Friday, June 09, 2023

National Summit on Journalism in Rural America, set for July 7, is still adding presenters; hotel deadline is June 23

How do rural communities sustain local journalism that supports democracy?

That is the central question of the third National Summit on Journalism in Rural America, to be held July 7 in Lexington, Ky., and online. Registration is required, but is free, at this link

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues (publisher of The Rural Blog) is still adding presenters, such as Debra Tobin, owner and editor of the Logan-Hocking Times in southeast Ohio, which has a business model that may be unique: an online startup that added a free weekly print edition to serve residents of rural Hocking County who aren't online.

A wide range of news-industry professionals, academic researchers and instructors, journalism funders, and community developers who realize that communities need local journalism are on the program, which includes:
  • A discussion of journalism innovation and alternative revenue, by Jack Rooney, managing editor for audience development of The Keene Sentinel, a small daily in New Hampshire, and David Woronoff, publisher of The Pilot, a twice-weekly in Southern Pines, N.C.;
  • The latest figures on news deserts and ghost newspapers, with a rural angle, from Zachary Metzger, a researcher at the Medill School at Northwestern University;
  • Presentation of research about community engagement and an experiment in new business models for local journalism by Nick Mathews of the University of Missouri;
  • A publisher's perspective on that ongoing experiment in engagement and new business models, from Joey Young of Kansas Publishing Ventures in Hillsboro, Kan.;
  • A discussion of how to use citizens as news correspondents, including Lynne Campbell of the Community News Brief in Macomb, Ill., and Lindsey Young of KPV, developer of the training program "Earn Your Press Pass;"
  • A discussion of philanthropy for rural journalism, led by Duc Luu of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation;
  • The latest on advocacy of government policies at the state level to help sustain local journalism, from Anna Brugmann of the Rebuild Local News Coalition;
  • A presentation on community building and engagement from the Community Strategies Group of The Aspen Institute;
  • What it's like to stop printing a newspaper and move it to Facebook, from two award-winning rural publishers who felt they had to do that: Laurie Brown of The Canadian Record in Texas and Ryan Craig of the Todd County Standard in Kentucky;
  • A discussion of how university journalism programs can fill gaps in local news coverage, led by Richard Watts of the Center for Community News at the University of Vermont;
  • A presentation from Melissa Cassutt of the Solutions Journalism Network and one of its partners, Casper Star-Tribune government reporter Mary Steurer; 
  • Reports on rural start-ups, including Jennifer P. Brown of the Hoptown Chronicle in Hopkinsville, Ky., and Nicole DeCriscio Bowe, who has local foundation support for her start-up in Spencer, Ind.;
  • A discussion of broader rural news coverage, from The Daily Yonder and Alana Rocha of the Institute for Nonprofit News's Rural News Network;
  • Other presenters, to be announced, and a concluding roundtable.
The Summit will be held at The Campbell House Curio hotel on US 68 in Lexington, the same highway that took attendees to the second Summit last June, but this time much closer to Blue Grass Airport. A limited block of rooms is available at $139 per night, through June 23. For registration and hotel information, click here.

Across the board, the weather is too dry, too wet, or just right; El Niño is officially here but has had little impact so far

The Drought Monitor is maintained by the University of Nebraska.

The U.S. continues to experience a roller coaster of weather conditions.

In the Midwest, corn and soybean crops are showing signs of stress. "Last week, 34% of the U.S. corn crop was covered in drought, and this week it jumped to 45%. The second crop conditions ratings of the season from Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service confirmed dryness is starting to deteriorate crop conditions. . . . USDA and the National Drought Mitigation Center indicate 39% of the U.S. soybean crop is also in drought, which is an 11-point jump in a week's time," reports Tyne Morgan of Farm Journal. "The latest U.S. Drought Monitor shows 54% of the continental U.S. is experiencing D0-D4, which is exceptionally dry to exceptional drought conditions."

What's good for the Plains has mixed outcomes for cotton planters in Texas. "The Plains [have been] hammered by consecutive years of drought. . . . Heavy rains led to widespread improvements to the ongoing drought in the western Great Plains. Rains also helped improve drought conditions in the southwest Florida Panhandle," Morgan explains. "While the wet weather is hampering cotton planting in Texas, the rains are helping cotton that's already in the ground. USDA-NASS says over half of the U.S. cotton crop is rated good to excellent, the best start to the crop in at least the past five years."

The West managed to overcome a lot of anticipated "big melt" disasters. "Officials painted a more optimistic picture of the potential for flooding from the record snowpack in the southern Sierra Nevada. Even as the once-dry Tulare Lake expands — expected to swell to more than 117,000 acres at the end of May — new modeling suggests that inundation will be less damaging than originally predicted, sparing the major towns in the lake basin," reports Diana Leonard of The Washington Post. "Officials cite two reasons for the reduced risk: luck with the weather combined with ongoing efforts to divert and manage the floodwaters. But while the worst-case scenario for what could happen as California's historic snowpack melts this spring may be averted, some risk remains, simply due to the amount of snow still remaining in the Sierra."

Beginning in June, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration officially declared the arrival of El Niño. "The declaration is based on warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean near the equator. NOAA notes it occurs every two to seven years. NOAA also says El Niño is expected to be moderate-to-strong by late fall/early winter," Morgan reports. "As farmers in Texas face a battle of planting their crops due to the sudden switch of heavy rainfall, USDA meteorologist Brad Rippey says El Niño is not to blame for the recent deluge of rain. . . . NOAA expects El Niño's influence on the U.S. to be weak during the summer but more pronounced in the late fall through spring. By winter, NOAA says there is an 84% chance of greater than a moderate strength El Niño and a 56% chance of strong El Niño developing."

To regular listeners of NPR, Wade Goodwyn needed no introduction, with his rich, deep Texas bass; he's dead at 63

Wade Goodwyn (NPR photo)
Wade Goodwyn, whose deep, rich Texas bass made him one of the most distinctive voices on the national radio landscape, died Thursday of cancer. He was 63.

"For more than 25 years, Wade reported on his home state of Texas and the southwest United States," Debbie Elliott reports for NPR, which counted Goodwyn as part of its National Desk. "A profile once described his voice like "warm butter melting over barbecued sweet corn." But Goodwyn argued that his writing is what really mattered. And he was right. If his voice pulled you in, his way with words kept you listening."

NPR CEO John Lansing said, "From the first words of one of his stories, you always knew you were being taken on a journey by a master of our craft. You were in for a true treat, whatever the subject matter." Elliott cites this line from his coverage of Hurricane Rita in 2005: "In Louisiana, you hug your NASCAR teddy bear when the big blow comes, even if you're a barrel-chested National Guardsman."

"Goodwyn was a history major at the University of Texas, a natural field of study for the son of noted historian Lawrence Goodwyn, who had been active in the civil rights movement and wrote books on grassroots populism," Elliott recounts. While working as a political organizer in New York City, Wade was "so absorbed by the voices and stories he heard" on WNYC that "decided to pursue a freelance public radio career back home in Texas (where the rents were more affordable). He started freelancing for NPR, and was assigned in 1993 to cover a high-profile story — the standoff between the federal government and cult leader David Koresh in Waco."

Elliott adds, "Wade had a bit of a cult following among listeners who loved the way only he could spin a tale, ever eager to share Texas cultural gems and bits of forgotten history and folklore like a remembrance of sharpshooter Joe Bowman, who Wade said 'was so good with a single-action revolver, he could turn an aspirin into powder at 20 yards ... could take a playing card, set it on edge, and peel it in two with a single bullet.'"

Louisiana is first state with a law that will make online public notices the ones for which newspapers will be paid

The state-by-state battle over public notices, which have become a vital source of income for newspapers, has taken a new twist. "Last week, Louisiana became the first state to pass a law that will eventually make newspaper websites the primary platform for public notice," with local governments paying for online ads but not print ads, the Public Notice Resource Center reports.

Local governments will be required to post their notices on newspaper websites in 2027, and publish in print "notices describing the subject matter and location of the online notices," PNRC reports, but those notices will be free and the online ads will be paid.

The Louisiana Press Association proposed the bill as a compromise to head off "the potential of a worse outcome later," PNRC reports. The bill replaces the "complicated pricing structure" for public notices with a system based on the number of text characters, or by "a price-per-square-inch formula for display ads and other prebuilt notices. That structure, which newspapers and their local government clients can opt to use beginning Jan. 1, 2024, is particularly well-suited to pricing online ads when the transition to digital notice takes place three years later."

LPA Executive Director Jerry Raehal said the new system may "result in a revenue decrease for LPA members but he emphasizes it was part of a compromise designed to secure the future of public notice in the state," PNRC reports. Raehal said it is “a win-win-win,” because “Local governments get some economic relief and a more transparent pricing model. Local newspapers get a path forward to retain public notices in a digital format, and a runway to prepare for the changes. And Louisiana citizens maintain easy access to government notices from a trusted source.”

The bill, which made several other changes in Louisiana's public-notice law, passed both houses unanimously and is expected to be signed by Gov. Jon Bel Edwards when it reaches his desk.

Finally-Friday quick hits: Salt-rising bread; guns become garden tools; sticky notes give hope; take home the cheese

Salt-rising bread (Photo from Garden & Gun)
The dough smells akin to gym socks, but it makes excellent toast. What is this Appalachian favorite? Salt-rising bread. After a tough week, it's good to remember from sea to shining sea toast is one of America's simplest, most versatile comfort foods. People in Maine have ideas on how to eat it. The Washington Post has recommendations on how to turn it into a meal. It even has its own song.

Nobody wants to be known for infamy -- or do they? "In the small city of LaGrange, Texas, with a population of just over 4,000 people, huge antique shows and a charitable bike ride draw many visitors every year," reports Keith Roysdon of The Daily Yonder. "But it's possible the infamous Chicken Ranch, reportedly the last brothel in Texas when it closed in 1973, generates more frank curiosity about LaGrange than more mainstream gatherings. . . . Unlike some cities and towns with a 'notorious attraction,' LaGrange leans into the history of the Chicken Ranch." It's just one example of what the Yonder calls "Tourism of Infamy."

Summer is here, and "a host of festivals are producing eclectic work — from Oregon to Appalachia. Want to embrace the summer heat? You'll find plenty of opportunities to take in theater under the stars. Looking to escape it? There are chances to catch world-premiere plays and reimagined revivals in the comforts of air conditioning," reports Thomas Floyd of The Washington Post. "So peruse our picks and consider a summertime venture to a theater near you — or perhaps a pilgrimage to one that's not."

The cheese rolls away. (Photo by Annabel Lee-Ellis, Getty via The Atlantic)
Folks across the pond in Gloucester, England, had a jolly time gathering at a farm "for the annual Cooper's Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake, continuing a tradition that dates back at least 200 years," reports Alan Taylor of The Atlantic. "Participants chase a nine-pound wheel of Double Gloucester cheese down an extremely steep and uneven hill—with no police or paramedics on site this year. The winner of the race gets to take home the cheese."

Planting a summer garden can be an intentional act of hope. The garden need not be perfect to produce veggies and joy. "Last month, we planted our garden. It's small and kind of awkward, and I'm still not sure if the spot we picked gets enough sun. Nevertheless, it's planted with hopes of big, juicy tomatoes and lush bushes of green beans," writes Betty Haynes of Prairie Farmer. "We've also spent the month planting flowers. . . . Some already look beautiful, and if I'm being honest, some have already withered away and died. Nevertheless, they're planted, and those that do thrive bring a smile to my face."

Turning guns into a garden tools is starting to catch on as one way to combat violence. "In 2016, we were introduced to a group, Raw Tools, which started this concept. It was developed by a Mennonite father and son," recalls retired Bishop Jim Curry for "The Rural We" in Rural Intelligence, a largely online publication in the Hudson River highlands. "After Sandy Hook, they started inviting people to disarm their weapons, then make them into different gardening tools using blacksmithing techniques. We started talking with police departments around Connecticut, and invited leaders in this movement to New Haven. I learned as much as I could about blacksmithing and began raising money to get the equipment and co-created Swords to Plowshares."

Maddy Barnes places notes of encouragement in the
girls' restroom. (Aurora News-Register photo)
Life can be tough, but we can help each other along the way, "Maddy Barnes, a custodian at Aurora High School, is not that many years out of high school herself, so she knows the importance of an encouraging word to teenagers," reports Ron Burtz of the Aurora News-Register. "This past school year, she has found an unconventional way to connect with the students she sees in the halls every day through notes of encouragement written on sticky notes. Her strategy has been so successful that students and staff have not only kept the notes she leaves in places like the restrooms, but have in some cases left similar messages for her and others."

Thursday, June 08, 2023

Weekly editor retires after 47 years; she never worked anywhere else, but set national examples in rural journalism

Becky Barnes talked with John Nelson, retired executive editor
of Landmark Community Newspapers, at her retirment reception.
Today is Becky Barnes Day in Cynthiana, Kentucky, by mayoral proclamation. She surely deserves a day; she has given the town and Harrison County, population 19,000, most of her life.

Barnes has worked at The Cynthiana Democrat for 47 years, most of them as editor. It's the only place she's ever worked. Today she retires. Yesterday about 50 friends gathered at the Cynthiana Christian Church with her, to salute the service she has given. "I've loved every minute of it," she told the crowd, adding later, "It's been an amazing ride."

That it has. George Jacobs, the weekly's former publisher, recalled a Saturday in 1997 when the South Fork of the Licking River flooded, and how Barnes and the staff started working Sunday to publish a extra on Tuesday and the regular weekly edition that Thursday, then two weeks later another special section about the flood and yet another one about the local high school winning the regional basketball championship.

That special-section expertise came in handy in 2020, when Harrison County had Kentucky's first case of Covid-19 and local governments financed an extra about the still-strange disease that was mailed to every postal patron in the county, and wrote a column endorsing the use of masks. That nationally notable work helped Barnes win what Jacobs called "the Pulitzer Prize of Kentucky journalism," the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism.

Barnes recalled crying as she took pictures of two elderly sisters being rescued from the flood after standing neck-deep in water all night. And everyone in the room laughed when she recalled getting a call on deadline from a woman who said, "My husband's on his way up there with his girlfriend" after being struck by lightning. Barnes recalled, "I went with him to his house, to see where the lightning came out ... through his foot and burned a hole into the linoleum in their trailer. 'He was sittin' on the terlet,' she said. So he had forever the nickname in our office as the Crispy Crapper."

Barnes said that when Jacobs and then-Editor Frank Warnock asked her to move uo from the mail room and composing room and be a reporter, she told them, "I don't know if I can go up to a complete stranger and ask them questions." She figured out how to do that, and "The questions sometimes got harder, but they had to be asked." In her final column, she thanked Jacobs, Warnock and many others, and said, "I have loved being the go-to person for all the town’s news."

School-meals program banned whole and 2% milk in 2012; bill approved by House panel would bring them back

Shutterstock photo
What kind of milk U.S. public schools serve their students can be controversial, and the issue is back with a new player. "A bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing to bring a banned substance back to schools: whole milk," reports Kristina Peterson of The Wall Street Journal. "A bill approved Tuesday by the House Education and Workforce Committee in a 26-13 vote would allow schools to offer whole and 2% milk. Supporters, including the dairy industry and more than 100 lawmakers, say that children are more likely to drink milk when it tastes better to them. . . . Opponents say children can get the same nutrients from lower-fat milk while keeping saturated fat in check."

Since 2012, schools participating in the Department of Agriculture's school meals program "haven't been permitted to serve either whole milk—which has 3.25% milk fat—or 2% milk," Peterson writes. "[The restrictions were] intended to align school offerings with the country's dietary guidelines. . . . Those recommendations advise that children over the age of two should consume either nonfat or 1% milk as part of an effort to limit how much saturated fat they consume." Erin Hennessy, a child-nutrition researcher at Tufts University, told Peterson, "For a long time, we lumped all saturated fats together. The story is more complicated than that. . . . People are becoming a little bit more open to the idea of whole milk."

Wall Street Journal Chart, from USDA data
The dairy industry has a vested interest in milk consumption by students. "The push to offer whole milk in schools is part of an effort to ensure that students grow into milk-drinking adults," Peterson reports. "Whole and 2% milk are the most commonly sold varieties, according to the USDA, so students are most used to their taste at home, according to dairy industry officials. . . . Opponents of the milk legislation said lawmakers shouldn't be meddling with the recommendations crafted by nutrition officials. . . . Rep. Kim Schrier (D) of Washington, a pediatrician, said offering additional milk choices is likely to encourage children to choose milk over another, less healthy beverage." Schrier, a co-sponsor of the bill, told Peterson, “I would much rather have children drinking milk, even whole milk, than juice."

Research on dairy's saturated fat is ongoing. "Much of the debate around whole milk centers on the question of whether fat from dairy products is different from saturated fat coming from other foods," Peterson reports. "Some researchers have conducted studies showing that full-fat dairy products haven't led to a higher risk of weight gain in children and may help them feel full more quickly. . . . Some groups, including the nutrition arm of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said there isn't enough evidence yet to overturn the official guidelines."

Shared planet nips: Atmospheric CO2 is highest on record; solar farms have bee buddies; foraging for a purpose . . .

The 'flashy' American kestrel
(Photo by Bryan Anselm, The New York Times)
Starting with this, from time to time The Rural Blog will have roundups of environmental news.

American kestrel populations are disappearing, and scientists are struggling to understand why, reports Catrin Einhorn of The New York Times. "Scientists estimate that the continent has lost half its kestrels since 1970. . . . Previous raptor disappearances have been cracked like murder mysteries. . . . While some research indicates that declines may be leveling off, scientists are alarmed. . . . In the Anthropocene, one mystery leads to another."

"Carbon dioxide levels in the air are now the highest they've been in more than 4 million years because of the burning of oil, coal and gas," reports Seth Borenstein of The Associated Press. "The last time the air had similar amounts was during a less hospitable hothouse Earth before human civilization took root, scientists said." Carbon dioxide acts as Earth's blanket by trapping heat that would otherwise be released into space. As our planet's carbon dioxide levels increase, so do the Earth's temperatures.

Western Apache forager Twila Cassadore understands the burdens of addiction and mental illness--she once struggled with both, but through foraging, she found "a way out," reports Samual Gilbert for The Guardian. "It allowed her to reconnect to her 'identity, culture and people,' she said. . . . She spent years learning about traditional foodways, gaining the trust of community elders, listening to their stories, and harvesting the foods of her ancestors. . . . This gave her purpose and 'filled this void I had felt most of my life,' said Cassadore, now more than 20 years sober." Cassadore told him: "Foraging healed me."

Courtesy photo from Center for Pollinators in Energy
Let's hope it's sunny and windy. "The world is set to add a record amount of renewable electricity capacity this year as governments and consumers seek to offset high energy prices and take advantage of a boom in solar power, according to a new report Thursday," reports Frank Jordans of The Associated Press. "The International Energy Agency said high fossil fuel prices — resulting from Russia's attack on Ukraine — and concerns about energy security had boosted the rollout of solar and wind power installations, which are expected to reach 440 gigawatts in 2023."

Speaking of the solar boom, who else needs to get on that bandwagon? Bees. "Solar beekeeping is the practice of placing beehives on or near solar sites. While photovoltaic panels are generating energy from the sun, bees are busy making honey and pollinating the native and non-invasive plant species below the panels," reports the Center for Rural Affairs for AgriSolar Clearinghouse. "Beekeeping at solar sites can enhance the value of the land by keeping it in agricultural production, providing new streams of income for local farmers, and adding such environmental benefits as water filtration, reduced erosion, and enhanced soil health due to the presence of native and non-invasive vegetation."

When a college town loses its college, it's hard to pick up the pieces; some schools close their doors, some fight on

Montgomery, W. Va., Mayor Greg Ingram walks where the stands of the
WVU Tech football field once stood. (Photo by Nick Fouriezos via The Daily Yonder)
When a rural community's higher-education institution closes, the area becomes vulnerable to a long list of bad outcomes, and many institutions are floundering "as pandemic relief funds have dried up and enrollments remain low at many rural institutions," reports Nick Fouriezos of Open Campus.

"Fears are sprouting up in Mount Pleasant, a city of less than 9,000 people in southeastern Iowa. There, Iowa Wesleyan College shut its doors in May, which means roughly 1,000 faculty, staff, and students will likely leave soon, too." Mount Pleasant need only look at what happened in Montgomery, West Virginia when WVU Tech left the town: "Suddenly, 1,500 students were gone. More than 100 staff and faculty moved out," Fouriezos writes for Open Campus. "The bar and the car dealership closed. The grocery store, too. And it was only going to get worse, locals knew." 

Randy Neff, a Mount Pleasant resident who previously served as the chief financial officer for Iowa Wesleyan, told Fouriezos, "You lose 11-12% of your population just suddenly like that, it has an enormous impact. . . .The college has had financial issues for many, many decades. . . . [But now] those students will now all be gone." Fouriezos reports, "As will the many cultural events the college brought, including speakers, plays, and symphony orchestras. The Department of Agriculture, which loaned Iowa Wesleyan $26 million in 2016, is now working with local officials to decide what happens to the empty campus in the heart of the city's downtown." (Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was mayor of the town from 1997 to 1992 and secretary in 2016. --Editor)

Rural college towns may be unable to adapt and many "can sometimes be limited in their options, particularly when decisions about them are being made by educators in other parts of the state," Fouriezos writes. "After celebrating its 112th commencement a month ago, the University of Maine in Machias is facing existential risks from low enrollment and significant faculty turnover. . . . Enrollment numbers have dipped, from around 650 students two decades ago to less than 300 students, says Bob Berta, owner and publisher of County Wide Newspaper in Machias. . . . . Berta believes things at the college could still be turned around, but only if it moved away from being the state's smallest campus to being owned by the local community instead." Berta told Fouriezos: "The college needs to be taken back under control. We are 2% of the state's population living in an area the size of the State of Connecticut."

Americans have become increasingly disenchanted with higher education. "A majority of Americans, across every age group, are now more likely to disagree than agree that a four-year education is worth the cost, according to a Wall Street Journal-NORC poll," Fouriezos reports. This skepticism has hurt college enrollments nationwide, but many rural areas lack the adaptability to combat the the trend. Gordon State College in Barnesville, Georgia, managed to increase its enrollment "by leveraging its community partnerships and effectively balancing a combination of online and in-person students. It added programs that put Gordon State students into the local workforce, giving them valuable on-the-job training and direct pathways to careers that make it possible for hometown kids to stay in the region." While the college is a bright spot, it exemplifies how much work, finesse and resources are required for a struggling institution to survive.

Columnist Mike Rosmann tells what farming means to him

Mike Rosmann,an Iowa farmer and psychologist, shares his thoughts on agrarianism, which explains why some people choose to work the land, in his opinion for Ag Week. A gently edited version:

Photo by Erin Brown, Grand Vale Creative, via Ag Week
Agriculture and agrarianism have commonalities, but they also differ distinctly, and for good reasons. “So what?” some people might say. “It’s not important.” For farmers, the differences are profound and deserve an explanation, which I’m about to give.

First, let’s understand who is a farmer. The Department of Agriculture defines a farmer as anyone who produces food, fibers for clothes and shelter, and renewable fuels such as ethanol, wood, and the methane captured for energy by biodigesters. The USDA definition includes foresters, fishers, plant nursery operators, and hunters, along with everyone who raises crops, livestock, fibers, and renewable fuels as a full-time or part-time livelihood. The U.S. Census Bureau no longer lists farming as an occupation on its data forms. The Census of Agriculture collects key information about farming every five years; it uses the USDA definition of “farmer.”

Michael R. Rosmann, Ph.D.
Do agriculture and farming differ? Absolutely. Most dictionaries define agriculture as the science, art, and occupation of cultivating the soil, growing crops and raising livestock. Fishing, harvesting lumber, hunting, and trapping animals for their fur are considered farming activities in the broad sense that the USDA defines farming, but not agriculture in the way that most people define the word, “agriculture.”

Dr. Linda Haverstock, lieutenant governor of Saskatchewan, drew a distinction between “agri” and “culture” at an international conference some 20 years ago at Regina, Canada, about the behavioral health needs of agricultural producers. The “agri” part of the word refers to the activities of nurturing soil, water, plants, and animals; the “culture” part refers to the unique behaviors required of the people engaged in these activities. A psychologist and farmer herself, Haverstock said “Behavioral healthcare providers must understand the ‘culture’ of agricultural producers in order to be effective caregivers to them.”

Indeed, agricultural behavioral health is a new field that combines agriculture and behavioral health. The time is coming when students in agricultural business and related college and post-graduate agricultural tracks will offer, and perhaps require, courses that entail an understanding of how farmers behave, the signs and symptoms of distress, and how to help distressed farmers themselves, as well as to find other resources.

What does agrarianism have to do with farming and agriculture? Thomas Jefferson popularized agrarianism as an ideal lifestyle that emphasizes family farming, widespread property ownership, and political decentralization. . . . Jefferson’s ideals inspired multiple generations of Americans and immigrants to purchase land for farming west of the established United States of America, where they could lay the foundation for self-sufficient agrarian communities. 

Jefferson influenced Wendell Berry, a well-known proponent of sustainable farming, as well as the author of novels, poems, and essays about agrarianism. Berry’s 1977 book, The Unsettling of America, described agrarianism as many families owning land, working on farms, and undertaking farming methods that contribute to enduring communities, healthy lifestyles, and democracy as intended by our country’s founders.

My definition of agrarianism draws on the Agrarian Imperative theory, which explains why people farm. I have proposed that humans, like many animal species, have a basic need to acquire sufficient territory to produce the food, materials, and fuels required by their families and communities, and the world.

Also called the agrarian personality, this genetically programmed instinct drives farmers to hang onto their land and other resources needed to farm at all costs. The agrarian imperative instills farmers to work incredibly hard, to endure unusual pain and hardship, to rely on their personal judgment above others’ advice, and to take uncommon risks.

The behaviors that lead to success in farming can also lead to personal and family demise, such as: physical and emotional exhaustion, failure to seek help when needed, the stigma against seeking mental health assistance, depression, bad decisions, and they contribute to the high rate of suicide by farmers.

How farmers carry out the agrarian drive can be modified by learning. Successful current farmers are demonstrating that wisely managing their behavior, such as reaching out for advice when needed, can improve their productivity as well as their happiness. These and other valuable new experiences, such as regenerative farming and personnel management skills, are constantly evolving survival skills that predispose future generations to the way they express their agrarian urges.

How farmers manage their agrarian behaviors are choices farmers can control, unlike many of the other factors that affect the outcome of farming. Further research to validate the agrarian imperative theory is needed, some of which is underway.


Truly, farming is a noble and essential occupation, a profoundly spiritual way of life.

Wednesday, June 07, 2023

Fewer than 1/3 of U.S. adults say news media hold public officials accountable; TV, social media are their top sources

Graphs by the Local News Initiative, Medill School, Northwestern University, adapted by The Rural Blog; click to enlarge

Fewer than a third of Americans say local news media meet one of their primary missions, holding public officials accountable, according to a poll for the Medill School at Northwestern University. Here's report on it from Mark Caro of the school's Local News Initiative, edited for concision:

The survey asked 1,015 adults if they agreed or disagreed with the statement “My local news media hold public officials accountable.” Only 3.9% replied “strongly agree” and 26.5% replied “agree,” for a total of 30.4% in agreement. Almost as many disagreed; 11.3% responded “strongly disagree” while 18.8% responded “disagree,” a total of 30.1%. The other 38.7% replied “Neither.”

“There is a lack of trust in institutions in general, so that may be driving some of this,” said Tim Franklin, the Medill School's senior associate dean and John M. Mutz Chair in Local News. “But I think that given how critical this role is to democratic institutions and communities and to the state of our democracy, this is a red flare.”

Stephanie Edgerly, the Medill professor and associate dean of research who oversaw the survey, said the low percentage may also reflect news organizations’ ability—or inability—to inform readers about the work they’re doing. “The public just sees the story that’s written up but does not understand what role local journalists played in covering it,” she said. “In general, journalists have not been great at communicating the behind-the-scenes work of their reporting process to the public.”

Tom Rosenstiel, the University of Maryland’s Eleanor Merrill Visiting Professor on the Future of Journalism, said the poll's finding is a logical domino drop amid the shrinkage of newsrooms nationwide, particularly in smaller markets. Since watchdog reporting is more labor-intensive, he said, it follows that it has declined.

The poll found striking age differences in where people get their local news. 
But Rosenstiel noted that the poll's respondents said the most common way they get local news is through television (32% daily), followed by social media (31% daily), with radio (including podcasts) and newspapers (including print and digital readers) lagging behind at 20% and 15%, respectively. “Having studied local TV news extensively over the years, I can tell you that they don’t cover a lot of local government,” he said. He noted that TV-station consultants consider local government coverage a ratings loser and steer stations away from it.

Only 15% of respondents said they read local newspapers daily, while 29% said they read them weekly, and 39% said they never read them. The survey was conducted for the Medill School by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago from April 27 thgrough May 1.

As fertilizer industry enjoys 'eye-popping' profits, farmers pay more and make less; corporate consolidation blamed

Price of Plenty graph by Rebecca Bauer, from Bloomberg data
While fertilizer companies post record profits, American farmers make less money, and corporate consolidations may explain part of  the equation, reports Noah Zahn in "The Price of Plenty," a five-part package about fertilizer from the journalism schools at the University of Florida and the University of Missouri, with its Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk. Other stories report on fertilizer-caused pollution and other topics.

"Farmers and others who rely on fertilizer have no choice but to spend more," Zahn writes. "Although fertilizer prices have fallen from their all-time high in March 2022, when they spiked up to 3.5 times higher than two years before, the commodity is likely to remain costly for some time, continuing to squeeze the food production system."

The industry's earning increases are "eye-popping," Zahn writes. "Canada-based Nutrien Ltd., the world's leading producer of potash fertilizer, saw profits increase 1,575% between 2020 and 2022 to $7.7 billion. Tampa-based The Mosaic Co., one of the largest U.S. producers of potash and phosphate fertilizer, made $3.6 billion in net earnings in 2022, a 438% increase from 2020. CF Industries, an Illinois-based fertilizer company, made $3.2 billion in 2022, a 955% increase from 2020. . . . When asked for comment, Mosaic said in an email that the fertilizer business is cyclical and thus has volatility in prices." The others didn't reply before publication.

Causes of the price spike include the pandemic-hampered supply chain, labor disruptions, natural disasters that upsett production, fewer phosphate imports from China, and the war in Ukraine, Zahn explains. Chad Hart, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University, told him: "It was literally a whole menu of things that were seemingly going in the wrong direction if you were looking to obtain fertilizer." Zahn reports, "Several of these factors are referenced in a study Hart co-authored that was hailed by The Fertilizer Institute for providing 'the best analysis data will allow to date.'. . . The study omits a large factor of the price increase: market power as a result of consolidation."

Are fertilizer giants able to fix the market? Joe Maxwell, co-founder of Farm Action, a Missouri-based nonprofit that advocates for competitive food and agriculture systems, "believes consolidation in the fertilizer industry has led to market manipulation," Zahn reports. "Since 1980, the number of fertilizer firms in the United States has fallen from 46 to 13. In 2019, just four corporations represented 75% of total domestic fertilizer production: CF Industries, Nutrien, Koch, and Yara-USA, Farm Action says. And just two companies supply 85% of the North American potash market: Nutrien and Mosaic, says the Federal Trade Commission. Maxwell told Zahn: "These companies took advantage of their dominant position in a marketplace and increased commodity price to the farmers in an effort to price gouge and extract all the wealth that they could from that supply chain at the very roots: fertilizer."

Increased fertilizer prices can hurt local and global communities, and a solution seems elusive. "While record fertilizer prices have translated to record profits for the fertilizer industry, small farmers, business owners and rural communities struggle to pay bills," Zahn writes. Higher costs also affect global food supplies. "Global experts also worry about how the high cost of fertilizer affects rising food prices and growing global food insecurity. . . . John Baffes, a senior agriculture economist for the World Bank, said that fertilizer is an important input to food commodity production, especially in less-developed countries. . . . It will be hard to lessen dependence on fertilizer anytime soon." Baffes told Zahn: "It's essential for supporting the world's population. If we did not have fertilizers, the earth's population would not be 8 billion; it would be 4 billion."

Some of the poorest Americans, in California's San Joaquin Valley, get help from a trio of effective reformers

From left, Phoebe Seaton, Veronica Garibay, Sandra Celedon
(Photo by Devin Oktar Yalkin, The New York Times)

California's San Joaquin Valley is the agricultural backbone of the nation's top ag state, but along its swaths of rural glory is Fresno, a city and county divided: "On the Southside, they've hollowed out a crater of neglect, and this is where neighborhoods of Latino, Black and Hmong residents live in some of the worst concentrated poverty in America," reports Mark Arax of The New York Times. "In the span of 15 miles, from the wealthy subdivisions and megachurches of the Northside to the meth-fueled hustle of the Southside, life expectancy drops 20 years. Just beyond downtown, the wide swath of urban poverty finally gives way to the mad plantings of vineyards and orchards. Venture deep enough into Fresno County, and you'll find, tucked inside the bounty like a great shame, rural poverty of the most abject kind."

"Last summer, I picked up the shrinking local newspaper, The Fresno Bee, and saw the return of a force a half-century dormant. Three reformers, all women, were messing with the gravity of things. In the name of environmental justice, Sandra Celedon, Veronica Garibay and Phoebe Seaton advocated for neglected neighborhoods, mobilizing residents who had never been mobilized before. . . A shift in power and public spending was occurring not only in Fresno but also in small towns and rural settlements throughout the valley," Arax writes. "In Los Angeles or San Francisco, agitation of this sort was the usual jostle. Here, civic leaders saw it as a subversive force. A local supervisor accused the trio of peddling climate-change beliefs that did not align with the 'values of Fresno County.' A Northside City Council member called them 'poverty pimps' for rallying low-income families opposed to industrial polluters in their backyards."

The three had a history of successful challenges to the area's status quo of treading on their disadvantaged. "They advocated for state legislation that forced the citrus town Exeter to extend its water to the sticks of Tooleville," Arax explains. "Or when they helped secure an $8 million grant to build a multifamily apartment complex in the farmworker town Lamont. . . . But now Garibay and Seaton were teaming up with Celedon to kill an initiative called Measure C, a $7 billion sales tax to fund highways and roads across Fresno County for the next 30 years. . . . The public hearing to unveil the latest version of Measure C . . . did not go as expected. Southside and rural Latinos, old and young, filled the small meeting room and two adjoining chambers and spilled into the hallway. They had come to deliver a message that Measure C shorted their side of town, ignored the hardships of rural communities and put more money in the pockets of the same wealthy Northsiders. . . . But they never got a chance to speak. There weren't enough Spanish-language headsets to go around, for one thing."

During follow-up hearings, politicians made minor financial concessions. "Southside and rural residents weren’t buying it. The extra money wouldn’t begin to make up for the broken sidewalks, potholed streets, flood-prone roads and buses that did not run from rural towns to city hospitals," Arax reports. "Celedon, Garibay and Seaton didn’t trust that far-right Republicans on the county board of supervisors would direct enough of the revenue to forgotten communities. And who knew what the rural mayors and council members might do with their bigger slices."

Eventually, Measure C made it to the ballot box. "This past fall, the women and their organizers went at it again, rallying support against Measure C, the sprawl-inducing tax," Arax writes. "They knocked on the doors of Southside voters and ventured deep into the Northside, too. They were surprised by how their message resonated across the divide. Northsiders told them the previous Measure C's hadn't improved the quality of their lives either. . . . On Election Day, 58 percent of the county voted in favor of the measure, well shy of the necessary two-thirds. Civic leaders, for their part, have vowed to bring Measure C back."

Why are grocery prices remaining so high? Time to dust off an old law and support fair competition, writer argues

Image by Zek Tebbal, The New York Times
It's about impossible for smaller grocery stores to compete with galactic buyers like Walmart and Kroger, but without competition, food prices have gotten higher and will remain that way, writes Stacy Mitchell in her opinion for The New York Times. "To understand why grocery prices are way up, we need to look past the headlines about inflation and reconsider long-held ideas about the benefits of corporate bigness."

First off, there's no way for small stores or chains to "MacGyver" their purchasing power and cut prices that match big retailers. '"Food Fresh is the only grocery store in a rural stretch of southeastern Georgia. It has many five-star Google reviews praising its freshly butchered meats, tomato bar and friendly service. Yet it faces a threat to its survival that no amount of management skill can overcome. Big retailers like Walmart and Kroger can wrest deep discounts from suppliers, making it impossible for the store to come close to matching the chains' prices. Food Fresh's owner, Michael Gay, told Mitchell that big chains "have a handle on suppliers that I can't touch."

Is this competition at work? "Major grocery suppliers, including Kraft Heinz, General Mills and Clorox, rely on Walmart for more than 20 percent of their sales. So when Walmart demands special deals, suppliers can't say no. And as suppliers cut special deals for Walmart and other large chains, they make up for the lost revenue by charging smaller retailers even more. . . . This isn't competition. It's big retailers exploiting their financial control over suppliers to hobble smaller competitors. Our failure to put a stop to it has warped our entire food system. It has driven independent grocers out of business and created food deserts. It has spurred consolidation among food processors, which has slashed the share of food dollars going to farmers and created dangerous bottlenecks in the production of meat and other essentials. And in a perverse twist, it has raised food prices for everyone, no matter where you shop."

What's the history? "A level playing field was long a tenet of U.S. antitrust policy. In the 19th century, Congress barred railroads from favoring some shippers over others. It applied this principle to retailing in 1936 with the Robinson-Patman Act, which mandates that suppliers offer the same terms to all retailers. . . . For roughly four decades, the Federal Trade Commission vigorously enforced the act. . . . . Independent grocery stores flourished, accounting for more than half of food sales in 1958. Supermarket chains like Safeway and Kroger also thrived. This dynamism fed broad prosperity. Even the smallest towns and poorest neighborhoods could generally count on having a grocery store. And the industry's diffuse structure ensured that its fruits were widely distributed. Of the nearly nine million people working in retailing overall in the mid-1950s, nearly two million owned or co-owned the store where they worked. There were more Black-owned grocery stores in 1969 than there are today."

That's painful to hear. "Then, amid the economic chaos and inflation of the late 1970s, the law fell into disfavor with regulators, who had come to believe that allowing large retailers to flex more muscle over suppliers would lower consumer prices. For the most part, the law hasn't been enforced since. As a top Reagan administration official explained in 1981, antitrust was no longer 'concerned with fairness to smaller competitors.' This was a serious miscalculation. Walmart, which seized the opening and soon became notorious for strong-arming suppliers and undercutting local businesses, now captures one in four dollars Americans spend on groceries."

Is there an end in sight? "This has resulted in an ever-worsening cycle: As a system dominated by a few retailers lifts prices across the board — even at Walmart — consumers head to those retailers because of their ability to wrest relatively lower prices or simply because they're the only options left. . . . Meanwhile, the decline of independent grocers, which disproportionately serve rural small towns and Black and Latino neighborhoods, has left debilitating gaps in our food system. . . . Losing small retailers also stifles innovation. . . . This results in diminished selection for shoppers, who find store shelves stocked with only what the big food conglomerates choose to produce."

What can individuals do? "Stop big retailers from using their enormous financial leverage over suppliers to tilt the playing field. By resurrecting the Robinson-Patman Act, we could begin to put an end to decades of misguided antitrust policy in which regulators abandoned fair competition in favor of ever-greater corporate scale. . . . There is promising momentum. Last year an unusual coalition of Democratic and Republican lawmakers sent a letter to the FTC urging it to dust off Robinson-Patman. . . .These moves are already drawing fire from an old guard locked in bigger-is-always-better thinking. . . . In the early days of the pandemic, as Walmart and Amazon compelled manufacturers to steer scarce supplies their way and worsened shortages at local grocers,Gay [at Food Fresh] worked long days hustling to find alternate sources." Gay told Mitchell: "My meat is fresher. My produce is fresher. My customer service is better. Imagine if you made the playing field level. Imagine what I could do."

Farming technology round-up: Latest innovations are working to combat worldwide challenges to agriculture

Vertical farming can grow a wide variety of lettuces.
(Photo via
In the face of daunting odds and obscenely unpredictable weather, what can scientists and farmers do? Innovate. "Growing conditions are forecast to change regionally—with some places seeing a potentially longer growing season, but others seeing drier, colder ones. Disease-causing pests and insects are expected to expand their range," reports Nidhi Subbaraman for The Wall Street Journal. "Growers soon could turn to new technological solutions to help cope." Below are some of the latest technologies designed to help agriculture maneuver with Mother Nature's changes.

Seeds that are dropped by a drone and then plant themselves. "Wildfires have become bigger and more frequent as the climate has warmed, sometimes leaving hard-to-reach mountainsides razed of vegetation. Lining Yao, at Carnegie Mellon University, and a team of scientists has come up with a surprisingly low-tech device to help make sure that seeds dropped by drone germinate into saplings. . . . These seed carriers with curved tails and tightly coiled stems are made of paper-thin sheets of wood and attached to a seedpod. When rainwater touches the tails, the material swells, propping up the seed carrier with its point facing into the soil. Seeds with tails had at least 80% success rate burying in lab tests, Yao and her colleagues showed in a study published in Nature."

Sensors that can tell detect how crops are fairing. "Yong Zhu, a mechanical engineer at North Carolina State University, is part of a team that built and demonstrated sensors that can gather information such as hydration and temperature in plants and their immediate environment, as well as chemical hormones released by the plant in response to infection or environmental stress. . . . Made of silver, gold, and carbon nanomaterials embedded in a flexible polymer, the sensors were able to detect infection in tomato plants within four days, the team reported in a study published in Science Advances."

Helping pollinators stay healthy. "When temperatures drop, bees retreat to the hive and rely on their stored food, but if they run out or cluster in the corner of the hive too far from the store, they can starve to death. A team of roboticists in Europe hopes to change this. . . . Researchers warmed the bees when they became static and gathered in a cluster during winter and directed them to a food source at a different location by heating that section of the hive, the team reported in a study published in Science Robotics. . . . The hives aren't ready for prime time. For one, they are expensive to build outside a lab facility and need an external power source to keep them humming."

Upside farming is a work in progress. "Over two-thirds of all freshwater used globally goes to farming. Climate change is expected to keep water in short supply in many places even as demand increases. In a twist, growing plants in water instead of soil—what's known as hydroponic farming—could ease the crunch because it uses less water overall. . . . In soaking humidity or searing heat, growers in over 40 countries are farming produce in high-tech containers made by the Boston company Freight Farms. Leafy greens like lettuce and kale and roots like turnips and radishes grow in specially designed vertical rows, lit with LEDs and monitored closely for nutrition, water acidity, temperature, and more, according to David Harris, the company's director of crop research and development."

Apple-picking robots (Photo via
When the going gets tough, the tough build a robot.
"Tevel, based in Israel, has created a swarm of fruit-picking robots that could lend a few spare hands when fruits ripen unpredictably soon and risk spoiling on the tree, according to Ittai Marom, U.S. general manager at Tevel. . . . There are cameras on the robot, and Tevel's software identifies ripe fruit after analyzing the color and size. Marom told Subbaraman: "Somebody who is today a team leader of a picking crew, in the near future, might find themselves monitoring a robotic picker from the convenience of an air-conditioned pickup truck."

Native American voices have been suppressed in U.S. history; book gives us a fresh look at their role in our past

Ned Blackhawk Photo by Dan Renzetti, Yale University
Adding narratives to U.S. history could build a richer, more honest look at America's past. A new book, The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History, by Ned Blackhawk, creates a fresh look at our country's story by adding Indigenous lives and experiences to the dialogue, reports Jeniece Roman of WSHU-FM in Connecticut.

Blackhawk, a professor of history and American studies at Yale University and a member of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone Indians of Nevada, developed the text for his pupils. He told Roman, "In these long years of teaching Native American history, I've really always felt like there wasn't a sufficient kind of common text or interpretive work to offer my students." Roman reports, "Blackhawk said his generation has confronted the absence of the Indigenous perspective in education. . . [which was] largely erased or ignored in the broader American educational system. . . . However, in the past decade, Blackhawk has seen a proliferation of academic scholarship that he calls 'The Rediscovery of America.' It's what inspired him to write the book."

"I didn't formally decide to craft this narrative until relatively recently in my career," Blackhawk told Roman. "But I've been thinking about it a long time." Roman explains: "Blackhawk began teaching in 2009 at the University of Wisconsin. He began research during a 2017-2018 fellowship for early American history at the University of Pennsylvania. It's when he unknowingly began writing the first chapters of what is now his book. . . . Blackhawk said scholarly findings from the past decade have provided more detail on Native American history. It inspired him to compile those findings for a larger audience. He said questions and conversations about U.S. history and the Native perspective have been brewing in the academic world and the mainstream."

"We've come to a point in our nation's history where we are perhaps really for the first time positioned to have a national conversation about the history of this community in respect of Indigenous or Native American population," Blackhawk told Roman. She writes, "Blackhawk said writing the book was a challenge because of the enormity of the subject. History has, at times, been shrouded by erasure and disrespect. He said it inhibits people from understanding how central Indigenous people are to the making of the U.S. and its communities. He hopes readers continue to become more informed by reading about and engaging with Indigenous communities."

Blackhawk hopes readers will take deeper dive into the American story. He told Roman, "I would kind of encourage people to feel not too overwhelmed by the challenge in a way that might be inhibiting but to really see it as our collective and incumbent responsibility to more fully understand the historical landscapes."

Tuesday, June 06, 2023

Different initials, but education and care are the same; osteopaths, or D.O.s, are filling a rural void with 'their thing'

Kevin De Regnier, an osteopathic physician in Winterset, Iowa,
examines Alice Collins. (KFF Health News photo by Tony Leys)
In rural America, you may be more likely to be treated by a "Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine," or D.O., instead of an M.D., but their schooling and boarding tests are alike," reports Tony Leys of KFF Health News. "Osteopathic physicians go to separate medical schools from medical doctors. . . . Their courses include lessons on how to physically manipulate the body to ease discomfort. But their training is otherwise comparable, leaders in both wings of the profession say. . . . Both types of doctors are licensed to practice the full range of medicine, and many patients would find little difference between them aside from the initials listed after their names."

Although currently not as common, D.O. numbers are increasing, especially in rural areas, partly because new osteopathic medical schools have located in places like Pikeville, Ky., and Harrogate, Tenn. "School leaders say their locations and teaching methods help explain why many graduates wind up filling primary care jobs in smaller towns," Leys reports. "U.S. News & World Report ranks medical schools based on the percentage of graduates working in rural areas. Osteopathic schools hold three of the top four spots on the 2023 edition of that list."

"The very nature of osteopathic training emphasizes primary care. That's kind of their thing," Michael Dill, director of workforce studies at the Association of American Medical Colleges, told Leys.

Leys reports, "Data from the University of Iowa shows osteopathic physicians have been filling rural roles previously filled by medical doctors. The university's Office of Statewide Clinical Education Programs tracks the state's health care workforce, and its staff analyzed the data for KFF Health News. The analysis found that, from 2008 to 2022, the number of D.O.s based outside those urban areas [previously filled by M.D.s] increased by 29%. Because of the shift, D.O.s now make up more than a third of rural Iowa physicians, and that proportion is expected to grow."

From 1990 to 2022, "the number of osteopathic doctors more than quadrupled, from fewer than 25,000 to over 110,000, according to the Federation of State Medical Boards. Over half of D.O.s work in primary care, which includes family medicine, internal medicine, and pediatrics. By contrast, more than two-thirds of M.D.s work in other medical specialties," Leys reports.