Wednesday, September 17, 2014

08/28/2014 at 7:40am

Courtesy of Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Joan Kopacek and John Gleneau participate in the first Rural Climate Dialogue, held this June in Morris, Minnesota.

A first-of-its-kind community dialogue in rural Minnesota shows that residents with diverse political viewpoints can reach consensus on climate-change policy when the conversation addresses the unique needs of rural areas.

The success of this first Rural Climate Dialogue underscores the importance of honest, frank discussion about climate change in rural America.

Fifteen community members of Morris, Minnesota, a town of about 5,000 people in the west-central part of Minnesota, participated in the dialogue in June. The event was an intense, three-day, deliberative forum to discuss risks posed by climate change and to develop a shared, community-based response to changing weather patterns and extreme weather events.

The community members were randomly selected but demographically representative of the entire Morris population. Participants had access to resources and experts in a wide variety of subjects, including agriculture, energy and climatology. Surveys of the town’s energy use and costs were compiled by local high school students as a way of involving youth in the discussion and making the dialogue relevant to the broader community.

At the end of the three days, the participants produced their own independent recommendations on how the Morris area should respond to climate change. The top concerns were:

  • How low-income households would deal with the rising energy and food costs.
  • How extreme weather would affect agriculture, which is the community’s economic foundation.
  • How to make more community members aware of climate impacts.
  • And how to address those impacts in ways that serve the community’s best interests.

Courtesy of Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy High school students helped compile information that was used in the community dialogue. At the same time, the community members pinpointed local opportunities to strengthen the agricultural economy. These included promoting increased diversity of crop rotations, using water more efficiently and helping the Morris area residents increase their awareness of climate change and identify ways to be resilient to its impacts.

The community members, despite holding diverse political opinions on climate change, emerged from the dialogue with consensus that the community had to take steps to address climate change.

Given unbiased information and the space to formulate their own conclusions, it appears that rural residents want climate action just as much as their urban counterparts, if only a different type of climate action.

08/27/2014 at 12:21pm

Photo by Gerry Broome/AP An Appalachian Voices employee checks the Dan River in Danville, Virginia, for coal ash in a February, 2014 incident. That spill led to recently enacted changes in state law.

There's lots of news from North Carolina regarding coal ash:

First, the state environmental agency is fining Duke Energy for contaminating groundwater around a retired power plant near Wilmington. Leeching from unlined coal-ash pits has been occurring for years, reports the Associated Press:

A letter sent to Duke [Power] says monitoring wells near dumps showed readings exceeding state groundwater standards for boron, thallium, selenium, iron, manganese and other chemicals. Thallium is a highly toxic poison.

In a separate incident in February, a Duke Energy coal-ash spill polluted 70 miles of the Dan River on the North Carolina-Virginia border. That led to passage, earlier this month, of a new law to help regulate coal-ash and clean up toxic waste generated by coal-fired power plants.

Gov. Pat McCrory (R) says he will likely sign the legislation, even though he says it unconstitutionally sets up a commission where a majority of members are appointed by the Legislature. The governor, not a legislatively appointed commission, should oversee enforcement of the coal-ash rules, McCrory said

McCrory retired from Duke Energy in 2008 after working for the utility for 29 years. “The electricity company's executives have remained generous in supporting his political campaigns,” reports Michael Biesecker of the Associated press.

08/27/2014 at 7:10am

Last winter, Native Americans adapted an old practice of private challenges to the new platform of social media. A swarm of Canadian cold-water plunges resulted.

I remember getting in trouble as a teenager. The story beat me home.  I was stunned at the velocity of information in a small community. The chain went like this: Something happened. People talked. And the story spread. Fast.

I guess that’s why social media, to me, is an old form of storytelling. It’s how we naturally tell stories, spreading the word to one friend (or follower) in real time. And then another. And again. But while the forum is essentially the same, there are two new twists: the use of digital tools and the increased size of our network. (A generation ago our “network” might be a few friends gathered for coffee at the trading post. Today it’s a thousand friends on Facebook, their thousand friends, and definitely more on Twitter, Tumblr or Snapchat.)

The ice-bucket challenge to raise money to prevent ALS — Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — or Lou Gehrig's Disease is a great example of how social media works.  The brilliant campaign has earned more than $70 million with the goal of creating a world “without ALS!”

Every day my Facebook feed has new posts from someone taking this challenge.

Of course this whole challenge thing is familiar anyway. It’s a lot like the Winter Challenge that spread across Canada and Indian Country. Carielynn Victor, from Chilliwack, B.C., told Global News Canada that the idea was not a new one, but the concept of taking it public was new.

So why ALS? It’s a fabulous cause and worth doing. That said: What if Indian Country could harness social media to affect the diseases that are killing most of our friends and family?

08/26/2014 at 7:15am

Robin Rather, CEO of Collective Strength. "Over the past decade or more, way too many pundits have just stopped thinking of rural areas as equally important and have fallen all over themselves thinking that cities are the answer to the world’s sustainability problems.  I don’t buy that at all." 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Next week’s “Cross Currents” conference in Greensboro, North Carolina, looks at the intersection of rural community development and creativity. The event, sponsored by Art-Force and the National Rural Assembly, will examine how partnerships between creative-arts organizations and agriculture-related enterprises can promote economic and social well being in rural communities.

The opening speaker for the event (Wednesday, September 3) is Robin Rather, a fifth-generation Texan and CEO of Collective Strength, a communications and marketing firm. Rather, who is the daughter of former CBS News anchor Dan Rather, spoke with one of the conference’s organizers, Janet Kagan, about the role of rural America in building more vibrant communities for everyone. An edited version of this conversation is below.

Janet Kagan: The focus of your work ranges from transportation to city and regional planning, and from workforce housing to renewable energy -- critical issues in urban and rural communities.  How do you traverse between these two contexts?

Robin Rather: I was born in Houston and am a fifth generation Texan on both sides of my family.  I spent the school year in cities including Washington, D.C., and London but spent every summer with my grandmother in a small rural town on the banks of the Colorado River.  To this day, I consider myself a hybrid:  both a city and a country girl.  I have a ton of first cousins who still live in Bastrop County(Texas), and their kids and grandkids are still there.

There really is no rural without a city nearby and no real city exists without a rural counterpart nearby. They are part of the same ecosystem and are, in truth, completely inter-dependent.  I have no trouble integrating the fundamental issues of our time -- jobs, energy, water, air, and land -- into either an urban or rural mind-set.  It is not either/or. It is both. 

Over the past decade or more, way too many pundits have just stopped thinking of rural areas as equally important and have fallen all over themselves thinking that cities are the answer to the world’s sustainability problems.  I don’t buy that at all.   Cities have something to offer as we move forward, but rural areas have just as much and arguably even more.  As an example, let me point to Maurice Strong, a respected businessman , and as an executive at the United Nations considered one of the grandfathers of the sustainability movement.  He states, “…the future health of our planet will be determined in our cities.”  With all due respect -- really?  (See also this Fast Company article.)

08/25/2014 at 1:41pm

Photo by Axel Gerdau/The New York Times The chairman of RFD-TV, who is opposing the Time Warner/AT&T merger, is visiting events, like the “The Mollie B Polka Party” to get people to write anti-merger comments to the FCC.

The chairman of the company that owns RFD-TV has launched a national campaign over proposed mergers of cable and satellite television giants.

Patrick Gottsch, head of Rural Media Group, says rural, independent television programming could disappear from cable and satellite if big mergers go through. Two proposals currently under federal review are Comcast’s merger with Time Warner Cable and AT&T’s merger with DirecTV.

Many television executives privately oppose the mergers over fears that they will allow cable and satellite TV giants to dictate terms to cable TV channels and networks. But few TV executives are willing to speak out in public. Gottsch is the exception, reports the New York Times.

Another exception in Gottsch’s campaign is the audience he’s reaching. He’s visiting state fairs, polka dances, tractor pulls and other events where he’s likely to find viewers of his rural-themed television channel. And he’s asking them to write comments to the FCC about the proposed mergers.

In Washington, he has hired a lobbying firm and appeared before a House antitrust subcommittee, the FCC and the Justice Department. His two stations, RFD-TV and Family Net, have run spots urging viewers to speak out. Of the more than 63,000 comments filed to the F.C.C. about the proposed merger, about a fifth mention RFD-TV.

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Midwest grain and farmland prices are sliding, farm equipment sales are at an eight-year low, and upcoming large crop yields that could outpace demand are making it a rough time to be in agriculture in the middle of the country. The problem has been measured on an index of economic activity in the Midwest. And because nothing happens in a vacuum, the problem is affecting more than just farmers:

“This decline has spilled over into the broader rural economy, according to our survey,” said Ernie Goss, an economist from Creighton University. “I expect readings to move even lower in the months ahead.”

08/25/2014 at 7:13am

Photo by Jerry Lara/San Antonio Express-News A pool table sits outside a Texas RV park that opened during an earlier oil and gas boom.

Energy boomtowns in North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Texas might be better off economically in the long run if they had never started pumping oil and gas out of the ground.

That’s one implication of new research looking at the impact of the “resource curse” in U.S. counties.

Grand D. Jacobson and Dominic P. Parker looked at the economies of U.S. counties that went through another boom period in U.S. energy production: the 1970s and ’80s. They found that after a time of rising incomes and employment, those regions did poorer economically than they would have – all things equal – without an oil and gas boom.

“The boom [of the 1970s and ‘80s] created substantial short-term economic benefits, but also longer-term hardships that persisted in the form of joblessness and depressed local incomes,” the researchers write in a paper due for publication in The Economic Journal.

The resource curse theory asserts that over-reliance on natural resources like oil, gas and coal in regional economies winds up hurting local economies more than helping. It’s also called the “paradox of plenty,” because a resource that we’d think of as helping build a local economy is actually hurting it, economists say.

Jacobson and Parker looked at 391 rural counties in the Rocky Mountain region of nine states that had booming oil and gas production from about 1975 to 1985. They measured various economic indicators before, during and after the boom.

The researchers chose the Western region, in part, because of similarities it has with current booming natural-gas and oil production in places like North Dakota, Texas and Pennsylvania. “Media portrayals of 1970s Western boomtowns resemble media accounts of oil-fracking boomtowns today,” the scholars wrote. “Media outlets at the time were reporting on the high wages and surplus of available jobs in Western boomtowns, but also on the social disruptions taking place.”

08/22/2014 at 9:47am

Climate CentralThis graph represents a typical climb in temperature from a rural area to an urban center.We've been saying this all along, and science confrims it: It's cool to live in the country.

Or at least cooler.

A new report says that rural areas around the nation's 60 largest cities are an average of 2.4 degrees cooler than their adjoining urbanized areas. That's because of the phenomenon of "urban heat islands."

The report from the research group Climate Central says that climate change is making the condition more pronounced. Urban heat could get bad enough to create problems for city living in the future, the report says.

 “Cites are almost always hotter than the surrounding rural area, but global warming takes that heat and makes it worse,” the report says. “In the future, this combination of urbanization and climate change could raise urban temperatures to levels that threaten human health, strain energy resources, and compromise economic productivity.”

The report also says the number of “searing hot days” is increasing each year in major cities. In most cases, urbanized areas are warming faster than rural areas, the report says.

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Efforts to reform the national beef “checkoff” marketing program have hit an impasse.

The Beef Checkoff Enhancement Working Group, which represents 11 industry-related organizations, has been working for three years on a new plan. But their recently released report has drawn broad criticism for not going far enough to improve the marketing system.

The checkoff system imposes a fee on each head of cattle. That money is supposed to be used to market beef. But critics say the money has become general support revenue for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which receives 80% of the funds generated from the checkoff.

Early this week the National Farmers Union legislative committee recommended that the NFU pull out of the Beef Checkoff Enhancement Working Group, saying proposals so far would not make meaningful changes in the program.

The Lincoln (Nebraska) Journal Star reports

[NFU’s Chandler Goule, senior vice president] said the work group at one point was close to a consensus, but one industry member stalled and the resulting memorandum does nothing to change the functionality of the checkoff, nor what many see as an almost monopolistic control by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. …

Nebraska state Sen. Al Davis, a rancher from Hyannis, has been appointed by Vilsack to the 103-member Beef Board. On Tuesday, he called the memorandum a step in the wrong direction.

Davis said no policy groups should have a connection to the committee awarding checkoff funds, and that concern isn’t addressed by the proposal.

The Independent Cattlemen of Nebraska, while not part of the work group, called for rejection of the proposed memorandum.

Independent Cattlemen President David Wright questioned the need for raising the checkoff [from $1 to at least $2 per head of cattle] and said the proposed changes to the Beef Promotion Operational Committee would not address the lack of diversity that has led to accusations of favoritism in awarding projects.

Montana-based R-CALF USA, which is not a member of the work group, called the memorandum “smoke and mirrors.”

R-CALF CEO Bill Bullard said he attended a few of the work group meetings when they first started but was excluded after making it clear R-CALF wouldn’t consider supporting an increase in the checkoff until its concerns about conflicts of interest within the program were resolved.

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Louisville public radio looks at the role of coal in Kentucky elections, including the current Senate race between Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes.

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Diners in Denver are winding down a four-day event celebrating locally produced meat and local neighborhoods. The event, Hoofin’ It, explored four neighborhoods over four nights, treating participants to food made from a different hoofed animal each evening. Meals centered around bison, pork, beef and sheep, reports the Denver Eater. Ranchers served as guests of honor for the events, and participants walked from restaurant to restaurant – hoofing it, get it?