Thursday, November 27, 2014

11/18/2014 at 7:35am

Via the U.S. Geological SurveyUse of the herbicide glyphosate, known by the brand name Roundup, has expanded since 1992, according to U.S. Geological Survey records. Genetically modified "Roundup Ready" soybeans, which allow farmers to kill weeds without killing the crop, became available in 1994.

When I was a kid, I worked next to my folks pulling weeds from around fences and buildings on the farmstead every Saturday afternoon. Those were the days.

Starting when it was first released in 1974, the herbicide Roundup became a great labor saver for us. Dad loved to spray it around the farm, killing all those weeds and grasses without ever once shaking out a root ball.

He thought Roundup was the best thing ever.

I also remember the time Dad sprayed too close to the corn east of the house on a windy day, killing off about half an acre. That's when he said if we could ever develop crops immune to Roundup, the farmer would have it made.

He died a year before Roundup Ready soybeans were released in 1994.

Dad always read the label, even if he didn't take it to heart. He used to say Roundup was so benign, you could eat it on your breakfast cereal. He also pointed out it made a great hand cleaner. That’s true, it did. Grease comes right off with Roundup. That may have been at least in part due to soapy chemicals that help the product coat plants evenly. But it’s also a characteristic of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup.

Besides being a farmer, for awhile during the ’60s and ’70s Dad ran a farm-supply business that sold feed, fertilizer and farm chemicals of the day. An old farmer once told me he owed everything to my dad, who convinced him to apply another herbicide different from Roundup, atrazine, to his weedy corn crop.

We used that one on our farm too.

11/17/2014 at 2:33pm

Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Don Blankenship, former head of Massey Energy, sits before a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing in 2010.

The hands-on management style of coal operator Don Blankenship will be part of the legal argument prosecutors use against the man who was head of Massey Energy during the Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29 coal miners in West Virginia.

“The fact that Blankenship was such a micromanager in the running of his mines may turn out to be the knife in his back,” Tony Oppegard, a Kentucky lawyer and mine safety advocate, told Ken Ward Jr. at the West Virginia Gazette.

Blankenship heads to federal court Thursday in Beckley, West Virginia, to face charges related to the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion. He was indicted last week in 43-page grand-jury document that charges him with conspiring to violate mine safety rules, interfering with the enforcement of federal safety rules and lying to investigators.

If convicted, Blankenship could face up to 31 years, NPR reports.

The Gazette’s Ward says federal prosecutors charged Blankenship under a section of mine-safety law that applies to mine operators, not corporate officers. That means they will have to show that Blankenship was actively involved in the mine’s management, not just an executive who let others call the shots in the mine.

Proving Blankenship’s hands-on management of the mine is critical to conviction, Ward reports, because the corporation can no longer be held criminally liable for the explosion. Massey Energy was purchased in 2011 by Alpha Natural Resources, which was relieved of any criminal liabilities as part of the purchase.

The indictment includes examples of Blankenship’s direct management of the mine, including half-hourly production reports and daily reports on safety violations and fines at individual mines, writes Ward.

Blankenship left Massey in December 2010, receiving a departure package estimated at $86 million.

West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller said in a statement that Blankenship’s indictment was “another step toward justice.”

But let me be clear: in my view, Don Blankenship, and the mines he once operated, treated miners and their safety with callousness and open disregard. As he goes to trial, he will be treated far fairer and with more dignity than he ever treated the miners he employed. And, frankly, it's more than he deserves.”

Blankenship’s attorney says he is innocent and is being prosecuted for his criticism of mine-safety regulators.

11/17/2014 at 4:05am

Rural areas aren't always pedestrian friendly. But communities can solve these problems creatively with "park-and-walk" lots, walking trails and using facilities like shopping centers. There's only one way to do it, and that's to do it.

With more open space and natural amenities, you might think rural people would walk more than folks who live in suburban or urban areas. But, in fact, the opposite is true. Rural people walk and bicycle, on average, less than their city counterparts.

That’s a shame, because nothing beats walking for curing what ails the health of many rural residents.

If walking were considered medicine, you can bet it would be the most popular product in the physician’s black bag. I’ll bet your doc can’t name a medicine – even two or three medicines taken together – that will do as much good for as many different ailments as walking several times a week. 

Walking and other exercise cut down on a person’s risk of heart attack, stroke, type 2 diabetes (the kind related to obesity), breast and colon cancer, depression, falls and weak bones.  It helps arthritic knees and lowers blood pressure.  It improves sleep, increases endurance and may even revitalize a person’s sex life, according to the Harvard Health Letter. 

But for all its benefits – including the fact that it’s free and requires no co-pay – walking can be much harder to promote than the latest new drug. “My patients don’t want me to help them stay healthy,” a doctor friend told me.  “They want me to give them a pill so they can do what they want and not die.”

Rural areas and small towns are more likely to lack the kinds of infrastructure that make walking safe and convenient. Distances between home and businesses are farther, and there are fewer sidewalks and crosswalks. Many country roads simply aren’t safe for walking.

11/14/2014 at 8:24am

Photo by Katy Crookston Locked gates only offer the illusion of privacy and safety.

I was settling down for my Sunday afternoon nap when someone started pounding on my front door. It was not a friendly knock, and the face at the door, a big rough looking fellow, didn’t seem primed for pleasantries.

“Are you the Jamison feller owns land on Pressley Creek?”

“Yes,” I said. I live down in Webster now, but I still have the house and farm ON A MOUNTAINSIDE??? in Speedwell. I’ve been trying to sell it for several years.

“Well, why’d you lock the damn gate?”

Now here I was a bit confused. There is a gate to the gravel road that goes up to my place, but it has never been closed let alone locked. The gate is there primarily at the behest of my insurance agent, who thinks my practice of letting people wander across my land to the adjoining Forest Service land leaves me open to litigation. The gate is my concession to a litigious society and is supposed to let people know they are wandering onto private property.

I have a thing about fences and locked gates. My grandfather may have put it best when he said that a gate and a fence were for keeping animals in or out, and anything else was either pride or foolishness. Here in the mountains, we tend to laugh at the folks who move in and immediately put up a gate to their road. Don’t they understand that a locked gate only raises folks’ curiosity – what has he got up there that’s so special?

After a few minutes of back and forth, it turned out that Andy, the fellow at the door, had bought a small parcel that adjoins my land and is accessed from my road. He encountered the locked gate and just assumed I did it. I assured him that wasn’t the case and that I would find out what was going on from my real estate agent. We parted on a friendly note after a conversation that included our common interest in logging; he’s in the business, and I grew up with loggers and have done a bit myself on the mountain.

11/12/2014 at 3:31pm

National Association of Counties, based on federal dataThe top recipients of federal "payments in lieu of taxes" are in dark blue. The program helps counties that contain federal land, which is not part of the ordinary property tax system. Click the map for an interactive version, via the NACo website.

It’s been five months since county governments saw any payments from the federal government for the local services they provide in areas with lots of public, untaxed federal land.

Members of the National Association of Counties (NACo) are gearing up to keep “payment in lieu of taxes” on the agenda as Congress enters its busy budget season. The program’s funding expired with the last budget year on September 30, and the last payment counties received was in June.

The payment program, known by the acronym PILT, provides federal money to counties that contain federal lands.

NACo describes the payment program's purpose this way:

Despite not being able to collect property taxes on federal lands, county governments still provide essential services to their residents and visitors to public lands, including solid waste disposal, law enforcement, road and bridge upkeep and emergency medical services. Without PILT funding, counties and property owners would be burdened with funding vital public services related to federal public lands beyond the means of the local tax base.

“For the 62 percent of America’s counties with federal public lands, the most pressing [congressional] priority is full funding for the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes program,” said said NACo Executive Director Matthew D. Chase in a press release.  “Without swift congressional action, local property owners and their counties could face devastating budget shortfalls or dramatic tax increases to support mandated county services.”

The map above shows U.S. counties that received payments under the federal program in 2014. Darker blue counties receive higher payments. (County-level data is available through NACo's mapping tool.) Funding is especially high in geographically large Western counties, where there are large tracts of land controlled by the federal Bureau of Land Management. But the outlines of National Forests and other public holdings – even military installations – are discernible in Eastern and Midwestern counties, as well.

More than 1,850 counties in 49 states, plus U.S. territories, receive the payments, according to NACo. 

11/12/2014 at 6:10am

All photos by Daniel Acker Farmer Alan Madison plants seed corn in Buda, Illinois.


Daniel Acker lived and worked in New York City for 10 years before he decided to move to rural Illinois, along with his wife and their two children.  Four years after the move, Acker talks to the Daily Yonder about farmers, photography and why he likes living in a small town.

Daily Yonder:  How did you start taking pictures?

Daniel Acker: I took an entry-level photography class in my junior year of high school and really enjoyed it.  I was set to graduate early, and would only have had to attend high school for half of my senior year.  So I told my guidance counselor that after I graduated I was going to take some classes at the community college because they had a photo program. She told me there was a new state program where you could actually go to community college the whole year, and it would count for high school, and the state would pay for it, books and everything.  So I ended up doing that. And then I became good friends with the head of the department and head facilities manager, and they became mentors to me and I learned a lot.  I ended up being there two more years and then I went to Rochester Institute of Technology, where I got my BFA in photojournalism. I graduated in 2000 and then I moved to New York and started working at Bloomberg News.  I worked there for 10 years, until 2010.

Left: The withered leaves of corn plants lay in the dirt in a field damaged by extreme heat and drought conditions in Carmi, Illinois. Right: Twenty-one-day-old pigs stand in a trailer prior to transport to a nearby weaning-to-market barn at Lehmann Brothers Farms LLC in Strawn, Illinois.


DY: How did you end up in Tiskilwa, Illinois?

DA: Both my wife and I worked in New York City.  We like it, but we just decided that we didn’t want to raise our children there. We wanted to get out of the city but I didn’t want to move to the suburbs -- it was either city or country.  My wife felt the same way. She’s from the area where we live now, so given her roots here in the country, we decided to make a go of it here, and we’ve been here in Tiskilwa for four years.


DY: What was it like moving from New York City to rural Illinois?

DA: It was interesting.  I had a good job in New York.  There aren’t a lot of staff photography positions at national news agencies in the United States, and I had one of those jobs, and I willfully left.  It was a lifestyle decision.  The transition really wasn’t all that difficult for me, personally.  I was ready for a change.  We did a lot of family vacations around the Midwest growing up, and there was lot of farmland on the side of the interstate from that route and I just remember as a kid looking out the window and just wondering “Who lives there?”  I really admired the landscape—the farms and the barns and all the scenery of rural America was always of interest to me, even as a child. There was just something intriguing about it.  So we had the chance to buy a house for the first time, which was something that wasn’t attainable for us in the city. We have two daughters. One started kindergarten last week.  This is a good spot to raise a family. …

11/11/2014 at 1:31pm

Photo by Kate Medley Fratesi’s Service Station, near Leland, Mississippi, is home to a wicked fried oyster po' boy.

At least one half of the Daily Yonder editorial team has eaten a top-three-lifetime po’ boy at a tiny gas station near Leland, Mississippi. That gas station is Fratesi Brothers Grocery, and it’s part of a beautiful Bitter Southerner article on gas station cuisine in the Delta.

“Most gas stations don’t hang deer heads on the wall. I guess you could say we do things a little differently around here,” [Mark] Fratesi says. Farmers drop in at lunchtime for fried-olive po’ boys and housemade gumbo, then circle back around 5 p.m., when the seating area transforms into the “East Leland Country Club,” featuring a bounty of Budweiser and tall tales.

--- Shawn Poynter


The New Yorker has a 5,900-word profile on Modern Farmer magazine and its founder and editor, Ann Marie Gardner. Gardner calls her publication a “farming magazine for media professionals” and “an international life-style brand.” That explains some of the merchandise we've seen advertised in Modern Farmer, such as the $37 leather jump rope and $295 casserole dish.


The split between urban and rural America in formal education levels, percentage of elderly population and cultural differences is deep and partly responsible for the uneven economic recovery, according to a story from NBC News. The video is packed with familiar news-reporting-from-rural-America imagery: Empty buildings on Main Street, locked gates, feral street dogs, cobwebs on doors. Yes, there are literally cobwebs in the video report. But the message is actually pretty good. “[Politicians] need to get out of Washington and come listen to the people in small, rural towns,” says on Georgia resident in the story.