Saturday, October 25, 2014

10/15/2014 at 10:19pm

Photo by Karen Fasimpaur Members of the seed library meet in the community library in Portal, Arizona.

The remote corner of the southwest that I call home straddles a beautiful swath of the Arizona-New Mexico border. There are two small nearby towns – Portal, Arizona, and Rodeo, New Mexico – each with fewer than than 300 people. The nearest grocery store is about an hour away, we have no cell coverage, and most of us live on dirt roads.

The people who live here have come for a variety of reasons and span a wide spectrum of backgrounds and worldviews. There are ranchers and scholars, writers and astronomers, craftspeople and artists, affluent and poor, retirees and youth, natives and transplants. Some have come to immerse themselves in the rugged beauty and rich biodiversity here. Others are here to escape urban sprawl. Still others have come to establish independence and self-sufficiency.

Despite these varying outlooks on life, there are things that bring us together. One of them is food. We all enjoy food and also know that our food choices are important and make a difference – to ourselves, to our community and to the larger world. As rural residents, we also have food challenges. Supermarkets are far away; food can be expensive; healthy, sustainable food is not as readily accessible as it is in urban centers. There are concerns about being cut off from the commercial food supply, and many wish for a way to become more self-reliant as a community.

About two years ago, these issues were discussed by some in the community, and the idea of starting a local seed library was raised. The hope was that establishing a seed library would guarantee a supply of local seeds that would be viable and free to all. We also wanted to preserve heirloom varieties and to fight against GMO seeds, both of which are challenges in the era of increasing corporate control of seeds, as well as the whole food chain.

10/15/2014 at 1:54am

Photo by Mark Jamison The big chair stands about 12 feet high and adorns Mark Jamison's front yard in Webster, North Carolina, along with many other art objects. Some adults ask why, but kids understand the ornament's "impeccable logic."

It’s a big chair. Actually it’s a very big rocking chair and it sits at the head of my driveway. At its highest point it’s 12 feet tall. The seat is about four and a half feet off the ground. Although it doesn’t need much help in standing out, it’s painted a sort of marigold color that is, umm, eye catching.

The front rail of the chair is inscribed “The County Seat,” a reference to the fact that Webster was the original county seat when Jackson County, North Carolina, was carved out of two surrounding counties in 1851. There are also two dedications “In Memory of George Penland” and “For the Nitpickers.” These refer to my dear friend and neighbor George and his battles with the mavens of Webster.

George lived next door to my house in what was the original Jackson County jail. My house, or some iteration of it, was built around the time of Webster’s founding in 1851.

When I bought the house it was a wreck. It had been a rental for 40 years, but it had been vacant for five years before I got it. After my divorce I had to come down off the mountain, and I needed a project to take my mind off things. Restoring the house seemed like a good idea; besides, it was right next door to my workplace, the post office. Restoring the house was a labor of love.

10/14/2014 at 1:09pm

Photo by Bruce Crummy/Associated Press A derailed oil train near Casselton, North Dakota, goes up in flames, one in a series of recent fiery crashes.

After several train accidents that resulted in fires, pressure is being put on oil companies working in North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields to make their oil less flammable before loading it onto the rails. The oil companies, unsurprisingly, are pushing back on the idea of more regulation.

"Statoil believes the current conditioning of crude oil is sufficient for safely transporting Bakken crude oil by truck, rail and pipeline," said Keith Lilie, an operations and maintenance manager for Statoil, one of the largest oil companies operating in the Bakken oil fields.

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Al Jazeera takes a trip to eastern Kentucky to look at what one small town is doing right economically. Spoiler alert: They’re investing in local, diverse businesses instead of pinning their hopes on a big company to swoop in and make it all better. The town is one familiar to us -- it's Whitesburg, home of the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder.  

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Forrest Pritchard at the Huffington Post has pointed out that a New York Times event about food production includes everyone except farmers. You know, the folks who actually produce food.

Out of 19 speakers [at the “Food for Tomorrow” gathering], not a single attendee grows food for a living. Wal-Mart vice president? Check. Investigative reporters? Double check. Politicians? You betcha. But how about a solitary, full-time professional farmer, someone who actually works the land for a living?

(Insert sound of crickets chirping).

Seems like an oversight, doesn't it? Like holding a conference on education and forgetting the teachers, or hosting a book festival without any authors.

… Discussion about food is certainly important. But so is the actual farming, by people who know how to do it. The New York Times missed an opportunity to broaden the food conversation, overlooking the best experts of all.

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10/14/2014 at 7:08am

The number of housing loans originating in rural areas dropped from 2012 to 2013 and is well below pre-recession levels. Loans for purchase of homes grew slightly from 2012 to 2013, but refinance loans dropped during the period.

Rural mortgage markets continue to struggle in the aftermath of the national housing crisis.

The number of home loans in rural areas declined by 14.1% between 2012 and 2013, according to the most recent Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) data. The drop-off in lending is largely related to refinance activity. Gradually increasing interest rates and tighter underwriting criteria have slowed mortgage refinancing nationally, as well as in rural communities. Refinance lending in rural and small town communities declined by 23% in 2013 from 2012 levels.

Rural home purchase lending, on the other hand, increased by 2.3% from 2012. After reaching a 10-year low in 2011, rural home purchase loans increased for the past two years to 440,489 in 2013.

While these trends suggest an improvement in home sales, rural and small town home purchase loans remain 52% below the pre-recession levels of 2006. Home purchase loans continue to make up a smaller portion (35%) compared to refinance loans (57%) of all rural lending activity.

Conventional Lending Continues Slow Rebound

The federal government’s role in home lending grew substantially in the wake of the housing crisis through the Federal Home Administration (FHA) mortgage insurance program, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and Department of Agriculture’s (Farm Service Agency or Rural Housing Service) loan guarantee programs. Up to 90% of first-lien home purchase loans involved a conventional loan before the recession, but had declined to just over 50% by 2009. (The study restricted data to first-lien home purchase loans to focus on home purchase activity. In addition, removing second liens helps remove piggyback loans and mitigate double counting.)

10/13/2014 at 6:58am

Wisconsin state Senate candidate Paul DeMain. DeMain is president and CEO of Indian Country Communications and editor of News From Indian Country.

There may be no tribe in the country that understands the significance of voting more than the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin. After all, tribal members faced the ultimate political test: A fight to stop Congress from terminating the tribal government some half-a-century ago. (Followed by their successful restoration campaign that was enacted into law in 1973.)

During the 1950s — when the battle was most intense — most of Congress and the state government ignored the wishes of tribal members. The Menominee were essentially bullied into termination by one U.S. Senator, Utah Republican Arthur Watkins.

“There was so little interest, or controversy over, most Indian legislation that it often passed on consent calendars were a single negative vote would have meant its defeat,” writes Stephen J. Herzberg in his paper, “The Menominee Indians: From Treaty to Termination.” So Watkins demanded and got his termination bill.

Think about that: One vote could have prevented termination.

These days the Menominee Tribe does a lot better than one vote. 

On Election Day in 2012, the tribe turned out 90 percent of its registered voters and some voters were lined up for 2 and 1/2 hours waiting at the county clerk’s office. 

Matt Dannenberg is an organizer working with Wisconsin tribes on voting issues for the League of Conservation Voters. His organization is conducting voter education training this week. He said other tribal leaders have a competition to be which community will be the next Native vote leader in Wisconsin.

10/10/2014 at 5:28am

Photo by Matt Zaske This is okra, not pot.

A Georgia man was surprised to see a helicopter hanging over his house right before a team of cops, “strapped to the gills,” came knocking on his door. His offense? Growing okra plants in his garden. The cops mistook them for marijuana. The biggest differences between the plants are 1) okra has only five leaves, and 2) okra is totally not marijuana.

This story has sparked a debate in the Daily Yonder office as to whether okra should be legal. Our editor loves the stuff, but I would be fine if it were added to the banned substances list (despite the New York Times telling us it’s now OK to like the vegetable).

--- Shawn Poynter

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Legalize it!

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Patients using Medicare at rural critical access hospitals may be paying up to six times more than their metro counterparts for some services, according to a the Department of Health and Human Services, reports Kaiser Health News.

The difference in fees stems from the way Medicare pays hospitals for services. Medicare pays rural critical access hospitals more for their services to help defray the higher costs of serving rural areas. Medicare requires patients to pay for 20% of the cost of services, so the higher the rate, the more the patient pays.

Medicare patients in 2012 receiving an electrocardiogram at a [predominately rural] critical access hospital owed an average of $33, while patients at other hospitals had to pay $5, according to the report. Patients getting an initial infusion into a vein had to pay $56 on average at a critical access hospital, while patients at other hospitals paid $25.

Many supplemental insurance policies for the elderly pick up the tab, but one in seven Medicare recipients lacks such as policy. In addition, these higher medical costs are ultimately factored into the premiums insurers set.

Patient cost at these small, rural hospitals is one more factor in the current debate over the future of critical access hospitals, which serve small, rural communities that likely would lose their in-patient facilities if not for special considerations in fees and reimbursements.

Brock Slabach, a senior vice president at the National Rural Health Association, said this issue has been raised before by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, or MedPAC, which counsels Congress. He said that because the law requires that critical access hospitals be paid their “reasonable” costs plus 1 percent, Congress would either have to change the law or Medicare would need to pay more to make up for the lower patient portions.

“The reason this hasn’t been solved is it would require the Medicare program to subsidize more,” Slabach said.

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There’s nothing inherently newsworthy about Merrill Beyeler, a 69-year-old conservative rancher in small town Idaho, winning a primary race for a state house seat. The news here is how he’s doing it: Beyeler is a pro-government Republican running on a pro-conservation platform. Beyeler, who was a teacher for decades before taking over his family’s ranch, has been a part of nearly 200 projects aiming to help save the local salmon population. The key, he thinks, is reframing the idea of environmentalism.

"When people use the term 'environmentalists,' I think really what they want to say is 'extremists.' " On the other hand, he says: "There's nothing more conservative than conservation."

10/09/2014 at 6:29am

Photo by Robert W. Hart Dr. Brad Faglie examines a pregnant Medicaid patient at a medical clinic in Alvord.

A new study in Health Services Research reveals that expanding Medicaid to cover more adults boosts health care access and use in rural populations.

The nine study authors were all interested in what happens to use of health care services when public health insurance is expanded. “In particular, we find large increases in outpatient visits, no evidence of a change in [emergency room] visits, and a large increase in inpatient visits,” wrote the authors. “We also estimate that public health insurance leads to increases in preventive care but no change in behavioral health care visits.” Their estimates were largely consistent with previous research but also recognized potentially important differences.

Most previous studies have focused on urban populations, but more than 7 million uninsured people live in rural settings, the authors said, and the two health care profiles differ.

The team looked specifically at adults without dependent children in a rural Wisconsin setting after the state expanded public health insurance to include that group under a Medicaid special waiver, said co-author Laura Dague, Ph.D. and assistant professor at the Bush School of Government & Public Service at Texas A&M University. The researchers used data from claims filed at a large integrated health system, along with Medicaid enrollment files dated from January 2007 to September 2012.

The Wisconsin Medicaid expansion began July 1, 2009, but was closed after three months after more than 60,000 participants enrolled, leaving 100,000 hopeful applicants on a waitlist. “So many people signed up that there simply wasn’t enough money to fund the program,” Dague said.