Saturday, March 18, 2023

A weekly paper had to announce its demise for locals to fully appreciate it; community support encourages quick buyer

Two front pages, superimposed on a aerial view of the town (Citizen Facebook page)
The headline was stark: "Pulaski Citizen to end Feb. 15." There it was in black and white, announcing the end of a weekly newspaper that was founded in 1854 and serves a Tennesssee county of 30,000 people. The story made the familiar points about lack of revenue, but also some points not often made in such cases: "Giles County will have no newspaper or news platform dedicated solely to covering local news, sports, events, government and people."

Then Publisher Scott Stewart got more personal: "Some people will be upset about the loss of the Pulaski Citizen, some won’t. We’ve just arrived at the place in time where the number of those who are upset diminished to the tipping point. As devastating as this is for those of us who cherish what local news is and means to our community, so many people will never realize what they’ve lost until it’s gone. That may be the saddest part of the whole thing."

But Stewart wasn't quite right. His story said owners Sloan and David Lake were willing to sell, and Main Street Media, which has 11 other Middle Tenenssee papers, bought the Citizen in a matter of days. MSM co-owner Dave Gould said, "There was a passion for this newspaper within the community. There was a lot of angst and worry about it closing. So, we felt good about the purchase and have seen overwhelming support from the people of Pulaski."

Gould and Stewart discussed the chain of events on a recorded Zoom call with Mike Blinder of Editor & Publisher magazine, which turned it into its latest "vodcast." The star of the show is Pulaski Mayor J.J. Brindley, who said the announcement scared the town of 8,400 because “The newspaper has been there for everybody. . . .This almost had to happen for people to see how valuable this paper is and how much they did to serve this community. . . . It was a big wake-up call!”

Screenshot of Editor & Publisher "vodcast," online here.
Brindley, who has been mayor for three months, said he knows the paper is supposed to be a check on power, and he doesn't mind that: "They know what's going on, they see what's going on; I encourage that . . . They've always been honest and good people . . . The paper is a huge asset to this community." When Blinder asked if the paper be "put on a pedestal" to get community support, Brindley said yes: "The citizens need to contribute to this. We do need to put it on a pedestal . . . If you don't tell them the news, they're gonna make up their own news . . . We've got to rally behind the paper more than ever . . . I really respect what the paper does and understand more now what it means to the community."

Brindley said he is 36, and "A lot of people my age might not get the paper . . . Sometimes they look at the wrong things," such as social media. "I believe in the newpaper with everything I have."

Giles County (Wikipedia)
Stewart, who started as a reporter at the Citizen in 1995, said, "A lot happened in that one week . . . I wasn't in a good place as far as the community, because I thought they were letting us down, and maybe we were letting them down some too."

Gould, asked why he is in a business that is getting more difficult, said "I do love local community journalism . . . These communities need us," for the government-watchdog function and to "bring the community together."

Ex-FDIC chair worries bank 'bailouts' could drive deposits out of community banks; they'd have less money to lend

Federal officials' determination that two bank collapses posed “systemic risk” to the banking system, justifying their guarantee of uninsured deposits at the banks, poses a threat to smaller banks, a former chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. told James Jacoby of PBS's "Frontline."

Ex-FDIC chair Sheila Bair (PBS image)
“I do worry about community banks, in particular,” said Sheila Bair, FDIC chair in 2006-2011. “For these larger institutions, $100 billion, $200 billion, that’s not huge. But if you’re a $1 billion community bank, it’s a big difference. And what happens to them if the market starts assuming anybody, say, over $100 billion is going to have their uninsured deposits protected? Then that money is going to start going out of the community banks into those institutions that are viewed as having favored status. So these one-off bailouts that are particularly just for a couple of institutions create a lot of distortions and competitive disadvantages for others.”

Referring to what she called "bailouts" of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank, Bair said "It’s extraordinary that they’re singling out just a couple of midsized institutions to basically bail out all their uninsured depositors. That is extraordinary. I have never seen that before. And the systemic-risk exception itself, which is the legal mechanism they’re using, is very extraordinary to trigger. It is meant to be used very rarely when things are really dire. . . . If they think just a couple of these small institutions have to be bailed out, how resilient is the system, really?" Later, Bair said, "At this point, I still think these risks can be managed. I think that Silicon Valley Bank in particular was unusual, in that it had a lot of uninsured deposits. And it was a very concentrated group of depositors … Silicon Valley folks. And word spread very fast precipitating a bank run and that had a cascading effect on some other banks that had somewhat similar vulnerabilities though not as severe." That said, "The FDIC and the Fed have quietly bailed out most uninsured depositors since 2008," notes Los Angeles Times Washington columnist Doyle McManus.

What about us? "I would say, if you have your money in a traditional community bank or regional bank, one where you banked for a long time, that has lots of households and businesses that do business with them, have done business with them for a long time, most of their deposits were insured or with institutions that have loyalty and multiple relationships with them — that’s the vast majority of the regional banks and community banks in this country. Stay where you are, right? Don’t get scared. If you’re a household, make sure you’re under the insured deposit limits," $250,000 per depositor, per bank, in each account ownership category. "If you are, the FDIC has a perfect record. … Again, I think most banks are okay. What we need to guard against is just contagion: otherwise healthy banks starting to lose deposits just because everybody gets scared."

The threat to smaller banks is a threat to small busienss, report Justin Lahart and Telis Demos of The Wall Street Journal: "Even if any outflows are halted or reversed, small banks may now grow cautious, such as by simply sitting on more of their cash as a defensive measure. Doing so would effectively reduce their capacity to extend credit. For small and midsize businesses that rely on smaller banks, this would be worrisome, says Raghuram Rajan, an economist at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and former governor of India’s central bank. Loans to them are often based on so-called soft information that local lenders have built up over years." Rajan told the Journal, “These are loans built on strength of character and a handshake.”

In battle to keep public notices, Iowa editor warns 'Without legal notices, you simply will not know what’s going on.'

What has become an annual battle in many state legislatures has higher stakes than ever for newspapers. They "are facing the loss of a key source of cash that many need to survive: legal notices," notes Ray Schultz, a columnist for MediaPost. "Newspapers, their very survival at stake in some cases, are condemning such bills." Here's an example from Iowa:

Art Cullen
By Art Cullen

Storm Lake Times Pilot

Politicians who flourish in darkness are set on undermining a strong and independent network of community journalism by eliminating paid public notices in Iowa newspapers.

A Senate subcommittee on March 8 voted along party lines, with majority Republicans in support, to advance a bill that would allow public notices to be published on a website hosted by the secretary of state and forego posting them in community newspapers.

They tell the public that they want to save money. In private, a senator told one of our folks in the capitol that the backers want to “cancel newspapers.”

Indeed they will if this bill passes. My friends in the Iowa Newspaper Association believe that a third of our nearly 300 community newspapers will fold if paid legal notices — council minutes, school board claims, probate notices and the like — are eliminated.

One of them will be the Aurelia Star, which we operate. The loss of public notices will deal a huge body blow to the Cherokee Chronicle Times and the Storm Lake Times Pilot. We will have to find more than $100,000 per year to make it up. Last year we showed a profit of $2,900 — Brother John is paid nothing and I am paid $900 per month. Maybe we’re bad managers, but we are still here against all odds and supporting 20 employees. But enough about us. Republicans said it’s not their job to make our payroll. (Although they shell out hundreds of millions in subsidies for Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Wells Fargo.)

Okay, we’ll take our lumps, but what about the public? What about you?

This bill will put public notices online at a state website for a couple weeks. After that, forget about finding out how much a county supervisor got paid for hotel expenses. The state will charge to post the public notice. If you think about it, and really want to find out what happened at the Alta-Aurelia School Board meeting, you can start searching the Internet. Currently, you can browse the Times Pilot and see that your spinster aunt’s probate is on file. Nearly 80% of Iowans read public notices in community newspapers.

Without legal notices, you simply will not know what’s going on.

This is not just an Iowa thing. It’s a national push to blot out newspapers and create news deserts where no local source of factual information exists. That vacuum gets filled by social media and political sites posing as legitimate news sources. Where newspapers die, government spending and tax rates rise. So does crime and corruption according to research from the University of Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina. . . . 

The community newspaper is your proxy. People call to ask why, after reading the list of claims, is the street department buying a new snow plow when they got one last year? They walk into the office with a clipping in the wallet they pull out of the front pocket of their bibs of a drainage notice that they think will flood out their low spots. They would not have known were it not for the legal notice. It’s not easy finding out this stuff now — the Iowa court system charges us a fee to look at criminal information online.

You will know even less when a third of Iowa’s newspapers sink.

That’s the way they want it. Keep people in the dark. Resist the audit that shines a light on tax increment financing or the Hawkeye athletic department, which may embarrass a lot of people. Cancel newspapers and live in blissful ignorance. That’s what’s going on.

We’ll get by somehow. They can’t kill us yet. They think we’re cockroaches and we will prove it by refusing to be eradicated. Not as long as you demand that we walk together in the sunshine. Information builds community, secrecy and lies destroy great republics and eat at freedom. We have our opinions but we keep them on this page. We hew to the facts on the front page. Some people can’t handle the truth and are doing their level best to knock us out. Never give up on democracy. We need each other.

Election-conspiracy movement still going; more states leave anti-fraud group after it won't drop pro-registration rule

About 250 people attended a meeting in Nashville March 11 that promoted doubts about election procedures. (AP photo) 

"As the nation barrels toward the next presidential election, the election conspiracy movement that mushroomed after the last one shows no signs of slowing down," reports Christina Cassidy of The Associated Press. "Millions have been convinced that any election in which their preferred candidate loses has been somehow rigged against them, a belief that has fed efforts among conservatives to ditch voting machines and to halt or delay certification of election results."

Cassidy's story reports on groups and individuals spreading doubt and disinformation. The delusion seems to have spread to election officials, who are withdrawing their states from a bipartisan group that was created to ensure that voter lists are accurate. Two more say they will leave since the group "decided Friday against making rule changes that had been pushed by Republicans amid conspiracy theories targeting the group," Cassidy and AP's Julie Smyth Carr report in another story.

The Electronic Registration Information Center, supported by 32 states, "has a record of combating voter fraud by identifying those who have died or moved between states. Yet it also has drawn suspicion among some Republican state leaders after a series of online stories surfaced last year questioning the center’s funding and purpose," AP reports. "Earlier this month, Republican election officials from Florida, Missouri and West Virginia said they planned to withdraw from the group, joining Louisiana and Alabama. Former President Trump, on social media, has called on every Republican-led state to leave, characterizing it, without evidence, as a 'terrible voter registration system that "pumps the rolls" for Democrats and does nothing to clean them up'."

Republicans want ERIC to drop a rule that member states "mail notices to people who are eligible but not registered to vote," AP reports. When election officials in the group declined, "Republican secretaries of state in Iowa and Ohio became the latest to say they would pull out. . . . The states’ departures threaten to undermine a voluntary effort that has stood for more than a decade as the only national system that helps states identify voters who are not eligible to cast a ballot."

Another change Republicans sought "was removing what they characterize as partisan influences within ERIC," AP reports. "They had targeted David Becker, a former U.S. Justice Department lawyer who served in both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. Becker, who was involved in developing the ERIC system . . .  has held one of two nonvoting seats on the board," both of which the board decided Friday to eliminate. "The other has been vacant. A group of Republicans, including Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, defended Becker in a public letter, decrying attacks on him as disinformation."

AP notes, "There has been no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of voting machines in the U.S., and multiple reviews in the battleground states where Trump disputed his loss confirmed the election results were accurate. State and local election officials have spent more than two years explaining the many layers of protection that surround voting systems, and last year’s midterm election was largely uneventful."

Opinion: Agriculture producers and suppliers need to come together to address rural mental-health and suicide crisis

By Amber Weaver

Agriculture is facing a problem no single brand can fix: mental health.

Unfortunately, no amount of marketing, technology or even seed chemistry can fix the ongoing crisis of mental health and suicide in rural communities. And not one company or government can come up with a cure on their own to fix this. However, if the industry comes together, we can make a difference by starting a tough conversation.

“It’s actually probably one of the simplest things that anybody can do and that is starting a conversation and it’s trying to make sure that people understand one, that the issues are there and that they’re not alone. Two, that they there are resources out there and helping them to find those resources and then breaking the stigma. I mean, we do not give ourselves the grace that we give to others, and it is an industry that is willing to help others, but we are terrible at asking for help,” says Lisa Homer, senior communications manager for FMC Corp., an ag-chemicals manufacturer.

Homer says it does not have to be a difficult conversation, but it does make the difference in saving a life: “I mean, it’s as simple as ‘You’re not yourself. What’s going on? Are you OK? I know you know a lot’s going on yeah, etcetera.’ And just showing that you care.”

Once they know how much you care and that no judgment is being made, then steps can be taken if extra help is needed because they are not alone, Homer says: “Statistics show that 40% of growers feel that it is a sign of weakness to admit that they need health or that they are having mental health issues and it can be, you know, depression. It can be anxiety. It can lead to bigger issues and this isn’t just about suicide, and which is the the worst possible end game for this.”

Homer says it is important to reiterate that no one has to feel that way and help is available for the entire farm family. If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental health, the Farm Crisis Hotline is always available, and you can reach that by calling 800-464-0258 or go online here.

Friday, March 17, 2023

Bucking stereotypes and trends, Eastern Kentucky originals return to Appalachia and build up their communities

Whitney Johnson of Lawrence County, Kentucky,
is a dedicated forager. (Courtesy photo via Herald-Leader)
As Eastern Kentucky native Whitney Johnson says she heard it, "If you ever want anything to happen good with your life, then honey, leave the holler," reports Rick Childress of the Lexington Herald-Leader. "Nearly every young person from Eastern Kentucky who was interviewed for this article said they'd grown up hearing a narrative they would need to leave the region to succeed."

People like Johnson are opting to stay in the hollows and hills and build up their communities. "Johnson can't imagine living anywhere else. Eastern Kentucky, and more specifically Lawrence County, is home, and she's proud of that — so much so she has the word 'Appalachian' tattooed on her arm," Childress writes. "Johnson shows the pride she has for her roots in more than just ink. She also broadcasts it to the over 740,000 followers that watch her TikTok account, appalachian_forager. As the name suggests, Johnson's videos show her foraging for mushrooms and other local, edible plants — like pawpaws. . . . She also recently pet a possum."

Since the 1950s, Eastern Kentucky's population has decreased "as the number of local jobs tied to the coal industry has plummeted," Childresss notes. "Meanwhile, the state's non-Appalachian counterparts grew by 5%. Worries over young people leaving the region and headlines warning of rural 'brain drain"' have accompanied population loss." However, "In the past decade, Eastern Kentucky hasn't seen the same population decline as Appalachian counties in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia." Chris Green, the director of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center at Berea College, told Childress that Eastern Kentucky is "really a place of opportunity for educated youth who are encouraged to connect with where they're from, and bring those skills in."

In 2008, Berea "surveyed 169 students who hailed from Appalachia on how likely they were to live in Central Appalachia after graduation and what factors might determine their decision," Childress reports. "The study found that students from counties considered more economically challenged were generally more likely to say they wanted to stay, 'possibly indicating a higher attachment to the region.' Strong family ties also increased the attachment to Appalachia."

Luke Glaser, who is both a high school teacher and a Hazard city commissioner, encourages students to buck the Appalachian stereotypes. "His precalculus curriculum, he said, trains students to be problem solvers," Childress writes. Glaser told Childress, "We're not in effect learning exponents because we're going to use exponents when we get into our professional career. We're learning exponents because we're training our minds how to solve the big problems." 

Stacie Fugate the Coordinator of InVision Hazard in
downtown Hazard (Photo by Silas Walker, Herald-Leader)
Some young people who leave Eastern Kentucky are returning with big ideas. "Stacie Fugate, 24, graduated from the University of Kentucky and immediately returned back home to Hazard to work," Childress reports. "She's been civically engaged since she was a teenager. She is now the director of Invision Hazard, a nonprofit citizens' action group that seeks to solve community problems. She also is the coordinator for the grassroots Appalachians for Appalachia. Fugate told Childress, "I've always been proud to be Appalachian, and so it's really refreshing for me to see an uptick in how much people are interested in our culture."

Glaser told Childress, "Kids are certainly proud to be from here. They're certainly thinking about what it means to be from here in ways that they weren't 10 years ago."

Nominations sought for Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism by April 15

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

Nominations for the Gish Award may be made at any time, but the deadline for new nominations to be considered for this year's award is April 15. To make a nomination, send a detailed letter explaining how the nominee shows the kind of courage, tenacity and integrity that Tom and Pat Gish demonstrated at their weekly newspaper in the Central Appalachian coalfield. They withstood advertiser boycotts, business competition, declining population, personal attacks, and even the burning of their office to give their readers the kind of journalism often lacking in rural areas, and were the first winners of the award named for them. Tom died in 2008 and Pat in 2014; their son Ben is editor and publisher of the Eagle and serves on the award selection committee.

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

The Institute seeks nominations that measure up, at least in major respects, to the records of the Gishes and other previous winners. Other winners have been the Ezzell family of The Canadian Record in the Texas panhandle; Jim Prince and Stanley Dearman, current and late publishers of The Neshoba Democrat in Philadelphia, Miss.; Samantha Swindler of The Oregonian for her work at The Times-Tribune in Corbin, Ky., and Jacksonville Daily Progress in Texas; Stanley Nelson and the Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, La.; Jonathan and Susan Austin of the now-defunct Yancey County News in North Carolina; the late Landon Wills of the McLean County News in Kentucky; the Trapp family of the Rio Grande Sun in northern New Mexico; Ivan Foley of the Platte County Landmark in northwestern Missouri; the Cullen family of the Storm Lake Times-Pilot in northwest Iowa; Les Zaitz of the Malheur Enterprise in eastern Oregon; in 2019, three reporters whose outstanding careers have revealed much about the coal industry in Central Appalachia: Howard Berkes, retired from NPR; Ken Ward Jr., then with the Charleston Gazette-Mail; and his mentor at the Gazette, the late Paul Nyden. In 2020 the award went to the late Tim Crews of the Sacramento Valley Mirror; in 2021 to the Thompson-High Family of The News Reporter and the Border Belt Independent in Whiteville, N.C.; and in 2022 to Ellen Kreth and the Madison County Record of Huntsville, Ark.

Revitalization plan in Danville, Va., pop. 42,000, generated skepticism, but now it's a model for other communities

Main Street in Danville (Photo by Rick Barker Properties)
The Industrial Development Authority in Danville, Virginia, "bought old, empty buildings — sometimes at above-market prices — with the goal of selling them to developers. The strategy drew some criticism over the years, but local leaders believe it’s paid off in increased tax revenues and new vitality for previously depressed areas of the city," Grace Mamon reports for Cardinal News, which reports on Southwest and Southside Virginia.

"Locals say that Craghead Street used to be like a ghost town, and now it’s home to restaurants, apartments, a brewery and a science center. The city’s downtown, called the River District, alone has seen about $300 million in public and private investment in the last decade," Mamon reports.

The IDA's approach began with buying old Dan River Mills properties "after the industry left in 2006, depressing the local economy," Mamon notes. Then it expanded the strategy to non-mill buildings, especially in blocks occupied by tobacco warehouses, another industry that declined, because many absentee owners weren't inetrested in redevelopment.

Corrie Bobe, Danville’s economic development director, recalled the skepticism: “People said, ‘Why are you spending so much money in one central area when there are other needs throughout the entire community?’” However, "Cut city officials believed that targeting the River District was a priority, predicting that a vibrant downtown would spur growth and redevelopment in other areas," Mamon reports, noting that "Ignoring downtown redevelopment had cost the city in the past."

She recalls the story of a manufacturing CEO who made an unannounced visit with his wife:  “They took one drive up Main Street and saw a bunch of boarded-up buildings, no one there, this dead downtown,” said Telly Tucker, economic-development director from 2004 to 2020. “It didn’t take long for them to say, ‘This is not the place where we want to put our business.’” She told Mamon that the loss of that opportunity was painful, but also was “a blessing to hold that mirror up.”

News-media roundup: A.I. journalism arrives; a Sunshine Week victory; hope for the future in a volunteer writer . . .

Community journalism produced by artificial intelligence has arrived, and it's scary, warns Reed Anfinson of Minnesota's Swift Coutny Monitor-News. He cites a Poynter Institute article by Alex Mahadevan and writes, "Deceiving the reader is going to become A.I.-assisted child’s play. Where does that leave citizens of a representative democracy who depend on trusted information to assess those elected to serve their needs?"

The Trust Project announces that its seal of approval has been added to several more news sites "as need for trustworthy news reaches crisis." They include its first tribal-nation site, Osage News; its first entirely health-focused site, MindSite News, which focuses on mental health; and Eye on Ohio, Investigate Midwest and the Texas Tribune.

Kirsten Lane
When high-school junior Kirsten Lane volunteered to write for the weekly Hickman County Times in Centerville, Tenn., Editor and Publisher Brad Martin welcomed her, "because folks who like to write are few." He reports that Lane "is polite, a good speller, writes clean sentences, can ask a question, makes focused photographs, meets deadline requirements and offers to go above and beyond. . . . Even if she doesn't go into a writing field, she will know about newspaper writing ... a cousin to efficiency, attentiveness and the ability to analyze. You may not think those abilities are important, and that this nation's future will simply develop on the sentence-by-sentence creations entered into hand-held devices every few seconds. I must say, good luck with that."

Sunshine Week, the annual promotion of open government, saw "a huge victory" in Arkansas, reports Arkansas Publisher Weekly, from the Arkansas Press Association. A bill to ease less-than-quorum meetings of boards "was rejected in a voice vote at the end of an all-day hearing," before and after the House's floor session. "After testimony from eight FOIA advocates representing APA, the Arkansas FOIA Coalition, the legislature-appointed FOIA Task Force and other groups and individuals, several lawmakers asked [the sponsor] to pull the bill down and negotiate an agreement with the APA and other FOIA groups. She adamantly refused, and the House panel rejected the measure as several FOIA advocates cheered." The Arkansas Advocate has details.

Editor Tammy Shaw
When Paxton Media Group eliminated a reporter's position at The Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, Ky., James Mulcahy quit as editor and reporter Tammy Shaw was named to replace him. In her first column as editor, she writes, "Last week I talked to an official at a local meeting, and they asked if the company was winding down the paper, one employee at a time. Not in the least. . . . This paper is more than one or two people, no matter how great the loss. It has lasted a very long time and will continue as long as there is support in the community."

Muckrack's "State of Journalism 2023" reports after surveying more than 2,200 journalists: Two-thirds say their work has been affected by economic uncertainty; about half considered leaving Twitter, but only 28% say they plan to spend less time on the social network this year; they also say they plan to spend more time on YouTube, LinkedIn and TikTok.

Flora/fauna quickies: Dancing honeybees; brown widows attack black widows; bringing birds back to the farm . . .

The center bee does the waggle dance. (Photo by Heather Broccard-Bell, CC BY-ND)
They've got a waggle dancer, waggle dance groupies and distance dialects. It's not a rural string band, Black Velvet line dancing, or even "Hey! . . .Ho!" by the Lumineers. It's how honeybees tell each other "where to find resources such as food, water or nest sites," reports James C. Nieh for The Conversation, a platform for journalism by academics. Nieh studied how many "waggle skills" bees are born with and how many they learn from older bees, and reports, "In addition, each colony has a 'dance floor,' or the space where bees dance, with complex terrain that the dancers may learn to better navigate over time or by following in the footsteps of older dancers."

The connection between humans and whales has been so strong that a humpback whale song was included on NASA's Golden Records, launched into space on the Voyager spacecrafts as a representation of life on earth, reports Kiley Bense of Inside Climate News. "After decades of conservation efforts to protect whales, two recent books shed light on why they're still threatened—and how we might change that. . . . Tom Mustill's book, How to Speak Whale, offers one possible means of altering whales' fate: technology."

Black-capped chickadee (Photo by Scott Martin, Cornell Lab)
That's for the birds! What? Bugs. In California, the Wild Farm Alliance is working to bring birds back to the farm as natural pest control, reports Twilight Greenaway of Civil Eats. WFA Executive director Jo Ann Baumgartner told Greenaway, "There are so many beneficial things that birds do related to pest control, and different kinds of birds offer different kinds of pest control." Who are the best insectivorous birds? "Tree swallows, which are aerial foragers, meaning they're cruising around in the air and catching moths, flies, and flying insects," Greenaway shares. "There's chickadees, titmice, ash-throated flycatchers, violet-green swallows, and various kinds of wrens and nuthatches."

Mention Canada, and many people will think of mountains, beauty, Mounties, etc. One thing people don't think about is tornadoes. Canada has the second-highest number of tornadoes each year, reports Oliver Whang for The New York Times. Another surprise, Canada's tornadoes are hard to count. "Canada is vast. . . . Canadian tornadoes end up touching down in areas with no [human] witnesses. . . . The Northern Tornadoes Project in London, Ontario, has been seeking to address this. . . . Using social media and eyewitness reports, satellite imagery, drone footage and fallen trees, the group has tracked more Canadian tornadoes than ever before."

Left: Black widow spider. Right: Brown widow spider.
(Photos by Louis Coticchio, The New York Times)
Deadly, feared, found in song lyrics and old sneakers, black widow spiders have fearsome reputations. "But throughout the South, the bulbous arachnids with red hourglasses on their bellies are engaged in a lethal competition with the brown widow, a relative from abroad — and they're losing," reports Asher Albein of The New York Times. "Brown widows tend to be bold, investigating nearby webs and attacking spiders that don't resist. . . . The shy, retiring black widows generally try to escape, fighting back only as a last resort."

Found an egg in your pocket? Well, that's worth quite a bit. "For the first time in human history, the care and keeping of 11 hens all winter to receive one egg a day is now a pretty good deal," reports Eliza Blue of The Daily Yonder. "Imagine my delight then when the very next morning I arrived at the coop to discover not one, not two, but four eggs! It felt like I had won the egg lottery now that I knew how much they were worth. I complimented every single one of the hens since I couldn't be sure who had actually laid the eggs. . . . It also was a wonderful reminder that we've tipped toward spring and spring's abundance as hens increase their laying with the return of the light."

In some states, insects are not considered wildlife. They are left unprotected, and yet . . . "Bees, butterflies and beetles pollinate plants, enrich soils and provide a critical protein source for species up the food chain. The U.S. Forest Service says, 'Without pollinators, the human race and all of earth's terrestrial ecosystems would not survive,'" reports Catrin Einhorm of The New York Times. "Conservation officials in at least 12 states have their hands tied, legally speaking, when it comes to protecting insects. The creatures are simply left out of state conservation statutes, or their situation is ambiguous."

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Tips from the Society of Environmental Journalists for tracking hazardous-materials shipments along rail lines

Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, on July 6, 2013, after an oil-tanker train derailed
in the town center. (Photo from Sûreté du Québec, Wikimedia Commons)
Before last month's train derailment and explosions in East Palestine, Ohio, why didn't the town's residents know there were hazardous materials on the train? Easy. "The public is not allowed to know," reports Joseph A. Davis for the Society of Environmental Journalists. "That’s the effect of 2008 federal regulations. . . . Those rules let states decide to keep the routing of trains carrying hazmat secret — although they require the federal government to inform the states. . . . Under existing rules, the train that derailed in Ohio wasn’t enough of a potential hazard to merit routing disclosure to anyone. . . . A few states do disclose some of the info. That’s not enough."

Finding rail hazmat routes begins with knowing what you're looking for: "There are many kinds of hazardous materials carried by rail. Crude oil is hazardous, but it may not be the most hazardous thing rolling through your community," Davis writes. "Because public concern was focused on oil trains, the Department of Transportation created a category called high-hazard flammable trains, and focused regulatory action on that. The train that derailed in Ohio was not an HHFT."

Davis notes, "In response to the Ohio spill, several Congress members have already introduced bills to tighten up rail hazmat regulations. But none make it easier for the public to know about hazmat cargoes or routing in advance."

Davis gives these tips to uncover hazmat cargo that may threaten your community:

Find the main freight line(s). This is not hard because many main freight lines run right through towns and cities, or right next to them. The biggest are called Class 1 freight railroads.

Stake out the line(s) that may be of concern. Visit at different times of day. Use binoculars and a long-lens camera to learn the contents of cars by looking at the diamond-shaped placards. Bring your press card. Sometimes you can focus on rail yards or industrial facilities.

Identify potentially hazardous cargo by looking up the UN numbers on the cars (especially tank cars). These numbers identify hazardous cargo. You may have to do the lookup back at the office. Then you need to sift through and find the most worrisome, frequent or voluminous ones.

Figure out where trains are coming from — and going to — if you can. Are you near a source of oil or chemicals? A place that uses them?

Try to build a list of train accidents near your area. Here’s one starting point. The FRA Office of Safety Analysis data portal provides another.

Now learn all you can about the health consequences of a spill of cargoes of concern.

Go back to the maps and your knowledge of the community to figure out what vulnerable facilities or populations are near possible accident sites (i.e., near the tracks). Schools? Nursing homes? Apartment buildings? Population centers? Lakes, streams or wetlands?

Talk to the first responders who might be called to an incident. It could be the police department, the sheriff, the firefighters, the ambulance service — or even the emergency room of your local hospital.

Ask questions to help your community prepare. Does your local fire department have a hazmat unit? Ask about their plans for dealing with a big hazmat incident. Talk to your local (or tribal) emergency planning committee, an entity required under federal law to plan for such blow-ups. To find yours, you may have to go through your state emergency response commission. Contact information is listed by state. Some places have agencies called 'multi-hazard' agencies; that’s likely who you want."

Consider using these other reporting resources:
National Association of SARA Title III Program Officials: A professional organization of people from government agencies and private industry who deal with hazmat incidents for a living.
EPA regional offices: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regional office may have staff who can help with information about a hazmat event.
UN Number reference guides: Apps are available for Android or Apple. You can also find lookups on the web, for example here.
Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration: Check out the phone app that carries its Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG2020).
CAMEO Chemicals software: A suite of tools meant for emergency responders. here.

Feds approve $31 billion merger of two major railroads into the first one that connects Canada, the U.S. and Mexico

Map prepared by the two companies in 2021 shows their rail lines and the main areas of Canadian grain production, U.S. grain processing and Mexican grain consumption near the lines. 

With federal approval yesterday, the first railroad to span Canada, the U.S. and Mexico has been created. In a $31 billion deal, Canadian Pacific Railway will acquire Kansas City Southern Railroad and become Canadian Pacific Kansas City as early as April 14, Freight Waves reports.

"In approving the deal, the regulator, the Surface Transportation Board, said the new single-line service would shift about 64,000 truckloads a year to rail from the roads, potentially enhancing safety and reducing carbon emissions, and add more than 800 union jobs. The Surface Transportation Board said the merger would not reduce competition," Niraj Chokshi and Mark Walker of The New York Times report. "Martin J. Oberman, the chairman of the five-member board, told reporters, 'On balance, the merger of these two railroads will benefit the American economy and will be an improvement for all citizens in terms of safety and the environment.'"

The Times reports, "The decision came amid mounting concerns with the deal. The Justice Department said it had 'serious concerns' about industry consolidation and asked the regulator to carefully scrutinize the merger. . . . The board has a congressional mandate to take into account the effect mergers would have on transportation for the public and on competition. . . . Oberman noted that Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern were the smallest of the large U.S. freight carriers known as Class 1 railroads." The combined firm will also be the smallest, Freight Waves notes. Olberman "acknowledged criticism that the industry had already become too consolidated in recent decades," but told the Times that the merger “will actually provide a stronger competitive landscape." Freight Waves notes that Board Member Robert Primus dissented, citing consolidation cocerns and saying "The transaction will harm communities along the path of the newly combined network."

In reviewing the merger, "The board took into account the environment and other factors," Chokshi and Walker report. "In a detailed review in January, the board found that the merger would have little negative effect on safety, air quality or other concerns, though some communities could see heightened air or noise pollution, it stated." The two railroads have littel if any overlap and are linked by CP's southernmost line, ending in Kansas City. Canadian grain interests hope the new line will ease exports to Mexico.

'Leave the chocolate milk out of it:' Parents, teachers, cooks and students angry at USDA over school-meal proposal

Photo by Tony Cenicola, The New York Times
Sometimes people draw a line in the sand and say, "You can't do that." That sentiment seems to be true in the case of school meals and chocolate milk. "The anger was prompted by a February proposal from the Department of Agriculture aimed at making school meals healthier by limiting the amount of added sugar and sodium in breakfasts and lunches," reports Nicholas Florko of Stat, the medicine-and-science publication of The Boston Globe. "Most chocolate milks have about 20 grams of sugar per carton. . . . The American Heart Association recommends kids consume 25 grams of added sugar. . . . But parents, teachers, and school officials simply aren’t having it. They insist children won’t drink unflavored milk — so the proposal would rob them of necessary calcium — and force them to go thirsty."

Michelle Wickstrom, a teacher from Green River, Wyoming, told Florko, "Leave the chocolate milk out of this." Florko writes, "No element of the February proposal has generated more vitriol than a suggestion that the agency might stop reimbursing schools for chocolate milk. . . . It’s not the first time efforts to rein in chocolate milk drinking have caused an uproar. New York Mayor Eric Adams quickly abandoned a plan earlier last year to ban chocolate milk in schools after outrage in the press and from members of Congress."

Florko adds, "The long simmering spat over school meals has also spotlighted the structural weaknesses of the national meal program. While peer-reviewed research has shown that school lunches are now healthier than ever, school officials say they’re still struggling with those standards." An anonymous commenter told Florko, “Our school district’s nutrition department relies on retirees to fill our low paid — short shifted — positions because no one else wants them.  . . .You are going to make these standards so strict that schools will be forced to make scratch foods to meet sodium levels. These school nutrition employees need to be paid better so we can hire staff that has the experience and is trained.”

Dariush Mozaffarian, policy dean at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science at Boston's Tufts University, told Florko, "All of the same concerns and hysteria arose around the 2010 legislation. School staff said this was impossible, industry said this can’t happen. . . . and people said kids won’t eat the food." Florko reports, "Mozaffarian, who supports the overarching changes to the school lunch program, suggested the milk dispute could be solved by cutting the sugar in chocolate milk in half, or offering children plain whole milk instead of the low fat options."

In the ongoing chocolate milk debate, kids also weighed in: "You’re wasting white milk and money,” wrote Ben, who identified himself as a fourth grader. “Another reason you should bring back chocolate milk is because students are super mad.” Another fourth-grader, Delila, wrote, "Kids are getting dehydrated. Everyone I know likes chocolate milk. This is why chocolate milk should stay!”

A time to celebrate all things agrarian: National Agriculture Day and Week, Tuesday, March 21 and March 21-27

Photo by James Baltz, Unsplash

On National Agriculture Day, we recognize the unique and irreplaceable value that farmers, ranchers, foresters, farmworkers, and other agricultural stewards have contributed to our nation's past and present. America's agriculture sector safeguards our nation's lands through sustainable management; ensures the health and safety of animals, plants, and people; provides a safe and abundant food supply; and facilitates opportunities for prosperity and economic development in rural America.” The American Presidency Project, Proclamation 10158—National Agriculture Day, 2021 --President Biden

When it comes to American farming, there are challenges, but there's lots to celebrate, too! National Agriculture Week is time rejoice in all the good things our country's ag-people do -- from 4-H moms to ranchers to farm workers to master gardeners.

Did you know these science-ish fun facts from Farm Bureau?

  • 2 million farms dot America’s rural landscape. About 98% of U.S. farms are operated by families – individuals, family partnerships or family corporations.
  • Farm and ranch families comprise less than 2% of the U.S. population.
  • 86% of U.S. ag products sold are produced on family farms or ranches.
  • Americans enjoy a food supply that is abundant, affordable overall and among the world’s safest, thanks in large part to the efficiency and productivity of America’s farm and ranch families.
  • One day’s production for a high-producing dairy cow yields 4.8 pounds of butter or 8.7 gallons of ice cream or 10.5 pounds of cheese.
  • The pounds of feed (grain, forage, etc.) a dairy cow needs to eat to produce 100 pounds of milk has decreased by more than 40% on average in the last 40 years.

'Unpacking Food and Ag Reporting' livestream at 2 ET Tues.

Agriculture reporters Chris Clayton, Claire Carlson and Tom Philpott will talk about "Unpacking Food and Ag Reporting" in a livestream at 2 p.m. ET Tuesday, March 21.

The event is a chance to discuss food and ag stories and issues we should be paying attention to, how they approach the beat, the way food production and consumption influences many aspects of rural life, and more.

Clayton is the ag policy editor for Progressive Farmer. Philpott is a former food and ag correspondent for Mother Jones. Carlson is a staff correspondent for The Daily Yonder, which is presenting the event with its partner the Rural Assembly. For more information or to register, go here.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Stricter rules to prevent black-lung disease and fibrosis, 25 years in the making, are expected to be proposed soon

Michael and Liz Williams pose for a photo outside their home in
McRoberts, Ky. He mined coal for 40 years and has advanced-
stage black lung disease. (Photo by Taylor Sisk, Kaiser Health News)
It's been known for years that black-lung disease and fibrosis among coal miners has increased because coal seams have become thinner and miners are cutting into more sandstone that lies between the seams, but federal regulations still "allow miners to be exposed to twice as much airborne silica as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration permits for workers in other industries," reports Taylor Sisk of Kaiser Health News. "Five U.S. senators representing parts of Central Appalachia believe the Mine Safety and Health Administration has been dangerously slow to fix the discrepancy."

“The Department of Labor has indicated that we could see a proposed rule as early as April, so I’ll be watching this closely and will continue to push for proper protections for coal miners,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., told Sisk. Warner was among senators who wrote MSHA November seeking a new standard. MSHA Administrator Chris Williamson said in February that he plans to announce new rules soon, and noted that the rulemaking process began 25 years ago.

“It’s cruel that this would happen in such a rich country,” Wes Addington of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center said of the persistence of black lung. He told Sisk, “We know how to prevent it, and never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that we’d be in a situation where we’re having that same conversation” about progressive massive fibrosis, the lung ailment caused by silica dust.

"The dust turns to sharp particles that become trapped in lung tissue, causing inflammation and scarring and reducing the lungs’ capacity to take in oxygen. The condition is debilitating and potentially fatal," Sisk notes. "In central Appalachia, a region primarily comprising West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia, the increase in the disease’s most deadly form, progressive massive fibrosis, has been especially pronounced. Since 2005, black lung cases have tripled in the region and PMF has increased tenfold among long-term miners. A study published last fall identified the driving force behind the spike in severe black lung disease as silica dust."

“We were seeing much more severe disease,” said Dr. Robert Cohen, director of the Mining Education and Research Center at the University of Illinois-Chicago and the study’s lead author. “We were seeing disease in younger miners, with lesser exposures, so, therefore, more intense exposure.”

Country life may not mean a happier life, study suggests; mental health is no different, but access to treatment is

Photo via the University of Houston
With its fresh outdoors, flora, fauna and open spaces, country life suggests a healthier life. But that is not always the case. "A study from the University of Houston found that those living in the country were not more satisfied with their lives than people who lived in urban areas," reports Cara Murez of HealthDay. "Rural U.S. residents didn't feel like their lives were more meaningful, and they also tended to be more anxious, depressed and neurotic. . . . Almost 85% of all rural counties have a mental health professional shortage, even though rural residents appear to need more psychological services, according to the study. Among the reasons for the shortage of mental health professionals is the surge in rural hospital closures since 2010."

The study report noted that mental illness is not more common in rural areas, but the difference is lack of access to treatment. Researcher Olivia Atherton, a professor at UH, told Murez, "It will be critical to improve access to psychological services in remote areas, and to identify how characteristics and values of rural communities can be leveraged to promote positive psychological health."

Researcher Olivia Atherton
(University of Houston photo)
Murez explains, "Atherton and her colleagues analyzed data from two large longitudinal studies of Americans, the Midlife in the United States and the Health and Retirement Study. . . .They looked at whether there were different levels and changes in extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism. They also examined whether there were differences or changes in psychological well-being and life satisfaction across adulthood."

"The study fills important gaps in the literature by showing that where people live can impact personality and well-being in adulthood," writes UH's Laurie Fickman. Atherton told her, "Given the far-reaching consequences of rural health disparities for individuals, families and communities, there is a pressing need to identify the psychological, social and structural mechanisms responsible for disparities and the ways in which to intervene upon those mechanisms to improve the health of rural Americans."

Homelessness and housing insecurity rose much more in rural areas than the rest of the nation in the last two years

Rural homelessness looks different depending on where you live. "In Southwest Oregon it looks like a city of under 25,000 residents with nearly 150 people on a waitlist for temporary housing. . . . In Eastern Kentucky, it looks like a severe shortage of affordable housing made immeasurably worse by a natural disaster. . . . For many tens of thousands of individuals and families in rural America, it looks like another anxiety-ridden night," reports by Taylor Sisk and Jan Pytalski of The Daily Yonder. "Nationwide, homelessness rose less than a half percent from 2020 to 2022 but almost 6% in rural communities. The reasons are many and varied."

One problem is the lack of "large-scale development in rural communities; construction costs are often higher and there’s therefore less incentive for private investment," Sisk and Pytalski write. "But some rural communities are rising to the challenge, recognizing that getting people into at least temporary housing is critical to the health and well-being of the entire community." Lance George, director of research and information at the Housing Assistance Council in Washington, D.C., told the Yonder, "They’re incredibly resourceful and ingenious [community organizations] and work on shoestring budgets and get amazing amounts of work done."

Roseburg, Oregon, pop. 23,700, shows community resources in action. "Located on the southern edge of Roseburg’s downtown is the Gary Leif Navigation Center, a shelter that provides a place to sleep and a variety of wraparound services for the unhoused," the Yonder reports. "During the 2023 Point-in-Time Count, 150 people showed up to be counted and another 200 were counted across homeless encampments in the county. . . .The center provides 10 pods that offer an air-conditioned and heated safe environment for individuals to sleep and store their belongings . . . .The shelter’s guests can also cook and store their own food in a communal kitchen in a separate building. . . . An extreme shortage of affordable housing is a primary source of homelessness in Roseburg."

Eastern Kentucky offers another example. "Angela Crase is the director of residential property management for Kentucky River Community Care. She said that in the most recent Point-in-Time Count, they were surprised to document more than 40 unhoused people in Perry County," where Hazard is the seat. "KRCC is a nonprofit community mental health center, part of a network of such facilities the state established in the 1960s after John Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act of 1963. Today, KRCC provides housing opportunities not only for those with behavioral health issues but anyone in need. . . . KRCC oversees 114 apartments throughout its region."

Phillip Hardin, KRCC’s facilities director, told the Yonder, “The basic premise was that in order to have healthy clients, they had to have a clean, decent, affordable place to live." Crase told the Yonder, “We follow a housing first model. This approach recognizes the need for the most fundamental necessities to be met before addressing substance use, mental health concerns or employment."

As enrollment decreases, rural college towns struggle to adapt; when a college leaves, the losses are painful

Kaitlyn Nevel works at her cafe in Clarion, Pennsylvania.
(Photo by Ross Mantle, The New York Times)
Decreasing enrollment in postsecondary education has been particularly challenging for rural communities with colleges, and to survive, they must adapt, reports Lydia DePillis of The New York Times. "For decades, institutions of higher education provided steady, well-paid jobs in small towns where the industrial base was waning. But the tide of young people finishing high school is now also starting to recede. . . . As Americans have fewer children and a diminishing share of young adults pursue a degree, the once-burgeoning market for college slots has kicked into reverse . . . creating a stark new reality for colleges and universities — and the communities that grew up around them." Nathan Grawe, an economics professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., who studies the demand for postsecondary education, told DePillis, “It looks like the future is declining numbers of young people likely to attend college. . . .We’ll start to have some tough stories.”

The western Pennsylvania town of Clarion, pop. 3,900, is an example. DePillis writes, "Clarion has taken immense pride in the graceful campus of Clarion University since the institution was founded as a seminary 156 years ago. Since 2009, when it had 7,346 students, the university has shrunk by nearly half. With the drop in enrollment has come the loss of nearly 200 staff members. . . . Last year, the school even lost its name, as it was merged with two of the 13 other universities in the Pennsylvania State System" of Higher Education.

Fewer students means local businesses have to find solutions, DePilis reports: "Kaitlyn Nevel’s cafe used to be staffed mostly with university students; now she has one such employee. As foot traffic lightened, she branched into catering. Nevel told DePillis, “Ideally, I would love to see the university stay and thrive, but you just have to try and have however many backup plans."

Universities and local businesses can adapt together. "Colleges and the towns they occupy can do little about demographic currents. But they should, experts say, reinforce each other — the university can offer space for community functions and support for small businesses, for example, while the town can throw events for prospective students and their parents," DePillis writes. "Vacant student housing could be converted into homes for new residents who might be able to work remotely or want a quiet place to retire."

Montgomery, West Virginia, Mayor Greg Ingram looks out over the old library
of West Virginia Tech, which moved. (Photo: Nick Fouriezos, The Daily Yonder)
While Clarion offers a possible survival model when enrollment drops, towns that have lost their colleges serve as a somber reminder. "In 2017, West Virginia University relocated West Virginia Tech from its home of 120 years, citing low enrollment and high costs while moving from Montgomery to Beckley, a bigger city an hour up the valley. The decision risks making the former college town of Montgomery into a ghost town," reports Nick Fouriezos of The Daily Yonder.

Such moves are "feeding distrust of larger state universities, many of which have grown larger by acquiring rural outposts that end up being the first cut once leaner times hit," Fouriezos reports. "West Virginia Tech, and its once top-10 engineer program, had been one of the area’s proudest assets. . . . But then WVU bought the campus in 1995. Ever since, residents here feel, the flagship university has worked to move it out."

Montgomery Mayor Greg Ingram told Fouriezos, "In West Virginia, we’re robbing from the poor towns and putting wealth into richer towns. They just wanted it out of here: It’s all political. Fouriezos reports, "Ingram lamented the loss of the Kroger, the car dealership, more than 100 well-paid university professionals, and, of course, the students who rented hundreds of rooms throughout the region."

Hanging out in Montgomery's last remaining bar, Fouriezos overheard one patron say, “I love West Virginia University, but they wrecked the city of Montgomery.”