two people making paper
Tiffany Jolley/WILL
October 04, 2014

Farmers Make Money and Paper from Crop Waste

A report from the US Department of Agriculture several years ago found that farmers can do more with the stems, leaves and other materials leftover after harvest than plow it back into the soil. One option is to sell it to make paper products.

Eric Benson launched a company called Fresh Press in Champaign. He says a forty-pound bale of leftover prairie grass can generate about five-hundred dollars of additional income for local farmers. He talked with Illinois Public Media’s Tiffany Jolley about the process and its economic and enviromental implications.

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internet sales tax impacts Amazon.com
(Paul Sakuma/AP)
December 02, 2013

US Supreme Court Won't Hear Appeal Of Internet Taxation

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to take up a case challenging a New York state law requiring online companies to collect state sales taxes, just like brick and mortar stores do. The Illinois Supreme Court recently rejected a similar tax law in the state.

Back in October, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled against a law forcing Internet retailers to collect Illinois’ sales tax. This applied to companies with "affiliates" in the state, like a website linking users to a product. Those affiliates get a share of sales.

The court determined the law was discriminatory under federal tax law.

Now, the Illinois Retail Merchants Association’s David Vite said he hopes the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the New York case sends a strong message.

“The U.S. Supreme Court got it right by rejecting and allowing the New York law to stand,” Vite said. “Ultimately, we’re probably going to have to change our law, or appeal the Illinois law to the U.S. Supreme Court to see if we can get that overturned.”

The Illinois Attorney General’s office said it has not decided if it’ll appeal the ruling. The state’s Department of Revenue estimates Illinois is losing more than $150 million a year in unpaid online sales taxes.


post office amazon
(Paul Sakuma/AP)
November 11, 2013

Amazon Taps Post Office For Sunday Deliveries; A Win-Win?

Much of the talk in recent years about how the U.S. Postal Service could stem its huge losses has been about the things it might stop doing — most notably, delivering the mail on Saturdays (something Congress won't let it discontinue).

Now, as we reported earlier, there's word that Amazon.com has struck a deal with the Postal Service for Sunday delivery of packages. The service begins immediately in the Los Angeles and New York City metropolitan areas and is planned to expand next year to other metros, including Dallas, Houston, New Orleans and Phoenix.

The early analyses of the deal say it's a winner for both sides.

For the Postal Service, notes The New York Times, the deal offers "a chance to take some business from United Parcel Service and FedEx, which do not deliver on Sundays. Now, some orders that would have been handled by either of those carriers for Monday delivery will go through the Postal Service and arrive on Sunday."

Package delivery is a profitable part of the Postal Service's business, unlike money-losing delivery of Saturday mail.

According to The Washington Post, the Postal Service will deliver the packages "at regular rates. ... Previously, a shipper had to use its pricey Express Mail service and pay an extra fee for Sunday delivery." The Postal Service, adds the Post, "said it would increase staffing in the locations where Amazon will offer the service, but did not offer specific numbers. ... [It] also declined to comment on how much additional revenue the new initiative is expected to bring."

Amazon, meanwhile, "won't change shipping prices for customers" who want Sunday delivery, Bloomberg News says.

But the online shopping giant "is seeking to siphon away customers from Target Corp. and other retailers," Bloomberg adds, at a time when it is "also facing competition from online-shopping sites that are rolling out new services to get products to customers more quickly and efficiently. EBay Inc. offers deliveries under an hour, seven days a week, for some products, and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. operates a same-day delivery service for groceries and household goods."

Beyond the issue of what it means for both sides of the deal, we have a question.


Twitter
(Richard Drew/AP)
November 07, 2013

Twitter Pops To Around $45 A Share

Social media darling Twitter's stock debuted Thursday on Wall Street at a trading price of $45.10 — well above the $26 a share initial offering price the company set.

It appeared, traders say, that there were no problems with the launch of the stock.

Our original post — How Will It Trend? Click Here To Watch Twitter's Stock:

Enough with the buildup.

By now, you've probably heard that Twitter goes public today. Its stock will start trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

As we said Wednesday evening, the initial offering price has been set at $26 per share. So the 70 million shares should raise $1.8 billion for the social media site.

It may take a little while to know how Twitter's initial public offering is going. CNN Money notes that even though "the stock market opens at 9:30 a.m. ET, Twitter's shares likely won't start trading right away. It typically takes time — sometimes an hour or more — for newly listed shares to begin actively trading on the day of their public debut."

Every news outlet is also, of course, reminding folks about Facebook's "troubled" IPO in May 2012 and drawing comparisons to today. As Bloomberg News says, "18 months after Facebook Inc.'s initial public offering was crippled by a Nasdaq OMX Group Inc. computer, equity markets get a shot at redemption [Thursday] when the New York Stock Exchange hosts the debut of Twitter Inc."

Others are taking a different approach to the news. Planet Money is writing about "Chips, Beer, Tweets: Why TV Is Key To Twitter's Prospects."

What we mostly want to do as the day begins is to embed a little ticker that should let us all watch how Twitter (trading symbol "TWTR") is doing. You can follow it as well on the NYSE's website.

We'll update as the story develops.


Agribusiness giant ADM recently opened a 275-acre container shipping rail yard near Decatur, Ill., in part to export more grain.
(Bill Wheelhouse/Harvest Public Media)
October 14, 2013

Shipping Containers Can Open Export Market To Farmers

A huge new rail yard has been buzzing on the outskirts of Decatur, Ill. Agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) recently opened the 275-acre facility that would be at home at any major port city on the coast. But it’s in the heart of Illinois farm country because farmers have been taking advantage of a new method of shipping out their products.

Every day, U.S. consumers buy products shipped in from overseas. That means shipping containers from all over the world unload here in the U.S – those 40-foot-long containers you might see on the back of a semi-trailer or stacked on a rail car. Now, farmers, grain cooperatives and exporters are taking advantage of those empty containers, filling them with grain and shipping them overseas.

Modular transportation or container shipping, as it’s called, started about three decades ago, says Peter Friedmann with the Agriculture Transportation Coalition.

 “The first cargos to migrate into that were clothing, shoes, electronics – all the things that are imported from Asia these days and you find in stores,” Friedmann said. “But then agriculture started migrating into those containers as well.”

The export market is becoming more and more important to U.S. farmers. While the final numbers haven’t been tallied, it looks like American farmers may have shipped a record $140 billion worth of product overseas in the last year.

Usually, corn, soybeans and wheat headed overseas are poured into a giant vessel and three weeks later arrive at an Asian or European port. The goal is efficiency – get as much delivered as you can at an affordable price.

But now, that’s changing a bit. Container shipping allows buyers to receive smaller shipments – helpful with a sluggish global economy and in countries without the infrastructure to receive large deliveries. Plus, it opens up new markets for U.S. farmers.

Today, Freidmann says, there’s an expanding niche of specialized grain products, grown in the Midwest and wanted overseas.

“If you want to deliver to a foreign customer a product that has been well taken care of, not crushed in the bottom of the hold of a ship, you need to have it in smaller quantities,” he said. “Some people want it genetically modified, some people do not want it genetically modified. Some want this kind of soybean, another one (wants) another strain of soybean. So you can segregate the types of cargo that you are shipping out by moving it into container.”

The items going overseas range from the corn remnants at ethanol plants for animal feed, to a small shipment of soybeans that will arrive directly at a bakery in Korea, to soybeans that will be used to make tofu.

Still just a small slice of the export market, these smaller shipments are adding up. Container shipping has seen annual growth at nearly double-digit levels in recent years. Farmers in Illinois, Missouri and Kansas are among those leading the nation in the container shipping movement. They benefit because Chicago and Kansas City serve as major rail hubs, making more empty containers available.

“For us, container freight is becoming a huge part of a niche business that gets inventory to a customer who wants smaller shipments,” said Mark Schweitzer, the managing director of intermodal and container freight for ADM.

Still, more than 90 percent of the grain going overseas is poured into giant ships for the three week trips to the Asian and European ports.

But on this side of the ocean, it allows small businesses export their product – even when they don’t produce enough to fill a ship. In the words of Mike Steenhoek of the Soy Transportation Association, it will allow “micro-businesses to   benefit,” including individual farmers, grain elevators and co-ops.

“There’s an opportunity for farmers to not just be involved in growing the crops, but marketing those crops – even internationally,” Steenhoek said.

And farmers are taking notice.

“We always want a little bit more for it whenever we have a specialty crop like that,” said Bill Rayben, a farmer who chairs the Illinois Soybean Association. “You always get a bit of a premium if you have a specific trait or a protein or oil they’re looking for.”

ADM’s new Decatur facility can currently handle 50,000 containers annually and the company hopes to triple its capacity in coming years. That’s good news for farmers who want to tap into the overseas demand for products grown in the U.S. 


ADM
(Seth Perlman/AP)
October 11, 2013

ADM Eyeing Atlanta For Headquarters?

Archer Daniels Midland is on the lookout for a new home for its world headquarters, and it's not being limited to the midwest.  The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports ADM leaders met with Atlanta officials.

ADM has said it won't comment on sites in the running. Other reports this week has the company looking at Minneapolis. 

Chicago and St. Louis have also been mentioned as possibilities.

ADM plans to move the headquarters and about 100 jobs from Decatur.  The company says it will maintain a large operation in central Illinois, with 44-hundred employees in Decatur.

The company says it needs the headquarters in a larger metropolitan area.  Illinois lawmakers are mulling whether to meet ADM's request for tax incentives to keep the top management in state. 


e-books
(iStockphoto.com)
October 07, 2013

New E-Book Lending Service Aims To Be Netflix For Books

Movie lovers have Netflix, music lovers have Spotify — and book lovers (whether they read literary fiction or best-selling potboilers) now have Scribd.

The document sharing website has been around since 2007, but this week it launched a subscription service for e-book lending.

Though Scribd now has the backing of Big Five publisher HarperCollins, it began as a self-publishing site. CEO and co-founder Trip Adler says his father, a doctor, wanted to publish a medical paper. "We wanted build a site that would let him more easily just get his paper up there on the Web and distribute it, and we quickly expanded that to other kinds of content like books, school papers, essays, creative writing."

Scribd now has 80 million monthly users, and the new subscription service will allow them access to unlimited e-books on any digital device for a fee of $8.99 a month. That will include most of the books on the HarperCollins backlist.

"We thought this through on both the reader side and on the publisher's side," Adler says. "So on the readers' side we want a simple value proposition where they pay a flat monthly fee and they can read whatever they want. On the publisher's side ... we made it fit their traditional models where they get paid every single time someone reads a book, so it's almost as if they're selling books through this service."

Scribd is buying the books, not the reader — who will not even notice that the transaction is taking place. "The moment the consumer reaches a certain percentage of read it triggers the sale," says Chantal Restivo-Alessi, chief digital officer for HarperCollins. Her company is the first major publishing house to take part in this kind of subscription service.

Restivo-Alessi learned from her experience in the music industry that you have to get in early on new digital business models. "If you don't participate, it's very hard to influence. If you want to influence and impact the models, you have to be part of forming those models," she says. "You can't sit on the sidelines."

And, she adds, it's impossible to predict what will succeed in the digital marketplace. "We don't know whether this is going to be working, not working; we don't know whether there are differences by consumer type, by genre; and part of us participating is really having the ability to obtain information from our partners and learn what works and what doesn't in partnership with them."

Scribd CEO Adler expects a lot more subscription services like this will be springing up soon — and they'll all be in competition with Amazon, Apple and Google, but that's not all. "What we're competing with the most is other forms of media. These people are spending a lot more time watching videos, listening to music, playing games on social media, and what we're really doing is we're sticking up for books."

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Champaign School Board President Laurie Bonnett and School Board Member Kerris Lee speak at a press conference on Sept. 26, 2013 at the Mellon Administrative Center.
(Sean Powers)
September 27, 2013

Unit 4 District, Union Release Contract Proposals

 As the union representing teachers in the Champaign School District prepares for a possible strike, the union and the district released details on Thursday about proposed increases to already scheduled raises.

The two sides met for seven hours on Wednesday, but did not reach an agreement on several major sticking points.

The Champaign Federation of Teachers is asking for a one-year contract that includes a 3.65 percent raise for teachers. According to the school district, that would bring the overall scheduled raise up to 5.35 percent for one year.

“We’re not seeing that our salary schedule is providing cost of living adjustments that we feel teachers deserve, and we do not see that the district is making teachers a financial priority,” said Union President Cathy Mannen during a press conference on Thursday afternoon.

“The board has a strong belief and respect for its teachers, and compensates them fairly for their work,” said School Board President Laurie Bonnett during a separate news conference a few hours later.

In its proposal for a three-year contract, the district’s offer includes a 1.3 percent annual raise that would go on top of the 1.7 percent step increase, bringing the scheduled raise to 3 percent a year.

School Board Member Kerris Lee said that is fair, given that the district already covers pension and insurance benefits for its teachers, and continues to face financial challenges.

“The board has been advised to consider another round of budget cuts in the amount of one million dollars for the 2014 and 2015 school year,” Lee said. “The cost of step raise alone for all members of CFT would entirely eliminate the surplus in the district’s education fund.”

Lee explained that lagging state support, questions surrounding pension reform, loss in revenue due to the federal sequestration, outcomes of the Affordable Care Act, and unexpected growth in enrollment are all factors that may lead to financial challenges for the Champaign School District.

During the contract negotiations, which have gone on since last May, the teachers union has maintained that it would not be asking for anything it did not believe the Champaign School District could not afford.

“The district is in good financial shape right now as evidenced by the present budget presentation at the school board meeting,” Mannen said. “We know there is $12 million surplus in both the working cash funds and in the education fund, so we know the district has the funds to meet the request that the teachers have made.”

In other areas of its contract proposal, the union wants the district to stop pulling grade school teachers out of the classroom for more than 20 minutes to handle non-teaching duties, like monitoring students during lunchtime or recess.

“We have some buildings where a reasonable amount of (non-teaching supervising) time probably is around 20, 25 minutes, 30 minutes,” Mannen explained. “But we do have some buildings where we do have teachers who have non-teaching supervision for upwards of an hour across the school day.”

Bonnet said that proposal would compromise student safety.

“The board is committed to maintaining a safe and secure school environment, and CFT’s proposal would jeopardize our ability to do so,” she stated.

One of the other issues the union has brought up is the need to allow teachers to forward a complaint about a poor teacher performance evaluation to a Joint Committee formed by the Illinois legislature. The committee is made up of teacher and administrative representatives, who review performance evaluations.

“We want to give teachers a voice, really make sure they have a voice to advocate for themselves,” Mannen explained.

“State law simply does not provide for this,” Bonnet said in response to the union’s request to forward written objections to the Joint Committee.

Both sides have submitted their latest offers with the Illinois Labor Relations Board. The IELRB will post those on its Web site in about a week. After those offers are posted for 14 days, the union can legally strike.

The union and the district meet again with a federal mediator on Oct. 7. A strike could happen as early as Oct. 18.


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