Venezuela to Launch Cryptocurrency to Fight U.S. Sanctions

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro says his government will launch a cryptocurrency, or digital currency, to circumvent what he called a financial “blockade” by the U.S. government.

The new currency will be called the “petro,” the leftist leader said in his TV address Sunday. It will be backed by the socialist-run OPEC nation’s oil, gold and mineral reserves.

That will allow Venezuela to advance toward new forms of international financing for its economic and social development, Maduro said.

“Venezuela will create a cryptocurrency – the petro-currency, the petro – to advance in monetary sovereignty, to make its financial transactions, to overcome the financial blockade,” he explained. “This will allow us to move toward new forms of international financing for the economic and social development of the country. And it will be done with a cryptocurrency issue backed by reserves of Venezuelan riches of gold, oil, gas and diamonds.”

Maduro did not give any details what the new currency’s value will be, how it will work or when it will be launched.

The government also announced the creation of a “blockchain observatory” software platform for buying and selling virtual currency.

Opposition leaders objected to Maduro’s announcement, saying the currency would need congressional approval. Some questioned whether the digital currency would even be introduced in the midst of turmoil.

Venezuela’s traditional currency, the bolivar, has significantly declined in recent weeks as U.S. sanctions make it harder for the country to stay current on its foreign debt.

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Facebook Opens New London Office, to Create 800 UK Jobs

Facebook opens its new London office on Monday and said it would add 800 more jobs in the capital next year, underlining its commitment to Britain as the country prepares for Brexit.

The social network said more than half of the people working at the site in central London will focus on engineering, making it Facebook’s biggest engineering hub outside the United States.

It will also house Facebook’s first in-house start-up incubator, called LDN_LAB, designed to help kick start fledgling British digital businesses.

EMEA vice president Nicola Mendelsohn said Facebook was more committed than ever to the U.K. and supporting the growth of the country’s innovative start-ups.

“The U.K.’s flourishing entrepreneurial ecosystem and international reputation for engineering excellence makes it one of the best places in the world to build a tech company,” she said.

“And we’ve built our company here – this country has been a huge part of Facebook’s story over the past decade, and I look forward to continuing our work to achieve our mission of bringing the world closer together.”

The new jobs, which come 10 years after the company set up its first London office, will take Facebook’s total British workforce to more than 2,300 by the end of 2018, it said.

Facebook, along with other U.S. digital giants including Google and Amazon, has not been deterred from expanding in London by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.

It announced the new headquarters last year, shortly after Google said it was building a new hub in the city that will be able to accommodate more than 7,000 employees in total.

Facebook’s new office in the capital’s West End, designed by architect Frank Gehry, will house engineers, developers, marketing and sales teams working on products like Workplace, its business product which was built in London, it said.

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Trump Tweets About Russia Probe Spark Warnings From Lawmakers

A series of tweets by U.S. President Donald Trump about the investigation into contacts between his 2016 campaign and Russia prompted concerns on Sunday among both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham saying Trump could be wading into “peril” by commenting on the probe.

“I would just say this with the president: There’s an ongoing criminal investigation,” Graham said on the CBS program “Face the Nation.” “You tweet and comment regarding ongoing criminal investigations at your own peril,” he added.

On Sunday morning, Trump wrote on Twitter that he never asked former FBI Director James Comey to stop investigating Michael Flynn, the president’s former national security adviser – a statement at odds with an account Comey himself has given.

That tweet followed one on Saturday in which Trump said: “I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President (Mike Pence) and the FBI.”

Legal experts and some Democratic lawmakers said if Trump knew Flynn lied to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and then pressured Comey not to investigate him, that could bolster a charge of obstruction of justice.

Trump’s attorney, John Dowd, told Reuters in an interview on Sunday that he had drafted the Saturday tweet and “made a mistake” when he composed it.

“The mistake was I should have put the lying to the FBI in a separate line referencing his plea,” Dowd said. “Instead, I put it together and it made all you guys go crazy. A tweet is a shorthand.”

Dowd said the first time the president knew for a fact that Flynn lied to the FBI was when he was charged.

Dowd also clouded the issue by saying that then-acting U.S. attorney general Sally Yates informed White House counsel Don McGahn in January that Flynn told FBI agents the same thing he told Pence, and that McGahn reported his conversation with Yates to Trump. He said Yates did not characterize Flynn’s conduct as a legal violation.

Dowd said it was the first and last time he would craft a tweet for the president.

“I’ll take responsibility,” he said. “I’m sorry I misled people.”

Yates did not respond to an email seeking comment, and a lawyer for McGahn did not respond to requests for comment.

The White House also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

‘Continual tweets’

The series of tweets came after a dramatic turn of events on Friday in which Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations last December with Russia’s then-ambassador in Washington, Sergei Kislyak, just weeks before Trump entered the White House.

Flynn also agreed to cooperate with prosecutors delving into contacts between Trump’s inner circle and Russia before the president took office.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she believed the indictments in the investigation so far and Trump’s “continual tweets” pointed toward an obstruction of justice case.

“I see it most importantly in what happened with the firing of Director Comey. And it is my belief that that is directly because he did not agree to lift the cloud of the Russia investigation. That’s obstruction of justice,” Feinstein said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“The president knew [Flynn] had lied to the FBI, which means that when he talked to the FBI director and asked him to effectively drop this case, he knew that Flynn had committed a federal crime,” Adam Schiff, senior Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told the ABC program “This Week.”

The Russia matter has dogged Trump’s first year in office, and this weekend overshadowed his first big legislative win when the Senate approved a tax bill.

Flynn was the first member of Trump’s administration to

plead guilty to a crime uncovered by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. election and potential collusion by Trump aides.

Russia has denied meddling in the election and Trump has said there was no collusion.

Comey, who had been investigating the Russia allegations, was fired by Trump in May. He told the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee in June he believed his dismissal was related to the Russia probe, and said Trump asked him to end the investigation of Flynn.

“I never asked Comey to stop investigating Flynn. Just more Fake News covering another Comey lie!” Trump said on Twitter on Sunday.

On CBS, Graham criticized Comey, saying he believed the former FBI director made some “very, very wrong” decisions during his tenure. But Graham also said Trump should be careful about his tweets.

“I’d be careful if I were you, Mr. President. I’d watch this,” Graham said.

 

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2 Polls Split on Who Is Winning US Senate Race in Alabama

Four-decade-old sexual misconduct allegations against Alabama Republican Roy Moore are playing a major role for voters in his campaign for a U.S. Senate seat, but nine days ahead of the election two major polls are split whether he is ahead of Democrat Doug Jones.  

A CBS News/YouGov poll on Sunday said Moore, twice deposed from the Alabama Supreme Court for failing to adhere to federal court rulings, is ahead of Jones, a former federal prosecutor, by a 49-to-43 percent margin among likely voters.  A day earlier, The Washington Post-Schar School survey showed Jones ahead, 50-47.

The December 12 contest has been roiled by accusations from two women who alleged that Moore, when he was a local prosecutor in early 30s, sexually abused them when they were teenagers, while other women, now also in their 50s, said that Moore pursued them for dates when they were teens.

The CBS poll said that Republicans, by a 71-17 percent margin, think the allegations are false and that they believe Democrats and the media are behind the accusations.  One of the accusers, one of whom was 14 at the time, first told her account in the Post, while a second woman held a news conference.  The Post’s poll similarly showed Republicans’ disbelief about the allegations, with fewer than one in six Republican-leaning likely voters believing that Moore made unwanted sexual advances against the girls.

The CBS poll said half of Moore’s supporters are backing him because they want a senator who would cast votes for conservative causes, rather than because they think he is the best candidate in the election.  The Post said its survey showed that a quarter of voters say moral conduct will be the deciding factor if how they decide to vote, with Jones winning such voters over Moore by a 67-30 margin.

The election is for the last three years of the seat once held by Jeff Sessions, who resigned it to join President Donald Trump’s Cabinet as attorney general, the country’s top law enforcement official.

Trump has said Jones would prove to be an unwanted liberal vote in the Senate representing a deeply conservative state.  Other key Republicans have called for Moore to drop out of the race, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan and two former Republican presidential nominees, Mitt Romney and Senator John McCain.

Some Republicans say that Moore, if he wins and is seated in the Senate, should then be immediately expelled because of the sexual misconduct allegations.  McConnell on Sunday said it is up to Alabama voters to decide the election and that should Moore win, it would be up to the Senate Ethics Committee to consider the women’s accusations.

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Trump Says Former FBI Chief Comey Lied to Congress

U.S. President Donald Trump, in a series of Sunday morning tweets from the White House, attacked his own Federal Bureau of Investigation and said he never asked then-FBI Director James Comey to stop investigating his one-time national security adviser Michael Flynn about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to Washington.

 

The FBI’s reputation is “in Tatters – worst in History,” but the Trump administration will “bring it back to greatness,” the president declared on Twitter.

 

In a separate tweet on Comey’s sworn testimony before Congress that the president had asked him to stop the probe of Flynn, Trump said “Just more Fake News covering another Comey lie.”

The tweets come two days after Flynn pleaded guilty in Washington to lying to FBI agents about conversations he had with former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the weeks before Trump assumed power in January.

Trump, on Sunday on the same social media platform, also attacked the FBI amid revelations that an agent, who had written emails favoring Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton in the presidential election, was dropped from the probe after the emails were discovered.

“Now it all starts to make sense!” Trump said.

 

“The president should have no comment whatsoever on either of these investigations,” said Republican Senator Susan Collins on the NBC News “Meet the Press” program on Sunday. “And the only thing that he should be doing is directing all of his staff and associates to fully cooperate.”

 

A tweet sent out Saturday on the @realDonaldTrump account is also attracting significant scrutiny.

 

Trump tweeted that he “had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!”

 

That suggests the president was aware that when he fired Flynn on February 13 – after less than a month as his national security advisor – the president was aware the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency had lied to the FBI when agents interviewed him weeks earlier.

 

The president’s personal lawyer says he wrote that tweet and told the Axios news website on Sunday that it was “my mistake” that he passed along in a draft to White House social media director Dan Scavino.

“I’m out of the tweeting business,” John Dowd said with a chuckle, according to Axios. “I did not mean to break news.”

To many the tweet implies that the president is admitting obstruction of justice.

And many are questioning Dowd’s explanation of it.

“It seems as implausible as it is convenient to President Trump,” says Ned Price, who was a special assistant to President Barack Obama on the National Security Council staff.

“The idea that a lawyer would draft that – without any input from or clearance by Trump – doesn’t strike me as believable,” Price, a former CIA senior analyst and spokesperson, tells VOA. “Add that to the long list of cover-ups.”

As part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s criminal investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow, he is looking into whether the president obstructed justice in asking Comey to curb his investigation of Flynn and then later by firing the FBI director.

Flynn faces up to five years in prison following Friday’s guilty plea but has agreed to cooperate with the special counsel’s investigation.

 

“I do believe he will incriminate others in the administration. Otherwise, there was no reason for Bob Mueller to give Mike Flynn this kind of deal,”  Congressman Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on ABC’s “This Week” television program said, adding that, “whether that will ultimately lead to the president, I simply don’t know.”

 

Mueller is formulating a case of obstruction of justice against the president, according to the ranking Democrat on the Senate’s judiciary committee.

 

I think we see this in the indictments, the four indictments and pleas that have just taken place, and some of the comments that are being made. I see it in the hyper-frenetic attitude of the White House: the comments every day, the continual tweets,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

 

“And I see it, most importantly, in what happened with the firing of Director Comey and it is my belief that that is directly because he did not agree to lift the cloud of the Russia investigation,” according to Feinsten. “That’s obstruction of justice.”

 

Flynn was one of Trump’s close confidants during last year’s presidential campaign in which the Republican nominee pulled off a stunning upset over Clinton.

 

Flynn, who was also previously fired by President Barack Obama as DIA director, gained widespread public attention at the Republican National Convention when he led chants of “Lock her up,” referring to Clinton.

 

Outside the Federal District Courthouse in Washington on Friday, where he entered his perjury guilty plea, Flynn was taunted with chants of “Lock him up.”

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Trump Changes Story on Why He Fired Flynn

U.S. President Donald Trump  seemed Saturday to change his story on why he fired Michael Flynn as his national security advisor. Initially, the president said he let Flynn go because Flynn was not honest with Vice President Michael Pence about his contacts with Russians during the presidential transition.

But then Trump tweeted Saturday: “I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies.  It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful.  There was nothing to hide!”

The tweet suggested that the president knew Flynn had lied to the FBI, as well as the vice president, about his Russians contacts.  Trump had not mentioned the FBI before in his tweets about Flynn and the Russians.

It is against the law to lie to the FBI.

Trump also tweeted Sunday morning that “I never asked (FBI director James ) Comey to stop investigating Flynn.  Just more Fake News covering another Comey lie!”

The president’s tweets have resulted in a climate of confusion about what the president knew and when he knew it about Flynn’s contact with the Russians.  

An Associated Press report says that the president did not write the tweet about the FBI, but that it was instead written by John Dowd, one of Trump’s attorneys.

Flynn pleaded guilty Friday to lying to federal agents, and he has agreed to cooperate with investigators examining allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign.

Earlier Saturday, in his first remarks since Flynn entered the guilty plea, Trump said there was “absolutely no collusion” between his presidential campaign and Russia.

“What has been shown is no collusion, no collusion,” Trump told reporters as he left the White House for New York.

Appearing before a federal judge in a packed courtroom in Washington, Flynn, a 59-year-old retired army general, pleaded guilty to one count of making false statements to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about a series of private conversations he had in December 2016 with Russia’s then-ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak.

 

The charge carries a sentence of up to five years in prison, but under U.S. sentencing guidelines the average sentence for the offense ranges from zero to six months.

The guidelines are advisory, but prosecutors agreed to seek a reduced sentence if Flynn provides “substantial assistance” with the investigation being led by special counsel Robert Mueller. No sentencing date was announced.

Guilty plea

As part of his guilty plea, Flynn agreed to “cooperate fully” with  Mueller’s team of investigators, answering questions, providing written statements, taking polygraph exams, and “participating in covert law enforcement activities.” In return, Mueller’s office agreed that Flynn “will not be further prosecuted criminally.”

Flynn is the fourth member of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign to be charged by Mueller’s team and the first former White House staff member to plead guilty in connection with the Russia investigation.

On Oct. 30, Paul Manafort, a former Trump campaign chairman, and Rick Gates, another senior campaign official, were charged in a 12-count indictment unrelated to the Russia investigation.

 

Another Trump campaign surrogate, George Papadopoulos, secretly pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian government and is cooperating with the special counsel as well.

Flynn’s decision to cooperate with a probe that could implicate others close to Trump marks a dramatic turnaround for a man who staunchly campaigned for the real estate mogul and promised a hard edge in U.S. foreign policy before being fired.

 

White House reaction

The White House sought to play down the significance of Flynn’s guilty plea.

White House lawyer Ty Cobb said Flynn’s plea does not implicate “anyone other than Mr. Flynn” and added Flynn was a “former Obama administration official” who served in the Trump White House for only 25 days.

But the plea agreement provided an indication that Mueller sees Flynn’s cooperation as critical to his investigation.

“The trick is we won’t know perhaps for some time how significant it is,” said Steve Vladeck, a professor of law at the University of Texas who closely follows the Russia investigation. “But it’s a strong sign that more is coming. And what’s coming down the pipe probably involves more senior officials and individuals closer to President Trump himself.”

In a statement released after his court appearance Friday, Flynn said, “The actions I acknowledged in court today were wrong, and, through my faith in God, I am working to set things right.”

Flynn was swept up in the Russia probe as the FBI began examining contacts between Russia and Trump campaign officials.

Flynn admitted to lying to the FBI about the conversations he had with the Russian ambassador at the behest of senior Trump transition officials shortly after the election.  

The conversations focused on two foreign policy issues the Trump transition team sought to influence before coming into office: a pending U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel for its settlement activities in Palestinian territories and a possible Russian retaliation to sanctions imposed by then-President Barack Obama.  

In two separate conversations – Dec. 22 and Dec. 23, 2016 – Flynn, directed by a “very senior” member of the Trump transition team, called Kislyak to urge him that Russia “vote against or delay” the Security Council resolution. Kisliyak later called back to say Russia would not vote against the resolution.

‘Very senior’ member of transition team

Several U.S. news outlets have identified as the “very senior” member of the transition team as Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser who is leading the White House’s Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

Five days later, on Dec. 28, after Obama announced punitive sanctions against Russia over its interference in the election, Kislyak called Flynn, according to prosecutors.

The next day, Dec. 29, Flynn contacted an unnamed senior transition official who was at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort to discuss what to tell Kislyak about the sanctions.

The two discussed the impact of sanctions on Trump’s foreign policy. Immediately after the conversation, Flynn called Kislyak and urged him to “refrain from escalating the situation.”

On Dec. 31, the day after Putin announced that Russia would not retaliate to the U.S. sanctions, Kislyak called Flynn to say that “Russia had chosen not to retaliate” in response to Flynn’s request.  

When confronted by the FBI four days after Trump’s inauguration, Flynn, then the president’s national security adviser, denied everything, according to court documents filed on Friday.

The filing also says Flynn falsely stated he did not remember Kislyak informing him the Kremlin had decided to “moderate its response to those sanctions” in response to Flynn’s request.

The court document says Flynn also falsely claimed the Russian ambassador never described Moscow’s response to that request.

Kushner is scheduled to make public comments about the administration’s Middle East strategy on Monday in Washington, his first expected public remarks since Flynn pleaded guilty, according to VOA’s  Nike Chiang.

“Jared Kushner will speak publicly for the first time about the #Trump administration’s approach to the #MiddleEast on Sunday at the Saban Forum in Washington, an annual conference organized by the Center for Middle East Policy at  @BrookingsInst focused on U.S.- #Israel relations.”

 

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Nevada Gambling Leaders Grapple with Pot’s Future in Casinos

A committee exploring the effects of recreational marijuana on Nevada’s gambling industry is wrestling with how the state’s casinos might deal with the pot business while not running afoul of federal law.

Lured by a potential economic impact in the tens of millions of dollars, Gov. Brian Sandoval’s Gaming Policy Committee is trying to figure out how casinos can host conventions and trade shows on marijuana.

The 12-member committee ended its meeting Wednesday without a formal decision on the matter, but Sandoval said he hopes to have committee recommendations for possible regulations by February.

The Nevada Gaming Commission has discouraged licensees in the past from becoming involved with the marijuana business, fearing legal backlash. Committee members have also voiced opposition to the idea of allowing marijuana use at resorts.

However, events like MJBizCon, a conference on various aspects of the marijuana growing industry, have drawn the attention of the gambling industry because of their strong turnout.

Cassandra Farrington, who started the conference, told the committee that the event brought about 18,000 people to the Las Vegas Convention Center last month and it’s only expected to grow. She noted that marijuana products are not allowed on the show floor, and people who violate that ruled are expelled.

Trade shows like Farrington’s conference can generate millions of dollars in tax revenue, said Deonne Contine, the director of the Nevada Department of Taxation. Contine told the committee that a show with about 15,000 people can produce a $28.2 million economic impact on the city.

Attorney Brian Barnes said any marijuana business in gambling facilities could be considered racketeering or money laundering under federal regulations.

“Marijuana business is illegal under virtually every aspect of federal law,” Barnes said.

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Rising Number of Young Americans Are Leaving Jobs to Farm

Liz Whitehurst dabbled in several careers before she ended up on a Maryland farm, crating fistfuls of fresh-cut arugula in the November chill.

The hours were better at her nonprofit jobs. So were the benefits. But two years ago, Whitehurst, 32 — who graduated from a liberal arts college and grew up in the Chicago suburbs — abandoned Washington for a three-acre plot in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.

She joined a growing movement of highly educated, ex-urban, first-time farmers who are capitalizing on booming consumer demand for local and sustainable foods and who, experts say, could have a broad impact on the food system.

For only the second time in the last century, the number of farmers under 35 years old is increasing, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census of Agriculture. Sixty-nine percent of the surveyed young farmers had college degrees — significantly higher than the general population.

This new generation can’t hope to replace the numbers that farming is losing to age. But it is already contributing to the growth of the local-food movement and could help preserve the place of midsize farms in the rural landscape.

“We’re going to see a sea change in American agriculture as the next generation gets on the land,” said Kathleen Merrigan, the head of the Food Institute at George Washington University and a deputy secretary at the Department of Agriculture under President Barack Obama. “The only question is whether they’ll get on the land, given the challenges.”

The number of farmers aged 25 to 34 grew 2.2 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to the 2014 USDA census, a period when other groups of farmers — save the oldest — shrank by double digits. In some states, such as California, Nebraska and South Dakota, the number of beginning farmers has grown by 20 percent or more.

New to farming

A survey that the National Young Farmers Coalition, an advocacy group, conducted with Merrigan’s help shows that the majority of young farmers did not grow up in agricultural families.

They are also far more likely than the general farming population to grow organically, limit pesticide and fertilizer use, diversify their crops or animals, and be deeply involved in their local food systems via community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs and farmers markets.

Today’s young farmers also tend to operate small farms of less than 50 acres, though that number increases with each successive year of experience.

Whitehurst took over her farm, Owl’s Nest, from a retiring farmer in 2015.

The farm sits at the end of a gravel road, a series of vegetable fields unfurling from a steep hill capped by her tiny white house. Like the farmer who worked this land before her, she leases the house and the fields from a neighboring couple in their 70s.

She grows organically certified peppers, cabbages, tomatoes and salad greens from baby kale to arugula, rotating her fields to enrich the soil and planting cover crops in the off-season.

On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, she and two longtime friends from Washington wake up in semidarkness to harvest by hand, kneeling in the mud to cut handfuls of greens before the sun can wilt them. All three young women, who also live on the farm, make their living off the produce Whitehurst sells, whether to restaurants, through CSA shares or at a D.C. farmers market.

Finances can be tight. The women admit they’ve given up higher standards of living to farm.

“I wanted to have a positive impact, and that just felt very distant in my other jobs out of college,” Whitehurst said. “In farming, on the other hand, you make a difference. Your impact is immediate.”

Larger impact

That impact could grow as young farmers scale up and become a larger part of the commercial food system, Merrigan said.

Already, several national grocery chains, including Walmart and SuperValu, have built out local-food-buying programs, according to AT Kearney, a management consulting firm.

Young farmers are also creating their own “food hubs,” allowing them to store, process and market food collectively, and supply grocery and restaurant chains at a price competitive with national suppliers.

That’s strengthening the local and organic food movement, experts say.

“I get calls all the time from farmers — some of the largest farmers in the country — asking me when the local and organic fads will be over,” said Eve Turow Paul, a consultant who advises farms and food companies on millennial preferences. “It’s my pleasure to tell them: Look at this generation. Get on board or go out of business.”

There are also hopes that the influx of young farmers could provide some counter to the aging of American agriculture.

The age of the average American farmer has crept toward 60 over several decades, risking the security of midsize family farms where children aren’t interested in succeeding their parents.

Between 1992 and 2012, the country lost more than 250,000 midsize and small commercial farms, according to the USDA. During that same period, more than 35,000 very large farms started up, and the large farms already in existence consolidated their acreage.

Midsize farms are critical to rural economies, generating jobs, spending and tax revenue. And while they’re large enough to supply mainstream markets, they’re also small enough to respond to environmental changes and consumer demand.

If today’s young farmers can continue to grow their operations, said Shoshanah Inwood, a rural sociologist at Ohio State University, they could bolster these sorts of farms — and in the process prevent the land from falling into the hands of large-scale industrial operations or residential developers.

“Multigenerational family farms are shrinking. And big farms are getting bigger,” Inwood said. “For the resiliency of the food system and of rural communities, we need more agriculture of the middle.”

Numbers are still small

It’s too early to say whether young farmers will effect that sort of change.

The number of young farmers entering the field is not nearly large enough to replace the number exiting, according to the USDA: Between 2007 and 2012, agriculture gained 2,384 farmers between ages 25 and 34 — and lost nearly 100,000 between 45 and 54.

And young farmers face formidable challenges to starting and scaling their businesses. The costs of farmland and farm equipment are prohibitive. Young farmers are frequently dependent on government programs, including child-care subsidies and public health insurance, to cover basic needs.

And student loan debt — which 46 percent of young farmers consider a “challenge,” according to the National Young Farmers Coalition — can strain already tight finances and disqualify them from receiving other forms of credit.

But Lindsey Lusher Shute, the executive director of the coalition, said she has seen the first wave of back-to-the-landers grow up in the eight years since she co-founded the advocacy group. And she suggested that new policy initiatives, including student loan forgiveness and farm transition programs, could further help them.

“Young farmers tend to start small and sell to direct markets, because that’s a viable way for them to get into farming,” Lusher Shute said. “But many are shifting gears as they get into it — getting bigger or moving into wholesale.”

Just last year, Whitehurst was approached by an online grocery service that wanted to buy her vegetables. Because While Owl’s Nest produces too little to supply such a large buyer on its own, the service planned to buy produce from multiple small, local farmers.

Whitehurst ultimately turned the deal down, however. Among other things, she feared that she could not afford to sell her vegetables at the lower price point the service wanted.

“For now, I’m focused on getting better, not bigger,” she said. “But in a few years, who knows? Ask me again then.”

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China’s Ceramics Capital Struggles to Adapt Amid War on Smog

The city of Zibo, China’s ceramics capital, is undergoing environmental shock therapy to clear its filthy skies and transform its economy — and not everyone is happy.

Much of Zibo’s sprawling industrial district has become a ghost town of shuttered factories, empty showrooms and abandoned restaurants after a cleanup campaign that began last year intensified this winter. Dozens of chimneys stand inactive.

“There used to be a lot of workers here, but now they are demolishing the entire place,” said a caretaker who gave his surname as Wei, pointing at the deserted warehouse of an abandoned factory he was guarding. “We have no idea what they will build here — that’s the boss’s decision.”

Zibo, home to 4.5 million people about 260 miles south of Beijing in Shandong province, is one of 28 northern Chinese cities targeted in an unprecedented six-month anti-pollution blitz as China scrambles to meet air quality targets.

The city is also at the heart of a wider, long-term government effort to upgrade China’s heavy industrial economy.

Once responsible for about a quarter of China’s ceramic output, mainly floor and wall tiles, Zibo has slashed capacity by 70 percent and shut more than 150 companies and 250 production lines as part of a ruthless war on pollution.

Surviving plants have rushed to comply with tough new standards, but business is still threatened by constant production suspensions ordered by the government, as well as natural gas shortages this winter as northern cities switch to the fuel from coal.

“It is a brave step that China is taking, but they have to take it,” said Alex Koszo, the founder of Vecor, a Hong Kong-based company that has built a joint-venture plant in Zibo to manufacture environmentally friendly tiles from fly ash.

“They have the will, the money, and access to technology, so I think we are looking at a very different Zibo, and a very different Shandong, in five to 10 years.”

The local environmental bureau declined to be interviewed, telling Reuters that cleanup efforts were “still at an early stage” — but changes are already conspicuous.

With old factories marked for demolition, new apartment blocks, shopping complexes and roads are being built. The city registered growth of 7.8 percent in the first three-quarters of this year, driven by the service sector, according to the local government. Displaced workers have shifted to construction sites and other industries like textiles, residents said.

Zibo has also established a “greentech” incubator in the old district and opened a new high-tech industrial park in order to attract companies and encourage innovation in ceramics.

But some local businessmen accuse Beijing of running roughshod over local industry and paying too little heed to circumstances on the ground, with one boss accusing inspectors of behaving like “imperial envoys.”

“There is a ring of 28 cities, and pollution only needs to appear in Beijing — even just medium-level pollution — and all our factories have to shut,” said the owner of a large local factory who declined to be named, fearing repercussions. “It doesn’t matter whether you meet the standards or not, you have to shut.”

Upgrades

Over the past decade, Zibo’s ceramics makers took advantage of closures elsewhere to drive up output and seize market share in China. Zibo’s tiles were used throughout China and exported around the world. In recent years, however, the industry was weighed down by poor quality and chronic overcapacity that eroded prices and exposed the sector to European Union anti-dumping measures.

Beijing’s war on pollution served as an opportunity to tackle those problems. Now, the mainstay of the local economy is a shadow of its former self.

With annual production capacity slashed to 246 million square meters, compared with 827 million square meters before the campaign began, the government hopes surviving manufacturers can upgrade and compete with higher-end producers.

“I think the steps the government is taking now will push the costs up, and therefore the price of the goods will be up and the quality will meet international standards,” said Koszo.

But the local factory owner said the campaign has inflicted long-term damage, eroding cost advantages and driving customers away.

“If Zibo was the only place producing tiles in the whole country, then it wouldn’t be a problem. But this is an unfair policy. They are closing us but not others,” he said.

Stop-start production

Environmental officials deny the pollution crackdown or the heightened vigilance of inspectors will cause deep harm to China’s economy, saying any losses would be compensated by the long-term benefits of clean investment.

But in Zibo, even environmentally compliant manufacturers are losing customers. The factory owner said he has lost 80 percent of domestic clients and half his overseas ones, with many frustrated by the stop-start nature of production.

Zibo’s ceramics companies are not only hit by emergency closures aimed at curbing smog. A year ago, they were ordered to switch from coal to gas, but suppliers are giving priority to residential winter heating.

“People are losing patience and manufacturing is shifting to the south,” said Bryan Vadas, director at the Tile Agencies Group in Australia, which used to source products for export from Zibo but has now started buying elsewhere.

Environment Minister Li Ganjie said this year that China would not adopt an “indiscriminate one-size-fits-all approach,” adding that companies have plenty of leeway to clean up and survive.

“Only enterprises that have no clear survival value, pollute heavily and have no hope of being rectified will be shut down,” Li said.

But local enterprises have struggled to cope with repeated policy changes, with industry entry requirements adjusted four times in less than two years, the local factory owner said.

“I have worked hard to build up this business,” he said.

“Personally, I just think the government should tell us directly that they don’t want us to stay in operation. There’s no need for them to torture me.”

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