Thursday, April 24, 2014

04/10/2014 at 11:56am

Photo by Steve Woodward Sun King Pro solar lights allow folks in rural India and Africa to cook and read well into the night.

In parts of rural India and Africa, getting enough electricity to power lights or charge cell phones can mean traveling and paying someone for kerosene or a generator. Greenlight Planet is producing tiny solar devices that provide light and charge small electronics. The lights, branded Sun King, can power lights for up to 30 hours, which allows families to cook and study well after sunset.

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A new study says states did a better job of running elections in 2012—and lists some examples. A couple things stood out in regard to rural realities:

  1. Of the 10 states with the longest average wait times, eight of them were in the South. This is the same region that is enacting some of the most strident voter ID laws since the Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act last summer. 
  2. Online voter registration: "States are pioneering innovations that make a real difference in the efficiency and accuracy of their elections operations while also saving money," said David Becker of Pew Charitable Trusts.

Becker told NPR that a growing number of states allow online voter registration and use technology to make voting more efficient. There are currently 17 states that offer voters the opportunity to register online.

With broadband use lower in rural areas, as a rule, we wonder how the online registration trend could affect rural voting.

04/10/2014 at 6:06am

Farmers in America have a saying. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

This reminds me of a Twilight Zone episode where extraterrestrials visiting from outer space present earthlings with a book. The title?

To Serve Man.

Written in strange language, the book is all but indecipherable. People assume, from the kind demeanor of the outlanders, that they’ve come in peaceful cooperation as servants to us all. In the meantime, the world’s brightest minds work feverishly to decipher the book and all its secrets. With help from other world visitors, nuclear arsenals are dismantled and Earth soon knows peace as never before. It isn’t long before aliens begin loading earthlings onto space ships, presumably to vacation on their home planet. Then comes a discovery:

To Serve Man is a cook book.

We are all on the menu.

It’s getting harder and harder to exchange information in America. No one seems to be speaking the same language. Special-interest buzz around every issue is almost indecipherable. Even worse, everyone wants to talk, but no one wants to listen. People who should be my friends – the ones who write editorials for big-city newspapers or best-selling books on food, and their foodie followers – should want to be buddies with guys like me. Family farmers should be at the head of the table. Instead, these folks are putting us on the menu.

That’s what Lorraine Lewandrowski just talked about on Daily Yonder last week when New Yorkers forgot to include farmers in their talk about food.

But it’s not just the foodies who like to see my head on a plate. On the other end of the spectrum, big government, big agriculture and big corporations would like to be rid of me, too, because I’m not big enough to affect their bottom line.

We’ve been alienated.

How did I get to this place in time where outlanders supposedly come in peace, but put me in a pressure cooker? Like Rod Serling said in his voice over soliloquy, “Man has gone from dust to dessert, from ruler of a planet to ingredient in someone’s soup.”

Maybe he was talking about family farmers.

It doesn’t really matter whether the alien ship I’m on is bound for Saturn or New York.

Either way, I’m toast. Or maybe I’m just the equivalent of chicken, that bland, less-than-memorable, cheap-to-eat meat on everyone’s plate.

I could escape if I were more colorful. If I could devise a way to turn chemicals and fat into a culinary plate du jour, I could be famous. Or, if I farmed with horses, reducing my food output from 350 to 1 down to 5.

I’ve always said I’d like to try farming with horse once. Remember, I said once.

As it is, due to the limited scope of my operation, I’m considered non-essential to one group, and too modern and efficient to be considered “colorful” by the other.

I grow corn and soybeans, awful things ... and cattle! Those ruminant, atmosphere-polluting beasts that make meat and milk. Much is said about cattle and methane emissions. Omitted is mention of upscale restaurants promoting that boon to health of 400 million Americans, black beans, from which there has undoubtedly been a decided uptick in gaseous emanation.

Isn’t that bad for the planet, too?

Oh yes, we are all guilty by association. Farmers like me hold their peer relationships close. It’s difficult or impossible to have an open dialogue. Only the recipe book is honest in what it is, while the rest of us stir the pot. That’s not to say ingredients can’t be changed.

It’s just a matter of taste.

04/09/2014 at 6:03am

The chart shows the number of housing units financed through programs by USDA Rural Development from 1950 to 2013. (Click to enlarge.)

Federal spending on affordable rural housing programs has been on a downward trend for a number of years that threatens to continue until the programs eventually fade away.  The Obama administration seems to be seeking just such a fade out, thinking that housing groups will not notice.  This has been underway quietly as the federal budget gets tighter and many worthy programs are cut.  Sequestration and across-the-board cuts resulted in steep reductions in FY 2013. 

Background

Promising “a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family,” the Housing Act of 1949 addressed rural housing issues through the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The first USDA loan programs served low-income family farmers.  With counseling for borrowers delivered by local USDA office staff, these programs helped families who could not qualify for credit from other sources and aimed to help such families eventually “graduate” to conventional, private-sector credit. The programs were expanded over the years to include rental and other housing needs, and to be available to all rural residents as well as to farmers. 

With the aim of financing decent, safe and sanitary housing through its single-family homeownership programs and multi-family rental housing programs, USDA has helped more than 2 million low- and very low-income families become homeowners through the Section 502 direct loan program. In addition, approximately 180,000 very low-income homeowners received loans to improve their substandard housing and nearly 189,000 elderly very low-income homeowners received grants to remove health and safety hazards from their homes. Over 533,000 rental units for lower-income families were constructed through the Section 515 Rural Rental Housing program. Monthly rents for very low-income families were made more affordable by a tenant rent subsidy called Rental Assistance (RA) or Section 521. Farmworker housing also was supported.

So we had for several decades a set of programs that served the housing needs of low-and very low-income rural people.  But in recent years, this emphasis on lower-income families has dissipated in favor of less costly loan guarantees serving moderate incomes. 

Trends for USDA Housing Programs 

During the 1970s and early 1980s, USDA’s housing programs served hundreds of thousands of lower-income rural households. Programs like the Direct Section 502 Single Family Housing loan program and the Section 504 Rural Repair and Rehabilitation loan and grant programs helped improve the quality and affordability of homes in rural areas.

Then, in the early 1990s, the agency introduced a loan guarantee program for single-family mortgages, primarily aimed at moderate income households (115 percent of Area Median Income) and similar to mortgage guarantees offered by the HUD Federal Housing Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Commercial lenders make the loan, and the federal government guarantees those lenders against loss.   Since the 1990s, funding has shifted toward loan guarantees instead of direct loans. (Compare the blue [direct loans] and red [loan guarantees] lines in the chart at the top of this article.)

04/08/2014 at 12:29pm

Photo by Shannon Stapleton / Reuters A natural gas flare outside of Williston, North Dakota.

Energy producers in the Bakken shale formation of North Dakota are wasting about a third of the natural gas they extract from the ground each day, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. That’s up 100 percent from 2012.

Producers "flare" or burn off the gas -- amounting to a loss of $1.4 million worth of gas each day.

Flaring is a symptom of a lack of infrastructure, the story says. Most of the flared gas comes from wells without pipelines, the rest from wells with pipelines too small to handle the volume.

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USA Today reports on a new type of ATM being rolled out in small towns. It’s a money machine with a screen that allows users to interact with a live teller, who can be located miles away. Manufacturer NCR Corp. sees them as a way to save money for rural banks by decreasing the need for behind-the-counter tellers.

"The ATM on steroids and the ramping up of remote services is really important," said Jim Chessen, chief economist at the American Bankers Association. "The main thing about the video tellers is that you still have a face-to-face connection without the expense of having someone that's just serving a single branch. It's a more efficient way to handle walk-in traffic in areas where it's less intense."

EDITOR'S NOTE: The tellers in our bank in Norris, Tennessee, share news, weather and even give our dog a treat when we go through the drive-through. They live in the area and raise families here. NCR and the Bankers Association didn't comment on this aspect of their machine. But we know our dog, for one, would hate it.

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04/07/2014 at 10:32pm

 

Migration patterns – rather than birth or death rates – are driving the historic population loss that has occurred in nonmetropolitan counties over the past three years, according to analysis from the USDA Economic Research Service.

That means the three-year population-loss trend may be because of the economic downturn, rather than a long-term structural change in nonmetro population patterns.

The story is in the ERS chart above.

The black line shows the total rate of population change in nonmetro counties since 1976. The black population-change line has a pretty robust cycle to it, rising and falling in three distinct patterns over the last 35 years.

At the extreme right of the chart, the black line dips below zero. That’s when nonmetro counties started losing population – in 2011.

Notice how the green line – “net migration” – parallels the rise and fall of the black line precisely. The green line measures the population change that results from people moving in and out of nonmetropolitan counties.

The red line – “natural increase” – is on a path of its own. It’s declining slowly over time with no rapid changes. This line shows the population change that is the result of births and deaths, as opposed to migration.

04/07/2014 at 6:12am

U.S. Census/Daily YonderClick the map to make it interactive an explore county-level popuulation data.

If you’re looking for evidence of North Dakota’s oil and gas boom, take a look at the top 25 fastest-growing nonmetro counties in the United States in the list below.

The top six are in North Dakota. And the state has another four a little farther down the list, giving North Dakota a total of 10 counties in the top 25.

Above is an interactive map that displays population change from 2010 to 2013 as a percentage of population. Green counties gained; purple counties lost. (We had an incorrect version of this map up last week for a short time -- this one should work much better.)

North Dakota is dominated by the dark green counties at the top, center of the nation.

Below is a list of nonmetro counties that gained the most population as expressed as percentage growth from 2010 to 2013.

At the top of the heap is McKenzie County, North Dakota, where the population surged 46% in recent years, to reach 9,300 residents in 2013.

The smallest county on the top 25 fastest growing is Loving County, Texas (No. 7), where just 13 new residents resulted in a climb of 16%.

Source: U.S. Census

04/04/2014 at 4:23am
This map shows post offices that are scheduled to have their hours reduced between now and the end of September. The changes could affect the jobs of about 3,300 postmasters, SavethePostOffice reports.

More than 3,000 postmasters could lose their full-time jobs at the end of September when the U.S. Postal Service is scheduled to enact sweeping changes in how local post offices are operated and staffed.

That’s according to the website SavethePostOffice.com, which follows postal policy, paying special attention to the POStPlan, which is reducing post office hours and replacing full-time postmasters with part-time employees.

The exact number of postmaster reductions will depend on existing vacancies.

 “By October, the institution of the small-town career postmaster will become a thing of the past at almost half the country's post offices,” the website reports:

As best as we can figure it using USPS lists, about 8,800 post offices have had their hours reduced over the past year and a half …  For another 300 offices, a public meeting was held recently or it's scheduled soon, but no implementation date has been announced. 

That leaves around 3,900 post offices where no meeting has yet been scheduled and implementation has yet to occur.   At many of these offices, there's currently a postmaster vacancy; at others, a vacancy will open up over the coming months if the postmaster can find a new position.  If implementation continues at the current rate (about a hundred a month), some 600 of these post offices will have their hours reduced during the spring and summer. 

In the end, there will be something like 3,300 post offices where the postmaster will still be on the job as of September 30, 2014.  On that date, these postmasters will lose their full-time jobs as part of a Reduction in Force — i.e., they will be RIF’d.

SavethePostOffice has several lists and maps that allow users to explore how the changes might affect their local branch of the U.S. Postal Service. It’s worth a look.

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Michigan’s farmers and other rural businesses need broadband to compete in the marketplace, says the president of the state Agribusiness Association.

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A majority of Wisconsin rural school districts that had tax increases on the ballot Tuesday came away with voter approval to raise more public money for local education. Twenty rural districts had tax proposals on the ballot this week, ranging from $440,000 to $27.6 million. Twelve initiatives passed; eight failed.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports:

Rural school districts have come under increased pressure as declining enrollment, fluctuating state aid, and increasing operational costs have combined to force districts into an uncomfortable corner – ask the community for a tax increase or face drastic budget cuts.

“It is a very difficult decision — the school is the heart and soul of the community,” said Jerry Fiene, executive director of the Rural Schools Alliance.  “And whenever you have to increase taxes it’s always a point of contention.”

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