Saturday, October 25, 2014

10/24/2014 at 9:00am

Photo by Nic Persinger for The Wall Street Journal Diners at the Bluegrass Kitchen in Charleston, West Virginia.

Melanie Kaplan, writing for the Wall Street Journal, takes a multistate road trip through Appalachia to explore its cuisine, with the help of Bon Appétit Magazine’s new “Bon Appalachia” map. You may not want to read the rest of the story on an empty stomach.

“In Boone, N.C., a hippy-outdoorsy town, we imbibed at Appalachian Brewing Company and dined at Hob Nob Farm Café, a five-year-old restaurant with a surprising number of vegan options—like a tamale with local kale, portobellos, sweet potatoes and vegan crème fraîche. I opted for the real-cheese, local-vegetable lasagna; Travis succumbed to the bacon-wrapped meatloaf.”

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Iowa’s close Senate race could be decided by voters in a handful of rural counties. But the lessons from Iowa may not apply to the rest of the nation, says NBC’s Dante Chinni

Chinni looks at counties that flipped from Republican to Democratic between the 2004 and 2012 presidential elections: Allamakee, Benton, Bremer, Cedar, Louisa, Marshall, Union and Woodbury.

Generally speaking, Rural Middle America is not good territory for Democrats. In 2012 they gave their vote to Republican to Mitt Romney by 12 percentage points.

But Iowa is different – or at least it was different in 2012. Romney only eked out a 1-point win in the 79 Rural Middle America counties in Iowa. Instead, the counties were battlegrounds in the state.

And there is reason to believe that will be the case again this November because their story doesn't match that of other rural places.

The economy has rebounded better in rural Iowa than in other rural areas. And that might add a little bump to Democratic candidate Bruce Braley instead of Republican Jony Ernst, Chinni says. Braley and Ernst are vying to fill the seat vacated by Democrat Tom Harkin.

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At the Washington Post, Philip Bump looks at Iowa through a different lens. The increasing urbanization of the state means a long-term shift  favoring Democrats, Bump says.

And Bump refers to yet another take on the rural-urban political dynamic in Iowa, Michael Barbaro's story in the New York Times earlier this week.

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Last year’s bone-chilling winter and higher-than-normal propane prices have combined to increase demand for firewood in Minnesota, the state’s public radio network reports.

"Usually we cut 500 cords. We've done that already this year," said logger Duane White, who works the woods in north-central Minnesota near Akeley. "We have 500 more waiting to be cut that we've already sold."

Firewood prices are rising a bit in response – up $5 a cord to $85 for lower-grade firewood, White said.F

"Most of the time people want seasoned hardwood," White said. "This year they're taking birch, pine, whatever I'm cutting."

Suppliers in the urban Twin Cities area are having a hard time keeping up with demand, reports John Enger of Minnesota Public Radio.

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Beau Dure writes in the online publication Ozy that small towns need to do a better job of marketing themselves to millenials to combat rural outmigration:

“Small towns will have to hustle to recruit and retain millennials, experts say. The American Planning Association urges local planners to mimic the appeal of city centers by creating “density.” That means keeping the walkable neighborhoods and traditional town centers that millennials say is key to making a community a desirable place to live.

Interestingly Dure's own story says it's not necessarily the walkable urban centers that are attracting population growth; it's the sprawling suburbs.

Digging a little deeper into rural population loss (and, yes, some gain) could have provided a more revealing look at U.S. migration patterns. Here's a place to look, for starters.

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10/24/2014 at 6:16am

Photo by urbangarden Badluck Way is set in the beautiful, harsh and complex ecosystem of southwest Montana. The owners of Sun Ranch manage the 25,000-acre spread to accommodate both wildlife conservation and cattle. The tension between these goals serves as a focus for Bryce Andrews’ memoir.

Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West. By Bryce Andrews 2014. Atria Books. $25. 256 pages

A place for everything, and everything in its place.

You’ve always believed that keeping your possessions where they belong is the right thing to do. Putting away tools has saved you frustration. Packing gear in one place has saved you time. But as you’ll see in the new memoir Badluck Way by Bryce Andrews, there’s also a wrong way to stow your stuff: a man’s boots, for instance, do not belong beneath a desk.

Ever since he could remember, Bryce Andrews was fascinated by anything Western. He’d loved Western art, spent summers as a kid on the spread of a family friend, had learned to ride a horse and mend fence. So, following a broken heart and a few wandering months around the country, he took a job at a Montana ranch.

The 25,000-acre Sun Ranch sat at the edge of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness in southwestern Montana and was owned by a Silicon Valley millionaire. Wildlife was plentiful there, and conservation was important, as was managing livestock so that cattle could graze and thrive alongside native elk and wolves that came over from Yellowstone.

Starting the first of May, the job consisted of moving cattle, fixing fence, caring for livestock and cleaning water tanks. It was a life Andrews grew to love again: he spent his days doing chores, learning from the two other ranch hands, and exploring wherever the four-wheeler took him: through grassland and canyons, past pugmarks and bones, beneath Big Sky and stars.

10/23/2014 at 8:11am

Photo by the Associated Press Idaho Democratic gubernatorial challenger A.J. BalukoffRepublican, left, laughs with current governor C.L. “Butch” Otter as they compliment each other’s ties after the gubernatorial debate earlier this month.

Some races in the November 2014 election are closer than they should be.

My home state of Idaho is a case in point. Idaho may be the most Republican state in the country. There is no Democrat currently holding a statewide office.

Nonetheless this year Idaho is close. This is remarkable. In a year when all Republicans think they have to do is to say nasty things about the president, the voters are saying something else. “[Idaho Governor] Butch Otter is one of the least popular governors in the country,” said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling (PPP). “But there may not be a state where it’s harder for Democrats to win than Idaho.”

True, that.

Here are the numbers: PPP final polls shows incumbent Butch Otter leads with only 39 percent to 35 percent for Democrat A.J. Balukoff. Minor candidates combine for an unusually high 12 percent, and 14 percent of voters are undecided. There are six candidates on the ballot (including Marvin "Pro-Life" Richardson.) Many Tea Party voters dismiss Republicans as too liberal. Idaho Republicans at that.

Via Wikipedia. Idaho leaned heavily toward Mitt Romney in the 2012
presidential election. .

So if Idaho’s conservative voters go for one of those minor parties — there is a chance that the Democrat could win (without earning 50 percent of the vote).

Idaho’s five Native American tribes are small in numbers, roughly 1 percent of the state, so in a close election, you just never know.

It’s more likely that voters will break for the Republican as they normally do in Idaho. But, hey, anything can happen. Real Clear Politics still rates this race as “safe” for the GOP.

Another state where a minor party candidate could shake things up is Colorado.

Democratic Senator Mark Udall is trailing Republican challenger Cory Gardner in several polls. What’s interesting is how that lead shrinks when independent candidate Steve Shogan is included. Shogan is capturing as much as 8 percent in some polls.  This is the opposite of Kansas. If the conservative candidate splits the votes of Republicans, it could be enough for Udall to win.

10/22/2014 at 6:30am

The trailer for "Uranium Drive-In," a documentary film that follows residents of Naturita and Nucla in western Colorado as they grapple with an environmental fight over a proposed uranium mill.

When the man from Energy Fuels comes to Montrose County, Colorado, promising to open a uranium mill that could employ people from Naturita and Nucla, many of the locals start looking forward to better jobs, health insurance and improved prospects.

But before the promises can be kept, Telluride-based environmental group Sheep Mountain Alliances challenges Energy Fuels and the proposed project in court. People who had been hoping for economic progress from the new uranium mill live in limbo for the next two years. Do they stay and hope for the mill to open, or do they move on with their lives? Are Naturita and Nucla ghost towns in the making?

This is the story behind "Uranium Drive-In," Suzan Beraza’s second feature film, which became available on DVD this week. The impartial and beautifully filmed, character-driven documentary offers an honest look at people facing matters of rural poverty, sustainable development and the long reach of environmental advocacy.

Along the way, Beraza touches on the fascinating history of uranium production in the American West. She shows us a mining town that was demolished and carted off. She shares the stories of survivors of the less regulated uranium industry of the past.

But at heart, the piece is not an environmental advocacy film, and its nods to concerns about the safety of nuclear energy add little.

Rather, "Uranium Drive-In" succeeds best when it sticks with people and depicts the stories of individual lives caught up in big ideas and policies.

I spoke with Suzan Beraza by phone.

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Courtesy of Suzan BerazaSuzan Beraza said the stories in her documentary became more complex as she spent time with residents of the rural communities affected by the proposed uranium mill.When you first heard about this story, did you see it as a rural issue?

No. I don't think I did. I saw it more as an environmental issue. And something that became pretty clear to me early on in the film-making process is that to be an environmentalist, you have to be able to afford to be an environmentalist, if that makes sense. It's usually not people who are struggling to survive who turn around and say “I'm an environmentalist.”

While we were there, the story just raised more and more questions. And even though today I'm not gung ho on the uranium industry by any means, the project made me realize that the people of Naturita/Nucla are between a rock and a hard place, and they are willing to make sacrifices in order to survive. They don't see the uranium industry as being that dangerous. It's something they are very used to; their families have been doing it for generations. It's not that the people there necessarily want the uranium industry. They just want something. And that's when it became more clear that it was a rural issue. That thousands of small towns across the United States are in a similar situation, whether it’s a resource extraction town or a town where the major industry has left. Heck, even a place like Detroit. That's not a small town. But it sticks to a theme that is echoing throughout the country.

10/21/2014 at 6:19am

Photo by the Los Angeles Times Hens on a poultry farm in California.

From the beginning of time a single unanswered question has plagued the minds of men who wanted to know just one thing;

Why did the chicken cross the road?

Thanks to Missouri politics we now know the answer. It was trying to get to California.

In 2008 California voters passed the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act (Proposition 2) with a resounding 63% majority. Prop 2 dealt with allowing certain farm animals freedom to stand up and move around in confinement. At issue were crates for veal calves and gestating sows, and battery cages for laying hens.

When passed in 2008, the law was set to take effect in five years. That's now.

That's why Missouri State Attorney General Chris Koster joined up with AGs in five other egg-producing states to contest the new law by suing California for violating interstate commerce rules.

Everybody knows California has the largest gross domestic product of all the states, larger even than all but 10 countries in the entire world. It's also about seven times larger than Missouri's economy.  Consuming about $4 billion in eggs every year makes California an important market. But west coast egg producers worried they would be at a competitive disadvantage if egg farms in other states didn't obey California law.

They didn't need to worry.

10/20/2014 at 6:37am

The slow rate of jobs recovery is one of the biggest stories in rural America over the past six years.

Metro America is nearly back to pre-recession levels of employment. But job growth in nonmetro, or rural counties remains flat-lined more or less since 2010.

As with most things rural, there are tremendous regional variations. A report from USDA’s Economic Research Service looks at some peculiar job trends in rural areas and asks why.

A key trend we observed throughout the recession, and which holds true through today, is that Plains States counties fared better than other rural counties in their unemployment rates.

So why the regional variations? Authors Tom Hertz, Lorin Kusmin, Alex Marre and Tim Parker look for answer.

In the map above, the green swath through the nation’s midsection shows that unemployment has been lower in this region than the nation overall.

ERS analysis shows that several factors combined to create lower unemployment rates in the Plains States.

10/16/2014 at 3:24pm

Photo by Shawn Poynter/Rural Archive Coal is processed in the Big Sandy power plant near Louisa, Ky.

Major environmental groups can’t ignore the coal states and hope to make the progress they want on climate change. That’s just one of the many relevant observations in Ken Ward Jr.’s rejoinder to the Grist’s David Roberts' two articles on  the progressive movement and coal country (here and here).

Ward, as usual, is precise and polite. But there’s no mistaking his frustration with mostly urban environmentalists who seem ready to write off coal country’s votes, economy and people in the quest to reduce dependence on carbon-emitting fuels.

Ward writes in his West Virginia Gazette blog “Coal Tattoo”:

 Including some sort of coalfield economic diversification program in the Obama clean energy program — and in the agenda of national progressive organizations that back Obama and the EPA — would help coalfield Democrats politically. Would it magically and immediately reverse the Red State trends in West Virginia? Of course not. But it would provide some ammunition for local Democrats. It’s pretty hard to convince a coal miner in West Virginia that you care about them when your base  of supporters — groups like the Sierra Club — celebrate every time another coal-fired power plant closes, putting more miners out of work.

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The Marshall Project, a new journalism organization focusing on the criminal justice system, writes about the growth in juvenile incarceration in West Virginia. While the rest of the nation’s youth incarceration rate is dropping, West Virginia’s is climbing, reports Dana Goldstein. Goldstein sees the aberration as part of a trend in some rural states and quotes one source who says geography is part of the problem.