Tuesday, September 23, 2014

09/23/2014 at 3:58am

Photo by Dan Koeck for The New York Times An oil train cuts through Fargo, North Dakota.

Railroad criticism is a long-standing refrain among farmers. We’ve heard it as long as we can remember: At harvest time, there’s a shortage of railcars to carry grain to distant markets or storage terminals.

This year the pinch is particularly acute in North Dakota.

The federal Surface Transportation Board held a hearing in Fargo earlier this month. The arguments were familiar but had some new twists.

Some local grain elevators have faced railcar shortages since last fall. The result is that they are full at the time when farmers want to clear out their own grain bins to prepare for this year’s coming bumper crop. But like with the Christmas story, there is no room in the inn—well, the elevator.

Lance Peterson, a director of the American Soybean Association, told the Surface Transportation Board, that “inadequate rail service through delays and increased freight costs is not just a business challenge but creates massive losses which are passed directly on to the agricultural producer, the farmer.”

Minnesota farmers’ losses between March and May of 2014 amounted to $100 million, Peterson said, citing a University of Minnesota study. Similar losses for North Dakota farmers have been documented by the North Dakota State University, he said.

The rail industry said that the delays were due in part to colder-than-usual weather and that the problem would be corrected before the 2014 harvest, Peterson said. “Actually the rail industry indicated that it should be taken care of by June,” he said. “We are now part way into the wheat harvest and there is still a lot of crop from last year that has not been moved. I have heard numerous reports of grain bin companies that are literally so busy that they cannot take on any more business for this year. Farmers are in a difficult position of having to add storage because last year’s crop is still in the bin and they want to avoid piling grain on the ground during this year’s harvest.”

09/22/2014 at 7:02am

Photo by Timothy Collins The Prairie Land Conservancy, one of Macomb's environmental organizations, preserves nearly 200 acres of prairie and woodland on the bluffs of the Mississippi River.

My small city of Macomb in western Illinois is unlikely to attract national attention for trendy sustainable development. Other communities may grab the spotlight with more panache and high-profile projects.

No problem.

Out here, in the heart of the rural Midwest, our community is on a journey. We are making our own way toward sustainability.

The work here is quiet, sometimes amorphous. You might not notice if you weren’t looking. But thankfully, I stepped back recently to reflect on what’s been happening. As a result, I’ve just had one of those, “duh-how-did-I-miss-that moments.” We’ve got a lot going on.

Leaders from different parts of the community, including my work community of Western Illinois University, network and draw on volunteers from the town and university. The projects are independent, but they share a common goal of improving our small city, perhaps even moving us toward sustainability.

It is difficult to count how many people are engaged in environmental activities here, but my conservative guess puts it at more than 100. Not bad for a community of 20,000 or so.

What I’ve seen in Macomb is a widespread sense among people that there are things to be done, so let’s do something. These are highly qualified, self-motivated friends and community members who have a common goal of improving our community. They don’t usually need the technical assistance a community-development expert can provide. The skills are there. So is the motivation. Leadership is independent, self-starting and shared, depending on the area of interest.

09/19/2014 at 6:38am

Even though storytelling is as old as the hills, like almost everything these days, it is currently undergoing a digital evolution.

Author Jim Lynch of TechSoup.

Stories have long been an important way for people to define their relationships to others, shape their identity, and understand their place in their community. Stories are also an effective way for organizations, charities, and nonprofits to demonstrate to people how they strengthen communities by supporting the needs of local residents.

When a story is shared online, its power grows as the number of people who hear and engage with the story increases—as if the virality of gossip was used for good. For digital stories to really spread, they need to be more than well-told tales; they need to be crafted to appeal to online audiences.

Digital storytelling is using visuals, audio, and other media to make the story really compelling for online audiences. Stories told visually speak directly to emotions much more than text alone does, and can transform complicated topics into something that’s easier to understand and appreciate. For these and other reasons, video is expected to be the dominant form of online content by 2017.

How Can Rural Communities Use Digital Storytelling?

Communities are built and sustained though personal connections, shared experiences, mutual benefit, trust, and more. Digital storytelling can create stronger community ties and decrease feelings of isolation in rural areas by giving neighbors a way get their story heard by more people, and by a greater diversity of people, than would be possible if the story was only told face-to-face.

09/18/2014 at 1:00pm

Photo by the Associated Press Two underground miners in Buchanan County, Virginia. Black Lung disease has made a huge comeback in Central Appalachia since it's low point in 1998.

A new study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health finds cases on severe Black Lung disease are at a 40-year high in Central Appalachia. 3.2% of miners had a severe case of the disease, up from 0.4% in 1998, the lowest rate in four decades.

"We had a general sense that especially in Central Appalachia we were seeing a comeback, but all of us were very surprised by these latest numbers," said David Blackley, a Niosh researcher who published the data.

“Better” coal mining machines are taking the blame here, due to their ability to grind coal into a finer dust than older machines.

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The purchase of U.S. pork producer Smithfield Food by Chinese company Shuanghui could set the table for many more such purchases in the future, reports PBS Newshour.

“I can tell you firsthand that this has paved the way for other deals,” said a lawyer for Shuanghui, which purchased Smithfield for $5 billion, well above the company’s market value. “We are now looking at a few other very large transactions for Chinese clients looking at other iconic brands in the United States.”

Newshour reports that the government of China played a critical role in helping facilitate Smithfield’s purchase. “In effect, the Chinese government does exercise management control,” reports Newshour.

China’s five-year plan enacted in 2011 instructed Chinese companies to buy more overseas meat producers. And the Chinese bank financed the purchase of Smithfield.

That raises big questions about food security, says U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan).

“Food security is national security,” she said. “And I can’t imagine that the American people will feel comfortable if they wake up someday and find that half of our food processors are owned by China.  And I think there are some very, very tough questions that need to be answered.”

09/18/2014 at 6:52am

Photo by Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images Supporters of Scottish independence rally in Glasgow, Scotland.

What about Scotland? Will it vote to remain a part of the United Kingdom or go its own way? And, could this be a future for tribal nations?

Thursday’s vote — a simple “yes” or “no” — is the ultimate question and answer in democratic form. Should we be our own country?

Should we? Rarely do citizens get to vote “yes” or “no.” Most of human history is about the war that follows such outrageous demands. We spend lives trying to answer that a question, fought by those who are willing to die (and kill) to prove their authority.

That’s what’s remarkable about Scotland. This independence movement and the alternative (which is yet to be defined) are based on individual sovereignty expressed on a ballot.  The draft constitution says elegantly: “In Scotland, the people are sovereign.”

I was in Aberdeen in 2009 for a conference on sovereignty and saw this movement first-hand. I talked to people who were enthusiastic about Scottish Gaelic being taught alongside English. There already was a sense of national purpose, rethinking what a country could and should be in the 21st century.

Photo: Andy Rain/European Pressphoto Agency The vote on the Scottish referendum for independence is, obviously, front page news in Scotland.

The notion of “devolution,” or returning power to Scotland, has been unfolding since a new prime minister, Tony Blair, fulfilled his election promise. The Scottish Act of 1998 provided the legislative structure. Blair told BBC that devolution would “show the whole of the United Kingdom that there is a better way that Britain can be governed, that we can bring power closer to the people, closer to the people's priorities and that we can give Scotland the ability to be a proud nation within the United Kingdom.”

A lot of folks hoped that would be that. Scotland would have “enough” power. Or to use that clunky phrase from American Indian law, be a “quasi sovereign.”

Not quite sovereign. And not quite free.

09/17/2014 at 7:24am

Photo courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are developing a model of the microbial environment inside the human gut. The model will be composed of three-dimensional human intestinal cells cultured with specific gut bacteria.

Americans are getting bigger. There's no doubt about it. At 5 feet 8 inches and 150 pounds, I was one of the biggest kids in my freshman class. It was that fact, rather than my doubtful athletic ability, that earned me one of about 40 spots on our High School football squad. 

That's because the coach wanted to impress opposing teams with our size. 

But today I have grown.  At a couple inches under 6 feet and 195, I am dwarfed by as much as four inches and 40 pounds. My grandsons are bigger and stronger now than I have ever been.

Is that because they have “bigger” genes or have human diets changed that much over the years?

Volumes have been written about modern diets, rich in sugar and salt, by writers like Mark Bittman, who recently wrote a New York Times column titled "The Drinkers Manifesto".

Bittman has devoted much of his writing to pointing out nutritional deficiencies, especially the presence of high fructose corn syrup and other applications of corn in modern fast food diets. In his drinker’s manifesto he qualifies perceived overindulgence in distilled spirits, pointing out that national health costs from obesity are nearly 25% greater than those of alcoholism.

(For the record, corn-hater Mark left out that a lot of the alcohol humans consume starts out as corn.)

What's missing from the food debate are new revelations regarding the human biome and ways bacteria interact with our bodies to make us healthier … or not.

The probiotic movement has been around for years. That's why some people eat types of yogurt that are believed to help digestion and sustain favorable fauna in the gut. Research supports that.

Bacteria can harm or hurt. That's also why we have antibiotics, to help eliminate infectious bugs that attack our bodies. But now researchers say we need the right bugs, not only for good digestion, but to keep us healthy by advising our bodies on how to behave. They've gone so far as to say that good bacteria communicate with human brains and the bodies they inhabit, to call for antibodies--or call them off as with autoimmune disorders--or even help ward off cancer.

And there is proof that some conditions, like autism and its side effects, can be improved simply by changing or adding bacteria located inside the bodies of autistic people.

So what does that have to do with what we eat?

09/16/2014 at 7:25am

Photo by Tom Kelly The Mitchell Corn Palace sports a new look every year, always hand-crafted with ears of South Dakota corn. This year the corn palace began a year-long remodeling project to modernize its appearance and amenities.

It’s hard to talk about Mitchell, South Dakota, without getting just a little, well, corny. This city of more than 15,200 residents in the state’s south central I-90 corridor boasts a long tradition of using its ears to lure travelers off the highway. Since 1892, Mitchell has been home to the “World’s Only” Mitchell Corn Palace, a large auditorium and cultural center decorated each year with a-maize-ing new corn-based art.

If these puns seem a little tired, Mitchell’s economic outlook should wake you up. While some might only know Mitchell as a tourist trap on the way to Mt. Rushmore, or as the boyhood home of former Senator and unsuccessful presidential candidate George McGovern, this city has quietly reinvented itself as an economic center for technology, marketing and manufacturing. The nation’s leading supplier of rural telecommunication services developed itself right here, and billboards for miles around tout new high-paying jobs in Mitchell.

My family and I passed through Mitchell on our way west this summer. My wife and I were impressed with the city’s growth since we had been there 10 years earlier. The changes include new housing starts and a large technology center. The downtown was busy, traffic brisk and people were pedaling, walking and enjoying the summer sunshine. Then there were the radio ads: ultra-high speed Internet to every home and business for a fraction of what it costs us for satellite Internet back in our rural northern Minnesota home. This little town in the corn had suddenly become a poster child for what many rural places across the country want to be.

So how did this happen? And what can rural cities all over American learn from Mitchell, South Dakota?

Bryan Hisel, executive director of the Mitchell Area Development Corporation, said Mitchell’s success has been a combination of existing local talent and a collective focus on improving quality of life and infrastructure in Mitchell.