Does your community have a ticking fertilizer bomb?

July 3, 2013

By Al Cross

What’s happening to farmland prices? Is rural America really losing population? Does your community have a fertilizer bomb? These were just a few of the recent topics on The Rural Blog, published by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at

One of the most fundamental barometers of a local economy, especially in rural areas, is land value. Driven by higher crop prices, the value of prime farmland in major agricultural areas has been escalating for years, recently stoking fears that a “bubble” might be forming. Now the increases are slowing, and in some areas even reversing, but experts are looking for a gradual decline, not a crash. We reported on the slowdown at and on the declines in Iowa and Indiana at The latter story notes that a typical corn-soybean farmer in Indiana made profits of $357 an acre in 2011, but is expected to make only $267 an acre this year.

Population: The most widely reported story about rural America recently was one saying that it was losing population, for the first time since the census started tracking rural and urban trends. But that’s true only of counties outside metropolitan areas. Metro areas have many rural census tracts, because they include many counties only because 25 percent or more of those counties’ workforces commute to one of the metro area’s core counties. We reported all this on May 10, but it took major news media about a month to catch up with the news, and sometimes they didn’t tell the whole story. Our item is at

Danger: The deadly ammonium-nitrate explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, TX, alerted many rural Americans to the risk of such stockpiles. A survey by the Reuters news agency determined that at least 800,000 people live within a mile of such stockpiles. We reported that and linked to Reuters’ interactive map of the facilities at The data were incomplete, because some states failed to respond to the news organization’s request for data. DTN/The Progressive Farmer reported June 17 that it had gathered data from 17 states, and we shared that at DTN found the most sites in Tennessee and Texas, and mentioned some dangerous examples without naming the towns, but it isn’t sharing the information with other news organizations, so you’ll have to do your own checking with state agencies.

Health care: This fall, federal health-care reform will take effect in a big way with the opening of state insurance exchanges, where you can buy health insurance and qualify for federal subsidies if your income is low enough. But health-insurance companies plan to require customers to pay premiums automatically through a bank account, something many Americans don’t have. A study by Jackson Hewitt concluded that 27 percent of Americans who qualify for the subsidies won’t get them because they don’t have bank accounts. We reported on it at

A major trend in health care is consolidation of hospital ownership. That often involves mergers of public hospitals with those owned by the Roman Catholic Church, and that has caused controversies about the imposition of church doctrine on the new partnerships, including many in rural areas. Some say the Catholic-based hospitals are forcing their religious beliefs on patients and denying certain treatments. Gina Cole of the Skagit Valley Herald looked at the issue in Washington state and we excerpted her report on The Rural Blog at

Mental health: One health issue that often doesn’t get enough coverage is mental health, including suicide, especially when it involves young people. In Montana, which leads the nation in youth suicide, a unique program in the 8,500-population town of Miles City has succeeded in getting young people to talk about depression, suicide, and mental health issues, and that program is now being brought to Billings, which has a population of more than 100,000. We shared the Billings Gazette’s story at and offered some advice for covering mental-health issues from Melissa McCoy of the California Newspaper Publishers Association at

Veterans: Mental-health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder are just one part of the broad story of returning veterans, which is a rural story because service members come disproportionately from rural communities, and the services they need are often more difficult to get in rural areas. Several experts and advocates provided insight and guidance for reporters at a regional conference of the Society of Professional Journalists, and we shared their insights at

Rural philanthropy: Rural America is getting shortchanged by foundations and other philanthropies, an issue we have followed for years. We published an update on it, with several links to previous items and reports, on June 13 at

Animal control: For decades journalists have defined news as “man bites dog,” but have you ever read a story about a man biting a dog? The Des Moines Register ran one in May, and we excerpted it at because it illustrated the lack of animal control in much of rural America. The incident occurred in a county without a vicious-dog ordinance or any animal-control facilities.

Good work: The Rural Blog relishes sharing good work by rural newspapers, which isn’t always journalism. In response to a series of drownings, mostly involving young people, the Oologah Lake Leader in Oklahoma teamed up with two local, world-class fishermen to start the Kids Fishing Derby, an event to teach kids how to fish, and to promote water safety. The paper lined up sponsors to provide all children with free, custom-fitted life jackets, and every child was required to go through a four-station safety course, Publisher John M. Wylie II reports. The first year, more than 200 children attended; this year’s drew 250. Read about it at

You’re welcome to reprint our Rural Blog items as news; they always contain credit for the original source, and if you use one, we’d appreciate a credit line and a notification.


Al Cross edited and managed weekly newspapers before spending 26 years at The (Louisville) Courier-Journal and serving as president of SPJ. Since 2004 he has been director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

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