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China puts U.S. soybean purchases on hold as tariff war escalates, producers face 'a perfect storm'

WASHINGTON — News that China is holding off on making new purchases of U.S. soybeans is just the latest bad news for Midwestern grain farmers.

In addition to the ongoing trade dispute, China is dealing with a deadly swine fever outbreak that’s wiping out its hogs and further depressing the need for soybeans used in livestock feed.

Wet weather in the Midwest, meanwhile, is prompting more farmers to plant soybeans instead of corn, which could ultimately translate into bigger soybean surpluses and even lower prices.

“You kind of have a perfect storm when it comes to soybean producers,” said Jordan Dux, Nebraska Farm Bureau’s director of national affairs.

Bloomberg News reported Thursday that China has put a hold on new soybean purchases, although it’s not canceling previous purchases.

That story didn’t exactly shock American farmers.

After all, U.S. soybean shipments to China typically taper off this time of year anyway.

And the amount of soybeans China has been buying was already far below normal.

Still, the news goes to the overall story of how the ongoing trade war with China is socking the midsection of the country.

“It underscores that we have a problem in rural America as it relates to what the economic situation looks like,” Dux said. “We’re not in the ’80s (farm crisis) yet by any means, but it’s starting to get troublesome out there for folks.”

When President Donald Trump addressed the China issue on Thursday, he touted the tariffs being collected.

“So the United States taxpayer is paying for very little of it,” Trump said.

But the hit to taxpayers can be seen in various ways, including a fresh round of farm aid that the administration is preparing. At $16 billion, this year’s program is expected to surpass last year’s payments to farmers to help offset the trade hit.

Dux said that farmers would rather have the trade but that such aid payments are appreciated.

Farm state lawmakers have hit similar notes — that they would much rather see new trade agreements negotiated. But they aren’t objecting to the aid payments.

“The breakdown of talks with China is concerning, as our producers need access to markets,” Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., said in a statement Thursday. “Transitional payments only provide a short term bridge; what our producers really need is for the administration to re-engage with China as soon as practical to try to bring this issue to a successful resolution. The only long-term solution is lasting trade agreements.”

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Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said in a statement that she appreciates the president standing up to bad actors on trade such as China.

“But our Nebraska ag producers are feeling uncertainty and frustration when it comes to trade,” she said. “On a positive note, the administration is taking steps to open other markets, including the Japanese market and the USMCA.”

The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement is the Trump administration’s replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement. That pact must still be approved by Congress, and a Thursday announcement by Trump could compromise the deal.

He said that starting June 10, he will slap a 5% tariff on Mexico to pressure it to do more to crack down on Central American migrants trying to cross into the U.S.

“The Tariff will gradually increase until the Illegal Immigration problem is remedied,” he wrote on Twitter.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement that China’s announcement “won’t have much of an effect since soybean exports to China are already at near-zero levels because of their tariffs.”

“But that doesn’t help soybean farmers or give us much cause for optimism,” he said. “It does underscore the need for the Chinese to return to the negotiating table and work with the United States to reach a reasonable deal as soon as possible.”

Said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., in a statement: “Nebraska farmers tell me all the time that they want more trade, not aid.”

At the same time, Sasse said, Nebraskans see clearly that China’s government is an adversary to the U.S.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

Photos: Nebraska flooding hits hard in farm country

NU regents name interim president, the first woman to lead the University of Nebraska system

LINCOLN — Susan Fritz grew up on a farm from which she could see the Lincoln skyline and imagine what living in that city was like.

Now 61, Fritz will have the chance from her Lincoln office to take a broad view of the University of Nebraska system as its interim president starting on Aug. 15. She will be the first woman in the history of NU’s central office to serve in the top job.

She won the position Thursday on a 7-1 vote of the NU Board of Regents. Board member Howard Hawks of Omaha said during the roll call: “With all due respect, I vote no.” He shook her hand afterward and said she had his support.

Asked after the meeting whom he preferred, Hawks said, “It’s irrelevant. It’s my job to support Susan now.”

Fritz is currently executive vice president and provost of the NU system, the central office’s No. 2 job. She made it clear to the board that she was delighted to be appointed interim president.

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“Board members, I thank you from the bottom of my heart,” she said. Fritz will be paid $540,000 a year, although a permanent president will most likely be picked before she has been in the interim job for a year.

NU President Hank Bounds announced this year that he would leave his job in August and move back to the South with his family. Bounds said he is worn down and wants more family time. That means that the regents must find a permanent replacement and might do that before the end of the year.

The president is the top administrator of the NU system and is the boss of the chancellors of the system’s institutions in Omaha, Lincoln, Kearney and Curtis.

Also on Thursday, the regents assigned NU attorneys to work out a contract with AGB Search, a Washington, D.C., executive search firm. The firm is expected to help create a presidential profile, recruit a pool of candidates and perform reference checks.

Regents documents indicate that AGB Search will be paid $169,750 plus expenses.

AGB is a search firm created in 2010 by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. The latter organization provides guidance to higher education boards and leaders to “help them navigate the changing education landscape,” according to its website.

On the three-person team from AGB Search expected to serve the NU system is Sally Mason, the former president of the University of Iowa.

Fritz said she was a first-generation college student — that is, no family members had preceded her in higher education. She received all three of her degrees, including her doctorate, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She has worked as a faculty member and administrator at UNL and in the NU system throughout her career.

“I have been connected to the university for most of my personal and professional life,” Fritz told the board.

Her expertise is in leadership development, and the bulk of her time has been in the UNL College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources.

She remains close to the farming industry. Fritz, her husband, Russell, and one of their sons own and run a farm near Crete.

Fritz was selected after a closed session that lasted more than two hours.

Board of Regents Chairman Tim Clare of Lincoln then called it “a historic day” because Fritz will be the first woman to lead the system.

“For Susan, it’s all about the students,” Clare said. He looked over at Fritz and said he believes in her.

Fritz responded quietly: “Thank you.”

Fritz said she has agreed not to be a candidate for the permanent presidency.

Regent Jim Pillen said he knew that Fritz works and advocates “tenaciously hard” for students. Pillen, of Columbus, said Fritz has worked with students on getting the right number of credit hours transferred to or from another institution and on “finding the right fit” for students in higher education.

Bounds said that when he arrived at NU almost four years ago, Fritz was interim provost. She made it clear to him that she would step aside without dissatisfaction if he wanted someone else in that role. Bounds said: “I quickly came to the conclusion that I couldn’t do this job without Susan’s help.”

Fritz said she never would have expected to rise this high when she was a girl who would look from the farm toward Lincoln and find the view “mesmerizing.” The farm girl will now lead one of the state’s most important institutions.

Photos: Our best shots of 2019 (so far)

Schools want med students to get a healthy dose of the humanities
Some look to art, music and such to help doctors and nurses avoid burnout and empathize with others

Joseph McGuire

The words "medical humanities" smack of a contradiction in terms, like "sweet and sour sauce" and "old news."

But health careworkers, colleges and medical schools increasingly recognize the importance of supplementing health care teaching programs, which are dominated by hard sciences, with the gentle arts.

Medical humanities is growing in the region. The University of Nebraska at Omaha received approval from the Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education on Thursday for the right to offer a major in medical humanities.

Creighton University has just created a department of medical humanities in its School of Medicine. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has had a minor in humanities in medicine since the 1990s but plans to hire historian Deirdre Cooper Owens to build the program and perhaps eventually offer a major in it.

The University of Iowa College of Medicine has a program in bioethics and humanities that includes elective courses in creative writing and students' written reflections on clinical experiences.

The reasons for offering these

programs vary. Undergraduate pre-med programs and medical schools want to promote empathy in their students and believe that literature, art, writing and music can help. Doctors and nurses are burning out at a high rate, and many believe that art and music can reenergize and fuel the soul.

They aim to improve observation and communication skills through writing and art. They also want to inspire medical students to think "deeply and broadly about the world around them," said Nicole Piemonte, a faculty member in the Creighton School of Medicine's department of medical humanities.

"We think this is critical in medical education, where students so often encounter elements of the human condition like suffering, pain and death," Piemonte said in an email.

Beth Culross, a University of Nebraska Medical Center nursing faculty member and head of a campus faculty group for medical humanities, said "learning through the humanities helps you listen to other people."

Culross said UNMC and UNO will work together on some humanities efforts. It would be good if the entities could do research on burnout and the humanities and track UNO medical humanities students who enter UNMC's programs, she said.

Steve Langan, director of medical humanities at UNO, said that with the commission's approval, the UNO major will tap into a broad set of subjects with the expertise of about 40 professors around the campus. The subject areas include art, philosophy, ethics, religious studies, the history of medicine and others.

Langan, a writer and poet, said using humanities in medical education involves "looking at the challenges of health care with fresh eyes."

For more than 10 years, he has headed a writing group for physicians and others called the Seven Doctors Project. Further, when artist Mark Gilbert did a series of portraits of patients and caregivers last decade at the Nebraska Medical Center, "I started to see that art could have the same effect that writing was having on people," Langan said.

UNO has had a minor in medical humanities for four years, and for a major, it would double the number of credit hours required.

Langan said the medical humanities isn't just for students. Health care worker burnout is a big problem for this nation, he said. Writing, music and other artful diversions can refresh a person, Langan said.

"You lose track of time, you're engaged, you're energized," he said. A 2017 National Academy of Medicine article said more than half of American physicians "are experiencing substantial symptoms of burnout." Studies of nurses and other health care workers show high rates of burnout, too, the article said.

He said he hopes that his program can hire a research director to track the effectiveness of the humanities in medicine.

Jared Noetzel majors in psychology at UNL and might work with troubled children someday. Among his minors are medical humanities and piano. He said the arts and medicine go together because much of "what health care professionals deal with has to do with human emotions and behaviors, in both the patient and practitioner."

Noetzel, a senior from Omaha, said he imagines that he will continue to play the piano as a soothing endeavor long after he graduates. "It's just a nice outlet for me," he said.

Dr. Lauris Kaldjian, director of the University of Iowa's program in bioethics and humanities, said U of I has required courses in biomedical ethics and elective offerings in medical humanities.

Kaldjian said it's vital that a physician see a patient as a person with an illness and not "a body that science is here to fix."

Suffering pervades health care, he said, and no science textbook can fully define suffering or describe what to do about it. "Suffering is not a problem to be solved but amystery to be faced," he said.

Keeping a journal, he said, helps med students and young doctors reflect on their "early encounters with very difficult situations," he said. The U of I program goes all the way back to 1992.

Many other schools, including Clarkson College and Nebraska Methodist College, have health care programs that at least touch on the humanities. Two years ago, Clarkson added intercultural communication, humanities and ethics courses to its core curriculum. Nursing students at Nebraska Methodist must take 15 credit hours of humanities courses.

Joseph McGuire, a doctoral student in medical anthropology at the University of Alabama, finished his undergraduate degree at UNO and minored in medical humanities.

Medical humanities "pushes the scholar and medical practitioner to consider what it means to be a human who heals, asking us to explore how we experience health, illness" and medical care, McGuire said in an email. "It's too early to tell if medical humanities education leads to better patient outcomes, but this is the next frontier."

UNMC's Culross said she is confident that art can play a role in healing. When she sees patients in the Chihuly Sanctuary at UNMC's new cancer center, she said, they tend to relax. And relaxation, she said, can help a person's body focus on and fight back against disease., 402-444-1123

Omaha, Lincoln, other chambers call on Congress to protect certain immigrants

Thousands of immigrants living, working, earning degrees and paying taxes in Nebraska are stuck in legal limbo, Omaha and Lincoln Chamber of Commerce officials say, putting at risk the “important role” they play in the state’s economy.

That’s why the heads of both chambers joined dozens of others across the country Thursday to advocate for “Dreamers” and other immigrants with temporary legal status, calling on Congress to provide permanent legal protection and a path to citizenship.

“They are talented and committed individuals and integral to our shared growth,” said David Brown, president and CEO of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. “Progress depends on everyone.”

Brown and Lincoln Chamber of Commerce President Wendy Birdsall were among 60 chamber leaders from 26 states who signed an open letter urging leaders of both parties to end the uncertainty surrounding Dreamers, or those in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and those with temporary protected status (TPS).

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The two Nebraska chamber leaders cited a recent study indicating that immigrants make significant contributions to the state’s economy.

The study by the New American Economy, a bipartisan New York-based organization advocating for change in immigration policy, estimated that there are some 150,000 immigrants living in Nebraska, spending $2.9 billion annually. They also pay almost $1 billion in taxes, $344 million of which goes to state and local government.

“Dreamers and TPS holders here in Nebraska are major contributors to our economic success,” Birdsall said. “Congress must act to allow these hardworking individuals to remain in our communities, to everyone’s benefit.”

Iowa chambers that signed on to the letter included those in Des Moines, Ames and Cedar Rapids.

DACA, created in 2012 by President Barack Obama, protects more than 1 million immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children. TPS dates back decades and involves immigrants from 10 countries who came here legally because of unsafe conditions in their home countries.

President Donald Trump has moved to end the legal protections for both groups, but immigration officials have been blocked by courts from deporting them.

Bills to end the uncertainty generally have bipartisan support and are heavily backed in public opinion polling, but they have been locked up for years by the gridlock in Washington. One proposal may come up for a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives as early as next week.

Thursday’s letter came out of a recent meeting in Los Angeles of national chamber officials to discuss the importance of immigrant workers to the nation’s economy. There were representatives of some 20 Chambers of Commerce from across the country, including Bianca Harley, the Omaha chamber’s manager of community diversity and inclusion.

The ultimate signers came from both red and blue states, from Texas, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas and Tennessee to California, Oregon and Massachusetts.

Addressed to leaders from both parties, the letter noted that the U.S. economy, from agriculture to manufacturing, relies on a diverse, talented workforce. That includes some 1.25 million Dreamers and another 318,000 immigrants who are in the country under TPS. Without action by Congress, they could ultimately face deportation, even after decades spent building lives in the U.S.

“These immigrants are driving economic growth in our communities,” the letter said. “With national unemployment at near-record lows, this is a scenario we simply cannot afford.”

The chambers called on Congress to address DACA and TPS and to “lay the groundwork for the type of broader, commonsense immigration reforms that we need to compete globally.”

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