Saturday, August 2, 2014

08/01/2014 at 9:25am

USDA photo by Bob Nichols Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announces the creation of the new U.S. Rural Infrastructure Opportunity Fund.

 Last week, the White House Rural Council hosted a two-day “Rural Opportunity Investment (ROI)” conference to promote potential investment opportunities that exist throughout rural America. The conference brought together leaders from the business community and financial institutions, senior government officials, rural economic development experts and others to begin the process of developing partnerships that will create jobs, grow small businesses, and invest in critical rural infrastructure.

Speakers to the event included Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Secretary of Treasury Jacob Lew, Ken Wilson, vice chairman of BlackRock, and Kentucky Gov. Steve Besher.

In conjunction with this event, the White House Rural Council announced a $10 billion dollar investment fund to promote rural economic development. The fund is meant to speed up rural infrastructure improvements and access to capital. The USDA hopes more investors will add to the initial $10 billion in available capital.

“The ROI conference and the new investment fund are part of the Obama Administration's ongoing efforts to promote investment in rural America, strengthen the nation’s infrastructure, and grow the U.S. economy," a White House press release stated. "Since the creation of the White House Rural Council in 2011, the president has made historic investments in rural America designed to drive job growth, invest in rural education, provide emergency services, and address health disparities.”

- Whitney Kimball Coe

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Coal company Alpha Natural Resources plans to lay off 1,100 West Virginia coal workers in the next two months, according to a story by Ken Ward Jr. at the Charleston Gazette. The layoffs will occur at 11 surface mines and other facilities around West Virginia.

In another piece published on the same day, Ward says public and coal industry leaders are guilty of wishful thinking in asserting that the state's coal industry would bounce back if the Obama administration just got out of the way.

“The best coal has been mined out. It’s pretty well gone,” Ward quotes a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey as saying.

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The Guardian (UK) takes a look at gun youth gun ownership in the U.S. and a documentary film about the subject. The piece ,called “Kids, guns and the American way,” tends to lump all of rural America together into one pot, but it’s interesting to see an outsider’s take on this divisive issue.

08/01/2014 at 7:13am

Photo Courtesy of Anne ShelbyThere may be no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow in Clay County, Kentucky, but there is a barn, built by Anne Shelby’s grandfather.

I first heard about it from my friend Jeanette.

We were driving up Kentucky 11 from Clay County into Owsley, a rock cliff on one side of the road, the green South Fork of the Kentucky River on the other, on our way to Booneville to see a play. I’d been writing and not keeping up with current events.  

That day’s online New York Times Magazine had reported on a statistical study ranking every county in the United States, Jeanette told me. Clay County had come in last.    

At first I felt sort of proud. I live in what the New York Times calls the hardest place to live in the United States. I’ve lived here for 20 years. My family has lived here for seven generations. We must be strong, resourceful and resilient. Or at least persistent.   

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Next morning I walked with the dogs down to the creek, past the barn my grandfather built, now collapsing into weathered boards and twisted metal, past his corn and tobacco fields, grown up in briars and sumac.

It’s a popular joke here: A man wins the lottery. Somebody asks him what he’ll do with the money. “I don’t know,” he says. “I guess I’ll just keep farming till it’s gone.”

While the dogs explore the woods, I sit on a rock beside the creek. Poplar and sycamore branches arc above me. A cool breeze wafts down out of the holler. Later I’ll pick blackberries for a cobbler and fix a supper fresh from the garden.  

If this is the hardest place to live in the United States, I thought, then I feel encouraged about the country as a whole.    

07/31/2014 at 6:41am

SOURCE: CDC/NCHS, National Hospital Discharge Survey, 2010 Age distribution of hospitalized rural residents, by hospital location: United States, 2010. More than half (51%) of rural patients admitted to rural hospitals were aged 65 or older. For rural patients who were admitted to urban hospitals, that figure was about a third.

About 40% of the rural population “bypasses” rural hospitals to get their inpatient treatment at urban facilities, a report from the National Center for Health Statistics shows.

Patients from rural America who were treated at rural hospitals tend to be older and on Medicare, the report says. And they tend to be patients who do not receive surgery or other procedures.

The patient load of rural hospitals is one factor in a growing crisis in rural healthcare, which has seen an increasing number of hospital closures.

The report said 6.1 million rural residents were hospitalized in 2010. About 3.7 million of these patients received their care in a rural hospital. The remaining 2.4 million rural hospital patients were admitted to urban institutions.

More than half of the rural patients admitted to rural hospitals were aged 65 and older. Only about third of rural patients who went to urban hospitals were aged 65 and up.

“Prior research has shown that patients in this age group were less likely to leave rural areas for their hospitalization due, in part, to the barriers imposed by traveling to urban areas, and to their preference for remaining closer to home,” the report said.

07/30/2014 at 4:49am

Photo by Confrontational Media Protests call for the Washington NFL teamto change it's name from the "R word."

I’m a white guy who works in a city whose football team’s name is a racial slur. I was born and raised 10,000 miles from Washington, D.C., but the name of the local professional team still matters to me.

When I celebrated my 21st birthday in Sydney, Australia, the theme was “Americana.” People dressed in cowboy hats, ate hamburgers, and listened to Bruce Springsteen. I wore a red, white, and blue Indian headdress.

I was in the final semester of a degree in Indigenous studies and personally committed to addressing the tragic history of Australia’s Indigenous people. When I put on that headdress, I was proud—happy, even. I thought I was honoring Native people. Today, I look back on that costume with regret.

What changed? In the 14 years since, I’ve met tribal leaders, Native warriors—those who have earned the right to wear eagle-feather headdresses. I’ve studied with Native scholars, taught Native students, and visited countless reservation communities.

For the past seven years, I have served on the senior staff of the National Congress of American Indians, giving me a front row seat to many important policy battles for Native peoples, including the fight to change the Washington team name.

But on the issue of “Indian” mascots, I’ve been more of an outsider. Like many Americans, I have that “Indian in the Cupboard” moment: The time I played Indian at my 21st birthday. There are even photos to prove it. Until I wrote this, I’d never even told anyone I work with about that moment.

And maybe that’s why I’m not angry at the non-Native people that I see wearing Washington NFL team jerseys, caps, and other branded merchandise. As the team starts training camp this month and the controversy over the name simmers, I’m sad, not mad, when I see the license plate covers, the bumper stickers, and the office decorations.

07/29/2014 at 3:23pm

Photo by Dana Dillehunt Jamie Seuberling works in Ashton's Gibsonville, North Carolina, facility.

In the rural Carolinas there is a growing movement for businesses to take another go at their core industries. 

Within the textile industry there is major buzz around brands looking to “re-shore” their production of goods to U.S. soil.  The Carolina Textile District is a network of mill owners, pattern makers, label producers and suppliers joining together to lift up each other’s work and get ready to manufacture on a large scale once again. 

In the early 1990’s when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect, American brands rushed overseas to mass produce goods paying workers incredibly low wages.  North Carolina factories that employed 100-plus worker were suddenly empty.  The hum of machines dwindled, and vacant buildings became part of the landscape.  Often life-long textile employees were left without job, pension and retirement. 

Some mills managed to keep their doors open in the midst of this economic bust. Nand Thapar of Action Sports Inc. kept his business going by making uniforms for sports teams.  He even produced some of the uniforms for the 1996 Summer Olympics teams, but the scale of work changed drastically.  All the major contracts, like Nike, Victoria’s Secret and Hanes, once the main providers for these factories, left for overseas.  It took determination for mill owners like Thapar to keep their doors open. 

Dan St. Louis, director of the Manufacturing Solutions Center in Conover, North Carolina, and a founding member of the Carolina Textile District, worked during the cycle of the boom and bust around textiles during the 1990s.  Through his position at Manufacturing Solutions he was able to see the high number of garments being sent in for testing after problems with overseas production.  Everything from use of wrong materials to poor craftsmanship made it apparent that there might be another way to go. 

St. Louis recalls seeing the first wave of designers wanting to produce American-made goods again.  

“Around 2011 the phones started ringing off the hook, first from entrepreneurs," he said.  “They were calling all of us. Word was getting out that we were willing to work with them, and it just exploded.”

It was then that he began talking to others in the community like Molly Hemstreet, who was in the beginning phases of opening a worker-owned cooperative, Opportunity Threads.  She saw the need to create one point of contact for potential clients seeking manufacturers. The idea was to to create a regional value chain -- a network of businesses, nonprofit organizations and collaborating players who work together to satisfy market demand for specific products or services.

They needed one umbrella organization that could link a designer up to someone who could help with the patterns and professional grading of their product, create a sample, start a production run for retail, even down to the labeling and tags.  With that, the Carolina Textile District was formed.   

07/28/2014 at 4:31pm

Percent Change Nonemployers, Micro, and Small Businesses, 2002-2012

US Census Nonemployer Statistics Dataset; US Census County Business Patterns

When small cities and rural communities talk about adding jobs, the conversation frequently turns to recruiting outside employers to set up shop locally and put people to work. But Census data from the last decade shows that one of the bright spots in nonmetro economic development since 2002 has been among self-employed workers – the ones who create their own jobs locally.

In fact, such businesses were the only ones among businesses that employ 20 or fewer employees that expanded from 2002 to 2012, according to Census data analysis.

This finding ought to be part of rural economic development discussions, especially when it comes time to determine how to invest limited resources in efforts to create local jobs.

“Nonemployer” vs. Micro and Small Businesses           

To better understand the role of small businesses in creating work opportunities, the U.S. Census Nonemployer Statistics dataset was analyzed. “Nonemployer” is what the Census calls businesses that have no paid employees. These are typically very small, unincorporated entities. In common language, we usually refer to these business owners as self-employed. According to the Census definition, such businesses pay at least some federal taxes and have annual receipts of $1,000 or more. (In the construction industry, the Census includes all businesses that have $1 or more in receipts).

The Census County Business Patterns dataset for continental U.S. counties was also analyzed. This dataset includes businesses with paid employees. Besides nonemployer businesses (remember, that’s what we usually call self employed), two other types of entities were included: “micro” business (MB), which have one to four employees, and “small” businesses (SB), which have five to 19 employees.

The growth or decline in these types of businesses from 2002 to 2012 in rural (noncore) counties, counties with small cities (micro), and metropolitan areas were analyzed. Some of the results are in the chart at the top of this article.

07/25/2014 at 6:00am

Photo via Big Bend Brewing Company Big Bend Brewing Company chose Alpine, Texas, as it's home base.

Craft beer breweries are finding their niche in rural areas. Big Bend Brewing Company is based in Alpine, Texas - over 150 miles from any other town. The company found its foothold in the Alpine area, which has seen a large tourist boom lately, and has gathered loyal clients from all over west Texas as well. Now, the company even has a waiting list of hundreds of bars and restaurants that want to stock their product.

“We could’ve been another one of the 20-something breweries in Austin,” Big Bend brewmaster Steve Anderson says. “But we wanted to do something different.”

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Aspen, Colorado is proving that even rural areas can have efficient public transportation systems. The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses connect downtown areas along Route 82 and delivered over 4.1 million rides last year alone. The RFTA features express buses as well as a bikeshare program.

“My car doesn’t do very well in the snow, so especially in the winter it’s nice not to stress about the snow,” says Aspen local Jamie Cundiff. “If it’s in the summer, I love having the ability to bike one way and bus the other because sometimes the weather is different in the morning than the afternoon.”

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Small producers and Slow Food advocates have initiated a growing movement to conserve endangered species of livestock and poultry. Among these breeds is the Red Wattle pig, which was down to a population of just 50 in 1999. Due to the efforts of small farmers and the Livestock Conservancy, their numbers are now back up around 6,000.

"As counterproductive as it may seem, to save these pigs we have to eat them," says hog farmer Travis Hood.