Thursday, November 09, 2023

Farm Bill debate snags on GOP efforts to cut climate funds and food aid to increase subsidies for cotton, peanuts, rice

"Congress appears unlikely to pass a new Farm Bill by the end of this year amid standoffs over Republicans’ push to extend subsidies to three specific Southern crops — at the potential cost of billions in both food aid and popular farm conservation programs," reports Saul Elbein of The Hill.

The Farm Bill will expire Dec. 31 unless Congress passes an extension, which senators say could be included in a bill to keep the government open after next week. But Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., "said Speaker Mike Johnson had committed December floor time to the farm bill — and gave The Hill a preview of what such a bill might look like," Elbein reports.

The GOP plan would boost subsidies for peanuts, cotton and rice, "the only commodities that won’t get automatic price increases" under current law, Elbein reports: "To pay for this increase, Republican supporters of those programs want to cut food aid and take money from $20 billion previously allocated to conservation payments backed by Democrats, environmental groups and a wide array of farm groups. Thompson argues this move is necessary because 'at least two of those commodities are really upside down right now,' or facing expenses above the market prices of their products — an apparent allusion to cotton and peanuts. . . . According to USDA figures, market prices for cotton in 2022 weren’t high enough to cover the sector’s total expenses."

The plan would raise payments in the Agricultural Risk Coverage/Price Loss Coverage (ARC/PLC) program. "Critics say the proposed increases to the ARC/PLC will direct money only to a few thousand of the nation’s biggest farmers at the expense of programs that benefit all of them," Elbein reports. "Ten percent receive 80 percent of the payments, and 'only the largest of peanut farmers receive more than a few thousand'," Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group told Elbein.

The plan also has conservative opposition. David Ditch of the Heritage Foundation "argued that in an era when interest payments on the national debt are already dragging on the economy, Thompson’s proposal would lock in permanent payments to farmers who — while they may have had a hard year — are already well-subsidized," Elbein reports.

Jonathan Coppess, an attorney in the University of Illinois agricultural economics department, also takes a longer view. "However bad this year’s picture is for cotton, rice and peanuts, Coppess said, agriculture as a whole is coming off of two record years — and most farms that will qualify for ARC/PLC payments are very large, highly diversified operations that grow many crops, rather than just a few," Elbein writes.

"And even the idea that crops such as cotton are underwater this year relies on counting — as the USDA does — costs that include opportunity or capital recovery costs, or the “expense” of using land, labor or equipment for farming as opposed to using it for something else. This strains the very notion of 'expense,' said Anne Schechinger, Midwest director of the EWG."

Electric vehicles on the farm? Electric tractors would be much more expensive and heavier than current models

Graphic by Joelle Orem, Successful Farming
Taking a ride out West, in my EVS, might be a nice little rhyme, but it's a hard sell. "There is one place in America where electric vehicles are glaringly absent — the back 40. Today, electric tractors and other farming equipment are hard to find on showroom floors, let alone in the field," reports Steve Cubbage of Farm Journal. Even though seven states have "banned the sale of gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035. . . . The hurdles EVs must clear to be viable on the farm are incredibly high from an engineering and an economic standpoint." 

Building an electric tractor means adding weight, and that's a problem. "John Deere's website shows its 8R tractor has a starting base weight of 25,200 lbs. Current engineering assessments say an all-electric version would weigh more than twice as much," Cubbage writes. "Soil compaction already weighs heavily on how modern farm equipment is designed. Increasing the weight and mass of such machines may end up creating more, not fewer, emissions. . . .Compacted soil releases greenhouse gasses such as methane and nitrous oxide, which are much more potent than a tractor's exhaust."

Electric tractors are limited by battery life, and many areas with significant farmland lack charging stations. "The all-electric tractors slated to come to market can only work four to eight hours per charge," Cubbage reports. "Heavy-duty agricultural vehicles will require multiple heavy-duty superchargers — an expensive and potentially unrealistic endeavor."

If an electric Quadtrac tractor existed, it would cost
around $650,000. (Quadtrac photo)
Should all those hurdles be overcome, the overall price for an EV tractor may prove untenable to farmers. "Low-horsepower tractors are approximately 30% more expensive than their diesel-powered equivalents. That may work on an all-electric garden tractor but not a half-million dollar Quadtrac," Cubbage explains. "But unlike with cars, there's no federal program to ease the burden of an electric tractor. If bureaucrats and consumers really want to turn Old MacDonald's farm all-electric, then they better put their money where their mouth is."

Carbon sequestering by farmers has potential, but might not be the 'pie-in-the-sky-dream' many thought it could be

Successful Farming photo
Even with no-till and cover crop practices, carbon sequestering may not be the panacea many claimed it was, reports Laurie Bedlord of Successful Farming. "Much fanfare accompanies programs that pay farmers to sequester greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in their soils. Yet, questions linger as research casts doubt on whether the promise equals reality."

Gregg Sanford, a senior scientist at the Department of Agronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Bedlord, "I worry that we are selling ourselves a pie-in-the-sky dream we might not realize, and that it could come back to bite farmers and ultimately not get us any further down the road toward reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere." In 2009, Sanford started analyzing soil samples from different crops and found "across the board" soil carbon loss. Bedlord reports, "It is only in their grassland systems, whether it's rotation-ally grazed pasture, CRP, or prairie, where they can document carbon sequestration in the surface soils. However, Sanford says that in many cases, they are still observing losses of carbon at depth."

Soil carbon sequestration remains unpredictable, so researchers suggest farmers target its use. Bedlord reports, "One of the caveats with soil carbon sequestration, Sanford says, is there are places in the United States where certain types of ag management will be able to build soil carbon resources, but results may vary." 

For soil carbon resources to increase, an agricultural transformation may need to happen, and natural processes in the Midwest could show how. Sanford told Bedlord, "The area in the U.S. we now call the Corn Belt was once almost entirely covered by tallgrass prairie with deep-rooted perennial plants, grazing animals, and regular fires. Over thousands of years, the prairies created the fertile, carbon-rich soils . . . . It took a long time for those deep-rooted, diverse, and perennial prairies to accumulate that soil carbon." Bedlord reports, "If the prairies built these soils, should we consider emulating what they can do in our production systems? It's a question Sanford and others are asking. . . . As with any new concept, healthy skepticism about soil's ability to sequester carbon is a good thing."

To get more information about farmers' opinions and experiences with carbon programs, click here.

Opinion: FEMA needs rescuing if it's going to give Americans the help it promises

A tornado whips across Wyoming.
(Photo by N. Noonan, Unsplash)
Eighty-five weather events costing billions of dollars have unfolded across the United States since 2020, leaving flooded, burned and wind-flattened communities in their path. Disaster-torn Americans have sought help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but the agency itself is such a wreck that it's failing the people who need it most, writes Samantha Montano in her opinion for The New York Times. "The help Americans receive after disasters isn't just inadequate; it's complicated to navigate and painfully slow to arrive. From the amount of time it takes to complete recovery — measured in years, not months — to the labyrinth of policies, regulations, false promises and lawsuits, the reward for surviving a disaster is being forced into a system so cruel it constitutes a second disaster."

Many survivors end up homeless or on the edge of it for years after an event, and others "continue living in their mold-filled homes," Montano says. "The emotional toll of recovery is breaking people. Researchers have found that the circumstances of disaster recovery help to explain increases in domestic violence, a range of mental health issues, worsening physical health in people with pre-existing conditions and suicide.

Paired with insurance, FEMA was designed to be a safety net, but the number of costly extreme weather events has altered that balance. "From North Carolina to California, major insurers are placing new limits on the kinds of hazards they cover — or leaving altogether. Government is far from ready to make up the difference," Motano adds. "But it needs to find a way to keep up — and get significantly more money in survivors' hands."

Right now, that assistance is not happening. "Between 2010 and 2019, for example, amid disasters that devastated communities and destroyed homes, the average amount of FEMA assistance to individuals was $3,522. This year's maximum award is $41,000, which only about 1 percent of applicants receive. Some payments arrive quickly, but others only after months of exhausting appeals."

Congress is responsible for funding FEMA to respond to emergencies, but this year, payments were stopped due to a lack of funding. There are solutions. "Broader reforms to emergency management, like passing the FEMA Independence Act to move the agency out of the Department of Homeland Security and restore it to its pre-9/11 status as an independent, cabinet-level entity, would minimize the bureaucracy it has to operate within," Montano suggests. "Creating a National Disaster Safety Board, modeled after the National Transportation Safety Board, would serve as an independent investigator of the nation's crises and be a starting point to address the federal government's failure to make effective changes after disasters."

N.C. apple hunter has 'unearthed more than 1,200 varieties' -- including many that were close to extinction

Brown at the Blue Ridge Folklife Festival in Virginia.
(Tom Brown Courtesy photo via The Washington Post)
There are more than 7,500 listed apple varieties, many of which were considered extinct. But one man with a penchant for fruit investigation has set out to recover some of those missing gems. "Tom Brown is an apple hunter. He doesn't have a use for the Red Delicious, the Honeycrisp or the Pink Lady. He's not impressed by a Fuji or a McIntosh," reports Sydney Page of The Washington Post. "If you want to talk with him about a Harper's Seedling, however, his eyes light up. Brown, 82, searched for the rare apple for 16 years before he found the elusive fruit."

Among apples available for munching, there are trendy apples that orchards regularly ply to the public, and there are multiple antique varieties that some orchards specialize in. But Brown's blushed quarry is a more precious find: missing antique, also known as "historic," apples. He has "been up and down Appalachia searching out rare types of his beloved pome, many of which were nearly extinct," Page writes. "'These apples were going to be soon lost if I didn't get busy and try to save them,'" said Brown, a retired chemical engineer who lives on a 10-acre apple orchard in Clemmons, N.C. . . . Some of his big triumphs include finding the Aunt Sally, the Butter Cup, the Big Boy, the Black Ammit and the Striped Virginia Beauty."

The Aunt Sally apple was sold in N.C.
from 1875 to 1902. (State of N.C. photo)
Page reports, "Over the course of his decades-long expedition, Brown has unearthed more than 1,200 varieties — which he has compiled into a robust list on his website, . . . Many of them come from the apple bible, the 1905 edition of the Department of Agriculture's Nomenclature of the Apple, — a catalog containing information about the more than 7,500 apple varieties."

Brown's hobby began at a farmer's market and has grown into a bit of an obsession. He has also connected with other "forgotten fruit enthusiasts" and has found cultivars that are not the USDA's apple bible. Page writes, "In his searches, he visits farmers, old orchards and homeowners with apple trees on their properties. He found historic apple trees that were abundant at the start of the 20th century before the modern era of commercial fruit production took hold. . . . His most fruitful destination, he said, has been Wilkes County, N.C., where he has found the 'mother lode' of aged apple varieties, including American Beauty, Big Limb and Golden Twig."

In his own orchard, Brown grows more than 700 varieties of apples, which is both rewarding and tricky since "apple seeds do not always produce the same variety of apple they came from," Page adds. Brown sells his antique apple trees for $20 to encourage others to grow rarer varieties. He told Page, "I'm trying to get as many of the trees as possible growing."

To read how science is helping some historic apples make a comeback, click here.

Wednesday, November 08, 2023

Multigenerational households are on the rise; finances and medical care are the top reasons why

Map by Alice Feng, Axios, from U.S. Census data

More people are choosing to live in multigenerational households to cope with financial stress and medical care, reports Brianna Crane of Axios. Multigenerational housing -- defined as three or more generations under one roof -- is concentrated in certain areas but is gaining in popularity. South Dakota is home to "half of the top 10 counties with the highest share of multigenerational households. . . .North Dakota and Nebraska have some of the lowest shares."

In 2020, there were "6 million multigenerational households in the United States in 2020, up from 5.1 million in 2010, according to census data," Crane adds. While the two biggest reasons people cited for cohabitating families were financial concerns and caregiving needs, there are also mental and physical benefits to living closer to family or friends.

Chart by Baidi Wang, Axios, from Pew Research Center data
No matter the reason, multigenerational homes are predicted to keep increasing. The number of such households has "quadrupled from 1971 to 2021," reports Nathan Bomey of Axios. "Population growth among people of color is a big reason for the increase as they are more likely than white Americans to live with extended family," according to a Pew Research Center study. D’Vera Cohn, one of the report's authors, told Bomey, "This is not a phenomenon that has peaked."

Rural voters in Ohio shift from Republican party policies; many who favored Trump supported abortion rights

Graph compares the vote by county type for Trump in 2020 to the 'no' vote on the
constitutional amendment. (The Daily Yonder graph, created with Datawrapper)

Republicans' strict anti-abortion position had wide-reaching ramifications in Tuesday's Ohio referendum vote, with rural voters pivoting away from the party's hard-line reproductive policies. "Rural voters in Ohio were part of a general shift away from Republican Party priorities, resulting in a victory for a state constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights," reports Tim Marema of The Daily Yonder. "Statewide, the measure protecting access to abortion and other reproductive rights passed 56% to 44%."

The outcome suggests that voters are paying attention to the abortion rights debate and weighing in. Tuesday's outcome in Ohio "represents a dramatic departure from Republican performance in the 2020 presidential election," Marema notes. "That year, former President Donald Trump won the Ohio vote by a margin of 8 points. This week, the constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights, which the Republican Party opposed, won by nearly 13 points.

"Rural voters were part of that shift. In 2020, Ohio voters in rural counties supported Trump 72% to 28%, a margin of over 40 points," Marema adds. "In Tuesday's referendum, rural voters opposed the abortion-rights amendment. But they did so by a margin of 18 points, less than half the margin that Trump racked up in the 2020 presidential election."

The graph shows that "in every county type, opposition to the amendment (the Republican position) trailed support for Trump in 2020," Marema explains, "Rural voters were the group with the second-biggest shift from 2020. The biggest shift occurred in the suburbs of major metropolitan areas such as Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus. Those counties shifted 15 points from supporting Trump in 2020 to supporting the abortion-rights amendment in 2023."

Opinion: Returning lands to Indigenous people is one way to ensure treasured landscapes thrive

The tiers of stone placed in the river are a method of fishery
restoration. (Photo by Tristan Spinski ,The Washington Post)
Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.
~ John Muir

John Muir, an American naturalist who is credited with founding our national parks, imagined a world "stripped of the Native Americans. . . to create his ideal of pristine wilderness," writes Bina Venkataraman in her opinion for The Washington Post. What a surprise conservation in Maine would be to Muir, where Indigenous knowledge and people are saving some of the state's most beloved lands.

"The Penobscot Nation's record of caring for nature while still using it — hunting moose and duck while keeping their populations steady, selectively harvesting timber to preserve forests and restoring rivers to support fisheries — inspired an effort to return a 31,000-acre tract of forested land to tribal ownership. Late last year, the Trust for Public Land, a conservation group, bought the parcel from an industrial timber company, and it announced it would give the land to the tribe once it pays off $32 million in loans. Called Wáhsehtəkʷ by the Penobscot, which means east branch of the river (and is pronounced WAH-seh-teg). It's the largest contiguous tract that the tribe will have acquired in more than four decades.

"The transfer is part of a movement to return lands to Indigenous stewardship and work with tribal communities to protect biodiversity. The hope is both to restore justice for tribes that were long ago stripped of their ancestral homelands and to learn from long-standing Indigenous practices new ways to save a beleaguered planet. The pending land return in Maine, or 'rematriation' as some Indigenous people call it, stands out because of its scale — many previous land returns in the eastern United States have been on the order of hundreds of acres — and because the Penobscot will decide how the land will be managed.

"This is a significant change. For most of the past two centuries, Western conservationists have largely ignored Indigenous people's knowledge of landscapes and wildlife, along with tribes' historic claims to the land. But that is no longer tenable. Worldwide, Indigenous-managed lands host 80 percent of the world's biodiversity, by some estimates, and encompass much of the world's remaining intact forests, savannas and marshes. If environmentalists and political leaders hope to conserve more natural landscapes, including carbon sinks and critical buffer ecosystems such as wetlands that can protect against the harms of climate change, collaboration with tribal nation leaders is critical.

"Modern environmentalism has been deprived of Indigenous knowledge, in part, because it has seen nature as something apart from humans. Early thinkers hold some responsibility for this. . . . In the Muir tradition, the U.S. government drove tribal people out of areas that today are considered America's most beloved landscapes — Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Everglades — a history documented by David Treuer, an Ojibwe writer.

"When Henry David Thoreau — someone I long admired for his quest to 'live deliberately' — traveled to the Maine woods in the 19th century, he distinguished between 'scientific men' and Indian guides, even as he acknowledged the latter's navigational expertise. It's laughable now to think that communities that had inhabited a place for centuries, gaining intimate knowledge of the natural features, flora and fauna and passing down that knowledge across generations, could have less to offer scientifically than settlers encountering those lands for the first time. Yet it was only last year that the U.S. government formally recognized how much tribes can contribute to ecological knowledge of their ancestors' landscapes."

Military veterans identify the best employers who support and value them; Forbes magazine has the latest rankings

In celebration of Veterans Day, Forbes magazine has released its fourth annual listing of "America's Best Employers For Veterans 2023." The magazine partnered with market research firm Statista and "surveyed 8,500 veterans (those who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, the Reserves or the National Guard) working for companies with more than 1,000 employees," reports Rachel Rabkin Peachman of Forbes. 

Healthcare and tech companies and government agencies received some of the highest rankings, with the U.S. Department of Energy finishing first on the list, followed by Ricoh USA. "What these employers have in common is a deep commitment to hiring and valuing members of the military," Peachman writes. "Ricoh USA, for one, seeks out military talent through career fairs. . . .The company also supports military-related leaves of absence and donates to such organizations as Wounded Warriors. . . What's more, Ricoh prioritizes partnerships with veteran-owned businesses, and, according to Venable, the company grew its spending with veteran suppliers by 30% in 2022."

The highlighted companies are not the norm, and ex-military job hunters cite stereotypes such as "all military members have PTSD" or all are "drill sergeants who don't know how to assimilate into a civilian environment" as reasons employers avoid hiring veterans, Peachman explains. "The key for employers is to learn about what military experience can entail. . . . In turn, veterans can increase their chances of landing the right job by learning how to translate their military skills into terms a civilian employer may understand. That way, recruiters don't have to wonder what it means to lead a battalion or guess about what airmen technicians do."

NASA ranks #38 as a veterans employer. (Forbes ranking)
In a nation where around 200,000 service members leave the military each year, "companies seeking top talent have a pool of motivated, skilled and highly trained" candidates, Peachman reports. "Hiring veterans, with their diverse experiences and expertise, not only adds value to an organization's workforce but also qualifies employers for tax credits."

It's worth noting that rural Americans are more likely to serve in the military. The U.S. 2010 census found that only 16% of Americans live in rural areas, and yet 24% of all veterans do, says a report by the U.S. Census Bureau. An even greater percentage of military members come from rural areas. Find Forbes' full list here.

Flora and fauna: Bird turned artist; land auctions; a fruit's 'ugly duckling phase;' animal days; can you 'migrate' trees?

Ferrisburgh with his first painting. (Courtesy photo 
 by Anna Morris via The Washington Post)
It's hard to keep a good bird down, and in the case of Ferrisburgh, an American kestrel with an injured wing, you also can't keep him from his dream of being an artist. "Ferrisburgh is headlining art classes in Vermont and drawing crowds with his talented talons," reports Cathy Free of The Washington Post. "A couple of his paintings are now being auctioned at a fundraiser online, and the raptor recently showed off his skills at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science."

Farmland sales hit their peak in the fall and even with today's high interest rates, business is brisk. Jim Rothermich from Iowa Appraisal is "keeping a close eye on this month's land auctions because, as he says, November is the busiest month for land auctions," reports Margy Eckelkamp of Farm Journal. Rothermich told Eckelkamp, "We're getting strong results. High interest rates and sub-$5 per bushel corn is not affecting land market conditions." Read two examples of recent Iowa land sales here. Read about big land auction sales in South Dakota here.

Even ripe quince is rock-hard and must be cooked to
be enjoyed. (Photo by Ralph Walden, The Seattle Times)
Neither apple nor pear, the quince is an exquisite fruit that takes patience and an open mind. "The bewitchingly fragrant fruit. . . does go through an ugly duckling phase, Orchardist Edith Walden acknowledges. The fruits are misshapen and fuzzy," reports Rebekah Dunn for The Seattle Times. "But at the last minute, the color matures to yellow. The fuzz retreats." Walden adds, "And then they start emitting this fragrance; people walk along the road, and they just want to know what that smell is. It's just entrancing."

What do free-range chickens munch on throughout winter? While there are few bugs, "they do like to scratch under a light snow and pick up seeds, and nibble on refuse from the fall garden," reports Jodi Henke of Successful Farming. Here are tips for keeping your chickens fed and safe during cold weather.

When things don't work out in one place -- be it a job, a school, or a region -- humans often move, but what about trees? Specifically, giant sequoias only grow in groves with unique climates and that climate is changing. "The largest trees on the planet can't easily 'migrate' — but in a warming world, some humans are helping them try to find new homes," reports Moises Velasquez-Manoff of The New York Times. "Millions of years ago, redwoods — or their close relatives — grew across the Pacific Northwest. By moving them, [tree ambassador] Philip Stielstra reasoned, he was helping the magnificent trees regain lost territory."

Days dedicated to animals are peppered throughout the year. This illustration features animals with their
own days. Can you find the sea monkey? (Illustration by Armando Veve, National Geographic)

If you love hedgehogs, bears or badgers (oh, my!), you're in luck because there's a day to celebrate almost any creature. Go online and "pick a random day, week, or month, and you'll find an almost disturbing number of observances. . .days referencing animals specifically are plentiful, even crowded," reports Oliver Whang of National Geographic. "The observances' intents are a mixture: altruistic, commercial, historical, fantastical, serious, funny. . . . National Sea Monkey Day exists to celebrate 'the tiny brine shrimp that swim around mail-order aquariums' -- and from little more than that, the holiday not only went viral, it appeared in Newsweek."

Monday, November 06, 2023

Angry Maine residents will vote on plan to take over electric utilities in hopes of making them more accountable

Having had enough of high rates and poor customer service, some Maine voters are setting out to change who delivers their power. "Maine residents will vote Tuesday on a ballot measure that would dissolve its investor-owned utilities and replace them with a nonprofit," reports Evan Halper of The Washington Post. Fed-up Mainers are "joining a burgeoning national movement of consumers frustrated with power companies that they feel are unaccountable to ratepayers, and that have taken center stage in disasters such as this summer's devastating wildfires in Maui."

Mainers promote Pine Tree Power during morning
 traffic. (Photo by Andrew Dickinson, WP)
The ballot measure Maine voters will decide on Tuesday "calls for a hostile takeover of sorts, creating a nonprofit company called Pine Tree Power that would seize control of the state's electricity grid from Central Maine Power and Versant Power, the subsidiaries of multinational corporations that now own it," Halper explains. "The shoestring campaign is an existential threat to the industry, moving the Maine utilities to spend more than $35 million blitzing ratepayers with ads warning that the measure threatens to create massive public debt, unending legal fights and soaring bills for customers."

The massive ad campaign only drew more ire "giving customers one more grievance with firms they say should be investing the money in bringing them better service," Halper notes. "Pine Tree Power supporters are working with a meager $1 million budget but some high profile support, including the Sierra Club, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and environmentalist icon Bill McKibben."

No matter which way the Maine vote goes, more consumers seem to be scrutinizing their electrical companies' delivery, customer service and spending habits at a time when those companies are already stressed by extreme weather and increased demand, Halper writes. Electrical companies are trying to respond to issues with "nimble action while operating under a dated financial and regulatory model."

"A flash point in the debate is the way corporate utilities make their profits, collecting hefty interest payments from ratepayers on the big power grid projects the companies bankroll," Harper explains. "Pine Tree Power proponents say a public utility can save ratepayers billions on such investments, as its goal would be financing projects as cheaply as possible rather than generating profits for shareholders.'

Business owner Steven DiMillo is not in favor of the
takeover. (Photo by Andrew Dickinson, WP)
Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, "is urging voters to reject the Maine proposal, warning that enmeshing the state in a decades-long battle over control of utility poles and transmission lines would be a costly mistake," Halper reports. "'The last thing we should be doing is trying to force an acquisition by eminent domain to buy something that, once we buy, we don’t know how to run,' said Fred Forsely, the chief executive of Shipyard Brewing Co. and a public face of the opposition campaign. The sentiment is shared by the owner of another well-known business in Portland, DiMillo’s on the Water, which for decades has served tourists lobsters in a former 206-foot-long car ferry converted to a restaurant. 'I never look at government to fix something for us, said Steven DiMillo, who manages the business.'"

Democrats once dominated elections for state agriculture commissioners; now all are Republicans. What changed?

Twelve states elect their agricultural commissioners.
(Photo by Jon Cherry, The New York Times)
Voters in the 12 states that elect agriculture commissioners might not know the name of their chosen candidate, but many can tell you the party -- Republican. But Republican dominance in this crucial, albeit "under-the-radar" position wasn't always the case, "Twenty years ago, Democrats held most of those seats; now, Republicans occupy all 12, even in states where Democrats have prevailed in other statewide contests," reports David W. Chen of The New York Times. "A total of 12 states in the South and Midwest elect their agriculture commissioners, who wield enormous clout on everything from regulating pesticides to containing animal disease outbreaks." In this election cycle, Democrats are hoping to win Kentucky's posting.

The shift to Republican commissioners began as Democrats lost sway with Southern state voters, and candidates in red states gained momentum using the party's familiar "core message about free markets and government overreach to contests that in the past may not have been partisan political battlegrounds," Chen explains. "In Florida, Nikki Fried's background as a lobbyist for an agricultural industry that has become increasingly prominent around the country — cannabis — helped her become the most recent Democrat anywhere to win an agriculture race, by a razor-thin margin, in 2018. She said her party had overemphasized an urban agenda and failed to do enough retail politicking beyond blue areas." Fried lost in 2022 to Republican Wilton Simpson, who gained 59 percent of the vote.

The positions reach far beyond farming.
(Photo by Jon Cherry, The New York Times)
While each state commissioner's duties differ, they all reach beyond farming. "In Florida, the agriculture commissioner, one of four elected Cabinet members, runs the state's concealed weapons program, manages its forest lands, fights wildfires and tackles consumer complaints," Chen reports. "In Texas, the agriculture department runs school nutrition programs and licenses the hemp industry. In North Dakota, the commissioner is a member, along with the governor and the attorney general, of the state's powerful Industrial Commission, which oversees oil permits, the Bank of North Dakota, and housing finance."

In Kentucky, the "state agriculture department employs roughly 220 people and commands an $80 million annual budget, making it the second biggest office in the state's executive branch, behind only the governor's office," Chen reports. The upcoming agricultural commissioner position is a contest "between Jonathan Shell, a former Republican state legislator, and Sierra Enlow, a Democratic economic development consultant. . . . No Democrat has served as the state's agriculture commissioner since 2003. . . . In interviews with rural voters around the state, many said they had not heard of either candidate."

First Amendment attorney says Murdaugh trial can be a model for how judges balance free press and fair trial issues

Attorney Jay Bender
(National Newspaper Association photo)
By Benjy Hamm

Director, Institute for Rural Journalism
University of Kentucky

The Alex Murdaugh murder trial in South Carolina is a good example of how a judge can balance the free press needs of the media with the defendant’s fundamental right to a fair trial, according to Jay Bender, a veteran First Amendment attorney.

Bender recently spoke at the National Newspaper Association convention in Washington about his role in helping Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman provide journalists with good access to the high-profile trial while also ensuring that the media abided by the rules and decorum established by the judge.

The trial in Walterboro, which is about an hour west of Charleston, attracted regional, national and international coverage in newspapers, online news sites, radio and TV broadcasts, blogs, podcasts and documentaries. The trial lasted for six weeks before Murdaugh was convicted on March 2 of murdering his wife and a son at their family farm.

“People all over the world watched this trial,” Bender said.

But they would not have been able to see it without Judge Newman’s help. South Carolina’s rules regarding cameras in the courtroom give each judge the discretion on whether to allow photo and video coverage.

“There are some judges who don’t like cameras,” Bender said, and thus don’t allow them. But he said Newman recognized the importance of including cameras as part of the broader coverage. 

Another major consideration involved determining the best ways to provide seating and coverage in the 200-year-old Colleton County Courthouse that Bender said was small, didn’t provide the best views and could be a difficult place to hear the proceedings.

The courtroom had space for about 15 journalists, and that was not nearly enough room for the up to 50 reporters who wanted to attend some days. So, Newman issued an order establishing reserved seats each day for the local and statewide media that had been covering the case from the beginning, in addition to national media organizations such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and TV outlets.

The judge’s decision meant that two local community newspapers, the Press and Standard of Walterboro and the Hampton County Guardian, would not be squeezed out by larger media organizations.

The judge also reserved seats for two bloggers and podcasters who had covered the case extensively. Several other media seats were offered up in a lottery that journalists could enter each day.

Town officials also set up an overflow media facility in the Wildlife Center across the street from the courthouse. Bender said the overflow room was a much better place to watch the trial because it had tables, chairs and a video and audio feed of all the proceedings taking place in the courtroom.

Court TV provided video and audio feeds for the trial, while photographers from The State newspaper in Columbia and the Post and Courier in Charleston were chosen as pool photographers to provide still images. The photographers also were given 30 minutes each day after the trial had recessed to take photographs of documents introduced as evidence.

The way Newman and the town of Walterboro handled the media can serve as a model for other major trials across the country, Bender said.

Bender said the media must do their part to make sure everything operates smoothly during a trial. Among his suggestions are:

-- Understand and abide by the rules of the court. For example, South Carolina does not allow the use of cell phones in courtrooms, though some reporters have been known to forget that rule or try to get around it. To make sure every journalist knew the rule, Bender handed out reporters’ notebooks with a reminder printed on the cover, “You have entered the no phone zone.”
-- Respect the courtroom environment with your dress and manner. That means dressing professionally and not in shorts and a T-shirt (yes, Bender says that has happened more than once).
-- Reach out to the judge in advance about a major case to discuss the media’s interests. A state Press Association attorney often can help with legal requests.

On a personal note, I worked with Jay as a legal source for civil and criminal cases I covered while working as a reporter for The Associated Press in South Carolina. And the newspapers I’ve worked with later used Jay as an attorney in our First Amendment cases in South Carolina, where he served as general counsel to the South Carolina Press Association. His legal knowledge, experience with the media and engaging personality made him the ideal choice to help in the Murdaugh case.

Murdaugh is appealing his murder convictions, but Bender said even though he enjoyed his role as media liaison for the first trial, he does not plan to return if the case is tried again.

“I paid my debt to society,” he said.

When it comes to the economy, many rural Americans feel left out of the conversation, study groups suggest

When it comes to the economy, rural Americans tend to
feel unheard. (The Daily Yonder photo)
When news outlets claim the U.S. economy has shown "surprising resilience" or robust job growth, their analysis often neglects rural Americans, leaving people feeling more marginalized and unheard, The Daily Yonder polling found. Daily Yonder Publisher Dee Davis outlines their research efforts and gives voice to some rural experiences and needs. Below is a condensed version of his commentary based on the polling and discussions with rural residents.

"For the last couple of years, we have been working with groups around the country to get a sense of what rural communities were feeling about the economy. Are country people hurting? Are they optimistic? Is it the same old up one day and down the next? As part of our research, we have commissioned polling, conducted eight focus groups in four states, and shared what we have found with policy professionals and political analysts. As the fog begins to lift, here is what I see.

"My uncle used to tell me he was too poor to pay attention. News that the economy is rip-roaring, with crashing unemployment and rising wages, is lost on most rural Americans we surveyed right now, even with those who say they are better off than before. The price of things — a gallon of gas, a dozen of eggs — has knocked rural communities off course and money is not what it used to be.

"And a measurable part of the rural population is pissed. They have had it with oil companies, drug makers, and distant corporations who care not a whit what country people are going through. Rural people are of two minds about government in that, one, they want it out of the way, and two, they want it to intervene to create new jobs in rural America.

The following are comments made by participants in the focus group sessions. "Focus group participant from Wisconsin: 'It's really difficult not to fall into the trap . . . where you really do start to internalize it and think 'Well I must be a failure, because I don't have what my parents had. I certainly don't have what my grandparents had.'. . . A participant from Kentucky: 'I'm in survival mode every day.'. . . Participant from Ohio: "I'm really worried about the kids because it's way worse than a lot of people realize. Like so many of them are depressed and anxious and don't know what to do. Losing hope, being suicidal. I mean children, like little children even, we are not even talking teenagers. And they need hope. They need to see something get better. Some reason to become an adult.'

"Our analysis of these rural focus groups showed us:
  • People want to share their stories and be heard, but they often feel ignored: misunderstood and maligned by the media.
  • People are struggling with loss — loss of status, wealth, a valued role — but they try not to give in to despair.
  • People will act out of hope in situations where they can receive and offer community support. Being of service to others is a valued purpose.
  • People in our groups want to push back against partisan politics and culture war rhetoric."

Go here to read the about the complete polling analysis.

Report: Former Meta employee says Instagram executives knew their platform hurt children. Now he's telling Congress.

Meta ignored its own research and continued business
as usual. (Image by Taylor Callery, WSJ)
Instagram executives knew their platform was dangerous to children and young adults, especially teen girls, long before whistleblowers came forward. "When a Meta security expert Arturo Bejar told Mark Zuckerberg that Instagram's approach to protecting teens wasn't working, the CEO didn't reply," reports Jeff Horwitz of The Wall Street Journal. "Now the former insider is set to tell Congress about the predatory behavior."

As an employee and a consultant, Bejar had a long history with Facebook, now Meta. He started with the company in 2009, and he left Facebook in 2015 for personal reasons. By then, Instagram was a powerful audience engagement arm for the company. When Bejar's 14-year-old daughter shared a vulgar Instagram posting she received, that's when "The trouble began," Horwitz writes. Bejar's daughter reported the comment to Instagram. "A few days later, the platform got back to her: The insult didn't violate its community guidelines."

"Bejar was floored — all the more so when he learned that virtually all of his daughter's friends had been subjected to similar harassment," Horwitz reports, "Instagram acted so rarely on reports of such behavior that the girls no longer bothered reporting them. Bejar began peppering his former colleagues at Facebook with questions about what they were doing to address such misbehavior. The company responded by offering him a two-year consulting gig."

Back on the company's campus, Bejar described its approach to addressing harassment complaints as almost entirely automated and "while users could still flag things that upset them, Meta shifted resources away from reviewing them," Horwitz explains. "To discourage users from filing reports, internal documents from 2019 show, Meta added steps to the reporting process. . . . statistics rules were written narrowly enough to ban only unambiguously vile material. Meta's rules didn't clearly prohibit adults from flooding the comments section on a teenager's posts with kiss emojis or posting pictures of kids in their underwear, inviting their followers to 'see more' in a private Facebook Messenger group."

Bejar was tasked with addressing some of these issues. His team "built a new questionnaire called BEEF, short for 'Bad Emotional Experience Feedback.' A recurring survey of issues 238,000 users had experienced over the past seven days, the effort identified problems with prevalence from the start: Users were 100 times more likely to tell Instagram they'd witnessed bullying in the last week than Meta's bullying-prevalence statistics indicated they should," Horwitz reports. "Among users under the age of 16, 26% recalled having a bad experience in the last week due to witnessing hostility against someone based on their race, religion or identity. More than a fifth felt worse about themselves after viewing others' posts, and 13% had experienced unwanted sexual advances in the past seven days."

Bejar was under a time crutch, "With just weeks left at the company, Bejar emailed Zuckerberg, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. . . . Blending the findings from BEEF with highly personal examples of how the company was letting down users like his own daughter," Horwitz notes. "In response to Bejar's email, Sandberg sent a note to Bejar only, not the other executives. . . . He says he never heard back from Zuckerberg."

Bejar left Meta in 2021. He told the Journal, that any effort to change Meta "would have to come from the outside. He began consulting with a coalition of state attorneys general who filed suit against the company, alleging that the company had built its products to maximize engagement at the expense of young users' physical and mental health," Horwitz adds. "Bejar also got in touch with members of Congress about where he believes the company's user-safety efforts fell short." He's scheduled to testify in front of a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday.

Effort to raise $1 billion for local news, which just got past $500 million, says it will raise the rest of it at the local level

When the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation recruited the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and other major philanthropies to a campaign to raise money to reinvigorate local news, their hope was that they could get pledges for $1 billion over the next five years. They raised more than $500 million, but their reach exceeded their grasp. Now Press Forward is going local.

“Our goal is to raise the next $500 million at the local level,” MacArthur President John Palfrey said in a press release Friday. “For local news to be sustainable over the long term, communities will need to stand up and support their local news providers. We will need to invest in local news the same way that we invest in arts and culture, hospitals, or our alma maters. We are building a movement.”

Press Forward announced its first local chapters in Alaska, Minnesota, Kansas, Philadelphia and Springfield, Illinois. Palfrey wrote about the effort in The Atlantic, which gave his piece a pithy headline: "We’re making a $500 million investment. The other half is up to you."

He wrote, “Democracy in America is in crisis. The dramatic decline of local news is a major part of this crisis, and there are great ideas and organizations to fund, across all 50 states, to address it. These models include public media operations, nonprofit media start-ups, and for-profit companies. They include television, radio, and digital-only outlets as well as intriguing combinations of all three.”

Most of those efforts have focused on urban areas, but the National Trust for Local News is expanding its rural footprint, and plans to buy more existing media outlets, which is sees as the only way to accomploish a broad rescue of journalism in rural America.

In Press Forward's identification of three types of local ecosystems -- flouishing, expanding and nascent -- rural America's place was clear: “Too many Americans live in news deserts, in communities at risk of becoming news deserts, or in places where existing news sources are struggling to meet the information needs of audiences. In some of these places, a donor or group of donors are coming together to support local news and information for the first time.” Those include the Press Forward chapters in Alaska, Minnesota and Springfield, Ill.

Press Forward said its national donors will announce the first round of grantmaking in December, and issue grantmaking guidelines early next year. To express interest in forming a chapter, go here.