Friday, January 12, 2024

Rural America shows population growth and a decline in poverty, according to a new report

Rural America added population for the first time
in decades. (USDA photo)
After multiple decades of decline, rural America is growing in population and has fewer counties where residents live in "persistent poverty," reports Jamie Henneman of The Prairie Star, which serves central Montana. The Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service recently released its "Rural America at a Glance" report, which analyzes population, employment, housing and poverty in America's non-urban areas. "Much of the data suggested a positive trend for Americans living outside of cities, according to USDA ERS economist James Davis."

"We saw rural populations grow a quarter of a percent from 2020 to 2022 after a decline or near-zero growth between 2010 and 2020," Davis noted in the report. "That's an eighth of a percent growth per year, or 50,000 people more in rural areas each year. . . . Domestic migration favored rural areas for their recreation and as retirement destinations. Rural areas near metro areas were also popular."

The Census Bureau determines national "poverty" income thresholds. "In 2023, a family of four making under $29,960 was considered to be in poverty," Henneman writes. "And an individual household making under $14,891 was considered to be in poverty."

"We had 244 rural counties considered persistently poor from 2011 to 2021," Davis said in the report. "Since then, 26 more counties entered persistent poverty, but 55 counties left the designation. Overall, we had 9.7 percent fewer counties experiencing persistent poverty compared with a decade earlier."

"Housing was another topic considered in the USDA ERS report," Henneman adds, as well as how rural employment is fairing post-pandemic.

'Overwhelming' rural support is key to Trump's continued popularity among Republicans in Iowa

Trump remains popular in rural Iowa.
(Photo by Cheney Orr, WSJ)
Rural voters are the key to keeping Donald Trump as Republicans' first choice for the party's presidential nomination, reports John McCormick of The Wall Street Journal. Hancock County, Iowa, voters show Trump's influence in smaller communities. "Trump appears poised to win this county Monday and claim victory in Iowa's caucuses, powered largely by his overwhelming support among rural voters who see him as the best candidate to advance a populist conservative agenda."

Despite Trump's 91 criminal charges and civil fraud trial, many of Iowa's rural voters don't look at his track record as a negative. McCormick explains, "Many GOP voters here think Trump is most likely to achieve their ultimate goal — defeating President Biden — because he is a proven commodity and ties or beats the incumbent in general election polls." And while Trump may be a Manhattanite, he is a wealthy businessman that area farmers believe can relate to their struggles. Hancock County voters also say they like the idea of Trump as a Washington outsider who can get things done.

In Hancock County, some voters don't like Trump or his penchant for verbal attacks, but they still plan to vote for him. Republican Damon Quandt, a 31-year-old bank lending officer, "had initially planned to back someone other than Trump in the caucuses," McCormick writes, "because there are aspects of Trump's personality he doesn't like. He now expects to vote for Trump, in part because at some point, he said, (Florida Gov. Ron) DeSantis stopped looking like he could win."

The Washington Post has a similar story from Theodoric Meyer, about how rural Iowa counties are becoming more Republican and suurban counties more Democratic. He writes that the trend "resembles changes across the Midwest and the rest of the country that helped Trump win in 2016."

The rural vote matters most in marginal elections, McCormick writes: "If Democrats keep Trump from racking up the gains he had in rural America in 2016 and 2020, it could undermine his ability to carry battlegrounds like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. His strength with rural voters hasn't been replicated among the centrist suburban voters who decide general elections, which is why [former South Carolina Gov. Nikki] Haley still makes the case she'd be the better candidate in November and why Democrats still have hope Biden can win another term despite poor poll numbers."

Work is under way to create a 'significant' mountaintop renewable energy project in KY to power 170k homes

A BrightNight Starfire Renewable Power Simulation. The area is as big as Disney World.
(BrightNight image via YouTube)

As Appalachian coal production continues to decline, the region is looking at renewable energy production to fill the gap. For one mountaintop mining location, Eastern Kentucky's Starfire Mine, carefully repurposing its sprawling 27, 000 miles is already under way "with one of the most significant renewable energy projects in development in the eastern U.S," reports Kim Kobersmith of The Daily Yonder. "The success of the pilot project happening on the Starfire Mine site could change possibilities for these sorts of mines moving forward."

The pilot project offers significant promise in the short and long term. "BrightNight is a global integrated power company that designs, develops, owns, and operates large-scale renewable power projects," Kobersmith explains. "Its ambitious plan to create an 800-megawatt solar energy project, enough to power 170,000 homes annually, on a 7,000-acre brownfield could tip the scales toward future similar projects."

Developing an expanse the size of Disney World with the unique characteristics of mined land takes time, leaving BrightNight with a lot of work to complete before construction begins in 2026. "The challenges are three-fold: the physical characteristics of the site itself, the number of partners involved, and the complexity of the engineering," Kobersmith writes. BrightNight is collaborating with Rivian, a company that "designs, develops and manufactures electric vehicles and is working towards a net zero operation by 2040," and The Nature Conservancy."

Mindful of Eastern Kentuckians' history with extractive mining, BrightNight's leadership is working to connect the project to Star Mine's surrounding community. "The company is hoping to partner with area educational centers like Hazard Community and Technical College to provide training for the 250 construction jobs that will be created by the project," Kobersmith reports. "They hope to support electricity, road construction, and engineering needs for the Olive Branch Community, a state-supported flood recovery housing development slated to be built on the mine, adjacent to the renewable energy project."

Kobersmith writes, "In the case of Starfire Mine, the BrightNight Starfire Renewable Energy Center will create a taxable asset where there would not otherwise be one, generating an estimated $150 million tax revenue over the life of the project."

Adam Wells, Regional Director of Community and Economic Development for Appalachian Voices, told Kobersmith: "The narrative of renewable energy is powerful in an energy-producing region. It sends a positive message to people, not grasping at the past but looking to the future."

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Farmers in a California region created a system to address water scarcity; it could be a national conservation model

Pajaro Valley lost its precious strawberry crops
40 years ago. (Photo by Nathan Weyland, NYT)
As groundwater becomes more challenging to source, farmers are pressured to find ways to supply and reduce water for valuable crops. A community along a 10-mile stretch of California's central coast known as Pajaro Valley may have some water preservation answers for the rest of the country, reports Soumya Karlamangla of The New York Times. "Farmers must pay for the precious resource through a system that creates an incentive to conserve water, and that also raises revenue that goes toward recycling water to use on crops. . . .The system has reduced groundwater usage in the valley by 20 percent".

Pajaro Valley farmers designed the system, which experts believe could serve as a national water conservation model. Coral Davenport of The New York Times has covered the unique system including new supporting research. Karlamangla interviewed Davenport for her insights. A brief version of their Q&A is below.

Wikipedia map
Why are people looking to the Pajaro Valley right now?
For one, Pajaro Valley already faced its groundwater debacle "when the groundwater levels fell so low that its famous strawberry crops were destroyed by saltwater intrusion. . . . Farmers there banded together and came up with a solution that isn't perfect and has cost a lot of money and legal battles, but in the long run has saved the aquifer and the agricultural economy of the region. So a lot of experts and executives say it could offer a road map to avert the coming crises elsewhere."

Why hasn't this model spread more? "Politics. The politics of compelling American farmers to pay a tax on groundwater — a resource that has been free basically forever — are incredibly difficult. One thing I learned from reporting this story is that many farmers don't even want the government to put groundwater meters on their land just to measure the amount that they're using. Overcoming these deeply held political views is a huge challenge."

What consequences could charging for water in more places have on farmers and shoppers? "Experts said that pricing groundwater for agriculture across the country could profoundly change American agriculture. In some places, adding a charge for water would increase the cost of the crops and thus of the food or textiles produced by the crops — or it could cause farmers to change what they grow."

Read Davenport's full story here.

Read the case study here.

Finally Friday quick hits: America's last lighthouse keeper; no electricity bills; some good things just keep going

Sally Snowman was America's last lighthouse keeper.
(Photo by Seth Szilagyi, CBS Boston)
America's last lighthouse keeper has left her post, closing the door on an era," reports Emilee Coblentz of USA Today. "Sally Snowman, 72, became the guardian of the historic Boston Light, constructed in 1716, in 2002. She is its 70th keeper. 'The first 69 were all men,' she proudly told CBS News. . . . In a quick-changing society where technology is projected to replace many jobs across industries, the disappearance of one so rooted in our country's founding deserves pause."

If you hate paying your electric bill and like warm weather, you may want to consider relocating to Hunters Point, Florida where "no one pays an electricity bill," reports Nicolás Rivero of The Washington Post. "Hunters Point is the first residential development in the world to get a LEED Zero Energy certification, according to the U.S. Green Building Council, which means the entire community produces more electricity than it consumes.

The original cash register at Rock Dell Cooperative
Creamery (Photo by Noah Fish, AgWeek)
Nothing good lasts forever -- or does it? In Bryon, Minnesota, the Rock Dell Cooperative Creamery just turned 135 years old and is still buying milk. "Times are different today, and the creamery that was buying milk from producers across five counties in 1889 is now only buying milk from a single farm," reports Noah Fish of AgWeek. "The creamery is still owned by the patrons who sell milk or have equity in the business." The Creamery sells animal feed, cheese, ice cream and butter to loyal customers.

Chuttersnap photo, Unsplash
When it comes to its transition to green energy, the United States is on the proverbial struggle bus. "The U.S. is racing to overhaul how it powers its cars, trucks, buildings and industries. It has a long way to go," reports Shane Shifflett of The Wall Street Journal. "Wind and solar energy production are ramping up, but fossil fuels still provide a majority of the country's power." Shifflett provides five charts that show where the transition is now compared to the target goals.

Congress put billions of dollars into a program to help state and local governments build electric vehicle charging stations. However, getting the stations built will take much more than funding. "There's not nearly enough understanding from federal, state or local policymakers on how dysfunctional municipal permitting systems and utility connection processes are today," reports Catherine Geanuracos of Route Fifty. "For a program that's already been slow to launch, it's about to slam into systems that are already struggling, even before we need to dramatically ramp up capacity."
Image by Mariano Pascual, The Economist

How would you describe America's health care system? Bizarre? Infuriating? Dysfunctional? "The country spends about $4.3 (trillion) a year on keeping citizens in good nick [health]. . . twice as much as the average in other rich economies. And yet American adults live shorter lives, and American infants die more often than in similarly affluent places," reports The Economist. "Pharmaceutical firms and hospitals attract much of the public ire for the inflated costs. Much less attention is paid to a small number of middlemen who extract far bigger rents from the system's complexity." Want to know "Who profits most from America's baffling health care system?" Read here.

Tuesday, January 09, 2024

The rural journalism business model hasn’t failed, but it needs updating; a nonprofit cooperative option beckons

By Al Cross
Director Emeritus, Institute for Rural Journalism

It’s become conventional wisdom that the advertising-based business model of newspapers has failed. But that is not true in many small communities, which could become the nuclei of a national enterprise of nonprofit newsrooms that will provide better journalism with sound business practices, including economies of scale.

So says Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, CEO and co-founder of the National Trust For Local News, who recently announced the creation of a third state-based nonprofit journalism company, in Georgia, adding to those it has in Colorado (24 newspapers) and Maine (22), and says “wild success” would be a total of 15 such companies in the next five years.

Shapiro was interviewed on the Nov. 1 edition of the “Local News Matters” podcast of Tim Regan-Porter, executive director of the Colorado Press Association. When he asked her a question that many journalism funders and advocates ask, “Why save a failing business model?” she said the question is based on “high-profile failings of metro newspapers,” which aren’t reflected in the smaller papers the Trust owns or is considering buying.

Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro
“We have profitable papers in our portfolio and we come across profitable papers every day!” she exclaimed. “This idea that the business model is forever and always broken just reflects a real lack of curiosity, and I would say empirics, on the part of its adherents.”

That sort of language reflects Shapiro’s background as an academic researcher of journalism, with a Harvard Ph.D. in business studies, but she has developed a deep appreciation of small community newspapers, and she has become one of their most knowledgeable and articulate advocates.

“Because I was not trained as a journalist and didn’t come through that system, I didn’t come to this work with, you know, sort of hierarchy in my mind of metro news above all,” she said. “Plenty of funders also share that orientation, of like, metro news is sort of the highest level of news and the rest of it is sort of service journalism or amateur hour, basically. . . .

“I see it as actually the highest form of local news, because I think it actually reflects what truly local means, and the way that I think everyday people experience what ‘local’ means . . . local as in, ‘I live in this neighborhood’ or ‘I live in this town.’”

Shapiro is trying to make a distinction that badly needs making, at a time when local news is in trouble and a lot of people who want to help it don’t fully understand that “local” depends on how the audience of a news outlet defines its community.

She told Regan-Porter that the fracturing and diversification of business models “based on place and economic inequalities between geographies” – primarily rural and urban – means that “there really is no one-size-fits all,” and “There’s gonna have to be different solution sets for different scales.”

There are many differences among localities, she said, and many rural communities still have many independent retailers who advertise in local papers; but overall, the rural-paper business model must also include subscriptions, events, donations and “anything you can get.”

On a company scale, the Trust’s state-based approach is not fundamentally different from newspaper chains that use economies of scale and shared services, but Shapiro said it wants to preserve newspapers’ local identities, which she said is essential for long-term success.

“These are deeply local institutions, and their value and their long-term success depends on that: the quality of local participation and local engagement,” she said.

That requires a quality product, and the Trust’s chief portfolio officer, Ross McDuffie, said recently that it has “quality local news as the North Star of decision-making,” not “profits or shareholder value.”

Of course, the Trust’s companies must stay in the black, but they have “longer time horizons,” Shapiro said, with the top goal being community impact, not profit.

“The path to impact has to be through disciplined management of the business, because without money you have no mission,” she told Regan-Porter, who then cited the maxim that nonprofit is not a business model, it’s a tax status.

For-profit chains do short-term things that reduce the quality of reader experience, Shapiro said: “We are long-term investors in the quality of the product, and a quality product and an engaged audience are the drivers of long-term success.”

One cornerstone of quality is accountability journalism, but that’s not the main reason people like their local paper, Shapiro said: “Our model focuses on strong communities and social cohesion.”

The Trust says its mission is to conserve, transform and sustain community news organizations, and ultimately build stronger communities by keeping small, traditional sources of local news in local hands.

Shapiro said the Trust is willing to buy papers that would have difficulty surviving on their own but “wouldn’t be replaceable by something else” and can thrive in a nonprofit group. She said the Trust’s goal is “sustainability across a network so that we can serve larger communities and smaller communities.”

Shapiro said the Trust is still figuring out how to integrate the operations of its Maine papers, which it bought in August, and in other states wants to find publishers who can make strong anchors in a scaling-up strategy. “The good news is, we hear from those kind of folks every day,” she said.

The bad news, she said, is that time is short.

“Rural news publishers, in particular independent rural news publishers, are at risk of extinction, either getting bought by political forces or just closing because of really difficult economics in small places,” she said. “I think we are really in a race against time.”

Al Cross edited and managed rural newspapers before covering politics for the Louisville Courier Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. This is his latest column for Publishers' Auxiliary, the monthly newspaper of the National Newspaper Association.

It might be cheaper to rent a property in 2023; higher interest rates and a softer rental market explain why

The Economist graph, from
U.S. government data

For the first time in decades, renting a home or apartment in 2023 was cheaper than buying one. "The median rent in America's 50 largest metropolitan areas costs about $1,750, which is down nearly $30 from a year ago, according to new data from, and it was the fifth such consecutive drop for up to two-bedroom homes," reports Omar Mohammed of Newsweek. "The rental market is seeing a softening partly due to more homes available for renters who are driving up the demand."

Historically, Americans have enjoyed mortgage payments that are less expensive than paying rent, but over the past two years, interest rates have soared "as the Federal Reserve has hiked rates to their highest levels in two decades to battle inflation, which spiked to a 40-year high at one point," Mohammed explains. "The jump in rates has pushed the borrowing costs for homes, making the prospect of buying a home unaffordable for Americans."

Looking at the dynamic change, The Economist reports, "Between 2011 and 2020, the monthly mortgage payment on a typical home was 12% lower than the rental for a similar property (assuming a deposit of 13%, the current national average). A steady rise in home values, worth roughly 7% a year over the past decade, also ensured that buyers built equity in their homes. . . . But now the choice between buying and renting looks different."

Mohammed writes: "Some housing economists are begging the Fed not to raise rates again to give some relief to the sector that counts for 16% of U.S. economic activity."

Nutrition programs expanded for women and children during pandemic due to easier access; but changes are temporary

Money for fruits and vegetables is part of the
WIC program. (Photo by Rusty Watson, Unsplash)
Pandemic changes allowed more mothers to access the nutritional benefits of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. The program's growth was spurred by decreasing participant requirements and in-person interviews. While those changes helped WIC become more popular with mothers, the program faces funding and waiver crunches that may limit access again. "WIC is not an entitlement program — it can only support additional participants if Congress allocates funding for them," reports Caitlin Dewey of Stateline. Temporary federal waivers "made it easier to participate during the pandemic, and Congress would need to change the law to extend them."

Despite the program's history of positive health outcomes and bipartisan support, "House Republicans have signaled a desire to hold WIC funding steady, with no increase to cover new participants. A series of continuing resolutions passed to buy Congress time as it works out a comprehensive budget deal also have maintained prior funding levels," Dewey explains. Without additional funding, some states may face waitlists, which, depending on the wait time, may not be helpful for pregnant women.

Dr. Aditi Vasan is a pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, where she has researched participation in WIC. Vasan told Dewey, "It's a really important source of nutrition support for low-income pregnant women, children and families, because it provides both nutrition education and the funds to purchase nutritious food." Dewey reports, "[Before the pandemic] participants frequently reported problems scheduling appointments, taking time off work and accessing transportation to WIC offices." To contain Covid-19, WIC offices were allowed to conduct interviews and screenings remotely, which removed a major obstacle for program applicants. Many of WIC's pandemic adaptations were authorized under temporary federal waivers," Dewey writes. "By September 2026, when waivers end, Congress will need to change the statute underlying WIC to make those changes permanent, said Ali Hard of the National WIC Association."

'It's obvious there is another back-to-the-land movement' as many younger people seek to grow their own food

The 20th-century homesteading movement that began in the 1950s and stretched into the 1970s was anchored by people who rejected commercialized, materialistic living and turned toward independent living that reconnected them with the land. Many couples or families who sought a more down-to-earth life moved to Vermont and Maine, seeking to live "on their own terms," writes Kirsten Lie-Nielsen for Ambrook Research. "My mother was part of the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and '70s, a generational exodus to the countryside that was so noticeable it changed census statistics."

In the 1960s and '70s, "going back to the land was part of the broader counterculture movement," Lie-Nielsen writes. . . "rejecting many of the trappings of mainstream society. In the 1970s alone, over one million people were inspired to move to the country. It's no fluke that Vermont and Maine became homesteading destinations for so many — it's all about one couple named Helen and Scott Nearing."

The Nearings had moved to Vermont in 1932, in search of a less chaotic way of life. In 1950, they published Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World, and in 1952, "they moved to Brookside, Maine, where they established a homestead that would eventually become the Good Life Center," Lie-Nielsen adds. "Yet it would be more than a decade before the homesteading movement really took off. . . . . Living The Good Life was republished in 1970. . . . The new edition became a sensation, inspiring a generation of back-to-the-landers, many of whom arrived at the Nearings' homestead hoping to learn from the masters of simple living."

Most homesteaders, "including my mother and her husband, embraced an entirely off-grid lifestyle," Lie-Nielsen writes. Eliot Coleman, a back-to-lander who followed the Nearings example, told Lie-Nielsen: "My first wife and I built a house for a thousand dollars back in '68. It wasn't big, but it was simple and warm. We heated with wood, we had a well that we dug that we got water from, we dug a root cellar where we stored food over the winter. We didn't have electricity, we didn't have a phone — talk about economics! Without those bills coming in, there was nothing that could stop us."

Overall, the "back-to-the-landers largely did not seek to enter into commerce with their farm beyond perhaps a modest roadside farmstand," Lie-Nielsen adds. "They just wanted to provide enough food for themselves and their families and live peacefully alongside nature. . . . Today, self-sufficiency is once again in vogue. After the coronavirus pandemic. . . many people began to research growing their own food and rural land sales increased." Homesteading advocate Warren Berkowitz told Lie-Nielsen: "Young people are definitely wanting either to farm, or to do something with food. It's obvious there is another back-to-the-land movement; I think our kids' generation is very food-related."

Flora and Fauna: A predator returns to Colorado; declining wild turkey population; marvel revealed; helping manatees

Colorado has released 10 gray wolves into the wilderness.
(Colorado Parks and Wildlife photo via Business Insider)
In the 1940s, the gray wolf was eradicated from Colorado, but they are slowly being reintroduced. "Colorado wildlife officials have now released 10 gray wolves — four males and six females — as part of a voter-backed effort to reintroduce the predator to the state's wilderness after roughly 80 years," Michelle Mark of Business Insider reports. "The 10 wolves hail from Oregon and have been outfitted with satellite GPS collars to track their movements and survival. Ultimately, some 30 to 50 wolves will be introduced to Colorado over three to five years."

Once near extinction, North American wild turkeys made a phenomenal comeback. But their triumphant return has since suffered setbacks, with wild turkey population steadily declining. "Biologists say the nation's turkey population may have gone down by about 1 million, or nearly 15 percent, between 2004 and 2014, with much of that decline in parts of the South and Midwest. Between 2014 and 2019, turkey numbers dipped a further 3 percent, though researchers caution that there are gaps in the data," reports Dino Grandoni of The Washington Post. "Scientists are exploring a few possible causes — habitat loss, hunting, disease, climate change."

What marvel is a half-mile long and includes a 17-acre lake in the northern forests of Canada?
Hint: It was built by large and busy rodents.
If you guessed "world's largest beaver dam," you are correct! "The largest beaver dam on Earth was discovered via satellite imagery in 2007, and since then, only one person has trekked into the Canadian wild to see it," 
reports Ian Frazier of YaleEnvironment 360. "Animal technology created the largest beaver dam in the world, but human technology revealed it."

A greyhound's speed peak is around 45 mph.
(Photo by Craig Pittman, National Geographic)
The era of greyhound racing seems to be coming to a close. "Concerns about the dogs' welfare and declining betting revenue have led tracks across the country to close in recent decades," reports Erika Larsen of National Geographic. "In its glory days of the 1950s, Derby Lane in St. Petersburg, Florida, attracted thousands of avid racing fans, such as Joe DiMaggio, who left Marilyn Monroe sitting in the car while he ran inside to place his bets. Now only a few hundred show up for the races, a sign of how its fan base has dwindled."

In San Fernando Valley, California, sits the area's last working orange grove, but it was sold to a housing developer who has agreed to spare a fifth of the trees. "The San Fernando Valley was home as early as the 1920s to a more-than-70,000-acre sea of citrus. Suburban sprawl began encroaching, and some growers opted to sell because it was more lucrative than continuing to run a grove," reports Jim Carlton of The Wall Street Journal. "Profits diminished over time as agriculture's regional footprint shrank. . . and as tougher global competition emerged from places like Brazil."

Manatees love to munch on seagrass.
(Photo by Geoff Trodd, Unsplash)
The return of seagrass to Florida's space coast is helping manatee populations who have struggled for survival. "The recovery of seagrass, the manatees' favorite food, in Mosquito Lagoon means that an emergency hand-feeding program that has kept many of the starving aquatic animals alive over the last two winters can be discontinued, at least temporarily," reports Richard Luscombe of The Guardian. "While scientists say this might be only a small step in the wider fight to rescue a species that has seen a record die-off in recent years from water pollution and habitat loss, what's happened at Mosquito Lagoon offers signposts to how the manatees' battle for survival might ultimately be won."