Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Farming is not so great in Britain, I guess...

Subsidy fans often cast envious eyes on the Common Agicultural Policy in the EU as the ultimate support mechanism for farmers.

Maybe not, at least for the subjects of this current British TV show: The Family Farm.

The end of IP?...

If the ethanol pot o' gold materializes (and Jerry Gulke's next TP column promises it) I wonder how specialty identity-preserved (IP) programs will fare.

F'rinstance, a 15¢ premium on $2.10 is noticeable. But if corn goes to $3.50 (almost there), why bother? Beans may not be all that different, either.

In fact, for profitablility the more crucial decision is - according to Ken Ferrie - hybrid selection.

Limiting your choices could cost a lot more than a 5% price boost. For me the hassle factor is the problem. Unless you have time to devote to the meticulous records, separate storage, scheduled deliveries, etc. the premium can't cover the effort. Being able to harvest rapidly, store anything in any bin, move it when I want to, and sell to multiple bidders add up to a significant opportunity cost to be weighed against simple premiums.

My guess is IP programs need to suck it up to compete with commodity growing - which just entered a whole new era. That means significantly higher premiums.
A blogger's dream...

A topic that is evergreen. In this case: global warming. A late comment yesterday on an older post about anthropogenic global warming just happened to coincide with more evidence which makes me glad I flip-flopped - er, rethought - my position.
"The Stern report exposes the bankruptcy of the arguments of President Bush and some in Congress and industry that taking action on global warming will hurt the economy," said Alden Meyer, strategy and policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group. "In fact, just the opposite is true -- it's the refusal to take serious action that poses the true risk to our future economic prosperity." [More]

This is no lightweight piece of thinking here.

The debate over global warming has proceeded through predictable stages to date:
  1. Arguing over whether global warming is happening - then,
  2. Arguing over whether people contribute/cause it - then
  3. Arguing over whether it's a bad thing or not - then
  4. Arguing over whether fixing it is worth the cost
The pattern seems to be continual ground-giving by the skeptics - even if they are right.

OK, let's assume it is all a grand conspiracy by the Masons or the Opus Dei or pro wrestling (you did know that was fake, didn't you?). These evildoers are piggy-backing on a natural phenomenon or statistical blip to advance their loathesome agenda, like:
  • even more research (which of course they will have to jigger for the right answer)
  • energy conservation
  • water conservation
  • resource management
  • population control (not crazy about this one)
My point is the aims of the enviro-radicals scare me less than the far right, whose goals seem to include (without options) institutionalizing war as a way of life ("as long as it takes"), acclimatizing citizens to the idea of torture as an effective way to get info, eroding personal lberties, ignoring the accumulation of wealth into a tiny number of hands, and suing over enviro-messes instead of avoiding them.

Even if the dwindling number of skeptics are right (and I dispute that) they broadcast self-righteously such an unattractive, mean-spirited and self-centered philosophy that they hold no appeal to this engineer.

Besides my bet is all farmers are going to become supporters if they are not already. After all, one big reason to mandate ethanol and another $150/A gross income for the Midwest is to combat global warming by using renewable fuels. And we are about to develop another lucrative side benefit: carbon sequestration credits.
Landowners who agree to maintain tracts of woodlands and grasslands are assigned "carbon credits" by the exchange based on plants' ability through photosynthesis to pull carbon dioxide from the air and sequester it in their tissue.

Those credits earn farmers income once exchange member corporations purchase them to offset their carbon dioxide emissions to meet voluntary reduction targets. [More]
The commenter said to "follow the money". It could also be that money is following the truth.

Update: Global warming could be caused by fat people.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Star Wars Lego Symphony

We need some deeply artsy stuff to class up this blog...
Ag on the ballot...

We won't just be selecting the lesser of two evils for a representative or (in the case of IL) governor, many of us will be voting on initiatives that will impact agriculture come next Tuesday.
Proposition 204 asks voters to consider whether it is acceptable to use a 2- by 7-foot stall to house a 400-pound pregnant pig that is, eventually, headed for slaughter. And to decide whether that practice should be banned in Arizona, as it has been in Florida, Britain and the rest of the European Union in recent years.

Beyond that, it asks consumers to look within an industry that both sides of the campaign say has changed so dramatically in recent decades it is almost unrecognizable from the nostalgic image of the family farm. [More]
Ah - the old "family farm". We'll be hearing more about that utopian paradigm soon, I think.

There are also some flamboyantly opportunistic property rights ballot measures.
There is a law on the ballot in four states that says if I want to open a hog farm or a chemical plant next door to your house and you don't want me to do that, then YOU have to PAY ME not to -- you have to pay me ALL THE MONEY I MIGHT HAVE MADE. [More]
The interesting point of this account is how the hog farm is the epitome of bad news - the worst thing that could happen. If "hog farm" has been elevated (or lowered) to the same status as "chemical plant" the future for modern hog production could be rocky. At the very least, some changes will be made in methodology, I bet.
Reality check...

Some myopic political commentators actually are harboring delusions that ag subsidies are in trouble.
I don’t want to tempt fate by declaring that the tide is turning against the costly and interventionist federal agriculture programs, but there have been several critical (in both senses of the word) editorials and investigative series this year on farm subsidies. The voices protesting about farm programs seem to be getting louder.
and further on,
It is encouraging to note the number and breadth of newspapers covering this subject. The LA Times, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Des Moines Register, the Denver Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Orlando Sentinel have all run editorials on farm programs this year. Let’s hope that the voices are heard, and that voters and their representatives start to demand change.
I wish. Despite a clear history of being able to get just about any amount we want from Congress, reformers still think the absurdity of our farm policy will eventually dawn on legislators.

Yeah, like absurd policy is a problem for our goverment.

If the ag lobby can shut down critical international trade talks (and they did) how much trouble should a few scared Congresshumans be?

In fairness, it could happen, but it has been a poor bet.
Why knot?....

I couldn't tie a sheepshank if the sheep was helping. For all the rest of you non-knotical readers, a
really cool animated knot tying website.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The problem with living in a Big Tent...

I noted an interesting political exchange in the Des Moines Register this morning. It caught my eye because some of the people involved are friends of mine. In a letter to the editor, an Iowa Farm Bureau member took issue with IFB President Craig Lang:
Recently, Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Lang sent a letter soliciting funds for the Republican Party's candidate for secretary of agriculture, Bill Northey. Lang's letter attacked the Democratic Party's candidate, Denise O'Brien, and misrepresented her position on animal agriculture in Iowa. Borrowing from John Edwards' remarks about George Bush in Iraq, I dare say it seems Lang's "proactive stupidity" will backfire.

As a 50-year member of the Iowa Farm Bureau, I strongly object to Lang's degrading letter, which was sent to a select group only. Lang's candidate supports "stay-the-course" agricultural policies, big business and continued state-government control of livestock farm locations.

Denise O'Brien supports sustainable agriculture and local zoning of livestock operations. She supports changes in policy that would help control the proliferation of large, confined animal operations. Her policies will make it possible for more people to raise livestock, not fewer. She will help save our rural communities and ensure quality of life for all citizens.

Denise O'Brien is a kind, compassionate and intelligent person who has run a very positive campaign, standing firm on her principles without mudslinging. O'Brien's principles will serve us well as secretary of agriculture.

Donna Winburn,
I quote the entire letter to provide context and also demonstrate how a forceful but civil political debate should look like. The writer (who I do not know) is articulate and clear.

I do know both Bill Northey and Craig Lang and like and admire them. If you want to call this an endorsement , you can, but crimony - I'm from Illinois, so it could be more of a curse. In my judgment both men have hopes for improving life on farms, but are - as is now standard in politics - constrained by the positions they hold/seek and the powers they represent.

I have discussed farm politics with both gentlemen and empathize with their positions as farm leaders. Both of them seem to be frustrated with the limited range of options available to leaders today. You dare not stray off the reservation too far.

One key reason behind this is Farm Bureau's absolute insistence on "grassroots" political decision-making. Any attempt at leadership - truly going before - is smacked down as uppity presumption. Further complicating this inflexibility is the painfully slow annualized policy-making process. When your reaction time is say, 10 months you aren't going to play much of a role in a 24/7 world.

I often ask people who talk admiringly about "grassroots", "What about the grass?" If it's all about roots, what's the point? Roots are unseen, have no impact above ground. Farm Bureau has so few blades of grass sticking up into the real world because the roots jealously cut them off. Taking the analogy to the extreme, is it any wonder the organization lacks the energy it should have without any chance at real world photosysnthesis?

Above all the unfortunate Farm Bureau decision to try to fool the world by counting insurance buyers as in involuntary "members" makes for plump membership numbers to impress politicians and ample funds for running the organization but has now thoroughly diluted the soul of the whole effort.

Farm Bureau struggles to represent all kinds of agriculture but as I have written below, our profession is evolving healthy sectors that neither need nor are attracted to FB. Coupled with their inability to change and their intolerance to leaders who espouse change, FB could possibly dwindle in importance, just like current farm policy as agriculture evolves beyond them.

That would be a shame. But it is also their right to choose this path to pointlessness.

And the roots are insisting on that choice, it seems.

[Full disclosure: I have been a Farm Bureau member since I first bought their insurance many decades ago. I have been privileged to serve as a county leader and aspired to higher positions but proved to be perfectly inelectable. While it could be charged my comments are of the disgruntled employee nature, Jan and I are now convinced something like divine intervention prevented a disastrous situation for both me FB and me. I have great respect for the organization, but fear its inertia prevents it from being anywhere close to the force it could be for farmers.]

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Back to nature...

It's fall and many of us associate apples and apple-picking with autumn. We have some old and frankly neglected apple trees at the farm - one of which has astonishingly good apples.

These apples are ordinarily so much more flavorful than commercial fruit, but then only available for a limited time. Still, like the magic of tomato season, the appearance of these fruits is an annual treat.

Foodies are into this mystique as well.
Apple picking is a cherished rite of fall, a wholesome and fun family outing, a throwback to a simpler time when people weren't so disconnected from the production of their sustenance. I look forward to it every year. It's also a wasteful scam. [More]
That may be a bit harsh. To be sure, modern fruit producers can put a good apple in your grocery cart every day of the year, but I certainly support those who choose to make food buying more of an experience. This business strategy encourages a growing agrarian/agritainment sector in agriculture.

But I have had a epiphany in the old apple department. A few years ago Jan brought some apples home during the winter and served them simply sliced at dinner. The first bite was an eye-opener - it was like what apples were meant to be.

It turns out the apple was a Braeburn from New Zealand. And after one, we became confirmed fans. There is a lesson here for COOL proponents: make darn sure your product is the best before you demand labeling. After that conversion experience, we began to prefer NZ fruit, especially in winter. No amount of patriotic appealing would have changed our preference.

American producers who depend on the export market know this, but some have yet to find out. Slapping the Americna flag on your product does not offset inferior quality - here or abroad.

In fact, given America's popularity in the world, I think I would do what today's politicians are doing - downplay my party affiliation. (Notice how the yard signs don't have elephants and donkeys on them anymore?)

Globalization has slowly trained US consumers to buy what they like, I believe. Where it comes from usually has lesser importance.

I win, you lose...or do you?...

I have been looking for answers to the problem of how to live on a farm and be happy, like many of you. One of the issues has been reference anxiety: we often measure our happiness not on an absolute scale, but relative to our positional status with others.

If everyone else we know is driving a new pickup, a perfectly acceptable old pickup may not bring us much happiness. If we are making good money with 180 bu. corn, guys averaging 200 can dampen our satisfaction.

When the relative position gets woven into public policy by say, progressive tax rates or consumption limits, the expectation is to relieve the reference anxiety for many at the expense of the few would-be winners. Sounds logical, and these types of ideas are enjoying considerable attention.

But the entire concept may rest on a flawed assumption: there is only so much status to go around. In an occasionally dense article, Wil Wilkinson explains how there is good news for participants in the rat race:
Where benevolence, fidelity, cooperation, innovation, and excellence are esteemed, positional races may produce mutual advantage instead of mutual destruction. And while the game of status may be locally zero-sum, it can be globally positive-sum, as scientific, economic, and cultural entrepreneurs identify new dimensions of excellence in which to compete and earn freely conferred prestige as payment for benefit to others. We are not destined to want fancier cars, bigger houses, and more upscale outfits, nor are we helpless to feel diminished by those who out-consume us. We can opt out by opting in to competing narratives about the composition of a good life. And we do it all the time. We can, like Gauguin, quit law and family to paint naked natives in Tahiti. Or, better, we can move the family to a quieter place where houses are cheap and schools are good. (‘Is this heaven?’ ‘No, Iowa.’) If we are aggrieved by the rigours of the rat race, the answer is not the clumsy guidance of a paternal state. The answer is simply to stop being a rat. [More]
For those of us in farming, this idea of new arenas for competition and status seems to fit what I see going on. There is no single farm paradigm we all must follow to achieve recognition and satisfaction. I see the emergence of three large categories with multiple sub-groups and hybrids as well.

Industrial farms produce the overwhelming majority of our farm output - feed, food, fiber, and now fuel. (Isn't it great how they all start with "f"?) Agrarian farms sell products that have value not just for their intrinsic characterisics (protein level, flavor, etc.) but for their method of production - free-range, organic, local, etc. Finally, recreational farms satisfy owners first and any customers only when convenient.

Within these groups and subgroups all kinds of positions of status exist to feed our instinctive need for relative position. You could be the best organic milk producer even though your output pales compared to a huge dairy. Note that the status is conferred not by the producer so much as the final customer, so simply possessing a desire and even talent does not ensure reward.

This diversification of farming approaches is the most hopeful development I have seen for increasing the level of satisfaction in our profession. Best of all it is the action of individual choices and free market, not government edict. In fact, government will be I believe, powerless to prevent or even alter this progressive innovation.

In short, we now have a growing number of paths to choose (or blaze) on our quests to live on a farm and be happy.

Score another one for free minds in a free country...
Adapting to ethanol, Part 1...

Richard Brock has an interesting article about the surprising action of the corn basis in areas where ethanol plants were going to be the answer to wide basis. Money quote:
Ethanol plants can't risk running out of corn. As a result, these plants bid for corn 3-6 months in advance and sometimes even further out. Many plants cover 90% or more of their corn needs at least this much in advance. Consequently, the cash bids and basis bids for corn to be delivered in the future are much better than what we have experienced in recent history.
Trying to force the market to your ends means trying to force other people who are looking out for their own interests and can figure stuff out too. We may discover more unexpected consequences as ethanol plant operators work to maximize their profits, not grower profits.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Vistive beans and me...

I'm thinking about growing some Vistive beans next year. Any experiences from you guys who got the chance to grow them last year or this year? I don't have a local market, so it likely won't work.

And I have no idea on comparative yields...
It's not an update, it's an upheaval...

If you are using Windows Live One Care (and I recommend it) you may about to be auto-uploaded with the new Windows Internet Explorer 7.0. While it is a good browser and worth the change from IE6, brace yourself for the process.

First you download the new version - takes a while even with broadband. Then as per usual your computer will ask to restart.

Then - from the best I can figure - IT DOWNLOADS THE WHOLE PROGRAM AGAIN! And then you restart again!

Finally, you are up and running. Count on a half-hour wait or more.

For my money, use Mozilla Firefox 2.0. However, most of us will be happy with either.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

See, if they had local road commissioners this wouldn't happen...

Bad, bad Russian roads.

These people have nuclear weapons?
The next hot commodity...

There is growing unease in many places on our globe about water. And often the solution seems to be pricing it.
Water is often free or sold very cheaply by municipal utilities. If you have a pipe going into your house, you get water that way and it doesn’t cost much. But that often means that the utility doesn’t have enough revenue to get water to the truly poor. In places like Africa and India, where millions live in slums, there are no pipes, and people become dependent on trucks or bottled water much of the time. If everyone paid a bit more, then the poor could benefit from the surplus.
This idea strikes many as anti-humanitarian, but may represent the best hope of redistributing this scarce resource efficiently.
Historically, water has been underpriced. Most countries have treated it as a social rather than an economic commodity, subsidizing prices so that it is affordable for everyone, especially the poor. In fact, these subsidies do little to help the poor. In developing and transitional economies, 30 to 60 percent of the urban population has no formal hook-up to potable water. Often, water vendors with tanker trucks are the only option. A United Nations study found that the poor pay on average 10 to 20 times more per liter (and sometimes as much as 300 times more) for water purchased from water vendors. Consequently, many go without enough water. [More]
Above all, getting government out of the water business is the best first step.
HOW to provide sufficient clean water to the vast and arid north of China has long been a headache for its rulers. Of late they have considered some ambitious proposals. One of the most hotly debated, to divert water hundreds of kilometres from Tibet at a cost of tens of billions of dollars, was scorned this week by the water minister. What about a more modest (and less Maoist) approach: using market-driven prices to deter waste and pollution? [More]
As water becomes more scarce, the idea of a central water market may be less far-fetched. Certainly those with ample resources have pondered the benefits of selling water on an open market. And well-developed and amply funded markets are arising rapidly in areas of the US with exploding populations and limited natural resources, such as Nevada.

Interstate trades are the newest form of water marketing and are taking shape on the Colorado River where California and Nevada face water shortages and high costs for alternative supplies, while Arizona has cheap surplus water from the Central Arizona Project. A recent agreement between the states allows Arizona to market a portion of its Colorado River allotment to California and Nevada. Under the agreement, California and Nevada may store river water in Arizona's underground aquifers, banking it for the future. When either state needs water, it takes its share of the river plus some of Arizona's unused allotment. In return, Arizona pumps water from the aquifer with California and Nevada paying the pumping and storage cost plus a fixed rate for the water.

Nevada is expected to be the new bank's biggest customer because the state has experienced record growth in Las Vegas and holds a small share in the Colorado River. California, on the other hand, is showing little interest in the bank. For years, the state has benefitted from unused river allocations by upstream states. Currently, any water that is allocated to Arizona and Nevada, but unused by those states, runs downstream to California, which consumes nearly one million acre-feet per year of this unused water. With the bank in place, Arizona and Nevada can start charging California for that water or begin storing it.

We could see a new trading pit in Chicago, and a startling new lesson in personal economics as something we thought of as free becomes a budget expense.

But then when we started buying it for $1 per half-liter at a vending machine we should have seen what was coming...
Some Europeans are getting nervous...

The relentless tide of statistics seem to be provoking some concern in European capitals.

So much so that cooperation with the US doesn't look so bad any more. Let's call it the TAFTA - Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, shall we?

The two camps are divided between Europe and America on the one side and Asia on the other. But so far there has been no shouting, no bluster and no shooting. Nor have there been any threats, demands or accusations. On the contrary, there is an atmosphere of complete amiability wherever our politicians and business executives might travel in Asia. At airports in Beijing, Jakarta, Singapore and New Delhi red carpets lie ready, Western national anthems can be played flawlessly on cue -- and they even parry Western complaints about intellectual property theft, environmental damage and human rights abuses with a polite patience that can only be admired. The Asians are the friendliest conquerors the world has ever seen. [More]

There is more than a hint of racism here, and I note the author has little to say about the more interesting, and perhaps more pressing problem facing both the EU and US: immigration. Building a fortress to defend the West may be an idea about 20 years too late.

Our societies are already changed, and given the low birthrates in the EU especially, there will be increasingly few defenders on the walls should a Western fortress come into being.

But the really bogus aspect of this suggestion is the omission of any solution or even suggestion for the focus of trade problems across the Atlantic: agricultural policy. Until some glimmer of hope exists on that front this kind of teamwork chatter is empty rhetoric.

The more likely bet is Europe will stagger to an unfortunate decline clutching to her bosom the millstone of the Common Agricultural Policy. The US could conceivably slither around the problem by deftly outgrowing it.

More about that idea anon.
It's not just the poop problem, I guess...

It's a jungle out there, folks.

[via Neatorama]

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Fighting the last war...

I had a chance to visit with folks from Cargill yesterday when they came to my farm for an interview to be aired in upcoming weeks on US Farm Report.

I have been using their ProPricing contracts for years - for what that is worth - but my experiences this year have left me re-thinking this strategy. Guys who did nothing look like geniuses right now, and forward selling for 2007 seems like a non-starter. The Cargill guys admitted the program was a tougher sell this fall.

As I pondered deep thoughts about these developments in the combine zipping through very mediocre corn (remember the bad planting season I whined about last spring?), I noted the things I knew:
  1. Am I going to plant more corn next year than usual? Yes.
  2. Am I reluctant to forward price that production even at prices I would have given my second-favorite power tool for just 4 months ago? Yes
  3. Can I picture a scenario where prices don't keep going up and up and up? Nope
  4. Can I make any money at current price offers? Yeah, a little (heh-heh)
These answers convinced me I was planning a trip to "Greedyville". My brain is rearranging facts to make me happy.

I will re-sign with the Cargill Pros for my fall 2007 delivery corn, and may do my usual averaging spring contract as well. After all, consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds...

[No - they didn't pay me to plug the program - actually I paid them]

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

I think we over-told our story...

Andrew Sullivan has an interesting post about a new book concerned with rural America and politics [Welcome to the Homeland by Brian Mann]. You may connect the political dots any way you choose, but my reaction to the post and the book reviews (will read it after harvest, I hope) was dismay.

It seems many of our fellow citizens think rural America is easily duped. This of course is nonsense. In fact it is we who are doing the duping.

By portraying ourselves as likable goofs incapable of dealing with incomprehensible forces like weather and open markets, we enlist serious underwriting for our lifestyle. We have even become so good with this act we believe it ourselves.

At least most of us. Those who don't are the ones bidding $250/A and expanding.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Australians - they know what to do with money...


Crikey! How much time do they have on their hands down there?

Meanwhile here in the US of A, we're trying to do away with our currency.

Or make our own.

[via BoingBoing]
New ! Improved! Wider!...

Panamanians have approved widening the ol' Isthmus-ditch. Opening in 2014, and costing $5B (unless constructed by Bechtel, of course), the new canal should make a big change in trade flows.

The US - currently 68% of all cargo going to or from the United States passes through the Canal - will also "benefit enormously" from the enlargement, Quijano said, as it will free up congested US ports and railways.

He said that the canal's position on the main shipping route between the east coast of the US and rapidly growing Asian markets underpinned the decision to enlarge it. [More]

The big factor is the surge of exports from China to the US and even EU. Being able to move LNG will relieve some pressure on natural gas prices here in the US.

If we can get an LNG port built.

Of course, by then will we still be exporting grains?

Saturday, October 21, 2006

It's a vodka leak, people!...

National TV reporters covering the ethanol tank car derailment this morning kept referring to "ethanol gas" and intimated a deadly danger.

With 100-car trains moving around the country, the ethanol industry better come up with a little press education about what really happens when things go wrong.
The last place on earth...

I can't believe it. An ethanol plant is going to be built literally within eyesight of my farm.
TERRE HAUTEConstruction could start as early as next year in northern Vermillion County on a new fuel ethanol plant that could produce 100 million gallons a year.

Colorado-based Renewable Agricultural Energy Inc. and the Vermillion County Economic Development Council announced Thursday their plans for the plant near Cayuga. [More]
This is a big deal for farmers in the Chrisman area, where nothing ever happens and seldom does. Although just barely across the state line in Cayuga, IN, the plant will be close to a coal power plant whose stacks are visible from my windows. And of course the Newport nerve gas facility - a popular tourist attaction.

Throw my old marketing plan out the window - it's going to be a wrench to design a marketing plan based on something other than sputtering demand. Like many grain farmers my biggest fight will be with skepticism and old habits of doubt.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Think your FSA office is slow?...

Be glad you don't live in East Anglia, Great Britain.
Meanwhile, although the payments were supposed to have been paid in December 2005, some 3,000 farmers are said to be still awaiting payment – many just hanging on financially through use of expensive bank loans and overdrafts!

Calls to the Labour Government to reimburse farmers for these essential but crippling overheads, caused through the manifest failure of one of its agencies, have been “unenthusiastically received”. [More]

Thursday, October 19, 2006

I know what you are all puzzling about...

Do toilet paper manufacturers increase production just for Halloween? I couldn't find out, but my extensive research led to a number of strange websites. Like this, this, and this.

Then again, sales may jump for homecomings and graduations too.

This is gonna keep me awake...
One more North Korea post...

Great article from Germany gives more perspective on what this disfunctional country is like:
One of the last experts to have seen Yongbyon in operation described to SPIEGEL what the situation was like at the end of 2002: "It's a massive site, with lots of very competent scientists -- on the one hand. But then there was a strange contradiction: We asked to see two buildings which we had not been allowed to inspect. After a great deal of hesitation the doors were opened. The scientists were using one hall to secretly distill Vodka. In the other they were producing cooking spoons out of aluminum. At the time, these things weren't available in North Korea. On the black market the goods could be sold, and provided an extra source of income for the scientists."

North Korea must be the only nuclear power in the world which is so poor that its top scientists are forced to spend their free time making kitchen utensils. It is not Kim Jong Il's megalomania nor his obsession with sovereignty which makes this regime so dangerous. Rather, it's the country's failures and weaknesses. [More]

Let's start the spreadsheets over...

You might know it. Just when we are about to launch into serious farm policy discussion, the economics of American agriculture has undergone a paradigm shift. From Keith Collins to guys like me in the field, the enormous impact of biofuels in the markets has shredded most of the assumptions used to make those wonderful and misused economic forecasts which will be used to argue different sides of the farm policy debate.
In addition, the establishment of mandatory requirements to use renewable fuels (including ethanol) and the provision of tax concessions for the production and consumption of ethanol in the United States are expected to raise the demand for corn by the ethanol industry, which may translate into higher corn prices and a diversion of corn away from other domestic uses. [More]
May translate? The Aussie economists who produced this model might want to check the prices for corn this fall - ya think?

Strangely too, we have been blindsided by floods of wealth into the commodity markets and so far have not been able to find ways to predict nor benefit from the influence accurately.
One interesting aspect of the latest rally is that the SRW market has actually tipped into backwardation. That reflects the drought-induced fear of shortages, but also the impact of speculative money. One analyst estimates 70 per cent of gross commercial long positions in the December SRW contract are held by commodity index funds. [More]
This perfect storm of new factors could very well reduce farm programs to triviality. I was just thinking that if I can grow 180 bu. of corn (my trendline yield) and sell it for $3.50 ($630) my $24 direct payment looks fairly puny (about 4%). Choosing the right hybrid could make me more money than that.

We may be on the verge of farmers - at least corn farmers - deciding on their own that they are ready to move out of the their parent's house and become independent. Imagine the boost for the public image of commercial farmers if the NCGA President announced that corn growers were saying no thanks to taxpayer's money.

Imagine then the impact on the ag lobbyist industry. (That's the fun part.)
This Man can Move Anything

See also the previous post for context. I love stuff like this, but you gotta believe this guy is the subject of a lot of local jokes.
Ancient does not mean stupid...

We frequently give ancient cultures less credit that they deserve for their engineering and even social accomplishments. For example, I have always assumed large monuments were erected by massive applications of labor.

For proof of the opposite, check my following blog entry from YouTube.com. Also visit the builder's website.

Speaking of Stonehenge, archeologists have unearthed houses near there of surprising size and comfort.

The buildings all had plaster floors and timber frames, and most had a central hearth. Two, including a house possibly inhabited by a community chief or priest, were enclosed by ringed ditches, the largest measuring 131 feet across. Postholes indicate a wooden fence would have surrounded the smaller of the two structures.

"If the structure inside the large ditch was indeed a chief's house, this individual would have been living rather humbly like the rest of the population, since the building itself wouldn't have been elaborate," Thomas said. "It's like a humble house that was meant to be separated and secluded from the outside world." [More]

The more we know about ancient people, the more persistent some human charactersitics seesm to be. Much of what we think of as enlightenment may simply be fashion, not social evolution.

[via Neatorama]

The election issue for a few of us...

The War in Iraq, national security, the Foley scandal, the Ambramof scandal, etc. are all valid issues for influencing your vote.

Here's the biggy for this former conservative:

More great graphs here and here.

Everybody has priorities. This is mine.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Halloween costumes for those who will be done then...

Behold, the legendary Flaming Carrot.
Obviously a chick-magnet.

[via Metafilter]
The agony that is North Korea, Part 2...

If you need triangulation on what North Korea is about read this:

In February 2002, I traveled to Pyongyang in an effort to locate my uncle. I never found him, but I spent about a week with the Workers' Party leaders, ranging from the chairman of the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries to the then-ambassador to the Permanent Mission to the U.N., who repeatedly told me that their real enemy was not South Korea, with whom they are still technically at war, but the U.S., which, along with the Soviet Union, had drawn up the 38th Parallel in 1948 and perpetuated the war by isolating them through sanctions. They were mystified as to why the United States was allowed to have nuclear weapons when it was the only nation in history to have deployed them on civilians, never mind starting wars all over the world.

My most vivid impression of Pyongyang was that an entire generation must have been eradicated for such a place to exist. Nothing on their empty, energy-deprived streets indicated that anything prior existed. Every book, piece of artwork and building was either made by the Great Leader or about the Great Leader. Their only official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, was four pages long and consisted almost exclusively of praise for their Great Leader. Their state-controlled TV showed mostly undated footage of the Great Leader. Everywhere I went, music played in the background and the subject of the lyrics was inevitably the Great Leader. [More]

Like Hitler's demonstrations at Nuremberg, the NK miliary can definitely put on a show. But if you have never tried marching in goose-step, you may be in for a shock.
"(The goose-stepping) says that here we can train all these men to do something that is completely unnatural," says author David Schimmelpenninck, who chairs Brock University's history department. "When you see men goose-stepping, that is much more ominous and much more impressive in a perverse sort of way than when you see men marching as they normally would in most NATO armies. [More]
It is also physically exhausting.

North Korea is strange and far away, but worst of all is the feeling that we have squandered our resources in Iraq, leaving us with almost no options.

The feeling may be accurate.
There are 492 "John Phipps" in the United States...

Here is how I know.

[Unintended Bonus - the most obnoxious on-line ad I have seen to date.]

[via Neatorama]

Monday, October 16, 2006

Raise your hands if...

Voluntary participation is always tricky, but on-line communities make it even more difficult for a wide range of people to jump in. If you check our discussion boards, you will note the same rule as this observer:

User participation often more or less follows a 90-9-1 rule:

  • 90% of users are lurkers (i.e., read or observe, but don't contribute).
  • 9% of users contribute from time to time, but other priorities dominate their time.
  • 1% of users participate a lot and account for most contributions: it can seem as if they don't have lives because they often post just minutes after whatever event they're commenting on occurs.
As one who has been involved with many volunteer organizations, I understand the frustration participants feel with free riders. While it seems like this trend to passive participation has accelerated, I am not sure it is the case.

Regardless, it may not take many to make things work. Perhaps we have always been propelled forward by the tiniest handful of overactive volunteers.

So to those of you who do take the risk to join in actively, my sincere gratitiude. And for those of you who do not, thanks for reading our work.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Just the kind of thing I was afraid of...

I am afraid it going to only get worse as Halloween approaches.

[via Neatorama]
This time let's think ahead...

We seem to have developed a pattern in our international relations of shooting first and asking questions later. No doubt about it - vigorous action is a crowd-pleaser, but as we discover every day, not having a good plan for the moment of "now what?" is a real bummer.

So on North Korea, what could we expect to happen? This thoughtful essay points out the possibilities:

Fortunately, the demise of North Korea is more likely to be drawn out. Robert Collins, a retired Army master sergeant and now a civilian area expert for the American military in South Korea, outlined for me seven phases of collapse in the North:

Phase One: resource depletion;

Phase Two: the failure to maintain infrastructure around the country because of resource depletion;

Phase Three: the rise of independent fiefs informally controlled by local party apparatchiks or warlords, along with widespread corruption to circumvent a failing central government;

Phase Four: the attempted suppression of these fiefs by the KFR once it feels that they have become powerful enough;

Phase Five: active resistance against the central government;

Phase Six: the fracture of the regime; and

Phase Seven: the formation of new national leadership.

North Korea probably reached Phase Four in the mid-1990s, but was saved by subsidies from China and South Korea, as well as by famine aid from the United States. It has now gone back to Phase Three.

North Koreans have been starving all my career, and yet endure. The probable collapse of the NK looney-tunes government will only add to their misery. Massive food aid will be needed for years, as well as rebuilding their agriculture.

We learned those lessons from the post-meltdown experiences in the former USSR. Satellite nations struggles to jump-start farms. Often the biggest issue is simply trying to determine ownership of the land.

North Korea will be a problem, I believe, that will have to be approached with more tools than simple regime change. One of these will necessarily be a commitment to "feed the sheep".

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Maybe $3.50 corn is worth protecting...

Rural crime is up. And I don't mean meth - which, while unarguably tragic to the victims - is nowhere near as widespread as publicized.

I'm talkin plain ol' commodity theft.
The man, arrested earlier this year, was ax-cut-deep in a growing problem for America's farm belt: rural commodity theft, or "plaid-collar crime." From lush Hawaii to the Carolina plains, artichoke absconders, nut nappers, tree thieves, and even cattle rustlers are plucking, picking, hauling, and siphoning commodities from diesel to mangosteens at impressive rates. Loss is a familiar concept to a farmer. But such audacious heists have prompted many to go on the offensive to police America's wide-open spaces. [More]

While others are worried about Islamists somehow threatening the heartland, some good ol' homeboys are gonna pick our pockets.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Great fruit, short-sighted breeding...

More than you ever wanted to know about bananas.

Cute as all this is, bananas have a problem of monoculture that could spell big trouble soon for producers. It seems we're only growing one very unique type of banana - virtually no diversity at all.

Watching how the industry battles this problem could be a useful piece of information for corn growers.
Cats cause baby boys...

Well that, and you know, ...sex.
Keep clear of the cat if you want baby girls. It sounds like the lamest of old wives' tales, but according to scientists women infected with a common cat parasite give birth to more sons than daughters.

The parasite, toxoplasma, infects around 15% of Britons, but up to 80% of the population in some countries. It is spread by contaminated cat faeces, but also lurks in uncooked pork and beef.

Researchers in the Czech Republic collected medical records from 1,803 newborn babies between 1996 and 2004 and checked them for information on the mothers and babies including gender, the number of previous pregnancies, and the mother's levels of toxoplasma antibodies.

They discovered that women whose antibody count was high - suggesting a substantial infection - had a much higher chance of having baby boys. In most populations the birth rate is around 51% boys, but women infected with toxoplasma had up to a 72% chance of a boy. Toxoplasma causes congenital defects in newborns and can trigger miscarriages, but a link with the gender of newborns has never been identified before. [More]

I've never been a big fan of cats, but we had housecats for many years early in our marriage. Jan and I have two sons.

A dry and thirsty land...

Where no water is. Australia is struggling through a 1 in 100 year (and counting) drought. Water supplies are threatened and the whole economy will share the effects.
Treasurer Peter Costello warned Thursday that Australia's farm sector could be slipping into recession. Howard dismissed that claim on Friday, but said the drought would almost certainly affect Australia's gross domestic product, which has experienced unprecedented growth over the past 14 years.
"It will affect GDP growth. Just how much remains to be seen because it depends on the extent to which our booming economy in other areas can offset it," he told Melbourne's 3AW radio station. [More]

Worst of all, it could be just the beginning. With a weak (so far) El Nino beginning, rainfall could decrease even more drastically. Remember hot weather is just beginning Down Under.

But if El Niño were to strike in the next few months, Australia's eastern crops, including corn and sunflower, would be the hardest hit.

"The winter crop's pretty much done. So an El Niño will have little bearing on the current crop," said agricultural consultant Brian Bailey of Australian Crop Forecasters.

"It would first have an impact on the summer cropping areas. If the El Niño remained through April and prevented sowings, then it would hit the winter crops," Bailey said. [More]

Rightly or not, the drought is being linked to anthropogenic global warming. Australia is a hold-out to signing the Kyoto Protocol on greehouse gas emissions. It is likely to be a point of contention as this crisis wears on.

While far away and admittedly profitable for US producers (especially long-suffering wheat growers), I have experienced enough dry years to pray for rain in Australia. Those are fellow farmers and they could lose it all before this is over. One of our biggest wheat export competitors could be importing soon. This is not the type of windfall profit that can be enjoyed as "well-earned" on our part.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Farm work and breast cancer - bad news...

Canadian researchers have uncovered a correlation between breast cancer in women and working on a farm.
The paper, to be published today in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, says women with farming experience are 2.8 times more likely to develop the disease than non-farmers and that the agricultural link may linger long after a woman has gone on to other occupations. [More]
It is important to understand that a correlation does not imply cause. I'm not denying the link - it is real, and underscores the importance of screening and other tests - but more research may reveal exactly what factor is to blame or even if there is a common causal factor for the two. For instance, women who work on a farm may be subject to particular stresses or well water or other rural factors that could affect their immune system.
Ann Chambers, a professor of oncology at the University of Western Ontario's Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, said it was a "good study" that should prompt further research. But Chambers, who specializes in breast cancer, said it was important to understand the association found in the study between cancer and farming does not necessarily mean there's a causal relationship between the two."The real danger that the public has in this sort of thing is that you see an association and then they think, `Aha, working on a farm causes cancer,'" she said. "And the study statistically can't say that. It says there is an association which warrants further study to understand what the cause is."
The only stronger correlation was working on a farm and then working in the auto industry.

What is that about?
A horse even I could like...

Despite my reservations about all things equine, I don't think I would be afraid of this one.

[via BoingBoing]

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Score one (more) for free markets and individual responsibility...

Kiwis continue to show the world how unsubsidized farming can work better than socialized agriculture. Farmers make good decisions when allowed to focus on their own farm's future and use their own judgments.
Farmers are using less chemical fertiliser on their land, figures released by a fertiliser manufacturers' research association show.

Fertiliser companies Ravensdown and Ballance sold about 13 percent less fertiliser during the 2005/06 financial year than the previous year, Fert Research's latest newsletter said.

This was the largest annual decrease since the government abolished fertiliser subsidies in the 1980s.

The companies said that over the last decade they had pumped millions of dollars into finding ways to make fertiliser use more sustainable and less damaging to the environment.

Of particular concern was the amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur and potassium that ran-off farmland into streams and rivers.

In part, the reduction was because more farmers were using nutrient budgets, which helped them see if they were using their chemicals efficiently, Fert Research technical director Hilton Furness said.

This self-imposed discipline will "significantly advance the cause of sustainable farming", whereas regulations will not, Dr Furness said. [More]

We will be bombarded with assertions over the course of developing the next farm bill about how powerless farmers are to manage their destinies. New Zealanders offer a refreshing disproof of this position.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Where is this relationship going?...

How we view animals is, like always, undergoing revision. One of the most endearing species is elephants. Who doesn't like elephants? Even though they are among the most beloved of species, we are not sure whether we are treating them fairly. Consequently, many zoos may be closing one of their most poular exhibits.

A handful of U.S. zoos, including ones in San Francisco and Chicago, have recently closed their elephant exhibits. Central Park and Prospect Park zoos, both in New York, stopped displaying elephants in the 1980s.

Last year, the Detroit Zoo in Michigan sent its aging and arthritic elephants—Winky, 52, and Wanda, 46—to a California sanctuary to live out their remaining years.

"Just as polar bears don't thrive in a hot climate, Asian elephants shouldn't live in small groups without many acres to roam," Detroit Zoo director Ron Kagan said at the time.

"They clearly shouldn't have to suffer the winters of the North."

What's more, animal activists are pushing hard to get zoos—most recently those in Los Angeles, Tucson, and Washington, D.C.—to close their elephant exhibits, arguing that captive environments do not meet the animals' physical or behavioral needs. [More]

They are also obvious examples of evolving attitudes concerning animal treatment that may ripple through the livestock industry. It seems likely that more sympathic animals like cows will be the focus of animal defense advocates first, but even chickens have their sympathizers.

I don't think this is the end of meat production. My guess is the meat industry will grudgingly make changes, costs will increase, and business will continue. This has been the pattern to date. Demonizing the other side - now a standard pattern for public debates - will make the issues and people involved seem more outrageous, but answers will be found in the same old place: compromise.

How we live with animals may be a burning issue here in the West, but it is more likely that other cultures will really control the human-animal debate, simply because those groups are growing and eating more meat.

[via Metafilter]

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Here's why you can't find your dentures...

This is too weird.

[via Neatorama]

Friday, October 06, 2006

Tired of golf resorts?...

People with big money and even bigger ideas are looking for the next weird thing to attract tourists. Behold the underwater hotel. Maybe...
Neither one is my bet. Most of these Jules Verne fantasies get no further than a URL. But these two dudes—Bruce Jones, the personal submarine designer, and German architect Joachim Hauser—have the look of serious contenders. Jones just announced that a private Fijiian island will be the home of his new undersea resort, called Poseidon (suite rendered at left). It was originally to be built somewhere in the Bahamas. Hauser, meanwhile, has a much bigger-scale project under construction in Dubai, called Hydropolis, where you can build anything as along as you pay for it and you have the blessing (and money) of the crown prince, which apparently Hauser does.
After serving on a submarine, this whole idea seems pretty lame. I mean, where are the torpedoes?

[via b2day]