Friday, August 11, 2023

'The country has come apart. Rural America has a cure,' good papers that create a sense of community, writer says

Google map, adapted by The Rural Blog
Columnist Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, who recently bought a home in Rappahannock County, Virginia, has discovered the weekly Rappahannock News, one of America's best small newspapers, and he sees it as a cure for what ails the nation:

"At a time when hooligans have hijacked the national discourse with disinformation and paranoia, the Rappahannock News operates in a calmer place where the slow rhythms of rural life are newsworthy — and where, regardless of political views, its readers are unified by a powerful sense of community. In tiny Rappahannock County, the newspaper still serves as the hymnal of our civic religion. It’s a tradition that we need to rescue in rural America — and emulate in our cities."

The Rapp News is known for the support it gets from a local foundation, Foothills Forum, and recently got an editor through Report for America. Withhout those two things, it would probably have a staff of one instead of four to serve the county of about 7,350, Publisher Dennis Brack told Milbank, who explains all that, but also gives several examples of how it punches above its weight:

A volunteer fire department "responded so infrequently and so poorly to emergency calls that the state yanked the rescue squad’s certification. Yet the nonresponsive first responders (they apparently handled no calls for about 10 months) continued to draw $25,000 quarterly from the county — resulting in a months-long legal fight that the Rapp News chronicled in delicious detail. . . . The paper is the only outlet demanding accountability for the just-launched broadband expansion . . . Coverage of meddling by a local bigwig prompted officials to rescind a plan to move the local post office . . . Its reporting on a foiled shooting plot at the local high school led authorities to abandon attempts to keep the matter hushed up. When a winter snowstorm knocked out power in parts of the county, some readers called the newspaper rather than the power company to ask when the lights would come back on. In an age of lost confidence in news media (as in almost all institutions), readers still trust this community paper."

Milbank starts his piece with selections from the paper's personal items, such as "Chuck and Diane Moore just celebrated their 43rd wedding anniversary. Mae Racer makes the best rice pudding," and reports, "I freely admit that I don’t know any of these people. Yet, I am enthralled. . . . At a time when we’re perpetually fighting about weighty matters in our national life, it’s soothing to know there’s still a place where we can all come together, bound by our common affection for things close to home."

Supreme Court freezes Purdue Pharma's bankruptcy plan

The U.S. Supreme Court has frozen a bankruptcy reorganization plan for OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma that would shield members of the Sackler family, who own the firm, "from civil claims in exchange for paying up to $6 billion to address the U.S. opioid crisis," Axios reports. "Justices will review the agreement and hear arguments in the case in December."

Adrriel Bettelheim writs that the ruling "marks a win for the Biden administration after the Justice Department argued the bankruptcy court couldn't grant the family members legal immunity from claims by opioid victims." The company said it was optimistic that the high court would find ten plan to be legal, NBC News reports.

"The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in May that the bankruptcy plan could proceed, reversing a lower court ruling against immunity since the Sackler family members weren't declaring bankruptcy themselves," Bettelheim notes. "The deal furthered a settlement that would send billions of dollars to states, local governments and Indigenous tribes affected by the opioid epidemic. But experts questioned whether it would lead to copycat cases, in which corporations tried to limit liability through bankruptcy courts. Purdue filed for bankruptcy in 2019 after facing thousands of lawsuits over its marketing" of OxyContin, a painkiller widely blamed for starting the opioid epidemic.

U.S. dairy farms keep getting fewer and bigger

Graph by Investigate Midwest

The number of U.S. dairy farms has continued to shrink as dairying becomes one of "the most consolidated agricultural industries, according to a Department of Agriculture report," Ava Mandoli of Investigate Midwest reports. Dairy farm costs have increased, and milk prices have not kept pace, which means smaller dairy farms cannot squeeze out a profit, and have closed. "Since 2013, the number of licensed dairy herds has decreased by more than 40%," Mandoli reports. "Between 2000 and 2021, the average U.S. dairy managed to turn a profit just twice, according to a Food and Water Watch analysis of USDA data."

"The largest farms have gotten larger. By 2017, half of all herds numbered more than 1,300 cows, a figure expected to increase with the growth of large factory farms. . . . Large industrial operations have been better equipped to survive long periods of tight margins than family-operated farms, according to the USDA report,"Mandoli reports. "Companies that purchase and process milk have also been consolidating. More than 80% of all milk is now marketed by three dairy cooperatives: Dairy Farmers of America, Land O’Lakes and California Dairies.

Preventing invasive plant species expense and harm starts with early detection; state governments can help

Japanese knotweed can grow 8 inches
a day. (Photo: Jack Ranney, U of Tenn.)
What can prevent the damage and expense that an invasive plant species can cause? Early detection and action. "By leveraging innovative detection and monitoring tools, state and local land managers can get ahead of the environmental and fiscal consequences of the aggressive spread of non-native plants," reports Kaitlyn Levinson of Route Fifty.

For example, "Japanese knotweed, an invasive plant commonly found in the Northeast . . . can damage highway and water infrastructure, according to a 2021 report from the Transportation Department. It can grow up to 8 inches per day and quickly block lines of sight at intersections and stop signs. When the plant's roots expand, they can weaken the integrity of or even cause fractures in road pavement and concrete on bridges. Stormwater and septic systems are also vulnerable."

Bromus tectorum or cheatgrass
Cheatgrass is an invader spreading in the Great Basin. The grass is "notorious for being flammable, worsening the spread of fires," Levinson writes. "Nevada recently felt the fiery effects of cheatgrass when California's York Fire crossed state lines, burning more than 80,000 acres last week."

Knowledge of where non-native plants are growing or may return to grow is helpful. Bethany Bradley, a professor of biogeography and spatial ecology at the University of Massachusetts, told Levinson, "You can translate that [data] back onto a map of what the future climate conditions are likely to be, and that can give you a sense of [invasive species] risk right now, and what risk looks like 20 years, 50 years [or] 100 years, which, from a management perspective, can help with advanced planning."

Non-native phragmite in Utah
(Photo via Utah State University)
Utah is using plant management strategies to fight "an invasive reed called phragmite that has taken over the Utah Lake shoreline," Levinson explains. "Phragmites create a fire-prone landscape and often impede recreation and rescue efforts. . . .To better identify where treatment is needed and to track treatment progress, the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands uses geographic information systems to map the phragmite landscape. . . . . Last year, phragmite coverage was reduced by 74% with improved monitoring, herbicide treatments, revegetation and other efforts."

Levison reports, "The state is also exploring how drone imagery and artificial intelligence could be used to enhance the identification management of invasive species in wetland areas, FFSL Senior GIS Analyst Gabriel Svobodny said."

J. R. 'Robbie' Robertson, who 'turned old American folklore into modern myths' with The Band and others, dies at 80

Robertson at his Santa Monica studio in 2019. (Photo by Carolyn Cole, L.A. Times)
Robbie Robertson, a native Canadian who helped create the muscal genre Americana or "roots music," did Wednesday in Los Angeles. He was 80.

James Royal Robertson was lead songwriter and guitarist of The Band, which started out as The Hawks, often a backup group for rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, and "ended up as The Band — a conceit their fans would say they earned — because people would point to them when they were with Dylan and refer to them as 'the band'," writes Hillel Italie of The Associated Press. "The Band profoundly influenced popular music in the 1960s and ‘70s, first by literally amplifying Dylan’s polarizing transition from folk artist to rock star and then by absorbing the works of Dylan and Dylan’s influences as they fashioned a new sound immersed in the American past. . . . They remain defined by their first two albums, 'Music from Big Pink' and 'The Band,' both released in the late 1960s." Robertson's works "offered a rustic vision of America that seemed at once mythic and authentic," writes Jim Farber of The New York Times.

Robertson "had the knack of making everything he recorded sound fashioned by hand, produced in a barn and played from the heart," Ty Burr writes for The Washington Post. "But his influences and inspirations came from all over the map: the lost colony of Acadia and Louisiana’s Cajun diaspora, deep-blues juke joints in the Mississippi Delta and rockabilly rave-ups at a Midwest county fair. There was jazz in there, and folk music and country; there was a lot of backwoods front-porch hootenanny. There were the atmospheric orchestrations of modern film scoring, too, and underneath it all and increasingly on the surface there was Robertson’s birthright: the sounds of Ontario’s Six Nations people and, by extension, the indigenous tribes of an entire continent — the roots music whose roots go deepest of all. Robbie Robertson didn’t make Americana. He made North American music."

The Band's songs, sung by drummer Levon Helm, keyboardist Richard Manuel and bassist Rick Danko, "were unlike anything on the AM or FM dial — older, wiser, sadder and friskier, with bones that went back to a time before electricity," Burr writes. "Parables like 'The Weight,' which straddled the Bible and the tall tale; 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,' which sounded like it really was sung by a defeated Confederate soldier in 1865; ''King Harvest Has Surely Come', a busted Depression-era farmer’s lament; 'Up On Cripple Creek,' a truck driver coming home to Bessie in 'Lake Charles, Looozeyana'. . . . Like Dylan, Robertson was a self-taught musicologist and storyteller influenced by everything American from the novels of William Faulkner to the scorching blues of Howlin’ Wolf to the gospel harmonies of the Swan Silvertones." Farber says Robertson's lyrics "conjured a wild place, often centered in the South, peopled by rough-hewed characters," such as "the shady creatures in 'Life Is a Carnival'."

In death, Robertson has a final hit: His 2017 memoir Testimony "has returned to the top of the bestseller lists," Variety reports. Here are "15 essential Robbie Robertson songs," from the Los Angeles Times, whose Stephen Thomas Erlewine says "Robertson turned old American folklore into modern myths" and "acted as the ringleader in 'The Last Waltz,' widely regarded as one of the greatest concert films ever made." Erlewine reports on Robertson's later work and notes, "In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made to the Six Nations of the Grand River to support a new Woodland Cultural Center."

In a world of social-media noise and dark drugs, how do we warn kids how dangerous experimenting with them is?

Illustration by Michael DeForge, The New York Times

How do you talk to your kids about fentanyl, xylazine, or meth? How do you warn them how dangerous a simple party could become? At the risk of sounding like the old Alan Parsons Project, perhaps it's time to say, "Where do we go from here?" In answer to that question, addiction journalist Maia Szalavitz gives her thoughts on talking to kids about dark drugs in an opinion piece for The New York Times.

It can start with knowledge of what can happen when kids take risks. "In September, two 15-year-old Los Angeles girls overdosed on fentanyl, one of them fatally, after they purchased what they thought were prescription opioid‌‌ pills. . . . Teen opioid fatalities have doubled in recent years, even as opioid use among adolescents has plummeted. . . .Street fentanyl and its derivatives can be dozens to thousands of times more potent than the oxycodone in Percocet. Street synthetics are typically found in drugs sold as heroin or prescription pills, but they are sometimes present in party drugs like cocaine. This has exponentially increased the risk of even one or two ‌‌youthful experiments."

Young people are assailed with social media and messaging all day long. How do parents and caretakers cut through the noise? "Two key themes emerge in effective approaches. One is that reaching adolescents requires earning trust by being truthful, rather than simply trying to instill fear. The second‌‌ is that school-based programs must recognize that not all drug use can be prevented. ‌‌Instead of focusing only on abstinence, they aim to prevent the highest-risk behaviors and ‌address the personal and environmental factors most likely to lead to addiction.

Today there is a greater recognition of the need for accuracy‌ over hype. New videos and radio spots from the Advertising Council, which has been making public service announcements for the government and nonprofits since the 1940s, confront the dangerous new reality directly. They feature former drug dealers — not cops — speaking plainly about fentanyl. They also provide information on how to reverse overdoses with the opioid antidote, naloxone."

What has been working? "Rhana Hashemi, who has helped pilot an evidence-based program called Safety First, says teens are more likely to listen when they recognize they are given accurate information about genuine dangers. . . . Hashemi said that she always stresses that abstinence is the safest option and that in reality, most teenagers abstain from illegal drugs. She also provides information on harm reduction. This can include using tests that can detect fentanyl before taking any pill or powder not prescribed by a doctor, never using alone and having naloxone nearby. . . . Hashemi said a common response is for students to recognize how serious the danger is and decide that in light of the effort needed to reduce risk, using isn’t worth it right now. For those who aren’t deterred, however, the hope is they are armed with ways to protect themselves."

Some people are born with temperaments that are more likely to lead to addiction. "In 2016, I wrote about one program called PreVenture, which targets ‌problematic coping strategies by teaching children better ways to manage their particular temperaments. By acting early, ‌‌the program aims to prevent predispositions from becoming disorders‌ and obviate the desire to use drugs to self-medicate. Programs like PreVenture that teach self-regulation and coping skills have been shown to have lasting effects, unlike those that focus only on refusing drugs."

Where do we go from here? We keep kids alive. "Effective addiction prevention requires social change to prevent or at least intervene early in childhood trauma, creating communities conducive to mental health with safe, nurturing schools, stimulating extracurricular activities and access to comprehensive health care. ‌‌But first, we need to keep ‌‌young people alive, which means having uncomfortable, honest conversations about ‌the dangers of drugs and the ways to minimize the risk for those who use them. . . . .No one has yet found a way to eliminate youthful risk-taking and impulsiveness — probably for the best because these can also drive learning and creativity. We can, however, reduce the odds that the unwise things kids do will kill them."

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Iowa State Fair, a celebration of rural life and a must for presidential candidates, is on; voters get up close, personal

The Des Moines Register's soapbox draws a crowd. (Photo by Salwan Georges, The Washington Post)

The Iowa State Fair began today, and every Republican presidential candidate is expected to attemd, seeking support for the caucues that will see the first votes for president in 2024. It's a celebration of rural life in an agricultural state that has trended Republican under Donald Trump, who will attend but will not join other candidates in conversation with Gov. Kim Reynolds, "whom he has recently criticized as being too close to a rival presidential candidate," Dylan Wells of The Washington Post reports. DeSantis and Trump, both coming Saturday, will both skip the Des Moines Register’s Political Soapbox, where candidates make brief speeches "and answer questions directly from fairgoers."

"The Democratic National Committee voted in February to replace Iowa as the party’s first nominating state, rendering it irrelevant to securing the party’s nomination," Wells notes. "Still, both of President Biden’s long-shot challengers — Marianne Williamson and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. [here's a FactCheck on him] — plan to attend the fair. . . . Most candidates hope to make common ground with working-class people. They will flip pork chops and sample Iowa’s notorious fried foods while trying to avoid awkward photos of themselves eating. . . .The fair offers candidates a unique opportunity to showcase their skills in retail politics, gain national recognition and prove themselves as relatable people — or just the opposite, should they make a gaffe or become a meme for their behavior at the event."

Wells offers examples: "In 2011, Mitt Romney told someone while being heckled during a speech, 'Corporations are people, my friend' — a line that came to haunt his campaign. . . . Candidates are under a microscope at the event, given the large amount of face time with Iowans and the constant presence of news media. Candidates also have suffered from ordering the 'wrong snack': John F. Kerry went for a smoothie . . . Although good politicking at the fair isn’t an indicator of who will become president, a strong performance can refresh a struggling campaign or lift political underdogs into the national spotlight."

USDA's voluntary tack on climate change brought farmers along; next job is convincing Wall Street, environmentalists

Methane emissions from livestock are not targeted by the USDA's
initial program, which focuses on soil. (Photo by Mario Tama, Getty)
President Biden’s plan to help farmers reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions "has the powerful, conservative Beltway farm lobby smiling ear-to-ear," Garrett Downs of Politico reports. "That’s enough investment to turn the agricultural lobby around on Biden, for now. But the administration acknowledges it still has a long way to go in proving to climate advocates that its plan will reduce the effects of global warming in a meaningful way."

Biden's main tool is "a $3 billion initiative dubbed Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities," which is spending to test farming methods that reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, "akin to a large-scale science experiment," Downs writes. It aims to involve 60,000 farms and 25 million acres. "The Agriculture Department estimates the results will produce emissions benefits equal to taking around 12 million cars off the road."

Administration officials hope the "influx of cash will produce an impressive feat: turning some farmers, generally a conservative group, around on Biden," Downs reports. The so-called Inflation Reduction Act "will grow the incentive-driven climate-ag space by nearly $20 billion," and "They have even broader hopes for the new $3 billion initiative: that Wall Street will see the financial possibilities of turning farms green and make their own investments in similar projects."

Cover crops seeded into mature corn are a big part of the private
carbon-control market. (Photo from DTN/The Progerssive Farmer)
“This can’t just be government money; we have to attract private investment,” said Robert Bonnie, the USDA’s undersecretary of farm production and conservation. “Part of the real interest in the Partnerships program is a way to provide seed money to entice more folks in the private sector to come in … The government’s not going to do it alone.” He added, “If we’re going to maintain agriculture and forestry support for this, it’s got to stay voluntary. And if we can prove that this approach works, we have a high probability of doing that.”

Bonnie, a Kentucky native, is "a veteran of the Obama administration and saw that administration’s cap-and-trade approach go up in smoke," Downs notes. "He researched how to gain support in rural communities for environmental efforts."

Downs points out, "Wall Street has been nervous about investing in green supply chains — and in particular in purchasing carbon credits under government programs designed to quickly offset pollution from farms. Last year, a Bloomberg article exposed that scores of companies claiming to be eco-friendly actually purchased carbon credits that turned out to be bogus. . . . But after USDA provides significant monetary incentives to farms around the country to go green, Wall Street will have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t — and which carbon credits and sustainable farming tools are worth the money."

UPDATE, Aug. 11: Chris Clayton of DTN/The Progerssive Farmer reports, "With at least 22 different carbon programs being marketed now to farmers by private companies, a new research paper looks at how those programs should be transformed to deal with barriers to adoption and ideally broaden the adoptions of conservation practices in the process."

Rural help for expecting and postpartum moms is coming from someone new with a 'baby phone'

Paramedic Darren Forman sees a Project Swaddle
patient in her home. (Photo via RHI Hub)
Rural women, infants and toddlers often need special supports that are difficult to get in more remote areas. The fire department in an Indiana town of 16,000 is filling that need with a "baby phone," reports Gretel Kauffman of the Rural Health Information Hub. "Through Project Swaddle, a home visitation program in which a community paramedic brings wrap-around care to pregnant and postpartum patients, the Crawfordsville Fire Department has provided education, support, and medical care to more than 200 women. . . . Bringing resources and support to women experiencing at-risk pregnancies or other social or environmental challenges, the program aims to keep vulnerable patients from falling through the cracks in a maternity-care desert."

Darren Forman is a Project Swaddle paramedic and Kauffman's object example: "When Darren Forman's baby phone rings, he answers." Callers have been "a young mother calling for help on a Friday evening after a domestic dispute. A pregnant 17-year-old girl stopped by law enforcement after a methamphetamine relapse. A woman in need of a listening ear following a miscarriage. Through the baby phone, expectant and new mothers can reach Forman at all hours of the day and night with questions, crises, medical needs, or just to talk."

The need for Project Swaddle arose in 2011, when Crawfordsville's main hospital, Franciscan Health, closed its birthing unit. Five years later, "a community needs assessment revealed a gap in care and resources for mothers and babies in Montgomery County. But the severity of the issue came as a wake-up call for many community members and leaders, including first responders," Kauffman reports. The Crawfordsville city and county leaders moved to find a way to bridge the gap. "They turned to the Crawfordsville Fire Department, which had already begun to launch a home visitation program focused on chronic disease management. With that foundation laid, the department decided to pivot to try something new: shifting the focus of the home visitation program to moms and babies instead."

Wikipedia map, adapted
Kauffman reports, "Since then, Project Swaddle has expanded into a mobile integrated healthcare program offering wrap-around services to pregnant and postpartum women, with a holistic approach that requires coordination between paramedics, physicians, nurses, social workers, and other service providers in the community. Patients can enroll in Project Swaddle as early as the first trimester of their pregnancy and receive care up to 90 days postpartum; the program is in the process of expanding to serve mothers up to one year postpartum." Samantha Swearingen, Project Manager for the Crawfordsville Fire Department, told Kauffman: "We like to say the program is physician-led but patient-centered."

Project Swaddle developers put together a how-to guide with best practices for communities that want to start a similar program. "Swearingen notes that the Crawfordsville Fire Department was fortunate to have already had a relationship with the Franciscan Health Network after partnering with the local hospital for previous programs, making it easier to establish a partnership for Project Swaddle," Kauffman adds. "Having 'passionate, dedicated practitioners' has also 'been huge for us,' Swearingen said. Still, funding has been an ongoing challenge for the program, organizers say. After initial funding through a one-year grant from the Montgomery County Community Foundation and the Indiana Department of Health, the program is primarily funded today by the Franciscan Health Network and the city of Crawfordsville."

Low-high, high-low: Mississippi flooded in spring, but now levels are falling and barge traffic could be slowed again

Just below the confluence with the Ohio River, a barge loaded with coal and gravel found the channel close to the Kentucky shore of the low Mississippi River last Friday as the Missouri shore grew more sandy. (Rural Blog photo by Al Cross)

Life on the Mississippi is getting drier as the river faces drought and dipping levels. Low water is "threatening to disrupt commerce for a second consecutive year, months after cities along the vital economic artery saw floodwaters test their sandbag barriers and containment walls," reports Shannon Najmabadi of The Wall Street Journal. "Water levels in St. Louis and Memphis are 10 to 20 feet lower at this point in the year than in 2020 and 2019 due to lack of rain. Parched soils have absorbed moisture instead of letting it run off into the river, though recent downpours have helped, said Lisa Parker, spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Mississippi Valley Division."

Over half of U.S. soybeans are exported, and most of that goes down the Mississippi, Najmabadi notes. Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, "said the Army Corps of Engineers has begun monitoring water levels and has 16 dredges operating on the Mississippi River to keep the water channel and harbors deep enough for transit. Steenhoek told the Journal, "We've really seen this ebb and flow—this dramatic ebb and flow—this last year more than we've seen in years past."

Part of spring's water highs stemmed from Minnesota's record snowfall melting in April, its runoff engorging the river, but it is increasingly plagued by droughts. "Low water levels on the Mississippi River last fall contributed to $20 billion in economic losses, according to an AccuWeather estimate. Some barges were grounded on sandbars," Najmabadi reports. "Other vessels lightened their loads to keep them from sitting too low in the water, which increased transportation costs for farmers and others."

The river's fluctuating levels are affected by weather and changing climate, but the river is engineered by humans. Nicholas Pinter, a University of California professor who has extensively researched rivers and watersheds, told Najambadi, "Climate change is in there. . . . [But] it's smaller than the impacts of levees and navigational infrastructure on portions of the Mississippi River."

Bob Criss, a professor emeritus at Washington University in St. Louis and "critic of the Corps' management of the river, said U.S. goods should also be moved by rail," Najambadi reports. "Because locks and dams used to make the Mississippi River navigable create a slow-moving, deep channel that has changed the environment." Criss told her: "The Mississippi River from St. Louis all the way to New Orleans was twice as wide as it is now. It was full of islands and sandbars, which are habitats for birds and everything else. The barges do not pay for the river maintenance. . . . They pay nothing for the dredging."

Tracy Zea, president and chief executive officer of the Waterways Council, which represents river shipping interests, "is hopeful water levels won't be as low as last fall," Najambadi writes. "About 500 million tons of goods, worth more than $158 billion, are transported on inland U.S. waterways each year, Zea said. The vessels are more fuel-efficient than trucks or trains. One barge can carry the load of 70 fully loaded semi-trucks."

When coal is no longer king in Appalachia, what's next? Symbolic funeral in new film has both pride and remorse

Elaine McMillion Sheldon's film depicts growing up
in the shadow of coal. (Sundance Film Festival Photo)
Not every place has a king, but in Appalachia, one lives, more humbly than ever: Coal. Film-maker Elaine McMillion Sheldon gives the world an enigmatic look at a fossil fuel's kingdom and its people in her movie, "King Coal."

Sheldon grew up "roving around West Virginia. Like many children of Appalachia, her world was shaped by coal – her father worked for a mining company, and the family moved to seven coal fields in 12 years for his job," reports Adrian Horton of The Guardian. "Her brother became a fourth-generation miner." Sheldon told Horton: "Everybody in my community worked in the coal mines. If you were going to stay there and work, if you weren't a doctor or a lawyer, that's what you did." Only when Sheldon left the region to study abroad, did she realize how much coal infiltrated Appalachian life. "Not everywhere has a king," she told Horton. "Not everywhere is completely dominated by this industry that controls everything from our rituals to the ways we live our life."

Sheldon's documentary "blooms in the resource's shadow," Horton writes. "It's a lyrical and visually lush ode to a region of immense richness, to mountains riven by extractive industry, to identity-shaping labor and unions, to the inheritance of coal culture. There are no location markers, no delineation between towns, states, mines, mountains." Sheldon told him, "We just define it as the kingdom," a common culture and economy without strict borders.

Sheldon shot all over the Appalachian coalfield, from Pennsylvania to Tennessee. She told Horton, "I'm very aware of how people perceive Appalachia. . . . . I grew up feeling that the place I was from was somewhere to be embarrassed of, and I don't want people to feel that. . . . I want people to see that it's a beautiful place, that there's actual hope here and resilience here." Sheldon says in the film, "Maybe you've heard a story about us. . . . This story is about what it's like to live under King Coal."

The film follows two Appalachian girls, one white and one black, through their lives under coal's reign. "The girls harken to Sheldon’s bygone youth and also point forward, to a life less molded by coal," Horton writes. "As Sheldon puts it in the film, coal has been leaving Appalachia for as long as she’s been alive – in barges downriver, in profits reaped elsewhere, in flattened mountaintops and contamination, in lost jobs." Sheldon told Horton: “If you just look at the facts and figures of mining employment, none of this makes any sense. . . . People just want to work. They’re happy to do other work if it pays the same and provides the same amount of stability, but the coal industry hasn’t provided that stability for many years. And so the question now is, what’s next?”

"To begin answering the question, Sheldon staged a symbolic funeral for King Coal, which serves as the film’s conclusion," Horton writes. "She invited real people with real connections to mining to send off the resource economy as they saw fit, in song or in prose." Sheldon told Horton: “To some people, King Coal is the greedy industrialists, and to some people, he’s the person that provided their jobs." Horton adds, "To Heather Hannah, a singer from Thomas, W.Va., who offered a gut punch of a coal eulogy, it was 'the paradox of pride and remorse. How my daddy was proud to do what needed to be done, to work the mines and provide for our family. I learned that you can be proud of your life, and want better for them that come after you.'”

Rural America should be able determine some educational standards, including 'know-how,' Vermont educator writes

Tapping maple trees is a "know-how" skill.
(Photo by Jay Ericson, The New York Times)
Rural life is all about knowing and doing, something our educational system de-emphasizes in favor of test-score metrics and "I just know stuff" degrees where application of knowledge isn't required. This lens inevitably produces an urban bias on what "educated" looks like in America, writes high school co-principal and lifetime educator Ken Cadow of Norwich, Vermont, in an opinion piece for VTDigger. A lightly edited version:

"When I tell people from away that I work in a school with around 400 kids, grades 7-12, it's inevitable: Depending on where they're from, it sounds so idyllic that they almost want to dismiss it as a possible job. 'That's smaller than my graduating class, many have said. 'I'd bet my school had more staff than yours has students, one person told me.

Maybe they're correct, but why does it seem belittling? Why do urbanites get to choose the lenses through which we rural educators assess the significance of our work? I can't help but feel puzzled, even offended. I've finally started tossing numbers back. How many square miles is your school's sending area? My district draws students from an area roughly 10 times the size of that quaint little island, Manhattan.

How many of the students from your school know how to fix a small engine? Work a garden, tend a field, milk a cow, feed the world? Paddle a kayak, track a deer, fell a tree, tap a maple and boil sap down to syrup, drive a tractor, drive in the snow, drive in the mud, drive at all?  Wait, what did you say your test scores were? Because you folks sound like you need help.

Far too many of the metrics by which the education system defines and tests for success, and far too many of the methods it employs for delivery, are rooted in a bias that takes more of its cue from the leisure class than from the working class. In other words, students can graduate top of their class simply by knowing stuff without knowing how to apply what they've learned. The national educational system emphasizes 'know' over 'know-how' to an extreme that is detrimental to rural America.

Our nation's rural population comprises only around 20 percent of the total, but we're a big country. Our rural population rivals that of the entire population of Italy. It is more than 10 times the size of Finland, whose education system we have studied to death. . . . We're big enough to deserve our own systemically considered benchmarks when determining what success means as we struggle to comply with America's Every Student Succeeds Act.

To raise resourceful kids, we need to better embrace 'know-how.' In rural, agricultural America, where basic technological, mechanical, nutritional, social and medical services are more likely to be a two-hour walk away than down the steps and around the corner, educators need permission, encouragement and training to make a dramatic shift in how we teach and what we're expected to expect from our work, especially if we want our students to be recognized as the assets they are, in the place that they are.

Most Vermont schools wholeheartedly embrace place-, work-, community-, or project-based learning, and there are loads of excellent resources from our Agency of Education to support us. Alas, most of these programs fall under the 'elective' category, meaning that they are outside of the foundational core. Kids who struggle may be unable to enroll in peripheral classes where they see the most relevance and are most likely to succeed. I am not saying that we need to start career and technical education in preschool. . . . I am saying that those aspects we recognize and test for as foundational skills need a different bent in rural America. Our foundations are built in acres upon acres of dirt, fields and forests, and that's nothing to be ashamed of."

Ken Cadow is co-principal of Oxbow High School in Bradford, a board member of Green Mountain Economic Development Corp., and author of a book, Gather, that's coming out in October. His opinions are his own and were delicately edited for The Rural Blog.

Wednesday, August 09, 2023

Many rural communities need more than a fast download connection; they need more upload speed, study finds

Purdue University graph of internet connection speeds along a 10-step urban-rural continuum 

As the country gears for massive federal and state investment in broadband infrastructure, Americans need to understand that closing the rural-urban digital divide is no longer the "Yes, I have a connection" or "No, I got zip" conversation of the early 2000s, Roberto Gallardo, an associate professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University, writes for The Daily Yonder. Instead, it needs to be an in-depth look and planning to add what kind of broadband is lacking; often in rural places, internet upload speeds are critical, Gallardo writes.

"Before the pandemic, most internet users consumed or downloaded. However, increasingly due to e-learning, remote work, and running online micro businesses, users are producing or uploading more," Gallardo writes. "Increasingly the question is becoming: Who is using the internet at faster speeds? Are connections symmetrical—where download and upload speeds are similar? Or are most internet users driving down a six-lane paved road (faster download speeds) and driving back on a dirt road (slower upload speeds)?"

Gallardo reports on a recent study he led: "As the share of a [census] tract's population is more rural, the average download and upload speeds are slower." In purely urban tracts, the average download speed was 202 megabytes; in tracts where the share of rural population was at least 85.3%, it was 119 Mbps. The "same trend is seen with average upload speeds, where in the most urban tracts the average speed was 64 Mbps compared to 39 Mbps in the most rural tracts." Pointing to a bar graph in the study report, Gallardo notes "that average download and upload speeds seem to not change much until the share of rural population reaches close to one-third or 31.6%. On the other hand, the download/upload asymmetry does not change regardless of if the share of the population is urban or rural. Average download speeds were 3x faster for both the most urban and the most rural tracts."

Gallardo's team used "speed test results from the Speedtest by Ookla Global Fixed. Network Performance Maps and the latest American Community Survey 2017-2021 from the Census Bureau, averaged by the number of speed tests for 2021 to match the most recent release of ACS data." Speed tests were for fixed broadband networks, not cellular or mobile, and for tracts with at least 50 speed tests. The results included 83,107 tracts, "or 98% of all tracts available," he writes.

Metric Media 'pink slime' news sent to Ohio voters backed losing effort to make abortion-rights measure harder to pass

Front page of the Buckeye Reporter's 'inaugural print edition'
(Photo by George Shillcock via X and NiemanLab)
Ohio voters rejected the Republican-backed constitutional amendment that would have required a 60 percent vote to pass future amendments and tightened petition requirements for getting them on the ballot. The proposal, which lost by about 57 to 43 percent Tuesday, was intended make an abortion-rights measure on the November ballot more difficult to pass.

In the days before the referendum on Issue 1, many Ohio voters received a newsprint publication called the Buckeye Reporter, which until then had been a partisan information site. The print edition had a Chicago return address and was mailed from Dallas, reports Laura Hazard Owen of NiemanLab, who classifies it as "pink slime," the term for ultra-processed meat filler that has come to describe partisan information masquerading as journalism.

The county-by-county vote showed a significant rural-
urban divide. (NPR map, adapted by The Rural Blog)
The publisher, Metric Media, is a publisher that sometimes turns to print campaigns near elections, Owen reports. It is "overseen by Brian Timpone, a TV reporter turned internet entrepreneur who has sought to capitalize on the decline of local news organizations for nearly two decades," The New York Times reported three years ago. Priyanjana Bengani of Columbia Journalism Review, who has done in-depth reporting on Metric Media, "told The Associated Press that 'Metric Media has printed similar mailers ahead of other recent high-stakes elections, such as a referendum on abortion last year in Kansas'," Owen reports. described the mailer as "A motley combination of content. Most of it consists of positive articles about Issue 1 . . . while unsubtly describing the measure's opponents as communists and allies of the LGBTQ community. It also includes calendar listings of unremarkable community events," which were an apparent effort to make it look more like a local newspaper.

You'll pay less for power, but 25% more than pre-pandemic

Bureau of Labor Statistics graph via The Wall Street Journal
In a welcome about-face, Americans can look forward to lower electric bills in the coming months, reports Bob Henderson of The Wall Street Journal. "A slide in prices for natural gas and coal—which together fuel about 60% of U.S. power production—has only begun feeding through to ratepayers, according to some Wall Street analysts. Retail rates typically lag behind fuel costs by six to nine months, partly because utilities often protect against price swings by buying in advance, Goldman Sachs economist Spencer Hill found in a recent research note."

Cheaper fuels will reduce "average electricity prices by 3-4% from their peaks by fall, Hill's modeling suggests. . . . National electricity rates were already sliding early in the year but rebounded in June after a Southwestern heat wave," Henderson writes. Despite the decrease in prices, "Americans now pay an average of nearly 25% more for power than they did before the pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine."

Drastic weather could change the predicted decrease. Henderson adds, "Temperatures typically peak in late July, and the outlook for August is in line with 10-year averages, said meteorologist Matt Rogers. The pattern means the worst of this summer's heat is likely over, though he still sees a possibility of roving hot spots and power price spikes in places such as Texas, the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest."

"The country's ongoing renewable energy build-out might weigh on electricity rates beyond Goldman's estimates. Solar-power production this summer will be 23% higher than last year, estimates the Energy Information Administration," Henderson reports. But even with the hoped decrease, some people will keep their thermostats up. Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Jeff Heller, of Canyon Lake, Texas, "keeps his upstairs thermostat set to 84 degrees in summer." He told Henderson, "If it drops by 20%, I might be inclined to drop it by another degree."

Colon cancer is up among young adults; many don't think they're susceptible to it, and thus don't get screened for it

Cancer survivors pose for a photo at a colorectal-cancer awareness
installation. (Photo by Paul Morigi, Getty Images, via NatGeo) 
Colorectal cancer is no longer "an old people's disease;" it's hitting younger people more frequently, reports Tara Haelle of National Geographic. "One in five cases diagnosed today occurs in people younger than age 55, compared to one in 10 cases in 1995, according to a study published by the American Cancer Society. . . . There’s no clear explanation for this trend, but a new paper published in Science suggests a number of possible reasons, including environmental and genetic factors. Low screening rates and misdiagnosis in people who don’t suspect cancer likely also play a role."

The research also found more "diagnoses of advanced disease, which is particularly concerning because colonoscopies are 'a great tool for prevention and early detection of colorectal cancer in terms of screening that can actually detect and remove precancerous lesions,' says lead author Rebecca Siegel, senior scientific director of cancer surveillance research at the American Cancer Society," Haelle reports. "Survival rates are 90 percent if detected early enough."

Earlier screenings are part of the solution. Haelle notes that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force now recommends that screenings begin at age 45 instead of 50, but Siegel said earlier screening is needed for those with risk factors "such as genetic risk scores, dietary lifestyle, obesity and family history," Haelle reports. "The most common symptoms for colorectal cancer in younger patients are abdominal pain; unexplained weight loss; changes in the frequency, size or appearance of stools; and rectal bleeding, which occurs in 46 percent of early-onset cases compared to 26 percent of cases in adults over age 50." 

As 1st U.S. offshore wind farm rises near Martha's Vineyard, Ocean City, N.J., may lead the way to blocking others

Rising "monopile" foundations of three planned Vineyard Wind offshore turbines are visible in the distance from the company's newly built substation off Martha's Vineyard. (Vineyard Gazette photo by Ray Ewing)
Wind-farm plans on the East Coast (Marzulla Law maps, adapted; click to enlarge)
As the nation's first offshore wind farm rises off Cape Cod, a battle on the Jersey Shore could "create a template for derailing some 31 offshore wind projects in various stages of development and construction off the East Coast, a key part of President Biden’s plan to reduce greenhouse emissions that are driving global climate change," reports Kate Selig of The Washington Post.

Ocean City, N.J., "has become the epicenter of opposition to wind energy projects off New Jersey and the East Coast," Selig writes. "Residents of Ocean City and surrounding Cape May County, helped by an outside group opposed to renewable energy, are mobilizing to stop Ocean Wind 1, a proposal to build up to 98 wind turbines the size of skyscrapers off the New Jersey coast, which could power half a million homes." Orsted, a Danish firm got a federal permit for Ocean Wind 1 in July, but needs other permits to start construction.

Protect Our Coast NJ has filed a lawsuit to block tax break for the wind farm and says it has gathered more than 500,000 signatures on a petition against such facilities. “The objective is to hold them up and make the cost so overwhelming that they’ll go home,” treasurer Frank Coyne told the Post. The group is backed by most local officials and partly funded by "a think tank that opposes many offshore wind projects and has ties to fossil fuel interests," Selig reports.

Off Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, the under-construction farm "still faces a series of ongoing lawsuits that are trying to overturn its environmental permits, but Vineyard Wind has escaped the cost increases that have plagued other projects," reports Benjamin Storrow of E&E News. "When foundation installations began this summer, thick fog halted construction several times because it impeded mandated lookouts for endangered whales and raised safety issues for construction workers."

Vineyard Wind officials took journalists, environmentalists, legislators and staff on a tour of the $4 billion project last week and said they could be producing electricity this fall, report Eunki Seonwoo of the Martha's Vineyard Times and Ethan Genter of the Vineyard Gazette. "Most of Vineyard Wind’s turbines won’t be visible along the Vineyard horizon, though those with good eyesight may be able to barely make them out along the skyline," Genter reports. "The introduction of plane-navigation lights on the turbines will be noticeable in the night sky from beaches and coastal bluffs."

Opinion: Saving local news could also save taxpayer money

By Steven Waldman

Zak Podmore did not bring down a corrupt mayor. He did not discover secret torture sites or expose abuses by a powerful religious institution. But there was something about this one article he wrote as a reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune in 2019 that changed my conception of the value of local news.

Podmore, then a staff journalist for the Tribune and a corps member of Report for America, a nonprofit I co-founded, published a story revealing that San Juan County, Utah, had paid a single law firm hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying fees. Among other things, Podmore found that the firm had overcharged the county, the poorest in the state, by $109,500. Spurred by his story, the firm paid the money back. Perhaps because it didn’t involve billions of dollars, but rather a more imaginable number, it struck me: In one story, Podmore had retrieved for the county a sum that was triple his annual salary.

Steven Waldman
I’ve grown used to talking about the threat that news deserts pose to American democracy. After all, the whole concept of democratic self-government depends on the people knowing what public officials are up to. That’s impossible without a watchdog press. Researchers have linked the decline of local news to decreased voter participation and higher rates of corruption, along with increased polarization and more ideologically extreme elected officials. At this point, I can make high-minded speeches about this stuff in my sleep, with Thomas Jefferson quotes and everything. Recently, however, I’ve come to realize that I have been ignoring a less lofty but perhaps more persuasive argument: Funding local news would more than pay for itself.

Unlike other seemingly intractable problems, the demise of local news wouldn’t cost very much money to reverse. Journalists are not particularly well compensated. Assuming an average salary of $60,000 (generous by industry standards), it would cost only about $1.5 billion a year to sustain 25,000 local-reporter positions, a rough estimate of the number that have disappeared nationwide over the past two decades. That’s two-hundredths of a percent of federal spending in 2022. I personally think this would be an amount well worth sacrificing to save American democracy. But the amazing thing is that it wouldn’t really be a sacrifice at all. If more public or philanthropic money were directed toward sustaining local news, it would most likely produce financial benefits many times greater than the cost.

What do government officials do when no one’s watching? Often, they enrich themselves or their allies at the taxpayers’ expense. In the 2000s, some years after its local paper shut down, the city of Bell, California, a low-income, overwhelmingly Latino community, raised the pay of the city manager to $787,637 and that of the police chief to $457,000. The Los Angeles Times eventually exposed the graft, and several city officials ended up in prison. Prosecutors accused them of costing taxpayers at least $5.5 million through their inflated salaries. These salaries were approved at municipal meetings, which is to say that if even one reporter (say, with a salary of $60,000) had been in attendance, the city might have saved millions of dollars.

Sometimes the work of journalists prompts government investigations into the private sector, which, in turn, produce fines that go into the public’s bank account. After the Tampa Bay Times found that a battery recycler was exposing its employees and the surrounding community to high levels of lead and other toxins, regulators fined the company $800,000. A ProPublica investigation into one firm’s questionable mortgage-backed securities prompted investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which ultimately assessed $435 million in fines. A review of more than 12,000 entries in the Investigative Reporters and Editors awards found that about one in 10 triggered fines from the government, and twice as many prompted audits.

In other cases, local-news organizations return money directly to consumers by forcing better behavior from private institutions. MLK50, a local newsroom in Memphis, teamed up with ProPublica to report that Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare had sued more than 8,300 people, many of them poor, for unpaid hospital bills. In response, the faith-based institution erased nearly $12 million in debt.

Of course, most journalism does not convert quite so immediately into cash on hand. The impacts may be enormous but indirect. One study of toxic emissions at 40,000 plants found that when newspapers reported on pollution, emissions declined by 29 percent compared with plants that were not covered. The study did not track the ripple effects, but it stands to reason that residents in the less polluted areas would have fewer health problems, which in turn would translate to lower medical costs and less lost work time. Another study, by the scholars Pengjie Gao, Chang Lee, and Dermot Murphy, looked at bond offerings in communities with and without local news from 1996 to 2015. It concluded that for each bond offering, the borrowing costs were five to 11 basis points higher in the less covered communities. That translated to additional costs of $650,000 per bond issue, on average.

One academic tried to track the economic effects even further downstream. In his book Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism, Stanford University professor James Hamilton looked at a series by KCBS in Los Angeles that uncovered a flawed restaurant-inspection program. The exposé prompted Los Angeles County to require restaurants to display their inspection scores, which in turn led to a 13.3 percent drop in L.A. County hospital admissions for food poisoning. Hamilton estimated a savings of about $148,000. In another case study, Hamilton analyzed a series by the Raleigh News & Observer that found that, because the state criminal-justice system didn’t adequately keep track of those under supervision, 580 people on probation in North Carolina killed someone from 2000 to 2008. After the state implemented reforms, murders committed by people on probation declined. Applying the statistical “value of human life” used by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Hamilton concluded that society saved about $62 million in just the first year after the policy changes. The series cost only about $200,000 to produce.

Ideally, investment in local news would come from the federal government, which has more freedom to think long-term than cash-strapped states and municipalities do. The Rebuild Local News Coalition supports legislation that would provide a refundable tax credit for news organizations that employ local reporters, and a tax break for small businesses that advertise in local news. A new version of the bill was just introduced in the House of Representatives by Republican Claudia Tenney and Democrat Suzan DelBene. Civic-minded philanthropists focused on high-impact donations should also put money into local news, given the likely societal returns. It’s impossible to quantify exactly how much money would be generated for government and consumers by restoring the health of local news. But it’s nearly as hard to deny that the investment would pay off handsomely. And the saving-democracy part? Well, that’s just gravy.

Steven Waldman is president opf the Rebuild Local News Coalition, which includes the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog.

Tuesday, August 08, 2023

Nearly one in three election officials report being 'abused, harassed, or threatened;' some are ousted from their party

Marge Bostelmann at her home in Wisconsin
(Photo by Taylor Glascock, special to ProPublica)
Republican Margaret Rose Bostelmann of the Wisconsin Elections Commission refused to agree with other GOP members on the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. For that, she has been banished from the party, report Megan O'Matz and Mariam Elba of ProPublica, who cite her as an example of the harassment many local elections officials are facing.

"Fellow Republicans have exiled her and disparaged her, sought to upend her career. . . . Because she refuses to support false claims that Trump won the state in the 2020 presidential election," O'Matz and Elba report.

Green Lake County
(Wikipedia map)
For over 20 years, as Green Lake County's clerk, Bostelmann oversaw its elections "without controversy," ProPublica reports. "But two years into her term in a Republican slot on the Wisconsin Elections Commission, she became a target, denounced and disowned by the Republican Party of Green Lake County, which claimed she had failed to protect election integrity in the state. Now a suit filed in June by a Wisconsin man who promotes conspiracy theories about election fraud seeks her removal from the commission."

The hostility toward Bostelmann is being seen throughout the country, ProPublica notes: "In an April survey of local election officials nationwide, the Brennan Center for Justice, an independent, nonpartisan law and policy organization, found that nearly one in three reported being abused, harassed, or threatened because of their job."

Don Millis, the Republican who chairs the election commission, also "has expressed frustration with the election conspiracy theorists. He said he considered some of the agitators to be 'grifters' who are conning people of goodwill into thinking there is something wrong with the election system," ProPublica reports. He told reporters: "It's not about winning or preventing fraud. It's about getting publicity or attention. It's about grifting, convincing others to donate to their cause. . . . There are many people who believe them, who don't know any better."

Bostelmann is unsure how a system that once flowed smoothly is now steeped in tension, and why lawsuit plaintiff Peter Bernegger, grandson of the founders of Hillshire Farm, the Wisconsin deli meat and sausage company, has targeted her. "But she does know that things in Green Lake began to change in 2020, during Trump's reelection bid," O'Matz and Elba report.