Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Invasive pigweed species found in most birdseed mixes

Farmers need to scout pollinator plots to make sure they feature flowers that attract bees and other beneficial insects instead of pesky weeds like Palmer amaranth. (DTN photo by Pamela Smith)
Palmer amaranth
(Photo by Pamela Smith)
Researchers at the University of Missouri found out that commercial birdseed is giving Palmer amaranth, an invasive pigweed species, a sneaky ride into farms and gardens across the Midwest. Palmer amaranth is a frequent annoyance in the south, but was found "popping up in pollinator plots across the Midwest last year. Missouri scientists have also pointed to waterfowl contributing to the continued spread of the weed as the birds eat and subsequently poop the undigested and still viable pigweed seeds far away from the point of initial consumption," Pam Smith reports for The Progressive Farmer. The weed has spread to 39 of Missouri's 114 counties in recent years.

University of Missouri weed expert Kevin Bradley says that the spread of the plant is usually blamed on contaminated livestock feed, bedding, or seeds clinging to machinery. His findings about the birdseed vector were presented at University of Missouri's recent Integrated Pest Management field day.

It's research worth noting, since some kinds of Palmer amaranth can resist several kinds of herbicides. The tiny seeds were present in almost all of the birdseed the researchers screened, but seed mixes that contain millet tended to have the most. One sample "contained nearly 8,000 pigweed seeds in a single pound bag. That's a lot of pigweed since birdseed often sells in 50 lb. bags," Smith reports. Seeds for other weeds were also common in the birdseed samples, including ragweed, velvetleaf, and morning glory.

Analysis shows big increase in diagnoses of food allergies, especially in rural children

A new analysis of private insurance claims shows that more people are suffering from allergies these days, and that those allergies are more severe especially in rural areas. The analysis was conducted by the nonprofit organization FAIR Health, which maintains a database of billions of medical and dental claims from 150 million people with private insurance. The search showed that anaphylactic reactions, especially to peanuts, have increased by almost five times from 2007 to 2016. Anaphylaxis is a systemic allergic reaction that can be fatal if not treated quickly.

An interesting result of the analysis was that there was a larger increase in claims from rural areas than in urban or suburban areas. Though both urban and rural allergy-related claims decreased in 2016, rural claims increased 110 percent while urban claims increased 70 percent over the entire 10-year period. That is intriguing because numerous studies have shown that children growing up in rural areas are less prone to allergies, possibly because the increased exposure to nature gives their immune systems a workout and makes them less likely to react to environmental triggers such as peanuts or eggs.

FAIR Health Inc. chart; click on it to enlarge it.
The analysis doesn't examine whether rural residents had increased rates of private health insurance coverage over that time period, and if so, how that affected the incidence of insurance claims. The rural rate climbed above the urban rate in 2014, the first year that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was in full effect. FAIR Health plans to release a white paper in October examining "geographical and gender variations and costs of services, among other factors," Sumathi Reddy reports for The Wall Street Journal.

Experts have plenty of theories about the cause of the increase and severity of allergies. "The increase could be related to the increasing use of antibiotics, rising rates of Caesarean sections that affect the microbiomes of babies, and an increasingly sterile environment, says Hugh Sampson, director of the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. All have altered the good bacteria in our intestinal tracts, which alters the programming of our immune systems," Reddy reports. Sampson says another problem is that parents have been told to avoid giving highly allergenic foods such as peanuts to small children, an approach that appears to have backfired. Allergies to peanuts and tree nuts have at least doubled in the U.S. over the past 20 years.

What led EPA to decide farmers could keep using a pesticide banned for residential use since 2000?

Here's a story that highlights the importance to reporters of Freedom of Information Act requests and meticulous research.

"In the weeks before the Environmental Protection Agency decided to reject its own scientists’ advice to ban a potentially harmful pesticide, Scott Pruitt, the agency’s head, promised farming industry executives who wanted to keep using the pesticide that it is 'a new day, and a new future,' and that he was listening to their pleas," Eric Lipton and Roni Rabin report for The New York Times.

The Times found this information after obtaining more than 700 pages of internal agency documents through an FOIA request. The documents show that EPA staff appointed by President Trump were instrumental in getting long-time staff to agree to reject a petition from environmentalists to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos. Chlorpyrifos has been produced by Dow Chemical since the 1960s and is still widely used, but it has been banned for residential use since 2000 because of evidence that it damages the brains of fetuses, infants and children. Because chlorpyrifos dries up and drifts on the wind after it has been sprayed on crops, it is being blamed for causing sickness in 47 farmers near Bakersfield, Calif., on May 5.

"Three days before Donald J. Trump’s inauguration, Dow Chemical had separately submitted a request to the agency to reject the petition to ban chlorpyrifos, calling the scientific link between the childhood health issues and the pesticide unclear," the Times reports. The trail of internal memos and emails seems to show that new EPA staff were listening — not just to industry executives, but to interested parties in the White House and the Department of Agriculture, which tends to be more industry-friendly than the EPA. Melanie Benesh, a legislative attorney at the Environmental Working Group, told the Times, "What is clear from these documents is that Administrator Pruitt’s abrupt action to vacate the ban on chlorpyrifos was an ideological, not a health-based, decision."

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Job growth in rural areas continues to lag

"Job growth in rural America continues to lag the rest of the country, according to the latest figures from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics," Bill Bishop reports for The Daily Yonder. While jobs increased about 2 percent in large metropolitan areas from June 2016 to June 2017, rural areas overall only increased 0.29 percent, and the 924 counties that are farthest away from cities didn't gain jobs at all; they declined by 0.02 percent.
Daily Yonder map; click on it to enlarge
"Moreover, rural areas have been losing workforce, the total number of people either working or looking for a job," Bishop reports. "From June 2016 to June of this year, the rural workforce has shrunk by just over 105,000 people, or about 0.5 percent. That has helped keep rural unemployment rates low, but it indicates that the economy in many rural areas is hollowing out."

Rural areas have struggled to add jobs since the end of the Great Recession in 2009. There are new jobs to be had, but they're mostly concentrated in America's largest cities. "Seventy percent of the growth in employment since last June took place in the metropolitan areas with a million or more people," Bishop reports. Click here for a zoomable county-by-county map detailing job growth trends in America.

Voters say local news is less biased than national

A poll last week found that voters put more trust in their local news outlets than they do national news media, Edward Graham reports for Morning Consult, which commissioned the poll with Politico. It found that 41 percent of registered voters in a nationwide sample trust the local news more than national news to tell the truth, while 27 percent said they trusted national news more (32 percent didn't know or didn't have an opinion).

Democrats were slightly more likely to trust national news more than local news, while Republicans (especially Trump voters) and independents were almost twice as likely to trust local news over national news. On the question of bias, 54 percent of the respondents said they believed national news is liberally biased, while only 16 percent said it was conservatively biased and 7 percent said it was nonpartisan. The perception of liberal bias was seen less in local news: 40 percent said their local news leans liberal, while 25 percent said it is conservative and 11 percent said it was nonpartisan. The poll was conducted online Aug. 10-14 among 1,997 registered voters, and results were weighted to produce a target sample of registered voters based on age, race/ethnicity, gender, educational attainment, and region. The margin of error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.

Natalie Jomini Stroud, an associate communications studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said local media may be more trusted by viewers because there is evidence that local newspapers tailor coverage to readers' preferences.

The poll takes on added weight when considering the controversial ascent of conservative news conglomerate Sinclair Broadcasting Group. "Sinclair, already the largest owner of television stations across the United States, is in the middle of a proposed $3.9 billion purchase of Tribune Media that would see the company add 42 new stations. The Federal Communications Commission is currently reviewing the proposed merger," Graham notes. Some have criticized Sinclair for requiring local news stations to frequently run segments of conservative commentary.

Vilsack says U.S. doesn't appreciate its rural areas, which could draw more value-added manufacturing

Tom Vilsack (right) spoke at the Iowa State Fair.
(Des Moines Register photo by Angela Ufheil)
Americans don't appreciate rural America, and small towns could attract many more manufacturing jobs, former agriculture secretary and Iowa governor Tom Vilsack said at the Iowa State Fair Aug. 19.

Vilsack, a Democrat, is president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. He said the U.S. can create more jobs by putting processing and manufacturing facilities near where natural resources are harvested or extracted, instead of shipping raw materials elsewhere. The rhetoric could resonate with Iowa cattle ranchers reeling from the loss of a promised meat processing plant, after the U.S. withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Angela Ufheil reports for The Des Moines Register, which sponsored Vilsack's appearance as part of its Political Soapbox at the fair.

"Another challenge facing Iowa, Vilsack said, is the lack of appreciation for rural America. He noted almost all food produced in the U.S. comes from rural areas. Yet those living in cities and benefiting from inexpensive food are so far removed from its production that they don't understand the challenges farmers face," Ufheil reports. He suggested that state and federal regulators use incentives that would lighten the financial burden on farmers, saying that they can't easily absorb increased costs due to regulation.

The Political Soapbox is an extension of the paper's Changing Iowa series, which explores the "demographic, cultural and economic changes taking place across the state, including the pressure being put on mid-sized farmshow automation is reshaping Iowa's workforce, and how Iowa's smaller cities have been left behind," Ufheil reports.

Interior halts study on health effects of large-scale surface mining in Central Appalachia

A surface coal mine (Herald-Leader photo by Charles Bertram)
The Interior Department has ordered to halt a $1 million study of whether large-scale surface mining in Central Appalachia has caused health problems. The U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement had hired The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to do the study. It included a public meeting in Hazard, Ky., on the day the halt was announced. The meeting, and one in Lexington the next day, were held.

Interior said it halted the study because it is reviewing all its grants and cooperative agreements of more than $100,000, Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. OSM had commissioned the study in August 2016, charging a panel of experts to review what it said was a "growing amount" of academic research on the topic.

Opponents of surface mining say they fear the study will be scrapped completely, citing the Trump administration's recent efforts to turn back some environmental regulations. "This was something that we had considered and feared given the change in administrations," Erin Savage, a program manager for Appalachian Voices, told Estep.

Studies have shown that mountaintop mining is associated with higher rates of cancer, heart disease, and other health issues. "However, the coal industry has fiercely disputed the studies, and a 2012 industry-funded study by a Yale University researcher and others concluded that 'coal mining is not per se the cause of increased mortality in rural Appalachia,'" Estep notes.

William Kearney, executive director of the National Academies, said in a press release that the agency believes the study is important and is "ready to resume it as soon as the Department of the Interior review is completed." At the Hazard meeting, residents told National Academies researchers that they hope OSM will allow the study to continue, Estep reports in an update. "Science isn't going to hurt us. What we don't know very well could," said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg.
Rad more here: http://www.kentucky.com/news/state/article168383627.html#storylink=cpy

Monday, August 21, 2017

Virginia is the latest state to help military veterans promote their products with special logo

Virginia is the latest state where military veterans who are farmers can use a special logo to promote their products. The logo is a combination of the "Virginia Grown" label and the national "Homegrown by Heroes" logo. The state label has been used by farmers for 15 years to advertise locally-grown produce and products; the other logo "is the official farmer veteran brand image developed in 2013 by the national Farmer Veteran Coalition," reports the Bristol Herald Courier. Gov. Terry McAuliffe unveiled the joint logo July 26. Several states, including Arkansas and Kentucky, have also developed joint logos in the past few years.

Army Col. (Ret.) John Fant, a retired cattle rancher, is president of the new Virginia chapter of FVC. He says the logo may help encourage more young veterans to get started in farming. "From a food security perspective, the average age of a Virginia farmer is 58½ years. So as current farmers transition into retirement, we need to replace them," he says. "We think many veterans have the specific skill set to do that, and this marketing tool can help them. Anyone who’s ever sold something knows you can have a great product, but if you can’t sell, you won’t succeed."

Farmers who want to use the logo must be certified as former military personnel through FVC. The first training program for interested farmers will be Oct. 27 and 28 at Hudson Heritage Farms in Halifax County. For more information contact Rebekah Slabach of Virginia Cooperative Extension at rslabach@vt.edu or (434) 476-2147.

Rural Alabama hospital closes, highlighting struggles of rural hospitals nationwide

On Sept. 1 a hospital serving some of Alabama's poorest counties will close its doors, making it the seventh rural Alabama hospital to close in eight years. The J. Paul Jones Hospital in Camden had been open for 60 years, Christopher Harress reports for Alabama.com. That puts Alabama third on the list of states with most rural hospital closures. Georgia is in second place with six closures and Texas is in first place.

Rural hospitals all over the country are struggling, partly because many rural residents rely on Medicaid, but Medicaid is not a big money maker for hospitals. That's especially true in Alabama, where a complex federal formula gives hospitals less reimbursement for treating Medicaid patients than almost any other state. Republicans in Congress want to cut Medicaid, which may worsen the problem. Hospitals that remain open in rural areas are coping by cutting back on expensive specialized services such as obstetrics, as these maps show:
Alabama.com graphic
"Alabama is without doubt facing a rural health crisis," says Jim Carnes, policy director at Alabama Arise, a non-profit advocate group for low-income residents. "The hospital closures, along with other medical facilities, have already had and will continue to have dire consequences for residents in rural areas." Dale Quinney, executive director of the Alabama Rural Health Association, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the health of rural Alabama citizens, told Harress that 34 of the 46 rural hospitals that report annual income were operating at a loss.

An increased rural population and better jobs that offer private insurance would help improve the issue, but barring that, an expansion of Medicaid, building hospitals with fewer beds, allowing nurse practitioners to take over routine medical care, and embracing telehealth could help. Telehealth is becoming an increasingly popular solution to rural health, but implementation in Alabama may be difficult because of two things: there is no required telehealth reimbursement law, and rural areas may not have the necessary access to broadband internet.

Experts to hold Twitter chat Thursday to discuss agricultural health and safety issues

The Rural Health Information Hub will host a Twitter chat at 2 p.m. EDT Aug. 24, to discuss "barriers to the health and safety of farmers, ranchers, and farmworkers and explore some of the innovative ways these barriers are being addressed in rural communities."

Farmers and farm workers often face danger at work because of machinery, repetitive stress injuries, and exposure to pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals. They also often have limited access to health care or health insurance. The RHIhub will chat with experts.

The chat will be about 60 minutes long and will use the hashtag #RuralHealthChat. You can follow on Twitter or use a client such as TweetChat for ease of use. Click here for a list of the participating experts and directions for how to participate.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Missouri rejects big Midwest power line

On Aug. 16 the Missouri Public Service Commission rejected a proposed 780-mile-long high-voltage power line that would carry electricity from Kansas wind farms through Missouri and Illinois to Indiana, where it would connect to a power grid serving the Eastern U.S.

The case highlights a major roadblock in making renewable energy more mainstream: "Although converting wind and sun into electricity is increasingly affordable, it can be hard to get the regulatory and legal approval needed to transmit the power from remote areas where it's produced to the places where it's most needed," David Lieb reports for the Fort Wayne, Ind., Journal Gazette. "Other large-scale renewable energy projects in the Midwest, South and West also have faced denials or delays in transmission line approvals from federal and state regulators and courts." All the other states along the proposed path had already agreed to allow the Grain Belt Express Line, which would cost $2.3 billion and be one of the nation's longest transmission lines.
High Plains Public Radio map; click on it to enlarge; for state maps click here.
This is the second time in two years the Missouri utility regulators denied a request from Clean Line Energy Partners to build the power line project through the state. The first time, in July 2015, the commission rejected the proposal because they believed it didn't benefit Missouri residents enough and would be burdensome to landowners on whose land the line would be built. Clean Line tried to fix those objections in their revamped proposal, offering more protections to affected landowners and renewable energy deals to dozens of Missouri utilities along the line that serve hundreds of thousands of customers.

Four out of the five commission members said they thought the new proposal was a good idea, but "felt compelled to vote against it because of a recent state appeals court ruling. The judges in that case said utilities must first get the consent of counties to string a power line across roads before state approval can be granted. Clean Line lacks approval from several Missouri counties where its line is opposed by local residents," Lieb reports.

The future of the project is uncertain. "The Houston-based wind energy company could appeal the denial in court. It could try to win support from counties and apply again to Missouri regulators. Or it could attempt to circumvent Missouri by seeking federal approval to build the line through the state, as it did for an Oklahoma-to-Tennessee power line after Arkansas regulators ruled against it in 2011," Lieb reports.

Journalists explore ways to serve and connect with their communities in politically polarized times

Carolyn Powers of Internews listens to Lee Bratcher, who runs The Ohio County Monitor, an online news outlet in Western Kentucky, during a workshop Friday in Bowling Green.
By Jennifer P. Brown
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Community journalists who want to report stories that help build trust with readers and listeners, while also addressing political polarization, can find help from the non-profit organization Solutions Journalism, which offers free training to newsrooms.

"We didn't invent this. We basically put a structure around this idea," Carolyn Robinson told a few dozen participants at a workshop stemming from the "From Polarization to Public Sphere" study, a project of Columbia University's Tow Center for Digital Journalism. The researchers are Andrea Wenzel, a journalism professor at Temple University, and Sam Ford, an independent media consultant and research fellow at MIT who teaches at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, where Friday's workshop was held.

The researchers recommend Solutions Journalism as one approach to bridge the gap that result from political polarization.

Solutions Journalism puts problem-solving at the center of a story, Robinson explained. For example, a story about the difficulty freed prisoners have in re-entering public life would focus on successful programs and why they work, not just the failures of the system.

Robinson said news consumers complain they are overwhelmed with reports that focus on negative aspects of American life, and "We can't afford to have people tuning out." She said journalists who focus on solutions are "guide dogs" rather than "watchdogs."

Also presenting ideas at the workshop in were Jeremy Hay, co-founder of Spaceship Media, and Carolyn Powers of Internews.

Spaceship Media was established after the 2016 election. Its projects create space for people with opposing political views to have a sustained conversation. One example was a two-month discussion via a private Facebook group between 15 women who voted for Donald Trump and 15 who voted for Hillary Clinton.

Internews helps train journalists to understand their communities and get beyond stereotypical reporting. One effort is the Listening Post Collective, which gets newsrooms involved with their communities and spurs interaction with people whose stories help explain how a community works.

"From Polarization to Public Sphere" collected data from residents of Bowling Green and nearby Ohio County to begin studying new approaches for local journalists. Wenzel and Ford said they will use input from the workshop to make additional recommendations.

Jennifer P. Brown is former editor and opinion editor of the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville, Ky., and a member of the national advisory board of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

Wisconsin starts nation's first rural residency program for obstetrician-gynecologists

The University of Wisconsin has started the nation's first rural residency program for obstetrician-gynecologists, Dr. John Torres reports for NBC News, after noting that 54 percent of rural counties lack obstetric services, up from 45 percent in 2014.

"This is a national crisis," Dr. Ellen Hartenbach, who designed the program, told Torres. "I want this program to be a blueprint for increasing training spots in the country." It tries to "recruit doctors who have already embraced rural life and who have some experience in small community hospitals," Torres reports.

Sperling's Best Places map
The first resident is Laura McDowell, practicing in Monroe, a town of 11,000 near the Illinois border. "Just because docs are leaving doesn't mean the need isn't still there," she told Torres. "Women shouldn't have to think twice about getting good, quality health care in their small, rural town."

The report aired on "NBC Nightly News" Saturday, Aug. 19, starting at 13:10 in this video.

Coal industry's decline leaves E.Ky. schools crying for help, but lawmakers focus on state pensions

Stinnett Elementary School (H-L photo by Michael Reaves)
The decline of the coal industry in Appalachian Kentucky has school districts "struggling to keep the doors open," reports Valarie Honeycutt Spears of the Lexington Herald-Leader. The industry's poor prospects have caused devaluation of unmined coal, cutting tax revenue, and "Education officials are calling on Kentucky’s General Assembly to look for new ways to fund" the coalfield districts.

“If they don’t come up with something we may survive this year. But then we will either be running in the red or we will have to shut down,” Knott County Supt. Kim King told Spears. Harold Morgan, assistant school-finance director in Leslie County, "said students in third through ninth grade have Chromebooks — laptop devices — but because of the loss of money, school officials could not afford to purchase them for kindergarten through 2nd-graders or for all 10th- through 12th-graders," Spears reports

Linda Rains, the new superintendent in Leslie County, told Spears, “It’s so scary. People in Eastern Kentucky are used to being successful by pure grit, they’ve always had to depend on their determination and grit to get the job done. That’s what we’ll continue to do. But it sure would be nice to have some funds and to give these kids the same chances that all students in Kentucky have.”

But it's a bad time to be asking for help from the legislature, which is looking for money to shore up the state's pension system, by some measures the worst-funded in the nation. Sen. Chris McDaniel, chair of the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee, said pension reform will have to come first. “If we don’t get pension reform there’s just no way to help them,” he told Spears.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

If you're going to farm country for the eclipse, keep farmers in mind and watch for purple posts

David Cansler expects "a blizzard" of
eclipse watchers at his farm. (SF photo)
The expected rush to see Monday's solar eclipse has some farmers wary. "You can only get so many people down a two-lane road," Terena Bell writes for Successful Farming from Cerulean, Ky., which will be the point of greatest eclipse, where the moon covers the sun most fully, at about 1:25 p.m. CDT.

"In West Kentucky tobacco country, late August is cutting season," Bell reports. "Inability to get in and out limits how many wagons you can move from field to barn and back, which could leave crops to burn in the fields, a concern county Magistrate Mark Wells voiced at a recent town hall."

David Cansler, who with relatives owns the farm with the greatest-eclipse point, predicts "a blizzard in August . . . They're just going to have to shut everything down." Christian County Judge-Executive Steve Tribble said, "you could have some crops destroyed" by people parking vehicles.

Purple posts in Maine and other
states mean "No Trespassing"
Five states along the path of totality have "purple post" laws, which ban parking where fence posts are painted purple: Illinois, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, and North Carolina, Bell reports. However, many visitors "are not going to know what a purple post means," said Jessica Hahn, the Farm Bureau manager in Jackson County, Illinois, which will have the point of greatest eclipse duration, where the moon will cover the sun for the longest time: one-tenth of a second longer than on Cansler's farm. Here's a screenshot of part of an interactive map from NASA:
Purple marker is where eclipse will last longest, 2 minutes and 40.2 seconds. Green marker shows where moon will cover sun most fully, but for 0.1 second less. Blue lines show bounds of totality, the length of which increases rapidly as you move inward; it will last 2:20 in Paducah, 1:48 in Cape Girardeau, Mo., and 47 seconds in Central City, Ky.

Dicamba drift damages more than 3 million acres of soybeans, leaves farmers' planting plans uncertain

Illinois farmer Jeremy Wolf inspects damage
from dicamba. (DTN photo by Pam Smith)
The number of soybean acres damaged by drift of a new form of Monsanto's dicamba herbicide has surpassed 3 million, according to estimates by state agriculture agencies for weed expert Kevin Bradley at the University of Missouri, who cautions, "We will likely not know the extent of dicamba damage until the end of the season."

Bradley issued maps showing the number of acres estimated to be damaged in each state, and the number of damage investigations in those and other states:
The dicamba debacle has left many farmers uncertain about what seeds to book for next year," reports Pam Smith, crop technology editor for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. Homer, Ill., farmer Jeremy Wolf, half of whose beans were damaged, told her, "My entire summer has been consumed by trying to determine exactly how my beans got damaged and how to respond to that. I've seriously considered planting all corn next year. I do not want to go through another year like this."

Friday, August 18, 2017

Texas legislators let citizens vote on whether cities in large counties can annex rural areas

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks to the special session.
(USA Today photo by John Moritz)
The Texas state legislature ended an almost month-long special session on Aug. 15. For Gov. Greg Abbott, it was a mixed bag. He said the session was necessary because some state agencies would be forced to close unless the legislature passed certain laws. But Abbott had also included a 20-item agenda with a wide-ranging list of issues. His signature property tax reform bill did not pass, along with the transgender bathroom bill, the private school voucher bill, and the bill to defund Planned Parenthood. "The list of achievements included the must-pass "sunset" bills that will keep some state agencies from closing as well as proposals to crack down on mail-in ballot fraud, extend the life of maternal mortality task force, reform the municipal annexation process, limit local ordinance regulating trees and impose new restrictions on abortion," Morgan Smith and Patrick Svitek report for The Texas Tribune.

One controversial item that passed would allow Texans to vote on "whether cities in large counties can annex areas outside of their limits, Alex Samuels and Shannon Najmabadi report for the Tribune. Many opponents of the bill believe the state government is trying to force state control of issues that should be left to local communities.

Poor children growing up in rural areas are more likely to marry young

A new study says that where you grow up has a big impact on when you're likely to marry. The findings were part of a larger study of income tax records by Stanford University economist Raj Chetty and Harvard University economist Nathaniel Hendren. They studied how growing up in different counties affected poor children. "In general, the longer a child spends growing up in a rural community, the more likely he or she is to be married at age 26. Poor children who grow up in nine out of ten rural counties will marry at rates above the national average at age 26," Bill Bishop reports for The Daily Yonder. The study also found that children who grow up in rural areas are more likely to make a higher income than average at the age of 26.
Daily Yonder graphic
Both future income and marriage rates are partially determined by what Chetty and Hendren called "neighborhood effects", which means the general characteristics of neighborhoods that can influence children for better or worse. Rural areas tend to be less segregated, have greater community involvement from churches and civic organizations, lower crime rates, higher voting rates, and better schools. Rural young people are especially more likely to marry young in communities with more two-parent families and higher church attendance. There are political differences between rural and urban counties as well. "Clinton won the counties with neighborhood effects that result in lower than average marriage rates, 59% to 36%. Trump won the half of the country living in communities where children from poor families are more likely to marry by 56% to 37%," Bishop reports.

But the rural areas that promote earlier marriage and better income tend to be only incubators because there are far fewer high-earning jobs available. In other words, when those rural children grow up, they're likely to need to take their spouse and move to a more urban area that has more jobs available. Chetty and Hendren say they hope families will consider moving their children to rural areas to increase opportunity. "And governments and nonprofits could make investments in communities that would enhance those neighborhood effects that have been shown to be so beneficial, such as reducing segregation and increasing social capital," Bishop writes.

NAFTA renegotiations begin; farmers hold breath

Officials from the U.S., Mexico and Canada began renegotiations Aug. 16 on the North America Free Trade Agreement, a 1994 treaty that "eliminated tariffs on most goods traded among the three countries and imposed other rules in areas like intellectual property and labor standards," Danielle Kurtzleben reports for NPR.

The U.S.-Canada negotiations don't seem too contentious thus far. "Canadian companies essentially want more access to American government and construction contracts," Andrew Soergel reports for U.S. News and World Report, though they are seeking several provisions on issues that may be unpopular with the Trump administration, such as gender rights and labor and environmental standards. But the atmosphere surrounding the U.S.-Mexico negotiations has been heating up for months. Those negotiations could have a major impact on the U.S. economy, as well as the state economies of the four states that share a border with Mexico, Christopher Wilson reports for Forbes. Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California sell 55 percent of all U.S. exports to Mexico. "They facilitate an even greater portion, providing warehousing, transportation and other services for most of the 80 percent of all U.S.-Mexico trade that crosses the land border. If NAFTA were to fall apart, it would be a disaster for the thousands of companies and more than a million jobs along the border that depend on cross-border trade and tourism," reports Wilson.

The current administration has a markedly skeptical view of NAFTA. President Trump criticized it in his campaign, calling it the "worst deal ever made in the history of the world." And U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who is representing the U.S. during the NAFTA negotiations, says he shares Trump's views on NAFTA and promises big changes in the trade deal to "to support higher-paying jobs in the United States and to grow the U.S. economy," Kurtzleben reports. He said the trade deal had "fundamentally failed many, many Americans and needs major improvement," but acknowledged that it had benefitted farmers and ranchers who were able to sell their goods in Canada and Mexico, Kurtzleben reports.

U.S. corn farmers have especially benefited from NAFTA, since they were able to flood the Mexican markets with cheap, U.S. government-subsidized corn, Kirk Semple reports for The New York Times. Though corn is a small fraction of the overall $525 billion in trade between the two countries, it's of huge importance to Midwestern farmers, and Mexico has used it as a symbol of Mexico's dependence on the U.S. In response to Trump's initial threats to overhaul NAFTA completely, Mexico began exploring buying their corn elsewhere and increasing domestic production. Corn farmers, who live in areas that voted heavily for Trump, were shaken by the prospect of losing Mexico as a foreign market. Philip Gordon, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat on his Saline, Mich., farm, told Semple, "If we lose Mexico as a customer, it will be absolutely devastating to the ag economy."

The Department of Agriculture says that "Mexico is not only the leading destination of American corn, but it also imports more dairy products, poultry and wheat from the United States than any other nation, and is one of the top importers of American pork, soybeans and beef," Semple reports. Supply chains for automobiles and other industries criss-cross the U.S.-Mexico border as well; some cars cross the border several times in the course of being manufactured, and eliminating the tariffs in such complicated situations has been a boon to automotive manufacturers.

Alt-right? Alt-left? Antifa? An Associated Press style guide to new, touchy political terms

Any journalist worth his or her salt tries to avoid biased terminology when writing stories, but the recent protests over Confederate monuments have brought the issue into sharp focus. What is the best way to describe the groups who protest to keep the statues up? What are the nuances that make one term more appropriate than another? "The events in Charlottesville are an opportunity to take another look at our terminology around 'alt-right' and the way that we describe the various racist, neo-Nazi, white nationalist and white supremacist groups out there," writes John Daniszewski, vice president for standards at The Associated Press. He outlines common-sense style guidelines and recent changes to AP style such as the following:
  • Avoid the term "alt-right," because it's an euphemism for groups with racist aims. It should be used only when quoting someone or when describing "what the movement says about itself." If you have to use the term by itself, put it in quotations, or call it the so-called alt-right or self-described alt-right.
  • "Alt-left" is a phrase recently created to describe the actions of some far-left factions. Avoid using it, and follow the same rules as when using "alt-right" when you have to use it.
  • The terms "white nationalist" and "white supremacist" are often used interchangeably, but the difference is that white nationalists say that "white people are a distinct nation deserving of protection, and therefore they demand special political, legal and territorial guarantees for whites." White supremacists, on the other hand, believe that white people are better than other races and should dominate them. Sometimes one term may be more appropriate than the other, though the groups heavily overlap.
  • "Antifa" is short for "anti-fascist" and is a popular new term for the far-left militant groups that often oppose white supremacists at public events. The movement consciously emulates anti-fascists in Europe going back to the 1930s. Because the term is not yet well-known or clearly defined, use a definition of antifa close to your first reference.
See Daniszewski's column for a more comprehensive list of related definitions and style changes.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

California farmer to pay more than $1 million to settle violations found under 2015 WOTUS rule

John Duarte (Modesto Bee photo by Andy Alfaro)
Farming lobbies largely objected to the Obama-era rule that redefined what constituted the "waters of the United States" under the Clean Water Act; a story from California shows why.

Central Valley wheat farmer John Duarte has low-lying spots on his land that hold water a few times a year. Under the old WOTUS rule, these temporarily watery areas wouldn't have counted as waterways, but under the 2015 rule, they do. Duarte "has been at the center of a federal prosecution and multiple federal lawsuits against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because Duarte tilled vernal pools on his farm. He faced about $2.8 million in fines and upwards of $33 million in mitigation costs to resolve the case," Todd Neeley reports for The Progressive Farmer. "A judge already had ruled that Duarte broke the law; the trial was going to establish the penalties," The Modesto Bee reports.

Read more here: http://www.modbee.com/news/state/article167320617.html#storylink=cpy

Duarte has agreed to pay $330,000 in fines and to spend $770,000 to mitigate the violations. The 44 acres of his property that count as U.S. waterways must be left undisturbed for the next 10 years, though he will be allowed to use them for "moderate non-irrigated cattle grazing and weed, pest, or invasive species control," according to the consent decree he filed in federal court Aug. 15.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has been working on repealing the rule. "Duarte’s lawyers had sought to have Pruitt testify at the trial," the Bee reports. "U.S. District judge Kimberly Mueller overruled that."

Read more here: http://www.modbee.com/news/state/article167320617.html#storylink=cpy

EPA wants to scrap Obama-era rule that limits water pollution from coal-fired power plants

"The Environmental Protection Agency says it plans to scrap an Obama-era measure limiting water pollution from coal-fired power plants. A letter from EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt released Monday as part of a legal appeal said he will seek to revise the 2015 guidelines mandating increased treatment for wastewater from steam electric power-generating plants," Michael Biesecker reports for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Coal-fired plants flush wastewater into rivers and lakes, and it generally has traces of highly toxic metals like lead and mercury.

Pruitt's letter was filed with the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans, since it is now hearing legal challenges to the wastewater rule. But EPA asked the court to freeze the challenges, since Pruitt is trying to rewrite the standards. He first moved to delay implementation of the new standards in April, spurred by utilities companies that opposed them.

"While that process moves ahead, EPA's existing guidelines from 1982 remain in effect. Those standards were set when far less was known about the detrimental impacts of even tiny levels of heavy metals on human health and aquatic life," Biesecker reports. If the 2015 rule were implemented, the EPA estimates that power plants would produce 1.4 billion fewer pounds of pollution per year. About 12 percent of steam electric power plants would need to spend money on bringing their plants up to compliance with the tougher standards.

Webinar to discuss first comprehensive report description of rural cancer rates and mortality

An upcoming webinar will discuss a recent report that provides the first comprehensive description of cancer incidence and mortality in rural and urban counties in the U.S. The report, released in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, is called Invasive Cancer Incidence, 2004-2013, and Deaths, 2006-2015, in Nonmetropolitan and Metropolitan Counties – United States. The report found that people in rural counties are more likely to be diagnosed with and more likely to die from cancers related to tobacco use and cancers that could be prevented by early screening.

The free webinar will be hosted by the Rural Health Information Hub, the CDC, the National Cancer Institute, and the federal Office of Rural Health Policy. It will be about an hour long, and will take place on Aug. 30 at 1 p.m. EDT. High-speed internet is required to participate, and a recording will be available on the RHI Hub website afterwards. Click here for more information or to register.

Tips and links for covering Monday's solar eclipse

In an eclipse, the moon shadows part of Earth.
The first coast-to-coast solar eclipse in 99 years is coming up Monday, Aug. 21, so here's an omnibus post with tips for covering the event and links to interesting stories and helpful resources.

Tips for coverage
  • Get there early. Experts say the eclipse could cause historic traffic jams, so allot several hours more than you think you'll need to get there and back.
  • Be aware that cell phone coverage may be spotty and plan accordingly. Some rural areas are getting extra cell service for the day, but don't count on it.
  • Bring supplies. Traffic and strained local infrastructure may limit access to food, water and fuel. So gas up your car before you go, and bring food, plenty of water, sunscreen, bug spray, solar eclipse glasses, and whatever recording, writing or photography equipment you need at the scene. Bring a portable phone charger if you will not be near your car, as well as backup batteries for your gear. Consider bringing a portable wi-fi hotspot if you'll be transmitting stories or photos from the scene. If you're staying near your car and can pack a little more stuff, bring a camp chair, a lightweight folding table, and a canopy tent.
  • If you plan to photograph the eclipse with your smartphone, you can safely do it by taping the lens from a pair of eclipse glasses over the lens. If you are using professional equipment, use a solar eclipse filter (not the same as a regular solar filter). Here are some articles on how to photograph the eclipse. Never point any camera, smartphones included, at the sun until it is fully eclipsed or you'll fry the imaging sensor. Apple says a filter may not be needed for iPhones during the eclipse, but better safe than sorry. You won't need any kind of filter when the sun is fully eclipsed, but the filter needs to go back on as soon as the sun starts peeking out again.
  • If you are photographing the eclipse, get as close to the center of the 70-mile-wide path of totality as you can; it'll give you more time to get your shots. Totality is around one minute a few miles from the edge of the path, but as much as two minutes and 30 seconds at the center. Here's a zoomable map that tells you whether you'll be in the path of totality and if so, for how long.
Helpful and interesting links
  • GreatAmericanEclipse.com is a great one-stop shop for all your informational needs. It features maps of the path of totality over each state, a map of probable traffic bottlenecks, safety tips, historical eclipse information, fun facts, and an eclipse animation gallery.
  • Eclipse2017.com is a similar site with plenty of info about the eclipse. One great feature is a state-by-state list of communities that are planning official community celebrations. It's not a comprehensive list, so do your homework, but it's a good place to start.
  • This tool from Vox shows you what you'll see from any ZIP code in the U.S. Enter a code, and it will tell you the percentage of the sun that will be covered, show you a time-lapse animation of what you'll see and when the eclipse will be greatest, and how far you'll need to travel to get to an area with totality. 
  • If you don't already have eclipse glasses, they're scarce, but you may still be able to get your hands on a pair at a local store. You may be able to snag a pair online, but beware of fakes that will damage your eyes. Click here for a list of legitimate solar viewer manufacturers, brand names they may be sold under, and chain stores and online vendors that sell them.
  • Here's an article from the Poynter Institute about one small-town Idaho journalist's plans to cover the eclipse while camping.
  • NPR's plans to cover the eclipse include "22 videographers, kid reporters and local newsrooms."
  • Another Poynter article has a round-up of how some different newsrooms are planning to cover the eclipse.
  • University of Kentucky students are planning to live stream the eclipse from the edge of space with a solar balloon.
  • This 10-year-old article from the Kentucky New Era is one of the earliest articles we can find about the eclipse. It predicted (probably underpredicted) the massive crowds expected in Hopkinsville, and revealed a few intriguing facts. For one thing, the point of greatest eclipse (where the sun is most fully covered) is not in the well-publicized Christian County seat but in the nearby community of Cerulean. That's beautifully apropos, since cerulean is a shade sometimes equated with a deep blue sky. The exact point of greatest eclipse is in a field just off Princeton Road. Another fun fact? The eclipse will happen on the 62nd anniversary of the Kelly Green Men incident, in which a Christian County family said aliens landed near their home. That's the source of the phrase "little green men."
  • The tallest building in Hopkinsville, pop. 32,000, is a grain elevator. A video camera with a 360-degree pan has been installed on top of it for livestreaming of the eclipse, the New Era reports.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Local journalism is focus of study on political polarization, which has advice for news media

A study of political polarization in a Kentucky city and a neighboring rural county aims to identify ways local news outlets and community members could engage with each other to build trust and find solutions to community issues. In its early findings, the study recommends "solutions journalism" – which emphasizes reporting on responses to problems to improve public discourse and strengthen democracy – as one method to help rebuild the public's trust in local news media at a time when many Americans perceive biased news reporting, especially from national news outlets.

"From Polarization to Public Sphere" is a project of Columbia University's Tow Center for Digital Journalism. In a report, the study's co-leaders, Andrea Wenzel and Sam Ford, outline the project conducted in Bowling Green, the third largest city in Kentucky (pop. 65,000) and rural Ohio County (pop. 24,000). Ford, an independent media consultant, lives in Bowling Green. He is a research affiliate with MIT and teaches in the Popular Culture Studies Program at Western Kentucky University. Wenzel teaches journalism at Temple University in Philadelphia. 

In addition to political polarization in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, the study explores trust issues with the news media, how people engage through social media and in community groups and social networks, challenges that exist for local media with small newsrooms and limited resources, and opportunities for new journalism practices and strategies for community engagement.

"People interpret what they find on Facebook pages or television screens from within a network of interpersonal relationships, community groups, and media – what we call a local storytelling network," Ford and Wenzel write. "We wanted to understand whether the current political environment is changing these networks and, if so, how residents in politically mixed communities are adapting their news engagement and communication practices."

They wondered, "Do residents with different backgrounds and beliefs still read the same local papers, go to the same churches or social functions, or have conversations that break the ranks of the culture wars, online or off?" They chose Bowling Green and Ohio County to "understand what polarization looked like in rural communities and smaller cities where pockets of blue and purple were woven into a sea of red." 

The authors note that Donald Trump won 59 percent of the vote in Warren County, where Bowling Green is the county seat and home to WKU, which attracts diverse political attitudes. The city is at least 10 percent Muslim, they report; through the International Center of Kentucky, Bowling Green has resettled 10,000 refugees since 1981, including many from Bosnia. In Ohio County, 76 percent voted for Trump; many employees of a large chicken processing plant there commute from Bowling Green.

Twenty-one participants in the study were invited to keep a "story diary" for one week to illuminate their media habits and their impressions of particular stories.  Ford and Wenzel also conducted in-depth interviews with the participants and met with representatives of six local media outlets. 

The study, which began in April, revealed that political polarization affected family relationships and social networks. "Participants shared stories of lost friendships and alienated family members. One participant even reported breaking up with their romantic partner due to disagreement over Trump," Ford and Wenzel write. "For most participants, dealing with this new polarized climate in relatively small towns meant self-censorship was a necessity." 

As one participant said, "It's better to censor yourself and have friends from a limited pool of people around you than to not do that, to have no friends."

And even though people in smaller communities with a limited number of public places might be more likely to cross paths with people who have different political views, the study indicated that "shared spaces" don't always lead to "meaningful interactions." However, participants did point to connections being made at the university where students made friends with people from different backgrounds. 

The study's authors see opportunities to bridge political division through local issues. "For example, residents across ideological divides expressed an interest in solutions-oriented stories and followed stories about issues such as local development and tourism."

Despite some distrust of the news media, a weariness with so-called negative news and tendencies to limit engagement with people with opposing political views, participants indicated they are willing to address political polarization: "Almost every resident we spoke with was open to learning more about potential initiatives that would seek to build connections across difference," Ford and Wenzel write.

The researchers provide several recommendations for local news media, community organizations and foundations. In addition to more stories reported from a solutions angle, the study recommends providing a local lens to national stories; collaborations between local outlets; news media providing spaces for community engagement across divides; and getting community members involved with news organizations.

Local journalism needs bolstering, but the authors note, "Much more research and work is needed to develop models for sustainable local journalism, particularly in rural communities, coming out of work like the projects in which we've engaged." A workshop for news media, residents and community groups is planned Friday to react to and continue the work outlined in "From Polarization to Public Sphere" and to develop "experiments these outlets can conduct with one another, and with outside partners, to test potential solutions," the researchers write.

'Rocky Top' turns 50 as songwriters of today gather in Gatlinburg, Tenn.

The Big Orange Banditos, former members of the University
of Tennessee band, performed "Rocky Top" at the celebration.
(Photo by Rhonda Bletner, The Mountain Press)
It's a big week for songwriters in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Yesterday The Gatlinburg Inn celebrated the 50th anniversary of the writing of "Rocky Top" by Boudleaux and Felice Bryant in Room 388, and tonight the annual Smoky Mountain Songwriters Festival begins.

The Bryants offered "Rocky Top" to the Osborne Brothers, a Kentucky-born bluegrass duo, who increased the tempo and made it the B side of a late 1967 single, "My Favorite Memory." Ralph Emery of Nashville's WSM had the Osbornes as guests on his radio show one night, and played "Rocky Top." The switchboard lit up, and a hit was born. Lynn Anderson took it mainstream with a 1970 single, and in 1972 the University of Tennessee marching band started playing it, to great appreciation from Volunteer fans in Neyland Stadium in nearby Knoxville.

The success of the song is a four-legged stool: the writers, who are in the Songwriters Hall of Fame; the initial performers, who improved it; the disc jockey, always an important element of country music, who saw its potential; and a continuing performance in a signature venue of a state. It is a state song of Tennessee and No. 7 on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's "Songs of the South."

The writer and relatives are part owners of The Gatlinburg Inn.

Insurance company specializing in low-income customers to cover rural areas in Nevada, Ohio and Missouri that had no 2018 insurers

"Gov. Brian Sandoval announced an agreement with a Missouri-based company Tuesday to make sure health insurance is available to 8,000 rural Nevadans who faced the loss of their coverage after Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield pulled out of the state's healthcare exchange," the Associated Press reports. Prominence HealthFirst, which was the only other statewide carrier in Nevada's exchange, had withdrawn earlier.

Centene Corp. will partner with Nevada-based Hometown Health to ensure all areas of the state receive coverage. Centene's Nevada subsidiary will be called SilverSummit, and will provide statewide coverage through the Silver State Healthcare Insurance Exchange. About 8,000 rural residents in 14 of those counties would have had no available health insurance options in 2018. Anthem announced it was pulling out of all but the three most populous counties in Nevada because it was unsure whether President Trump would continue to pay it the cost-sharing subsidies that make it possible to offer certain low-cost plans on the healthcare marketplace.

Bloomberg map (click to enlarge)
Centene is expanding in other states with similar coverage gaps: the company plans to offer policies next year in 25 Missouri counties and 20 Ohio counties that also faced having no marketplace options. "Centene Corp. covers 1.2 million customers through the exchanges and is one of the biggest insurers in that market," the Toledo Blade reports. "The insurer specializes in managing the state and federally funded Medicaid program for the poor. On the exchanges, it markets to low-income customers in areas where it has already formed networks of providers for its Medicaid business. The insurer uses narrow coverage networks that steer customers to doctors and hospitals near where they live but often exclude high-cost health care systems." The structure of the Centene plans means that patients who need expensive, specialized care may face much higher bills or not be covered for needed treatments at all.

Minnesota papers highlight the importance of local news by publishing editions with blank front pages

The front page of the Austin, Minn. Daily Herald on Aug. 14.
(Photo by Daily Herald staff)
More than 200 Minnesota newspapers are making a bold statement about the importance of local, credible journalism by publishing one edition of their papers this week with deliberately empty front pages. An editorial in the Austin, Minn. Daily Herald says that the "whiteout" is taking place during the Aug. 13-19 Minnesota Newspaper Week, which is part of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's year-long 150th anniversary celebration.

"While alternative sources present alternative visions and alternative facts, community newspapers take credibility seriously — always have and always will, whether the platform we present on is electronic or paper," says the editorial. "Newsrooms are the furthest things from echo chambers. They are filled with professionals ready and willing to challenge each other to get the stories right. And if we stumble, we admit it to the world and press forward, fearlessly pursuing the truth and doing the best we can for our communities."

Newspapers play a vital role in communities. The Minnesota Newspaper Association's member newspapers have a total circulation of more than 2.2 million readers each week, the editorial says, and points out that a 2014 survey found that 89 percent of Minnesotans accessed a newspaper in the past month. As MNA Executive Director Lisa Hill said in a press release, "In many communities across the State of Minnesota, the newspaper is the main source of local news."

Food Network Star winner says he owes his victory to his rural Kentucky roots

Jason Smith during the show finale
(Food Network photo by Zach Dilgard)
A school cafeteria manager from small-town Kentucky has won the Food Network Star cooking competition, and says he draws inspiration for his recipes from his rural roots. Jason Smith, 39, said in an interview with Foodnetwork.com that his style of cooking is "country bling," meaning "I take old, dying country recipes, and I bring them back to life and make them modern, elevated and fancied up a little bit," the Kentucky Press News Service and the Lexington Herald-Leader report. As the contest's winner, Smith will get his own cooking show.

Smith faced off against two other finalists on the Aug. 13 finale of the 11-week cooking show before celebrity chefs Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis announced him as the winner. He's no stranger to the channel, though: last year he won the Food Network's Holiday Baking Championship. The Laurel County native (who works for Carter County Schools) says he first learned to love cooking from his mother and grandmother.

On the show, Smith was known for his bold fashion and colorful country sayings. When he made a mountain berry compote with nuts and a molasses ginger mousse, he told others on the show that "My mountain berry dessert is so delicious, yo tongue will slap yo brains out," the Herald-Leader reports.

The show's runners and contestants loved his authenticity. "Something that struck a chord that I’ve heard Bobby, Giada and a lot of the other guests tell me a few times is, 'We really like him, because he is comfortable in his skin, he is true to himself, he is true to where he comes from,'" Smith said in a Food Network interview. "And Bobby and Giada have told me: 'Never lose that. Always tell those stories of Kentucky. Always be yourself, and you will be fine.' That’s something that I will always hold near and dear to my heart, because I am myself. I am just Jason. I’m not going to be anything else but what I am."

Bills, lawsuit address alleged abuse of guest visa farm workers

As demand soars for foreign farm workers, legislators and President Trump's administration are taking a hard look at revamping and expanding the H2A guest worker visa program while cutting down on the number of permanent resident visas. Critics say farmers have abused guest workers by not paying them enough and providing inadequate living and working conditions.

A slew of bills are addressing the issue. Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and Agriculture Committee member Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) "last month said it was 'well past the time to replace the outdated and onerous H2A program' and activists said they expect him to introduce a bill aimed at the program later this year," Alejandro Lazo reports for The Wall Street Journal. Another bill would create a pilot program to put each state in charge of its own guest worker program, possibly eliminating federal oversight. Rep. Rick Allen (R-Ga.) proposed a bill that favors farmers' interests by limiting the ability of legal aid attorneys to represent guest farm workers. "That bill would also move administration of the program to the Agriculture Department, change the methodology for how wage rates are calculated and eliminate the obligation to provide housing as long as a state’s governor certified that farmworker housing was available," Lazo reports.

The Labor Department is trying a different tack. This year they filed a federal lawsuit—the first of its kind—against G Farms, an operation just outside Phoenix that relies on legal migrant workers. The workers contacted the Mexican Consulate about their working conditions, and the Consulate contacted the Labor Department. Some guest workers at the farm told Lazos that they had no complaints about the farm. The Labor Department alleged in the suit that the farm's owner, Santiago Gonzalez, "underpaid some of its 69 workers by not offering a set, hourly wage and housed them in an 'encampment' consisting of yellow school buses and semitrailers that 'violated numerous safety, sanitation and fire code regulations,'" Lazos reports. In a first, the department won a preliminary injunction against a farm using guest farm workers. The judge ordered Santiago to stop housing his workers in the encampment and made him house them in apartments or a motel for the rest of the season.
This school bus was used as a kitchen for guest farm workers at G Farms.
(Photo by U.S. Department of Labor)

Jason Resnick, the vice president and general council for the Western Growers Association, said the lawsuit is proof that the Labor Department is on top of their game, and serves as proof that abuse is not rampant. The Western Growers Association represents the interests of farmers in Arizona, California and Colorado. But Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, says many migrant workers live in crowded group shelters, trailers, and sometimes even their cars.

Whatever new laws are passed to improve pay or living conditions, farmers will have little choice but to comply if they want workers. Because of the Trump administration's crack-down on illegal immigration, there are far fewer workers around to harvest crops and they can be more choosy about where to work. That affects even farmers who only hire legal guest workers. Michael King, the attorney representing G Farms, says it's worth it to defend the suit because "without the H2A visa workers it is very, very hard to harvest onions and watermelons in Arizona."