Roundup: Big State, Tiny Brew

Rural microbrew • Efficient rural transportation • Saving endangered species • Coal miners duped out of benefits • Drought hitting hard in the west • USDA encouraging private rural investment • Mobile slaughter crews not as scary as they sound • Fighting over sales tax

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Craft beer breweries are finding their niche in rural areas. Big Bend Brewing Company is based in Alpine, Texas – over 150 miles from any other town. The company found its foothold in the Alpine area, which has seen a large tourist boom lately, and has gathered loyal clients from all over west Texas as well. Now, the company even has a waiting list of hundreds of bars and restaurants that want to stock their product.

“We could’ve been another one of the 20-something breweries in Austin,” Big Bend brewmaster Steve Anderson says. “But we wanted to do something different.”

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Aspen, Colorado is proving that even rural areas can have efficient public transportation systems. The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses connect downtown areas along Route 82 and delivered over 4.1 million rides last year alone. The RFTA features express buses as well as a bikeshare program.

“My car doesn’t do very well in the snow, so especially in the winter it’s nice not to stress about the snow,” says Aspen local Jamie Cundiff. “If it’s in the summer, I love having the ability to bike one way and bus the other because sometimes the weather is different in the morning than the afternoon.”

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Small producers and Slow Food advocates have initiated a growing movement to conserve endangered species of livestock and poultry. Among these breeds is the Red Wattle pig, which was down to a population of just 50 in 1999. Due to the efforts of small farmers and the Livestock Conservancy, their numbers are now back up around 6,000.

"As counterproductive as it may seem, to save these pigs we have to eat them," says hog farmer Travis Hood.

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The U.S. Department of Labor has told nearly 1,100 coal miner who had their black lung benefits denied to not trust the opinion of the doctor who diagnosed them, thus denying them of benefits from their companies.

Dr. Paul S. Wheeler was the subject of yearlong ABC News/Center for Public Integrity joint investigation last year that found evidence that Wheeler was possibly on the take from coal companies. Of more than 1,500 black lung cases since the year 2000, Wheeler didn’t find a single X-ray he considered to be ‘severe’ black lung. Independent doctors refuted many of these diagnoses.

According to the story, coal companies may have a hard time finding friends on this one:

The only statements in support of coal companies came from the insurance industry consultant, who contended that many claims were being incorrectly awarded to miners whose health problems were attributable primarily to smoking.

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A lingering drought across American farmland has contributed to sinking statistics and a growing poverty rate in rural areas. In the 42 months before May of last year, less rain fell than in the historic American Dust Bowl period (mid-1930's).

Perpetual dryness and the lack of access to irrigation systems are dragging down American farmers, making it difficult for those who have traditionally lived off the land to sustain themselves and their families.

Still, these farmers hope that the drought is a just a temporary dip in a fluctuating cycle and that prosperous times will return. "When it's good," speaks Colorado farmer Dwight Watson, "it's so good you don't want to leave. And when it's bad, you can't afford to."

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture's new funding model encourages private investment in rural regions, where opportunities for economic growth via private investment are ripe and plentiful.

The department has spent $2.75 billion on rural development since 2009. Still, according to the agency, this is not enough. Generating investments from both private and public sectors will bring a level of growth to rural areas that USDA dollars cannot achieve alone, claims U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack.


USDA's new funding plan will be discussed this week at the D.C. "Rural Opportunity Investment Conference ". Those in attendance will discuss, among other things, ways to support rural economies that are no longer sustained by farming.

"We have become so efficient with farming that we don't need as many people to do what used to be done by millions of people. It's now done by thousands of people," spoke Vilsack, "What we need to do is complement that production agriculture economy with companion economies." 

According to the USDA, private investment is a way to do just that.

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Mobile slaughter crews, teams of butchers that kill and process livestock for small-scale farms, are gaining popularity as the demand for locally-grown food increases. Farmers who would otherwise be unable to raise, kill, and sell their livestock are now able to do so with the aid of the mobile crews that divide labor by isolating the slaughter.

The slaughtering process, if done alone, strains the resources of small-scale farmers. Not only this, but slaughter is often found undesirable within the affluent communities that have the highest demand for local food.

 Mobile slaughter crews profit from farmers' needs to outsource the mess of killing. In fact, the numbers of mobile butchering companies are increasing, particularly in communities that can bear the extra expense of the locally-grown and slaughtered livestock. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that while only 20 mobile slaughtering units currently exist, that this number is expected to greatly increase as the demand for locally-grown food continues to rise

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Rural and urban counties in North Carolina are at odds over a sales tax measure attached to a job creation bill. The measure would set a sales tax cap of 2.5% for of the counties in the state.

 

For all but six of North Carolina's 100 counties, the measure would make it easier to raise their local sales tax rate as high as 2.5 percent. Most counties are below that cap and unable to use existing authority to raises taxes for transportation project. The proposed law would allow them to put referenda before voters asking to raise sales taxes in quarter-cent increments for either education, transportation, general purposes or some combination of the three. 

Senators from less populated areas are leaning in favor of the bill. "This bill levels the playing field for all counties," said Sen. Rick Gunn, of Alamance.

 

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