Friday, May 12, 2023

By 5-4, Supreme Court OKs Calif. ban on tight confinement of sows; ruling has broad implications for animal agriculture

Sows in gestation crates that are illegal in California
(Photo by vinsenssandy/Shutterstock)
The U.S. Supreme Court has "preserved a California law banning the sale of pork in America's most populous state from pigs kept in tightly confined spaces, rejecting an industry challenge claiming that the voter-backed animal welfare measure impermissibly regulates out-of-state farmers," reports Nate Raymond of Reuters. Pork producers contended that California's Proposition 12 tells out-of-state pork producers that if they want to tap into California's pork market, California voters can indirectly tell them how to raise their pigs. And that might not be all. The decision "was met with disappointment by many in U.S. agriculture, claiming it sets a dangerous precedent for animal agriculture moving forward," Morning AgClips reports.

"The justices voted 5-4 to uphold a lower court's dismissal of a lawsuit by the National Pork Producers Council and the American Farm Bureau Federation seeking to invalidate the law," Raymond reports. The lobbies argued that the Constitution's commerce clause, which gives the federal government the power to regulate interstate commerce, keeps the states from doing so in this case. NPPC President Scott Hays of Missouri told Raymond, "Allowing state overreach will increase prices for consumers and drive small farms out of business, leading to more consolidation."

Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, wrote in the decision, "While the Constitution addresses many weighty issues, the type of pork chops California merchants may sell is not on that list." Chief Justice John Roberts and fellow conservatives Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh, and liberal Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, "said they would have allowed the challengers to the California law to pursue their claim in the lower courts," Raymond reports.

"California farms collectively are only a small part of the $26 billion-a-year U.S. pork industry. The size of cages used at American pig farms is humane and necessary for animal safety, according to the industry, which asserts that California's law gives the state unwarranted influence over the pork sector. President Joe Biden's administration sided with the pork producers in the case, saying that states cannot ban products that pose no threat to public health or safety due to philosophical objections."

Farmers' markets' vendors are as diverse as their offerings; they do it for many reasons, Wall Street Journal reports

Trevor Adams of Night Heron Bread scores and bakes bread in his
garage baking space. (Photo by Cayce Clifford, Wall Street Journal)

Farmers' markets' vendors come with produce, bread, jam and most importantly, all things farm fresh. Elizabeth Garone of The Wall Street Journal examines four vendors in California, one of the most popular states for the markets. She finds out why people do it, how much money they make and why it can be a loving struggle. Here are two:

Night Heron Bread started after the pandemic hit, and with income from their local farmers markets' sales, the business is keeping a family going. "Trevor Adams wanted to keep his baking job in San Francisco, but a congenital heart condition, combined with the bakery's tight working quarters, made it impossible to feel safe. . . . He took what he thought would be a temporary leave of absence. Meanwhile, he and his wife, Robin Adams, a garden educator, brainstormed ways to keep the family afloat. . . . At first, he sold his signature sourdough country loaf to friends and family and offered a subscription service that customers could use. . . . They aimed to land a coveted Saturday spot at the farmers market in their home, Alameda. . . . Night Heron Bread—named after a local bird—finally made it to market last year."

Like any farm effort, weather plays a part. "On days with good weather, they load up 125 loaves of bread to sell at $10 to $13 each, plus 50 baguettes at $5. . . . cookies and jars of jam," Garone explains. "Revenue from a Saturday market is usually between $1,600 and $1,800; expenses run around $400 to $500. . . . That leaves about $1,200 profit per market, according to R. Adams." Rainy days require a different strategy. R. Adams told Garone, "If it's pouring consistently for hours. . . . We'll fulfill our pre-orders and have customers pick them up at our house."

A combination of incomes, which includes Robin Adams's full-time job, has helped make Night Heron Bread successful, Garone reports. R. Adams told her, "There's something kind of wildly satisfying about showing up, working hard and driving away with an empty van. . . . A sunny day at the market is everything: the fast pace, enthusiasm for the products you're putting out there."

Joe Schirmer owner of Dirty Girl Produce
(Photo by Cayce Clifford, Wall Street Journal)
Dirty Girl Produce offers a look at a career of farm-to-table through farmers markets. "Owner Joe Schirmer is a farmers-market veteran. . . . He bought his own farm in 1999 in Watsonville, 90 miles from San Francisco. The 40-acre operation grows everything from beans and broccoli to strawberries and tomatoes." Schirmer told Garone, "People go to the farmers market for the best produce, and our model is quality. We know how to make everything look extra pretty and get it to the farmers market when it's fresh when it's just picked."

Finances are unpredictable. "In 2022, the farm did $74,000 in sales at the smallest market and $500,000 at the largest, according to Mr. Schirmer. In all, he took in roughly $1,000,000, 60% of which was direct off-the-table sales at the farmers markets," Garone writes." But after expenses—the biggest of which is labor—the company posted a net loss of $60,000. . . . There are many reasons for the losses, according to Mr. Schirmer, among them pandemic-related issues, a labor shortage and drought."

Still, he loves what he does. "Schirmer says that some of his best friends are other growers he has met at the markets," reports Garone, quoting him: "It's a pretty good vibe. If you forget a scale or you forget bags or weights or a tent or an umbrella . . . people share and help you out. . . . I love farming; I just wish the economic reality of it wasn't what it is."

News-media roundup: Washington state helps local media; States Newsroom opens its 33rd outlet there . . .

Rob Manch of WFMZ-TV in Allentown, Pa., investigated a coal-mine fire. See below. (WFMZ image via Poynter)

Washington’s legislature has approved $2.4 million over two years to support eight journalists a year, paid $55,000 each, through a fellowship program to be run by Washington State University," Rebuild Local News reports. "Half of the fellows will be graduates of the university. Crucial program details on how the fellowships and participating newsrooms will be chosen, and by whom, are still being drafted. Gov. Jay Inslee also signed a provision eliminating the “the business and operations” tax for newspapers for 10 years. The bill did not benefit digital-only news sites unless they once printed a newspaper."
States Newsroom, the largest network of state-based nonprofit news outlets, has launched the Washington State Standard as its 33rd outlet. It has content-sharing agreements with independent newsrooms in 10 additional states. The editor in chief will be Bill Lucia, former executive editor of Route Fifty, an online news journal that covers trends, challenges and emerging issues in states and localities.
America's Newspapers, a trade association, has released what it calls "the first national research project dedicated to how readers consume local news and advertising in nearly a decade." Among the findings: Only 22% of readers are 65 or older, and 71% have lived in the community for more than five years. Length of residency has long been a predictor of newspaper readership.
Amaris Castillo of The Poynter Institute reports how Rob Manch and Kaylee Lindenmuth of WFMZ-TV in Allentown, Pennsylvania, investigated and reported on one of the state's many underground coal-mine fires. “Towns like Shenandoah and Centralia tend to get forgotten in the state, and in the national discourse,” Manch told Castillo. “And someone’s gotta be their voice, right? Someone’s got to talk about things that affect them.”
A recent survey from More in Common and the American Press Institute 
Accentuate the positive: "U.K.-based newsletter The Know has 50,000 subscribers, mainly women, with a 46% open rate and an audience that is growing 10% each month," the American Press Institute reports. "Chief executive Lynn Anderson Clark says her goal with the daily newsletter is to combat news avoidance. Each email starts with a positive news story, followed by coverage of top stories written in a way that won’t leave readers despondent. For example, when covering the February earthquake in Syria and Turkey, the newsletter focused on how the world rallied around to help instead of death tolls. The Know also has a referral rewards program that awards increasingly generous gifts the more a reader invites friends."
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' "push to rewrite defamation law and challenge press rights failed to advance beyond a committee vote" in the Florida Legislature, The Washington Post reports. "Opposition came from an unexpected sector: conservative media and lawmakers. When it came to backing what First Amendment experts and journalists called a radical rewriting of press freedom laws, DeSantis-friendly outlets responded with a rare show of resistance from media companies that by and large support the governor’s agenda."

Sickest rural Americans may be the least able to afford care

Photo by Charles Deluvio, Unsplash
A new study by the University of Southern Maine shows that in the two years prior to the pandemic, rural residents who were the most in need of medical care often did not seek it because of costs, reports Liz Carey of The Daily Yonder. The study revealed a disturbing lack of care-seeking among ill rural residents; its abstract says: "Rural adults (18-64) were more likely than their urban counterparts to report problems paying, or being unable to pay, their medical bills. They were also more likely to delay or go without care because of the cost. Compared with urban adults, those in rural areas were more likely to engage in prescription drug cost-saving measures such as skipping doses, delaying refills, or taking less medication than prescribed."

"Most concerning, said Erica Ziller, one of the study’s authors, was that rural adults with the worst health were more likely to report not getting the care they needed because of the cost," Carey writes. Ziller told her, "It's almost like a grotesque Catch-22, right? We're talking about the people who need health care the most, presumably, and also who are experiencing the most difficulty in getting the services they need."

Researchers used National Health Insurance Survey data from 2019-20 and "examined rural-urban differences in affordability of care and cost-saving strategies among . . . 36,000 adults between the ages of 18 and 64 with nearly 5,000 of whom lived in a rural county," Carey reports. "The study found that nearly a fifth of the rural residents (18%) said they were uninsured and 13% said they delayed getting care or went without because of the cost. . . . Ziller said the research showed that women were more likely to report that they had trouble paying for medical care. . . . Rural residents are more likely to have trouble regardless of their income, she said."

Since data were collected mainly outside pandemic years, there are more questions to be researched. Carey writes, "The study results are concerning, Ziller said, for what will happen when emergency pandemic measures to make healthcare more affordable expire." Ziller told Carey, "This is an important thing to be thinking about as we go into ending the public-health emergency because certainly people who have been relying on Medicaid, once the continuous eligibility provisions go away, we're going to see a rise in the number of uninsured. . . Whether that's going to be more dramatic in rural or urban places, I don't think we know. . . . But, I'm certainly concerned for people in rural America who are struggling with the cost of inflation and then facing the prospect of losing health insurance benefits."

Underfoot, often forgottten and certainly under-appreciated, this creature is giving a lot back to humans and nature

Aging compost feeds worms. (Photo by Adam Riding, NYT)
A Rural Blog riddle: What's unsung, part of climate-change solutions, is studied by oligochaetologists, good at fishing and  arguably the world's best plow? Worms.

Lowly worms are helping southwest Arizona citizens, who live on drought-plagued land, find ways to grow and bloom their open spaces with less water. "Janis Norton turned her backyard from bare-bones, dead-ground scratch into a lush mix of garden and orchard," reports Brett Anderson of The New York Times. "A primary goal of gardeners like Norton is to naturally rejuvenate soil degraded by synthetic fertilizers and neglect. . . . Zach Brooks started the Arizona Worm Farm to help. Brooks told Anderson, "You use much less water if you have healthy, microbially active soil. . . . . Worms are a big part of that."

Brooks has put his worms to work. Anderson explains: "He uses donated waste to breed worms that help create compost for home gardeners and the farm itself. . . . The aging compost is made from layers of garden scraps, food waste and manure." Brooks described the process to him as "Turning garbage into food. . . . When you think of our compost, think of a giant lasagna."

The Arizona Worm Farm itself is a dynamic testimony to the hard-plowing worm. "Brooks bought the farm's 10 acres in 2014. . . .The site is a former cotton field that had been heavily treated with herbicide," Anderson reports. "Nearly halfway into a 10-year plan to establish a fully sustainable, off-the-grid farm, Brooks sees his project as proof of how quickly damaged land can be restored using natural methods. It includes gardens and a food forest, a dense collection of plants that support one another, comprising mostly fruits and vegetables. Together, they provide produce for a small farm store and meals for his 20 employees."

Photo via Santa Barbara Independent
The gifts of worms seem endless. "The composting keeps food waste from rotting in landfills, where it generates methane, a gas more environmentally damaging than carbon dioxide," Anderson writes. "About five miles to the north, Nika Forte uses compost donated by the worm farm to grow crops in an old parking lot next to a highway. . . . The farm provides produce for food pantries and an adjacent cafeteria, which serves free meals to families."

What else are worms up to? Cleaning polluted water. "Many farms, especially dairy farms, struggle with how to dispose of polluted wastewater. The hundreds of millions of gallons of water farms use gets contaminated with animal waste, artificial fertilizers, and harmful chemicals, which frequently percolate down to the groundwater that people could one day drink," reports Dennis Allen for the Santa Barbara Independent. "Some regenerative ag operations are finding a nifty solution to this problem. They are discovering that earthworms, those ubiquitous dirt-eaters, are also able to clean water. . . . . Only recently has it been found that they can also cleanse wastewater."

Who knew? "Vermifiltrated water is highly nutritive, pathogen-free, and scrubbed of chemicals, qualifying it for use on crop fields. The key to this low-cost, efficient, and odor-free process is the earthworm," Allen expounds. "These workers live, on average, six years, have numerous offspring, and each one produces about 10 pounds of castings per year, a nutritious and valuable soil amendment. This vermicompost can produce an additional income stream for farmers or can be used on their own crops."

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Winner of award for community journalism reminds us why we need it; he revealed hunger in an affluent region

Brian PJ Cronin (Photo by Beth Cronin, via Flagpole magazine)
Brian PJ Cronin is this year's recipient of the Rollin M. "Pete" McCommons Award for Distinguished Community Journalism from the University of Georgia's Grady School of Journalism and Mass Communications. He won "for his four-part series on food insecurity in the affluent New York state area covered by his paper, The Highlands Current, and entitled Hunger in the Highlands," reports Pete McCommons for Flagpole magazine in Athens, Ga. The award, affectionately dubbed "the Petebody," a la the university's Peabody Awards, was established in 2018 to celebrate the relationships and community efficacy good local journalism can create.
 
This Adobe Stock photo ran with each story in the series.
"We were impressed by the depth and richness of this reporting, and especially the time and resources he was given to carry out this project," Kyser Lough, the chair of the McCommons award committee, told Flagpole. "He used well-rounded sourcing to find the relevant data and people necessary to build a deeper narrative, which allowed him to thoroughly present the topic and then start exploring what people were doing about it. . . . His work highlights the need for in-depth coverage like this that can fully explore the nuance and context of a community topic and the importance of community news outlets."

In his brief acceptance speech, Cronin described his work as "a dicey gig," and  he reflected on journalists' unique bonds with fellow citizens and local businesses. "As I was told by my editor when I started writing for The Highlands Current, there is nothing quite like covering the community in which you live. One week you're walking down Main Street, and everyone is shaking your hand and thanking you for exposing government corruption, and the next week you're doing all your grocery shopping two towns away so that no one throws a punch at you in the check-out line. . . . It’s up to small, local, independent news organizations with boots on the ground and knowledge of their communities to keep their communities from crumbling. Big Tech is not going to do it for us. There may be publishers espousing the supposed benefits that A.I. will bring shrinking newsrooms and time-crunched reporters, but I can assure you, there is no chatbot that is willing to sit through a four-hour zoning board meeting. . . . Thank you for creating an award for community journalism."

The series also won the only Civic and Community Service Award that the National Newspaper Association gave last year. It won other NNA awatds, including one for a series in infrastructure.

EPA trying again on power-plant rules; here are four big questions about them. Some answers will be up to states.

Photo by Brendan O'Donnell, Unsplash
The third time maybe the charm for the Environmental Protection Agency to put controls on greenhouse gases from power plants that burn coal and gas. "It's something EPA has tried and failed to do twice before," reports Jean Chemnic of Energy & Environment News. "Both times, the courts threw the rules out . . . . . once for trying to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy and once for not doing enough to confront climate change." Given the topsy-turvy landscape, Chemnic outlines four questions and some answers about what the EPA rules can do and what they may mean for energy companies.

Will coal-fired plants be forced to close? "Maybe. But only incidentally. There's a consensus among legal experts that the Clean Air Act doesn't allow EPA to set a date certain by which U.S. coal generation will cease to exist. . . . The Supreme Court made it plain in its decision last year in West Virginia v. EPA that the agency can only require power plants to use emissions controls that they can employ themselves. In other words, a coal plant must be able to comply with the rules while remaining a coal plant. EPA can't regulate by cutting coal's market share in favor of cleaner fuels — like gas, nuclear or renewables."

Will the rules require gas plants to capture their carbon emissions, too? "Yes — if they're big and run most of the time. The question is what EPA will propose for gas plants that run part-time and ramp up and down to provide the grid with power at times of peak demand. . . . Utilities have argued that these so-called peaker plants play a vital role in maintaining grid reliability. . . . EPA has signaled that it will treat those units 'differently' to keep more of them online. . . . Some environmental justice advocates have expressed dismay that EPA may let dirty plants comply with its rules more easily. But some clean energy experts say peaker units remain useful."

Can power companies and state regulators skip carbon capturing? "Yes. . . . It falls to states to decide how to implement the standards for existing power plants. And the Supreme Court's prohibition against federally mandated fuel switching doesn't necessarily apply to the states, environmentalists say. Julie McNamara, a deputy policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Chemic, "There's a much wider array of options available to states, and one of those is clean energy resources." Chemnic notes, "States may be able to use existing cap-and-trade programs to meet the rules' requirements. Utilities could then comply with the rule by purchasing credits from another plant that exceeded its required carbon reductions."

Since the EPA already requires new coal plants to use carbon capture, what impact will the new rules have? "A 2015 standard requires new coal plants to capture approximately 40 percent of their carbon. . . . Environmental groups have urged EPA to require new gas plants and existing coal and gas plants to capture and store most of their emissions. . . . Environmental attorneys say there isn't a statutory requirement that prevents EPA from setting stricter rules for existing plants than for new ones." Jay Duffy, litigation director for Clean Air Task Force, told Chemnic, "EPA is required to consider costs, and the costs of retrofitting a plant can be more expensive than for building the pollution control into the new plant — so sometimes the dynamic is such that limits for new plants are tighter than for existing."

To be healthy, teens need media literacy training; it's like 'learning to drive a car and should be a team effort'

Photo by Georgijevic, Getty Images via NBC News
Parents of youth have a lot of mental check-lists: Eighth-grade graduation? Check. Register for next-year's classes? Check. Media literacy training? Uh? What? For many parents, that might be a new one. The American Psychological Association released a set of 10 recommendations for adolescents' use of social media, "including training them in media literacy and limiting screen time so it does not interfere with sleep or physical activity," reports Kalhan Rosenblatt of NBC News. "The guidelines acknowledge that teenagers are going to use social media no matter what. . . . It aims to offer suggestions for adolescents and the parents, teachers and tech companies involved in their lives."

Social media's influence on adolescent development is often discussed, but not always presented with advice that stems science. Mitch Prinstein, a co-chair of the advisory panel that developed the recommendations, told Rosenblatt. "We are releasing this report now to offer a science-based and balanced perspective on this issue so all stakeholders can make decisions based on our expertise regarding benefits and potential risks associated with social media." Rosenblatt reports, "Prinstein compared teens' social media use to driving a car, in that keeping adolescents safe should be a team effort that includes policymaking, parental supervision and changes from the companies that make the products."

Here's an edited list of the APA's recommendations:

  • Youth using social media should be encouraged to use functions that create opportunities for social support, online companionship, and emotional intimacy that can promote healthy socialization.
  • Social media use, functionality, and permissions/consenting should be tailored to youths' developmental capabilities; designs created for adults may not be appropriate for children.
  • In early adolescence (i.e., typically 10–14 years), adult monitoring (i.e., ongoing review, discussion, and coaching around social media content) is advised for most youths' social media use. . . . Monitoring should be balanced with youths' appropriate needs for privacy.
  • To reduce the risks of psychological harm, adolescents' exposure to content on social media that depicts illegal or psychologically maladaptive behavior, including content that instructs or encourages youth to engage in health-risk behaviors, such as self-harm (e.g., cutting, suicide), harm to others, or those that encourage eating-disordered behavior (e.g., restrictive eating, purging, excessive exercise) should be minimized, reported, and removed.
  • To minimize psychological harm, adolescents' exposure to "cyberhate," including online discrimination, prejudice, hate, or cyberbullying especially directed toward a marginalized group (e.g., racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, religious, ability status),22 or an individual because of their identity or allyship with a marginalized group should be minimized.
  • Adolescents should be routinely screened for signs of "problematic social media use" that can impair their ability to engage in daily roles and routines and may present a risk for more serious psychological harm over time.
  • The use of social media should be limited so as to not interfere with adolescents' sleep and physical activity.
  • Adolescents should limit the use of social media for social comparison, particularly around beauty- or appearance-related content.
  • Adolescents' social media use should be preceded by training in social media literacy to ensure that users have developed psychologically-informed competencies and skills that will maximize the chances for balanced, safe, and meaningful social media use.
  • Substantial resources should be provided for continued scientific examination of the positive and negative effects of social media on adolescent development.

Quick hits: Woolly mammoth found in Iowa; rural firefighters get a movie; check out agrivoltaics; Friday's civic games

Audience members at lasts year's Wisconsin Civics Games State
Championship at the State Capitol. (Photo by Julia Hunter, WNA)
The finals are tomorrow! Students from 13 high schools across the Dairy State will compete in the Wisconsin Civics Games state finals.. "Fifteen teams, each comprising up to four students, will face off in head-to-head matchups, answering questions about the state budget, local elections, legislative term limits, quorums, freedom of the press and other civics-related issues," reports Julia Hunter of, whose foundation sponsors the games/ "Each member of the winning team will receive a $2,000 scholarship to a Wisconsin college or university. . . .The games will be broadcast on WisconsinEye, and are expected to begin around 9 a.m. and conclude at approximately 3 p.m. . . . The WNA Foundation launched the Wisconsin Civics Games in 2018 in response to declining civics education and participation."
"Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat" is a new documentary about rural firefighters. "While the population is increasing, the number of volunteer firefighters is dwindling rapidly," reports Joelle Orem of The Scoop. "John Deere and the National Volunteer Fire Council recognize the deficit and have partnered to educate and recruit volunteer firefighters to the call through the film. . . . The idea for the film came from the rich heritage of community partnership. . . . Farmers and firefighters often work hand in hand to respond to emergency calls for service during snow and thunderstorms. Visit oddhoursfilm.com to watch the teaser."
Older trees absorb and store carbon, but carbon isn't the only concern with older forests. "More than 60 percent of the trees managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management make up mature or old-growth forest. . . . A first-of-its-kind census shows that the two agencies are stewards of 112.8 million acres of mature and old-growth trees," Marianne Lavelle of Inside Climate News reports. "But it remains to be seen whether those rules will lead to greater protection for mature and old-growth stands on public lands, as some environmentalists have called for, or for more logging, thinning and prescribed burning by the Forest Service to control wildfire, disease and other climate-related threats."
Does green energy always have to compete with land needs? Maybe not. Some Wisconsin researchers are looking at ways for the two have a more symbiotic relationship. "'Agrivoltaics,' the use of land for both agriculture and solar power, was at the center of a panel with a regulator and researchers recently hosted by the University of Wisconsin," reports Joe Schulz of Wisconsin Public Radio. . . . "The panel explored potential trade-offs between renewable energy and agriculture."
Summertime can be glorious, but it can also be time to find a summer job. For rural young adults, there are quite a few options out there, reports Money magazine. "It’s helpful to start with a simple job so you can earn money and gain experience just from the added responsibility. . . . Instead of looking for available jobs, you can create your own. Offering yard work services is a great way to make your opportunities and serve your community." People with pets may be vacationing away from home and farm. If your familiar with rural animal or pet care, this could be a flexible, fun money maker.
The woolly mammoth was an adult male in its mid 40s, 6-7 tons in weight, and
13 to 14 feet tall at the shoulder. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, University of Michigan)
Not every day do you find a 15,000-year-old animal skeleton in Iowa. "Of all the tiny spots in a sea of soybeans, Jim Bristle and Trent Satterthwaite hit the honey hole," reports Chris Bennett of Farm Journal. "When the pair of Midwest farmers dropped a backhoe bucket 8' below mature beans and felt the machinery groan and shift, they struck a massive, prehistoric beast hidden in blue clay and released the creature from a 15,000-year sleep. . . . Farmland is the vault of the unseen, and Bristle and Satterthwaite made one of the most unlikely scientific discoveries of the 21st century—a woolly mammoth skeleton alongside three telltale boulders."
Rebecca the alpaca and her "fiber."
(H.L. Barnes, Successful Farming)
Experimental, whimsical, classic---domestically sourced fashion-fiber can be fabulous and expensive. "According to the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences, Americans spend more than 250 million dollars on fashion and accessories every year," reports Heather Lifsey Barnes of Successful Farming. "With the demand for local fiber growing, agriculture is positioned to partner with these influencers and connect them with how fiber is grown and raised." To give educators industry know-how, some North Caroline high and middle school teachers "Toured an alpaca farm, which gave teachers a hands-on look at the fiber growing on its source. At Venezia Dream Farm, owner Star Cash raises alpaca for their fiber. . . .Cash went to school to learn how to grade the fibers."

EPA spending $177 million to help communities advance environmental justice through help with grants, organizing

Environmental Protection Agency map shows regions
for EPA's new environmenal justice program.
The Environmental Protection Agency is spending $177 million to advance local environmental justice through a new program, the Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Center. The money is being distributed through 17 regional centers that will get at least $10 million each.

"These centers will provide training and other assistance to build capacity for navigating federal grant application systems, writing strong grant proposals, and effectively managing grant funding," EPA says. "In addition, these centers will provide guidance on community engagement, meeting facilitation, and translation and interpretation services for limited English-speaking participants, thus removing barriers and improving accessibility for communities with environmental justice concerns."

The initative aims to "enhance leadership and organizational capabilities among individuals and communities, foster community decision-making and cooperative ventures, facilitate connections, and furnish research and information that strengthens community and economic development," says the University of Kentucky, one of eight universities that are part of the Southeast center, run by the nonprofit research institute Research Triangle International.

“Many communities in need tend to be places where there's a higher ratio of minority populations as well as higher levels of poverty,” said UK agricultural economics professor Alison Davis, executive director of the Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky, which will lead Kentucky’s involvement in the program.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Education and online therapy are tools to help prevent farmer suicide, and farmers respond to it well, study shows

Natural Resouces Conservation Service photo via Successful Farming
Unpredictable weather, crop diseases, financial problems, and isolation: America's farmers have pressures that can lead to mental-health stress and suicide. And while there is no "silver bullet," community and farmer education, plus online therapy, may help head off that devastating choice, reports Courtney Love of Successful Farming: "The high rate of farmer suicide means that many rural communities have a mental crisis on their hands, says Jeff Winton, a rural upstate New York dairy farmer and founder of Rural Minds, a non-profit mental health organization. Winton, who recently lost his nephew to suicide, says the loss was unexpected as he and his nephew worked together on Winton's dairy farm. . . . Farming communities should not only learn when someone needs to talk but also know their resources to guide those needing support."

While many farmers share similar stressors, each handles problems their own way, so it's hard to predict which can lead to the saddest of outcomes. "Winton believes that farmers should be more open about depression, mental health, offer a listening ear, or help a struggling farmer connect with a mental-health professional," Love writes. "Compared to urban areas, most rural areas that offer mental health services lack a choice in providers, says the National Institute of Mental Health. The limited number of resources strengthens the stigma that marks mental health in rural communities, and people can often feel ashamed to seek the help they need, says Winton."

Researcher Rebecca Purc-Stephenson of the University of Alberta "found that farmers often denounce therapy as a waste of time," Love reports. "Cynthia Beck, a psychology professor at the University of Regina in Canada [and a beef farmer], disagrees. . . . Beck recently finished a clinical study asking if agricultural producers would engage in online therapy. Around 30 Canadian farmers participated in a five-lesson eight-week course with do-it-yourself guides and an option to access a therapist via email or telephone. Beck hypothesized that 25% of the 30 farmers would drop out of the course. . . . To her surprise, her study saw that farmers had an 82% completion rate compared to the general population in the clinical research study, which had a 31% dropout rate."

Beck told Love, "Producers told us they felt like they were speaking with a peer or friends because they felt the program completely understood them. . . . One participant said engaging in the course gave them more confidence and improved their overall view of help-seeking." Love reports, "Beck also found that farmers were interested in course materials. About 90% of the farmers download all 20 guides from the course, says Beck. Farmers also said they wanted more time with the course's therapist. . . . . Beck says the study proved that online therapy is a usable psychological intervention tool for farmers. Farmers expressed the course was worth their time and helped them feel less anxious and depressed."

For Beck's study, "The only limitation was broadband access," Love reports. "One farmer reported that he finished the course from the seat of his combine on his smartphone." The help site itself was easy to use. Beck told Love, "This farmer told us, 'There was a next button, a previous button, and a skip button. . . . If you can auto steer a tractor, then I am sure you could run the site.'"

Farm tractors keep evolving; Popular Science story uses example of Deere, which started with a broken saw blade

Deere & Co. photo via Popular Science

What's better than knowing rich, famous people? Having friends with tractors! At least that's what the Rodney Adkins' song says, and anyone with a modern tractor owns an extraordinary piece of equipment. "Buzzwords like autonomy, artificial intelligence, electrification, and carbon fiber are common in the automotive industry," reports Kristin Shaw of Popular Science magazine. "What might surprise you is just how much 180-year-old agriculture equipment giant John Deere uses these same technologies. The difference is that they're using them on 15-ton farm vehicles."

John Deere, founder Deere & Co., started as a blacksmith in rural Illinois. "He heard complaints from farmer clients about the commonly used cast-iron plows of the day. Sticky soil clung to the iron plows, resulting in a substantial loss in efficiency every time a farmer had to stop and scrape the equipment clean, which could be every few feet," Shaw explains. "Deere was inspired . . . grabbed a broken saw blade to create the first commercially successful, 'self-scouring' steel plow in 1837. . . . The shiny, polished surface of the steel worked beautifully to cut through the dirt much more quickly, with fewer interruptions, and Deere pivoted to a new business."

The internal combustion engine led to tractors, and information technology has changed them. "A couple of years ago, John Deere's chief technology officer Jahmy Hindman told The Verge that the company now employs more software engineers than mechanical engineers." Hindman told Shaw: "Modern farms are very different from the farms of 10 years ago, 20 years ago, and 30 years ago. There are farms that are readily adopting technology that makes agriculture more efficient, more sustainable, and more profitable for growers. And they're using high-end technology: computer vision, machine learning, [satellite] guidance, automation, and autonomy."

Farmers have long gathered data to help them plan for success. From almanacs and journals passed through generations to digital intellectual property, "John Deere, along with competitors like Caterpillar and Mahindra, are in the business of helping farms collect and analyze data with software tied to its farm equipment," Shaw reports. "With the uptake of technology, farming communities in the U.S. are finding ways to make their products more efficient. John Deere has promised to deliver 20 or more electric and hybrid-electric construction equipment models by 2026."

The company that started with a broken saw blade is "pursuing all-electric equipment and has set ambitious emissions reduction targets," Shaw adds. "Yet, John Deere is not bullishly pushing into EV and autonomous territory. It still offers lower-tech options for farmers who aren't ready to go down that path. . . . Farm equipment can last for many years, and tossing new technology into an uninterested or unwilling operation is not the best route to adoption." Hindman told Shaw. "If it doesn't deliver value to the farm, it's not really useful to the farmer."

Gay rodeos in Texas include gay and straight competitors and are a somewhat confidential comfort in polarized times

The calf-roping competitors pose for a portrait.
(Photo by Dawn Bottoms, The New Yorker)
Gay rodeos in Texas offer marginalized groups a place for competition and open-minded hospitality. "The urban-rural divide is as politically polarized as it's ever been; fans of gay rodeo have come to appreciate it as a place where rural signifiers—big hats, big trucks, George Strait songs—have a different valence," reports Rachel Monroe for The New Yorker from the Texas Tradition Rodeo in Denton: "The parking lot slowly filled with trucks bearing bumper stickers that said things like 'Been doing cowboy &$#! all day.' A tractor circled the arena, raking the dirt. . . . After everyone stood for the national anthem, an announcer came over the crackly PA system and offered a prayer, asking God to bless that day's competitors, 'the cowboys, cowgirls, and those in between.'"

Mac McMillan, who has been involved with the Texas Gay Rodeo Association for decades, told Monroe, "It started as a social club, and then AIDS came along. . . We did this to raise money, to take care of people. The medications were astronomically expensive, plus food, housing. We had to do what we had to do." Monroe reports, "Mac grew up in rural Texas. He realized at a young age that he was attracted to men, but he didn't see a way to reconcile his sexuality with the country lifestyle he preferred. . . . For Mac, the gay-rodeo world was a revelation. The scene was vibrant and defiant, a place he could feel fully himself. Daytimes were devoted to competition, and in the evening, everyone would gather for some sort of entertainment. . . . At the 1982, Joan Rivers served as grand marshal, ten thousand people packed the stands."

In Texas, political sentiment toward differences in sexual identity can be tense. "Conservative politicians in the state have increasingly turned their attention to controlling the public expression of gender and sexuality," Shaw writes. "This year, the state legislature is considering bills that would prohibit gender-affirming care for trans youth, impose fines on establishments that host 'sexually oriented' drag performances when children are present, and ban classroom teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity. . . . Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the Denton rodeo had a clandestine air. . . . . Nearly everyone I spoke with in Denton had no idea that the rodeo was happening, or even that there was such a thing as a gay rodeo. . . . Partly a response to the unsettling political atmosphere in Texas, where drag events regularly meet with belligerent protesters."

The rodeo is open to all walks of life. "Wade Earp, a longtime TGRA participant (and a direct descendant of Wyatt Earp's brother Virgil), said that he's been happy to see the growing number of allies who come to gay rodeos as participants and spectators," Shaw adds. "In part, that's due to Wade's recruitment efforts. . . . A few years ago, he met some straight female bull riders at the Fort Worth stockyards, who told him, 'The men won't let us ride,' and Wade responded by saying, 'Come to the gay rodeo!'. . . . A half-dozen showed up at the next event, and soon they started bringing friends."

Shampoos, cleaners, and mothballs all have volatile organic compounds; study sees need for 'national action' for safety

Photo by Crystal de Passill√©-Chabot, Unsplash 
Shouldn't a cleaner be clean? There may be no simple answer to that question. "Consumer products released more than 5,000 tons of chemicals in 2020 inside California homes and workplaces that are known to cause cancer, adversely affect sexual function and fertility in adults or harm developing fetuses, according to our newly published study," report Robin Dodson, Megan R. Schwarzman and Ruthann Ridel for The Conversation, a platform for journalism by academics. "We found that many household products like shampoos, body lotions, cleaners and mothballs release toxic volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, into indoor air. In addition, we identified toxic VOCs that are prevalent in products heavily used by workers on the job, such as cleaning fluids, adhesives, paint removers and nail polish. However, gaps in laws that govern ingredient disclosure mean that neither consumers nor workers generally know what is in the products they use."

If most humans don't know these details, how did your study get the data? The study writers explain: "We analyzed data from the California Air Resources Board, which tracks VOCs released from consumer products to reduce smog. The agency periodically surveys companies that sell products in California, collecting information on concentrations of VOCs used in everything from hair spray to windshield wiper fluid. . . . We cross-referenced the most recent data with a list of chemicals identified as carcinogens or reproductive/developmental toxicants under California's right-to-know law Proposition 65. . . . We found 33 toxic VOCs present in consumer products. Over 100 consumer products covered by the CARB contain VOCs."

Does this study matter to people who don't live in California? Yes, the products are common across the country. Study authors report, "Our study identifies consumer products containing carcinogens and reproductive and developmental toxicants that are widely used at home and in the workplace. . . . For example, janitors might use a combination of general cleaners, degreasers, detergents and other maintenance products. . . .Our findings could help state and federal agencies strengthen chemical regulations. We identified five chemicals – cumene, 1,3-dichloropropene, diethanolamine, ethylene oxide and styrene – as high-priority targets for risk evaluation and management under the Toxic Substances Control Act by the Environmental Protection Agency."

Who is most at risk? Women. They report, "Studies have shown that women generally use more cosmetic, personal care and cleaning products than men, so they are likely to be more highly exposed to harmful chemicals. . . . Further, women working in settings like nail salons may be exposed to products used both personally and professionally. . . . Research by members of our team has also shown that product use varies by race and ethnicity, partly due to racialized beauty standards. Policy interventions could be tailored to prioritize these potentially more highly exposed groups. . . . We believe our new analysis points to the need for national action that ensures consumers and workers alike have safer products."

Tuesday, May 09, 2023

Would you want to be an election worker? As campaign season opens, states attempt to address safety and staffing

Election workers inspect ballots for machine readability.
(Photo by Dan Pelle, The Spokesman-Review)
No one should face death threats for doing their job, but over the past four years, that's what many U.S. election officials have suffered, and now states are working to address the problem while facing a shortage of election workers. "After the 2020 U.S. presidential election, election officials faced unprecedented threats to their safety and security," reports Saige Draiger for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Since 2020, state policymakers from both parties have confronted the harassment of election workers, including threats of violence, from a variety of angles, including by revising existing statutes and passing stand-alone protections. . . . . Now, after years of attacks, the profession is facing a new challenge: the loss of seasoned election administrators ahead of the 2024 general election."

In 2016, election jobs were described as "boring but important work." Now it can still be tedious, but has the added stress of being possibly dangerous. "A 2022 nationwide survey of local election officials showed that nearly a quarter of them experienced threats of violence, harassment or other instances of abuse as the result of their work," Draiger writes. "A separate survey of local election officials conducted in early 2023 estimates that nearly 1 in 5 officials serving in 2024 will be new in their role." U.S. Election Assistance Commission member Donald Palmer, told Draiger: "With the increased negative environment, election administrators are retiring early or leaving the profession, and the election community loses the core of its qualified and experienced officials. . . . The election official departures are an acute state public-service problem."

For the 2024 election cycle, states governments have four huge tasks: making election jobs as safe as possible, shoring up staff shortages, supporting experienced staff, and finding ways to cover increased costs. Neal Kelley, a retired registrar who chairs the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections, told Draiger, "Although 2022 was generally positive, the embers of 2020 continue to smolder, and there is evidence to show that threats against public officials are a problem that is not slowing down. . . . While CSSE does not take positions on specific legislation, our committee has worked with members of state legislatures nationwide to focus efforts on protecting election officials' privacy, increasing penalties for threats, enhancing physical security and finding creative ways to increase funding."

States have several options to protect workers, including "updating who is covered by state address-confidentiality programs, which shield from public access the voter-registration information of people at risk of harm because of who they are or what they do for work," Draiger reports. "States are also revising their statutes to criminalize threats against election workers. In 2021, Arizona and Kansas made it illegal to impersonate an election official. Washington enhanced criminal penalties for harassment of election workers, placing them in the same protected category as judicial workers. . . . Colorado and Maine went further, enacting laws with additional fixtures."

Election Assistance Commissioner Ben Hovland told Draiger, "This is not just a swing-state issue or a red-state, blue-state issue. Unfortunately, election officials all over the country have received threats and harassment against themselves, their families and their children. Protecting election officials is critical to the functioning of our democracy. State and local officials must feel safe doing their work, and state legislators can take significant steps to help."

As wind and solar projects are proposed in more populated rural areas, they hit more opposition; Kansas is an example

Wind turbines dot the landscape in Waverly, Kansas. (Photo by Dominick Williams, The Wall Street Journal)

Many people like the idea of green energy, but as the federal government's high-dollar push on wind and solar ekes closer to neighborhoods, some residents are saying, "No," or "Not on my land," or even "Over my dead body," reports Jennifer Hiller of The Wall Street Journal. "Plenty of Kansans do want to host projects—wind is already the biggest source of electricity in the state [but] many Kansans are girding for a long fight."

Douglas County (Wikipedia map)
Gerry Coffman lives in Douglas County, a rural community about an hour from Kansas City. She is one resident who said "No." Hiller writes, "She turned down a wind lease last year on a farm that has been in her family since 1866. Someone knocked on her door a few months later, paperwork in hand, and offered $6,000 to hang a wind-power transmission line across her land. If she agreed to store construction equipment, she stood to make an additional $4,000. . . . Coffman doesn't want to see the native forest or prairie disturbed and thinks the industrial nature of towering wind turbines would change the community for the worse if a proposed project were built."

Community debates often turn sour. Hiller reports, "Coffman has attended a series of contentious public meetings over several months as the county considers revising regulations for wind-energy development. . . . County-by-county battles are raging as wind and solar projects balloon in size, edge closer to cities and encounter mounting pushback in communities. . . . Even in states with a long history of building renewables, developers don't know if they can get local permits or how long it might take." Coffman told Hiller, "A year ago we were a nice, quiet neighborhood."

Kansas is among several states where citizens in more populated areas have opted to block or restrict some green-energy builds. Hiller explains, "In Kansas, wind power grew rapidly for two decades . . . ranking it third in the nation. But at least five counties in more-populous eastern Kansas have recently placed moratoriums or bans on new wind or solar projects, joining 18 others that already restricted wind development to preserve the tallgrass prairie ecosystem. . . . In Iowa, a 2022 study of wind ordinances found that 16 of 99 counties had prohibitive rules or a ban against new projects, most of them approved in the previous four years. . . . Developers won't even consider projects on around half to three-quarters of land with good wind resources, according to a study by the nonprofit research firm ClearPath and consulting group LucidCatalyst."

Despite demand, private investment dollars, and the federal government's expected $3 trillion green-energy investment, "U.S. clean power installations dipped 16% last year and 12% over 2020, according to the American Clean Power Association. It was the worst year for land-based wind installations since 2018," Hiller reports. "Economies of scale have pushed solar and wind farm size to hundreds or thousands of acres. . . . . In Michigan, a typical solar project once covered 60 acres but now would take up 1,200, said Sarah Mills, a senior project manager at the University of Michigan's Graham Sustainability Institute. Mills said they may need to get smaller—and more expensive—to be more socially acceptable. Mills told Hiller, "What you're asking our rural community to host is way more than our fair share."

Laurie Shuck, another Douglas County resident, "recently purchased a stack of 'no trespassing' signs to post around her fences to try to keep out representatives offering wind leases," Hiller reports. "One late afternoon as light faded at her farm, the moon rose in the east and a flock of geese honked overhead. She paused to watch. Shuck said she and her brother would lease land for wind projects, 'over our dead bodies. . . . I was here first.'"

Spunky N.C. weekly, created from merger of two failing papers in 2018, is sold to North State Media Group

An award-winning North Carolina weekly newspaper has been sold to an expanding media group in the state The Chatham News + Record, which has won more awards from the North Carolina Press Association over the last three years than any other paper its size, is now owned by North State Media, based in Raleigh. So reports Buck Ryan of the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media, who has done particpatory case study of the newspaper, created by the purchase of two money-losing papers in 2018. In the latest installment, Ryan reports:

  

Bill Horner III

Melanie Sill, a Pulitzer-winning journalist and founding executive director of the NCLocal News Workshop at the Elon University School of Communications, said “My friend and fellow journalist Bill Horner III has done a heck of a job in the past few years transforming the Chatham News + Record into what in many ways is a model for a community paper in 2023, with a lively, people-rich and news-packed approach online and in print.”

 

North State Media’s flagship is the North State Journal, which it calls “North Carolina’s only statewide newspaper,” claiming reach across all 100 counties in the state through its print edition and its website, nsjonline.comSill, a former executive editor of The News & Observer in Raleigh, described the Journal as having “a mix of news and opinion that both tilt to the right, and a pretty strong point of view.”


In the News + Record’s story, Neal Robbins, North State Media’s president and the publisher of the North State Journal, said “We are excited to add the Chatham News + Record to the North State Journal family. We believe the long-term viability of North Carolina’s independent press lies in local ownership and strategic business planning. This acquisition furthers our goal to elevate the conversation across North Carolina while ensuring local communities are part of that conversation.”

 

Chatham County is the Raleigh-Durham metropolitan area.
Chatham County, which is in the central Piedmont region of the state, will be the sixth county with coverage by the media company. Two are adjacent to Chatham: Moore to the south and Randolph to the west. The other three counties are Forsyth (couty seat Winston-Salem), Hoke (Raeford) and Stanly (Albemarle).

“We’ve built an audience. We’ve had a lot of fun and we've worked hard,” Horner said in a Facebook post. “Our weekly ‘chat’ features have given readers direct access to the county’s leading civic, nonprofit, business and government voices. Our in-depth coverage of Chatham’s municipalities, the county government and Chatham County Schools has helped make residents there aware of critical issues, and our elections coverage has introduced people in Chatham County to issues and candidates and made them better-informed voters.

 

Horner and his partners, real estate developer Kirk Bradley and construction company executive Chris Ehrenfeld, purchased The News and The Record, two money-losing, family-owned papers, in 2018. Horner, a third-generation newspaper publisher in North Carolina, came out of retirement to continue a publishing tradition in Chatham County dating to 1878.


Horner said March was the paper’s most profitable month of the year, though bridging a $100,000 annual revenue gap remained a challenge. “It all comes down to reader engagement,” he described the challenge of finding the sweet spot in his politically divided county with a 50-50 split of Democrats and Republicans. 

 

“We weren’t always popular,” Horner said in the Facebook post looking back on his tenure. “A single-copy seller kicked us out of his stores because he didn’t like our coverage of Chatham’s Black and Brown community. Our reporters have been harassed and slandered. We’ve been accused of being ‘woke’; in reality the better word is: aware. But nearly everywhere I went, I would hear the same refrain over and over from subscribers: Thanks for giving us such a great newspaper.”