Category: View Point

ViewPoint: Farmers face risk when adopting new practices to improve water quality

By Katie Rock, Center for Rural Affairs
Water quality is a contentious issue across the country. For example, in Iowa, continued high nitrogen, phosphorous, bacteria, and sediment levels in surface waters threaten public health and outdoor recreation.
In 2012, the state released a strategy to reduce nutrient and sediment loading in surface waters. However, the best plan forward remains uncertain. This lack of clarity leaves farmers feeling frustrated.
Farmers face risks, both real and perceived, to their production systems when adopting a new practice, and often need technical and financial support to counter these risks.
We recently released “Catching Waves: Farmers Gauge Risk to Advance Water Quality In Iowa,” which examines perceived production and social risks to adopting water quality improvement practices in the state.
Results show a majority of farmers do not feel social pressure to install additional conservation practices to improve water quality. Beyond potential regulation, respondents identified soil health, nutrient retention, and cost savings as top reasons for new practice adoption.
Farmers say weather and shifting climatic patterns are the largest perceived threats to their operations. They also identified agricultural consolidation, fluctuating commodity prices, and nutrient and soil loss as top concerns.
As Iowa and other states continue to expand their watershed approach to water quality, understanding the needs, risks, and barriers farmers face will be critical.
These findings can help guide water quality efforts by researchers, farmers, watershed organizations, and government officials. The Center for Rural Affairs is dedicated to facilitating research-based solutions that elevate rural communities and people.
To view the report, visit cfra.org/publications/CatchingWaves.

ViewPoint: A healthcare solution both parties can support

By Janet Trautwein
Over 20 million Americans may soon pay less in taxes and medical bills. Lawmakers recently introduced a bipartisan bill that would expand “health savings accounts.” HSAs allow people to save money for future medical expenses tax-free. And they incentivize people to secure care from the healthcare providers that give them the biggest bang for their buck. The bill would expand HSAs so that they cover more medical expenses, such as chronic and preventative care.
This common-sense bill — the Bipartisan HSA Improvement Act — deserves the support of Congress. Advancing these important reforms into law will save patients and the nation’s healthcare system a significant amount of money.
HSAs are “triple tax-advantaged” — contributions are tax-deductible, the accounts accrue interest, dividends, and capital gains tax-free, and withdrawals are not taxed as long as they’re spent on health care. Individuals can put away up to $3,450 per year tax-free; for families, the contribution cap is $6,850.
Unlike flexible spending accounts, there’s no “use-it-or-lose-it” requirement or limits on rollovers, and money in an HSA stays with the account-holder even if she gets a new health plan or job.
These advantages have made HSAs popular. In 2018, HSA assets will likely exceed $53 billion.
One issue that some healthcare consumers take with HSAs is the fact that you can only open an HSA after enrolling in a high-deductible health insurance plan. High-deductible plans feature lower premiums. But individuals must cover the first $1,350 of their healthcare expenses out-of-pocket. Families must pay $2,700 before insurance kicks in.
Some individuals aren’t used to assuming responsibility for a few thousand dollars in health costs.
But high deductibles are a powerful way to battle America’s health cost crisis. Since patients have to spend their own money — typically, from their HSA — on care, they’re more likely to shop around for better prices on procedures or to insist upon cheaper generic drugs instead of expensive brand-name ones. Consumers who switch from traditional plans to HSA-eligible plans spend 21 percent less, according to a RAND study.
In other words, patients stopped visiting overpriced healthcare providers and opted instead for those that offered better value.
A separate study found no evidence that these savings stemmed from HSA patients deferring needed or preventive care.
The Bipartisan HSA Improvement Act would enable more people to share in these savings. The bill would allow high-deductible plans to cover the cost of routine primary care check-ups, medications for chronic conditions, and preventive tests before enrollees hit their deductibles. It also would allow people to use HSA funds to cover gym memberships and various fitness classes and sports programs.
The bill also would amend the definition of dependent in the tax code to mean children through age 26. That would allow parents to use their HSA funds to pay medical expenses for their older children.
These changes would make high-deductible HSA plans more consumer friendly — and more attractive. That means more savings for consumers and downward pressure on prices as more people shop around for high-value care.
The bill would offer millions more families the benefits of HSAs. It’s time for both parties to support it.
Janet Trautwein is the CEO of the National Association of Health Underwriters.

ViewPoint: Rural farmers markets harvest demand for healthy food

Rural farmers markets harvest demand for healthy food
By Cody Smith, Center for Rural Affairs
Large, hand-painted signs lean against a tent, the buzz of friendly conversation cuts through the humid air, and the smell of fresh produce drifts in the breeze – you’ve found yourself at a farmers market.
Farmers markets are common in urban and rural communities around the nation. In urban areas, they provide an authentic, natural alternative for consumers to connect with those who produce their food.
In rural areas, farmers markets provide these same opportunities among many others – they serve as a stimulant for local businesses and farmers, an attraction for strangers and locals alike, and, perhaps most importantly, they offer direct, secure access to nutritious food for rural Americans.
Food security, defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as having access to enough food to maintain an active, healthy lifestyle, is an ever-present challenge in rural communities. According to Feeding America, 12.9 percent of Americans were food insecure in 2016 and three-fourths of counties with the highest rates of food insecurity were in rural areas.
There are programs designed to help alleviate food insecurity, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). However, research suggests that rural participation in SNAP is significantly lower for eligible recipients in rural areas than in urban ones. Policies that support SNAP acceptance at more farmers markets are a proven way to make progress.
As we celebrate National Farmers Market Week from Aug. 5 to 11, we praise these events that serve a key role in feeding rural communities nationwide.

ViewPoint: Five key elements for the next wave of improved social media networks

By Scott Relf
Facebook’s data-privacy crisis that prompted Congressional hearings caused some Americans to re-evaluate social media’s importance in their lives. A study by tech research firm Techpinions found 35 percent were using Facebook less since the scandal and 9 percent deleted their accounts due to privacy concerns.
The controversy spawned discussions about flaws in Facebook’s system and problems in general with various social media sites. People want to know how improvements can be made toward better security and functionality as new sites pop up.
“Americans have only recently become concerned that their most personal data is being collected by Facebook, Instagram, Google and others – specifically to help all manner of good and bad actors to ‘target’ them with advertisements and messages about who knows what,” says Scott Relf, CEO and co-founder of PikMobile Inc. (http://pikmobile.info/), an ad-free social media app where one has the option to add paid subscriptions into their news feed.
“These companies are offering a free service, then betraying their users’ trust by selling them out to advertisers.”
Relf says now more users seem to want to protect themselves from companies who exploit them by using data harvesting. Users want to be in control of their own data and to choose what’s on their own news feed, he says.
“Isn’t social media supposed to help people stay connected to their friends and in touch with the news?” Relf asks. “Unfortunately, now people have to worry about their personal information and where it goes, and sort through the distracting clutter and annoyances on their news feed.”
Relf lists five elements users want in new or improved social media networks:
A more competitive model.
The Facebook data controversy led to more social media users wanting to take more control. “Consumers of social media want to have a choice of services, instead of being forced to choose among four major services that all use the same advertising-driven data harvesting,” Relf says. “Ultimately, only competition in the social media marketplace will force companies to focus on serving their customers’ needs better.”
Paid subscriptions instead of advertising.
Some industry experts say the free- media-with-advertising package is losing steam while interest in sites offering premium subscription content, but without ads, is trending upward. “It has to do with attention spans, more media choices and a desire to cut through the clutter and distractions,” Relf says. “People that prefer no-charge, ad-supported services like AM/FM radio and traditional television may continue to prefer Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, but an increasing number of people prefer to pay either a modest subscription fee to have ad-free services from Netflix, SiriusXM, and Apple Music, or a combination of free content and paid content from pioneers like LinkedIn and Business Insider.”
Mobile readiness.
According to Google, more Americans use mobile devices than use laptops and desktops. “Additionally, mobile users want faster page loads than desktop or laptop users,” Relf says. “Thus, what was not long ago a luxury is now a necessity in the social media game – having an app, a mobile version of a website, or both.”
Integrated features that encourage interactions, create community.
“Online interactions are the fuel on which online communities thrive,” Relf says. “People want friendly communities with things in common. It’s important that you integrate features that foster interactions and encourage users to create exciting content.”
Ability to monetize content.
“Users should be able to choose what they see from their favorite creators, celebrities and organizations,” Relf says. “The premium content subscription model enables creators of great content to be paid for their work, and customers aren’t sold out to advertisers.”
“Trends don’t pop up out of nowhere,” Relf says. “People are now more aware of social media problems and how it can get better. ‘User-friendly’ has taken on added meaning for companies trying to compete for valuable space.”
Scott Relf and his wife, Renee, are the co-founders of PikMobile (http://pikmobile.info/), a dual-function mobile app that combines a unique viewing platform and a digital content publishing system. A former senior executive for several large corporations, Relf has expertise in bringing breakthrough products and services into the consumer mass market. He co-founded startup Zave Networks, which was sold to Google in 2011. Relf earned a BA in management and economics from Rice University and an MSBA in management from the Boston University Questrom School of Business.

ViewPoint: Where have all the bankers gone?

By Brian Depew, briand@cfra.org, Center for Rural Affairs
The Center for Rural Affairs first examined consolidation in the banking industry in “Where Have All the Bankers Gone?”, a 1978 report. We have long understood the critical link between credit, who has access, who doesn’t, and how it shapes communities.
That’s why a recent report in the Wall Street Journal caught my eye. It detailed how banking in rural communities has fared in the years since the financial crisis. Small business lending in rural areas has dropped by half since 2004, accounting for less than 10 percent of total small business lending.
This challenge is compounded by the closure of many rural banks. Larger banks often buy smaller banks, then close branches in more rural markets. There are now 625 rural counties in the country without a community bank. There are 37 counties without a single bank, and 115 counties served by just one bank.
The report told the story of one small business owner who now drives 19 miles each afternoon to make deposits and get cash.
When we lose access to credit, we risk losing control of our future.
Access to credit is fundamental for the whole community. Few among us have started a business or bought a house without a loan. Schools, child care centers, and community infrastructure all rely on credit.
In response to this challenge, individual communities are setting up revolving loan funds to invest in local businesses, housing, and new value-added agricultural enterprises.
A network of community banks, credit unions, and nonprofit lenders can knit a new fabric of local banking. Doing so will take our active involvement.
What credit gaps exist in your community?
What local response might be possible?

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