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This Web log is regular reading for journalists who cover rural issues and need story ideas, sources, comparisons and inspiration. Send stories, links and tips to al.cross@uky.edu. Use of items by news outlets is encouraged and hereby granted, as long as clear credit is given to the original source. If the blog provides grist for a story, let us know.

Sunday, Sept. 30, 2007

Ethanol glut, price drop, transport issues suggest boom may be over

Lots of people have been writing about the possibility that the ethanol boom will go bust, because of overproduction, and that prospect is now in the minds of many more people, since it is the subject of a New York Times story and chart that was published in many newspapers today.

"Companies and farm cooperatives have built so many distilleries so quickly that the ethanol market is suddenly plagued by a glut," partly because it can't be transported in pipelines from the Midwest to the more populated coasts. "The average national ethanol price on the spot market has plunged 30 percent since May, with the decline escalating sharply in the last few weeks," Clifford Krauss writes from Nevada, Iowa.

Iowa State University economic professor Neil Harl told Krauss the boom may have already ended, but "Some analysts outside the industry think the current market upheaval may be more than simply a hiccup," Krauss writes. One is Aaron Brady at Cambridge Energy Research Associates, but even he says, "If Congress doesn’t substantially raise the renewable fuel standard, then this is not just a short term problem but a long term issue, and there will be more of a shakeout in the industry." The Senate-passed energy bill "would require gasoline producers to blend 36 billion gallons of ethanol into gasoline by 2022, an increase from the current standard of 7.5 billion gallons by 2012," but it is unclear whether the House will follow suit, Krauss writes. (Read more)

Legal actions against polluters decline sharply in Bush administration

The day before President Bush was re-elected, high-ranking Environmental Protection Agency official Stephen L. Johnson, right, told a group of farmers in Georgia, "The days of the guns and badges are over." Johnson is now the administrator of EPA, and his line has proved accurate. EPA prosecutions, new investigations and total convictions of polluters are all down by more than a third, write John Solomon and Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.

"The number of civil lawsuits filed against defendants who refuse to settle environmental cases was down nearly 70 percent between fiscal years 2002 and 2006, compared with a four-year period in the late 1990s," the Post reports. "The EPA now employs 172 investigators in its Criminal Investigation Division, below the minimum of 200 agents required by the 1990 Pollution Prosecution Act," and the number available at any particular time is even less "agents said, because they sometimes are diverted to other duties, such as Johnson's security staff of eight.

"Administration officials said they are not ignoring the environment but are focusing on major cases that secure more convictions against bigger players," but "acknowledge taking a new approach to environmental enforcement by seeking more settlements and plea bargains that require pollution reductions through new equipment purchases or participation in EPA compliance programs," the Post reports.

Growers, cops fight out another pot harvest season in Appalachia

It's harvest time for most crops, including marijuana, and that means big money for some rural people and danger for the law-enforcement officers who risk boobytraps to catch them. The Courier-Journal's Chris Kenning of takes a look at the industry in Kentucky, where more pot is confiscated than in any state but California -- mainly in the state's Appalachian counties and particularly on public land in the Daniel Boone National Forest. (Photo of state police by Matt Stone, The C-J)

"Authorities say their efforts keep drugs off the streets and illicit profits out of criminal hands," Kenning writes for the Louisville newspaper. "But critics call it a waste of time and money that has failed to curb availability or demand." Eastern Kentucky University criminal justice professor Gary Potter, a longtime student of the phenomenon, told The C-J, "Trying to eradicate marijuana is like taking a teaspoon and saying you're going to empty the Atlantic Ocean."

Kenning writes, "Many of the small towns of Eastern Kentucky, steeped in a tradition of bootlegging moonshine, also have high rates of unemployment, poverty and in some cases, public corruption, according to federal drug officials. . . . Over time, growing pot has become an 'accepted and even encouraged' part of the culture in Appalachia, according to a recent federal drug intelligence analysis. Authorities complain that in some counties it is difficult to get a jury to indict, much less convict, a marijuana grower."

"I think it's the lack of economic opportunities that's really driven this beast," Lt. Ed Shemelya, head of the Kentucky State Police marijuana unit, told Kenning in a four-minute video that accompanies the story. The new enforcement wrinkle this year is that the Department of Justice has dropped its "usual 100-plant threshold used as a guideline to bring federal cultivation charges. . . . The idea is to push more growers onto private land, which can be seized."

Most of the region is part of the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (left), 68 counties in Eastern Kentucky, East Tennessee and West Virginia that "have less than 1 percent of the country's population, but were home to roughly 10 percent of the marijuana eradicated nationwide in 2006," Kenning writes. (Read more) For a map of other HIDTAs around the country, click here.

Barbara Kingsolver writes about connections between work and food

"In my neighborhood of Southwest Virginia, backyard gardens are as common as satellite dishes," author Barbara Kingsolver, right, writes for The Washington Post. But elsewhere, "My generation has absorbed an implicit hierarchy of values in which working the soil is poor people's toil. Apparently we're now meant to rise above even touching the stuff those people grow. The real labors of keeping a family fed (as opposed to the widely used metaphor) are presumed tedious and irrelevant. A woman confided to me at a New York dinner party, 'Honestly, who has time to cook anymore? My daughter will probably grow up wondering what a kitchen is used for.' The lament had the predictable blend of weariness and braggadocio, unremarkable except for this woman's post at the helm of one of the nation's major homemaking magazines. . . . On the other side of the world from that New York dinner party, another influential woman gave me an opposite perspective on leaving behind the labor and culture of food: that it's impossible. We only transform the tasks, she claims -- and not necessarily for the better."

Vandana Shiva is director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy, which operates Navdanya, a farm-based institute that helps rural Indians "learn how to free themselves from chemicals, indebtedness and landlessness," Kingsolver writes. "Shiva's research has shown that returning to more traditional multi-crop food farms can offer them higher, more consistent incomes than modern single-crop fields of export commodities."

Here is Kingsolver's main point: "Industrial farming -- however destructive to the land and our nutrition -- has held out as its main selling point the allure of freedom: Two percent of the population would be able to feed everyone. The rest could do as we pleased. Shiva sees straight through that promise. 'Most of those who have moved off of farms are still working in the industry of creating food and bringing it to consumers: as cashiers, truck drivers, even the oil-rig workers who generate the fuels to run the trucks. Those jobs are all necessary to a travel-dependent, highly mechanized food system. And many of those jobs are menial, life-taking work, instead of the life-giving work of farming on the land. The analyses we have done show that no matter what, whether the system is highly technological or much more simple, about 50 to 60 percent of a population has to be involved in the work of feeding that population. Industrial agriculture did not 'save' anyone from that work, it only shifted people into other forms of food service.' Waiting tables, for instance, or driving a truck full of lettuce, or spending 70 hours a week in an office overseeing a magazine full of glossy ads selling food products. Surprise: There is no free lunch. No animal can really escape the work of feeding itself." (Read more)

Berry says he'll vote again, though land-use concerns have worsened

Wendell Berry, the author-farmer who is a leading advocate of conservation and sustainable agriculture, "struck a nerve with voters" when he wrote a letter to The Courier-Journal in July, saying that he had stayed away from the polls in Kentucky's May gubernatorial primary because he couldn't "submit again to the indignity of trying to pick the least undesirable candidate," since the only one who talked about land use and questioned mountaintop-removal strip mining for coal had dropped out of the race.

But Berry told The C-J's Peter Smith that he will vote in the Nov. 7 general election. "I'm going to vote for the Democrats, because it seems to me that the Republicans have such an abysmal record that some kind of change needs to be made," he said. "On the other hand -- and the problem with this conversation is that there's always another hand -- I'm not excited about voting for the Democrats." Berry's brother, John Berry Jr., was Democratic leader of the state Senate more than 25 years ago.

Berry, 73, told Smith that the issues he wrote about 30 years ago, in the seminal book "The Unsettling of America," such as industrialized agriculture and strip mining, "have all gotten worse." Still, Smith writes, some "compare the book with the environmental manifesto of the 1960s, Rachel Carlson's 'Silent Spring,' citing its impact on those seeking more say in where their food comes from." Norman Wirzba, a Georgetown (Ky.) College philosophy professor and editor of a collection of Berry's essays, told Smith, "He was a voice crying in the wilderness. A lot of people are listening now." (Read more) For L. Elisabeth Beattie's C-J review of "Wendell Berry: Life and Work," a collection of essays and articles about Berry, edited by Jason Peters, click here.

Friday, Sept. 28, 2007

Ethanol boom hasn't busted direct subsidy payments to corn farmers

Corn farmers are having a banner year, thanks in large part to the ethanol boom, but will still get $1.6 billion in direct payments next month, Dan Morgan reports for The Washington Post. "Coming at a time when taxpayers are already subsidizing the ethanol industry to the tune of $3 billion a year, the double-barreled support system for those who grow corn and those who turn it into fuel has begun to draw fire in Congress," he writes. "So far, Congress has shown little inclination to adjust the subsidies to account for the new energy-driven rural economy." The House-passed Farm Bill would continue direct payments, while a Senate-passed energy bill would "double the federal requirement for the use of ethanol from corn."

"It's money for nothing," Bruce Babcock, an economics professor at Iowa State University, told Morgan. Congress started direct payments in 1996 "to temporarily buttress farm incomes while other traditional subsidies were eliminated," Morgan notes. "They were supposed to be phased out. Instead, the 2002 farm bill continued them." Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Tom Harkin of Iowa, the two leading ethanol states, want to reduce or curtail the payments, and so does Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, a farmer. The National Farmers Union agrees, but the American Farm Bureau Federation, the biggest farm lobby, favors no changes.

"Iowa farmland values are up 18 percent in the past 12 months, according to Federal Reserve Board surveys, making millionaires on paper out of any farmers owning 200 acres free and clear," Morgan writes. "But relying on energy policy instead of the traditional farm program worries many in rural Iowa who remember previous bubbles. Ethanol prices have been tumbling recently as supply catches up with demand. Some ethanol companies ... have put plans for new refineries on hold pending action by Congress to expand required use. But such action faces stiff opposition from the livestock industry, which contends that the added demand for corn could mean higher feed and food costs. Environmental groups say it could jeopardize water supplies and sensitive lands in exchange for only minimal savings in the use of fossil fuels, given the amounts of gasoline and chemical fertilizer needed to raise corn. Meanwhile, the prices of fertilizer, seed and land have been rising rapidly as landlords and corporations move to capture their share of higher grain prices." (Read more)

Not from around here? Newcomers in rural America need welcoming

In small communities in rural America, everyone knows who is from the locality and who is not. The fish-out-of-water tales are plentiful, but this tension between "insiders and outsiders" must be understood and softened if these same communities are to enjoy the benefits newcomers might bring, writes Ken Root in the High Plains Journal.

Root, a professor of agriculture, recalls his own "outsider" status when he began teaching in a western Oklahoma town, even though he was born and raised on a Oklahoma farm. "In some communities, if you aren't born there -- no, if your parents aren't born there--you are never truly accepted as one of them," he writes. "You can marry in, but you'll always be an outsider although your children may make the grade to inside status."

Root's short essay highlights, often humorously, how newcomers can avoid a faux pas by ratcheting down aggressive behavior, understanding that news travels fast and by bringing the right dish to the potluck. At the same, he says community insiders must make an effort to welcome newcomers, especially when the ramifications could be more than social. He also notes an additional distinction: "There are two groups: insiders, who have lived in rural America all their lives, and outsiders, who have not." (Read more)

Shortage of paramedics, EMTs slows emergency responses in Georgia

The shortage of health professionals in rural America often includes emergency medical technicians and paramedics, and that means emergency situations can become even more critical in many rural areas.

In Georgia, a statewide shortage of emergency medical workers has hit rural counties the hardest, reports the Athens Banner-Herald. From 2005 to 2006, the number of licensed emergency medical workers dropped by 5 percent.

James Matthews, the head of emergency medical services in Oglethorpe, had to cut short an interview with reporter Lee Shearer because a call came in and he had to hop in the ambulance to lend a hand. "As director, I shouldn't have to get on a truck," he told Shearer. "But plenty of mornings (when someone calls in sick), I can't find anybody." There even have been times when Matthews has received a call and did not have a crew to respond. He has managed to find nearby county answer the call, but he said, "It's been close, though."

Ernie Doss, public safety director for Lincoln County, said he had found that about one-third of the medic positions were not filled in his county and the 12 surrounding it. Doss said some days he doesn't even have a paramedic on duty. "What that means is, if we had a patient that needs emergency medication, we can't give it on the scene," he said. "It's a delay in advanced life support." (Read more)

To read a Department of Health and Human Services study on emergency services in rural areas, go here. The 2006 study examines the role volunteers play in rural areas and suggested some models for success, such as blending services and sharing them among agencies.

Wal-Mart funds Delta regional agency health fairs aimed at diabetes

The Wal-Mart Foundation has given the Delta Regional Authority to hold a series of "Hometown Health Fairs" at Wal-Marts in the federally designated region, 240 counties in Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee.

The first fair will be held in Jonesboro, Ark., on Sept. 29. Others are scheduled at Clarksdale, Miss., Oct. 13; Eufaula, Ala., Oct. 27; Dyersburg, Tenn., Nov. 10; Natchitoches, La., Jan. 12; Paducah, Ky., Jan. 26; Charleston, Mo., Feb. 16; and Carbondale, Ill., March 15. Other fairs will be scheduled as part of the DRA's Healthy Delta initiative, which is designed to encourage Delta residents who have diabetes or may be at risk of developing the disease to see health-care professionals and manage the disease's long-term effects. Almost 10 percent of the region's population have diabetes, well above the national rate of 7 percent.

Each fair will include free screenings of body composition, weight, body fat and body mass index. Total cholesterol, HDL levels, LDL levels, triglyceride levels and glucose levels will be checked. Free blood pressure screenings and other health information will be available. For more information, go to www.healthydelta.com.

Congressional panels tackle shield law, cameras in federal courts

Issues important to journalists were at the forefront yesterday in two congressional committees. While the Senate Judiciary Committee discussed the Free Flow of Information Act of 2007, which would be the first federal media shield law, the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony in relation to the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act of 2007, which would give judges discretion to permit electronic media coverage of proceedings.

The Free Flow of Information Act "would provide a qualified privilege to journalists from being compelled to reveal information and/or the identities of their confidential sources except under certain conditions," writes Mickey H. Osterreicher, the general legal counsel to the National Press Photographers Association. In the session yesterday, the committee voted down some proposed amendments that "would have watered-down" the legislation by prosecutors more power to compel journalists to testify in national security cases, Osterreicher reports.

At the same time, Radio-Television News Directors Association President Barbara Cochran testified before the House Judiciary Committee and urged the legislators to open federal courts to the media, reports the RTNDA's Stefani Blair. "RTNDA’s members have covered court proceedings in every state, and their experiences demonstrate that cameras do not interfere with the administration of justice or infringe the rights of defendants or witnesses," Cochran said. “Cameras in the courtroom work. They create a public record. They get the story right.” Cochran's full prepared remarks are available here.

Currently, radio and television coverage is effectively banned in federal criminal and civil proceedings at both the trial and appellate level. This legislation would create a three-year pilot program under which federal judges could allow cameras and microphones in their courts. All 50 states, however, allow some audiovisual coverage of court proceedings, with 43 states allowing that coverage at a trial level. A state-by-state guide to courtroom coverage laws can be viewed here.

This week, newspapers around the country have written editorials in support of the proposed federal shield law for journalist, and Editor & Publisher has compiled a sampling. To read it, go here.

Public-journalism expert questions metro daily's local-only editorials

The Minneapolis Star Tribune recently decided to limit its editorials to local subjects, but the folks at the Public Journalism Network say it might not be such a great idea.

The policy began with this memo from publisher Chris Harte, in which he said the editorial pages should "concentrate more heavily than ever on local, state and regional issues. This is where we can stake a claim like no other media can. Our readers can go to many places to get informed opinion on the Iraq war or global warming. But there are very few places they can go for expert opinion on local issues. And that is where I want us to dwell, with the active participation of our readers."

Leonard Witt of Kenesaw State University in Georgia argues on PJNet that while readers do have many sources for national and international issues, The Star Tribune should reflect Minnesotans' "local sensibility" even in pieces on national and international topics. Removing that perspective on those issues does more harm to the local than good, he argues. "Instead of seeing those national and international events through the sensibilities of someone who has her pulse on Minnesota, local people’s opinions will be informed by someone else, somewhere else," Witt concludes. (Read more)

Thursday, Sept. 27, 2007

Immigration aspect changes an otherwise routine, feel-good story

On the Web site of The Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, Ky., one story remained a lightning rod for comments for more than a month after its publication. It was a short article about a family moving into a Habitat for Humanity home, at left.

That is usually an innocuous, feel-good event, but the story and its subject remained controversial because of one short sentence that raised the issue of illegal immigration in America, and especially in Shelby County.

That made it more than a standard story about a Habitat move-in, and how the twice-a-week, 9,000-circulation paper handled it provides an interesting case study of the coverage of immigration and a popular charity, writes Tim Wiseman of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

Reporter Nathan McBroom wrote about the Villa family, which had just purchased its first home through Habitat. McBroom explained that Pedro Villa and his wife, Magdalena Vieyra, who came from the Mexican state of Michoacan, would be sharing the home with their four grown children. McBroom described the application process for a Habitat home, as well as the group’s Christian philosophy, as outlined by local affiliate Secretary Travis Davis.

McBroom made an oblique reference to the family’s residency status, writing, “ Davis said that Habitat International does not allow local branches to require U.S. citizenship as a requirement for application.” To see what happened next, read the rest of Wiseman's story.

National animal ID system worries some small owners of livestock

As the Agriculture Department moves forward with its National Animal Identification System, the effects of tagging every animal has some families worried.

The system is voluntary, but if it becomes mandatory, "small/ private farmers, homesteaders, hobbyists will drop their animals like hot potatoes," writes Sharon Zecchinelli for the Daily Yonder. She says the plan would force her and other small producers to label her few animals individually (such as her pigs, Pork and Chop, at right), which could swing the market even more toward big producers.

The system, created by USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services and the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, aims to track any disease within the "national herd" back to its source within 48 hours of discovery. The system has three parts: premises registration (to designate each property), the Animal Identification Number (assigned by group for big operations and by individual animal on small farms) and animal tracing (movements of animals must be reported). Zecchinelli says some states have begun "data dumping" by taking existing information about properties and putting it into the new system without consulting owners. Wisconsin and New York have registered Amish property even against their religious objections. (Read more)

Study finds rural workers gain most from Earned Income Tax Credit

A new study from the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire shows that the Earned Income Tax Credit has more benefits for working poor in rural areas than those in urban areas. Rural families in the South used the credit the most.

The study, “EITC is Vital for Working-Poor Families in Rural America,” says that while only 16 percent of U.S. tax filers in 2004 were from rural areas, rural filers claimed 20 percent of the $39.8 billion in EITC funds, or about $7.8 billion. Most the money goes to working families with children who have earnings below $35,000 a year.

“The amount of money received by the average rural family ($1,850) may not seem like much to more affluent families, but for low-income families it can be an enormous help. Research shows that for kids growing up in low-income families, even a small boost in income can lead to better child outcomes,” said study authors William O’Hare, rural fellow with the Carsey Institute and Elizabeth Kneebone, research analyst with the institute.

“As Congress entertains legislation to expand the EITC program, it is important to recognize how vital this program is for low-income families in rural America,” the authors said. "The Carsey Institute conducts research and analysis on the challenges facing rural families and communities in New Hampshire, New England, and the nation. To read the full study, go here.

FCC wants to fine Comcast for video release masquerading as news

In recent years, video news releases -- taped segments distributed to media outlets for promotional purposes -- have drawn the attention of the Federal Communications Commission. The slickly-produced VNRs can help fill air time on stations, especially smaller ones with small staffs, but the FCC doesn't want them masquerading as news. This week, the FCC announced its intention to levy the first fine agains Comcast for using a VNR without disclosing who provided it. The proposed fine is $4,000.

On Nov. 11, 2006, Comcast's CN8 news channel, which appears in 20 markets including New York and Philadelphia, ran much of a VNR produced by D.S. Simon Production for natural sleep aid Nelson's Rescue Sleep. FCC rules say TV stations must disclose whenever they run something in return for consideration, writes Ira Teinowitz of TV Week. The FCC says this applies to cable providers as well in some cases, and it had warned broadcasters that even when no money is exchanged, the use of a VNR amounts to consideration when it promotes a product.

Comcast is challenging the fine. Company spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice told Ellen Gray of the Philadelphia Daily News that Comcast was "perplexed" by the action because "the relevant statute does not cover cable programming." Even if that interpretation were valid, Fitzmaurice said the station received no compensation and did nothing wrong. In a July filling with the FCC, Comcast argued that the CN8 correspondent was exercising editorial judgment in using a part of the VNR during a consumer report.

Radio-Television News Directors Association and the Association of Business Communicators agree with Comcast and assert that this is a new interpretation by the FCC. They add that VNRs, like print press releases, are important tools of newsgathering. To date, more than 100 complaints about the use of VNRs have been filed with the FCC. (Read more)

Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2007

Blueberries blooming and booming; California gets on the bandwagon

We're big fans of blueberries here at The Rural Blog — for their taste, their nutritional value and their economic potential for rural areas. And across the nation, more farmers are turning to this profitable produce.

Last year, American farms grew 80 percent more berries than in 2004, the Los Angeles Times reports. That jump came from a 19 percent jump in total acres planted over the past two years, and it helped bring in $498 million in total sales in 2006. California, the nation's largest agricultural state, is joining the bandwagon, producing a record $33 million in sales last year, writes Jerry Hirsch. California farmers enjoy an earlier harvest than producers in the Midwest and Northeast, so they can reap more profits.

Kathy Hoy, a nutritionist at the Produce for Better Health Foundation in Wilmington, Del., called blueberries a "superfood" that may help prevent heart and urinary tract diseases and stop memory loss. There's not clearcut evidence that says blueberries definitely can do all that, but farmers are realizing the crop is worth trying. (Read more)

Kentucky expands program to develop rural entreprenurial coaches

A program that encourages entrepreneurial activity in Kentucky counties once dependent on tobacco is expanding as it looks to train more community leaders to help spark small business in these areas. The Kentucky Entrepreneurial Coaches Institute, began in 19 northeastern Kentucky counties three years ago, and 22 counties in south-central Kentucky will join the network in 2008. Its director is Ronald Hustedde, left, of the University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture.

The program's expansion is funded by a grant from the Kentucky Agricultural Development Board, which doles out the half of the state's tobacco-settlement money that was earmarked for developing the state's agricultural economy. It works in cooperation with the Center for Rural Development in Somerset, Ky. So far, 60 community leaders, from a variety of fields, have completed the program.

“We know that 50 percent of jobs come from small business in this state and in the nation,” Hustedde said in a news release. “We also know that 75 percent of new wealth creation comes from entrepreneurs, from innovators. They find new markets or new services, new products, new niches, and that leads to wealth creation. . . . Entrepreneurs tend to stay in their community. They share, not only their wealth – they spend more locally – but they also employ local people. And in terms of philanthropy, they tend to give more to the local community.”

In northeastern Kentucky, graduates from the first two classes play influential roles in policy at the local level, Hustedde said. They have helped to initiate high school entrepreneurial programs, worked with counties to create a balanced economic portfolio, and helped spotlight innovative farmers. Some even started a six-county initiative to move agri-tourism forward. To apply, go here.

Utah coal miners oppose adding state regulation in wake of disaster

In reaction to the Crandall Canyon mine disaster, a new Utah Mine Safety Commission has held meetings to let miners and other residents speak out about mine safety. At this week’s all-day meeting (pictured in a New York Times photo by Ramin Rahimian) in Huntington, Utah, many voiced fear that adding a new layer of state regulation to often-criticized federal enforcement would risk jobs at Utah's 13 coal mines, report the Times, the Deseret Morning News and the Salt Lake Tribune.

Most at the meeting said proper enforcement of current federal regulations could have prevented tragedies such as the one at Crandall Canyon, writes Jasen Lee of the News. "If the regulations would have been met at Crandall Canyon, I don't think the lives would have been lost that we did lose," said Lee Cratsenburg, a coal miner for 19 years, who lost a relative in that disaster. "Anytime coal becomes king, regulations seem to go under the rug."

While those in attendance voiced concerns about the state of safety underground, they were more worried that added regulations would cost jobs. Retired miner Warren Oviatt wanted to ensure regulation wouldn’t stifle the industry. "As you look at some of the laws we've got, you can see how some of them are kind of ridiculous," Oviatt said. He added, "We need to make sure that rules and regulations are what we can look upon as something that all individuals involved feel like they need to follow and need to obey."

The meeting of the commission, appointed by Gov. John Huntsman, helped reassure miners that there would be no overreaction -- at least at the state level -- to the Crandall Canyon disaster, reports Mike Gorrell of the Tribune. "Local people feel this [commission] is a shot-from-the-hip reaction," Emery County Commissioner Jeff Horrocks said. "But from what I heard today, that's not the case."

While the commission echoed the public’s sentiment that miners should have the biggest say in what steps are taken, that did not necesarily indicate approval of the United Mine Workers of America's push for a state coal-mine-safety agency. "Tell your constituents not to be scared, that we're just trying to make sure our brothers and sisters [in the mines] go home each night in the same conditions they left," said Dennis O'Dell, a UMWA health and safety official who is on the commission.

Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2007

Charleston Gazette reports lead to changes in coal-mine inspections

In the latest example of why he is probably the best coal reporter at a U.S. newspaper, Ken Ward Jr. (left) of The Charleston Gazette writes that federal mine inspectors are behind schedule at more than 60 percent of southern West Virginia's mines, and that federal Mine Safety and Health Administration officials had "deliberately stopped some of the required inspections in the face of budget and staffing shortages."

The report came on the heels of other Ward articles that showed MSHA had missed regular inspections at mines in Logan and Mingo counties where workers were killed earlier this month. In response, Richard Stickler, assistant labor secretary for MSHA, ended the practice of using "spot inspections" instead of the full quarterly inspections.

Ward reports that while agency officials said MSHA was behind schedule in about a third of southern West Virginia mines, a review of agency data shows "inspectors are behind schedule in completing regular quarterly inspections for at least 74 of the district’s 122 underground coal mines currently listed as active." J. Davitt McAteer, who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration, told Ward, “That’s an amazing number. It is just astounding that they would let this happen.” Ward goes on to report on his review of extensive agency data of safety inspections for the past few decades, and his findings raise important questions about the decisions of MSHA in the last few years. After the two recent deaths in southern West Virginia alone, and the Crandall Canyon tragedy of August, these demand attention. (Read more)

Controversial coal operator threatens to sue magazine, professor

An article in The Salt Lake Tribune and another in Coal Age magazine have Crandall Canyon Mine co-owner Robert Murray (in a Tribune photo by Jim Urquhart) ready to sue, the Tribune reports. Robert Gehrke writes that Murray thinks the two articles were defamatory in their criticism of his actions in handling the mine collapse. Penn State engineering professor Larry Grayson wrote an opinion piece in the Tribune that called Murray's news briefings "bombastic," while Coal Age Editor-in-Chief Steve Fiscor wrote that the coal industry reacted to Murray by "hoping that he will go away soon and that no one will notice."

This week, the authors received letters from Murray's attorney describing the articles as “virulent and untruthful” attacks, Gehrke writes. “We demand that you immediately retract the editorial and publish an apology acceptable to Mr. Murray,” Michael O. McKown, general counsel for Murray Energy Corp., wrote in the letter to Fiscor. “Failure to do so in a timely fashion will lead to immediate legal action.” He also claimed no "retreat mining," in which coal pillars supporting the roof are mined, leaving the roof to fall in, was being done at Crandall Canyon, although mine maps show and federal officials have said there was.

Grayson told Gehrke that "the facts speak for themselves," and that "there is ample evidence that there is absolutely no merit in the case." Peter Johnson, publisher and owner of Coal Age, said that while the defamation claim is “a little bit of a stretch,” the magazine would print an apology -- but not a retraction -- in hope of ending legal issues with Murray. In 2001, Murray, a native of Ohio, sued the Akron Beacon Journal for $1 billion over a claim of defamation in a profile of him. While the case was initially dismissed, it was reinstated by an appeals court. The parties settled. (Read more)

In a recent editorial, the Tribune argued that Murray should be subpoenaed to testify before a Senate subcommittee investigating the disaster at the mine. "There are questions that remain to be asked, questions that Murray should be made to answer," the editorial said. "Why wasn't MSHA notified, as required by law, of a March 10 roof collapse that proved to be a precursor of the August accident? Why wasn't the federal Bureau of Land Management informed of plans to conduct risky retreat mining, where pillars of coal that support a mine's roof are removed? And was Murray aware when he bought the mine that the previous owner had refused to remove the pillars due to safety concerns?"

Monday, Sept. 24, 2007

'Low human capital' people choose rural areas, exacerbating poverty

A new study sees rural poverty as partly a reflection of people with low education being drawn toward rural areas and being reluctant or unable to leave. Conducted by Monica Fisher, an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at Oregon State University, the study is highlighted in the new issue of the Rural Policy Research Institute’s publication, "Perspectives on Poverty, Policy and Place."

The study suggests that individuals with "low human capital," specifically a lack of education, gravitate toward rural areas where there are more low-wage jobs and less competition. These areas also offer a lower cost of living and thus a greater potential to stretch those low earnings. In short, the study says people who are more likely to be poor sort themselves into rural areas. (Above, a chart from the Department of Agriculture shows "poverty persistent counties" where the rate of poverty has been 20 percent between 1970 and 2000.)

This article explains that this study shows rural poverty comes as a result of both "preferences of individuals with low human capital (education in this case) for nonmetro areas and by reduced economic opportunities in those areas." To download the full issue of Perspectives on Poverty, Policy and Place, go here.

Ag committee chairs say there'll be a new Farm Bill, not an extension

Although the Sept. 30 expiration of parts of the 2002 Farm Bill is approaching, and there has been talk of extending the the law and delaying passage of a new Farm Bill until next year, a full extension of the bill is unlikely, DTN reports. Jerry Hagstrom writes that neither House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., nor Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, are planning any extension.

"I don't want anybody to get into any kind of mode that we need an extension,"Peterson told Hagstrom. "That will let the senators off the hook. There are going to be a lot of people upset if we extend this current law." The House has finished its version of the bill, and Peterson said he expects the Senate to finish its version and go to conference before the end of 2007.

In the meantime, however, Peterson and Harkin have said there could be extensions for parts of the 2002 bill, such as food stamps and the cotton program, whose funding expires Sept. 30, reports Tom Steever of Brownfield Network. Steever writes that Peterson wants a "two-bill strategy," with "one bill funded within the baseline and another with more programs if money is available.

An article from The Telegraph Herald in Dubuque, Iowa, explains that the lack of new Farm Bill should not have too great an effect on farmers. Emily Klein writes that should a new bill not be passed in time, "commodity provisions of the 2002 farm bill apply to crops harvested in 2007 and farmers entitled to payments will receive them even after Sept. 30." She points to the case of the 1990 Farm Bill which expired in 1995 and was not replaced until Congress passed legislation in 1996. In that case, payments were made on the 1995 crops. Still, she said worries remain for crops harvested in 2008. (Read more)

U.S. trade negotiators agree, for first time, to cut farm subsidies

As part of international trade negotiations, the United States has offered to lower the ceiling for maximum agricultural subsidies for the first time, reports Reuters. By dropping the ceiling from its current level of about $45 billion to less than $17 billion, the United States looks to lead the way for its trade partners to follow suit — the key for any new global trade agreement to work. "The U.S. will lead, but others must step up to ensure the strongest possible market access outcomes implied by the texts in agriculture, manufacturing and in the services negotiations," said a spokesman for U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab.

This set of trade talks, called the Doha round, was "launched nearly six years ago to boost confidence in the world economy, increase trade flows and help developing nations export their way out of poverty," Reuters reports. The offer to reduce subsidies comes at a time when the world food markets are booming, but subsidies remain a key domestic political issue in the United States. (Read more)

Farmers return to tobacco, still a lucrative crop if you can grow enough

Thanks to rising demands for tobacco overseas, the controversial crop is rebounding and many farmers are expanding their acreage to take advantage, reports The Wall Street Journal. (Photo of tobacco cutter in West Virginia from The Charleston Gazette.)

Lauren Etter writes for the Journal that while the government no longer supports tobacco prices or limits production, the crop's value is rising on its strength as an import to China, Russia and Mexico. U.S. acreage is up 20 percent since 2005, the year after the federal tobacco program was repealed, she reports. And while corn's price has risen to nearly $4 a bushel, Southern Illinois farmer Martin Ray Barbre told Etter, "there's no way corn can get high enough" to compete with tobacco. "There's just too much money in tobacco," he said.

This resurgence of tobacco without subsidies has some critics calling for an end to other subsidies. "Critic say the system fosters inefficiency, distorts international trade and supports mainly the wealthiest farmer," Etter writes. The tobacco program, which lasted 66 years, "propped up prices and limited production to narrow areas and to plots of land rarely larger than 10 acres," Etter explains. When the system ended with the $9.6 billion tobacco buyout, acreage dropped 27 percent and prices fell as well. Now the crop is moving back toward the 2004 levels, as production has moved to larger tracts of land often 150 acres or larger where crop can be grown efficiently. (Read more) She implies, but doesn't say explicitly, that the end of the program also meant the end of most small tobacco farmers.

Wi-fi ideas fizzle in major cities, but thrive in some smaller places

While plans to create city-wide wireless networks fizzled in places such as San Francisco and Chicago, hundreds of small towns found ways to make the idea work, reports Chris Gaylord of The Christian Science Monitor.

With the struggles of Earthlink, a key player in municipal wireless, and mounting logistical problems, projects in major cities were derailed, Gaylord writes. St. Cloud, Fla., however, has just 28,000 residents as well as the nation's only network with 100 percent service availability. All at no additional cost to residents. St. Cloud, though, is the ideal situation nationally, as "very few can pull off a free network," Gaylord writes. "Instead, communities are looking to partner with a company that will build the network and run a subscription service off the Wi-Fi hubs," he explains.

This model is proving to be successful in small communities such as Owensboro, Ky., Rio Rancho, N.M., and Kutztown, Pa. The addition of the Wi-Fi networks have proved beneficial to local business and have helped streamline some municipal work. Still, even some small communities have made the multi-million dollar investment and been burned. (Read more)

Rural moms are more likely to work, and more likely to get lower pay

Rural mothers with children under age 6 are more likely to work than urban mothers, but they "have higher poverty rates, lower wages, and lower family income," according to a new study by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. In 2004, 69 percent of rural mothers were employed, while 63 percent of urban mothers were. In the same year, 24 percent of rural mothers lived in poverty compared to 20 percent of urban mothers.

“As men’s jobs in traditional rural industries such as agriculture, mining, timber and manufacturing disappear due to restructuring of rural labor markets, families increasingly depend on women’s wage labor,” said Kristin Smith, family demographer with the Carsey Institute and author of the study. She says her findings raise "concerns about the availability of high quality child care and preschool programs in rural communities, especially considering recent research finding that rural children lag behind urban children in early literacy skills when entering kindergarten." To read the full study, go here.

Researchers trace the history of meth and its impact on rural areas

In the latest issue of the Rural Sociological Society's publication, "Rural Realities," Joseph F. Donnermeyer and Ken Tunnell explore how methamphetamine production shifted from its beginnings in large-scale labs on the West Coast to smaller, mobile labs in rural areas. The article, called "In Our Own Backyard: Methamphetamine Manufacturing, Trafficking and Abuse in Rural America," explains that with the shift, new users in rural America tried and grew addicted to the drug.

As meth became a rural scourge, enforcement stiffened, especially as states restricted the sale of the cold medicines ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, Donnermeyer and Tunnell write. This has led to a resurgence of large meth labs in Mexico and California, but small, isolated labs remain common, especially in rural areas such as U.S. Forest Service lands. "The net effect is that we find in rural America today a national network of meth production and wholesale distribution dominated by international sources coexisting with much smaller production and distribution shops operated mostly by locals," the researchers write.

They find that meth production and abuse both hurt rural communities' people and land. Meth addiction adds to poor health, and increases the risk for violent crime. Adding to the problem is that rural areas lack adequate health care facilities and professionals to treat addicts. The production of one pound of meth also generates five pounds of toxic waste, so meth labs bring contaminants into rural areas. To address the situation, Donnemeyer and Tunnell advocate the use of drug courts, which emphasize treatment, and say that rural residents need to learn how to identify a mobile meth lab. To read the full article, go here.

Last U.S. horse abbatoir faces closure after losing federal appeal

A federal appeals court has upheld an Illinois law that bans the slaughter of horses for human consumption and forced the closure of the DeKalb slaughterhouse of Cavel International, the last U.S. horse abbatoir. The plant, "which slaughters about 1,000 horses a week, was allowed to remain open while it challenged the state law, enacted earlier this year," reports Ann Bagel Storck of MeatingPlace, a news service for the meat industry.

Cavel attorney J. Philip Calabrese told the Daily Chronicle of DeKalb that the company does not know whether it will pursue further court action. "Cavel has 14 days to request the three-judge appeals court panel reconsider their ruling, or to request the full 14-member court hear the case, Calabrese said. The company has 90 days to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court," the paper reported in a non-bylined story.

"Cavel, the only horse-slaughtering facility in the country, exports all horse meat produced in DeKalb to Europe and Japan," the Chronicle reports. "Cavel had also argued that the specific ban on human consumption of horse meat serves no purpose, because horses that are too old or no longer useful will be killed anyway. ... The DeKalb facility was closed after the July ruling, but two weeks later was allowed to reopen and operate while the appeal was considered." (Read more)

Sunday, Sept. 23, 2007

Rural publisher's homefront columns an important part of 'The War'

The columns of a rural newspaper publisher who "poignantly tried to explain the unexplainable to his neighbors" play a key role in "The War," the documentary that began on PBS tonight.

Al McIntosh ran the Rock County Star Herald in Luverne, Minn., at 4,600 the smallest of the four towns that are the foci for the personal lenses through which Ken Burns tells the story. Burns, the leading producer of historical documentaries, said finding McIntosh's columns was "in some ways ... the single greatest archival discovery that we have ever made."

The opening segment of the film quoted a McIntosh column about a local woman in London who had seen her friends killed in the blitz, and when she came home and looked out over the peaceful countryside from her family's front porch, she found it hard to believe that the rest of the world was at war. That's a paraphrase; we weren't recording. Trust us, McIntosh's writing was better than ours.

McIntosh would have played a smaller part in the program "had it not been for Tom Hanks, who encouraged Burns to use more in the film," and asked to read his words for the film, Steve Gansen of MBI Publishing Co. told the Star Herald's Lori Ehde. The company recently published McIntosh's wartime writings in in a book, Selected Chaff, taken from his column, "More or Less Personal Chaff." (Read more)

"Luverne was about as far away from the action as any place in America, but each day the war’s reality grew closer and closer," says a PBS press release. McIntosh reported "on war bond drives, victory gardens, rationing of essential commodities and the difficulties families faced trying to keep their farms going with so many young men in the armed forces," and chronicled "the travails of every family in town," says the guide to each episodes. Even as victory neared, he cautioned his readers to keep their heads down and keep working “until there is no doubt of victory any more” because “lots of our best boys have been lost in victory drives before.” (Encarta map)

McIntosh wrote inspiring words, and his career was an inspiring one for rural journalists. He was a North Dakota native and University of Nebraska journalism graduate who worked at one of the Lincoln dailies and turned down jobs at the Kansas City Star and The Washington Post to fulfill his dream of running his own, small-town paper. fulfilling a lifelong dream of owning and editing a small-town newspaper. In 1949, he was president of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, which gives an annual Al McIntosh Distinguished Service to Journalism Award. He sold his paper in 1968 and died in 1979.

The first button on the Star Herald's home page is "THE WAR." Burns gave the Star Herald an interview last month, and came to town Sept. 6 for a premiere of the documentary. "Some ... say the fact that Luverne is part of such a historically significant film is the biggest thing to happen here since the Cardinal basketball team won the state championship in 1964," Ehde wrote in that week's advance story.

Saturday, Sept. 22, 2007

Groups say Iowa not regulating factory farms, seek EPA takeover

Three environmental groups have filed a petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency arguing that Iowa officials have failed for three decades to enforce rules limiting water pollution from the hog industry, and thus should no longer be allowed to enforce federal laws and regulations upon the industry.

Sierra Club, the Environmental Integrity Project and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement claim the industry is illegally discharging millions of gallons of hog waste that is damaging water quality and killing fish. "If the state will not properly enforce and implement the Clean Water Act in Iowa, then the state should no longer be allowed to administer the program," Pam Mackey-Taylor, chairwoman of Iowa's chapter of the Sierra Club said at a news conference outside the offices of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. "That is why we want the EPA to take over the administration of the program in Iowa." (Photo of ICCI member Virgil Henricksen of Audubon protesting at the news conference by John Gaps III of the Des Moines Register.)

Department Director Richard Leopold told the Register's Perry Beeman, ""I do not think we are doing things that are in violation of the Clean Water Act. We are talking about interpretations."

Department spokesman Kevin Baskins told The Associated Press that the agency "has been particularly diligent to try to cope with an industry that has grown by leaps and bounds."

Perry Beeman reports for the Register, "The state hasn't issued any federal sewage permits to livestock confinements but has issued them to 100 of the approximately 1,500 open feedlots registered in Iowa. Leopold said his agency is waiting for the EPA to sort out recent court decisions that affect the program, though the EPA has said the state should act now." EPA is required to respond in writing to the petition, but there is no deadline for a reply. (Read more)

More farming in East needed to counter water problems to the west?

More U.S. agriculture needs to return to the eastern half of the country to head off two big challenges facing the nation -- increasing demand for water for ethanol production in the Upper Midwest and for development in the increasingly arid but still-growing West, two atmospheric scientists write in today's New York Times.

"Returning agricultural production to the Eastern United States under irrigation would be efficient and environmentally sound," write Richard McNider and John Christy of the University of Alabama-Huntsville. "In the West, at least three to four feet of water per acre is needed every year to produce a good crop. In the East, only a few inches of irrigated water per acre are needed, because of the region’s heavier rainfall."

However, because stream flows in the East "fall to critically low levels in the summer . . . the federal government will need to provide money to help farmers build storage ponds to catch winter water," the scientists write. "Without a government role, Eastern farmers may decide instead to forgo storage ponds and irrigate on-demand from low-flow summer streams or from ground water. Neither strategy is sustainable or good for the environment." (Read more)

Jena publisher says his community and his newspaper are not racist

The editor and publisher of The Jena Times wrote this week that he and his son stopped giving interviews to national news media after the British Broadcasting Corp. "twisted everything that was said to make us look like fools" and an unnamed U.S. news outlet's report of a later interview "was twisted to the point that we did not even recognize it."

In an editorial headlined "Editor addresses a world audience," Sammy Franklin, right, defended his town and LaSalle Parish against media representations of racism in light of the "Jena Six" case that prompted protesters from all over the nation and journalists from much of the globe to converge on the town of 3,000 on Friday. He said racists in the parish, which is 12 percent black, are "few and far between." He also defended his weekly newspaper, saying it had reported the truth about the controversy and treated African Americans with equality since he bought it in 1968. (Read more)

For the newspaper's advance story on the protest, its report on recent court action involving one of the Jena Six, and its chronology of the events, click here. Franklin's son, Assistant Editor Craig Franklin, wrote in his column, "Lost in all of the racial headlines is the fact that the school, despite all the distractions it has faced in the past year, managed to exceed all projections for academic growth and is listed with the highest academic rating that a school can achieve." (Read more)

Friday, Sept. 21, 2007

Wal-Mart offers improved health-insurance plans for employees

A new health plan from Wal-Mart offers employees more coverage and cheap prescriptions, but some critics say the plan remains too expensive for many, reports The New York Times. (Photo of Wal-Mart pharmacy by Jay Westcott of The Associated Press.

The plan "will look a lot like that offered by many other American companies, but with some twists that even longtime critics described as innovative," writes Michael Barbaro. As the nation's largest private employer — and a key fixture in rural America — Wal-Mart had drawn criticism for health plans it offered employees. The new plan features premiums as low as $5 per month and makes 2,400 generics available at $4 a prescription.

The low premiums come with annual deductibles as high as $2,000, a hefty price for the many employees that make less than $20,000 a year, Barbaro writes. And some plans include waiting periods that could last a year for new employees. Workers can customize the plan to their needs in one of 50 ways, such as paying higher monthly premiums to reduce the annual deductible. Currently, about 125,000 Wal-Mart employees (about 10 percent) do not have any health care coverage. About 636,000 already receive coverage from Wal-Mart. (Read more)

Missouri dedicates its first wind-energy farm, in northwest corner

In northwest Missouri, the Bluegrass Ridge Wind Farm (in a photo by Richard Oswald for the Daily Yonder) became a reality thanks to the cooperation of local landowners, reports Brownfield Network.

The push to create this wind farm, the state's first, began with Tom Carnahan, the son of former Missouri Sen. Jean Carnahan and the late Gov. Mel Carnahan. But he told Brownfield's Julie Harker that nothing could have happened without local support. "Getting the landowners in the community, their support and involvement is key," Carnahan said. "It doesn't matter how good your wind is, if a community doesn't want a wind farm there, there's not gonna be one."

The farm's 27 turbines sit on 8,000 acres. The energy they create will be purchased by Associated Electric Cooperative. John Deere Wind Energy and Carnahan’s Wind Capital Group worked together to build the farm, which was dedicated this week. Two other Missouri wind farms are being developed. (Read more)

Gritty ad campaign credited for steep decline in meth use in Montana

Methamphetamine use has fallen 66 percent among high school students and 70 percent among adults in Montana over the past few years, reports The Billings Gazette. Citing state surveys, Jennifer McKee and Noelle Straub report that 4.6 percent of high school students used meth at least once last year, a drop from 13 percent in 1999. That news, coupled with the 70 percent drop in adult use of meth over the past two years, has leaders praising The Montana Meth Project and its gritty ad campaign, McKee and Straub write.

The results have been "more significant than any prevention effort in history," project founder Thomas Siebel said at a Washington news conference with Montana's congressional delegation. In the last two years, Montana has gone from fifth nationally in per-capita meth use to 39th, and its meth-related crime rate has fallen by 53 percent. Meanwhile, adult meth use increased by 6 percent in Wyoming and 8 percent in South Dakota over the last two years.

"The Montana Meth Project is the two-year-old campaign that features graphic television, radio and billboard ads showing the effects of meth use, including rotten teeth, wasted and pock-marked bodies and losing one's virginity in a dirty bathroom," McKee and Straub write. Siebel, who funded the project, told the Senate Finance Committee that 10 more states could have their own with $40 million in federal funding. (Read more) To view the 12 television ads of The Montana Meth Project, go here. To see the print ads, go here. (Note: The ads are very graphic.)

Thursday, Sept. 20, 2007

Many rural counties shrink from out-migration, deaths exceeding births

In the 1990s, the population of many rural counties rose because of in-migration and natural increase (more births than deaths). But in this decade, now more rural counties' population is declining, and some are seeing a reversal in both those trends.

Nearly 500 rural counties' populations are falling due to both outmigration and as the death rate overtakes the birth rate, reports the Daily Yonder.

As seen in the map by Department of Agriculture demographer Calvin Beale and Kathleen Kassle, the darkest counties are those with this "double whammy." This condition, “which did not did not arise overnight, poses difficult development challenges,” Beale told the Yonder. (Read more)

Mining industry fights political 'climate change' with contributions

With a new Democratic majority in Congress, the mining industry has been challenged like never before, writes Jim Snyder of The Hill. As Democrats have pushed for new mining regulations, the industry has responded by stepping up its lobbying efforts and by sending more contributions to the Democrats, Snyder writes. While the National Mining Association's two political action committees gave about 90 percent of contributions to Republicans in recent years, by the end of 2008 40 percent will go to Democrats. “We need to broaden our support on the Hill,” Kraig Naasz, the NMA's president and chief executive, told Snyder.

Under the Republican majority, the industry had gained subsidies for "clean coal" in the 2005 energy bill, but now it faces increased pressure to improve safety from Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., and Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. Their bill would force the industry to speed its implementation of the safety measures Congress mandated after the Sago mine disaster in West Virginia in January 2006. Rahall is also working to reform the Hardock Mining Law of 1872, to make mines pay higher royalties.

"Climate-change bills present perhaps the biggest challenge to the industry," Snyder writes. "Coal now accounts for 52 percent of the electricity produced in the country. Most energy experts say coal would remain a significant source of electricity to meet expected increase in energy demand. But a bill that raises the price of carbon dioxide could push more utilities to use natural gas and other fuel sources that emit less carbon dioxide than coal does." (Read more)

Coal miner dies in W. Va. mine where feds missed required inspection

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors had gone more than five months without doing a complete review of safety at a coal mine in Logan County, West Virginia, where a worker died on Sunday, reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette.

MSHA must perform a "complete inspection of every underground coal mine once per quarter," but inspectors had missed those inspections in the last two quarters at the Mountaineer II Mine of Arch Coal Inc., Ward reports. On Sunday, Robert D. Fraley, 53, died after he fell about 350 feet down an airshaft that was under construction. This was the second time in September that a miner died in a West Virginia mine where inspections had been missed. It also was the second fatal shaft-construction accident nationally in the last six weeks. MSHA reports that shaft construction has the highest accident rates of all coal-ming work.

Ward explains that while federal officials had conducted many “spot inspections,” those reviews are not as thorough as the required quarterly inspections. After the first worker's death at a mine where inspections were missed, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., railed against MSHA. “I’m absolutely flabbergasted — flabbergasted,” Byrd told MSHA chief Richard Stickler. “I’m at a loss. “How can we have any faith that things at MSHA are improving if you’re not even fulfilling these basic inspection responsibilities?” (Read more)

Kentucky county to join others in suit against maker of OxyContin

Citing an increase in overdose deaths from OxyContin last year, officials in Pike County, Ky., are planning to join other Kentucky counties in suing the company that makes the drug, reports the Appalachian News-Express of Pikeville. Officials had considered a suit since June, and this week the county hired a local law firm to represent it, Loretta Tackett reports. In July, in federal court in Virginia, Purdue Pharma L.P. of Stamford, Conn., accepted a $600 million fine and three of its managers agreed to pay $34.5 million for misleading the public about the painkiller’s addictive qualities.

Pike County is at Kentucky's eastern tip and is the state's largest county in land area. Its coroner found that oxycodone, the generic name for OxyContin, was involved in 13 of the county's 46 drug-related deaths in 2006. In 2005, that number had been seven of 57 cases, but both may be low; officials said many deaths are not handled by the coroner. In autopsies of 484 overdose victims in Kentucky last year, state medical examiners found oxycodone in 78. Pike County likely would join other Kentucky counties in the suit, which Attorney General Greg Stumbo is expected to file Oct. 4 in Pike Circuit Court. (Read more)

Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2007

Among children 12-17, one in three see little or no risk in trying meth

Despite years of horror stories about the dangers of using methamphetamine, it remains a major problems in parts of rural America -- and one in three youths aged 12 to 17 "sees little or no risk in trying the illegal drug," says Gannett News Service, reporting on the "first-ever national use and attitudes survey about the drug."

The survey of 2,602 students found that almost a fourth think "meth 'makes you feel euphoric or happy' or helps you lose weight, and the same number said it would be 'very' or 'somewhat easy' to obtain meth," Pamela Brogan writes. "About one in six youths has either a friend or a family member who has used or been treated for meth addiction, the survey found. . . . And yet, in a finding that might be of comfort to parents, three out of four youths said they are strongly opposed to using meth."

The survey was conducted by The Meth Project, "which aims to reduce first-time meth users through advertising campaigns." It is based in Palo Alto, Calif., but started its first campaign in Montana, where it says youth meth use has been cut in half. It has started similar campaigns in Arizona, Illinois and Idaho. (Read more)

Immigration crackdown adds pressure for mechanical harvesters

Farmers in need of stable labor have long looked to technology for help in the fields, but especially now that a crackdown on illegal immigration could be coming soon, reports The Associated Press. Jacob Adelman writes that new machines are growing more adept at tasks still done by hand, such as picking of fruits and vegetables. (At right, in AP photo, a machine harvests lettuce.)

Machines have been used in the past with crops such as tomatoes and low-grade wine grapes and nuts, but fresh produce demands more advanced machines than those in the fields today. But with imaging technology that allows farmers to map an orchard coupled with improvements in hydraulics, the newest machines are beginning to replicate the movements of a manual laborer.

"The technology is maturing just at the right time to allow us to do this kind of work economically," Derek Morikawa, whose Vision Robotics has been to develop a fruit picker, told Adelman. Still, the machines are not ready for consumer use, and when they are, they likely will cost $500,000 each.

About the half the nation's fruits, nuts and vegetables come from California, which relies on thousands of illegal immigrant workers each season, Adelman writes. With increased attention from law enforcement last year, "California's seasonal migration was marked by spot worker shortages, and some fruit was left to rot in the fields," he writes, quoting Robert Wample, viticulture and enology program director at California State University-Fresno: "There's a lot of very nervous people out there in agriculture in terms of what's going to be available in the labor force." (Read more)

Proposed coal-plant expansion draws more cheers than jeers in N.C.

Duke Energy's plan to expand one of its North Carolina coal-fired power plants, its first such expansion in decades, has drawn both strong support and opposition. However, But the supporters of the Cliffside plant in Rutherford County expansion far outnumbered those opposed at a public hearing this week, reports Drew Brooks of The Shelby Star in adjoining Cleveland County. (Encarta map)

Of the 300 or so attendance, most were wearing green "Cliffside Yes" stickers, Brooks reports. These stickers dominated the few saying "No excuse for coal" worn by those opposing the expansion. "The perception has grown that the majority opposed the expansion," Duke Energy's President and CEO Jim Turner told Brooks. "I think it’s a great show of community support."

Of the few speaking against the expansion, all but one came from counties other than Cleveland and Rutherford. Those in favor mostly were local leaders, who claimed their constituents were almost unanimously in favor of the plan. They also emphasized that the construction create as many as 2,000 jobs and that the plant near the Broad River would add 20 to 30 permanent positions.

Bruce Henderson of The Charlotte Observer reports that the environmentalists speaking against the plan emphasized that coal-fired plants contribute to irritating ozone. He added that the South "accounts for about 40 percent of U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, which most scientists say is warming the planet." Dr. Richard Fireman, a physician from Mars Hill, north of Asheville, said the expansion would be "a death sentence for our state."

'Rural sprawl' spreads risk of wildfires in the Sierra Nevada

As more homes have risen in wild areas of the Sierra Nevada, there are increased risks for wildfire, and taxpayers are paying for it, reports the San Francisco Chronicle.

A two-year study by the Sierra Nevada Alliance shows that this "rural sprawl" has moved into fire danger areas,the communities, Peter Fimrite reports. As a result, many communities "cannot afford to maintain roads, build new infrastructure and pay for the fire protection necessary to keep up with the growth," he writes. The Sierra Nevada is California's third-fastest growing region; 88,000 people moved there between 1990 and 2000. And now 94 percent of new development there is within fire-prone areas, the alliance's report says.

"The more development you have the more challenges you have," Rex Norman, spokesman for the Lake Tahoe basin management unit of the U.S. Forest Service, told Fimrite. "As an agency we don't get into private property issues, but we are a participant in the concern, mainly with regard to the resources that people need for fire protection and the work people need to do to prevent fire."

The report suggests that homeowners in these areas pay the cost of increased protection and that communities keep development within already developed areas. (Read more)

Newsy N.H. ag commissioner gives background on corn mazes

When New Hampshire Agriculture Commissioner Steve Taylor retires next month, we will miss his writing for the Weekly Market Bulletin of the state Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food. Steve was once a journalist, so he still has a nose for a good story, and the skill to tell it, so the Bulletin is one of the newsier and well-written publications of any state farm agency. The latest example of that is Steve's item in the latest Bulletin about corn mazes, the labyrinths chopped through cornfields to provide entertainment for "agri-tourists" and extra income for farmers.

"New Hampshire’s largest and most intricate corn maze opens for fall fun this weekend in East Conway," Steve writes. "The corn-maze craze has spread all over the U.S. over the past few years, and the Sherman Farm’s layout in the Mount Washington Valley expects to draw visitors from throughout New Hampshire and Maine. It covers over eight acres, and contains more than three miles’ worth of twists, turns and decision points. The correct pathway can be walked in about 15 minutes, but its designer, Brett Herbst, figures it will take most people at least an hour."

Still a good reporter, Steve not only provides an aerial description of the maze and how it was planted and cut, but broader news useful to Rural Blog readers: "Herbst is a Utah-based entrepreneur who claims to have the largest cornfield maze design company in the world. Since getting into the business a decade ago he has designed over 600 mazes, including 160 this year alone in the U.S., Mexico, Canada and Europe." We would have copyedited that sentence to say "more than 600," but it gives you some background and a starting point for research the next time you write about a corn maze. Thanks, Steve, and best wishes in your retirement. (Read more)

Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2007

Obama led rural candidates in rural contributions in last quarter

In this year's second quarter, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., received $861,646 in campaign contributions from rural residents, the most collected by any candidate, according to Daily Yonder analysis. Republican Mitt Romney came closest to Obama's total with $810,554 in rural contributions. Obama had almost twice as many rural contributors as did Sen Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., but her rural givers wrote bigger checks, giving her a rural total of $762,536, not far behind Obama's.

Obama collected money from 888 of the 2,580 rural counties; Romney scored in 777, many of them "ski counties in Utah, where he headed the 2002 Winter Olympics," Bill Bishop and Tim Murphy write. Their analysis also showed that contributions from rural residents were dwarfed by those from their urban counterparts in the second quarter, as candidates collected $5.7 million in rural areas but $101 million from urban Americans. This breaks down to an average of 49 cents per urban American compared to 8 cents per rural American. The rural contributions were almost equally divided between the Democratic and Republican parties. (Read more)

Crackdown on illegal immigration may affect this fall's harvest

Since the White House vowed to curtail illegal immigration, farmers have been worrying about what could happen when the administration makes good on that promise, writes Sean Ellis of the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation.

That crackdown could arrive in time for this harvest, which could mean an inconvenience or worse for farms that depend on immigrant labor. Ellis adds that law enforcement will be focusing on those businesses that employ illegal aliens. If that happens, then "the food chain could start falling apart," one California producer told Ellis.

According to Mark Duffin, executive director of the Idaho Sugarbeet Growers Association, the effect of this heightened enforcement would not be limited to farms. “I think clear across the whole economy, it can create some serious problems; it’s not just agriculture,” he told Ellis. “It will be felt across the country.”

The first sign of trouble will be the arrival of a "no-match" letter from the Social Security Administration, which notifies a business about a problem with employees' Social Security Numbers. The business can then either fix the problem with the SSA or fire the employees. If the employee remains on the job and is found to be illegal, the business could "face fines or criminal sanctions," Ellis writes. Since the start of the 2007 fiscal year, there have been 742 criminal arrests of employers.

With no guest-worker plan in place, many farmers say the enforcement could leave them shorthanded. “If we go cold turkey, it could create some real disruptions,” Duffin told Ellis. “We obviously do need the workers here. But we need to know who they are and have them here legally and the system isn’t working now.” (Read more) To view the Department of Homeland Security's information on immigration, go here.

Microbe makes carbon-neutral ethanol from cellulose, other material

Venture-capital funds and other investors recently put millions of dollars into SunEthanol, a biofuels technology company in Amherst, Mass., that is working with a bacterium that converts all sorts of plant matter, including cellulose, into ethanol. The company is using research by University of Massachusetts Amherst microbiologist Susan Leschine, who has made it the focus of her work for the past decade and is the chief scientist at SunEthanol.

“The Q microbe . . . is highly efficient at converting biomass to ethanol. And it does so in a carbon-neutral process that doesn’t require the additional enzyme treatments usually accompanying bioethanol production," says Newswise, a research-reporting service. "The microbe’s enzymes are another property that makes it an ideal organism for use in large-scale production of ethanol from biomass. Usually, cellulosic ethanol production involves several steps: pre-treat the plant material mechanically or chemically to get rough biomass; treat rough biomass with enzymes that have been bought or made in a lab; add the fermenting organism; recover and purify the ethanol. But the Q microbe’s own enzymes are more than sufficient, eliminating a costly step and consolidating production into one tank. Low estimates are that this consolidated production reduces costs by 25 percent, says Leschine."

Newswise adds that the bacterium's ethanol-making process "is carbon neutral and can be carbon negative, depending on the biomass that’s being used, says Leschine. . . . While the fermentation process releases some carbon dioxide, that amount isn’t more than what the original plants took in and therefore isn’t adding carbon to the cycle the way petroleum products do. And if a plant such as switchgrass is used, which stores large amounts of carbon in its roots, the process is actually carbon negative, putting carbon that was in the atmosphere into the ground. Now that SunEthanol has secured its first round of funding, Leschine and her researchers are exploring the forms of biomass that microbe Q favors, optimizing pre-treatments and fermentation conditions." (Read more)

Ethanol boom creates tension among grain, meat, dairy lobbies

As the ethanol industry gains momentum nationally, various farm lobbies find themselves battling over ways to slow or speed its growth, reports The Associated Press. Christopher Leonard explains that as corn farmers and their lobbyists push for more government subsidies for ethanol production, meat and dairy farmers and their lobbyists seek the opposite. With Congress considering new fuel standards that could bring production of renewable fuels to 36 billion gallons by 2022, the future of the biofuels industry could be determined by the "food fight shaping up between grain producers and livestock lobbyists," Leonard writes.

"It's very true that the agricultural lobby will speak with a louder voice if it's saying the same thing. In that sense, it's been a less united voice than it has in the past," Pat Westhoff, an economist with the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri, told Leonard.

Amber Waves, the publication of the Department of Agriculture, offers a clear and concise overview of the ethanol explosion, including the map above. In this report, Paul C. Westcott explores the catalysts for the ethanol boom, namely, rising oil prices and increased government incentives, as well as the long-term impacts of an increased production of corn-based ethanol, such as a reduction in livestock and rises in retail prices. These forecasts fuel the debate among farm lobbies, with each side choosing some to bolster their arguments. (Read more)

Funds cut, so Indian court and cultural center remains unfinished

After grand plans and a promising start, a South Dakota building designed to be an American Indian cultural facility and judicial center remains incomplete as its federal funding has been cut off, reports The New York Times.

Monica Davey writes that the Wakpa Sica Reconciliation Place (pictured in a Times photo by Keith Bedford) was meant to help lure outside investment to the reservation "by creating a court system where outsiders could recoup losses if a business deal went bad." Former Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., had led the push for a federal earmark for the $18 million project, but with the loss of his re-election bid in 2004 and the anti-earmark tide sparked by the Jack Abramoff scandal, the project lies half-finished, Davey writes. The project's budget also has ballooned to $25 million, and so the building's eagle-inspired design has just one wing.

“The thing is, this is anything but a bridge to nowhere,” said Marshall Matz, a lawyer in Washington who is representing the center, told Davey. “But no one wants to hear that. The Congress seems to feel we are an earmark, and earmarks are very difficult now to get money for.” But this is the story of earmarks, Davey explains, that when a project is tied to one lawmaker, its risks are greater than those connected to large companies and multiple lawmakers. Even with new rules requiring lawmakers to put their names on their earmarks, "House lawmakers have put together spending bills with nearly 6,500 earmarks worth almost $11 billion," Davey writes. (Read more)

Overdose deaths from OxyContin, other drugs on rise again in rural Va.

Fatal drug overdoses killed 264 people in western Virginia in 2006, a 22 percent increase from last year, reports Laurence Hammack of The Roanoke Times. Those deaths accounted for 40 percent of the state's drug overdoses, even though the region has just 20 percent of the state's population. The 2006 total also represented a 294 percent increase from a decade ago, as prescription drug abuse has become a "public health epidemic," Dr. Martha Wunsch told Hammack.

In recent years, however, federal prosecution had targeted OxyContin and its marketing, and the number of fatal overdoses had stopped climbing between 2003 and 2005, Hammack reports. "Back in the heyday of OxyContin, it had really gotten bad," Richard Stallard, head of the Southwest Virginia Drug Task Force, told Hammack. "But right now, it is the worst I've ever seen it."

In many of these rural areas, the overall population has plateaued or even declined, which makes the growth in overdoses hard to explain, Hammack writes. John Dreyzehner, co-chairman of the Appalachian Substance Abuse Coalition for Prevention and Treatment, told Hammack there is a renewed sense of commitment to stop the problem. "I think if the problem is in the community, the solution is in the community, and I think the community is stepping forward to address the problem," he said. "But that doesn't mean it will happen overnight." (Read more)

Paper rolls out red carpet to welcome T. rex skeleton to museum

As the Anniston Museum of Natural History in Alabama prepares to unveil its biggest visitor, a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, The Anniston Star has found some creative ways to cover the upcoming exhibit, "A T. Rex Named Sue" (pictured at left in a photo by Trent Penny). The newspaper has a special section set for Saturday, Sept. 20, the same day the exhibit opens to the public, but is using its Web site and accompanying blogs to offer information in the meantime.

The paper has devoted a section of its main site to coverage of the exhibit as well as links to more information about dinosaurs. On the "Behind the Star" blog, there are some funny video trailers made by staffers to promote the arrival of Sue. To view them, go here and here. In total, the Star has 12 blogs devoted to various subjects, from education to high school sports.

Monday, Sept. 17, 2007

Tech experiments help rural students keep up with peers elsewhere

Education initiatives are seeking to improve learning by putting the latest technology in students' hands. Rachael King of Business Week reports on a few of these programs, which make use of iPods, laptops and the Internet to help rural students stay up to date with their peers.

Photo by King shows students using iPods on a school bus in a pilot program of the Aspirnaut Initiative in Grapevine, Ark., which has transformed the bus into a second classroom for the children who spend 15 hours a week riding it, she reports. The initiative has brought wireless Internet to the bus and given each of the children laptops or iPods so they can keep the long commutes from being lost time. That program was started by Billy Hudson, a Vanderbilt University biochemistry professor and Grapevine native, who wanted rural children to be prepared for today's economy. "People are seeing in rural areas that the jobs they know about are being outsourced," he told King.

A school in Mobile, Ala., is also using the Web to help its students experience a world beyond their community. There, students were struggling to learn vocabulary because words such as "trampoline" were totally outside their frame of reference. To address this, the class has begun taking field trips and recording them on podcasts and blogs, so that the information is available to all in the school for future reference. In many of the examples King cites the money for the programs came from grants sought by the schools and came from companies such as Apple and Microsoft. With the introduction of more technology in the classroom, King writes, there came the need for specific guidelines to keep the tools from becoming distractions or even threats. The guiding rule is usually this: The students use them correctly or lose them.

Still, the technology could mean a world of difference for these rural children, one educator told King. "We're not just competing with school systems in the state," Suzanne Freeman, superintendent of Trussville City Schools in Trussville, Ala., said. "Our kids are competing with India, China, Japan, and other countries around the world." (Read more)

Most students don't know today is Constitution Day, study reveals

According to a study sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a majority of high school students do not know about Constitution Day, the anniversary of the document's adoption and the day American students are legally required to learn about it, The Associated Press reports. Today is Constitution Day, the anniversary of the completion of the document in 1787.

The study reports that 51 percent of high school students did not know about Constitution Day, and just one in 10 remembered how his high school observed the day last year. Led by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., Congress created the day in 2004 with a law requiring every school that receives federal money to teach its students about the Constitution on or around Sept. 17.

Eric Newton, Knight Foundation journalism-program vice president, told AP he worries that today's students lack an understanding of their nation's democracy. "We're concerned that teaching to the test and the emphasis on math and science is hurting the American civics education," he said.

AP reports that the study also found that 68 percent of students had taken a class related to the First Amendment, up from the with 58 percent who said they had in 2004. For the full report, go here.

Agriculture loses rank, dating to prehistory, as world's top employer

This decade is the first in which more people in the world are employed in service jobs than in agriculture. A study by the International Labor Organization found that in 2006, 42 percent of the world's workers were in the service sector, while agriculture employed 36.1 percent. The industrial sector accounted for 21.9 percent, unchanged over the last decade. Agriculture, which was arguably the world's first form of employment (after hunting and gathering), is still the top employer in the world's poorest regions, the report adds.

The ILO reports that the United States had the highest productivity ranking in terms of hours worked, according to Reuters. In terms of productivity by the hour, the United States ranked second, behind Norway. "Working hours per person employed are considerably higher in the United States than in the majority of European economies,'' the report says. From 1980 to 2005, American productivity grew at an average rate of 1.7 percent, while British output over that time grew by 2.1 percent. (Read more)

Rising ammo prices mean changes for police, recreational shooters

Several media outlets have reported on an ammunition shortage facing police departments, and many pointed to the fighting in Iraq as the main culprit. However, National Public Radio reported that rising prices and demand have come from increases in copper. Regardless of the cause, the spike in prices has hit recreational shooters as well, and The Daily Courier of Prescott, Ariz., reports on how they are dealing with it.

Jason Soifer writes that shooters are shunning commercial bullets in favor of cutting costs by making their own. Soifer writes that for about $800, a shooter can buy reloading equipment and “recoup that money in about a year” in saved bullet costs. For other recreational shooters, the only choice is to reduce the number of bullets they use.

Law enforcement officials, however, don’t have those two options, and so they must order well in advance to ensure they have enough bullets when it comes time for training sessions. (Read more)

Black-lung disease is rising again among coal miners, study finds

After decades of decline in the incidence of black lung, the coal miners' disease is on the rise, The Charleston Gazette reports. Ken Ward Jr. writes that a new study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health shows the rate of black lung has doubled since 1997. According to the study, 9 percent of miners with 25 or more years working underground show signs of black lung, up from 4 percent 10 years ago. Since NIOSH began its X-ray studies of miners' lungs in 1970, until the late 1990s, black lung rates had been steadily declining. A 2006 study from the Centers for Disease Control reported areas in Southwest Virginia and Eastern Kentucky where cases of black lung were sharply increasing, Ward writes.

The 1969 Coal Mine Safety and Health Act was passed to limit the amount of airborne dust in mines, but United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said the dust standard is not strong enough, or is not being strictly enforced. “We’ve seen that miners are dying at increased rates on the job in the last two years,” he told Ward. “Now, we’re finding out that many more of them are getting this terrible disease many of their fathers and grandfathers suffered from. Miners need action now.” (Read more)

Global market good for U.S. coal, not necessarily that in Appalachia

As China's demand for coal has begun to outpace its supply, other international markets are turning to the United States for coal, reports Matthew Dalton of Dow Jones Newswires. As China opens another coal-burning plant almost every week, it is importing more coal from Australia and South Africa. These markets normally serve Europe, and so consumers there will now rely on U.S. coal.

Companies producing coal used in making steel will see benefits first, especially because two major metallurgical coal mines have been shut down temporarily, Dalton reports. Most U.S. coal is used to make steam in domestic power plants, but as much as 58 million tons of both steam and metallurgical coal will be exported in 2007, which would be an 18 percent increase from the 49 million tons exported in 2006. As demand for both types grows, utilities' stockpiles of coal should dwindle.

"It's not affecting us yet," Deborah Rouse, manager of coal and transportation at Southern Co., one of the nation's largest coal consumers, told Dalton. "It's not affecting the U.S. market yet because of the inventory hangover. ... If the export demand continues, and domestic demand picks back up, then I think that just has upwards price pressure on the market."

For companies in southern West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky and Southwest Virginia, however, rising production costs could force some producers out of the market. In the Central Appalachian region, smaller underground mines have fueled production, but new safety laws are making small-scale mining more expensive, Dalton reports. "There's a big question mark on how much Central Appalachian production will drop out of the market because of that," John Hanou, a coal market analyst at the energy research firm Hill & Associates, told Dalton.(Read more)

Saturday, Sept. 15, 2007

Zoning of first Virginia wind farm gets court OK; state commission next

The first industrial wind farm in Virginia got a green light yesterday from the state Supreme Court, which said the Highland County Board of Supervisors did not make errors when it gave the project a conditional-use permit. Now all it needs is a permit from the State Corporation Commission, but opponents could appeal that decision to the Supreme Court, too.

"Adjoining landowners and other opponents said the giant windmills would kill birds and bats, hamper tourism and ruin the scenic views of a county known as "Virginia's Switzerland'," reports Laurence Hammack of The Roanoke Times. "Supporters say the $60 million project could provide power to about 15,000 homes, generate tax revenue for the county and pose no adverse effects on the environment."

The project of Highland New Wind Development would have 19 turbines on masts as tall as 400 feet on top of Alleghany Mountain, near the West Virginia border. "With wind power a relatively new concept for the East Coast, the case was watched closely by energy developers and conservationists," Hammack writes. "But precedent-setting decisions are more likely to come from the SCC than from Friday's court action. The legal challenge heard by the Supreme Court dealt with narrow procedural issues and zoning requirements -- not the fundamental arguments for and against wind farm technology." (Read more) For the SCC hearing officer's report, click here.

The Recorder of Monterey is following the story of wind power in the East. Last month the weekly newspaper looked at the prospects for it in adjoining Bath County. "Though supervisors and planners agreed they need to plan head, the federal lands making up half the county could mean there's little they can do to prevent the industry from taking hold," Charles Garratt wrote. His story is a good primer on the industry, especially in the East.

Friday, Sept. 14, 2007

Coal firms want mining to pave way for four-lane roads in Appalchia

The multi-billion-dollar cost of the proposed Coalfields Expressway, a project put on the drawing board almost 20 years ago, could be cut by about half "by combining construction . . . with surface coal mining," according to a study funded partly by companies that want to do the mining, Paula Tate reports in The Coalfield Progress of Norton, Va.

The four-lane highway would stretch 115 miles from four-lane US 23 at Pound, Va., near the Kentucky border, to Interstates 64 and 77 near Beckley, W. Va., and run through some of the richer coal deposits remaining in the Eastern U.S. The study by the Virginia Department of Transportation, Alpha Natural Resources LLC and Pioneer Group Inc. calls for Alpha to mine and prepare a roadbed for about 30 miles of the 50-mile route in Virginia and for Pioneer to do the other 20 miles. Alpha CEO Mike Quillen "noted that the road, which would have a 60 mile-per-hour designation, would be one of the most scenic highways in the country," Tate wrote. The route for the 65-mile West Virginia section, pictured below, was selected nine years ago, and at least one small section is complete.

Alpha is already mining and building a section of the 90-mile King Coal Highway, planned to roughly parallel US 52, which runs along the western border of West Virginia and intersects the Coalfields Expressway route a few miles east of the junction of Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. The eight-mile section east of Williamson, W.Va., is estimated to cost $110 million; the whole road, about $2 billion, according to the Federal Highway Administration. It would connect I-64 with I-77 at Bluefield. For FHwA's description of the King Coal Highway, click here.

Supporters of the roads say they would greatly improve the economy of the region. Skeptics worry about increased environmental damage from coal mining. We neither endorse nor oppose these projects, but we do object to the name of the "expressway." It would have intersections, so it wouldn't be an expressway, and there is only one coalfield in Appalachia, so the name needs to be singular, not plural. The Coalfield Progress has its own nomenclature right. (Read more)

Alabama editor's varied series on reform wins commentary prize

Bob Davis, editor of The Anniston (Ala.) Star, circulation 25,000, has won the Carmage Walls Commentary Prize for newspapers with less than 50,000 circulation. The award, presented by the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association, encourages thoughtful, courageous and constructive editorial page leadership" on local issues, says the latest SNPA eBulletin.

Contest judges said "Davis managed to take what might be a dry, yet important, topic – constitutional reform – and turn it into interesting reading with new angles each time he wrote about it. . . . His employment of a variety of writing styles, including poetry, was successful at surprising readers over time, in a persuasive way.”

Davis wrote on his entry form that Alabama's 1901 constitution was written to establish white supremacy in the state. "Though much of the Jim Crow is now rendered a dead letter, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, the part that locked all but the rich and powerful out of state and local government is still very much alive," he wrote. "The editorial mission of The Anniston Star when it comes to constitutional reform is to explain the problem on a personal level. If finger-wagging was the cure, the document would have been rewritten years ago. Our attempt is to use a variety of styles to urge reform."

For examples of Davis's work, and that of other winners, click here. Second place in the small-circulation division went to David Klement of the Bradenton (Fla.) Herald, circulatrion 47,000.

Thursday, Sept. 13, 2007

Ky.'s public-private partnership for rural broadband setting example

"Largely rural, Kentucky is best known for its bourbon and horse racing; it rarely ranks in the top tier of states on any measure of 21st-century success," The Economist reports. But it has one of the most successful public-private partnerships to bring broadband Internet service to rural areas.

The weekly British magazine (which calls itself a newspaper and doesn't use bylines), reports from the "remote farm" of Lajuana Wilcher, former state environment secretary, checking "an online database for local ranchers demanding alfalfa. She can specify at what price she is willing to sell, which counties to search and whether her hay is square-baled or rolled. Without her high-speed internet connection, Ms. Wilcher insists, it would take far too long to find the most generous alfalfa prices, order spare tractor parts and locate the best breeding stock for her small cattle operation" in Southern Kentucky, near Bowling Green.

Five years ago, "Internet service providers could not be sure that there were enough Lajuana Wilchers in the Kentucky countryside to justify new investment in cabling or wireless transmitters," and "the state had among the lowest rates of broadband availability in the country . . . according to Brian Mefford, right, president of ConnectKentucky, a public-private partnership," The Economist reports. "But by the end of this year, Mr. .Mefford boasts, 98 percent of residents will have access to inexpensive broadband services."

Other states are talking about copying Kentucky to overcome what the magazine calls "the poor design of federal loan and grant schemes" for rural broadband and come closer to the goal President Bush set in 2004, "to provide every American with access to broadband by this year. . . . ConnectKentucky might beat Mr. Bush to fulfilling his own goal. The group is morphing into a company called Connected Nation, and is helping to wire up the neighbouring states of West Virginia and Tennessee." (Read more)

Rural activists in Ky. stirring opposition to Senate's Republican leader

Rural votes have been key to many Republican victories, but three activists from rural Kentucky are helping lead growing grass-roots opposition to Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell in his home state, mainly based on his support of Presudent Bush and his Iraq policies, Bob Moser reports in The Nation. McConnell is up for re-election next year, and conservative pundit Robert Novak said in his column yesterday that he "could be in danger."

The rural trio is Yale University graduate student Matt Gunterman, 30, who was the Democratic nominee last year for McLean County judge-executive, the top local administrative post; New York University law student Shawn Dixon, 24, a native of Columbus, Ky., a tiny town on the Mississippi River; and Jim Pence, 68, a "Salem-smoking, pickup-driving, self-proclaimed hillbilly" from Hardin County who has built a following for his HillbillyReport.com blog, Moser writes.

Gunterman, the creator of DitchMitchKy.com, wants to "fire up an Internet-based 'Ruralution,' connecting grassroots progressives from rural America to spur political action," Moser writes. Gunterman "sees Pence as a prime example of the passion and wit that generally go untapped by Democrats and urban progressives. 'There's no one like Jim in the entire United States,' says Gunterman. 'Not with his age and his ornery attitude. He is very much a hillbilly, and he's reinvigorated the term.' In his three years of crisscrossing Kentucky to publicize its antiwar and progressive insurgencies, Pence has also stirred up the state's traditionally timid left-wingers," reports Moser, a North Carolina native who is writing a book on the South and "purple America," states that are neither red nor blue.

The trio has "also pushed the state's more established media to take notice of the progressive groundswell," Moser writes. "In 2004, when Dixon was working as deputy policy and communications director for Democrat Daniel Mongiardo's uphill Senate challenge to Republican Jim Bunning, he spent much of the campaign in a state of frustration over Kentucky newspapers' assumption that the incumbent would cruise to victory." Bunning won by only 1.4 percent of the vote, after some unusual behavior that turned off urban voters. But with President Bush providing coattails, Bunning's rural margin made up for his urban deficit. (Read more)

With editor-publisher laid up, N.C. journalism students ride to rescue

In days of yore, a bucket brigade was the hand-to-hand predecessor of firefighting equipment. This month, it is a rescue mission, by journalism students, for weekly newspaper editor-publisher Ken Ripley, reports the director and namer of the brigade, Jock Lauterer of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The photo shows Lauterer (with hand on table), Ripley and the students who are commuting an hour or more each way to help publish the Spring Hope Enterprise, circulation 4,100 while Ripley is out of the office for surgery and a long recovery this fall.

Lauterer, director of the Carolina Community Media Project in the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communications, writes in his Blue Highways Journal that he got the idea before Ripley's need arose -- from the recent tornado that virtually destroyed Greensburg, Kan., and its newspaper: "It occurred to me: Hey Lauterer, what would YOU do if an North Carolina community paper took a direct hit from a hurricane? How prepared are you? Do you have a Rapid Response Journalism Team primed and ready?"

Lauterer worked up a plan, "But then my thinking took another turn. Why sit around and wait for disaster to strike? Find a community paper right now that needs help. And that led us to Spring Hope, where I knew my long-time pal and veteran editor and publisher, Ken Ripley, was going in this month for a double hip replacement, a process that will require two separate operations and a lengthy recovery at home. Knowing the unstoppable Mr. Ripley, he refuses to miss an issue, putting out his paper via laptop from his bedside."

Small Kentucky farm joins others in replacing tobacco with grapes

With the future of tobacco in doubt, one farming family in Clark County, Kentucky, decided to look for another crop. They found it in grapes. Now called the Harkness Edwards Winery and Vineyards, the Edwards family farm has 13 acres of grapes and plans to have more eventually, reports Katheran Wasson of The Winchester Sun. (Kate Edwards, left, and her mother, Cathy Edwards, pick grapes at the vineyard in a Sun photo by James Mann.)

The decision to switch from tobacco to grapes was difficult, Cathy Edwards told Wasson, but with the beginning of the state's tobacco buyout they needed a new cash crop. Cathy and Harkey Edwards also said they wanted to make sure their three daughters had something to inherit. So after getting advice from the University of Kentucky and the Kentucky Vineyard Society, the Edwardses settled on the vidal blanc grape, a French hybrid developed in the United States. This year will mark the second harvest, and Harkey Edwards said they would produce about 900 gallons of vidal blanc. Meanwhile, the family is finishing the winery's retail and tasting areas.

"I find a lot of gratitude in what we're doing," Cathy said. "I've enjoyed this whole venture; it's been a lot of work, certainly a lot of stress in just unknown issues, but we're working through it, and I think we're seeing some light at the end of the tunnel." (Read more) In a 2006 article for a publication of the University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture, Terri McLean traced the history of winemaking in the state, which before Prohibition "was the third-largest grape- and wine-producing state in the nation." She reports that long-time tobacco farmers are once again discovering grapes.

As Plains schools consolidate, old buildings languish and teams merge

The empty, abandoned school is yet another sign of shrinking rural communities. Across Nebraska, these old buildings offer communities difficult choices as they weigh the risks against the rewards of finding new uses for these structures, reports the Omaha World-Herald.

Paul Hammel writes that in the last nine years at least 27 Nebraska school districts have been forced to merge, and thus dozens of old schools lie empty. While some communities have decided the aging buildings aren't worth trouble, others seek to find new uses for them. Hammel recounts some of these renovation successes as well as the failure. In Avoca, Neb., two musicians transformed a school into a music studio, while in 1993 an old school in Holbrook became the Central Plains Technology and Business Development Center and is now occupied by six businesses.On the hand, there were failed attempts made by people in Nelson and Edgar to turn old schools into museums. In Venango, some locals want to turn the high school into youth home, but Hammel writes that after five years of lying vacant the school needs about $400,000 in repairs to satisfy safety codes. (Read more)

In a related story, The New York Times explores how merged high-school football teams are signs of changing times. Joe Spring reports from northwestern Minnesota and describes how Friday night football has changed, as nearby towns merge their high schools and their football teams. In Marshall County, where the towns of Stephen and Argyle have found football success as the Stephen/Argyle Central Storm, the average age is 40 and almost 20 percent are over 65. (Above, the team practices in a photo by Spring). The aging community means smaller classes at the high school, whose student body has dropped to 180 from 270 a decade ago. “Many places are turning back to frontier,” Tom Gillaspy, the state’s demographer, told Spring. (Read more)

Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2007

Tennessee governor announces plan to spur business in rural areas

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, right, grew up in suburban Boston, but in his second term he continues to look out for rural areas of the Volunteer State. This week, he announced "a new effort to spur business growth in rural areas, including a venture loan fund to help expand businesses with potential for growth and creating new jobs," reported Richard Locker of The Commercial Appeal's Nashville bureau.

Bredesen, who came to Nashville as a health-care entrepreneur, failed in his first gubernatorial bid and became mayor, "wants to expand economic growth occurring in Tennessee's metropolitan areas to rural counties that are economically distressed," Locker wrote. "He said this year's big increase in corporate tax revenue primarily occurred in 12 urban and suburban counties, which 'underlines for me how disparate the economic development is: how much it's hitting the big counties and ring counties and how little of it is getting out in the rural areas.' As a result, Bredesen is devoting a large part of the annual Governor's Conference on Economic and Community Development here Tuesday and Wednesday to helping rural areas grow."

One feature of Bredesen's plan is a $13.25 million Rural Opportunity Fund, funded mostly by financial institutions. It "will lend money mostly to existing small businesses in rural counties that have demonstrated their viability but need venture capital to grow," perhaps even to startup companies, Locker wrote. (Read more)

Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2007

Study reveals facts under myths about Latino migration to rural areas

A new study "suggests that many 'facts' that are taken for granted on the immigration issue simply do not hold up to the evidence," University of Kentucky sociologist Patrick H. Mooney writes in the Daily Yonder.

The study was done by Dr. Martha Crowley, a sociologist at North Carolina State University, and Dr. Daniel Lichter, a scholar at Cornell University’s Bronfennbrenner Life Course Center. It looked at 1990 and 2000 census data on population and economic growth, poverty, crime, unemployment and public assistance.

They set up three categories, shown on the map above: Rural counties with traditionally large Latino populations, those that experienced a significant rise in the Latino population in the 10-year period, and rural counties with no Latino growth. They found that rates of poverty and unemployment declined in all three. Counties with increased in-migration of Latinos had the lower percentages.

The study found that high Latino in-migration "may dampen income opportunities for African-Americans," since blacks' rate of growth in per capita income was lowest in counties with significant jumps in Latino population. The proportion of the population receiving public assistance was also lowest in the high-growth counties, but there was increased stress on local schools and hospitals.

While retail sales and median home values rose more sharply in areas with high growth, those same counties still had the highest rates of violent crime and property crime arrests even though those numbers were on the decline. "In other words, in-migration correlated with declining rates of arrest," Mooney writes. (Read more)

Rural voters pivotal but feel 'invisible' politically, Denver Post reports

The last four presidential elections have hinged, in part, on rural voters, but those rural residents continue to feel lost on the political landscape, reports Karen E. Crummy of The Denver Post.

Voting patterns from the past few decades of presidential elections show that the way rural voters divide along party lines can predict the overall vote.When Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 and 1996, he grabbed almost 50 percent of rural votes, and George W. Bush took more than 60 percent in his 2000 and 2004 electoral victories.

"It shows that to win as a Republican, you need the lion's share of rural votes. For Democrats to win, you have to neutralize those voters," said Seth McKee, a University of South Florida professor who analyzed rural voters in presidential elections from 1992 to 2004.

Crummy writes, "Rural America remains conservative, with social issues in the forefront, but these voters are also consumed by economic concerns and the lack of job opportunities." She quotes Bess Isaacs, the 82-year-old owner of R.W. Isaacs Hardware in Torrington, Wyo.: "I've never voted a straight ballot. It doesn't take brains to vote across the board. . . . Right now I'm not impressed by either side."

Rich Campbell, a doctor in Torrington, told the Post, "You ask most of rural America, and they will say neither party has a vision or game plan for us. There is no respect for agriculture. No planning for our infrastructure. No understanding of the long distances people have to go to access medical care." (Read more)

Despite being an attractive bloc of swing voters, rural residents are overlooked often as a matter of logistics, Crummy reports. Rural voters are tougher to visit because they are scattered, and they account for about 5 percent of the donations to presidential candidates, according to a June 17 story in the Daily Yonder.

Harkin pushes to increase funds for rural development in Farm Bill

Rural development could become a bigger part of the Farm Bill, provided Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, can find a way to pay for it. The chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Harkin wants to add $2 billion in mandatory spending over the next five years for rural development, reports The Des Moines Register.

The bill has yet to move in the Senate. the House version includes just one mandatory spending program, which puts $30 million in grants aimed at encouraging value-added crops, so Harkin must work to guarantee the necessary funds for his development projects, writes Philip Brasher of the Register's Washington bureau.

Chuck Fluharty of the Rural Policy Research Institute called Harkin's measure "far, the single most significant piece of rural development legislation ever offered by a seated chairman of any U.S. committee." Beneficiaries range from water systems to child-care centers to small-business owners and other entrepreneurs, Brasher writes. Harkin may be helped by White House criticism of the House version for its lack of expansion of the rural development function of the Department of Agriculture. (Read more)

In a recent report, the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs noted the gap in funding between farm commodities and programs for rural development, write Chris Green and Sarah Kessinger of the Harris News Service. Farm commodities account for $42 billion of the $286 billion House farm bill, while rural development accounts for $456 million, but only $30 million of that is mandatory spending. (Read more)

Edwards wins Texas Dems' poll; wife cites rural background, policy

Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards won an Internet straw poll of Texas Democrats because "He understands their lot – he too grew up in a town where Sunday morning church and Sunday evening church and Wednesday night church and Friday night football were what the town was built around," his wife, Elizabeth Edwards, said in Austin while she was in town for a fundraiser and book promotion. She added, "He has a rural policy, which is sorely missing from the other candidates."

State Democratic Chairman Boyd Richie said Edwards won 38 percent of the total vote of 8,101, while Illinois Sen. Barack Obama got 21 percent and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton 20 percent. Five other candidates split the vote in the week-long poll, writes Robert T. Garrett of the Dallas Morning News.

Garrett cautions: "Online surveys are not considered an accurate reflection of public opinion because participants are a self-selected group. Reputable pollsters carefully screen respondents to ensure they are potential voters, and they take a sample that matches the breakdown of a population by age, race, sex and location."

Richie said the party tried to block attempts to vote from out of state or more than once. "But the party could do little to ensure that respondents were even eligible to vote, let alone registered to vote or likely to do so in a Democratic primary," Garrett writes. Richie said the poll was "more representative" than the state Republican Party's straw poll, in which " 1,300 Texas Republican activists voted in person, but they had to pay to do so," Garrett writes. "The poll was won by U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter of California." (Read more)

Health-care costs mean push one in five farmers into debt, survey says

A survey conducted by the Access Project and the University of North Dakota found just 5 percent of farm and ranch households lacked health coverage, but about 20 percent of respondents said they had to take on debt in 2006 to make payments for health expenses, reports Julius Karash of The Kansas City Star.

With help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, the survey went to 2,000 small farm operators in Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska and the Dakotas. It found that about one-third of respondents bought individual health-insurance policies, far higher than the 8 percent nationally who are covered by individual policies, Karash reports.

“Farmers and ranchers have more financial resources than many other rural Americans,” Bill Lottero of the Access Project said in a statement accompanying the report. “It’s clear that middle-class folks with health insurance are feeling the pinch of spiraling premiums and medical costs.”

Alan Morgan, chief executive officer of the National Rural Health Association, an advocacy group, said the less comprehensive policies used by many farmers mean they wait to seek care and when they finally do, the delay equals an even greater cost. “The insurance crisis impacts everyone, but for farmers it’s particularly an acute problem,” Morgan told Karash. “They usually have some form of health-insurance policy. But with high deductibles and co-pays, it’s not a workable product.” (Read more)

Ky. principal bans editor from press box, cites story on racial incident

On Friday The Winchester (Ky.) Sun ran a story about the arrest of four white high school students on terroristic-threatening charges stemming from a black student's receipt of a racist note that contained threats and images of a lynching and a Confederate battle flag. That night, the newspaper's sports editor, Keith Taylor, went to cover the high school's homecoming football game but was barred from the press box by Principal Gordon Parido, who cited the story as the reason, The Sun reported.

On Monday, Parido apologized, reported WTVQ-TV in Lexington. "I get a phone call saying, you're banned from the press box tonight, and I said you're kidding right?" Taylor told WTVQ's Erika Harsh. The Sun later posted a short story saying "Parido called Managing Editor Randall Patrick to apologize for banning Taylor from the game and for taking 'the tone' he did. He said that Superintendent Dr. Ed Musgrove informed him that he did not have the authority to ban Taylor in the first place. Parido said he also intended to personally apologize to Taylor. The principal maintains that the story was inaccurate, but has twice declined to say what the inaccuracies were." (Read more)

The paper's original story on the incident marked the second time the racist note had been in the news that week. WLEX-TV in Lexington ran a story four days earlier, two days before the youths were arrested. The TV story prompted a threatening phone call to the student, reporter Katheran Wasson wrote. The students are juveniles; Wasson confirmed their arrest by interviewing one of their parents.

Wasson's story was accompanied by a copy of the note, provided by the black family, and an editor's note saying that the mother of one of the boys accused of drawing the pictures told the paper that the words and names were added later, not by the boys accused of passing the note. "The Winchester Sun covered those words, including names, with black bars in this printed version because of the disagreement between the parties over whether they were in the original document, which was given to police for evidence," Patrick wrote, noting that the original note is not public under state law on juvenile proceedings. "The Sun decided to publish the note to allow readers to decide for themselves the seriousness of the complaint."

Number of hunters and anglers declining; wildlife watching on the rise

Although not an endangered species, the number of American hunters dropped by about 1.5 million from 1996 to 2006, reports David Cray for The Associated Press. The number of hunters older than 16 fell from 14 million to about 12.5 million, a 10 percent drop, according to new figures from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That decrease means a loss of sorely needed license-fee revenue for wildlife agencies, which depend on the fees for the majority of their budgets, Cray writes.

Fewer Americans were fishing, too, with the numbers down from 35.2 million in 1996 to 30 million in 2006. Experts point toward increased urbanization as the key cultural factor, Cray writes, as public approval of hunting has remained high -- with about 75 percent of Americans supporting the activity. Cray also reports that last month, President George Bush asked that public lands be reviewed by federal agencies in an effort to find more hunting spaces. (Read more)

The new data also show a 13 percent increase in the number of bird watchers, wildlife photographers and other wildlife watchers from 62.8 million in 1996 to 71.1 million in 2006.

Fast download, slow upload key to cheaper satellite broadband?

SkyWay USA promises broadband access anywhere, and thanks to its hybrid system of satellite and dial-up connection, it offers a cheaper way online than pure satellite-based Internet providers, reports Bill Wolfe of The Courier-Journal in Louisville.(George Dick, right, SkyWay USA's CEO, and Mick Whitton, vice president of sales in a C-J photo by Bill Luster.)

The Louisville-based company was founded in rural Jackson, Ky., and now has 300 subscribers to its service that allows users to download Web content using a satellite connection, Wolfe reports. Uploads, however, are handled by a dial-up connection, which means sending a large file such as a video or photo will still take a while. Still, this system offers a cheaper alternative to other satellite-based connections, especially in rural areas where there are few choices for high-speed Internet access. And rural areas are the only places SkyWay USA seeks customers.

Wolfe reports, "SkyWay believes it can compete with HughesNet and WildBlue because its service and equipment cost less, Dick said. WildBlue plans start at $50 per month. HughesNet starts at $60. SkyWay offers plans starting at $30 monthly. In addition, equipment for SkyWay's competitors can cost from $300 to $500, Dick said. After rebates, SkyWay's dish and modem are available for about $100." (Read more)

'Hay man' turns scarecrows into community art in Massachusetts town

Over the last few years, public arts projects have appeared across the country, successfully turning fiberglass bears, bulls, horses and baseballs into sidewalk art and sources of local pride. Rural communities are following suit, in hopes of harnessing local creativity to drive people back to Main Street.

In Pittsfield, Mass., population 45,000, the latest take on the trend is "Hay man" - a collection of 75 hay-filled scarecrow figures created by local residents, reports Tony Dobrowolski of the Berkshire Eagle. (Left: an example of the scarecrow, in photo by Darren Vanden Berge.)

The project will be Pittsfield's third foray into public art, as the town hosted "Sheeptacular!" and "Art of the Game" (baseball bats) the last few years, Dobrowolski writes. "I remember when Sheeptacular! came out, and I was one of the skeptics," said Michael P. Daly, the president and CEO of Berkshire Bank, one of the event's several sponsors. "But it took off. I'm looking forward to seeing the haymen, haywomen, hay things that will be created." (Read more)

Monday, Sept. 10, 2007

Rx for rural job growth: regional cooperation to surmount jealousies

For decades, rural areas recruited factories with low wages, taxes and land costs. In a globalized economy, factories are going where work can be done most cheaply, and workers are going where they can best use their skills and enjoy life. That means a "brain drain" from rural areas. Rural towns once use low crime rates as a recruiting angle, but Drabenstott said that no longer works. He said they must provide a higher quality of life and opportunity for entrepreneurs, who create most new jobs in America.

"Regional cooperation in rural America is rare, however," the Yonder reports. "In most successful regional collaborations, Drabenstott said, there is an organization that brings the community together — a “King Arthur” who creates the regional roundtable. In many cases, the catalyst of regional cooperation is either a non-profit group or a university or community college." Click here to listen to the 50-minute speech.

Town manager in Md. wants all reporters' questions, replies in writing

Nestled between the Port Tobacco River and the Zekiah Swamp near Chesapeake Bay, the town of La Plata, Md., population 7,500 or so, doesn't seem like a likely place for officious policies toward journalists. But new Town Manager Daniel Mears wants all reporters' questions for town officials to be in writing, to be relayed to the mayor and all council members, and to be answered only in writing.

The policy was reported Thursday by the Southern Maryland Extra, a publication of The Washington Post. Reporter Philip Rucker said Mears didn't respond to several e-mails until Rucker sent a list of questions to the city clerk, and declined a telephone interview. But Mayor Gene Ambrogio, reached at home, granted an interview -- and, after first defending the policy and his new manager, said it might not last long.

"When asked what constituents would think of a policy that cushions the town's elected officials from direct questioning from news reporters, Ambrogio distanced himself from the policy," Rucker wrote, quoting Ambrogio as saying he "did not approach the other council members and say, 'I want to implement this policy.' The town manager, he's the one who came out with this idea. . . . Maybe it's not the perfect solution. It's one of those things where you don't know if it's going to work until you try it." (Read more)

But the new policy doesn't appear to be getting much of a test among town officials and the local Maryland Independent, which hasn't reported the policy. "We have continued to call officials and they have continued to return our phone calls," Editor Angela Breck said in an interview with The Rural Blog. "It has not posed a problem for us." For an Independent profile of Mears when he came to town, click here.

Hispanic Iowa editor says Clinton, Edwards won Spanish forum, but she leans toward Obama

"The editor of an influential newspaper in western Iowa's Latino community ... thinks Hillary Clinton and John Edwards had the strongest performances in the Univision debate in Miami," reports the Iowa Independent. But Lorena Lopez of La Prensa, in photo with her son, is leaning toward an endorsement of Barack Obama, whom she interviewed in Spanish recently, after first leaning to Clinton, Doug Burns reports in the Web-only Independent and the newspaper where he works, the Daily Times Herald of Carroll -- where La Prensa is also based.

Lopez "says Clinton appeared to command issues and seemed 'calm' in her approach to the questions on issues of concern to the Latin community," Burns writes for the Independent. "She thinks Edwards may have made some inroads with his debate performance as well. Lopez is writing an article for her paper on the details of these views, and we'll get a translation of some of that when it is published." (Read more)

The free, twice-monthly tabloid, which claims a distribution of 6,800 after 16 months in business, is "one of the more influential venues for discussion and debate in western Iowa's burgeoning Hispanic community," Burns writes in the Times Herald. Assisting Lopez, a former television personality in Nicaragua, is her son, Carlos A. Arguello, 23, a graduate of the local high school and the University of Northern Iowa. (Read more)

In the "Destino 2008" debate from Miami, Edwards "made his health care plan seem cheaper than it would actually be. He assumed it was in effect right now, rather than the soonest it could possibly be implemented, which is 2009 or 2010," reports Annenberg Political Fact Check, or FactCheck.org.

Sunday, Sept. 9, 2007

Giuliani's tough image overcomes social issues among rural voters

Rudy Giuliani, shown campaigning in Iowa (in photo by Jeff Mermelstein for The New York Times) is the leading presidential candidate in the Republican Party. He supports abortion rights, gay rights and gun control, and is on his third marriage, so how is he leading in a party in which the largest voting bloc is social conservatives? As mayor of New York, especially in the post-9/11 spotlight, he gained an image of cracking heads to keep order, and Republicans think he can do that with terrorists and illegal immigrants. That is especially apparent in Giuliani's appeal to rural voters, as two New York journalists have written in long articles recently. First, in a 16-page piece in The New Yorker titled "Mayberry Man," Peter J. Boyer wrote: "It is also possible that the rest of the country knows all it wishes to know about Giuliani. It was Giuliani who was depicted in the Times as imposing 'the mores of Mayberry' on the city." (Read more)

In the Times Magazine today, Matt Bai explores Giuliani's attitude toward terrorism: "More than any other Republican candidate, with the possible exception of John McCain, Giuliani has rooted his campaign in the grand and foreboding notion that America is now engaged in a civilizational struggle." Bai's 8,232-word piece has repeated references to Giuliani reprising the historic roles of Winston Churchill against the Nazis and Ronald Reagan against Soviet communism, and glimpses of his ability to appeal to voters in rural Iowa:

"It’s hard to imagine the slashing mayor of New York getting on famously with the people of Sloan, Iowa, a one-strip farming town of about 1,000 people. (Motto: 'A Good Place to Grow.') But Rudy out of his element turns out to be a surprisingly deft campaigner. Ever the prosecutor, he retains a talent for explaining complex concepts, flipping his round spectacles on and off his face for emphasis and rubbing his forehead as if deep in thought. He has a penchant for talking to voters as if he were their tough-love therapist, frequently invoking words like 'reality' and 'denial.' Vowing to end illegal immigration during one town-hall meeting in Iowa, Giuliani told the crowd, “Every other country does it, and we can do it.” Then he clutched his heart and spoke softly. 'It’s O.K. to do it.' You could almost hear a collective sigh among the Iowans, who didn’t consider themselves bigots just because they wanted to seal the borders, and who now felt validated by America’s mayor. They lined up for autographs."

But what about social conservatism and its lifeblood, religious faith? "At a family restaurant in Le Mars ('the ice-cream capital of the world'), Giuliani was asked about his religious beliefs. 'I believe in God,' he said haltingly. 'I pray and ask him for help. I pray like a lawyer. I try to make a deal: "Get me out of this jam, and I’ll start going back to church."' Then he wandered off into a discourse that somehow ended up with an assessment of Times Square and how good he feels that there are so many 'functioning theaters' there. It’s not an especially convincing routine, but it may be good enough. Conservatives desperately fear another Clinton presidency and may embrace anyone who seems likely to blunt Hillary’s advantage in moderate swing states. (A button I saw in Iowa proclaimed, 'I’m helping Rudy stop Hillary.') And old assumptions of what an evangelical voter actually wants may no longer be operative. There is a sense among the Christian right, says the Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who isn’t working for any of the candidates, that beating back the global onslaught of radical Islam may be a more pressing religious issue than stomping out liberal judges at home."

Paxton Media buys another Ind. paper, getting monopoly in county

Kentucky-based Paxton Media Group is continuing its recent expansion in northern Indiana by purchasing the LaPorte County Herald-Argus from the Small Newspaper Group, an Illinois firm with no other papers in Indiana. (The selling firm's name comes from the family that owns it, not the size of its papers.)

Paxton already owned The News Dispatch of Michigan City, about 10 miles from LaPorte in northwestern Indiana's LaPorte County, population 104,000. The city of La Porte's population is 22,000, Michigan City's 33,000, but the La Porte paper has a larger circulation -- 12,488, to the Michigan City paper's 10,702. LaPorte is centrally located in the county, while Michigan City is on the shore of Lake Michigan.

Terms of the sale, which is expected to be effective Oct. 1, were not disclosed. It will be Paxton's third purchase of an Indiana newspaper in five months, giving it 11 papers in the state and 32 overall, with 370,000 circulation. It bought The Herald-Press of Huntington in April and the Chronicle-Tribune of Marion in July. Paxton owns seven dailies in North Carolina, four in Arkansas, three each in Georgia and Kentucky (including The Paducah Sun, where the family-owned chain started), and one each in Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi and Tennessee. Its Michigan newspaper is in St. Joseph, 40 miles up the lakeshore from Michigan City.

Paxton President and CEO David Paxton said the firm would combine "the strengths of the Herald-Argus with other Paxton newspapers in the area" to improve service. Officials of the Small group said "the sale was desirable to help the group make the transition in a multimedia age," The Herald-Argus reported. (Read more)

Saturday, Sept. 8, 2007

Bill Moyers updates his story on mountaintop removal and evangelicals

Last fall, Bill Moyers reported on PBS about evangelical Christians who were implementing their faith to fight the mountaintop-removal strip mining of coal. "Bill Moyers' Journal" updated the report last night, letting viewers know we are in a 60-day comment period on a regulation proposed by the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, aimed at eliminating legal barriers to the controversial practice.

Both reports focused on West Virginia and quoted Judy Bonds of Coal River Mountain Watch: "I wonder which one of these mountains do you think God will come down here and blow up? Which one of these hollers do you think Jesus would store waste in?" Moyers reported, "Bonds was a raised a Christian, then strayed from the church. This fight, she says, has brought her back to God. . . . Allen Johnson is part of the same campaign. He co-founded an advocacy group Christians for the Mountains." (Photo of Johnson from the Journal)

Johnson said, "Some people say that churches are in the pockets of the coal company. And maybe they want to build a picnic shelter, so the coal company helped -- give a nice donation. I think there are some pointed questions we can ask these churches. And we can ask them, now 'Are you gonna say nothing because you're getting some money?' Or, are you gonna say, 'We don't wanna say anything because somebody in our church is getting their job is connected with the polluters?' And so, you don't . . . say anything. What does that say? Now, justify that scripturally." For a transcript of the report, click here. To watch it, click here.

The Office of Surface Mining, part of the Interior Department, has posted a detailed "fact sheet" responding to news reports and environmentalists' criticism of the agency and its proposed rule. To read it, click here. The agency's news release and "How to Comment" section does not list the deadline for filing comments, but the federal Web site www.regulations.gov lists the deadline as Oct. 23.

Tallahassee Democrat, Roanoke Times honored for environmental reports

The Society of Environmental Journalists announced the winners of its Awards for Reporting on the Environment this week, and two extensive series on rural environmental problems won in the Small Market category.

The Tallahassee Democrat's team of Bruce Ritchie, Glenn Beil, Jennifer Portman and John Roberge won first place for their series "Saving Our Springs." The three-part series details the problems of the area's Wakulla Springs (above in photo by Beil), where clear blue waters had been "dulled by a tangle of supercharged aquarium weed and algae, tamed only by an annual dose of weed killer that allows about 150,000 people a year to enjoy the park's popular river boats and swimming hole." The judges said,"The goal of top quality environmental journalism is to present a clear, balanced case to educate the community and inspire action to correct a harmful problem. The Democrat pulled out all the quality journalistic stops and its community won."

For The Roanoke Times, Tim Thornton took second place for his series "Moving the Mountains: An Exploration of Mountaintop Removal Mining." The series offers a comprehensive look at the debate surrounding mountaintop removal, and its online version includes photo galleries, graphics and video that tell the story from a variety of angles. Thornton offers descriptive portrayals of life before and after mountaintop removal, and he explores the various ways former mining sites have been reclaimed. He displays solid research and reporting, especially in his work with the residents of the affected communities.

"This is what environmental reporting is all about," the SEJ judges write. "Mr. Thornton takes a complex topic of importance to the region, clearly explains it with balance and enhances the package with graphics and the testimony of experts and ordinary residents of the affected area." For a complete list of the winners, go here.

Iowa Republican optimistic Senate will vote to cap subsidy payments

As the Senate tackles the Farm Bill, Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, want its version to include "a firm cap on commodity program payments of $250,000," Dan Look of Successful Farming magazine reports on Agriculture.com. Looker reports that Grassley is optimistic he will have the votes to have the limits included in the bill.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Grassley said getting limits in the final House-Senate conference version should be helped by the Democratic takeover of the House, writes Tom Steever of Brownfieldnetwork.com. "I believe that the philosophical approach of (House Agriculture Committee) Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) is much different than it was for the Republican chairman," Grassley said. (Read more)

Grassley and Dorgan say their payment limits, which would be much lower apply more broadly than current limits, would help younger farmers. Philip Brasher of The Des Moines Register quotes a letter they sent the Senate Agriculture Committee: "The current payment limits promote farm consolidation, artificially increase land prices, and create barriers for a new generation of farmers eager to enter the industry." (Read more)

In an op-ed piece in the Fargo Forum, Dorgan writes that "a new farm bill must end the practice of providing giant payments to giant corporate farms that have nothing to do with family farming." He continues, "The purpose of a farm bill is to help family farmers through tough times. It was never meant to be a set of golden arches for big corporations that want to farm the farm program."

David Mercer of The Associated Press reports that Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns wants the limit lowered from the House bill's figure of $1 million. Current law sets a limit of $2.5 million. (Read more)

Friday, Sept. 7, 2007

Israeli-Australian virus is chief suspect in collapse of U.S. bee colonies

"Scientists have found a virus associated with the destruction of a large fraction of American commercial bee colonies, but they have not been able to prove that it is the cause of the mysterious disease that has wreaked havoc on the bee industry," reports Thomas H. Maugh II of the Los Angeles Times.

"The virus, Israeli acute paralysis, may have been introduced by bees from Australia whose importation was first permitted in 2004, about the same time that the disease, Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, began appearing in the United States," Maugh reports. "Australian bees do not suffer from the disorder, leading researchers to speculate that the virus interacts with chemicals in the environment or with another infectious agent, such as the varroa mite, which is not common in Australia." Investigation is continuing.

Maugh offers useful background: "Although the United States has experienced other bee die-offs, the latest episode has been one of the worst, affecting about 23 percent of beekeepers. Typically, 50 to 90 percent of a keeper's colonies are affected as worker bees fail to return to their hives, leaving the queen with a handful of newborns. Agricultural experts view the deaths with alarm because bees are required to pollinate about a third of the nation's food crops, including almonds, cherries, pears, blueberries, strawberries and pumpkins."

"We don't have a great deal of buffer" for dealing with bee losses, because the U.S. has 2.5 million bee colonies, half as many as in the 1940s and '50s, entomologist Diana Cox-Foster of Penn State told Maugh. Another researcher reported that about 30 percent of bees he studied in Israel incorporated the virus into their genes and had become resistant to it. "If the virus is shown to be the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, it may be possible to replace current bee colonies with hives of resistant specimens," Maugh writes. (Read more)

Thursday, Sept. 6, 2007

Confederacy museum, struggling to find new site, plans to split into 3

Struggling from "image and financial problems," the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., is making another attempt to preserve its collection with a plan to create exhibits at three battlefield sites in Virginia, reports Neely Tucker of The Washington Post. (Photo of "The White House of the Confederacy" by Steve Helber, Associated Press.)

The $15 million plan would divide the collection of the 117-year-old museum among rural sites at Chancellorsville, Appomattox and a third battlefield to be determined, Tucker writes. The battlefield exhibits would open by 2011, while the current museum would close, officials told Tucker. The "White House of the Confederacy," the home and headquarters of CSA President Jefferson Davis during the Civil War, would stay open. Funding for the project, however, has not been secured.

"Our mission is to use our artifact collection to educate the public, and you have to get people to see the stuff in order to do that," S. Waite Rawls III, the museum's executive director, told Tucker.

Earlier this year, the museum sought to move its entire collection to a new location, and looked at 10 sites, all of which remained confidential except Lexington, Va., where the city council approved the idea 4-2 after hearing opposition from African Americans. The Rockbridge Weekly writes that "opponents of the Museum of the Confederacy locating in Lexington must be breathing a sigh of relief this week." That article goes on to say that "substantial opposition developed" as Lexington sought to lure the museum to its old courthouse.

The museum's current site, next to the "White House of the Confederacy," has been surrounded by a new medical complex, and it is large enough to display only 10 percent of the museum's total collection of about 14,000 artifacts, The Roanoke Times reports. With the change in the neighborhood and the completion of the more politically correct American Civil War Center, attendance has dropped from a peak of 91,000 annually to 44,000 last year, the Associated Press reports. An audit also revealed the museum's endowment had been drained to cover operating costs, The Washington Post reports.

Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2007

In need of workers, American farmers move operations to Mexico

Since American farmers now risk serious legal troubles if they are caught with undocumented workers, some are taking their crops to a place where they know the workers are legal -- Mexico. (Photo of American-run broccoli farm in central Mexico by Janet Jarman for The New York Times.)

In an article from The New York Times, Julia Preston reports from Celaya, Mexico, and describes American farmers who have taken their operations here. She points to signs that it might be a growing trend. She reports that the Western Growers, an association representing farmers in California and Arizona, surveyed members over the phone and found that 12 large agribusinesses "acknowledged having operations in Mexico reported a total of 11,000 workers here."

“It seems there is a bigger rush to Mexico and elsewhere,” Tom Nassif, the Western Growers president, told Preston, adding that that Central American countries also are drawing American farms. Although there are no official stats on American farms in Mexico, Preston reports that U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has "displayed a map on the Senate floor in July locating more than 46,000 acres that American growers were cultivating in just two Mexican states, Guanajuato and Baja California." There, American growers have a steady and cheap workforce, which they pay about $11 per day, instead of $9 an hour back in California.

Of the 2.5 million farm workers in the United States, an estimated 53 percent are illegal immigrants, according to the Department of Labor. Preston reports that growers and labor unions say "as much as 70 percent of younger field hands are illegal." With illegal immigration targeted by authorities, farmers must find a way to maintain their workforce, here or abroad. “I’m as American red-blood as it gets,” Steve Scaroni, one of those American growers, told Preston, “but I’m tired of fighting the fight on the immigration issue.” (Read more)

Hugoton, Kan., welcomes 1st commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant

Late last month, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and other state officials, along with representatives of the transnational energy corporation Abengoa descended upon the small town of Hugoton. They had big news to announce for the town of less than 4,000: It would get the nation's first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant.

According to a story in The Garden City Telegram, the facility, which will use plant fiber or other biomass to produce renewable fuel, will cover about 400 acres west of Hugoton and should be completed by late 2010. Once operational, the biomass biorefinery could produce as much as 13 million gallons of ethanol annually "using 930 tons per day of cellulosic crop residue from plants, including switch grass, cornstalks, milo and wheat straw," The Telegram writes. The plant also will produce about 88 million gallons of ethanol annually from grain. The Telegram reports that the part of the funding for the plant will come from a $77 million Department of Energy grant to Abengoa as a result of President Bush's energy initiative.

The Telegram also explains that Hugoton was not at the top of Abengoa's list originally, but one of the town's residents, Walter Beesley, made contact with the company when he heard about the grant. Beesley, a local farmer, made a visit to another of the company's plants and helped spark interest in Hugoton as a natural site for the plant's 125 jobs and $5.5 million payroll. (Read more)

'Music of Coal' chronicles the history of Appalachian mining in song

With 48 songs on two CDs and a 76-page hardcover book, the "Music of Coal" offers a comprehensive look at "labor struggles, union organizing, unemployment, economic depression, environmental impacts, mining lifestyles and the heritage of mining," reports The Coalfield Progress in Norton, Va.

Hannah Morgan writes that the compilation came from three years of work across the region that began in 2005 when Paul Kuczko, executive director of the Lonesome Pine Office on Youth, had students collect information about local coal camps for a book to celebrate the 150th birthday of Virginia's Wise County.

Morgan reports the process identified the desire for such a CD. A group of about 20 people from the nearby regional arts center Appalshop, the Ralph Stanley Museum, the Heart of Appalachia Tourism Authority and other agencies "joined with county officials, historians and various colleges and foundations to form a committee to turn the idea into a reality," she writes.

Along the way, the group found the songs were born from sorrow. "We were all about ready to commit suicide because they were so depressing," Kuczko told Morgan. To balance the blues, she writes, the group added some upbeat tunes as well as some work from current local artists. The "Music of Coal" is available at $35 each, and Kuczko said he profits from the project will go toward helping local youth record their own music, Morgan writes. (Read more)

In another piece, Morgan continues to explore the music of Appalachia, this time as she finally learns to play a mandolin that had been sitting in her home for a year. (Read more)

Cheryl Truman of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader wrote a review of the collection called "Mountain songs in a miner key," which includes audio clips of a few of the songs.

Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2007

A source of change in perhaps an unlikely place, Highlander turns 75

Starting in 1932, the Highlander Folk School (now the Highlander Research and Education Center) brought leaders to the mountains of Tennessee to learn and share methods for improving social justice in America. On its 75th anniversary, author Jeff Biggers highlights the role the school played in the civil rights movement. (At left: Photo of Martin Luther King, Pete Seeger, Charis Horton, Rosa Parks and Ralph Abernathy at Highlander's 25th anniversary in Monteagle, Tenn.)

In an essay at NewAmerica Media.com, Biggers calls the school "an extraordinary American institution that recognized the ability of mountaineers and Southerners to determine their own fate in volatile times." It overcame many obstacles, including trumped-up charges that forced it to close. It relocated from Monteagle, Tenn., and reopened on Bays Mountain east of Knoxville, as founder Myles Horton said, "You can't padlock an idea."

He writes of the impact the school had on many prominent figures in the movement, including Rosa Parks, who attended a workshop at the school in 1955 just months before refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. Biggers quotes from a Studs Terkel interview in which Parks recalled how the Highlander experience was a first for her: "We all were treated equally and without any tension or feeling of embarrassment or whatever goes with the artificial boundaries of racial segregation."

Biggers describes his essay as an attempt to excavate the Highlander School's legacy "from the rubble of our increasingly sanitized history lessons," and it offers a clear but succinct discussion of what the school, its leaders and participants meant to the movements for civil rights and social justice in the United States.

Hungry bears prompt warnings for hunters, hikers from W.Va. officials

UPDATE: A rabid bear was shot near Grantsville, Md., in the far western part of the state, on Aug. 29, Joe Holley reports for The Washington Post. (Read more)

After late-spring frosts reduced a staple of bears' summer diets, the bruins have gone looking for food in backyards and other populated spots in West Virginia, reports Tara Tuckwiller of The Charleston Gazette. With bear-hunting season beginning soon in West Virginia, and campers and hikers hitting the trails, too, the state's Division of Natural Resources is warning people to take caution to avoid bears.

Bear-alert signs greet visitors and trash cans have been moved to cages in the Monongahela National Forest, where more bears have been reported than usual, Tuckwiller writes.

“The bottom line is that people enter the natural habitat of black bears when they go into the woods in West Virginia,” Dick Hall, supervisor of game management for the DNR’s wildlife resources section, told Tuckwiller. “We can focus on removing problem bears from campgrounds if necessary, but people need to recognize how to keep themselves safe as they enjoy the wild lands of the state." (Read more)

Some tips from the DNR include keeping food in an airtight container and never storing any food in a tent, carrying special bear pepper spray (the human type is not effective on bears), slowly backing away if a bear approaches, or shouting and waving a shirt or other object to look bigger if the bear continues to draw near. For more tips, go to the DNR's Web site or to www.bebearaware.org. For information about Tennessee's black bear hunting season, go here. For Virginia's, click here. Kentucky has no bear season.

Joel Wilson retires after 50 years of service to the Glasgow Daily Times

In his time at the Glasgow (Ky.) Daily Times, Joel Wilson, right, served as editor for more than 40 years and spent the last four as editor emeritus, and throughout it all all, "He practiced community journalism long before the term was in fashion," writes Ronnie Ellis of the Kentucky statehouse bureau of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.

Such longevity and loyalty are rare these days, and Wilson deserves recognition and the gratitude of his community, Ellis writes.

Ellis, who worked for Wilson at the Daily Times before staffing CNHI's Frankfort bureau, writes that, "neither the paper nor the community will ever seem quite the same" now that Wilson has retired. To read the entire column, go here.

Monday, Sept. 3, 2007

Biotechnology in N.C. an example of why U.S. manufacturing is strong

"As lawmakers pursue legislation aimed at softening the blow from factory closures, and as the downside of trade emerges as a talking point in the 2008 presidential campaign, it might seem that manufacturing is a dying part of the U.S. economy," writes Peter Goodman of The Washington Post. "But ... the United States makes more manufactured goods today than at any time in history, as measured by the dollar value of production adjusted for inflation -- three times as much as in the mid-1950s, the supposed heyday of American industry."

Goodman says "North Carolina encapsulates the forces remaking American manufacturing," because it is replacing traditional factory jobs with high-tech work in such fields as biotechnology. In the last few years, North Carolina has suffered the shriveling of two traditional industries, textiles and furniture. But big changes in the state's other traditional industry, tobacco, are helping the state become a leader in biotechnology.

When the national settlement with cigarette manufacturers signaled big changes in tobacco, leading to the end of federal quotas and price supports, North Carolina set aside half its settlement money for the long-term economic advancement of the No. 1 tobacco state. The largest area of investment has been in biotechnology, primarily in programs at North Carolina State University, North Carolina Central University and community colleges. Here is the annual report of the Golden LEAF Foundation, which makes the grants. (Here is our comparison of settlement spending in North Carolina and Kentucky, which had the most tobacco farmers, earmarked half its settlement for agriculture and has given most of it to improve its cattle industry.)

Goodman writes about the "second industrial revolution" of North Carolina's biotechnology program, which "seeks students from declining areas of manufacturing," and some of its graduates, such as former Yadkinville textile worker Regina Whitaker, in photo by Goodman. She's a lab technician at Targacept, "a biotech start-up in Winston-Salem that was spun off from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. Where the tobacco giant had researched the use of nicotine to make people crave cigarettes, Targacept is focusing on the nicotine receptors in the brain to develop drugs for Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia. Whitaker said her salary is 'significantly more' than the $13.40 an hour she made at the yarn factory." She told Goodman, "I'm not struggling now. Before, it was paycheck to paycheck." (Read more)

Ind. students do local radio reporting in community journalism class

Mike Conway, an assistant professor of journalism at Indiana University, led a community journalism class this spring that was charged with developing five to eight minute radio broadcasts about long-term issues in the Bloomington community by the end of the semester.

"There are not a lot of classes that teach radio news," Conway said. "Sadly, there are not a lot of jobs. We want to build it back in because NPR and some outfits are building it back in." In photo: Senior Erica Ballard (left) and junior Elle Lissitzyn.

Thanks to a grant from Indiana Campus Compact, the students were able to use the studios of local nonprofit station WFHB in the process. The final project turned out so well that the station signed on to broadcast the student work this summer. Th students examined the issues facing Bloomington’s homeless and hungry and informed listeners about what area food banks and soup kitchens are doing to keep up with the increasing demand for meals; the Monroe County Jail’s overcrowding and rehabilitation problems and efforts to decrease recidivism; the university ’s outsourcing and its effect on Bloomington’s workforce. And the last segment will look at why some in the community live without health insurance and discuss the funding problems facing our developmental disabled. (Read more) Broadcasts are archived on the WFHB Web site.

Sunday, Sept. 2, 2007

Kansas papers ask if farm subsidies have led to rural economic decline

Have federal farm subsidies hastened the consolidation of farms, and thus the decline of population and small towns, in rural Kansas? Some experts there think so, Harris News Service reports in the first installment of a six-part series examining the effects of agricultural subsidies on rural Kansas. The service is part of Harris Newspapers, seven papers in Kansas and The Hawk Eye in Burlington, Iowa.

"Subsidies are at the heart of the debate as Congress works to write a new farm bill this fall. Among the provisions sought by President Bush and many lawmakers are limits on federal commodity subsidies paid -- especially to the biggest farms," Mike Corn writes. "The massive scale of federal farm payments further perpetuates an ever-increasing growth in the size of farms," in the view of Jon Bailey of the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb.

Bailey said subsidies allow large farmers to raise rents, bid up land prices and expand. Corn writs, "Subsidies encourage farms to grow because farmers can obtain additional payments by further increasing their acreage, he said. When the size of farms grows larger, there are fewer farms for individuals to work on, leaving fewer opportunities in farming, he said. As a result, there are fewer business opportunities directly linked to farming. Bailey told Corn, "People who don't have the resources then are sort of left out of the equation."

Bailey also also said there is evidence that larger farms "they take their business to larger, regional hubs instead of locally owned shops," Corn writes. Mary Fund, communications director at the Kansas Rural Center, told him there is evidence in the harm of subsidies in a 2005 study done by economist Mark Drabenstott for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. "In many of the counties whose farmers receive the most in subsidy payments growth in employment and new businesses is the weakest. Cornelia Butler Flora, an Iowa State University professor of agriculture and sociology, concurs. She said it is essential that the biggest subsidies be capped because they are contributing to the decline of rural of communities." (Read more)

Harris has posted columns on the farm bill here. For the chain's special-projects page, click here.

Roanoke scribe who covered the coalfield and the tip of Virginia retires

Paul Dellinger, at left with photographer and fellow Roanoke Times retiree Gene Dalton, retired Friday after 44 years as one of the hardest and longest working reporters in Appalachia. His career illustrates changes in the region and newspapers over four decades.

Dellinger (pronounced with a hard "g") hired on at the Times' Southwest bureau in 1963. He was 25. "For the next four decades, Dellinger covered Southwest Virginia like a blanket -- in the beginning with reporter Hazel Brown (now deceased), and in later decades alone. One of his rare criticisms of his longtime employer is that it cut back coverage of the far southwest in the 1990s. "The Roanoke Times got all sorts of accolades for its coverage" of coal in the late 1980s, he said. "The next year, they stopped covering anything out there." But Dellinger still lives in Wytheville, site of the now-closed bureau.

When Dellinger was nearing 62, the age at which he could begin collecting limited Social Security benefits, his wife, a former reporter, asked him what he might do after newspapers. "He said, 'What I'm doing,' " she told Times writer Kevin Kittredge, who summed it up this way: "Translation: There was no 'after newspapers.'

"Seven years later, changes in the newspaper world, and recent inducements offered to older workers to retire, have convinced him otherwise. All newspapers face a murky future these days, as they try to balance the print edition with the Internet, and The Roanoke Times is no exception. Ask Dellinger what he thinks about such changes, and his answer is succinct: "I think it's time to retire." And what does a man who has written news stories for 44 years do when he retires? He keeps on writing, of course." Dellinger writes science fiction, and has written radio scripts and a play. (Read more) For a video showing Dellinger at work, and reflecting on his career, click here. For his farewell piece, click here.

Mills long gone, N.H. town banks on prison, ATV park for revival

In northern New Hampshire, the town of Berlin once relied on paper mills, now long gone. "Plagued by high unemployment, vacant buildings and a recent string of fires, Berlin (pronounced BUR-lin) is trying to reinvent itself, betting that a new 1,280-bed federal prison and New England’s first all-terrain vehicle park will be the economic shot in the arm it desperately needs," Katie Zezima wites in The New York Times today.

State and federal prisons (Berlin's will be the latter) have become an important element in the rural economy, and ATV tourism is becoming more and more popular in mountainous areas. "But there is concern about the direction the city is taking. Berlin already has a state prison, and there is opposition to the federal prison," Zezima writes. "A more controversial but much smaller project is a proposal to build a 50-megawatt power plant that would run on wood chips on a mill site in downtown Berlin."

The ATV park will cover 7,500 acres and "is expected to hold about 136 miles of trail and numerous campgrounds when it is completed in the next five years. About 20 miles are open now," Zezima writes. The state bought the land from a timber company for $2.1 million and projects the park's annual revenue will be almost $700,000. “For the first time in years there’s hope,” said Mark Belanger, manager of the Berlin office of the New Hampshire Department of Employment, told the Times. (Read more)

Information and inspiration: Good Works at RuralJournalism.org

There's a lot of good journalism being done in rural America, and it's preserved onral newspapers and broadcast stations, and that they sometimes need a little help or encouragement to go beyond the usual. We hope The Rural Blog and Good Works do that. If you have suggestions, please let us know. We add to this page as we find other outstanding examples of good rural journalism, and we hope you can help us by letting us know about work that should be shared. Just send an e-mail to Al.Cross@uky.edu. a page of this site. Called Good Works, it has what we consider to be the best work by rural journalists -- work that won awards, might win, or should have won. To go to the page, click here or on the link above. These stories provide both information -- ideas, sources, approaches -- and inspiration to journalists in rural America.

Rural Calendar An eclectic compilation of events of interest to rural journalists and others interested in rural issues.

Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues
School of Journalism and Telecommunications, College of Communications & Information Studies
122 Grehan Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042
Phone 859-257-3744 - Fax 859-323-3168

Al Cross, director al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: 11/30/2007