Sunday, June 22, 2014

The truly "golden" years...

Jan and I have been unbelievably - and undeservedly - lucky in life. One thing we can take credit for, however, we had our children at a great time in our lives.  As such we enjoyed our "golden" years at a time and in a way many cohorts behind will never know.

The old admonition, "Life begins when the kids leave home and the dog dies" has a bit of truth behind it. Our children were born when I was 26 and 29 respectively.  Which means they left for college when we were in our mid to late forties - no age at all.

Better than that, they never came back, and more importantly achieved financial independence promptly after school. I have written how I was caught unaware by Aaron's return after nearly 15 years away, but that is another story. My point today is how - happy though we are right now - we marvel at the incredible years when we were still young enough to do anything we could afford, we could afford more than we had anticipated, and we were not yet caring for an older generation, or friends coping with health issues.

This life plan doesn't appear to be that common any more.
One in five people in their 20s and early 30s is currently living with his or her parents. And 60 percent of all young adults receive financial support from them. That’s a significant increase from a generation ago, when only one in 10 young adults moved back home and few received financial support. The common explanation for the shift is that people born in the late 1980s and early 1990s came of age amid several unfortunate and overlapping economic trends. Those who graduated college as the housing market and financial system were imploding faced the highest debt burden of any graduating class in history. Nearly 45 percent of 25-year-olds, for instance, have outstanding loans, with an average debt above $20,000. (Kasinecz still has about $60,000 to go.) And more than half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed, meaning they make substandard wages in jobs that don’t require a college degree. According to Lisa B. Kahn, an economist at Yale University, the negative impact of graduating into a recession never fully disappears. Even 20 years later, the people who graduated into the recession of the early ’80s were making substantially less money than people lucky enough to have graduated a few years afterward, when the economy was booming.Some may hope that the boomerang generation represents an unfortunate but temporary blip — that the class of 2015 will be able to land great jobs out of college, and that they’ll reach financial independence soon after reaching the drinking age. But the latest recession was only part of the boomerang generation’s problem. In reality, it simply amplified a trend that had been growing stealthily for more than 30 years. Since 1980, the U.S. economy has been destabilized by a series of systemic changes — the growth of foreign trade, rapid advances in technology, changes to the tax code, among others — that have affected all workers but particularly those just embarking on their careers. In 1968, for instance, a vast majority of 20-somethings were living independent lives; more than half were married. But over the past 30 years, the onset of sustainable economic independence has been steadily receding. By 2007, before the recession even began, fewer than one in four young adults were married, and 34 percent relied on their parents for rent. [More]

Look, we loved being parents, but we were stunned by how much fun it was to have grown children. I suppose we missed the crazy times of being 20/30-somethings without spouses or children, but postponing them to 45 ain't the worst outcome in the world either.

Most crucially, we are learning that much of what is glittering beyond 65 is fool's gold. In addition to the scenario laid out above, longer-lived parents often surprise our retirement plans, so that postponed pleasure is being eroded from both sides. 

Again, other than deciding two children were enough (which oddly we often regret) and having them early in our way-too-early marriage (I was 22, fer Pete's sake!), simple good fortune granted us a decade or more of hilarious freedom of action. I know, I know, it could all have been stolen by a health problem or similar life catastrophe, but at least we were in position to take advantage of the absence of calamity.

Our sons will be shifted slightly further down the life-track as they married and propagated at somewhat later ages, but I also know young people who may never see a grandchild, let alone her wedding. The timing just doesn't work.

I wonder if these life examples will move the trend of later marriages and families back to younger ages, or whether it will become astonishing to go on a camping trip with your grandparents when you are 12. 

Re-reading this, it could be interpreted as not merely self-congratulatory, but anti-retirement planning. That certainly wasn't my point. I'm just thinking that birth control has delivered some unexpected cultural results that may take us generations to sort out.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Odd charts...

Exercise #1: Integrate these two charts into a workable theory.

[As always, click to enlarge] 

So, apparently we are watching TV more than any other social activity, but what are we watching? Obviously not "regular" TV.


More to fret about...

Agriculture seems to me to be overly concerned about what other people think of them. While much of this has to do with defending our special status with the government is many instances, this anxiety is also present in less-subsidized sectors.

Some of it may be attributable to our odd concern over being "over-regulated".  I use quotes because what many see as intrusive regulation looks to me like being required to clean up our messes so they don't burden others. Or better yet, regulations offer strong  protection from our litigious fellow citizens. Regardless, apparently if we are well thought of, this will ameliorate the problems, the thinking goes.

I'm not sure why we are so concerned. But since we are here is some sobering news:

We are not a prestigious occupation.


I'm not sure why the survey is so old (2009) - maybe you have to buy the fresh stuff. Whatever.

It's even worse when you look at our NORC score.

Maybe I'm just getting old and grumpy, but I don't think I was ever worried about whether people were "dissing" my occupation. In fact, I can enumerate some positive aspects of being ranked lower.

  • You are non-threatening.  My brother is a DOCTOR.  People who are DOCTORS seem to slip the fact into every conversation or attach MD to the scout trip chaperone list. Not all of them, but enough to notice a trend. This gets old. When people find out I'm a farmer, defenses fall instead of raise. They are pretty sure I'm not going to try to overwhelm them with my fabulous intellect or credentials. (Suckers!)
  • It's easy to astonish them with simple competence. Let's face it, the bar is pretty low for expectations in conversation or knowledge.
  • In a way, we are exotic. Nobody really knows how we live, yet may think they do. Partly that's because we spend inordinate effort trying to mislead them, but mostly it's due to a really unusual way of life.
  • You have new stories. Life in rural America is a mystery and an endless source of fascination. 
  • You have a unique perspective on everything from health care to child-rearing.
  • You have strong ties to a long past. You know how people say "X% of the jobs Y years from now don't even exist yet"? Our does and has. For 12,000 years or so. This is often envied more than you might think.
  • You job is "explainable". Despite embracing technology like a warm cheerleader on a cold night, farming still is basically the same job it was for, like, ever. 
It's not that I don't want people to think well of my work. But I don't expect them to respect me because of my occupation. That could be what we're seeing here in agriculture: a respect entitlement attitude.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Twits on Twitter...

Yes, I've degraded myself to 140-character wisecracks and am tweeting.

Worse yet, I think I'm starting to enjoy it.

FWIW, I will tweet whenever I have a new post, so if you follow me you can follow Incoming as well.
The Chipotle affair...

I have been more than a little puzzled by the kerfuffle between the beef industry and Chipotle - for multiple reasons. But it's evident  - although virtually predictable - my opinion doesn't line up with the majority of farmers and ranchers. This became obvious when we talked about it on Agritalk Friday.

Chipotle has turned to Australia to source grass-fed beef. Considering the price of beef, especially the lean beef they need to cut our higher fat fed beef down to burrito level, this is hardly a surprise. But the beef industry took offense at their CEO comments.

In 2013, our company purchased about 45 million pounds of domestic Responsibly Raised beef; but the U.S. supply isn't growing quickly enough to match our demand. Even though our loyalty to American ranchers is strong, rather than meet the shortfall with conventionally raised beef from cattle treated with growth hormones and antibiotics, we decided to take this opportunity to start sourcing more truly grass-fed steak. So in addition to expanding our supply of beef raised without growth hormones or antibiotics, we are particularly excited to be able to serve more beef that comes from cattle raised entirely on grass. [More]
Of all the possible reasons, I think this quote hints at the most important one: the supply/price crisis in the US. Cull cows are setting records for both price and small numbers. So getting to 80/20 for ground beef is really tough with our beef output. Sure we have grass-fed beef but I can't even get any good numbers on the size of our grass-fed herd, let alone the percentage that are non-hormone and antibiotic free.
Nobody collects information on exactly how much of the grass-fed beef that Americans eat comes from abroad. Theo Weening, the global meat coordinator for Whole Foods, says his company buys very little. "We probably import maybe 3 percent. The rest is regional, local; that's what we really push for," he says.But you'll see plenty of Australian-origin beef in other supermarkets. Organic Valley, meanwhile, gets all of its grass-fed beef from Australia. There's also a lot of grass-fed beef coming in from Uruguay and Brazil.So why does the U.S., the world's biggest beef producer, have to go abroad to find enough of the grass-fed variety?Curt Lacy, an agricultural economist at the University of Georgia, says some of the reasons are pretty simple. Weather, for instance. In most of the U.S., it freezes. In Australia, it doesn't. So in Australia, as long as there's water, there's grass year-round.And then there's the issue of land. "If you're going to finish animals on grass, it takes more land," Lacy says. Grassland in Australia is relatively cheap and plentiful, and there's not much else you can do with a lot of it, apart from grazing animals.As a result, Australian grass-fed cattle operations are really big. In fact, they're the mainstream. Seventy percent of Australia's beef production comes from cattle that spent their lives grazing. And when beef operations are large-scale, everything becomes cheaper, from slaughtering to shipping.On Monday, the U.S. company Cargill announced a new deal with Australia's second-biggest beef producer — a company called Tey's. Cargill will now sell more Australian beef in the U.S., both grass-fed and grain-fed. [More]
I think Chipotle knows exactly what they are doing. And for the most part, the beef industry isn't thinking this through. Chipotle is arguably the brightest star in the food service galaxy right now, and seems to be handing both fast and casual dining competitors their heads, by inventing - along with Panera, etc. - a new category: fast casual.
There are now over 1,400 Chipotle locations in 43 states, and the chain reportedly made a 25% profit margin on $2 billion in sales in 2011.Chipotle began a trend in restaurants that the industry has dubbed “fast casual,” which offers a more upscale dining environment and food quality, along with higher prices, but in the familiar, convenient limited service format of fast food. “When I started Chipotle, I didn’t know the fast-food rules,” Ells explained years later. “People told us the food was too expensive and the menu was too limited. Neither turned out to be true.”By either ignoring or directly challenging all the dominant trends in its industry, Chipotle quickly became a great brand. Now Chipotle has become the trend-setter in the category, and trade publications feature headlines such as, “Who Will Be the Chipotle of Pizza?” Wendy’s and Taco Bell are just two of the most prominent fast food players investing in new store designs that look shockingly similar to that of Chipotle. The Wall Street Journal dubbed Ells the “Fast Food Revolutionary,” and Esquirecrowned him America’s most admired CEO....McDonald's sold its stake in Chipotle in 2006, and since then, Chipotle has moved farther and farther away from the typical fast food way of doing business. Ells’s latest obsession is the issue of sustainability. Chipotle is now the largest buyer of higher-priced pork, beef, and chicken from animals that have been naturally fed and humanely raised outside of the factory-farming system, which provides inexpensive commodity meats to the rest of the food industry. Produce served at Chipotle is also locally raised if possible (lettuce served in January on the East Coast still comes from California). What Chipotle has learned is that customers notice the difference in flavor from natural meats and fresh vegetables grown “with integrity,” as the chain’s tagline states--and they’re willing to pay extra for it. [More]
Chipotle is adding 200 restaurants a year to boot. Even the NCBA rep on the show with me pointed out the lines out the door at the stores in the DC area. Oddly, he couldn't connect that with the dots that suggest Chipotle knows what they are doing.

Mostly Big Beef hasn't gotten over their big beef (I've been saving that line for, like, ever) with the slick Chipotle videos, notably the latest - "Farmed and Dangerous". Partly this is due to the clearly top-notch production values, and mostly I think it's simply a lack of any effective response. 

The beef industry has decided, for reasons I cannot fathom, to go with "you hurt my feelings". 
Some U.S. producers say they were not given adequate opportunity to fulfill the company’s rising orders. While U.S. beef supplies are very tight, they aren't tight to the point where there's not enough supply. The company's decision to source some of its beef from Australia likely has more to due with price. Plus, the firm continues to strive for use of beef raised with no antibiotics or hormones, which it calls, "responsibly raised."Chipotle has the right to source its beef (and other meat) needs from wherever it chooses. But to say there isn't enough "responsibly raised" beef in the U.S. is a slap in the face of cattlemen here in the States. Cattlemen (and the entire farm community) should choose to "eat responsibly" and opt to dine at restaurants other than Chipotle. [More, but gated from Profarmer]
Brian Grete (above) reports this pretty accurately. I've heard and seen the "slap" reference repeatedly. It strikes me (heh) as one of the worst metaphors cattle producers could use. First, imagine somebody slapping the quintessential 'Merican cowboy (Marlboro Man, or Clint Eastwood from Rawhide). These are the rough-tough personas invoked often by our cow-calf people, so talking about a face-slap is an inexplicable transition from grizzled survivor to playground victim. Maybe the victimhood thing has worked so well for my sector (the weather/Chinese/Big Oil/etc.!), they have decided to join the whine cellar crowd.

But unlike corn farmers who are whining to government for hidden subsidies, cattle producers are aiming, I guess, for the public. This could be a big mistake. Jane Q Consumer is already aware of painful beef prices. And she is responding just like economists predicted, for once.  Beef consumption continues to drop. While there is substitution going on, total meat consumption is a tide that carries all proteins along.

[Source] [Note: I couldn't find any charts beyond 2012, but trend has not changed]

I see no evidence that pity-based marketing has been working or will work for the beef industry - unless they are shifting to subsidy-based ag, which could be, given the new livestock support in the recently passed Eventual Farm Bill ™. (This is my designation, which I thought up all on my own because the timeline for the current farm bill seems to be stretching to infinity and beyond)

Complicating this response is when you are "slapped in the face", simply griping about it seems a little...umm, limp, to put it mildly.

It could also be our grass-fed producers were simply out-hustled by the Aussies. [I would include an excerpt, but they lock down their content] At any rate, without oodles of corn, we should hardly be surprised Australia would be very, very good at growing and marketing grass-fed beef.  And just as we laud our export efforts in Asia, etc. when US beef takes market share from domestic suppliers, why are are miffed when the free markets works freely (both ways)?

But the bigger picture may be what is troubling most US cattle people (if only subconsciously). What if Chipotle's upfront promotion of "responsibly raised" beef works? What if competitors are forced to match their move? [See also: gestation crates] What if slick videos posed next to feedlot pictures sway consumers to eat less conventional beef?

Right now the answer seems to be, "We'll just export our product." This is a legitimate countermove. The US could become the high-value dominant supplier and simply leave the ground beef sector to others. While it seems to be working, there are things to watch as well. 

Increasing dependence on exports means greater volatility, IMHO. From currency fluctuations to competition to foreign policy entanglements to outright conflicts, lots can go wrong with exports. Secondly, growing income inequality here at home means the growth in the domestic market will be in exactly the sector dominated by the "Chipotles" of the industry. The domestic/export trend could intensify rapidly.

To sum up, beef producers at ticked at Chipotle for saying things they don't like, but can't answer effectively. They are also miffed at losing a grass-fed customer. But if it hasn't dawned on them there is not much they can do about it, they risk looking like ineffectual complainers.

The American and perhaps global consumer is getting used to vendors catering to even illogical preferences. Amazon has taught them they can really have it their way. Tomorrow. All of agriculture needs to realize this will ripple through our value chain and arrive our our farm gate, whether we like it or not. Meanwhile, our government is busying eating its own and can't be bothered with a tiny, never-satisfied slice of constituents. We can wrap US beef in the flag all we want, but that got tiresome back when Japanese cars kicked our automotive butts into the 20th Century. Patriotic shopping happens when consumers prefer US products.

I don't think Chipotle "slapped any cowperson's face". I think they said, "No thank you, I like Brand X".  It's not about us, it's about our products. And if we weren't plowing rangeland to grow insured-for-nearly-free crops, maybe we could play in the Big Grass-fed Leagues.

For the time being I think I'd take a pass on tattling that "Chipotle slapped me!"

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Looking back, I saw this coming...

Just like the 3.5" of rain on my soggy fields. The Cantor defeat which was utterly unpredicted (my headline notwithstanding) now shines some light on a little known anti-economist economics teacher who has some puzzling views.
The full context of his second Holocaust prognostication comes in a section about how if Christian people “had the guts to spread the word,” government would not need to “backstop every action we take.”He writes:
Capitalism is here to stay, and we need a church model that corresponds to that reality. Read Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the weak modern Christian democratic man was spot on. Jesus was a great man. Jesus said he was the Son of God. Jesus made things happen. Jesus had faith. Jesus actually made people better. Then came the Christians. What happened? What went wrong? We appear to be a bit passive. Hitler came along, and he did not meet with unified resistance. I have the sinking feeling that it could all happen again, quite easily. The church should rise up higher than Nietzsche could see and prove him wrong. We should love our neighbor so much that we actually believe in right and wrong, and do something about it. If we all did the right thing and had the guts to spread the word, we would not need the government to backstop every action we take.


Umm, okay. My knee jerk reaction is this guy could be a go-to legislator for a weird quote on a slow news day. While his relationship with the Tea Party was mostly that he was running against Cantor, there could be surprises all across the board. 

The upshot for me is the importance is the removal of Cantor, not the arrival of Brat.  It's hard to imagine the leadership battle being settled without an ugly fight, IMHO. 
In the immediate aftermath of Cantor’s defeat, camps inside the GOP were divided, with some Cantor allies urging him to stay on and help guide the party until November, while many of his critics privately warned that if he does not resign from his post they will promptly move against him.Associates of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said they were telling him to quickly declare that he will stay in his position for another term and that he would like Cantor to stay on as majority leader through the end of the year, making the argument that unity and stability are critical for a House GOP in crisis.Others close to Boehner predicted that he may say little definitive in the days ahead about his own political future as he waits to hear from House Republicans about how they would like to proceed and whether conservatives, encouraged by professor David Brat’s upset in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, decide to target him in an effort to elect an entirely new slate of House leaders. [More]
Meanwhile, back in Mississippi, I have to believe this is not good news for Sen. Thad Cochran, even though he is applying liberal (heh) amounts of money to his runoff. 

Two consensus beliefs from the punditocracy:
  1. Immigration reform is doornail dead.
  2. Hillary just got a boost.
Both I think seem plausible. But we pundits haven't been doing so well lately, have we?

I would add there is no good news for ag in the resurgence of the Tea Party. We relied on bipartisan support to get our subsidies and TP doesn't do bipartisan.  In fact, we have yet to get the actual, you know, dollars.

Indeed, it is not impossible this bill could languish in a fight over school lunches. The longer it stays in committee the more it will "evolve", I would think.  Meanwhile, Aaron attended a Farm Bill info session for his FB board and was told the FSA has locked down all information on rule-making, as well as tossed out even more distant final rules dates.  We may not be signing up for anything until next spring, for example.  Ok - this is hearsay, but juicy, ya gotta admit.

Back to the ditches...

Monday, June 09, 2014

Junkbox, Episode MMXIV ✘...

Plenty of water, little heat. Wait - I'm in the energy business.

Lotta guys getting nervous about fields not sprayed yet. I'm thinking ugly tracks...

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Show me the data...

It's about time the pushback for cramming Big Data down our throats got some more attention.  For this farmer, it is not, as the general media seem to think, rooted in obstinacy and ignorance.

But the story of prescriptive planting is also a cautionary tale about the conflicts that arise when data entrepreneurs meet old-fashioned businessfolk. Farmers might be expected to have mixed feelings about the technology anyway: although it boosts yields, it reduces the role of discretion and skill in farming—their core competence. However, the bigger problem is that farmers distrust the companies peddling this new method. They fear that the stream of detailed data they are providing on their harvests might be misused. Their commercial secrets could be sold, or leak to rival farmers; the prescriptive-planting firms might even use the data to buy underperforming farms and run them in competition with the farmers; or the companies could use the highly sensitive data on harvests to trade on the commodity markets, to the detriment of farmers who sell into those markets. [More]
I'm not buying into precise seed-by-seed technology because there is no data to prove it consistently pays off, especially on my farm. The reasons are obvious and ignored in the rush to sell the Apparatus of Big Data to us.

Just off the top of my head, here are my objections:
  1. ALL of the ideas are based on predicting the growing season weather. This overriding factor of production hath made fools of us all too often.
  2. There are no definitive differences between hybrids sufficient to accurately attach them to soil types and conditions. How do you know there wasn't another hybrid you could have selected which wouldn't have boosted your profits far more? We are dealing with a system of enormous complexity and more variables than even this gadgets can begin to demonstrably manage.
  3. The non-trivial costs of multi-hybrid, variable population, and other planting gimmicks are seldom if ever added into the cost/benefit calculations.
  4. Hybrid turnover is now so rapid, there is no possibility of proving claims of site-specific benefits over a range of years and conditions. Besides your choice is limited to whatever seed Monsanto, et al. produce the previous season, so you're not really choosing between thousands of hybrids - you're picking whatever is in the warehouse.
  5. The premium for more uniform soil-type fields should become more pronounced as the need for site-specific solutions would be less.
  6. Knowing what is going on at every inch in the field is a far cry from being able to remedy any problem at the inch level. Other than lower your yield projection what will knowing there is a 20 acre patch of fungus or bugs in your corn field in August do? Are you going to pay for and aim a plane/highboy with that degree of specificity?
By the way, here is how the Economist article cited above understands what Monsanto is doing.

The Climate Corporation planned to use these data to sell crop insurance. But last October Monsanto bought the company for about $1 billion—one of the biggest takeovers of a data firm yet seen. Monsanto, the world’s largest hybrid-seed producer, has a library of hundreds of thousands of seeds, and terabytes of data on their yields. By adding these to the Climate Corporation’s soil- and-weather database, it produced a map of America which says which seed grows best in which field, under what conditions.FieldScripts uses all these data to run machines made by Precision Planting, a company Monsanto bought in 2012, which makes seed drills and other devices pulled along behind tractors. Planters have changed radically since they were simple boxes that pushed seeds into the soil at fixed intervals. Some now steer themselves using GPS. Monsanto’s, loaded with data, can plant a field with different varieties at different depths and spacings, varying all this according to the weather. It is as if a farmer can know each of his plants by name. [More]
I suppose it is possible producers who load up on this questionable and technology will blow the rest of us out of the water. But it could also be they will fall behind because they become high-cost producers during a period of volatile prices. Nothing will stop this false precision in its tracks faster than $4 corn, IMHO.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

We don't understand jack...

About China.  I read this on MR recently:
In just two years, from 2011 to 2012, China produced more cement than the US did in the entire 20th century, according to historical data from the US Geological Survey and China’s National Bureau of Statistics. [More]
That quote itself is from the FT, but I used this pointer so you could see the comments. Most of the but-that-can't-be-right arguments are noted and dispensed with there with good links.

In fact, to buttress this mind-blowing fact, consider this previous CFOTD:
Before the Communists came to power in 1949, China had only 22 dams of any significant size. Now the country has more than half of the world’s roughly 50,000 large dams, defined as having a height of at least 15 meters, or a storage capacity of more than three million cubic meters. Thus, China has completed, on average, at least one large dam per day since 1949. If dams of all sizes are counted, China’s total surpasses 85,000. [More]
I mentioned this factoid on the show and the incredulity was uniform.  I'm still unable to wrap my intuitive thinking around it. The unavoidable suspicion is if I can't come to grips with this solid evidence of the enormity of Chinese construction activity, what makes me think I have any feel for their food industry?

Since I had been pondering "whither farmland prices?", oddly enough the two strands intertwined. I came up with these working theories:
  1. The economy of China is not just bigger than we imagine, it is bigger than we can imagine.
  2. We are most probably underestimating Chinese demand for ag products in the future.
  3. By a lot.
Just like we totally missed - as in NOBODY called it - the incredible run-up in farmland prices in the last decade, I think we're about to do it again. China can drive the demand for protein especially to support routinely higher grain prices for the foreseeable future.

Bottom line, I see much lower odds of success by getting bearish on farmland simply because some bankers want to be the next Nouriel Roubini. They were wrong in 2009. I think they are short-sighted now.


Just like I did, the enormity of this disparity has some groping for a clearer picture.  So:

It's not heavily influenced by imports/exports.  The US only in the last few years have imported much more than a few percent.  China is currently producing about 25 times ( 2.2Btons vs. 74Mtons) our output and exporting. It exports ~17 Mtons. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Putting the pun in pundit...

About a year ago I appeared on the Willis Report on Fox Business Channel.

Rave reviews (I assume) because they asked me back this evening to offer cogent, incisive analysis of the farmland bubble bursting.

Am I the only farmer tired of hearing these Cassandra pronouncements from people who don't know squat about how the farmland market works?

Of course, I like to think my extremely rugged good looks left an unforgettable (no matter how hard she tried) impression on the host, Gerri Willis. But then, I also like to think my hair is getting thicker, too.

Anyhoo, I'll be trying to throw some cold water of reason on the doomsaying about farmland prices.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Keep an eye on this...

Perhaps the biggest coup for farm subsidy supporters in the last farm bill was re-establishing the "Cone of Silence" for farm subsidies.  Ever since the EWG got access to direct payment info under the Freedom of Information Act, farmers have been gritting their teeth as friends and family casually looked up how much they were getting from the government.

By shifting to insurance subsidies, the obscurity of who's getting what is back. It seems to me vulnerable to the same court challenges for the same reasons, but not getting a 1099-G will really complicate it.

Anyhoo, that's the reason I'm watching what's happening in Maryland.
Under that law, the Department of Agriculture is required to shield from public disclosure any information about a specific farm's "nutrient management" report. Lawmakers granted that confidentiality in hopes it would encourage farmers to support the legislation, said Maryland Assistant Attorney General Thomas Filbert.Because nutrient management plans are private, it is difficult to track which farms are letting the most fertilizer into the state's waterways. Though the state makes public broad information about agricultural pollution and environmental compliance, it does not single out growers.Blocked from getting current reports, environmental groups such as the Waterkeeper Alliance are suing for access to older files. The groups say the older reports will give the public a better view of how agriculture contributes to bay pollution.In addition, the lawsuit challenges the state's refusal to provide farms' state inspection records, which also monitor fertilizer use. The state says those are confidential under the same state law because they measure compliance with the nutrient management plan. [More]
 No idea on the timetable, nor on the odds of entering the federal appeal process to end up at SCOTUS. However, the overall trend seems to be toward more transparency, whether voluntary or not [see also: NSA]. It's really, really hard to keep stuff secret anymore.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Maybe it is the media...

I have commented on several occasions about my bafflement over the strength of the GMO labeling movement. (I still think this is a war we could "lose" with little damage). Reading this analysis of what is really bugging people about the issue offered some reasons for the power of the pushback.
But I suspect that the substance of the issue are incidental. Ball writes about the fact that the anti-GMO movement is cross ideological, but then so surely is the pro-GMO contingent. And what unites them is not so much support for genetically modified food but rather contempt for what they perceive the anti-GMO movement to be. Ball quotes an organizer, “I talk to Tea Party people, Occupy people, churches, everybody. Everywhere I go, people want labeling.” What unites the Tea Party, the Occupy movement, the religious? They are all groups that are typically treated with derision by media elites. They’re too grass roots, too passionate, too uneducated, too defined by cultural and social signifiers that are anathema to the bourgie, educated, arty-but-not-pretentious-about-it, smart-but-anti-academic types who write the internet. The anti-GMO movement ticks the right boxes: associated with both crazy Christian homeschool types and crunchy Whole Food liberal types, conveniently labelled as anti-science with all of the pretenses to objectivity and intelligence using that label brings, and generally not a threat to your professional or social standing if you criticize them. They’re an easy target and a risk-free one, if you’re a professional journalist or political writer.If anything unites the presumed readership of our national newsmedia, it’s not ideology, but rather cultural and social positioning– the ideology of the elite. And the anti-GMO labeling position unites liberal journalists and writers, conservative journalists and writers, and libertarian journalists and writers in a shared distaste for the political machinations of those who they don’t deem up to their cultural standards. You can have whatever stance you want to about abortion (to pick one example) and function as a media elite, but you cannot, by definition, be a non-elite media elite. That is the underlying, tacit bias that pulses within our media.What makes all of this dangerous is that our  media has no vocabulary for talking about this. However useless it may sometimes be, there exists a long and passionate conversation about partisan and ideological bias in media– complaints about our liberal media, complaints about Fox News, complaints about coziness between foreign policy journalists and the governments they cover. We have people like Jay Rosen to write and think about bias and neutrality. But there’s far less conversation about what it means that essentially everyone who writes for prominent national publications went to college, likes the same kinds of music and movies, has the same attitudes towards food and fitness, and speaks with the same vocabulary, the same codes. And since proving you can write for one of these publications typically means proving you can use that vocabulary and those codes, it’s hard to imagine a lot of people getting into the conversation and forcing a real discussion about this type of bias. [More]

Now that I think about it, the ideological lines are kinda blurry on this issue. It's not a Fox/MSNBC split. DeBoer might be on to something.

Another thought that occurred was the defense that you shouldn't have to label stuff that's not harmful - that labeling automatically stigmatizes GMO ingredients. But we label all ingredients now. Doing so hasn't stigmatized lecithin or soy flour. Possible harm is not the issue, full disclosure is. 

Color me more convinced we're going to make this a bigger headache for ag than it needs to be.