Sunday, December 31, 2006

About time to read the instructions...

Now that I have been blogging for over a year, and have settled on fairly standard format, I thought I would share some tips about my blog and what the heck I'm trying to accomplish.

First, how stuff works.
  1. If you haven't already figured it out, I try to document my sources with hyperlinks or links This is the true power of Internet writing - you can read the same stuff I read and reach your own conclusions, rather than accept my arguably half-baked conclusions. When you mouse over a link, your cursor turns into a hand and a red dotted line appears under the link. If you left-click your mouse the link opens.
  2. You can choose to open the link in a new window (or tab for IE7 and FF2) by selecting that choice under "Tools/Options" on your browser command bar.
  3. Quotes from outside sources are shown indented and italicized. The full context is either found in an accompanying link or at the [More] link.
  4. Sometimes when I import quotes they screw up the fonts for a few paragraphs. I have no idea why, and it's fallen in that too-much-hassle-to-fix category.
  5. For the last two months or so, all posts have "labels". The trick here is if you click on a label you will see all the posts with that label. This makes it really hard for me to be inconsistent with my arguments, but it can help you "read more about it".
Now some editorial philosophy.
  • I do not pretend to be a journalist. I am instead more of an human aggregator. I would have used the term "presurfer", but somebody got there first. It pretty well describes my approach however.
  • The material I add is eclectic, but almost all but the purely fun stuff has some implication for those of us on farms. It may be slight, it may be in the distant future, or may be short-lived, but I think knowing about it might be helpful.
  • One of my goals is to scan sites not normally mined by ag journalism for news from the infamous "outside world" (which I like to call the "world"). It may be foreign agriculture, energy, economics, psychology, sociology, futurism, medicine, etc., but the goal is to add to, not duplicate other ag sites.
  • I post almost every day. When on vacation I leave some preloaded posts to fill in. Like my personal hygiene, I have no firm posting schedule.
  • While I welcome comments, and will try to answer questions, my guess it many of you will take some time to feel comfortable with this. That's cool, too. Always keep in mind you can post anonymously.
  • I love surfing and finding this stuff. The blog is a way I can save some you some time by highlighting what I have come up with.
  • Unlike my writing in Top Producer and Farm Journal, no real editing occurs between my writing and your reading. Now couple in the importance of speed. Unlike traditional media, bloggers can respond within minutes to new news. Mix all those factors together and you have the ingredients for misjudgments and flat out errors. Be sure to call me on them - you are my new editors. Gimme a break on the typos and grammar though, please.
I am not sure where this vehicle is headed. It has already exceeded my expectations.

Thanks for reading.

Happy New Year!

(BTW, In 2000 our son was in London for the Millennium. We watched on TV at 6 pm. our time and celebrated "with him". As a result, we got to bed on time and felt great the next morning. Consequently we celebrate New Year's on Greenwich time every year now. I recommend it.)

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Quite possibly the greatest...

Cartoon ever filmed. More here.

[via Mentalfloss]
Seeing is deceiving...

I ran across this photo on Neatorama, captioned "Pollution - what pollution?"

Exactly correct. These are cooling towers, perhaps for the Ferrybridge Power Station in West Yorkshire, England. Cooling towers have water running through them and by evaporation and conduction provide the heat sink necessary to run the steam cycle for steam turbines. There are no combustion products, stack gases, or smoke emitted from cooling towers. (The actual "smokestacks" can be seen just to the right, I think.)

In fairness, heat could be seen as a type of pollution, but even the most stringent definition would hardly place water vapor in that category.

Cooling towers have become iconic for nuclear power and the mythical risks associated with them. Ironically, they could be the least hazardous part.

No wonder I've never met one...

This will come as a shock to you guys out there, but those women we ogle in magazines may not actually exist.

This commercial (caution - slow loader) from Dove proves we've been hoodwinked. Not unlike our industry's depictions of "family farmers", we work pretty hard here in the US to create the perfect image of a product, and less effort on the actual product.

Fool me again, please.

[via B2blog]

Friday, December 29, 2006

Why money is pouring into index funds and land...

Consider this prediction from Matthew Lynn at Bloomberg News:
Investors should strap themselves in for a rocky ride in the next 12 months. Equities will collapse, property will be demolished, and you won't be able to give away gold on the streets. The only haven will be fixed income. That's right, '07 will be the year of the bond.

OK, now that we've got the worst joke of the year out of the way, here are six things that might happen in 2007:

- Farming will become a great way to get rich.

High oil prices are causing a surge of interest in alternative energy, with ethanol leading the way. Making fuel from corn or other grains, however, means digging up a lot of fields. It has been more than a century since farmland was the basis for a financial aristocracy, but every asset comes back into its own if you just wait long enough. JPMorgan Chase & Co. rates corn among the best investments for 2007. [More]
[My emphasis]

As we see dollars flow into commodities, one result will be a reluctance by farmers to sell. Especially those of us who are "oversold" on 2006 crops. Perhaps we will revert to historic patterns, but I think our markets are now fringe players in the flow of global dollars [euros, yen, yuan, etc] that are looking for a return.

OK, now for a prediction of my own: 2008 will see the largest gain in farmland prices since 1987.

Also, in Chicago Tribune today, an interesting look at the new ADM CEO, Patricia Woertz. The article is not fluff, and if you couple it with Marcia Taylor's interview in Top Producer, you can see a leader under extreme pressure.
Hired from the senior ranks of California-based Chevron Corp., Woertz is charged with no less than ushering in a new age of renewable energy, reviving the economy of the rural heartland and advancing one of Illinois' biggest companies. And though she de-emphasizes her status as a "woman" CEO, she inevitably carries the flag for her gender, too.

If ADM's financial results swoon, Woertz could be gone in a hurry. Lingering allegiance to the legendary Andreas family, which ran ADM for the past 35 years, could put her in "a vulnerable position," says Ric Marshall, chief analyst at the Corporate Library research group. "The risk is very high her tenure is not going to work out." [More]

There are now sharp differences in the approach to ethanol by very big players. Compare Cargill to ADM. Each is betting heavily on a contrary outlook for the future of corn.

Many think the loss of the "blender credit" for ethanol and lowering or elimination of tariffs on imported ethanol could be fatal to ethanol producers. I'm not so sure. My guess is ADM could weather and even prosper should either or both occur. Smaller competitors would not.

Regardless, the extreme size of the demand increase seems to me to argue producers will enjoy significant market pricing power for a minimum of 2-3 years.

Of course, by that time we'll bid cash rents up to absorb the margin.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

I'm thinking about my abs right now...

Another great list from the Times [London]: 100 Things we didn't know until last year
  • 7. The lion costume in the film Wizard of Oz was made from real lions.
    More details

  • 14. Online shoppers will only wait an average of four seconds for an internet page to load before giving up.
    More details
  • 23. More than one in eight people in the United States show signs of addiction to the internet, says a study.
    More details

  • 45. Cows can have regional accents, says a professor of phonetics, after studying cattle in Somerset
    More details

  • 68. The egg came first.
    More details

  • 84. Thinking about your muscles can make you stronger.
    More details

  • 100. In the 1960s, the CIA used to watch Mission Impossible to get ideas about spying.
    More details

Other voices in the 2007 Farm Bill Debate...

I am skeptical of the actual horsepower at work here, but a few of the more interesting opinions on the Farm Bill:
It is a joy to begin to work with the Divine Universal Sisterhood and continue on my journey to become one of the few good men who will support our Queen Sister’s in the 2007 Farm Bill Debate, together we can eliminate forever low, low, low, low food insecurity in our nation. [More]
My comment: While doubtless well-meaning here, the um, "Sisterhood" probably means low food security, not insecurity. (Low insecurity is a good thing).

But for the first time, federal farm policy, and at the heart of it, the 2007 Farm Bill, have an opportunity to bring about major reversals of that trend. As a result of growing pressure from developing nations and from other sectors of the U.S. economy, the agricultural industry is beginning to face the reality that it's once-holy commodity subsidies are going to have to be dismantled, or at least substantially reduced, in order to open up free trade opportunities elsewhere.

At the same time, conservationists, environmentalists, hunters, fisherman, and a host of other interest groups have pulled up seats at the table and are demanding that inroads be made towards righting past wrongs, and that small but critical successes of the past two decades be matured into more meaningful long-term solutions. Where farm policy was once the problem, now many of them see it, hopefully, as a solution. [More]

My comment: I don't find the concept of lots of minor lobbying forces constituting a challenge to the ag lobby convincing. These groups have not demonstrated either cooperation or commitment to changing ag policy if it even mildly threatened core issues (like emissions control or in this case, urban planning), hence they are easily co-opted. If farm policy is going to be changed it will occur because fiscal hawks dig in their heels and the President follows through on a veto threat, IMHO.

Each of us must use our own expertise in a particular subject matter area that you’ve heard mentioned today.
§ Do you know your Congressman? Her or his staff? See me afterwards.
§ Do you understand the positive effect that payment limitations would have on Farm Bill debate, on our
relations with our trading partners, on our own farmers? Can you talk about it in a factual, passionate way?
See me afterwards.
§ Are you a member of Western Growers Association (WGA)? California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF)?
Agricultural Council of California? A marketing order or commission? Can you work with your
colleagues on areas of common concern? See me afterwards.
§ Have you used any of the programs in the Conservation title, like EQIP or WHIP? Do you have good
relationships with NRCS? See me afterwards.

My comment: California has such a huge Congressional delegation this might amount to something in the House. In the Senate, cotton has a firm grip on both Sen. Feinstein and Boxer. [Sen. Boxer's site even refers obliquely (I think) to the payment limitation issue as "discrimination against California commodities such as cotton, rice, wheat, corn, and dairy".]

Speaker (presumed) Pelosi will be a different fellow altogether than her predecessor. She might even whip the House into near equality with the Senate on farm legislation. I'd call it a long shot, however.

Q. – Is the political situation in the United States conducive to them making major concessions at the WTO?

THE MINISTER – Given the budgetary situation in the United States, the American Executive is very keen for – and needs – a reform of the Farm Bill. It is finding this agricultural policy too expensive. To have outside pressure, in this instance the WTO negotiations, to compel Congress to accept such a reform is invaluable to the American administration./.

My comment: The French are masters at making any outcome look like they planned and delivered it all along. The issue for France is complicated by the public disdain for the Bush administration and their own elections. My guess is if the French want a given Farm Bill outcome, they would be wise to come out against it.

Will these non-traditional players have any impact? I dunno, but if any do - all could.

One giant leap for mankind...

The stunning beauty and efficiency of this invention moved me to near tears.

The Keg-Fast multiple keg tap.

Is it me, or is it thirsty in here?

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Dog and cats living together!...

We seem to be in a competition to find the most hysterical global warming prediction. The latest entry:

[Click on picture to enlarge]
London in 2100.
If it's almost New Year's...

Then it's time for lists

of predictions
  1. about big business
  2. about baseball
  3. from tarot cards
  4. about presidential hopefuls
  5. about media trends
  6. about business
  7. about gold
and lists
  1. worst book covers
  2. best gadgets
  3. 2006 in ideas
  4. best photos
  5. buzzwords
  6. most unforgettable TV moments
  7. best places to live

The world just seems more organized when everything has a number.
Where our food comes from - The Answers...

Where does most of this food come from? The answers I found.
  1. Bananas - Guatemala
  2. Lemons - California
  3. Lamb chops - Texas
  4. Hamburger - Tricky to figure out, my guess Texas, [info on lean beef imports].
  5. Canola oil - Canada
  6. Onions - California
  7. Flour - Kansas
  8. Brussel sprouts - who cares? OK, California
  9. Sweet potatoes - North Carolina
  10. Olive oil - Italy
  11. Pickles - Michigan
  12. Apples - Washington
  13. Milk - California
  14. Wine - California
  15. Garlic - China (BTW - for a peek at the gangsta, trash-talkin' side of garlic economics, check out the comments here.)
  16. Baby back ribs - Denmark
  17. Peaches - California
  18. Tomatoes - Florida
  19. Broccoli - California
  20. Beer - California (I think)
I also discovered that imports of fresh fruits and vegetables is growing rapidly, but remains mostly seasonal.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Mozart, Robin Schlotz and and what music is...

Even if you wouldn't know Mozart from Moody Blues, you gotta recognize astonishing talent like this.

This is what is coming to agriculture - the ability to share extraordinary events with our whole community.

And it's going to happen here on AgWeb first and best.

I couldn't make this up if you paid me...

(Wait - make me an offer.)

"Bob - you and Larry take the bull and wolf. I'll handle the lobster."

I've been following this bizarre story on BoingBoing (need to read to understand) fully expecting it to be a hoax. Seems like the NRA has produced a comic-book-like call to action for all good 'Mericans.

But even loyalists go soft, as the GOP learned last month, and you need some Grade A propaganda to get people riled up again. Let no one accuse the NRA of shirking its duty. Freedom In Peril: Guarding the 2nd Amendment in the 21st Century, is a spectacularly beautiful graphic novel. Here, for example, is one of the biggest threats to the white suburban hunter: dirty hippies and their evil sidekicks: the dynamite-carrying owl, sinister pig, angry Wall Street bull, dire wolf, terror chicken and Land Lobster

Still, I didn't realize not shaving your legs was un-American. Must be Amendment 34 or so to the Constitution, maybe.

Have we gotten to this? As we live the safest, healthiest, and wealthiest lives ever imagined on this planet, is this what we have to do to sell memberships?

There has got to a be a superior species somewhere...

Why it's not about us (Reason #28)...

It is important to many farmers that the world revolve around them. It's how we buttress our special status as recipients of government payments. Since a bunch of pesky facts contradict this world view, we choose to not hear them. As a result, most farmers I have talked to have trouble putting our industry in context with the rest of the economy.

One overriding reason is the "food" link. "Without us you'd starve", we point out to anyone who will listen. Probably not. This is the wealthiest nation on earth. We spend very little on actual foodstuffs (significantly more to have it prepared and delivered to us). Without us, someone else would feed our fellow citizens, and if anybody starved it would be the poor of the world, simply because they cannot compete for food with rich people in any shortage.

It is hard for us to get a picture of our actual position in the world because our entire self-image (and the one used to sell us seed, tractors and ideas) is a Ptolemaic cosmology with farmers at the center. There is a genuine fear of discovering otherwise, and becoming no more important than plumbers or accountants or teachers.

The world for the most part humors us. But many see clearly the scope of agriculture and its economic horsepower. One of these people was Leo Melamed, pioneering innovator at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Long ago he saw the wealth in agriculture would not match the growth of other sectors.

And then, finally, I came to the thought that Bretton Woods, the fixed-exchange-rate system, was coming apart. And when it finally comes apart, wouldn't there be a need for foreign-exchange futures? Our board thought I was crazy, and very frankly I thought it was a little crazy too, because why hadn't anybody else done this? I went to Milton Friedman, though, and he absolutely embraced the idea.

So the board had to go along with me. And the minute we went to foreign exchange, I said to the membership that if it works in foreign exchange, the sky is the limit! I was like a kid in a candy store, honest to God. Because in agriculture, where could you go with it? But in finance - ah, look at this! I mean, whoa, anything you want! [More of interview]

His foresight is a good clue for producers who are struggling to understand the influence of commodity funds. On USFR this weekend, Greg Hunt, one of our more erudite commentators brought up the startling fact that CalPERS - the giant retirement fund whose whims terrify boardrooms around the world - has decided to get into commodities.
CalPERS plans to decide as early as next summer whether to create a new natural resources/commodities asset class within the pension fund. “Global demand for natural resources and proved systems to extract and deliver them will only increase,” said Valdes. “We will look into commodities future contracts and related investments to naturally complement, diversify and add value to our expanding securities investments in the energy and raw materials sector. [More]
Investors like CalPERS talk money on a scale we can barely imagine. Consequently, market participants of their heft can easily skew trade in directions that will confound fundamentalists who assume supply and demand will override all (true in the LONG run) or those who extrapolate from the past.

But does it hurt anything for farmers to entertain this fantasy of unwarranted importance? I think so. Just as Rick Warren stated in the first line of the first chapter of "A Purpose-Driven Life", getting over yourself is the crucial first step in finding fulfillment and abiding happiness.

Seeing our work in real context is also a great defense to prevent being steamrollered by forces whose size we have not fully come to appreciate.

[See the later rerun post on farmland ETF's]

Monday, December 25, 2006

A little Christmas fun...

Try out your new computer on these websites.

My favorite is "pimp my nutcracker".
Where our food comes from...

One persistent complain from farmers has been "people don't know where their food comes from". I think the implication is once people find out it comes from a farm they will be OK with paying subsidies in addition to actually paying for the product. (Strikes me as unlikely, but ...)

OK, fair enough, but my contention is farmers don't know where their food comes from, either.

So try this little quiz. Where does most of this food come from? Try to name the largest single source, by state or country.
  1. Bananas
  2. Oranges
  3. Lamb chops
  4. Hamburger
  5. Canola oil
  6. Onions
  7. Flour
  8. Brussel sprouts
  9. Potatoes
  10. Olive oil
  11. Pickles
  12. Apples
  13. Milk
  14. Wine
  15. Garlic
  16. Baby back ribs
  17. Peaches
  18. Tomatoes
  19. Rye flour
  20. Beer
Answers in a few days.

Hey- I'm on holiday here!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

There is a reason humans are the dominant species...

I am uncomfortable with emotional manipulation by means of photographs and pictures, whether it is Thomas Kinkade or cuddly baby animals . I was surprised then at my response to this series of photographs showing a man with no use of his hands and malformed feet repairing bicycle tires in Viet Nam.

Something in this matter-of-fact series of photos that captures for me the indomitable spirit of humankind. The guy was doing what he could do - and that turns out to be more than any of us would have imagined.

There may be thoughtful lessons to be gathered from his example, but my take-away is to err on the side of the possible when it comes to dealing with people.

Merry Christmas, all.

[via Metafilter]

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Work, happiness, and wealth...

I have been studying the economics of happiness for a few years. Thanks to the proliferation of fMRI machines in hospitals in the US, brain researchers can now verify what economists and psychologists deduced from behavior.

Or dispute them.

As America pushes back the frontiers of national wealth, more than a few people are asking "Is That All There Is?" in the face of unparalleled prosperity. This phenomenon has omens for agriculture in the US.

We are, I believe embarking on a few years of infrequent prosperity for many in farming. (For those who invested in an ethanol plant 2+ years ago this time has arrived) Anyone who has been "spreadsheeting" a budget for 2007 and has fooled around with numbers like $3.50 for corn has had a hallelujah moment. The question is begged, however, "Will this make me happier?"

Farmers love the work of farming. That is problem #1. As a rule, nobody has to pay you to do things you love to do.
If people are determined to pursue their calling rather than simply taking a job, some professions (surgery, cookery, genetics) may become overcrowded, others undersubscribed. But when a job cannot find enough takers, the market finds ways to ennoble it: first pay, and then status, begin to rise. It becomes economical to automate some aspects of the work, employing machines to do the deadening humdrum toil that men and women are no longer willing to put up with. What remains of the job will be the bits only people can do: tasks that require insight, ingenuity and the human touch. Ms McCloskey recalls the Cincinnati sewerman, interviewed a few years ago on National Public Radio, who earned $60,000 a year and liked to tell girls he was an “environmental” worker. [More]

Happiness is not so easily captured, nor is self-interest the sole undergirding principle of economic activity it seems. And wealth alone does not provide all the answers to being happy. Even Adam Smith - that old capitalist dog - puzzled over this.
"In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, [the poor] are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings fight for."
Many farmers will experience a true upsurge in happiness as money worries lessen. But unless we have evolved significantly in the past decade or so, it will not last.

First, we have individual setpoints for happiness that are hard to alter.
Recent research conducted by Daniel Gilbert (a professor of psychology at Harvard) and others has unearthed several new elements about the business of happiness as concerns humans. The first element being that the major events of our lives have a minimal effect on our overall long-term happiness. Did you get married this year, or not? Have you been involved in a war lately or a victim of a crime? Regardless as to your answer, it is a fair bet that your happiness will be more or less the same in the long term. The latter could be understood if you accept that the brain has a mechanism of sorts to reset people back to their baseline happiness over time. The second element of happiness is the terrible truth that we are awful at predicting what will give us happiness. Do you expect that a new car or home will give you happiness? Certainly it will, just not as much as you expect. The same is true in the opposite. Do you think that getting rejected by your crush or losing a game will make you unhappy? It will, just not as much as you expect. [More]

Second, much of our happiness derives from status - our position relative to our peers and neighbors. This shows up as reference anxiety or pursuing positional goods. Our brains were wired to care about status, and despite protests to the contrary most of us do. As our neighbors experience similar good results, our success will likely pall.

Finally, we are competitors, and as such have a history of bidding up inputs (especially land) when our income goes up. We are agents of our own undoing.
Federal payments put money in farmers' pockets, which they used to bid up land prices to as much as three times its production value, Lines said. Prime Ohio farmland is valued at $2,500-3,000 per acre, compared to its productive worth of about $1,000 per acre, Lines said. [More drivel from 2001 here]
[Side note - I take a perverse pleasure in pointing out all those who called farmers fools for buying land at "inflated prices". No investment is more profitable for producers than to own the land. It has always been thus and those of you who took the challenge are being rewarded. One more point: never take risk advice from someone on tenure]

So if we view this as a window for changes that could make us happier, how can we maximize our outcome? Funny you should ask, because that is just what my presentation will address at the Top Producer Seminar in Chicago.

I can't wait to hear what I'm going to say!

The 12 Days of Christmas

If you don't "get" YouTube, maybe this will help you see how people are finding ingenious ways to deploy this technology.

Plus it's just fun!

(Is that one guy standing in front of a grain bin or just horizontal corrugated siding?)

Oh, yeah - Merry Christmas!

I'm working out the math right now...

Many of us amateur economists (and some real ones) have puzzled over the inefficiencies wrapped up in Christmas presents. When we give stuff we don't particularly like to people it may not fit, hasn't value been lost? Isn't the economy worse off?

Jonathan Chait considers this problem in too much depth in the New Republic (registration required, but it's free and they don't bug me):

Now some in the pro-gift faction actually argue on economic grounds, too. The economy, they say, depends on frenzied holiday-induced sales. Actually, it doesn't. Economists incessantly lecture us to save more--our national savings rate is notoriously low, after all--and consume less. And discontinuing gifts would give consumers more satisfaction with less stuff, by letting them choose what goods they end up with when the tinsel or the Menorah have all been packed away. Those previously employed in the field of fruitcake manufacturing would find work making things people actually want. [More]

The boy has a point. But is it worth making? Obviously somebody thought so (they don't call it the dismal science for no reason):
It's the sort of question only an economist would ask. Economist Joel Waldfogel, from Yale University, asked it first 13 years ago in a seminal paper entitled The Deadweight Loss of Christmas.

He asked university students to estimate both the amounts paid for the gifts they had received and the amounts that those gifts were actually worth to them. He found that at least 10 per cent of the value of the gifts was destroyed in the giving.

In a later, more sophisticated study, he put the figure at between 10 and 18 per cent of value lost as much as $9billion throughout the United States each Christmas. If you doubt Professor Waldfogel about the inefficiency of present giving, consider present recycling.

A survey conducted by American Express found that 28 per cent of us rebirth some of the presents we receive as gifts for other people. And then there are returns. The US Journal of Consumer Research has concluded that 16 per cent of all gifts bought by men are returned to shops by the recipients; 10 per cent of all gifts bought by women. (Women are better at choosing the right gifts than men). [Too much more]

Sure, it's tough finding a new facet of the economy to write a paper on, but "deadweight"? Dude - that's harsh.

Besides, the problem isn't Christmas - it's the insidious efforts to invent "new" card-required-mandatory-gifting holidays like "Sweetest Day".

No wonder we're heading for a recession.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Probably not the best time to bring this up...

Already, four shopping malls in China are larger than the Mall of America. Two, including the South China Mall, are bigger than the West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, which just surrendered its status as the world's largest to an enormous retail center in Beijing. And by 2010, China is expected to be home to at least 7 of the world's 10 largest malls.

It seems we are losing the mall race to China. One thing to keep in mind is while the disparity in come is enormous there, if just 20% are living a "middle class" life that's 260 million shoppers.

Also, suppose China becomes the destination of prestige for American serious leisure shoppers?

[via Neatorama]

The Chinese man imbalance...

[Retread from March]

I have linked before about the growing male/female unbalance in Asia - particularly China. Here is more on the possible implications of the female shortage:

The long-term implications of the gender imbalance are largely guesswork because there is no real precedent for imbalances on such a scale. Some Chinese experts speculate, off the record, that there might be a connection between the shortage of women and the spread of open gay life since 2001, when homosexuality was deleted from the official Classification of Mental Disorders. It is possible to dream up all kinds of scenarios: Mumbai and Shanghai may soon rival San Francisco as gay capitals. A Beijing power struggle between cautious old technocrats and aggressive young nationalists may be decided by mobs of rootless young men, demanding uniforms, rifles, and a chance to liberate Taiwan. More likely, the organized crime networks that traffic in women will shift their deliveries toward Asia and build a brothel culture large enough to satisfy millions of sexually frustrated young men.

[Whole great article here]

Women - can't live without 'em and can't live without 'em.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

No fair - I was quoted accurately...

By now a few of you may have read the article in The Washington Post where I was interviewed on my farm about farm subsidies. The piece is part of a long series about farm policy. My opposition to subsidies is pretty well known here, I won't belabor it, but if you are interested in what it is like to be interviewed by a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist/author for a world-class newspaper, here is my impression.

First, while we in agriculture complain about our media image, the image of people in the media may be even more distorted. The movie/television depictions of journalists does not prepare you for the reality. Gil Gaul visited my farm after several e-mail exchanges. He was somewhat younger than me and upon arrival obviously unfamiliar with the farm scene.

Despite my firm conviction that he had his own agenda and without doubt I would be excerpted and misquoted, I have learned that what I think I said and what I said can be two different things. And from feedback from my columns and speeches, I also know that what I say may not be what people hear. My expectations of the outcome of this interview were not high, but I honestly viewed it as a chance to have a small impact on the farm bill debate.

About halfway through the morning Gil spent riding on the combine with me, I realized I really liked the guy. In turn, he told me what is was like to working in the print media today as the world shifts to on-line. (Not the most optimistic career vision, BTW). And for a guy who had won 2 - as in 1 + 1 - Pulitzers he was pathetically unassuming.
I remember thinking his friendly demeanor was probably a professional act designed to lull innocent farm boys into lapses of judgment.

Later that afternoon I discarded that notion. After all, what the heck could they write that I hadn't said or written publicly, anyway? Besides, burning even one-time sources like me is a poor long term strategy for professionals.

Look and judge the article for yourself. And you can read what others are saying, both here on AgWeb and at the bottom of the article. My only slight misgiving is that the article seems pretty hopeless - that things could never be better. My personal conviction is if they stopped sending me money and didn't send you any either, we'd figure it out. We're not stupid or lazy.

All told, I've got no complaints. This experience has made me a little less cynical about the MSM (mainstream media) and a little more skeptical of those who dogmatically accuse them of bias. So if you ever have a similar chance, I would say go for it.

Besides, this episode will be forgotten with the next news cycle, I'm sure.

Why and how we spend...

[This is a recycled post from last December - it's easier than rebuilding the archives]

Every now and then you spot a larger trend that resonates with a trend in agriculture. Here is one from The Economist on conspicuous consumption:

The number of luxury buyers in the developed world is also being swelled by two other trends. First, consumers are increasingly adopting a “trading up, trading down” shopping strategy. Many traditional mid-market shoppers are abandoning middle-of-the-range products for a mix of lots of extremely cheap goods and a few genuine luxuries that they would once have thought out of their price league.

Alongside this “selective extravagance” is the growth of “fractional ownership”: time-shares in luxury goods and services formerly available only to those paying full price. Fractional ownership first got noticed when firms such as NetJets started selling access to private jets. It has since spread to luxury resorts, fast cars and much more. In America, From Bags to Riches—“better bags, better value”—lets less-well-off people rent designer handbags. In Britain, Damon Hill, a former racing driver, has launched P1 International. A £2,500 ($4,300) joining fee, plus annual membership of £13,750, buys around 50-70 driving days a year in cars ranging from a Range Rover Sport to a Bentley or a Ferrari.

( Full article here)

This rang a bell - it is similar to leasing combines, etc. that is becoming a trend across the Corn and Wheat Belt. Which led me to the question of how much is the growing acceptance and popularity of such schemes fueled by the desire to drive a bigger, nicer machine for local status reasons. If even we knew ourselves well enough to answer that honestly, I doubt any of us producers would admit it.

Still, I have been known to drive a new tractor/combine/sprayer the long way 'round to a field just to casually pass a neighbor's house. When it only happens a handful of times in your career...

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The handyman's secret weapon...

No, not duct tape. The true key to successful home repair is getting the parts.

So when the door to our dishwasher slammed down tonight, I did not despair nor cry like a girl (like last time), I surfed to and without a parts number or adult supervision found the correct part and ordered it.

This could be your triumphant life too.
It's not just ethanol that's threatening...

The soy industry is dealing with significant disillusionment among nutritionists and medical professionals regarding the manifold health claims associated with soy consumption.
Soy is a bean. That much we know.

But is soy a miracle worker that protects us from cancer, heart disease, bone loss and hot flashes? Or is it an overrated and menacing little legume that affects the thyroid and raises certain cancer risk and is found in nearly every processed food? [More of a must-read article for any soybean grower]

Following the fad-o-the-month in the food industry is a short-term business plan. Now with competition for acres from corn, and declining consumer infatuation (admittedly a small portion of soy consumption, but widely touted), and the flood of DDG's into the protein market, the soy industry faces a crossroads here in the US.

Meanwhile sunflower growers are being wooed like homecoming queens as processors have sold oil to transfat-fighting food makers that they had assumed would come from acres they had in their pockets. Not so fast.

When I was in North Dakota earlier this month (insert your Ole joke here), growers were chortling about skyrocketing contract offers to grow sunflowers. Processors were finally figuring out what the scarcity of 85-day corn meant.

There may be only one solution for the soybean producer: burn it.

Hey, it worked for corn!
It's worth the trip...

Be sure to make it to the Top Producer Seminar in Chicago next month. The highlight will be, of course Thursday lunch when that talented columnist from Top Producer, me, speaks. And this year I really, really am going to buy a round instead of just sponging off friends and innocent bystanders.

Click on the ads above to get all the info.

It's the best meeting I go to all year.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

And where, pray tell, will those plants be?...

A company called Bluefire Ethanol is going to build 20 (count 'em, 20) cellulosic ethanol plants over the next six years. Seriously.

This is no speculator-come-lately to the ethanol scene. And they may just have the technological moxie (is that still a word?) to pull it off.

BlueFire Ethanol, Inc. (previous post) is established to deploy the commercially ready, patented, and proven Arkenol Technology Process for the profitable conversion of cellulosic ("Green Waste") waste materials to ethanol, a viable alternative to gasoline. BlueFire's use of the Arkenol Process Technology positions it as the only cellulose-to-ethanol company worldwide with demonstrated production of ethanol from urban trash (post-sorted MSW), rice and wheat straws, wood waste and other agricultural residues.

Since 2003, the technology has been successfully used in the IZUMI pilot plant operated by JGC, the licensee of Arkenol for Japan and SE Asia, to produce ethanol for the Japanese transportation fuel market. Over the last 10 years, the initial testing on a vast array of potential feedstock has been completed both in the U.S. and at various locations throughout the world. BlueFire has completed the arrangement of the major commitments necessary to proceed with final development of its first commercial facility which will be sited in California. [More]

My question: how can this make me a buck? Or will it compete with corn-ethanol?

Better still, if I start harvesting corn stover, what does that mean for my fertilizer requirements?

The most likely cause of those reported differences is the modification ofsoil nutrients due to addition/removal of residues. Although corn residue does contain significant amounts of macronutrients, the major contribution of agricultural residue to the soil is in terms of organic carbon (SOC) (Allmaras etal., 2000). Allmaras et al (2004) determined that over thirteen years of continuous corn, across tillage treatments, stover harvest (0% residue) decreased total SOCby 20% as compared to stover return (100% residue). [More]

I don't think we know. But if the cellulosic approach to ethanol takes off, we may find out the hard way.

Thanks a lot, Mom...

As many of us farmers settle in for a long winter's computer session, we may be in for back problems. The reason is surprising:

Your mother probably told you, as her mother told her: sit up straight. Whether at table, in class or at work we have always been told that sitting stiff-backed and upright is good for our bones, our posture, our digestion, our alertness and our general air of looking as if we are plugged into the world.

Now research suggests that we would be far better off slouching and slumping. Today’s advice is to let go and recline. Using a new form of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a team of radiologists have found that sitting up straight puts unnecessary strain on the spine and could cause chronic back pain because of trapped nerves or slipped discs. [More]

Once again, we find that ignoring our own slovenly instincts was a bad decision.

I may never shave again...
'Tis the season...

This flash-animation of The Drifters' White Christmas has been around, but like Yukon Cornelius, Linus, and Ralphie, it just wouldn't be Christmas without them.

[via Neatorama]

Monday, December 18, 2006

Imagine what they could do with the scent of beer...

It seems humans - or at least college students - can follow a scent trail.
By studying blindfolded college students who crawled through grass to sniff out a chocolate-scented trail, scientists found evidence of a human smelling ability that experts thought was impossible. [More]
Meanwhile we can't smell ourselves, since our brains respond to changes in stimuli - not constants. (Thank goodness!)

In fact, there are a lot of smell myths. But my favorite "olfact" is this one:

And symmetrical men smell better.

Borrowing sweaty undershirts from a variety of men, Thornhill offered the shirts to the noses of women, asking for their impressions of the scents. Hands down, the women found the scent of a symmetrical man to be more attractive and desirable, especially if the woman was menstruating. [More]

I'm not smelly, I'm lopsided.

What a relief

Juan hasn't gone phishing...

Somebody else finds the "identity theft" cover for illegal immigration raids a little hard to swallow:

Of course, if this were presented as an immigration crackdown, people might ask: Why were no charges filed against the employer -- Swift & Co? The world's second-largest meat processing company has "never condoned the employment of unauthorized workers, nor ... knowingly hired such individuals," Swift & Co. President and CEO Sam Rovit said in a statement.

Note the word: knowingly. Rovit didn't just fall off the meat wagon. He's read the statute. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act made it a crime to "knowingly" hire illegal immigrants.

That's a monster loophole. Suddenly, whenever there is a raid, no one knows anything. Illegal workers? Who? What? Where?

It's cynical, and it's the sort of thing that makes it hard to believe that Americans are serious about combating illegal immigration. How can we be if we don't address the problem at its source? [More]

Stay tuned, folks, this is just the beginning.
Small schools, big problems...

Small schools in rural America are dwindling. In places like Nebraska and Montana, charming country schoolhouses simply have no one to serve. Declining populations and - perhaps more importantly, fertility - have made difficult closure decisions commonplace.

Shafer and many rural Nebraskans for years have watched people leave, businesses dry up and the number of farms and ranches dwindle. In some places, small schools are among the few remaining symbols of vitality and community identity, providing hope for the future while acting as reminders of the past. An anomaly in some states, they remain a pillar of education systems in some, like Nebraska and Montana, that have remote regions where cattle have long outnumbered people.

But populations in rural areas of those and other states are dipping to levels where there are few, and sometimes no students to teach. A school in the same county as Pony Lake shut down this year when its attendance dropped to a lone student.

In Montana, small country schools are drying up like the state's drought-plagued pastures. About a hundred have closed over the last decade and "the rate of decrease has accelerated," said Claudette Morton, director of the Montana Small Schools Alliance. [More]

We are still dropping school population here in my corner of central Illinois. It seems some towns achieve a critical mass and attract job-providers and population, or the Mother of All Good Fortune , a major government facility like a university. Others are reshaped by economics into low-cost bedroom/retirement locations for those in the lower half of our economy.

There is a popular, but mistaken belief that economic support to agriculture can reverse this trend. That seems unlikely, since the determining factor for the number of people in farming is not profitability, but technology. We are adding gizmos from GPS to robot milkers that drastically lower the need for people.

A more likely scenario as prosperity surges through low-population areas may be boarding schools. You read that right. Sure, homeschooling is a choice, but requires a parental commitment some may not be able to make.

Others been here before, and when distances were not easily covered, the boarding school became a valid choice for rural parents who could afford it. Now add in religious concerns about education, worries about competing academically, and difficulty attracting qualified teachers and we could see remote education become more acceptable to the next generation of farm families. Not to be offensive, but a growing foreign (mostly Hispanic) student percentage has awakened some unfortunate biases among rural parents who would just as soon their child grows up in a familiar (to them) culture. This concern may be greater than we think since few are willing to admit to it.

Besides, these children will likely be joined at the lip with Mom and Dad, like modern college students. And despite being traditionally associated with privileged and problem students, boarding schools may only be a voucher away for many farm families concerned with education in rural schools.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Guy at Best Buy caught dancing

Well, we had one with opera, so what the hey...

Please, Santa...

All I want for Christmas is:

Periodic table socks.

For more gifts for the engineer in your life.

Big Oil has dreams too...

I generally eschew referring to the petroleum industry as "Big Oil" although it may be more descriptive than pejorative. And I suppose many would lump me in with "Big Ag" so what's sauce for the goose...

Anyway, for those of wading through the profit potential of renewable fuels, an update on the world as pictured by the people who just happen to bring us almost all of our energy needs here on the farm.
Nobody will accuse ExxonMobil (XOM) of greenwashing. The world's largest oil company released its energy forecast for the year 2030 yesterday and, in contrast to the sunflowers-and-bears imagery promoted by competitors BP (BP) and Chevron (CVX), ExxonMobil predicted a fossil-fuel future marked by skyrocketing oil and gas consumption and soaring greenhouse gases emissions. Dependence on Middle East oil will grow. Not that there's anything wrong with that: "The progress of people around the world is driving demand for more energy," the report states. "We are a world on the move and liquid fuels are essential to meet those demands....By 2030, energy demand will increase by about 60 percent, compared to 2000. The global energy mix will look very similar 25 years from now. Oil, gas and coal will be predominant." [More]
I suspect they may be right. The petroleum industry is not populated with morons or villains. In fact, they believe just as strongly as we do in their work, which is not without its uncertainties either. And they also have plenty of cash to make bets with.

[BTW - if you have not read Marcia Taylor's interview with ex-petroleum exec turned ADM CEO, Patricia Woertz, you should. We may need a "Big Ethanol" label soon.]

I think the latent fear in the alternative fuel industry is those petrodollars are working furiously to a) find new petroleum resources and b) develop technological answers to pollution problems from fossil fuels.

Suppose they succeed? Do we cheer or not?

Alagna walks off-stage in Aida at La Scala

Check out the guy who had to step up to the plate when Alagna walked. Pretty cool!

And all the ships at sea...

OK, you're probably too young to know about
that phrase, but if you have marveled at the maps showing where all the airplanes in the world are at any time, take a peek at this one for cargo ships. Stop and think about it. After we locate all the trains, the next step is pinpoint all the cars. And then, all the people.

The NSA is probably working on it now.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Sticking with tried and true gifts...

Obviously a bunch of you are sticking with the ol' reliables for Christmas this year. Jewelry, appliances, frankincense...

Turns out we may be endangering frankincense trees in the Horn of Africa. (You didn't even know it came from a tree, didja?)

The trees on the Somali coast grow, without soil, out of polished marble rocks, to which they are attached by a thick oval mass of substances resembling a mixture of lime and mortar. The young trees furnish the most valuable gum, the older yielding merely a clear, glutinous fluid, resembling coral varnish.

To obtain the Frankincense, a deep, longitudinal incision is made in the trunk of the tree and below it a narrow strip of bark 5 inches in length is peeled off. When the milk-like juice which exudes has hardened by exposure to the air, the incision is deepened. In about three months the resin has attained the required degree of consistency, hardening into yellowish 'tears.' The large, clear globules are scraped off into baskets and the inferior quality that has run down the tree is collected separately. The season for gathering lasts from May till the middle of September, when the first shower of rain puts a close to the gathering for that year. [More]

So do the "green" thing and give your special someone some myhrr, instead.