Friday, June 16, 2023

CherryRoad Media CEO Jeremy Gulban added to program of rural journalism summit; hotel deadline is next Friday

Speakers are still being added to the program 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, here.

The latest addition is Jeremy Gulban, CEO of CherryRoad Media, which started in 2020 but already owns almost 80 newspapers, most of them bought from Gannett Co., which "had really run them into the ground," so much that it's proving hard to build circulation and reveue, he told us this week. Gulban said he will talk about experiments he is starting next week in some of his markets.

Gulban will join a wide range of news-industry professionals, academic researchers and instructors, journalism funders, and community developers who realize that communities need local journalism. The program 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, journalism officer 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;
  • 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.
  • 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, with Alan Miller of Denison University in Ohio and Chris Drew of Louisiana State University;
  • 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;
  • A concluding roundtable led by Benjy Hamm, incoming director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, sponsor of the Summit (and publisher of The Rural Blog).
The institute's research question for this year's Summit is the same as last year's, "How do rural communities sustain local journalism that supports democracy?" We expect more answers!

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 next Friday, June 23. For registration and hotel information, click here.

Finding more physicians for rural America: Appalachian doctor looks for students with a 'passion for healing'

Anya Cope, D.O., believes career options ought to be offered to rural
students before high school. (Courtesy photo via The Yonder)
What's the best way to attract physicians to practice in rural America? Find ways to plant the idea in rural youth and then nurture them. That's what Anya Cope, a doctor of osteopathy from Dryden, Va. (pop. 878), does at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn., reports Taylor Sisk of The Daily Yonder. "Cope is an associate dean of clinical affairs and an assistant professor of internal medicine at LMU's DeBusk College of Osteopathic Medicine. . . . Described by a colleague as 'a fixer; a doer,'[Cope is] a living example; through her instruction, she demonstrates how to excel in a demanding field when the odds appear to be against you."

Cope's father was a coal miner, and her mother a power-company employee, Sisk writes: "She graduated from high school in 2000. It was, she says, a 'weird time' in the mountains of rural Southwest Virginia: The over-prescription of opioids had taken deep root across generations. . . . She considers her education. . . to have been sufficient; she was prepared to be successful at college. But the family had no real knowledge of or resources for board prep courses. Her Medical College Admission Test score, she says, wouldn't get her into med school today. . . . Cope believes schools too often put too much emphasis on standardized testing. . . . She urges administrators to look beyond that number. It tells you nothing about a potential student's determination, their passion for healing."

Cope spends time doing outreach in the region's undergraduate colleges, Sisk writes, but "the outreach, she believes, must start early." Cope told her, "Too many kids in this region think their only options are coal mining, teaching, and nursing – all of which are commendable careers – or illegal drug dealing. You can't be it if you don't see it. We need to show them there are other options – that there are people from here who are succeeding in all kinds of fields. And it has to be before high school." Sisk reports, "Toward that end, the college is setting up camps for pre-K through eighth-grade students that will offer opportunities to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Math topics, explore career choices, and gain skills necessary to be successful in those fields."

Cope's other role includes forging connections with hospital staffs, high schoolers and undergraduate students. Cope told Sisk, "My job is all about relationships. . . . [she is looking for] someone who is adaptable. Someone who, despite facing adversity, has been able to keep going. Someone who has shown a commitment to medicine and a passion for medicine. . . . Of course, we want someone who is drawn to Appalachia and to rural medicine. But I think that even those who have not had the experience of rural medicine, once they get here, we can convince them."

Research supports her approach: "A 2021 Journal of Graduate Medical Education study found that 'Physicians often practice within 100 miles of where they completed residency' and 'Training residents where they are needed in practice is one promising strategy to increase the supply of rural physicians," Siskk reports. "Personally, she's driven to underscore for those from rural communities that 'you can be just as good as any others – and maybe better because of the resistance you've had to fight against. It's like cross-training: fighting against resistance makes you stronger.'"

South Dakota, with 66 counties, still has 94 weekly papers

The Kingsbury Journal is a weekly produced by volunteers and three part-time employees.

Weekly newspapers in South Dakota are bucking the national trend of newspapers' decline, Bart Pfankuch reports for South Dakota News Watch, a nonprofit that covers statewide stories and is funded by foundations, news-media organizations and other contributors.

The state has one of the highest densities of weeklies, with 94 in 66 counties, down from 128 in 1995, David Bordewyk, executive director of the South Dakota Newspaper Association, told Pfankuch, who reports, "Weekly paid circulation has also fallen by roughly half over the past four decades, from a high of about 200,000 in 1980 to 100,000 now, which equates to about 250,000 individual readers."

Only three counties in South Dakota lack a local newspaper. Kingsbury County, which has three, almost lost two of them in 2020. When the weeklies in Lake Preston and the county seat of DeSmet "were facing closure . . . a group of community members stepped in to buy, rebrand and relaunch the papers as the Kingsbury Journal, which serves the county as a whole, rather than the individual towns within it." One reason South Dakota has so many weeklies is that many are focused on one or two towns.

"Other than three part-time employees, the newspaper and website are produced by unpaid volunteers within the region," Pfankuch reports. "The paper has 1,300 print subscribers and sees heavy and steadily increasing use of its website, both by locals and people who live out of town, said Sheryl Downes, office manager at the Journal."

In a sidebar, Pfankuch profiles three weeklies: the Clark County Courier, which has a 23-year-old publisher, Karli Paulson, who still loves with her parents and bought the paper from a longitme owner who spent five years looking for a buyer; the Brandon Valley Journal, which local-journalism veteran Jill Meier started in 2016 after Gannett Co. "shuttered its operation in Brandon;" and Mandy Scherer, who owns five weeklies in southwestern South Dakota and northern Nebraska. Pfankuch calls her the “hardest working woman in South Dakota newspapers.”

Along party lines, Illinois denies state funding to libraries that restrict or ban books for partisan or doctrinal reasons

Shutterstock photo illustration
As localities across the nation debate book bans, one state has put itself athwart. "Illinois public libraries that restrict or ban materials because of 'partisan or doctrinal' disapproval will be ineligible for state funding as of Jan. 1, 2024," reports Claire Savage of The Associated Press. "The American Library Association in March announced that attempts to censor books in schools and public libraries reached a 20-year high in 2022 — twice as many as 2021, the previous record."

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom, told Savage: "Illinois legislation responds to disturbing circumstances of censorship and an environment of suspicion." Savage reports, "To be eligible for state funds, Illinois public libraries must adopt the ALA's Library Bill of Rights, which holds that 'materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation,' or subscribe to a similar pledge."

Rep. Anne Stava-Murray (D) sponsored the legislation "after a school board in her district was subject to pressure to ban certain content from school libraries," Savage reports. Stava-Murray told her, "While it's true that kids need guidance and that some ideas can be objectionable, trying to weaponize local government to force one-size-fits-all standards onto the entire community for reasons of bigotry, or as a substitute for active and involved parenting, is wrong."

Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias pointed out to Savage that Illinois taxpayers pay librarians who are experienced and educated to decide "what books should be in circulation," adding, "We are not saying that every book should be in every single library." 

House Minority Leader Tony McCombie (R), who voted against the measure, told Savage, "Our caucus does not believe in banning books, but we do believe that the content of books should be considered in their placement on the shelves." Savage reports, "Despite Giannoulias' assertion that 'this should not be a Democrat or Republican issue,' lawmakers' approval of the bill splintered across party lines, with Republicans in opposition."

FDA panel advises updating Covid-19 vaccines; here's why

The Food and Drug Administration's external scientific committee unanimously recommended Thursday that Covid-19 vaccines be updated to thwart new versions of the virus, which is mutating about twice as fast as the flu, vaccines for which are updated annually, Katelyn Jetelina reports in Your Local Epidemiologist, her Substack newsletter.

Also, "The current Omicron variant (XBB) circulating is meaningfully different than other Omicron variants," Jetelina writes. "Covid-19 vaccines are waning in protection against hospitalization (62% effectiveness has dropped to 24%) and ICU admission, albeit with a smaller decline (69% to 52%). This is happening faster when exposed to XBB virus compared to other Omicron variants."

Hospitals aren't filling up with Covid patients "because vaccine effectiveness now represents the incremental benefit above and beyond the baseline protection in the general population. This is different than when we first introduced vaccines and the general population had a very low immunity wall." In other words, natural immuiity (not just antibodies but other features of the immune system) combined with vaccines provide a relatively high immunity wall.

What's next? "Pfizer, Moderna, and Novavax will start manufacturing millions of vaccines. Once they’re ready, the FDA will approve the updated vaccine," Jeteline writes. Then the committee "will determine who should get the vaccines. Expect this to happen in late summer or early fall."

"Everyone’s curious to see how this year plays out," Jetelina says of her community of interest. "The rest of the year will be very telling as to whether Covid-19 has settled into a seasonal, predictable pattern. Comparing Covid-19 to the flu is helpful, but the viruses, and thus processes, are different. This needs to be communicated better."

She adds, "Don’t let anyone tell you there are no human data on these vaccines. All vaccine manufacturers presented preliminary data on humans and animals. What we do not have yet is the safety of these vaccines when combined with RSV and flu vaccines." RSV is respiratory syncytial virus, which targets mainly the young and the elderly. 

Quick hits: Water recycling hits the 'yuck factor;' cows' methane fuels drug maker; construction trainees do fixups ...

Young farmers Rudy Pate, Zoe Kent and Logan Yancey are bullish on opportunities for farmers under 30.
(Chris Withers photo, Coffy Creations photo, Kristen Elizabeth photo, Farm Journal stats from Census of Ag 2017)

Sometimes the news can get you down. Here's an antidote: Three farmers under 30 who've got their giddy-up going and making the rural life their life. This story by Chris Bennet of Farm Journal gives their hard work and entrepreneurial spirit a big yee-haw!

With water shortages and drought plaguing many areas of the U.S., looking at what solutions science is developing is helpful. One innovation that is gaining traction is graywater and blackwater recycling. The process has a major obstacle: the "Yuck" factor.

Photo by Courtney Love, Successful Farming
Cows are versatile creatures, but their manure and burps contribute to climate change. One drugmaker aims to repurpose some cows' methane output. "AstraZeneca is switching to biogas produced from cow manure and food waste in the United States," reports Natalie Grover of Reuters. "Manure from three farms, each with about 900 cattle, will be combined with food waste and placed in an area the size of a big ice-skating rink with apparatus above to capture methane, which will be purified and piped into AstraZeneca's gas grid."

June is the month of weddings, often followed by anxiety-provoking receptions. The best thing a reception can offer might be a D.J. who can crush the tunes, one writes.

The Colorado Partnership for Education and Rural Revitalization is partnering with Southern Colorado colleges to offer construction trainees a four-week apprenticeship that allows participants to earn a certificate in construction while fixing dilapidated properties in the area, reports Dan Boyce of Colorado Public Radio. Attorney General Phil Weiser, who is directing the program's funding, told Boyce, "We're committing to a theory we are testing in the marketplace. If you train people to redevelop these properties, you do redevelop them. You'll sell them, improving the community, and the money will go back into the program, and it will keep sustaining itself."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's monthly outlook says El Niño is here, "meaning El Niño conditions are now present and expected to gradually strengthen into the winter," reports AgWeek. Not all El Niño news is bad, "Agricultural meteorologist Eric Snodgrass says it also tends to bring favorable growing conditions for crops in the Midwest."

Eating too much cotton candy and other sweets does not cause
(Photo by Robert Clark, Nat Geo Image Collection)
Good news for parents: It isn't sugar that makes kids hyper, so you can quit worrying about the summertime ice cream, popsicles and jello you may be serving. The bad news: It's special events that cause kids to spazz out, reports Jason Bittel of National Geographic. Mark Corkins, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition, told Bittel, "When we look at the times that kids have high sugar intake, it's usually associated with when they're going to be hyper, even if you didn't give them any sugar." Bittel adds, "In other words, being ensconced in a celebratory environment with relatives and friends who children might not see every day is itself a very strong stimulant."

Thursday, June 15, 2023

Broadband's big spending day is coming soon; FCC's new map showing levels of service is better, but still incomplete

Photo by deepblue4you, Getty Images, via Route Fifty
The Federal Communications Commission has updated its broadband map that it will use to guide $42.5 billion in high-speed-internet investments, but still has work to do with grants scheduled in thre weeks, reports Kery Murakami of Route Fifty.

The map has changed as states and localities filed and won thousands of challenges to the previous version. The new map added "330,000 more unserved or underserved locations that had been missed in the previous version, bringing to 8.3 million the number of homes and businesses with no or poor internet service, according to the FCC. In addition, the new versions of the map added more than 1 million locations that were not included in the first draft," Murakami reports. "While the map is not perfect, says Robert Fish, deputy director of Vermont's broadband office, it seems to be more accurate. The state has successfully filed 8,100 challenges to it," and 2,700 of those results still aren't on the map, Fish says.

Texas Route Fifty contrasts "Alaska, which could get about $180 million more than it would have under earlier map versions," and Michigan, which "could lose about $400 million . . . according to a review of the new FCC data in a newsletter followed by many in the broadband industry," published by Mike Conlow, director of network strategy for the tech company Cloudflare. He predicts "nearly half the states will be getting more money, while others will be getting less than originally anticipated," Murakami reports.

Southern Baptist Convention upholds expulsions of two churches with female pastors; many more seem likely follow

Delegates voted at the convention in New Orleans.
(Photo by Christiana Botic, The New York Times)
Southern Baptist Convention delegates voted to uphold the denomination's previous expulsion of churches with women pastors who had appealed their "disfellowshiped" status, report Liam Adams and Katherine Burgess of The Tennessean. "The nation's largest Protestant denomination took a major stand this week on the role of women in the church, emphatically making clear that the office of pastor is reserved for men only. . . . Voting delegates upheld the ouster of Saddleback Church in Southern California and Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., for having women in lead or senior pastor roles and took steps to enshrine in its constitution a prohibition on female pastors. . . . The decisions made clear that the conservative denomination will kick churches out with women pastors."

"Until now, the fight was limited to pastoral leadership and was included in theological statements, not the group's official legal documents. The amendment must be passed again next year for it to go into effect," report Ruth Graham and Elizabeth Dias of The New York Times. "The constitutional amendment threatens to unleash a crisis for the denomination ahead of next year's final vote. Bart Barber, who was re-elected president of the SBC on Tuesday, acknowledged that the faction pushing for the change was poised to file complaints against every church that they believed violated the tightening standards — potentially an estimated 1,900 churches who have women pastors."

Mike Law, a young pastor who proposed the amendment, said, "speaking from a microphone in the convention hall, 'Now is not the time for half measures or delay.' He framed voting against the amendment as being afraid of the Bible," the Times reports. "The dramatic clash over the place of women in leadership is the result of moves by an ultraconservative wing of the SBC to reverse what it sees as a liberal drift. More than 90 percent of the delegates voted in favor of Fern Creek's expulsion, and almost as many voted to confirm the removal of Saddleback, which was founded by the prominent preacher and author Rick Warren."

Two years ago, the ultrconservatives were considered a fringe minority. Some compared themselves to pirates who wanted to 'take the ship' and steer the church in a new course on issues of race, gender and politics," The Times reports. "Evidence of the denomination's rightward turn could be seen in their rejection of Warren, Saddleback's founder. . . . Warren noted that the denomination's theological statement was 4,032 words long. 'Saddleback disagrees with one word,' he said on Tuesday. 'That's 99.99999999 percent in agreement! Isn't that close enough?'. . . The crowd shouted back at him, 'No!'"

The Tennessean explains, "At the national level, the decisions about Saddleback and Fern Creek sets a precedent for the SBC Credentials Committee, an oversight group that evaluates churches’ affiliation with the Nashville-based SBC, to recommend disfellowshipping more churches with women pastors in the future. The SBC Executive Committee decides whether to approve those recommendations. . . . Meredith Stone, executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, said in a statement, 'These votes devalue the worth and callings of women to participate in God’s work through the local church. . . . The emotional, spiritual, and physical safety of women is further threatened when they are not only devalued, but used in a political denominational battle.'"


Hamm to become director of Institute for Rural Journalism Aug. 16 as founding director Cross enters semi-retirement

Benjamin R. "Benjy" Hamm
The University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which is dedicated to helping sustain local journalism in rural America, will have a new director on Aug. 16.

He is Benjamin R. “Benjy” Hamm, who has held leadership positions for nearly 30 years in news-media organizations including Landmark Media Enterprises, the New York Times Co. and The Associated Press. For the last four years, he has taught journalism at Campbellsville University in Kentucky.

Hamm will be associate extension professor in UK’s School of Journalism and Media, part of the College of Communication and Information. He will succeed the Institute’s founding director, Al Cross, who will become part-time director emeritus and remain extension professor in the journalism school.

“I could not think of a better successor than Benjy Hamm,” Cross said. “His career has given him a deep, broad understanding of rural journalism and its challenges, and I look forward to working with him to help rural communities sustain local journalism that serves democracy.”

Hamm led the news operations of more than 70 newspapers, online sites and college-sports publications for Landmark Community Newspapers of Shelbyville, Ky., one of the nation’s leading community-news publishers before it was sold two years ago.

Previously, he was managing editor of The Herald-Journal, then a New York Times paper in Spartanburg, S.C.; editor of the thrice-weekly Lancaster News in South Carolina, and an AP reporter and editor. He has a master’s degree in mass communications from the University of South Carolina and is also a graduate of Catawba College. He is a native of Salisbury, N.C.

Hamm said, “The Institute has long served as an important resource for professional journalists, students and community leaders, and I am excited to help lead the organization as it continues its crucial mission. Al Cross and the founders of the Institute recognized 20 years ago the importance of supporting and sustaining rural journalism in Kentucky and across the country, and that mission is more important now than ever.”

UK created the Institute for Rural Journalism as a research project in 2002. Cross, who reported for 26 years for the Louisville Courier Journal, was hired as director in 2004 with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and additional support from the Ford Foundation.

The Institute conducts research, gives advice, conducts workshops and publishes The Rural Blog, a daily digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America. With support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, it also publishes Kentucky Health News, of which Cross will remain publisher for one year.

“The Institute is integral to the service and outreach missions of our college and UK,” said Jennifer Greer, dean of the College of Communication and Information. “The work that Al Cross and his team do supports local journalists and rural communities throughout the nation at a time when the need for accurate and trusted information is needed more than ever. We are thrilled to have Benjy carry on this important work.”

Dr. Erika Engstrom, director of the School of Journalism and Media, said "Benjy Hamm brings to the Institute vast professional experience researching the news industry and advising rural news outlets on how they can enhance and expand their ability to inform the public and foster an informed electorate, the foundation of democracy. We are fortunate to bring him to UK to join the faculty and lead the Institute as it moves forward with its mission."

The Institute will host the third National Summit on Journalism in Rural America July 7 at The Campbell House in Lexington, and the Al Smith Awards Dinner (named for the Institute’s co-founder, who died in 2021) on Oct. 26 at the Embassy Suites Lexington, with Susan Page of USA Today as the keynote speaker.

Help crashing bird populations with local reporting, which can find answers and improve awareness; here are tips

The Kirtland’s warbler is one of the rarest songbirds in North America.
(Photo by Ian Davies, Cornell University Lab, Macaulay Library)
Bird populations are struggling worldwide. In North America, a "key 2022 report found that more than half of U.S. and Canadian bird species have suffered dramatic drops in population, reports Joseph A. Davis for The Society of Environmental Journalists. "Local and regional developments make this a story for environmental journalists to explore."

Birds matter. "They pollinate plants (many of which people enjoy and/or depend on). They eat things we often wish not to have around, such as insects or carrion. Also, they may feed us," Davis writes. "They may spread disease (and often suffer from disease). And they are (no apologies for the pun) the 'canary in the coal mine' when it comes to habitat loss or toxic substances in the environment."

Along with their importance in nature, birds provide people "with joy and wonder almost everywhere we encounter them in our world. They are beautiful. They are capable of incredible feats. And their songs and calls brighten and beautify our lives," Davis adds. "Birds are awesome."

Birds are declining for many reasons, but the meta-reason is "human action," Davis writes. "As European settlers to North America cut forests, drained wetlands, plowed grasslands, built reservoirs, dug up minerals and paved much of what remained, birds have had a tougher time finding homes and food — and raising their young. . . . It's not just that. A lot of birds eat insects, and insect populations are also declining dramatically. So that may be part of the explanation. Behind that decline may be the massive agricultural use of pesticides."

Davis offers these story ideas:

  • Find local birding clubs (see link below), attend meetings, talk to leaders, go on walks and ask about local species, local declines and local threats to birds.
  • Are there unique habitats in your area? Species specially adapted to those habitats? Dramatic changes to those habitats?
  • What birds migrate through your area? Are their food sources and resting places under threat?
  • What diseases afflict what birds in your area? Those could vary from bird flu to West Nile virus. Do human activities promote the spread of disease?
  • What is the role of backyard bird feeders in your ecosystem? Some call them "cat feeders." Do they help or hurt? Spread disease?
  • What is the role of "outdoor" or feral cats in the decline?
  • What is the role of big buildings and glass windows in the decline?
  • What is going on with tree cover and wetlands in your area? Is climate change a factor?

He also offers these reporting resources:
Cornell Lab of Ornithology: This institution, part of Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has all kinds of bird-related resources.
National Audubon Society: A premier national nonprofit for conservation and policy and just birding. It has a network of local and regional affiliates.
The Great Backyard Bird Count: Join the world in connecting to birds – February 16–19, 2024.
Christmas Bird Count: A long-standing tradition in many places that can give some unscientific sense of population trends. Organized by National Audubon. Ask your local chapter about its results.
Local/regional birding and conservation groups: Start here. There are probably others not on the list.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: The federal agency most active in bird conservation. Find a refuge near you and talk to the staff. You can also reach out to managers of your state, local and private wildlife refuges.
National Wildlife Health Center: This unit of the U.S. Geological Survey is an authoritative source on bird disease.
North American Bird Conservation Initiative: The consortium of researchers, government agencies and cnservation groups that produced the 2022 report mentioned above.
Ducks Unlimited: Yes, its members do hunt ducks — but they work very hard for conservation. Check in with your local chapter and talk to them about migratory birds.
State conservation agencies: Terminology varies, but a good directory can be found here.
People who maintain local backyard bird feeders: One way to find them is to go to a hardware store where feeders and seeds are sold. Talk to customers.

Rural challenges show repeated concerns and a glimmer of optimism by residents, a new survey indicates

Chart by The Daily Yonder from Save Your Town 2023 survey results
How do you feel about the future of your rural town? "Since 2015, two women, Becky McCray and Deb Brown, have been surveying rural communities on how they view their area's problems and future," reports Kristi Eaton of The Daily Yonder. The pair created Save Your Town, an Oklahoma-Mississippi-based effort that helps towns find affordable ways to address local problems.

Often survey results do not follow preconceived ideas, and 2023 results followed that pattern. Pollster Celinda Lake told Eaton, "Rural people were twice as likely to say they were optimistic about their community's future as were negative about their community's future. I was very happy to see how optimistic people were." Lake said she was "really pleased and surprised" to see events, education, tourism and arts and culture listed as top community assets.

The survey was taken online from Nov. 11 to Jan. 31 and got 315 responses from subscribers and visitors to SaveYour.Town and, from news-media coverage and cooperating groups that publicized the survey. "Survey participation is voluntary and self-selected, not based on scientific polling methods, but the online survey does offer a range of responses from people who identify as rural," Eaton points out. "The self-selected participants were more optimistic about the economy than people who participated in the Daily Yonder’s 2022 scientific, randomized poll of rural voters. . . . nearly three-quarters of rural respondents said the economy was not working well for them. Half said they expected their financial situation would get worse in the next year."

Co-founder Becky Brown said the latest survey shows "big disconnects. . . between what rural people want and what services and assistance are commonly offered to them." She "said business owners and leaders said usable buildings are harder to find than loans, and they showed little interest in needing support with business plans or pitch competitions," Eaton reports. "This year’s survey found that in addition to housing and downtowns, other challenges were not enough volunteers, losing young people, and a lack of child care."

In 2019, Save Your Town survey respondents gave these top five concerns: Losing young people; downtown is dead; not enough good housing; need new residents; no one shops in town. In 2021, the top five were identical with the exception of "no one shops downtown" falling off the list and "not enough [residents] volunteer" being added. The latest survey mirrored much of the earlier results but added lack of child care. Although Americans have many divides, repeated concerns on rural responses highlight several issues such as not enough young people (or laborers), a lack of affordable housing and a severe lack of child care options, which are also problematic for urban and suburban areas.

Oats could be making a comeback; they help the soil and control pests and diseases in rotation with other crops

Oats near harvest time in Iowa
(Photo by Anne Plagge via Civil Eats)

Most oats consumed in the U.S. come from Canada, but there are sprouts of change on the horizon. Spurred by the oat "milk" industry's demand, some farmers are piloting crops of Avena sativa. Crop rotations using oats provide benefits such as healthier soil and some control over crop diseases and pests, but the crop needs more internal supports, Amy Mayer reports for Civil Eats. Oats were once an American mainstay crop, "But the second half of the 20th century brought myriad changes to Midwest agriculture. . . federal policy incentives for corn and soybeans that led to significant investment from seed and chemical companies. . . . It became easier and more profitable to grow only corn and soybeans. . . . In 1950, Iowa planted 6.5 million acres of oats. In 1980, Iowa had just 1 million acres of oats, and by 2000, just 180,000 acres."

"Landon Plagge farms 4,000 acres in Latimer, Iowa, with his father and uncle, and his oats are a rarity. . . in the neighborhood," Mayer writes. "Plagge is one of a handful of farmers who have been taking part in an oat-growing pilot program launched in Minnesota and Iowa in 2019. Through the program, he gets technical assistance and some money to plant oats and cover crops." He told Mayer, "I'd like to plant more oats, but the market isn't good enough right now." 

Green oat shoots in the spring
(Photo by Anne Plagge via Civil Eats)
Consumers' demand for oat milk paired with their concern for "the environmental impact of their food choices. . . . is propelling some people to advocate for policy changes that could make growing oats more viable," Mayer reports. "Oatly, the Swedish company ... is one of more than half a dozen companies selling oat milk in the U.S. It buys a lot of oats—from Canada. That's where the vast majority of oats processed and eaten in the United States come from. . . . Oatly's sustainability goals have led it to explore sourcing more [oats] from the Midwest. . . . Over the last three years about 20 farmers have participated in the pilot Plagge joined, planting oats on about 1,500 to 2,000 total acres in northern Iowa and southern Minnesota, according to Lydia English, crops viability manager at Practical Farmers of Iowa, a nonprofit that nurtures farmer-led innovation. When Oatly came calling with the pilot idea, PFI was already working with a group of farmers who were experimenting with oats on their own as a way to diversify their corn and soy rotations, said English."

More processing options, investment in Midwestern seed varieties and federal inclusion of oats in required crop rotations could incentivize more oat plantings, Mayer writes, along with teaching farmers the benefits of oats and how to grow them, But many people think the crop checks enough boxes already and is worth the effort. English told Mayer, "We can grow oats here. We know growers want to do it. . . . We just need to help make it viable for them and support them."

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

America's path to renewable energy depends on a grid that isn't one grid, and transmission lines that bring objections

America's electric grid is, well, sort of a myth. "There is no single U.S. grid. There are three — one in the West, one in the East and one in Texas — that only connect at a few points and share little power between them," note Nadja Popovich and Brad Plumer of The New York Times. "America's fragmented electric grid, which was largely built to accommodate coal and gas plants, is becoming a major obstacle to efforts to fight climate change. . . . Tapping into the nation's vast supplies of wind and solar energy would be one of the cheapest ways to cut the emissions that are dangerously heating the planet, studies have found. . . . But many spots with the best sun and wind are far from cities and the existing grid. To make the plan work, the nation would need thousands of miles of new high-voltage transmission lines — large power lines that would span multiple grid regions."

The Times explains, "To understand the scale of what's needed, compare today's renewable energy and transmission system to one estimate of what it would take to reach the Biden administration's goal of 100 percent clean electricity generation by 2035. Transmission capacity would need to more than double in just over a decade:

New York Times maps; for larger versions, click on the image.

"There are enormous challenges to building that much transmission, including convoluted permitting processes and potential opposition from local communities," the Times reports. But . . . there is no single entity in charge of organizing the grid, the way the federal government oversaw the development of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s and '60s."

The projects face long and winding roads. "Already, a lack of transmission capacity means that thousands of proposed wind and solar projects are facing multiyear delays and rising costs to connect to the grid," the Times reports. "In many parts of the country, existing power lines are often so clogged that they can't deliver electricity from wind and solar projects to where it is needed most, and demand is often met by more expensive fossil fuel plants closer to homes and businesses. This problem, known as congestion, costs the country billions of dollars per year and has been getting worse."

Work has started, the Times notes: "The Biden administration has billions of dollars to help fund transmission projects. Congress has given the federal government new authority to override objections from state regulators for certain power lines deemed to be in the national interest. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an independent agency that regulates interstate transmission of electricity, gas and oil, is exploring ways to encourage grid operators to do more long-term planning and to strengthen ties between regions. Some lawmakers have proposed bills that would give the commission more power to approve the routes of major new lines that pass through multiple states, the way it does with gas pipelines. . . . But these efforts still face plenty of resistance. Utilities are sometimes wary of long-distance transmission lines that might undercut their local monopolies."

What if we can't move forward on grid changes? "If the country continues to struggle to build long-distance transmission, it might need to opt for more expensive measures to fight climate change instead, a recent study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found," the Times reports. "That could mean building more advanced nuclear plants or gas plants that capture their emissions, which could, in theory, be built closer to population centers."

'Get phones out of schools:' teachers, science support a ban

Photo by Jonas Roosens, ANP via Redux
Ask a junior-high or high-school teacher what they would like to do with cell phones and the overwhelming response is, "Get cell phones out of school," reports Jonathan Haidt for The Atlantic. "The teachers and administrators I spoke with. . . saw clear links between rising phone addiction and declining mental health, to say nothing of declining academic performance. A common theme in my conversations with them was: We all hate the phones. Keeping students off of their devices during class was a constant struggle. Getting students' attention was harder because they seemed permanently distracted and congenitally distractible. Drama, conflict, bullying, and scandal played out continually during the school day on platforms to which the staff had no access. I asked why they couldn't just ban phones during school hours. They said too many parents would be upset if they could not reach their children during the school day."

Does that mean phones get to stay? "A lot has changed since 2019. The case for phone-free schools is much stronger now. As my research assistant, Zach Rausch, and I have documented at my Substack, After Babel, evidence of an international epidemic of mental illness, which started around 2012, has continued to accumulate," Haidt writes. "So, too, has evidence that it was caused in part by social media and the sudden move to smartphones in the early 2010s. Many parents now see the addiction and distraction these devices cause in their children; most of us have heard harrowing stories of self-harming behavior and suicide attempts among our friends' children. Two weeks ago, the United States surgeon general issued an advisory warning that social media can carry 'a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.'"

Cell phones distract the mind and drain mental energy. "Consider this study, aptly titled 'Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One's Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity.' The students involved in the study came into a lab and took tests that are commonly used to measure memory capacity and intelligence. They were randomly assigned to one of three groups, given the following instructions: (1) Put your phone on your desk, (2) leave it in your pocket or bag, or (3) leave it out in another room," Haidt explains. "None of these conditions involve active phone use––just the potential distraction of knowing your phone is there, with texts and social-media posts waiting. The results were clear: The closer the phone was to students' awareness, the worse they performed on the tests. Even just having a phone in their pocket sapped students' abilities."

Cell phones also zap social connections and leave adolescents feeling lonely. "The psychologist Jean M. Twenge and I have found a global increase in loneliness at school beginning after 2012. Students around the world became less likely to agree with survey items such as 'I feel like I belong at school and more likely to agree with items such as 'I feel lonely at school," Haidt writes. "That's roughly when teens went from mostly using flip phones to mostly using smartphones. It's also when Instagram caught fire with girls and young women globally, following its acquisition by Facebook, introducing selfie culture and its poisonous levels of visual social comparison."

Haidt recommends, "More American schools—arguably all schools—should make themselves into genuinely phone-free zones. How would that look in practice? I think it's helpful to think of phone restrictions on a scale from 1 to 5, as follows: Level 1: Students can take their phones out during class, but only to use them for class purposes.  Level 2: Students can hold onto their phone but are not supposed to take it out of their pocket or backpack at all during class time. Level 3: Phone caddies in classrooms: Students put their phones into a wall pocket or storage unit at the start of each class and then pick them up at the end of that class.

Stagnant demand, lower exports, higher production costs create 'worst financial times for pork producers in 25 years'

Storm Lake Times Pilot photo
Overproduction and high costs are tanking the pork industry, but "the glut of pork on the market has yet to translate into lower prices for consumers," reports Patrick Thomas of The Wall Street Journal. "Hog farmers in the U.S. are being squeezed and even driven out of business as they lose money at their worst rate in decades. Meatpacking companies, including Smithfield Foods, Tyson Foods and BSJ, said pork profits are shrinking, leading some in the industry to scale back operations ranging from hog farms to processing plants."

Tom Cullen of the Storm Lake Times Pilot in Iowa reports, "Hog prices at all levels have decreased. Prices for pigs six to eight weeks old have slumped by 80% since last fall, suggesting a contraction is on the horizon. Production costs have increased 50% in two years. . . . California's Proposition 12 could force producers to invest millions into new confinements, creating space for sows that previously couldn't stand up, turn around and extend their limbs. The state law is expected to take effect July 1." Lee Schulz, an Iowa State University Extension livestock economist, told Cullen that these are "the worst financial times for pork producers in 25 years."

Dwight Mogler, an Iowa family farmer with "more than 200,000 hogs, told Cullen his operation 'won't exist' if market conditions persist." Cullen writes, "Mogler is losing $30 to $40 per head on each hog he sends to market. He believes he will sell half as many hogs in 2024 as this year. Mogler told Cullen: "This could very well be the biggest event of consecutive month-to-month losses the industry has seen. And there's no light at the end of the tunnel. . . . We will not exist as a farm if this doesn't get remedied."

The problem has built up over several years, and the remedy will take some time. In 2018, China's pigs were "devastated by an African swine fever outbreak. . . . Exports from the U.S. hit a record 7.3 billion pounds in 2020, according to federal data. In 2022, U.S. pork export volumes fell 10% from the year before as China began rebuilding its hog population," Thomas reports. "With less U.S. pork shipped overseas, more remains at home, where demand has stagnated. . . . Shane Smith, chief executive of Smithfield, the biggest U.S. pork producer, said the end of pandemic-era food-stamp benefits earlier this year also has cut into U.S. shoppers' pork purchases."

"As companies up and down the supply chain grapple with lowering demand, production costs will remain the same. Wages at meatpacking plants have increased substantially since the Covid-19 pandemic," Cullen reports. "Feed costs, which are derived from commodity prices, have increased. Fuel costs are also up." Schultz told Cullen: "The costs for producers . . . they're here to stay. You account for labor, interest rates, fuel, feed, and production (costs) will remain relatively high."

Proposition 12 will change the pork industry. Cullen writes, "Prices inside California, the largest consumer of U.S. pork, are expected to rise while decreasing in every other state. . . The long-term implications of the law cannot be estimated. Schulz said producers that can afford to make the shift to comply with Proposition 12 will be paid a premium for what is perceived as best animal-welfare practices. The question is whether those premiums can pay for new investments amortized over 15 to 25 years."

Flora and fauna: Bat researchers won respect; senators fight the lanternfly; writer tends her garden; fireflies at risk ...

Flying fox bats rest in trees in Tamworth, Australia.
(Photo by Kathleen Flynn, Propublica)
Tenacious bat researchers like Australian Peggy Eby found a way to predict pandemics, but first, they had to overcome a lack of scientific support. "Eby found like-minded scientists, and the team, led by women, persisted. They cobbled together grant after grant, battled burnout and kept impatient funders at bay," reports Caroline Chen of ProPublica. "A decade after Eby’s government grant proposal was shot down, they published a groundbreaking paper in the journal Nature that demonstrated it was not only possible to predict" spillover of a virus from bats to humans, "but it might be preventable. Only then did it become obvious just how important Eby’s quiet fieldwork truly was."
A spotted lanternfly
(Photo by Ted Shaffrey, AP)

Not all polka dots are cute and harmless. Meet the spotted lanternfly. "A bipartisan group of senators unveiled a proposal aimed at addressing the spread of the spotted lanternfly, an invasive species they warn poses 'a significant threat to the U.S. agricultural economy,'" reports Julia Mueller of The Hill. "'Spotted lanternflies ravage crops that are critical to Pennsylvania’s economy including grapevines, apples, peaches, hops, and more,'” said Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.)."
"Swastika Mountain needed a new name. It wasn’t a nod to the Nazis, but that didn’t make the Oregon peak any less controversial. This is how—and why—wild places get renamed in the U.S.," reports Joel Mathish of National Geographic.

Like human lives, gardens evolve and change over time. Sometimes they have to be moved to thrive, but if tended, they will grow and change with the seasons. "A garden, of course, is made up of living things, changing all the time. But it's been fun to every year change the space itself, too, every year finding ways to make things just a little better," writes Jenny Schlecht of Agweek. "Radishes, peas and lettuce already have started poking their heads through the soil, and most of the tomato and pepper plants are hearty and healthy. It'll all continue to grow and change day by day, and I can't wait to be outside to watch it."

Introducing "Sheep Shorts!" Pants for sheep! BAaaaah! Not really. Sheep shorts are clips of good times raising lambs and sheep and enjoying rural life in Eastern Kentucky. 
Check them out here. 
Fireflies are one of nature's most delightful insects. But they are struggling to survive. "Experts offer tips on how to make a home for the beloved bioluminescent insects in your own backyard—from creating a microhabitat to keeping your off," reports Amy McKeever of National Geographic.

(Firefly photo by Taylor Kennedy, Sitka Productions, Nat Geo Image Collection)