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While Wisconsin ranks No. 13 in ag exports, a new state initiative sees room for improvement and allocates $5 million to grow exports by 25% within five years.

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Inflation is at a 30-year high in the U.S., and rural households are some of the hardest hit. 

"Inflation has hurt lower-income families, families of color, and rural households more than other demographics, a Bank of America

research report

found last week," Jason Lalljee


for Business Insider. "Breaking down demographics by race, geography, and income, the bank found that the 'inflation shock' of 2021 has disproportionately affected the marginalized: Households without college graduates, African American, Hispanic and Latino communities, and those not living in cities have been spending more of their post-tax income on goods and services."

Rural households are paying an average of 5.2 percent more of their post-tax income because of inflation, compared to 3.5% of households in metropolitan areas. "All of the high-inflation categories, particularly energy and new and used cars, make up a larger share of the consumption basket for rural households," researchers wrote. "They also earn and save less than urban households, and so inflation is a bigger drag on their income, and they have less buffer against the shock."

Inflation has been blamed on everything from corporate greed to President Biden, but it's mostly a function of reduced supply and increased demand.

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Small Business Saturday, on Nov. 27 this year, is traditionally an opportunity to support local businesses and artisans. It's more important than ever this year, Abha Bhattarai


for The Washington Post: "Small retailers and manufacturers, already crushed by large national brands during the pandemic, are being disproportionately walloped by delays, shortages and other supply chain disruptions ahead of the holidays. In many cases, they’re losing out to giants like Walmart and Amazon, which are spending millions to charter their own ships and planes to move merchandise. Independent shop owners, who have no such recourse, say they’re often the last in line for products because manufacturers prioritize larger, more lucrative contracts."

Small businesses and local artisans are often the lifeblood of a local newspaper's advertising budget, as Malheur Enterprise Editor and Publisher Les Zaitz noted in his eastern Oregon weekly. And consumers are eager to support local businesses during the pandemic: 72% of people in a recent survey said they plan to make more of an effort to shop locally this Christmas. Here are some ways local papers can promote Small Business Saturday:

  • Write an editorial encouraging readers to buy more Christmas gifts from local businesses and craftsmen.
  • Print tips for small businesses to promote themselves for SBS this year.
  • Invite small businesses to be listed in a local gifts guide, online or in print, for readers' convenience. Don't forget to check local farms to see if they have shops or sell tours or experiences.
  • See if there's a local holiday market being held nearby and promote it.
  • If there isn't a holiday market, why not organize one? Papers can charge vendors a small booth fee, and can hold the event at a local community center or school gym. Such events are not too difficult to organize, especially if the venue already has folding tables or vendors can supply their own. Permits are usually easy to obtain, but check with the local government, especially if vendors will be selling food or drinks. Bonus: this can generate quite a bit of goodwill for the paper locally.

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Hazard, county seat of Perry County
(Wikipedia map)

Hazard, Ky., was in the national spotlight last week after photos went viral of a Hazard High School homecoming tradition: the "Man Pageant," in which male students dressed in lingerie gave simulated lap dances to seated school leaders. The "highly problematic incident ... could not have come at a worse time for an Eastern Kentucky town trying to bolster its image and craft a winning post-coal transition narrative," 


Alan Maimon in an opinion piece for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

It's difficult to lure new businesses to Eastern Kentucky, and this incident could make it more so. "Quality of life matters to CEOs. They look at everything that an area has to offer. Schools of course are on that list," Maimon writes. "This is a time of major economic transition for Hazard and the region and there is little margin for error. Unfortunately, any CEO (especially one with school-aged kids) who hears about the Hazard homecoming week story is now going to be even less likely to set up shop in the area."

Maimon recently wrote a book about his time as the Courier Journal's last Eastern Kentucky-based correspondent from 2000 to 2006. "Twilight in Hazard: An Appalachian Reckoning" is about Eastern Kentucky overall, he writes, but because Hazard was in the book's title, locals were upset that he didn't write more about thriving new businesses that had opened up downtown.

"They were also upset that I didn’t interview Hazard Mayor Donald 'Happy' Mobelini for the book. In light of recent events, I’m glad that I didn’t," Maimon writes. "Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but I was a bit wary of Mobelini. As we now know, Mobelini is not only mayor, he is also the Hazard High School principal who took part in tawdry homecoming week events."

However, Maimon did give Mobelini a platform to tout his office's accomplishments during the book tour visit. "More impressive than anything he said or showed me was the undeniable can-do spirit I sensed from the highly motivated professionals working to revitalize Hazard," Maimon writes. "This self-inflicted wound can only hurt those efforts."

Many Hazard residents are defending Mobelini and blaming outsiders for the tempest, "but such outspoken support of an event at which scantily clad male students gave Mobelini lap dances and female students dressed up as Hooter’s servers has a lot of people beyond Hazard city limits shaking their heads," Maimon writes. "I would like to think that the people working diligently for Hazard know that the school incident and its aftermath are major blemishes on the town’s reputation. How the situation plays out will say a lot about whether Hazard is ready for the brighter future it says is already here."

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"A study of misbehavior among publicly traded companies illustrates the critical watchdog role that newspapers play, and the problems that arise when publications go out of business," Avery Forman reports for Working Knowledge, a publication of the Harvard Business School. "When local newspapers shutter, some businesses evidently treat the lack of press coverage as permission to act badly and end up committing more illegal violations, including pollution, workplace safety infractions, and financial fraud," according to research by Harvard associate business professor Jonah Heese, University of California San Diego professor Gerardo Perez-Cavazos, and Erasmus University professor Caspar David Peter.

They undertook the study because, while previous research showed that the lack of local news results in less-informed voters, not much was known about how it affected corporate conduct. They "found that after a newspaper shuts down, violations at publicly listed companies in the paper’s circulation area increased by 1.1 percent and penalties from regulators rose by 15 percent. [They] also found that the nature of many violations was more severe in towns without newspapers," Forman reports. Those percentages translate to real money: over three years, the average company saw a $30,000 increase in penalties, and the average community whose paper closed saw about a $1.2 million increase in corporate penalties.

"The results also suggest that when firms felt they could get away with something, they went big," Heese told Forman. "The severity of the violations companies committed after newspapers vanished was more alarming than the increased volume, he says. And, because the data only captures wrongdoings that are detected, the real figures are likely higher, he notes."

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Rural areas need more entrepreneurs, and the entrepreneurs who are already in rural America often need help to make the most of their assets and find more of them, including innovators with ideas. In Kentucky, there's a nonprofit that aims to connect them to each other and the resources they need; informing them about opportunities, risks, and research; and, perhaps most important, inspire them and other Kentuckians "with visions for the state’s future."

Sam Ford
So says the website of AccelerateKY, which is holding a conference tomorrow in Bowling Green that is named for its mission: "Connect. Inform. Inspire." The keynoter will be Phil Budden of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program, which chose the region as its first U.S. site. That study led to creation of the nonprofit.

AccelerateKY is the brainchild of Sam Ford, a former rural journalist who teaches at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. In 2016, when he was a media researcher at MIT, world-renowned robotocist Daniela Rus said "I feel like there's a lot of pessimism about the future of work" and asked him if his native state was marked by "the bitter pessimism evident in other parts of Middle America" in the presidential election, as Jeff Howe of The Boston Globe put it. Ford replied, "It's hard to be excited about the future of work if you don't think you're in it."

To view details of Friday's conference and register for it, click here.

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Average number of hospital stays for maternal/neonatal care, surgical services and mental health/substance-use disorder, for merged and independent hospitals (Health Affairs graph; click on the image to enlarge it)

Rural hospitals that were acquired in mergers from 2009 to 2016 were more likely than their independent peers to shutter their maternal, neonatal and surgical services, and more likely to limit access to mental-health care, on-site diagnostic technologies, and non-emergency outpatient services, according to a

newly published study

in the journal Health Affairs.

In essence, the researchers found, a merger might save a hospital from closing, but make it less responsive to community needs. Merged hospitals were also less likely to be critical-access hospitals, and more likely to be privately owned, have more beds than average, and be located in the South.

The study compared 172 rural hospitals that merged with larger systems between 2009 and 2016 and compared them with 549 hospitals that remained independent, using data from annual American Hospital Association surveys. In the year after hospitals were acquired, the average number that provided any maternal or neonatal services fell 6.7 percentage points more than independent hospitals. Two years afterward, that gap increased to 7.2 percentage points, but at three years post-merger and beyond, the gap virtually vanished.

One year after being acquired, merged hospitals were 5 percent less likely like to offer surgical services than independent hospitals. The statistical gap became insignificant two and three years after merger. Analysis showed that locals weren't accessing those services elsewhere nearby, so the data suggests that the merger didn't generally hurt patient access to inpatient care.

Admissions for patients with mental-health issues or substance-use disorders stayed about the same for the first two years after hospitals were acquired, but increased during the same time period for independent hospitals. That and other data suggests that communities with merged hospitals may have reduced access to behavioral health care.

The study is the second from the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and IBM Watson Health to examine the benefits and consequences to health-care access for people whose local hospital was acquired. The first one found that merged rural hospitals had lower overall lower death rates, especially from heart attacks.

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Fireflies at Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina. (Washington Post photo by Travis Dove)

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email


Researchers released the first-ever comprehensive study of firefly tourism this year. They found that about 1 million tourists across the globe travel to witness firefly-related phenomena each year. That includes the famous synchronous fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains; that's been getting increasingly popular for years, but the pandemic may have boosted its popularity even more this year as cooped-up tourists flocked to outdoor spots felt to be safer than indoors. Read more here.

The gorgeous but unwelcome spotted lanternfly
(Associated Press photo by Matt Rourke)

However, in news of less-desirable insects: A boy's bug collection at the Kansas State Fair last week

included a spotted lanternfly, which has triggered a federal investigation. The invasive species has been devastating trees and crops throughout the Mid-Atlantic states for years, but Kansas is more than 850 miles west from its nearest known location.

Read more here


Few hospitals in Maine, the most rural state by percentage of population, are complying with a federal rule requiring them to publish detailed prices of medical procedures for insured and uninsured patients. Are your local hospitals complying? Read more here.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administration may restore federal protections for gray wolves in the western U.S. after laws in some states have made it much easier to kill the predators. USFW has begun a year-long biological review to determine if such a step is necessary. Read more here.

In its first meeting last week, the White House Competition Council discussed advancing right-to-repair laws that would bar companies such as John Deere from blocking customers or independent repair shops from fixing tractors and other machinery. President Biden called for the formation of the council in a July order aimed at increasing economic competition. Read more here.

The Agriculture Department "accepted offers for more than 2.5 million acres from agricultural producers and private landowners for enrollment through this year’s Grassland Conservation Reserve Program signup," Ximena Bustillo reports for Politico's Weekly Agriculture. "This is double last year’s enrollment and brings the total acres enrolled across all CRP sign ups in 2021 to more than 5.3 million acres, surpassing USDA’s 4-million-acre goal. Producers and landowners submitted offers for nearly 4 million acres in Grassland CRP, the highest in the signup’s history. The top submitters included Colorado, South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, and New Mexico." Read more here.

Restaurants and businesses are asking Congress for more pandemic aid, but it could be a long shot since Congress is mostly occupied on hashing out the infrastructure package and a Democratic health-care, education and climate bill. Read more here.

As Republican lawmakers in Ohio work to limit drop boxes and early voting, rural voters in Ohio—and likely elsewhere—said in a poll that they want expanded voting options. Read more here.

Appalachian musicians are tackling the complicated topic of coal—and trying to inspire change—through song. Read more here.

Many rural regions that rely on tourism and drive-through visitors are finding it beneficial to install charging stations for electric vehicles. Read more here.

With 1.4 billion cows on earth, cow waste—from both ends—adds up to become a significant driver of climate change. But scientists in Germany and New Zealand have an innovative solution: potty-trained cows. A German herd has been successfully taught to relieve themselves only in a designated area nicknamed the "MooLoo." Read more here.

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Unit prices at Dollar Tree, larger retailers (Chart by The Hustle; click on it to enlarge)

"A growing number of Americans are relying on dollar stores for everyday needs, especially groceries, as the pandemic drags into its 18th month. Chains such as Dollar General and Dollar Tree are reporting blockbuster sales and profits, and proliferating so quickly that some U.S. cities want to limit their growth. The 1,650 dollar stores expected to open this year represent nearly half of all new national retail openings, according to Coresight Research," Abha Bhattarai


for The Washington Post. "Foot traffic at the largest such chain, Dollar General, is up 32 percent from pre-pandemic levels, far outpacing the 3 percent increase at Walmart, one of the few retail winners of last year, according to

, which analyzes shopping patterns using location data from 30 million devices."

But, as a recent article from The Hustle shows, dollar stores may not save shoppers much money. Dollar stores often work with brands to create smaller products that fit the $1 price point. Usually, those smaller products are more expensive per unit than the full-sized versions at other retailers.

"Dollar stores count on customers either not being able to afford buying larger sizes elsewhere, or simply not doing the math," Zachary Crocket reports. "The core demographic of dollar stores — lower-income families who earn less than $40,000 per year — are often living paycheck to paycheck and can't afford to buy in larger quantities, even if it means getting a better deal."

Stagnant wages and a shrinking middle class may enlarge dollar stores' core demographic, but rising inflation means they might have to make their products even smaller and further cut back on quality to keep prices at $1, Crockett reports.

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Schmitz, the Downtown Madison dynamo whose great-grandfather opened a store on the Capitol Square in 1898, introduces herself as one of the Wi…

When their debit cards “didn’t work," their mother told them it was time to figure out how to make this money stretch a little further, or make more money. 

“They still ride, do their homework, and braid,” their dad said. “They’re figuring out how to manage their time tremendously well. They have to.”

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As harvest wraps up across the region, winter preparation and planning for next year begins.

Trying to choose the right variety to plant can be overwhelming, but keep in mind a few key characteristics to look for.

Find the equipment you're looking for

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