."

Thomas reports, "Farmers generally are paid $15 to $20 per ton of carbon sequestered under agriculture companies’ current programs, Bank of Montreal senior analyst Joel Jackson said. He estimated that farmers need to earn more than $50 a ton to make carbon programs economically viable for their operations."

Where's the beef? most still ask; plant-based burgers turned out to be more trendy than upending; sales plummet

(Photo by Akiira, Bloomberg Businessweek)
With names like Beyond and Impossible, the makers of plant-based meat appealed to consumers' curiosity and desire for healthier diets. Ethan Brown, the founder of Beyond Meat, "said his goal was to replicate the 'blueprint of meat.' By the time he appeared at Builders & Innovators Summit 2019, he explained that his mission demanded the urgency and scale the U.S.  mustered for World War II," reports Deena Shanker of Bloomberg Businessweek. "And that his products would simultaneously help solve heart disease, diabetes, cancer, climate change, natural resource depletion and animal welfare. Just like technology had rendered the horse-drawn carriage obsolete. . . . so, too, would his system of breaking down plants transform the protein at the center of the plate."

After that intro, fame and fortune followed. Shanker writes: "Along with the venture capitalists came investors from every corner of culture—Leonardo DiCaprio, the Humane Society of the United States and former McDonald’s Corp. Chief Executive Officer Don Thompson. Even Tyson Foods Inc., the biggest maker of real meat in the US, invested and then invested again. . . . Bill Gates wanted in, too, backing not one but two companies with veggie burgers that “bleed” like real beef."

Pat Brown, who founded Impossible Foods, took his plant-based burger on the TEDMd circuit. Shanker writes,"while an assistant sizzled an Impossible Burger onstage beside him, Brown said, 'I know it sounds insane to replace a deeply entrenched, trillion-dollar-a-year global industry, but it has to be done.'”

Shanker notes that once launched, thousands of Americans, traditional meat eaters along with vegetarians and vegans, tried plant-based meats. The taster responses varied from "ultra-processed," to "mixed" to "this meat-eschewing Bloomberg reporter spit them out." Dr. David Katz, founding director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center, noted to Shaker that Beyond Burger and its ilk are “ultraprocessed” and said, “At worst. It’s a lateral move.”

Since the 2019 Summit, though, plant-based product sales have wilted: "Supermarket sales of refrigerated plant-based meat plummeted 14% by volume for the 52 weeks ended Dec. 4, according to retail data company IRI. Orders of plant-based burgers at restaurants and other food-service outlets for the 12 months ended in November were down 9% from three years earlier, according to market researcher NPD Group," Shanker reports. "What remains looks more like a niche category than a meaningful displacement of an entrenched industry. After Beyond, Impossible and their copycats spent years trying to seduce everyone away from meat, it appears their best customers are, well, the 5% of the population who didn’t eat meat in the first place."

All veterans, regardless of enrollment, now eligible for suicidal crisis care at any VA or private emergency facility

Maj. Gen. Ernest Litynski, left, has spoke openly about mental health
issues that face troops. (Photo by Kim Raff, The New York Times)
American military veterans and their families no longer have to worry about the financial costs involved in seeking emergency medical help during a suicidal crisis, reports Courtney Kube of NBC News. "Unlike for most other medical benefits, veterans do not have to be enrolled in the [Department of] Veterans Affairs system to be eligible. The new policy will include up to 30 days of inpatient or crisis residential care and up to 90 days of follow-on outpatient care."

The new policy is an effort to address the extreme number of veteran suicides: "Veterans Affairs reported that 6,146 veterans died by suicide in 2020, or an average of 16.8 per day. While that number was 343 fewer than in 2019, suicide and veterans in crisis remain the VA’s top clinical priority," Kube writes. "The VA already provides emergency suicide care, but with the new benefit, veterans will not have to pay any copays or fees for their care. If the veterans receive care at a private facility rather than at a VA facility, the government will cover the costs. The VA will also reimburse veterans for ambulance rides to hospitals."

VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement, "Veterans in suicidal crisis can now receive the free, world-class emergency health care they deserve — no matter where they need it, when they need it, or whether they’re enrolled in VA care. This expansion of care will save veterans’ lives, and there’s nothing more important than that.”

Kube reports: "Roughly 5,000 veterans are hospitalized in acute psychiatric units every month, generally at imminent risk for harm, said Cliff Smith, the director of analytics, innovation and collaboration within VA’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention."

There have been a lot of situations where we know a veteran is in crisis somewhere but they’re not at the hospital,” Smith told Kube. “There were many situations where we knew there was a need, but because of financial concerns we weren’t able to connect that need to a facility. We are addressing the anxiety associated with a bill or cost. That’s off the table."

The new policy is part of the 2020 law called the Veterans Comprehensive Prevention, Access to Care, and Treatment Act of 2020.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Pandemic gave workers 2 weeks sick leave; now many are back to work with no paid leave and few options for care

Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash
For many American workers, the days of two weeks paid sick leave, mandated in the first year of the pandemic, have ended. They have been replaced with hard decisions, which weigh disproportionately on rural residents, reports Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez of Kaiser Health News: "Workers in rural areas face even more challenges than those in cities, including greater distances to hospitals and fewer medical providers, exacerbating health and income disparities. Companies in rural areas may be less likely to voluntarily offer the benefit because they tend to be smaller and there are fewer employers for workers to choose from."

Some jurisdictions have implemented time-off laws, but "Most states where more than 20% of the population is rural haven’t, leaving workers vulnerable," Rodriguez writes. "Vermont [the most rural state by population, 65%] and New Mexico [the 29th most rural, at 25.5%] are the only states with a sizable rural population that have passed laws requiring some form of paid sick leave. . . . Experts say the gaps in paid leave requirements mean workers in rural areas often struggle to care for themselves or loved ones while making ends meet."

The two weeks of sick leave mandated by the 2020 Families First Coronavirus Response Act ended at the end of that year, and its "expiration left workers to rely on the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which requires companies with 50 or more employees to provide them with up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off to care for themselves or family members. But many workers can’t afford to go that long without pay," Rodriguez reports. "Advocates say a stronger federal policy guaranteeing and protecting paid sick and family leave would mean workers wouldn’t have to choose between pushing through illness at work or losing income or jobs."

Rural Americans support paid sick and family leave, "according to the National Partnership for Women & Families, which found in 2020 polling that 80% of rural voters supported a permanent paid family and medical leave program, allowing people to take time off from work to care for children or other family members," Rodriguez writes. "But lawmakers have been divided on creating a national policy, with opponents worrying that requiring paid leave would be too big a financial burden for small or struggling businesses."

San Francisco was the first city to order paid sick leave. Rodriguez reports: "Since then, 14 states, the District of Columbia, and 20 other cities or counties have done so. Two other states, Nevada and Maine [the second most rural state, at 61% of population], have adopted general paid time off laws that provide time that can be used for illness. . . . The patchwork of laws nationwide leaves workers in several mostly rural states — places like Montana [46.6%], South Dakota [42.8%], and West Virginia [55%] . . . without mandated paid sick and family leave."

Wisconsin program works to improve farmers' mental health by helping them reconnect to each other and the land

Community members gather at a Farm Well Wisconsin
training. (Photo by Farm Well Wisconsin)

Would you want the weather to determine your paycheck? How about food tariffs? Negotiations with foreign countries? Unpredictable legislation? Debt? Animal disease? Bee fungus? Need we go on? American farmers have to live with uncommon, ever-present stressors that many people would never accept.

To help share the stress load, Farm Well Wisconsin was founded in 2020 and is funded through a five-year grant. "Through trainings, community members work on building empathetic listening skills, connecting people with resources and discussing issues related to farm culture," reports Gaby Vinick of Wisconsin Public Radio. It is one of many state-level programs that have been created in recent years to address farmers' mental health.

The farming life of Dan Wegmueller, a fourth-generation farmer, is an example. In 2017, his farm "was on the brink of bankruptcy. It wasn’t until he converted his farmhouse into an Airbnb and expanded into agritourism, that his business got back on track," Vinick reports. "For Wegmueller, some of the stress farmers are dealing with today comes from the commodification of the industry. He said large-scale, mass production and industrialization of farming has pushed farmers into the mindset that bigger is better."

Wegmueller told Vinick: "As farmers, we've lost track of who we are. We've lost track of our role on the farm and our role in society. Farmers don't produce food anymore. We produce commodities." Vinick notes, "He said that stress can take its toll on farmers' mental health. Now, Wegmueller attends regular meetings and connects with farmers about his own experiences through the group."

Farm Well Wisconsin founder Chris Frakes told Vinick how growing up, she watched farmers struggle through the 1980s crisis, "I saw the toll that took on farmers and farm families, combined with the way that farmers and farm families tend to be very stoic. And so, they don't have very well-developed internal resources to talk about when they're really stressed or struggling."

Shawn Monson, a Farm Well trainer, told Vinick, "We give you [farmers] the skills and the training to engage in a conversation that shows that you genuinely care and want to hear how somebody's doing, how to listen to them, you know, validate what they're experiencing." Vinick notes, "The group also runs 'SafeTalk,' a program to help people identify signs of someone struggling with suicidal thoughts." 

Farmer David Unbehaun, who also attends Farm Well meetings, told Vinick, "We may not answer all the questions, but at least we're trying."

Smaller produce growers wary of proposed Kroger-Albertson's merger; groups try to block it and similar deals

(Photo by Scott Olson, Getty Images)
For many small to mid-sized produce farmers, dealing with corporate squeezing has been an increasing struggle for the past 30 years, but the potential sale of Albertson's to Kroger could further pinch their limited access to markets, possibly wedging out some farmers while giving consumers fewer options, reports Lisa Held of Civil Eats

Case in point is Shad Dasher, a self-described "onion man," who is a "third-generation Vidalia grower in Glennville, Ga., a small town in one of the 20 counties where the special sweet onions are produced. But unlike his father and grandfather before him, he’s urging his five children to consider other professions," Held writes. "That’s because with 40 acres he can’t make a profit selling his onions to supermarkets anymore. Dasher told Held, "It used to be that a small to medium-sized farmer could carry his produce to a mom-and-pop grocery store chain and bicker with the produce manager, and you’d have your fresh produce sold within 20 miles of the farm. . . . the circle is getting smaller and smaller to sell to.”

Vidalia onion farmers are an example of the challenge huge retailers present. Held reports: "Cliff Riner, chairman of the Vidalia Onion Committee, said that in the mid-2000s, there were about 200 Vidalia farmers. Now, about half of them are gone, he estimates, but the 100 that are left are farming the same number of total acres in addition to bringing in onions from South America. It’s a familiar story seen all over the country: there are fewer, larger farms, and the smaller ones are being squeezed out."

The Kroger-Albertson's merger "would be one of the biggest deals in grocery history," Held writes. "While a wide range of advocacy groups have been pushing back on the merger based on claims it will hurt workers and consumers, less attention has been paid to the impact on farmers, who, along with advocacy groups are speaking out about how the deal could worsen what has already become an impossible retail market for many small- and mid-size producers."

Held says farmers have been given two choices: grow big to compete, or throw in the towel. She writes, "Susan Pavlin, a food system expert who has worked with various food hubs and cooperatives, labeled the current options 'two parallel systems,' and explained that most food-system reform has been focused on building regional markets that support smaller farms, but those markets are still comparably tiny." Pavlin told Held, "The cost of things will never come down in the regional, small farm system if there’s not some scale, and to have scale you have to have a certain number of buyers. If there are a few big grocers that have 100 percent carte blanche, then there’s never going to be pressure to merge the models.”

The support of regional farming needs multiple prongs, Held writes: "It’s why advocates support the Biden administration’s recent initiatives to invest in regional food systems, but say those actions must be paired with more aggressive antitrust regulation, including blocking mergers like the Kroger-Albertson’s deal and more continuous attention to policing corporate concentration in the food system."

'Boot camp' for cities under 150,000 is aimed at helping them win infrastructure grants; second round starts in April

(Photo by Brandon Bell, Getty Images)

Smaller cities may doubt their chances of winning a fair portion of the $1.2 trillion authorized by the new infrastructure law, but there's a new program to help them compete. "The National League of Cities, with support of philanthropic backers, is trying to change that dynamic and give smaller cities a better shot at winning federal dollars," reports Bill Lucia of Route Fifty. "The group is running a series grant application 'boot camps' for 30 different infrastructure law programs. The new initiative, open to cities with fewer than 150,000 residents, kicked off late last year, with a second round about to get underway later this month."

Robert Blaine, director of the league's Institute for Youth, Education and Families, told Lucia, “There are the usual suspects, the larger cities that have these federal grant-writing teams, that have historically been able to pull down these federal dollars. When you look at small to midsize cities, they just haven't been able to compete.”

Lucia explains: "Each boot camp is tied to a specific grant program in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. NLC chose the 30 it is focused on by considering factors like: Can cities apply for the money directly, rather than going through states or other entities? How much money is available? And does the program fund the types of projects that would produce significant results or improvements for communities?"

The boot camp training aids towns applying with a good 'fit' in mind. "A key component in the NLC program is a tool that the group has built to provide census tract level data for cities, providing insights into various issues, including disparities among residents and which neighborhoods are most underserved," Lucia writes. "Cities can use this information to help design their grant applications so that they are a good fit with the goals of the federal funding programs."

The census-tract data is combined with reaching out for expert help. "Blaine said that the No. 1 piece of feedback he’s heard from cities participating in the program is that having this data has been especially helpful. Having access to the finance curriculum that is part of the boot camps has also been valuable for participants," Lucia reports. "Blaine noted that cities can schedule 'office hours' with people who are experts in how local budgets need to be aligned with different agencies’ guidelines for grant proposals." 

Localities are urged to sign up. "The boot camps are free to cities, with Bloomberg Philanthropies and a number of other foundations and philanthropic organizations providing financial support for the initiative," Lucia notes. "The next round of boot camps will start in May and NLC expects recruiting for it to get underway around April. Cities interested in participating in the initiative can find more information here."

New way of storing energy, with underground water columns and compressed air, to be tested in coastal California

Rendering shows surface installations at Hydrostor's planned
compressed-air storage project. (Image from Hydrostar)
Several local governments in California have agreed to "buy power from what would be the world’s largest compressed-air energy storage project," reports Sammy Roth of the Los Angeles Times. "The innovative technology could help California — and other states and nations — transition from planet-warming fossil fuels to renewable energy, without causing blackouts."

Roth explains the process: "The developer, Hydrostor, will drill three shafts thousands of feet below ground, and send down miners to dig out a series of rows and columns. When the project is ready to go in 2028, the underground caverns will have a collective volume equivalent to two football fields about 100 yards high. . . . When electricity is cheap — such as sunny afternoons when California has more solar power than it needs — Hydrostor will use that low-cost energy to push air down into the caverns. . . . When Hydrostor’s customer, Central Coast Community Energy, needs to draw on the stored power — on a cloudy January day, for instance — the company will open a valve and funnel the high-pressure air through a turbine, generating electricity."

Robert Shaw, chief operating officer of CCCE, told Roth, “This new technology is a critical component of that. That’s how we get to 100 percent renewables.” It remains to be proven, but Aaron Marks, a senior analyst at energy research firm Wood Mackenzie, told Roth, "That’s not a strike against the technology.” Also, the project needs a permit from the California Energy Commission, and Defenders of Wildlife says it "could significantly impact several special-status species," including the burrowing owl, desert tortoise, Swainson’s hawk and the Joshua tree," Roth reports. "When asked about environmental concerns, Hydrostor told Roth in an an email that "recent habitat surveys will 'allow for further review by the dedicated agencies,' and that the company 'has a rigorous biological survey program planned for spring and summer 2023.'"

CCCE is "a government-run 'community choice' agency that supplies electricity to 450,000 homes and businesses in five counties, saw advantages to the technology: "Unlike lithium-ion batteries, which degrade over time and must be replaced, compressed air caverns can bank power for decades without loss of efficiency. They can also supply the grid for longer than a four-hour battery. The 200 megawatts under contract to Central Coast — part of Hydrostor’s 500-megawatt project — will provide eight hours of backup power."

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Voters in Bar Harbor, Maine, have put a lid on cruise-ship passengers, and businesses are worried about their future

Shops on Main Street in Bar Harbor, Maine
(Photo by Robert F. Bukaty, The Associated Press)
Bar Harbor, Maine, is known for its scenic views of sea and mountains, but the battle for who gets to see them has been brewing for years: "A high-stakes, deeply emotional dispute over an effort to restrict the flow of what many people consider the economic lifeblood of Bar Harbor," reports Thomas Farragher of The Boston Globe. "A new ordinance went into effect early last month that limits the number of passengers who can disembark in Bar Harbor each day to 1,000, a response to complaints that more than 150 cruise ships were overwhelming this picturesque port during the cruise season. Local voters last fall approved the cap by a vote of 1,780 to 1,273, despite efforts by the town's planning board and Warrant Committee, which urged the local electorate to reject it."

The vote has local officials "pondering what this new economic landscape might look like, because the smaller ships with 1,000 or fewer guests account for just 5 percent of the annual ship schedule," Farragher notes. Kristi Bond, owner of FishMaine Restaurant Group and president of the Association to Preserve & Protect Local Livelihoods, told him, "We’ve built our town on wanting the tourists to come. Our town economy is getting 20 to 30 million dollars pumped into it with these people coming to our town. They come at 8 in the morning and they’re gone at 5 o’clock at night. I just don’t understand how it makes sense to anyone."

But Charles Sidman, who spent his career as a biomedical researcher, told Farragher that the cruise industry "is causing enormous damage . . . They’ve had totally improper monopolies granted by the town, and they want to protect them . . . On a busy cruise-ship day here, it’s like Times Square.’" As you might expect, there's a lawsuit. Businesses "claim the new restrictions jeopardize their livelihood and break federal laws," reports Victoria DeCoster of the Mount Desert Islander.

Farragher writes, "Kevin Sutherland, Bar Harbor’s town manager, said local frustration with congestion was the chief propellant for the new ordinance that took effect Dec. 8, a move local businesses fighting the measure have said immediately renders the town an unavailable destination port-of-call." Sutherland said, “For years, if you look at the cruise ship visits from the early 2000s, this community embraced and actually went out and asked the cruise ships to start doing tours in the Northeast. . . . This is the only thing I’ve been dealing with for almost a year." Farragher notes, "But over time, some residents say, it has all become simply overwhelming."

Bar Harbor is on the Gulf of Maine. (Google map)
The town's economy has relied on cruise income, "The town receives passenger fees. If a 2,000-passenger boat shows up, the town collects about $5 per lower-berth capacity of that boat," Farragher reports. Sutherland told Farrar, "So, the town gets $10,000 for that boat. A million dollars has a big impact on our ability to hire a harbor master and his staff. It allows us to address some of our capital needs. It takes care of our sidewalk work. It takes care of some of our downtown aesthetics."

This season, "New rules are on the book," Farragher writes. "And those behind the counters and at the cash registers of local businesses say Bar Harbor’s economic future is hanging in the balance."

Sea otters have recovered from near-extinction, big time, but they're not charming to people who depend on shellfish

A raft of sea otters grooms and rests between bouts of vigorous foraging. (Photo by Kiliii Yuyan, National Geographic)

So cute! So cute!! So cute!!! Sea otters are cute, social and fascinating, but they are also bad for people who harvest shellfish for a living. Only Native Americans may hunt them legally. That could change as the otters, once near extinction, are reintroduced to places where their species once lived: "Now, in waters off the North American continent human intervention has been helping sea otters survive and spread once again," reports Cynthia Gorney of National Geographic. "Are they thriving? Touchy question. Is this a happy ending? Touchier question.  . . . It’s complicated, figuring out how tough, carnivorous predators fit into a world that changed while they were gone."

Research ecologist Tim Tinker, a University of California adjunct professor and one of the world’s leading sea otter experts, told Gorney, "Sea otters have huge effects. That’s why understanding them is so important. When they’re removed from an ecosystem or put back into an ecosystem, everything changes. And that’s disruptive. Some people are going to like the effects they have. And some people are not.”

Commercial dive fisherman Jeremy Leighton gave Gorney his take on the reintroduction of sea otters to Southeast Alaska: “Like setting off a nuclear bomb. Everything getting wiped out, in a radius, as they expand. Gorney writes, "Southeast Alaska, currently the global epicenter of people hostile to sea otters. It was here that I heard them described as 'an infestation' (a Haida tribal leader) and 'a disaster' (a commercial crabber, glaring at the water off his boat). Also this, from a man who’s fished the area for almost 40 years: 'Actually one of the most destructive things on the planet.' To be fair, that last description was prefaced by 'cute and fuzzy and cuddly and all that stuff, but actually.' . . . ."

The 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits most people from killing marine mammals such as sea otters. It's a criminal offense. "You can’t 'harass' a marine mammal, either. There are a very few exemptions, including one that applies to Alaska’s Native people, who may hunt sea otters for 'subsistence' or for 'authentic Native articles of handicraft and clothing," Gorney notes. "This means that if you’re watching sea otters eat your family’s livelihood, the MMPA says there’s nothing you can do about it, Alaska Native or not."

Mike Miller, a Sitka Tribal Council member who chairs Alaska’s Indigenous People’s Council for Marine Mammals, told Gorney, “But if you look at their overall impact on ocean health, there’s a positive side to otters too. There’s got to be something close to balance someplace.” Miller is part of a group of "Southeast Alaska 'sea otter stakeholders,' as they label themselves—fish and game officials, tribal members, scientists, and commercial fishermen—all trying to work out a modern plan for sharing resources with a keystone animal that humans came so close to wiping out," Gorney reports. "No specific proposals have emerged from the Alaska discussions, but there are people watching closely from the western edge of the lower 48, especially around San Francisco Bay and the Oregon coast. Both regions are under serious study as reintroduction sites—shellfish-rich waters that once supported thousands of sea otters and could perhaps do so again. And in both places, healthy sea otter colonies might improve the water quality and plant life while delighting tourists."

The local dive industry and crab fisheries’ responses have remained guarded. Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission executive director Tim Novotny, who has joined ongoing talks with the Elakha Alliance, a group of conservationists, scientists, coastal experts, and tribal leaders exploring another attempt at returning sea otters to the state, told Gorney, “We are not necessarily dead set against sea otter reintroduction. The concern is, you don’t want to put a floating time bomb of furry crab-eaters in the water. Goats are cute, but nobody wants 5,000 of them in their backyard.'”