Friday, March 29, 2024

Both of California's legislative leaders hail from rural backgrounds -- it's a first in more than 50 years

Coast Redwood Forest
(Wikipedia photo)
Rural people and issues often get politically sidelined, but some of that dynamic has changed in California. "It's the first time in more than 50 years that both of California's legislative leaders hail from rural districts," reports Camille Von Kaenel of Politico. "Rural interests accustomed to being on the outskirts of Sacramento policymaking are enjoying the view from the inside and are hoping to make a mark — particularly on climate and environmental policies."
North Coast California
(Wikipedia map)

Senate leader Mike McGuire from Healdsburg, pop. 11,300, represents the state's North Coast district, which is replete with redwood forests, salmon fisheries and Sonoma County wineries. Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas' district covers the Central Coast, also known as the "salad bowl" of America, where he grew up in farmworker housing. Von Kaenel notes, "The last time both leaders hailed from rural districts was in 1969, when Democrat Hugh Burns of Fresno County led the Senate and Republican Bob Monagan of San Joaquin County led the Assembly."

Central Coast California
(Wikipedia map)
For Chris Lopez, the chair of the Rural County Representatives of California, which includes 40 of California's 58 counties, "The representation alone is powerful," Von Kaenel reports. Lopez told her, "When Robert was sworn in as speaker, having a mariachi on that floor playing music spoke to my heart. It wasn't just about having a Latino, but having a Latino who grew up rural in farmworker housing."

Von Kaenel writes, "They're careful to emphasize they're representing everyone, including their urban counterparts." McGuire said in a recent statement: "No matter if you live in Eureka or Encino, the priorities are similar. While I'll always have country roots, I'm going to fight like hell to lift up every Californian, no matter if you live in the big city or a one-traffic-stop-light town."

Landline use might be fading, but many rural residents still rely on it during power outages and emergencies

Landlines don't go down during power
outages. (Photo by A. Spratt, Unsplash)
When emergencies strike in remote areas, the unreliability of cell phone and broadband services can become a stark reality, which is why many rural residents want to keep their landlines. "The number of landline users has plummeted, and providers are looking at transitioning customers to cellphones or home telephone service over broadband connections," reports Heather Kelly for The Washington Post. "But for millions of people, newer alternatives are either unavailable, too expensive, or are unreliable when it matters most: in an emergency."

Because landline phones use copper lines to transfer electricity, "as long as a phone is corded or charged, it will work during a power outage," Kelly explains. "Landlines are unaffected by power outages, making them a necessary backstop in rural areas. Many of those same areas have inadequate cellular or internet coverage."
Enumclaw in King County, Wash., sits in
the shadowof Mt. Rainier. (Wikipedia map)
About a quarter of Americans still have a landline, but far fewer rely on it for daily use. "The largest group of people holding onto their landlines are 65 and older," Kelly reports. "Susan Reiter has had a landline in her Enumclaw, Wash., home since 1978. The power goes out multiple times a year, says Reiter, usually caused by fierce wind and other weather events. But the landline always works, she says, making it her best option if there's an emergency and she needs to call 911."

AT&T is one company looking to cut costs by cutting landline service. It asked the California Public Utilities Commission to "end its obligation to provide landline service in parts of the state," Kelly adds. "Hundreds of California residents called into CPUC public meetings. . . .The vast majority said maintaining landline service was a safety issue, citing power outages, wildfires and floods as times when their landlines are the only way to reach 911 or get information on evacuations."

As calling options evolve, replacing landlines as an emergency stopgap seems possible; however, getting people to trust newer technology may be tricky. "Apple added a satellite-connected emergency response service to the iPhone 14 in 2022," Kelly reports. "For people with a landline they've had for decades, the promise of new technology doesn't compete with the security of something that has worked for so long."

Home septic systems need regular care and maintenance to prevent 'seriously unpleasant' and expensive problems

Protozoa, rotifers, and other microorganisms work in
septic systems. (Image via Southern Sanitary Systems)
People who migrate from the city to more remote areas are wise to learn what many rural dwellers already know -- taking care of your home's septic system is serious business.

"You may want to ignore it," writes Kris Frieswick of The Wall Street Journal. "But there is only one thing worse than personally interacting with your septic system and its parts — the septic tank and leach field— and that is ignoring it. . . . [It] demands little except your consideration and maintenance, without which it will make your life seriously unpleasant."

While waste management discussions may feel unseemly, the topic is so essential that even the Old Testament gives instructions. Frieswick explains, "Deuteronomy 23:12-13 commands: 'Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. As part of your equipment, have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement.'. . . Bet you didn't know you had a big old hunk of Moses-approved engineering history buried next to your rhododendron."

Septic systems are more complex than a hole in the ground, but the idea is the same. Frieswick reports, "Your effluent flows through pipes into your oxygen-free septic tank, where bacteria (most of which is thoughtfully provided by your gut) eats undigested material, explains Robert Rubin, emeritus professor of biological and agricultural engineering at North Carolina State University. . . . Once those little bacterias in the tank get to work, the solids float or drop and the watery part drains off via pipe to a leach field." The leach field is the magical place where bacteria work pays off.

But things can go awry. "Septic tanks can get cracks in them. . . . Or they can back up if the pipes get clogged with grease," Frieswick writes. Inorganic material flushed accidentally can wreak havoc as well.

Before buying a new home, have the system separately inspected. Remember that tanks are built for bedroom capacity of a home. Capacity could be an issue if bedrooms are added to a house after its septic system. Use liquid detergents instead of powder, and fix water leaks that could stress the system. Plan on regular maintenance to avoid blockage headaches and pricey repairs.

      Knowing how a septic system works helps inform homeowners and renters on how to care for it.

Opinion: Further buffalo restoration in the American West should be all about 'integrity' -- not adding to the economy

Writer Elsie DuBray argues that integrity in relationship is the only path forward for the
 healthy return of more buffalo to the American West. (Photo by E. Dubray via The Daily Yonder)

The American buffalo embodies the mystique of the nation's West — bold, massive and distinct. Despite its near extinction in the 1800s, the return of buffalo to western lands has been slow but steady. The buffalo restoration movement now rests on a precipice between deep respect and planning for buffalo to roam as they once did and capitalistic interests.

Writer Elsie M. DuBray, in her commentary for The Daily Yonder, argues that it is at this unique place and time where Indigenous people must focus on integrity in action and legal advocacy to light the way for buffalo's best chance at dignified survival. An edited version is shared below.

Over the past several decades, buffalo restoration has become part of an emerging national conversation. "According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, 20,500 buffalo exist within U.S. conservation herds and 450,000 in commercial herds," DuBray writes. "PBS reports that 82 Tribes manage 65 buffalo herds and programs, and there is even a federal working group under the Department of the Interior dedicated to buffalo restoration, funded by the March 2023 Inflation Reduction Act as part of a 'restoration and resilience framework.'"

Buffalo restoration means more than numbers.
(Photo by E. DuBray via The Daily Yonder)
While buffalo restoration has come a long way through the incredible efforts of Indigenous people and advocates, some problems have emerged. Dubray explains, ". . . in many instances, these successes have cast a shadow under which a complacency within the larger buffalo restoration movement has developed. The optical 'wins' of X many buffalo here and Y over there, for example, may overshadow the way a buffalo program began answering the calls of capitalism as opposed to the calls of our ancestors' prayers. Or the way we brush aside the moral calamity of a feedlot for buffalo when it means a grocery store thousands of miles away may be able to carry a bison tenderloin."

"When done 'in a good way,' as my people like to say, revitalizing ancestral Indigenous food systems has an almost unparalleled potential to heal," Dubray adds. "But there are consequences when values are compromised, as is seen in recent disease outbreaks that once again threaten the hard-fought buffalo herd numbers to a severe degree not seen since the 1800s. We must make a decision about how we are going to carry ourselves forward within this work, and we must make the right one."

Integrity offers a way forward that is both clear and decidedly tough to follow. It includes "our shared and unique cultural values that define our kinship to the buffalo and, inextricably, our responsibility as their kin to protect, honor, and uphold the integrity of the buffalo themselves," DuBray writes. "What exactly are we restoring if we fail to answer this question of integrity? Buffalo must not become solely about numbers – numbers of buffalo or numbers of zeros they add to a Tribe's economy.

"Buffalo restoration, at its core, is about relationships. I ask, how are we going to honor ours?"

Uvalde Leader-News publisher receives 2023 Tom and Pat Gish Award at Texas event focusing on local journalism

Craig Garnett, middle, accepts the Tom and Pat Gish Award alongside Al Cross, left, and Benjy Hamm from the Institute for Rural Journalism. (Texas Center for Community Journalism photo)

The Uvalde Leader-News owner and publisher Craig Garnett accepted the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism on Feb. 29 during a Texas Center for Community Journalism event, which included panel discussions on community reporting needs and challenges. The Community News in Aledo editor and publisher Randy Keck and the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism director Benjy Hamm participated in leading the discussions alongside Garnett.

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues first announced Garnett as honoree in 2023. The annual award is named for the couple who published the Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky, for more than 50 years.

Garnett was unable to attend the original award ceremony, set last October in Lexington, and offered remarks by video. “What happened in Uvalde was crushing. It continues to be an enormous weight on many of our shoulders, especially the families of the victims, and we have endeavored to cover every aspect of that shooting,” Garnett said at the time.

Garnett, who earned an economics degree from Southern Methodist University, joined the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1977 and moved to the Kansas City Star in 1978. He became general manager of the Leader-News in 1982 and owner and publisher in 1989.

The newspaper has won many awards under his ownership. Earlier in 2023, the Texas Press Association honored Garnett with the Frank W. Mayborn Award for Community Leadership. He has won dozens of TPA and South Texas Press Association awards for editorial and column writing.

The Institute for Rural Journalism exists to sustain rural journalism and help rural journalists define the public agenda in their communities.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Coal markets remain robust as Asia increases reliance on coal to fill supply gaps; output set a record in 2023

Coal will remain an energy source for many decades
to come. (Photo by Dominik Vanyi, Unsplash)

Despite coal's reputation as the "dirtiest fossil fuel," it is still considered a reliable form of energy, and its removal from global energy systems looks to be a slow ride. "Thanks to a combination of China’s energy insecurity. . . and rising Indian demand, the continued fallout from the war in Ukraine and faltering international programs to wean developing economies off fossil fuels, coal is proving remarkably resilient," reports Bloomberg News. "Output hit a record last year."

Coal prices remain steady as the Asian market returns to coal as a more reliable energy source. "By 2026, China and India will comprise more than 70% of global coal use," Bloomberg reports. Those two countries, along with Indonesia, which opened new coal power plants last year, use about 93% of the world’s coal power, according to Global Energy Monitor.

Rob Bishop, chief executive officer of Australian miner New Hope Corp., told Bloomberg, "You look at Asia, the demand and the build-out of coal-fired power plants, particularly in India — coal’s not going anywhere anytime soon." Bloomberg reports, "In 2022, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and blackouts during heatwaves in India further bolstered coal demand. By last year, output had risen to a record 8.7 billion tons, according to the International Energy Agency."

As nations work to transition from coal to renewables, coal will play a vital role. Global change to cleaner sources depends on multiple variables, particularly in countries such as China and Indonesia. Bloomberg reports, "Coal phaseouts, however, have proved far more challenging than anticipated. . . .The transition tests years-long expectations of rapid peaks and subsequent steep declines." Bishop told Bloomberg, "We see that the world needs more operators to mine coal and support the transition over many decades to come."

USDA has new rules for organic food suppliers, but many in its complex distribution chain may not be ready

Complex organic food chains needed updated
regulation. (Photo by nrd, Unsplash)
The certification of the U.S.'s organic food supply faces its first big change in 30 years, and many food companies may not be ready. The Department of Agriculture launched its Strengthening Organic Enforcement regulations on March 19, and some experts are waiting to see "if unprepared companies will get left behind," reports Lydia Noyes of FoodDive. "The new rule is the most significant change to organic certification since the program's start. . . . There's growing concern that large portions of the food industry. . . haven't made the necessary compliance changes."

The organic food industry has grown exponentially since the 1990s and has "out-scaled its initial regulations. That's led to gaps in enforcement that allowed for loopholes and outright fraud," Noyes writes. The SOE rule is designed to address the sector's growth and complexity, but has been largely ignored. Nate Ensrud, an executive with FoodChain ID, one of the largest organic certifiers in the U.S., told Noyes he has "noticed little action across the industry to meet SOE's changes."

The failure to address the new rule may come from a lack of information and a historical lack of oversight requirements. Ensrud told Noyes, "Some organic suppliers are still unaware of the March 19 compliance requirements. Because importers, exporters, brokers, traders, and storage facilities have not historically been required to be certified, we believe there will be an increase in last-minute organic certification applications."

When a supplier is not SOE compliant, production may suffer. Ensrud told Noyes: "Suppose a manufacturer of organic breakfast cereals finds that a handler of organic raisins in their supply chain hasn't pursued certification in light of SOE. Now the manufacturer must find a replacement, and it might suffer production disruption in the meantime."

Rural residents often have limited retail choices for groceries and staples; when dollar stores close, they have even less

In some small towns, dollar stores add grocery and staple options in remote areas with few or no alternatives. In other cases, dollar stores were built right next to the local grocery store, slowly chipping away profits and eventually closing the local business. In both scenarios, rural residents rely on dollar stores for affordable staples. When they close, rural people have fewer options.

"Even though inflation is cooling, prices are still higher than they were pre-pandemic. They've hit low-income consumers the hardest, which is why many shop at dollar stores," report Bianca Facchinei and Emily Grossberg of Scripps News. "Dollar stores aren't just about saving money; sometimes, they're the only option." Consumer Reports deputy editor Brian Vines told Scripps News, "So many smaller mom-and-pop and independent stores have had to shutter because of competition from dollar stores, and those very communities now are faced with the very real threat of having no retail."

Last week, Dollar Tree said, "It plans to close 600 underperforming Family Dollar locations between now and June," Facchinei and Grossberg add. "An additional 370 Family Dollar and 30 Dollar Tree stores will close at the end of each store's current lease term."

Vines hopes the closures may offer opportunities for new growth. Vines told Scripps: "We're thinking about independent grocery stores or other folks who can really provide robust offerings. They see fertile ground now that those value retailers who've undercut them in the past aren't operating in the space."

Larger retailers used their dominance to push suppliers and squeeze competitors during pandemic, FTC report shows

Larger retailers used the pandemic to 'come
out ahead.' (Photo by S. Lee, Unsplash)
American grocery prices remain usually high, and many smaller-scale grocers still struggle to recover from pandemic setbacks. A new Federal Trade Commission report sheds some light on how larger retailers used their power to push suppliers to deliver to them first, which caused more struggles for smaller competitors and may be partially to blame for why grocery costs have remained high even as overall inflation has cooled.

"Federal regulators said large grocery chains used their size and scale to keep shelves stocked during the pandemic, edging out smaller rivals when most stores struggled with product shortages and distribution bottlenecks," reports Liz Young of The Wall Street Journal. Many larger retailers put "stricter delivery requirements into place and fined vendors that didn't comply. . . The demands led many suppliers to route more goods toward those retailers to avoid the fines."

FTC Chair Lina Khan told the Journal, "Dominant firms used this moment to come out ahead at the expense of their competitors and the communities they serve." Young reports, "The agency said revenue growth at grocers outpaced the cost increases many of them faced from suppliers, suggesting that higher profits 'warrant further inquiry by the commission and policymakers.'"

While supply bottlenecks thwarted smaller grocers during the pandemic, "Some of the largest U.S. retailers, including Walmart, Home Depot, Costco and Target, chartered their own cargo ships in 2021 to import goods and get around the chokepoints," Young writes. "Small grocers say the pandemic exacerbated their longtime struggles to compete with bigger retailers." Robert Buche, chief executive of South Dakota grocery chain G.F. Buche, told Young, "Covid just made it more obvious what's been happening for years with us independents."

Looking for a fresh way to look at common community coverage? Check out Solutions Journalism support.

If you're a community journalist who wants to add solution-seeking depth to your reporting tools, consider joining the Solutions Journalism Network's next Rural Cohort. The deadline to apply has been extended to April 2.

Journalists from any rural-serving news organization are welcome to apply to be part of this year's cohort, which will teach participants how to incorporate solutions journalism into regular practice. All cohort members will receive professional development from the Solutions Journalism Network and support from each other.

Solutions Journalism training includes two-hour monthly meetings that focus on how journalists can find meaningful solutions to journalism stories in coverage such as county board meetings, press releases and regular beat coverage. Training will show editors and journalists how to evaluate story ideas, spot solutions opportunities, and effectively execute solutions stories while meeting deadlines.

Solutions Journalism isn't a program designed to add work to a newsroom's already full plate. Instead, cohort members will learn how to convert some of the vital and valuable coverage they're already doing into a solutions framework.

The initial application takes less than two minutes to complete and is due by April 2. Click here to explore.

For additional information, please contact Rural Media Manager Melissa Cassutt at