Tag Archives: Rural America

Anne Hazlett is moving to the White House from the Department of Agriculture. Last Week, USDA announced that Hazlett will assume the role of  Senior Adviser for Rural Affairs in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Hazlett has served as the Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development at USDA since June 2017. In her new role, Hazlett will help shape policy aimed at improving the quality of life in rural America, coordinate interagency efforts on drug control activity impacting rural communities, and build coalitions and grassroots strategies centered on prevention, treatment and recovery. Hazlett previously led USDA’s efforts to build infrastructure for prevention, treatment and recovery in rural communities.

Jim Carroll, who leads the White House Office, says Hazlett has “a critical understanding of the unique challenges facing these communities and is committed to helping them reverse the effects of the opioid epidemic.”

Bob Bishop is a 61-year-old farmer living in dairy country in southwestern Wisconsin. Today he is helping his two sons pull a downed tree off of a fence line, stepping through piles of cow manure and corn stalks as he drags the branches into the big claw of a skid loader.

Soon, the family will stop raising dairy cows because the industry is in trouble. In 2018, Wisconsin lost 638 dairy farms because of falling milk prices. And the Bishops, who farm in Iowa County, still carry debt from when hog prices tanked in the 1990s.

Yet a rare opportunity has come the Bishops’ way. For at least a generation, the family would receive double or more the market rental rate on about 650 acres to be used for a giant solar power project. The Badger Hollow Solar Farm would be the largest such project in the Midwest.

“This was a good answer for the lagging ag economy … This provides us an excellent looking future, a very bright future we’ll say,” Bishop said.

His son Andrew Bishop, 29, wants to raise a family here and have something to pass along. Renting out about one-third of their land for the project, most of it now used to grow corn and soybeans, will help the farm stay in business, Andrew Bishop said.

“I’d like my kids to take over running my farm someday,” he said. “I have to have the financial future in front of them to make it viable.”

Invenergy’s Badger Hollow Solar Farm is one of the largest solar utility projects planned for cropland anywhere in the country. Most large-scale solar arrays have been built in the desert Southwest, where both land and sun are plentiful.

In Wisconsin, the 300-megawatt project, which the company says could power about 77,000 homes, is envisioned for 3,500 acres of prime agricultural land. It is dividing the area’s farming community, pitting neighbor against neighbor in the county of about 24,000 people. The Bishops are among several local farmers who plan to lease a checkerboard of parcels between Cobb and Montfort to Invenergy.

Some residents who vocally oppose the project generally support renewable energy; some of them even have their own solar panels generating power for their rural homes. But because of the size of the project — nearly 5.5 square miles — they fear the area will become a “solar wasteland.”

Invenergy is based in Illinois and has 135 wind, solar and natural gas projects around the United States, Europe, South America and Canada, with proposals to build elsewhere.

Badger Hollow is slated for completion in 2023, pending approval by the Wisconsin Public Service Commission. It plans to use 2,200 acres of the site for up to 1.2 million solar panels.

The company was attracted to Iowa County because of the availability of flat, cleared lands, nearby transmission lines, low environmental risk and community support.

“This is an opportunity to generate electricity locally, generate jobs locally, tax revenue locally, and support local farmers,” said Invenergy’s renewable energy manager, Dan Litchfield, adding the project could bring $1.1 million in annual tax revenue to the county.

And the project would help Wisconsin — which is heavily reliant on coal and behind most states in solar power generation — to shift to cleaner energy.

Wisconsin Public Service Corp. and Madison Gas & Electric plan to purchase interests equivalent to half of the plant’s generating capacity. Public utilities cannot easily build such a project themselves. State law requires them to show a need for such development, whereas private companies are not obligated to meet this standard.

As the sun sets over recently harvested fields, Litchfield walks near a sample of the native grasses that would be used as ground cover. The plants would help replenish soils and provide habitat for birds and insects such as bees, around the solar panels.

The panels will face east in the morning and tilt throughout the day to catch the most sun. They will transfer power to machines called inverters. Underground power collection lines will carry the energy to an overhead line, which will send it to the power grid.

Litchfield points to a property on the horizon, about 4 miles from the Badger Hollow project office, where he hopes to place rows of dark glossy solar panels, 15-feet tall, in a spot where rows of corn and soybeans normally stand.

Litchfield said the project will be visually unobtrusive, and the farm’s inverters would make only a low humming noise.

“As far as energy generation technologies go, I think it’s as low impact as it gets,” he said. “We’re not burning anything, we’re not stockpiling ash, we don’t create odors.”

Alan Jewell and Richard Jinkins sit at a round table drinking tea in Jewell’s living room. Exposed stone lines the interior walls of his roughly 160-year-old farmhouse.

Both men are farmers who trace their heritage in this area back generations. Jinkins said his family purchased farmland before Wisconsin became a state in 1848, and his son hopes to become a fifth-generation farmer.

Jewell and Jinkins both have family land next to acres leased for the solar project. They have joined the formal process at the Public Service Commission to intervene in the Badger Hollow case.

They love this countryside for its scenic beauty and feel the solar project would change that.

“This is an ugly, ugly mark on the land,” Jewell said. “Why am I having to have this thrust upon me?”

They say too much high-quality farmland needed for food production would be tied up in energy generation, and they fear more of their neighbors will move away because of the project’s unsightliness.

To Jinkins, utility-scale solar is a threat to Wisconsin’s farming legacy.

“If I want to rent land, if my son wants to farm, there’s just so much farm near our property, right? It doesn’t turn over that often. It doesn’t come up for sale,” Jinkins said.

Jewell said he is for renewable energy, but he thinks it should happen on an individual scale. People like him, who are not a part of the project, will live with the downsides but no benefit, he said. Jewell and Jinkins are also among residents critical of the proposed Cardinal-Hickory Creek power line planned to run near the solar project.

Wisconsin has no siting rules specific to solar projects. And Jewell said the proposed local restrictions for the project are inadequate. An operating contract with Iowa County requires 50 feet between the project and property lines of non-participating owners or any public road. It also requires a 100-foot setback from any dwelling of a non-participating property owner.

Jewell’s attorney, Carol Overland, requested the Public Service Commission create solar siting rules that would include a required environmental review of large solar projects. After opting to conduct an initial environmental assessment, commission staff concluded that there would be a low probability of harm.

“The proposed project is not expected to significantly affect historic resources, scenic or recreational resources, threatened or endangered species, or ecologically important areas,” the assessment found.

Tom Content, executive director of Citizens Utility Board, noted that MG&E and WPS also plan to buy a 1,300-acre solar project at Two Creeks in Manitowoc County.

Content said the commission should conduct a “more holistic and thorough review” of whether these projects are needed — and how much ratepayers should be required to pay for them. The utilities say acquisition of this solar capacity would lower rates. An expert for CUB, which intervenes in utility cases to protect ratepayers, says it is possible the cost of electricity could go up.

“We’ve had a concern that utility profits in Wisconsin have been too high for a long time,” he said, noting that Wisconsin has the 13th highest electric rates in the country. “Any time you build something, rates go up.”

Jewell said he also wants more oversight, someone to further weigh the trade-offs of such an unprecedented use of agricultural land for a solar utility.

“To an accountant, it’s dirt,” Jewell said. “To somebody that works with land and feels it’s a partnership … it’s not an element to buy or sell, it’s an element to respect.”

Michael Vickerman, policy director of the nonprofit Renew Wisconsin, which promotes renewable energy, said solar power has been slow to catch on here.

He hopes 2019 will be a “breakout” year for solar. In the unlikely scenario that all 15 of Wisconsin’s proposed solar projects are approved, along with several proposed wind projects, renewable energy would provide about 20 percent of the state’s power by 2025, Vickerman says.

As of October, renewable energy, including hydroelectric, provided about 8 percent of the state’s utility-scale electricity generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Coal-fired plants produced 51 percent of Wisconsin’s electricity, followed by natural gas at 29 percent, nuclear power at 11 percent, and other sources.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, Wisconsin ranks 40th nationwide in the generation of solar energy. Currently, the state has about 100 megawatts of solar power generation. The proposed Badger Hollow project would provide three times that amount.

Solar power has finally become a low-cost option for replacing fossil fuels, Vickerman said; that is why large utilities are now investing in it.

“Solar is homegrown. Solar is clean. Solar is dependable, and solar is economic,” Vickerman said. “When you add all those characteristics together, you have a pretty compelling argument for expanding our use of solar.”

The Public Service Commission has scheduled March 6 oral arguments on whether the utilities should be allowed to purchase the extra solar capacity by investing $389.7 million in Badger Hollow and Two Creeks.

Said Vickerman: “We embrace solar from a large installation in rural Wisconsin to rooftop solar, whether it’s a big box store or somebody’s house — we think it’s all good.”

Blue Cross Blue Shield discontinued Nebraska farmer Randy Uhrmacher’s group insurance plan at the beginning of 2018.

He and his wife, Kathy, joined her employer’s insurance for a year, but it was more expensive.

“We were looking for better options,” Uhrmacher said.

At a 2018 farm show, they met an insurance agent selling Lifestyle Health Plans, which offered insurance plans for businesses with a minimum of two employees. The premiums were more affordable if you qualified through the health underwriting process.

“It’s kind of like the old-school health insurance,” he said. Premiums are adjusted based on pre-existing conditions.

He also compared two other brand-new options offered by the Nebraska Farm Bureau and his local co-op, Cooperative Producers Inc., which is a part of the Land O’Lakes cooperative system.

Uhrmacher and his wife decided to go through Lifestyle’s underwriting process when Farmers Business Network launched its plan, which is done in a partnership with Lifestyle.

“And by the time it all shook out and we got it all done, Farmers Business Network added a little bit more savings,” Uhrmacher said. Representatives from Farmers Business Network say their plan usually results in a 7% to 10% discount over buying a Lifestyle plan directly and other plans available to farmers.

In all, Uhrmacher’s premium came in at about $900 a month, compared to the quotes of about $1,650 if he’d gone with insurance from CPI, Farm Bureau or his wife’s employer. The $750-per-month savings goes a long way.

“That’s not pocket change. I said, ‘Right there’s a pickup payment,'” he told DTN.

Uhrmacher said he’s glad he had a number of options to choose from in 2019 without having to go to Nebraska’s Affordable Care Act exchange. He doesn’t know what an exchange plan would have cost, but from what he’s heard from neighbors, it’s expensive if you don’t qualify for a subsidy.

“Holy cow. I don’t know how you can afford that stuff,” he said.


Nebraska is often seen as the poster child for the Affordable Care Act’s failings. Blue Cross Blue Shield left Nebraska’s exchange at the end of 2016. Aetna exited at the end of 2017, leaving Medica as the state’s only carrier.

As insurers left, rates jumped. The average premium increased 35% in 2017 and 31% in 2018, according to healthinsurance.org, a consumer education non-profit previously known as the Health Insurance Resource Center. Premiums only grew by 2% for the most recent enrollment period, which ended Dec. 15. (https://www.healthinsurance.org/…)

In late 2017, Congress voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, leading to a legal challenge that once again calls the law’s constitutionality into question.

At the same time, the Trump administration and several states loosened the rules around association health plans, opening up new options for small businesses like farmers. Iowa and Minnesota have changed their laws regulating association plans in recent years, and Tennessee has allowed them for farmers since 1993.

Kev Coleman, a consumer advocate and president of www.AssociationHealthPlans.com, said farmers and rural Americans often bear the brunt of the ACA’s shortcomings. In many rural counties, the exchange only offers one carrier or the networks included in ACA plans are so narrow they aren’t practical.

“It’s probably also one of the reasons why we’ve seen the agricultural industry be very interested in association health plans,” he told DTN.

Association health plans, also referred to as AHPs, allow people or organizations that share a regional or professional tie to band together to buy health insurance under the same rules as large companies. By pooling together, association plans increase in scale and negotiating power, earning greater discounts from medical providers.

AHPs can also be self-funded, which means the group holds the risk of future medical claims instead of transferring those risks to a third-party insurance company.

“That way you’re not paying profit to a third-party health insurance company, and you’re also avoiding things like the health insurance premium taxation that normal insurance plans have to pay,” Coleman said.

All of these factors allow association plans to offer lower premiums than what can be found on the individual market.

For the most part, new association plans offer fairly comprehensive benefits, Coleman said. But since they’re regulated under the federal ERISA law, not all are required to be ACA compliant. That means some may not cover all of the 10 essential health benefits included in plans on state exchanges. However, pre-existing conditions are covered within their benefits. Additionally, health factors cannot be used to determine insurance eligibility or to raise premiums.

The Department of Labor finalized the new rules in June of 2018, and Coleman expects to see significant growth in the number of available plans and enrollment as 2019 progresses. The Department of Labor estimates that up to 11 million Americans will eventually be covered by association health plans.

If 2018 enrollments are any indicator, association plans will be a popular choice with farmers.


Rob Robertson, chief administrator of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, said more than 700 people signed up for its plan during the October-to-December enrollment period. NEFB’s partner on the plan, Medica, is also the only carrier on the state exchange. NEFB offers six plan options with varying deductibles and networks, but the cost, on average, is about 25% less than plans on the exchange.

“Not a day went by without hearing a story of somebody signing up and saving three, five, eight, 10 thousand dollars on their policy,” he said. “That’s big money.”

Nebraska’s plan is ACA-compliant, and the premiums only change based on age and geographical location, but there are a few eligibility components. First, you have to have been a Nebraska Farm Bureau member for about six months before you qualify for insurance. To be eligible in the 2020 calendar year, you must be a member by July 1, 2019.

“Essentially, we wanted a six-month waiting period. We didn’t want the next hundred Farm Bureau members to be members all needing knee replacements,” Robertson said.

The second requirement for eligibility is that 50% of an applicant’s gross income must come from production agriculture. That applies to farmers and ranchers, but also to agribusinesses with 50 employees or less.

Robertson said he expects enrollment numbers to go up in future years as more people have time to compare and consider their options. As the plan becomes more established, enrollment grows and the group’s risk becomes more stable, he thinks Medica will “be able to knock those prices of premiums down even farther.”

For more on NEFB’s plan, visit: https://www.nefb.org/…

Iowa Farm Bureau also offered an association health plan this year, but unlike Nebraska, it’s not ACA-compliant. IAFB representatives didn’t return emails or phone calls from DTN requesting more information. You can find more information on its website: https://www.iowafbhealthplan.com/…


Land O’Lakes launched a plan for its member cooperatives to offer health insurance to employees eight years ago. Since then, the plan has grown to cover more than 12,000 people. Minnesota, where the cooperative is headquartered, changed AHP laws in 2017. Land O’Lakes launched a pilot plan under those rule changes for its farmer members in 2018. About 750 enrolled.

“Then we were hearing from a lot of our other co-ops and other states that they needed it,” said Land O’Lakes senior director of benefits Pam Grove. “We want to be there to help the ones that do need a different option.”

For 2019, Land O’Lakes is using the new AHP regulations for its plans, which also helped it become the first to offer plans across state lines. It chose to expand into Nebraska because it had a large enough base of cooperatives and there was only one carrier on the individual exchange.

It also expanded to cover its farmer-members’ employees, which helps farmers attract and keep talent, especially at businesses like dairy farms.

Like Nebraska Farm Bureau’s plan, it’s ACA compliant and the only factors that influence premiums are age and location. For instance, it may charge a higher premium to farmers who are in the Mayo Clinic Care Network. On average, premiums are 25% to 35% less costly than comparable plans on the individual exchange and have lower out-of-pockets costs, Grove said.

You also have to be a member of a Land O’Lakes-affiliated cooperative to be eligible.

One thing Land O’Lakes does that’s different from other organizations offering association plans is its partner, Gravie, also checks to see if applicants are Medicare-eligible or qualify for a subsidy on the individual exchange, which could result in the applicant finding a more affordable insurance option.

“We found a few people that were eligible for the subsidy and were very thankful that we gave them both options,” Grove said.

Land O’Lakes wasn’t able to announce its expansion into Nebraska until mid-November, and despite the late entrance into the market, more than 1,000 people enrolled. Minnesota enrollment more than doubled to nearly 1,200 people.

Now, the cooperative is going to look at where to expand to next. Grove said they’ve got an idea of states where they believe there’s a need and they have a strong footprint of cooperatives.

“The problem is that not all states are association health plan friendly,” she said. “So we’re still having to go in and meet their guidelines, and in some states, it’s just not possible.”

For more on Land O’Lake’s plan, visit: https://www.landolakesinc.com/…


Lucas Strom, vice president of business development at Farmers Business Network, said the state-by-state regulatory framework of creating association health plans didn’t fit its goal of covering farmers across a wider swath of America.

By partnering with Lifestyle Health to offer a level-funded plan, it is better able to serve its national member base — it offers coverage in 40 states with more to come — and leverage that network to provide better solutions to farmers, something it couldn’t do through other options.

A level-funded plan means each policy is individually underwritten. Then those policies are pooled together and reinsured. Strom said it feels like a policy you’d be offered if you work for a large company.

“We, as a network representing more than 7,600 farms, we’re able to negotiate better rates by using strength in numbers, tailor it more to farmers, and quite honestly, the real key here is we can create a support structure,” he said.

In one example, Strom spoke with a farmer in Oklahoma. Most of the plans available required him to see doctors and use hospitals within the state, but he actually lives closer to Amarillo, Texas. FBN is working with Lifestyle to address that issue.

Eligibility for FBN’s plan is more complicated because it’s medically underwritten, which means premiums will be higher for people with certain pre-existing conditions, and some people may not qualify. Those who do qualify often save significantly over other policies.

Farms also have to have at least two employees from a tax standpoint, meaning they receive W-2s.

Strom said anyone can call to get a quote, even if they’re not an FBN member. “If a non-member in Nebraska goes through the quoting process and finds out they can save $5,000 to $10,000 this year, but it costs $700 to become an FBN member, it’s kind of a no-brainer” to sign up for a membership, Strom said.

FBN also offers dental and vision coverage.

Farmers can enroll year-round, and are eligible for coverage the first day of the following month. FBN Health is available in 40 states, including Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Dakota. Minnesota farmers can beginning enrolling in April 2019.

Visit https://www.fbnhealth.com/…for more information.


“I always say, healthcare is complex and there is no silver bullet” that works for everyone, Strom said.

Grove, Robertson and Strom agree that every farm and financial situation is different and it’s important to shop around to find the best insurance fit. While that’s what the ACA exchanges were intended to provide, they haven’t worked that way for many rural Americans.

“I don’t see the exchanges getting better anytime soon,” Grove said. “I see them getting less access, less carriers and premiums probably always struggling and going higher.”

Uhrmacher, the Nebraska farmer that found significant savings this year, said he’s grateful to have options outside of the exchanges, but that’s just the start.

“I hope that, nationally, they can try and solve some of the issues with overpricing and stuff like that. It’s not just an insurance problem, it’s a whole industry problem,” he said. “I don’t have the answers, but something needs to be done. If it was easy, it would have been done.”

Recent articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post discuss preferences for rural living and if rural economies can be saved. Data from the Nebraska Rural Poll and other state surveys are used to further explore these topics.

Residential Preferences

The Washington Post piece by Christopher Ingraham examined recent Gallup Poll data that showed many Americans would like to live in a rural area. If so many people would like to live in rural areas, why is population in nonmetropolitan areas declining? Preferences and reality don’t match for many Americans. While 27 percent of Americans would prefer to live in a rural area if they could live anywhere they wish, only 15 percent currently live in such a place. Ingraham and Gallup’s Frank Newport state that job concentration in metro areas is preventing the movement to rural areas.

Ingraham goes on to present arguments for living in rural areas. Many positives are found in rural life, such as higher levels of happiness and well-being, better natural environments, safe neighborhoods, and affordable cost of living.

A survey of new residents to the Nebraska Panhandle conducted in 2007 also sheds light on reasons people choose to live in rural areas. In fact, the type of places the new residents moved from was related to their reasons both for moving from their previous location as well as their reasons for moving to their new home (Cantrell et al., 2008). Migrants originating from metropolitan areas were significantly more likely than their non-metropolitan counterparts to identify high cost of living, fear of crime and general safety concerns as push factors that were important or very important in their decision to move from their previous residence. Similarly, the new residents originating from metropolitan areas were significantly more likely than their non-metropolitan counterparts to indicate that seeking a less congested location was an important pull consideration in selecting a Panhandle location. Indeed, this was reported as an important consideration by 65 percent of those moving to the Panhandle from a metropolitan location. They were also significantly more likely to identify the pull of lower cost housing, a simpler pace of life, a safer living environment, lower taxes, shared values and an improved environment for child-rearing than were their non-metropolitan counterparts.

Nebraska Rural Poll data from 1998 also examined residential preferences similar to those explored by Gallup. That data found the opposite trend from that found nationally. For rural Nebraskans, the proportion currently living in the country was greater than the proportion preferring to do so. Fifty-one percent of the respondents lived in the country, compared to only 34 percent who would prefer this residence type. Overall, rural Nebraskans who don’t currently live in their preferred community size tended to prefer communities larger than their current location. However, it is important to note that within these general preferences there was a marked tendency for rural residents in smaller towns to prefer smaller rural towns, for those living in larger rural towns to prefer larger towns, etc. The least preferred community size was a large city. Only one percent of rural Nebraskans would prefer to live in a place with a population in excess of 500,000.

Economic Realities

These differences in residential preferences lead to the economic disparities between urban and rural areas discussed more in the New York Times piece by Eduardo Porter. Porter examines the “Hard Truths of Trying to ‘Save’ the Rural Economy,” presenting evidence of economic decline in rural America. Some of the evidence provided includes economic recovery occurring in metropolitan areas that is not occurring overall in rural economies:  by 2017,  the largest metropolitan areas had almost 10 percent more jobs than they did at the start of the financial crisis while rural areas still had fewer.

The rural Nebraskans who expressed a preference for living in larger communities than their current location may indicate a desire for increased economic opportunities that are presumed to be greater in larger places. Further evidence of the struggle between preference for small town living and economic realities are shown in Nebraska Rural Polldata. Consistently, the Rural Poll has found that rural Nebraskans are most satisfied with various social and environmental dimensions including their marriage, family, friends, the outdoors, their safety and general quality of life. They are less satisfied with economic factors such as job opportunities, current income level, and their ability to build assets/wealth and financial security during retirement.

Looking closer at the makeup of their household incomes can help better understand this financial dissatisfaction. Rural Poll data from 2014 revealed many rural Nebraskans piece together their incomes from self-employment and multiple job holding. Just over four in ten employed rural Nebraska households (42%) have multiple job holding by members of the household. And, multiple job holding was more prevalent for residents of smaller communities. Similarly, self-employment activity was also more likely in smaller communities. Over one-half (58%) of employed households living in or near communities with less than 500 persons have at least one person who is self-employed, compared to 31 percent of households living in or near communities with populations of 10,000 or more. These employment patterns show why Nebraska has historically had low levels of unemployment.

The health of the rural economy is important to Nebraska overall. In an economic overview by the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank, they highlight that nonmetropolitan areas in Nebraska accounted for nearly 30 percent of the state’s GDP in 2016. Nationwide, nonmetropolitan areas account for about 10 percent of total economic output.

Utilizing broadband technology is argued to be promising to enhance economic opportunities in rural areas. Robert Gallardo responded to the New York Times article by arguing that disparities in connectivity between rural and urban areas have not yet allowed this to occur. He argues that investment in broadband connectivity and digital skills can help encourage a rural rebound.

A recent study of digital readiness among Nebraska households using the Internet revealed a device and internet access divide between metropolitan and rural Nebraska households. However, despite this divide, rural Nebraska households’ utilization of the internet compared evenly or more favorably to that of metropolitan households. And, they rely more heavily on using smartphones, mobile data and libraries for their internet access. Overall, Nebraskans have much room to improve their impacts and benefits from the Internet. Only about one-quarter of households earned money online by selling, freelancing or renting.

While economic realities in rural areas can be challenging, many opportunities exist. Improving digital readiness and connectivity in rural areas has the potential to increase residents’ benefits and impacts from Internet use. And, with the state’s low unemployment rate, many unfilled job opportunities are available. Since many Americans express a preference for rural living, community quality of life amenities can be the factors that ultimately lead persons to choose to move to rural areas. If economic opportunities can be improved, this would pave the way to more people choosing to do so.