Monday, April 30, 2007

In a dry and thirsty land, where no water is...

It's half a globe away and far from our attention, but our colleagues in Australia are looking at the Mother of All Droughts.
John Howard, Australia's prime minister, arrived here in February and urged the four states through which the Murray-Darling flows to hand their authority over the river to the federal government. After seven years of drought, and many more years of over-exploitation and pollution, he argued that the only hope of restoring the river to health lies in a complete overhaul of how it is managed. As the states weigh the merits of Mr Howard's scheme, the river is degenerating further. Every month hydrologists announce that its flow has fallen to a new record low (see chart). In April Mr Howard warned that farmers would not be allowed to irrigate their crops at all next year without unexpectedly heavy rain in the next few months. A region that accounts for 40% of Australia's agriculture, and 85% of its irrigation, is on the verge of ruin. [More]
I suppose we could entertain a little shameful shadenfreude, especially if you grow wheat, but this disaster becoming almost biblical in scope. And in its wake, a new pattern of water allocation will likely emerge that could presage similar outcomes in other water-short areas.
All water use from the Murray-Darling other than for domestic needs will be banned from July 1 and there will not be enough water for environmental flows or allocations to irrigation. The report recommends further battle plans to make sure towns do not run out of drinking water. These include the suspension of the usual water-sharing deals between the states and examining whether Snowy Hydro Ltd could release water from the Snowy River to help the Murray-Darling. [More]
In the western US - not to mention other places - a similar situation could arise. My own thought is democracy will override the legal precedence of water law and deliver the fluid to the people. And the West is going to have the people.
But the booming South and West regions show some of the most dramatic environmental stresses, according to the report. For example, the four fastest-growing states -- Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah -- all have areas of acute water shortages. [More]
It may not be acres that places the final limit on ag production in the US.

It could be water.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

How do they work the mouse?...

On-line dating for horses.

[via PreSurfer]

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Climate change update...

To refresh memories, I agree that humans are a significant cause of global warming via greenhouse gas emissions. This has been an evolving position, but my belief is grounded largely in the opinions of those I have come to trust. Two new developments reinforce my convictions.

Bjorn Lomborg, whose weighty tome, The Skeptical Environmentalist, I almost made it through, offers his take on what we should be doing rather than debating:

RAY SUAREZ: But you do accept the proposition that human activity is changing the climate of the planet?

BJORN LOMBORG: Absolutely. I think, as you also mentioned, we've seen huge U.N. climate panel reports come out, and they've been ever more certain that climate is changing. We do have an impact. And, therefore, it's also important that we address the question, what should we do?

But we've also got to remember, just like we know that it's CO-2 that causes a part, at least, of climate change, we also know that HIV causes AIDS. We also know that mosquitoes cause malaria. We know that lack of food causes malnutrition.

Now, we know a lot of these things. We don't fix all problems in the world right now. And so I urge people to start thinking, not just to go for the most fashionable problem, but to actually ask the very fundamental question of saying, if you can't do it all -- and clearly we don't -- where can you do the most good first? [More]
Meanwhile, science writer Carl Zimmer, points out the shortfalls in climate-change news coverage. Months ago a report came out suggesting plants were contributing enormous amounts of methane and thus greenhouse gases were a natural, not anthropogenic, problem. It later proved to be erroneous.
Some pundits didn't heed the scientists, though. At, columnist Steven Milloy declared that deforestation ought to reduce global warming. "Our understanding of global climate system is woefully insufficient to support the rush-to-judgment advocated by celebrity-backed global warming alarmists," he claimed. The folks from the Wall Street Journal editorial page declared that "this is causing big problems for the tree-huggers." Rush Limbaugh sarcastically said, "Well, hot damn. God is to blame for global warming."

Fast-forward eighteen months. A group of Dutch researchers put the Max Planck team's conclusions to the test by tracing radioactive carbon isotopes through plants. Their conclusion: "There is no evidence for substantial aerobic methane emission by terrestrial plants."

The paper went online today, published in the journal New Phytologist. (It's free here.) The publisher sent out a press release, but my search has turned up almost no news coverage. There were three stories that were nothing more than cut-and-paste copies of the press release. I found just one piece of original reporting, at a site called Chemistry World, which I now intend to read regularly. The article casts the new paper as the first in a series of new publications that support both sides of this methane vs no-methane debate.

I do not expect that Rush Limbaugh will bother mentioning this paper. The world of punditry leaves me generally baffled. But as a science writer, I'm disappointed that this paper is not getting reported more in the press. If the original paper was so important that it should go on newswires and appear in newspapers and magazines, then what makes this new one less so? [More]
The intense politicization of climate change has hardened positions on both sides. Meanwhile the real debate seems to be: how can we make a buck out of this?

Great Music vs. Vow of Silence

Just as Handel dreamed it would be performed.

[via Arbroath]

I think we knew this all along...

Bottled water makes no sense, just money.
"Bottled water is a classic example of the market ignoring the environmental cost of the product," Angel says. "Free trade is meant to be good because you're getting cheaper products from another country, but of course this never takes into account the environmental cost."

This point was illustrated earlier this year by Pablo Paster, a sustainability engineering consultant from San Francisco, who calculated that producing and transporting a one-litre bottle of Fijian water to the US consumed 6.74 kilograms of water and produced 250 grams of greenhouse gases. Paster says that getting that same bottle from Fiji to Sydney consumes six kilograms of water and produces 153 grams of greenhouse gases. [More]

Another argument for including external costs somehow into consumer prices.

All rise...

You may be seated.

Remember, please don't drink and pipe.

[via Arbroath]

Another reason Brazilian title insurance is expensive...

Our formidable competitor to the south struggles to cope with wide income inequality and the all too familiar reaction - land reform.
Conflict in the countryside has ebbed but hardly stopped (see chart). For the MST, the demand for land reform is nearly bottomless and the conflict with industrial farming irresolvable. Mr de Oliveira reckons that 5m families—around an eighth of the population—are candidates for land redistribution. “Monocultures” like eucalyptus for paper, sugar cane for ethanol and soya degrade the environment, reduce the food supply in Brazil and drive labourers and small farmers off the land, he claims. [More]
Does this suggest a Zimbabwe-like meltdown of a powerful ag production system? Perhaps to be soon echoed by South Africa?
In Zimbabwe, forced and often violent takeovers of white farms led to a disastrous collapse of farm production. In South Africa a legal process of takeover under a democracy might lead to less disastrous results, but would still replace high-productivity white farming with the lower productivity of black farming. At best, the Government of South Africa would have a hard struggle to limit the damage done by its own land policy.

The timetable seems to be much too short for such a large-scale farming revolution and the objectives seem much too ambitious. This is not a question of racial capacities, but of farming productivity. If expropriation is completed by 2008 one expert considers that by 2009: “South Africa will no longer to be able to feed itself nor assist Southern Africa.” That would be a humanitarian tragedy. South Africa needs the white farmers who are an essential and efficient part of the national economy — indeed, they contribute to feeding the whole of Southern Africa. The main victims of this policy would be those poor blacks whom it is supposed to benefit. [More]
The analogy may not apply in Brazil. In the first place, Brazil has plenty of land still to deal out. No other country has this luxury, but the government could effectively albeit heavy-handedly create small plots by simply moving bigger landowners with generous grants farther into the frontier.
Brazil, and to a lesser extent Argentina, still enjoys tremendous potential to
expand area devoted to agricultural production. Brazil contains the world’s
largest remaining tract of virgin land—an estimated 547 million hectares
remain as virgin scrub land or rainforest. As much as one-fourth of this land is
cerrado—a savannalike flatland readily convertible to agricultural activity. In
addition, both Argentina and Brazil have huge areas under permanent pasture—
an estimated 142.5 and 185 million hectares, respectively—that support “grassfed”
cattle industries. Part of this pasture land could be converted to grain and
oilseed production under the right market signals. [More]
Second, like all real estate, it appears the issues are focussed on location. Landless peasants usually prefer acres close to population centers and markets, not a farm in the middle of a cerrado hundreds of miles from civilization, like many soya plantations are.

There is a similarity to land use arguments here in the US. Much of the dispute is centered on places like Lancaster County or the Eastern Shore. Few care about 15,000 acre farms in NW IA, by contrast.

Agrarian farms are a good solution where they are close to the markets they need. But people have not distributed themselves smoothly across any country. Thus efforts like Brazil's likely will never threaten the enormous majority of soya or cane production. It will be interesting to see if small farms contribute seriously to pork production. My hunch is they may be a popular source for domestic supply, while the large and growing Brazilian pork industry focuses on exports.

This is one reason some of us pay scant attention to land distribution/use issues, and some of us lay awake at nights. It is also a reason why national rules to decide these matters are unworkable. Land markets - which is how people tell us what they think land should be used for - are truly local.

Still, the power of agrarian movements in the response to perceptions of unfair incomes will likely bleed over to other issues, especially in South America, where socialist voices are getting a new hearing.

This is the real reason trends toward inequality are problematic - not that they don't make economic sense (all the boats, yadda yadda) but that the inherent human bias toward fairness overrides carefully drawn charts and economic models.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Happy news...

For men my age.

Boy, have we lowered our excitement threshold!
Keeping it together...

Kevin Spafford, our Farm Journal columnist on family business matters, has written an excellent article for the Purdue Top Farmer Crop Workshop folks.

Pithy extract:
Comprehensive succession planning may be the most critical issue facing the American economy over the next few decades. The creators/controllers of this wealth must decide how to best pass their ownership interests to subsequent generations while still trying to perpetuate these entities. Equity may easily constitute more than 90% of a family’s financial security, retirement nest egg, and potential legacy. Yet past statistics demonstrate that only about 30% will pass to a second generation, less than 10% will pass to a third, and about 4% will go to a fourth.
The three leading causes of failure to
transition to the next generation are:
1) Inadequate estate planning
2) Insufficient capitalization
3) Failure to prepare the next generation
All of this leads to a growing demand for better planning, integrated training systems, more carefully administered business issues, and the responsibility to think, act, and operate in a more formal business-like fashion. From the threats distressing farmers and agribusiness owners alike, there is no escaping the passage of progress. Threats from outside, shrinking pools of skilled employees, administrative pressures brought by legislation, and constant consolidation did not happen overnight.

I used to blow off articles like this. But then I didn't used to be 58 either. And while making reasonable plans seems to wring the spontaneity out of life for me, it does seem to calm Jan down.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

You'd think the "paws" would be a giveaway...

I guess I believe this. Japanese dog-lovers were bamboozled into buying sheep thinking they were poodles.
Thousands of people have been 'fleeced' into buying neatly coiffured lambs they thought were poodles.

Entire flocks of lambs were shipped over from the UK and Australia to Japan by an internet company and marketed as the latest 'must have' accessory.

But the scam was only spotted after a leading Japanese actress said her 'poodle' didn't bark and refused to eat dog food. [More]

That must have been some haircut...

Wait - they're paying $2400 for poodles in Japan??

Update: Color me gullible - I should have gone with my initial reaction. It was indeed a hoax.

I'm farming on top of a forest...

An underground coal mine near me became the focus of paleontologists recently after miners complained about bumping their heads on tree stumps.
A major earthquake 300 million years ago caused the forest to drop below sea level, burying the entire ecosystem in mud almost immediately, Elrick explained. [More]
Cool! This mud is probably why I have so many wets spots.
Nobody else to blame...

Virginia Postrel, whose blog I enjoy and writing I envy, touches a nerve for this writer-waanabee concerning ghost writing. This about Katie Couric's supposed blog.
This double standard is an old bugaboo of mine. I don't care when actors, athletes, and CEOs hire ghostwriters, though I do think they should give their ghosts credit, but people who pretend to be journalists and public intellectuals should do their own damn work. [More]
Amen. As blogs start to proliferate on ag websites - not to mention thinly disguised advertorials - the urge to front them with the authenticity of a "real farmer" is strong. The problem is we have very little in the way of a literary tradition in agriculture outside the agrarian sector (which occasionally produce writers of brilliance such as Wendell Berry). Most of us simply survived English classes.

At Farm Journal, our publishers and editors strongly reject the concept of deceptive authorship, but the tide is coming in on this one. The success of blogs as eyeball attractors has increased the pressure for content onto which to hang ads.

Thank goodness the quality of my prose screams: amateur.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

I have no idea...

Boy, haven't we all been here?...

Actually, no.

[via Neatorama]
If you build subsidies, they will come...

The [lamentable] bulletproof nature of farm subsidies has attracted the interest of more than a few very bright minds lately. Since our quintennial chance to alter this flow of entitlement is at hand, the $20B or so of federal moolah has sparked some innovative thinking.
Citigroup proposes to provide subsidy recipients an alternative to the fixed DPs, CCPs and marketing loans (see Existing Programs, p. 12). The choice will be voluntary. Recipients would receive a fixed settlement amount to forego future payments. Recipients and U.S. taxpayers will benefit
  • Recipients linked by subsidies to the land will be free to make other life choices
    • – Retire, move, pay down debt, cover expenses (e.g., school, medical)
    • – Reinvest in farm (expand, modernize)
  • Recipients will weigh the certainty of the Buyout vs. payments that could cease anytime
  • Assuming 50% of DP and CCP recipients accept the buyout offer, it generates:
    • – Savings to redirect for other needs
      • Budget savings of $18.9 billion over the first 10 years*
      • $47.6 billion future savings (assuming no other change in programs)
    • – A cash infusion that will stimulate the economy, promote rural growth, create jobs and accelerate tax receipts
    • – Enhanced Doha leverage -- payments should qualify as non-trade distorting support, exempt from WTO disciplines
  • A lower entry cost for new farmers and ranchers as subsidies are no longer capitalized into land prices
    • – Immediate compensation to landowners for losses in land values vs. simple reduction of benefits
    • – 2006 U.S. farm prices were up 15% partly due to corn price surge and drop in farm acreage (Bloomberg 2/20/07)
  • Buyout price can incorporate 2007 Farm Bill AGI limits as well as other provisions
  • Potential for tax benefit at lower AGI levels
  • Citigroup’s proposed buyout offers a voluntary path for recipients entitled to DPs or CCPs to receive upfront cash to spend as they choose. It could generate budget savings of $18.9 billion over the next 10 years.
  • * If fewer recipients accept the Buyout -- say 25% of DP and CCP recipients -- the savings would instead be $9.3 billion over the first 10 years
[Link removed by request - I'll keep looking for more detail to share as this proposal is more widely discussed]

Citigroup has devised an idea they are already marketing in the EU (more on that later). Basically put, it seems to me like a structured settlement similar to lottery winners and lawsuit beneficiaries.

After the tobacco buyout I was struck by the possibilities for buying out feedgrain/cotton/oilseed subsidies. But as the Citigroup author pointed out, the problem with the tobacco settlement as a prototype for other buyouts was, lacking a separate source of funding like the tobacco trust many would consider it too generous. Obviously, he was not thinking from the farmer perspective. (We have no words that mean "too generous")

That is why, despite calculations showing how the US government will save money with a scheme like this, it won't get past too many rural Senators UNLESS fiscal constraints actually become a factor.

No, seriously, it could happen. And Sanjaya could win a Grammy. The farm lobby has consistently shown the ability to override any government funding constraints. We learned that from Freedom to Farm.
Regrettably, in order to hold back efforts to reverse the hard-won agriculture program reforms, both sides--Republicans as well as Democrats--wound up in a bidding war. Although the actual economic loss due to 1998 weather-related disasters was less than $1.5 billion, the Republicans proposed $4.2 billion in "emergency disaster relief." Ostensibly, part of the reason for this generosity was to make up for lost export markets. Eventually, to fend off Democrats' efforts to reopen the farm law and return to the old supply-control policies, Republicans upped the ante to nearly $7 billion. [More]
My conversation with the author also contained an interesting moment when he pointed out how many landowners are well, old. He offered a statistic something like 73% of all landowners are over "60" (70, 55, ? - my note-taking is not great).

There followed a significant pause - I think the implication was that older people would be likely to opt for up-front money versus variable subsidies. (Never underestimate the size of the industry building to deal with Boomer-geezers and wealth.)

Well, as someone within spitting range of 60, I think they overestimate both the flexibility and motivation for farm landowners. My experience is landowners like the predictability and simplicity of farm ownership, as opposed to any other asset -even money. My estimate is land is flowing into increasingly stronger hands, especially as it appreciates in value. In short, there aren't that many clueless, declining prime farmland owners.

Consider this point (page 3):
  • Recipients will weigh the certainty of the Buyout vs. payments that could cease anytime
Farm payments "ceasing at any time"? I wish.

And as for helping young farmers, this proposal will do little. That phrase is routinely included to add glamor. To be sure there are fewer young farmers, but the more logical reason is: we don't need them. The fact that younger people are backed up looking for an entry opportunity illustrates we don't have a recruiting problem, we have a technology addiction. This solution will do little to alter our demographic profile, IMHO.

Other questions leap to mind:
  1. Is the land disqualified for subsidies in perpetuity or just for the current farm bill? (See comments)
  2. In the days of ethanol-fueled gross incomes of say $800/A, is a $25/A DCP loss really going to hold down land prices?
  3. Do you really, really believe the ag lobby is going to let this ride even if it should pass? We are in DC 24/7, ya know.
  4. Outside of Reps. Flake and DeMint - neither of whom is a household name - does anyone in Washington care about fiscal propriety?
  5. Giving money to farmers/owners is a notoriously poor way of helping rural economies the last time I looked. Why is this program any different?
A multi-billion trust fund seems like a great idea if you are in the trust fund/bond underwriting biz. But unless the idea is of boondoggle proportions neither the farm/agribusiness community nor their Congressional allies will give this proposal a sniff, I think.

I'm betting my farm's future on that assumption. And the fact that, as far as I know, only 6-7 (you never know about Larry) farmers agree with my opposition to subsidies.

Does Citigroup have a good idea? Absolutely. Buying out subsidy recipients is what passes for political courage these days.

Does it have a prayer? Absolutely not.

Updated 4/28 - Thanks for the corrections.
Nets for all...

Farm Bureau pushes for "safety nets" for some. I offer a different concept.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Where is Charlton Heston when you need him?...

Call me squeamish, but something about fungus-food that creeps me out.

All Quorn™ products contain mycoprotein. Mycoprotein (“myco” is Greek for “fungi”) is a nutritious member of the fungi family, as are mushrooms, truffles, and morels. The fungus used in all Quorn™ products is Fusarium Venenatum. There are lots of great things about mycoprotein which very few people know, so here are just a few:
- Mycoprotein is a fungus which contains high-quality protein, enabling us to offer an alternative, purely vegetarian source of protein to meat. It is high quality because it has all 9 essential amino acids.
- Mycoprotein is naturally low in fat.
- Mycoprotein also contains very few calories, so we can bring you foods which deliver on taste but which don’t max out on the calorie content.
- Mycoprotein also contains essential dietary fiber, which as we all know, helps to maintain a healthy digestive system.
- Mycoprotein contains zero cholesterol.

- Mycoprotein is completely meat-free and soy-free. [More]
Look, I strongly advocate the right of consumers to choose what foods they want to eat, regardless of where they come from. But fungus?

Somehow the recommendation that it tastes "just like McNuggets" is not reassuring either.

Maybe we are shaped by the media we experience, but I immediately thought of Soylent Green.
People, people! Think what you're saying...

OK, as I have frequently mentioned, subsidized commodity prices have negligible impact on food prices. It seems the NCGA agrees.
NCGA’s analysis of the monthly Consumer Price Index (CPI) reports show almost no relationship between the corn prices and food prices. “The food index rose 0.3% in March, following larger increases earlier this year. Grocery store foods also rose less in March, largely reflecting a downturn in the index for fruits and vegetables.” [More] [My emphasis]

Tell me again. How does our alleged "cheap food policy" work again?
How to unbuild a smokestack...

They are erecting a new power plant addition close to me. It has been fun watching the stack go up, so....

[via Arbroath]

Monday, April 23, 2007

For debate lovers...

I received several thoughtful remarks on my various posts about anthropogenic climate change. As I said in the comments, this engineer has taken a position and is moving on to other work. To those who like the back-and-forth of Internet debate, I offer this website to link you to any number of information sources.

Ordinarily I'm not a big fan of the Gristmill, but this effort seems well done, IMHO.
Always on my mind...

When we are in the field Jan fixes lunches for us, usually in small coolers that fit in the tractor cab. I have discovered that by oh, about 9:45, my thoughts and gaze rest often on that small red cube, and by 11:15 it's usually gone - including the afternoon snack.

It turns out I am not merely weak-willed. I am being historically accurate.
Today many people find it strange that the biggest meal of the day once centered around noon, but it made great sense at the time. Artificial lighting such as oil lamps and candles were expensive, and provided weak illumination at best. So people went to sleep at sundown, because it's difficult to work and eat in the dark. The last meal of the day was a rushed affair, a quick snack before the lights (the sun) went out. The only exceptions were those who had to work at night, and the extremely wealthy and powerful people at royal courts. The wealthiest courts, like those of France and Burgundy might stay up after sunset, their grandly decorated halls illuminated by thousands of candles or torches. But they were unusual; most medieval people never witnessed such spectacles.

Traders and merchants, who sometimes had to stay in the shop to handle the last daylight stragglers amongst their customers, might close shop at dusk and spend the last hour or two of their day in candlelight or firelight. But they made it to bed as quickly as they could, to rise early the next day and open up their shops again. Only the extremely wealthy had candles to burn and could waste daylight hours sleeping in late. So supper, the third and last meal of the day, was usually eaten before the sun went down, or very shortly afterward.

The English knew the last meal of the day as supper, and it was a light repast, usually made of cold leftovers from dinner. People generally went to sleep soon after eating it, and did not like to go to bed on a full stomach any more than modern people do.

Most nobles and manor lords ate supper between four and six p.m. They might have entertainment afterward, unlike the lower classes, but even nobles usually went to bed before too many hours had passed. Peasants might have just the last of the day's bread for supper, eaten at sundown. Then they went to sleep, to be up and working with the sunrise.

And that was the standard schedule for centuries. There were some exceptions, of course. People at the wealthiest courts might stay up after dark, as already mentioned. They had plenty of money for things like candles and rush lights, and were used to the world revolving around their schedules, rather than the other way around. A king or a lord who was passionate enough about his pursuits to put off eating for hours while hunting would make his retainers and family wait too. [More]

A couple of years ago, our power went out from storm and we discovered how powerful the diurnal schedule is. The sun goes down, and without light, you go to bed.

As for the eating part, even patrons of the Hungry Heifer couldn't keep up with the prodigious meals of the Edwardian upper class. Consider this one day:
Breakfast: Porridge, sardines, curried eggs, grilled cutlets, coffee, hot chocolate, bread, butter, honey.

The meal is served at the Edwardian house in Barnes in which I am residing with my co-presenter Sue Perkins, and is cooked, as all our meals here will be, by the great Sophie Grigson from a weekly menu taken from an Edwardian housekeeping book.

I go at it full tilt, using the age-old technique of “surprising my stomach” by getting as much as possible down before it realises I am full. I do myself proud and end by wiping my fifth cutlet in the remaining curry sauce from my eggs. Sue, a demi-semi-vegetarian, has not fared so well, going green halfway through her first sardine. We discuss briefly how income tax at the preposterously low rate of 5 per cent freed up plenty of cash for eating, but are interrupted by Sophie ringing the bell to announce lunch.

Lunch: Sauté of kidneys on toast, mashed potatoes, macaroni au gratin, rolled ox tongue.

Good stuff, this. Toast all mulched with kidney fat and blood, macaroni good and rich, tongue gigantic and purple. It is exactly what Dr Petty wants me to avoid.

Afternoon tea: Fruit cake, Madeira cake, hot potato cakes, coconut rocks, bread, toast, butter.

High tea was invented by the Edwardians to stave off hunger during the endless minutes between lunch and dinner. Everything is very brown.

Dinner: Oyster patties, sirloin steak, braised celery, roast goose, potato scallops, vanilla soufflé.

Oysters, the gouty man’s nemesis. I swallow eight in my patties. I carve the goose, as the man of the house always did, and find that it is not easy in the stiff-fronted shirt I am wearing with my white tie, nor can I properly incline my neck to observe my work, what with the 3in-high stiff separate collar I am wearing, and thus very nearly lose a thumb. Sue says that I can shut up until I have worn a corset. Apparently her spleen and kidneys have already been forced up into her ribcage (a recognised problem of the Edwardian lady) and her stomach, contained in a waist now narrowed to the width of a toddler’s thigh, is no longer allowing ingress of food.

And so to bed. But up again an hour later for a midnight snack of roast chicken and Madeira. King Edward always took a roast chicken to bed with him, so it seems only right. Alas, after my chicken, I do not get back to sleep. I have consumed 5,000 calories in a single day, well over Dr Petty’s recommendation of 1,800, and toss and turn and rumble until dawn. [More]

Remember, you are what you eat.

Is it me, or is it hungry in here?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

To every thing...

There is a season. Jan and I are in the field planting. Posts will be sparse, I expect.

Thanks for reading.

As for me, I believe

Finally, proof positive of alien cow abductions.

Watch your herd!

[via Presurfer]

How we die...

The tragedy at Virginia Tech prompted a eye-opening look at gun deaths in America by Bill Marsh at the NYT.

Two things struck me.
  1. White men who have guns seem to use them on themselves - especially if they are young.
  2. This is a big country. When you can essentially lose 81 gun deaths a day in the background noise, we have either become deaf to the announcement of such demises, or they are too diluted to register on our danger-meters.
I have already been denounced roundly for mentioning on USFR that I don't own a gun. I also said that I didn't care if you did, but that doesn't seem to matter to gun enthusiasts. The odds of bad things happening are greater in a household with guns there, so I have gotten along very well without them.

Yeah I know, when the apocalypse comes and the big meltdown happens you can come over here and shoot me and take all my power tools, but I've calculated the odds, and I'll stand pat on this one. Besides, I am not alone.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Signs of the Agpocalypse...

Dell Computer - who sold me my latest model - actually paid attention to some of us Vista guinea pigs and decided enough blood had been shed.
Dell's plan to reintroduce Windows XP as an option on its consumer and home-office PCs, as reported midday Friday on our site by Paul McDougall, adds a powerful counterbalance to the tale of unimpeded Vista uptake.

It's pretty hard to read all the tea leaves, and it may seem counterintuitive (given that Dell is talking home systems here), but what I believe will happen near term is that Vista will surge on consumer desktops, while Windows XP will remain entrenched on client-side systems in the enterprise. [More]
I have finally corrected the worst of my issues and Microsoft has promulgated enough updates to handle some more, but I am still convinced it was a mistake to buy Vista this early. "Carlos" - my Indian (I think) tech support guy, agreed that Vista had been berra, berra good for business.

Maybe next year. (New drivers for legacy hardware are arriving daily, which really helps.)

Or maybe Linux.

Or (gasp!) - a Mac.
Are milk prices headed up?...

Looks like it. Nonetheless, my guess is the milk program will be the most impregnable to any meaningful change, given the power of the participants. (Thinking about it, a payment cap change might have significant impact.)
Hein Hettinga, who owns a small Arizona dairy farm, took on big business and lost. Hettinga was competing for retail sales against Arizona's largest milk company, Shamrock Foods. Hettinga chose not to participate in the federal government program and the United Dairymen of Arizona (UDA) complained that he was affecting the USDA price-setting formula causing lower returns for other dairies. The UDA cooperative handles 85% of the state's milk. Powerful lobbyists paid off some politicians to have a law passed, which in effect, required Hettinga's Sarah Farms to participate in the program. He now has to pay his competitors $400,000 a year to stay in business - a sum that cripples his operation. According to some activists who claim sarcastically, this is why we need socialism - to keep big companies big and keep the little guy down. Hettinga has filed a federal lawsuit, alleging that the so-called Milk Regulatory Equity Act of 2005 is unconstitutional. [More]
Which is why I am not optimistic about the future for small producers, except perhaps agrarian/organic/raw farmers who can connect directly to the consumer. The tricky thing there is we really don't know how large or wealthy that sector of milk buyers is. Or whether that nascent supply chain will be shut down by nervous conventional milk producers.

Chickens on patrol...

No rabbit fights while we're in charge!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

A puzzling chair...

What are the odds of getting this thing back together at the end of a party?

[via Metafilter]

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

#6 on my Jobs-I-Don't-Want List

Give it up for the helicopter pilot, too.

[via Neatorama]

The affordable food undertow...

As farmers loudly proclaim the "affordability" of food (hoping to imply cheap), we have suddenly come face to face with the logical consequence of this statistic.

First off, we use "affordable" because it allows us to breeze past the actual cost of food and talk instead about how much of the consumer's disposable income gets spent on food.

Consider these questions:
  1. How much of their incomes do Americans spend on food?
  2. How much is that in actual dollars?
While all farmers can answer question (1), none can answer (2)* - at least, I have not met one. Here's the poop.

While it's true we spend less of our income than almost any other economy, it's because our incomes are so high.
Families spent just 9.9 percent of their 2005 disposable personal income on food—As disposable personal income continues to climb, the share spent on food declines. [And this is the USDA, folks - our PR agency.]
If you compare people with similar incomes, we spend more than some and less than some.

There are good reasons geezers retire to Mexico, for example. Cheap margaritas is one, but cheaper food is another. According to a friend of mine, tourists in places like Cabo San Lucas are happy campers, eating very well for $15 at a restaurant.

But "affordability" also creates another option for consumers - discretion. We can afford to choose our food based on any whim or conviction that appeals to us. This is why the upper-end market is moving past affordable food to ethical food.
That is beginning to change. Over the past several years, as America’s obesity epidemic has become a growing concern, a number of investigative journalists have turned their attention to the industrial food system and its alternatives in an attempt to make sense of what we eat and whether it’s good for us. Eric Schlosser jump-started the genre in 2001 with Fast Food Nation, a portrait of drive-through cuisine and culture that shocked and repulsed readers much as Upton Sinclair’s meatpackingindustry exposé The Jungle did at the turn of the previous century. Michael Pollan’s pieces for The New York Times Magazine and his newly published book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, push in a slightly different direction, often probing the way government policy influences our diets. Corn subsidies, for example, are so massive that the crop sells for less than it costs to produce, and unhealthy corn derivatives often find their way into inexpensive but not very nutritious processed foods. In a twist of economic irony, the artificially cheap calories in these foods are particularly attractive to poor consumers— who, not coincidentally, have higher rates of diabetes and obesity-related diseases than their wealthier compatriots. [More]
In one sense, our food industry should be nervous about the seemingly bullet-proof American economy. As we create more wealthy people, we create more finicky eaters.

* About $3500 per head.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Something for anyone...

Fascinating images from Eric M. Gustavson.

[via Presurfer]

Just 34 more generations to go...

We natter on about multi-generation farms. What about a 1400-year old business?
The world's oldest continuously operating family business ended its impressive run last year. Japanese temple builder Kongo Gumi, in operation under the founders' descendants since 578, succumbed to excess debt and an unfavorable business climate in 2006.
Since I have been writing about succession issues on my own farm, others have chimed in as well. Kongo Gumi offers some interesting ideas we might be able to use to keep our farms going.
Another factor that contributed to Kongo Gumi's extended existence was the practice of sons-in-law taking the family name when they joined the family firm. This common Japanese practice allowed the company to continue under the same name, even when there were no sons in a given generation.
Still, I have recently realized there is something inherently self-serving about multi-generational pride. It borders on the "came over on the Mayflower" elitism that has proven variably useful in American society.

There is also the beyond-the-grave control aspect of long-lived family businesses. All told, it's a mixed bag and definitely not one to sacrifice happiness for.
Yet one more reason...

To hate commuting.

[via Neatorama]
Doing the math...

Jim Wiesemeyer at ProFarmer has been doing yeomen's work at his column (sorry - subscription required) covering the development of the new farm bill. He often includes lengthy polemics from former Congressperson-turned-lobbyist Larry Combest. In his his latest chapter, Combest includes this familiar sounding "statistic"
U.S. agriculture creates 17% of U.S. GDP, $3.5 trillion in economic activity, and 25 million American jobs. As the December 17, 2003 Wall Street Journal article (Farm Belt Becomes Driver for the Overall Economy as Prices Rise, Spending Spreads to Tractors, Trucks), notes, “The present boom is proving that agriculture still matters in the U.S. Rising farm incomes are helping ease the blow of the loss of manufacturing jobs in the Midwest States.” The article then quotes the chief economist of a major U.S. bank who states, “The farm sector is a significant source of strength in the U.S. economy.” With such an important U.S. economic sector and jobs creator facing such unfair foreign trade conditions, why would anyone propose to tie the hands behind the backs of hard working U.S. farm and ranch families, all of whom are injured by these trading practices? [More - subscription] [My emphasis]

Wow! $3,500,000,000,000 from little ol' us out here on the farm. And we "created" it! Presumably by waving our magic economic wand.

I asked them where this number came from and received no reply, so here is what I came up with myself.

I don't think that's how the authorized economic referees at the Department of Commerce see it. Or any real economists. Consider these facts from the latest GDP (2005) statistics.
Total GDP $12,456B
Value added by farms $95.9B
[Whole table - actually interesting]
Hmm, we seem to be a few trillion short. Even if we look at Gross Output we are only a tiny fraction of the national picture: $253B out of $22.9T

Look the numbers up for yourself and feel free to show me where the staggering number comes from.

I once asked a Farm Bureau spokesman where a similar number came from. It seems what we in ag do in order to seem larger than life is add in stuff like:
  • all food manufacturing
  • all food retailing and wholesaling
  • some part of clothing manufacturing/retailing
  • yadda, yadda
Which raises another perspective. If the food industry is a few trillion and ag is a few billion, which industry is part of which? The flea and the dog come to mind. Nor can we claim that it "starts" with us. As my fuel guy points out, nothing happens on my farm if he doesn't show up first. The petroleum industry could claim ag as part of their total using Combest's rules.

My point is this is a pretend number we use to enlarge our egos, not unlike mating birds fluffing their feathers out.

We don't begin to create $3.5T of wealth. If we do, we are remarkably poor at hanging onto any of it.

I have been told that questioning such inflated numbers is disrespectful to farmers.

Yeah - right. Telling us fairy tales is treating us like adults.

Agriculture is a important part of a huge food industry. Our economy is not about us and this constant, overwrought chest-beating is not helpful as we become more integrated with the other sectors.

BTW - I wasn't the only guy who questioned Combest's numbers (look, just buy a membership, OK? You'll thank me later).

Monday, April 16, 2007

Everybody loves a subsidy...

ConocoPhillips and Tyson's announced plans to make biodiesel from animal fats. Sounds great, right?
Oil major ConocoPhillips and Tyson Foods Inc., the world's largest meat producer, said Monday they're teaming up to produce and market diesel fuel for U.S. vehicles using beef, pork and poultry fat.

The companies said they have collaborated over the past year on ways to combine Tyson's expertise in protein chemistry and production with ConocoPhillips' processing and marketing knowledge to introduce a renewable diesel fuel with lower carbon emissions than petroleum-based fuels. [More]
But wait, it's not just about patriotic energy independence-stuff. It's about tax breaks.
The decision to expand the break, which Blunt opposed, may be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to ConocoPhillips and other refiners, while increasing demand for products from Tyson, the nation's largest meat packer and second-largest poultry processor.

The tax credit was ``hijacked,'' said Brian Appel, chief executive officer of West Hempstead, New York-based Changing World Technologies, the privately held company that owns the plant in Carthage, Missouri, that Blunt was attempting to help when he inserted the provision into an energy bill in 2005. [More]
So when farmers complain about Big Oil getting tax breaks, they need to remember it is really hard to keep a subsidy to yourself.

Especially with this administration.
I dunno, maybe they play pro basketball...

Some pigs in China.

Owned by a strange, strange farmer.

[More photos]

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The tortilla problem...

For those of us who eat Mexican just for a change of pace, the story of tortilla prices may seem mildly annoying. But to Latin America, it is not. The NCGA wandered off the Logic Reservation with their spin-laden response:
Rising tortilla prices in Mexico are due to a supply issue in that country – not increased U.S. ethanol production or U.S. corn prices. The U.S. Grains Council (USGC) and the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) report that lower corn production in Mexico and the lack of import licenses have caused white corn shortages there. [More]
Umm - guys, you can't proclaim ethanol as the reason for higher corn prices and then say higher corn prices can't be blamed on ethanol. White corn prices are calculated from the same CBOT price as yellow. Even if we had open corn trade, white corn prices would be high. The short crop is an issue, and so is ethanol.

Economist Tyler Cowen has an excellent post on the tortilla price issue in light of ethanol demand. And his normally hard-nosed capitalist approach falters unexpectedly.
American corn ethanol policy seems like a bad idea for sure. Let's open up our markets to superior Brazilian sugar-based ethanol. That would lower American and also Mexican corn prices.

And Mexico? My head knows what is right but my heart is torn. Can Mexico can afford the protectionism which keeps local producers going and gives it the world's best and most diverse corn, the world's best tortillas, and supports a major part of its national identity, most of all for its most oppressed and politically sensitive groups? I am emotionally torn and will not proceed with the question any further.
The analysis is sound, but like many of us, there are some issues where allegiance to a free market is tested and found wanting. This does not suggest that we have a binary choice for economic policy, but simply litmus-testing every question is insufficient criticism.

Markets can be inefficient - recognizing when they are, and how to adjust is the tough part.
Youse guys are alla time wanting more art posts...

Here ya go. Fractal art.

You remember fractals, right? (Things that become more complicated the more you study them - like women.)


Did I just see that?

I gotta switch to decaf...

[via Neatorama]

OK- this is getting seriously weird now...

I have mentioned the bee problem before. Perhaps it's the instant attention (to which I contribute) provided by the Internet, but it seems any small issue can become fair game for strange ideas.
They are putting forward the theory that radiation given off by mobile phones and other hi-tech gadgets is a possible answer to one of the more bizarre mysteries ever to happen in the natural world - the abrupt disappearance of the bees that pollinate crops. Late last week, some bee-keepers claimed that the phenomenon - which started in the US, then spread to continental Europe - was beginning to hit Britain as well. The theory is that radiation from mobile phones interferes with bees' navigation systems, preventing the famously homeloving species from finding their way back to their hives. Improbable as it may seem, there is now evidence to back this up. [More]

Still, between the Freeze of '07 (will we say "aught-seven" in our dotage?) and CCD, I'm going to enjoy every blueberry I can get this year.

There are some skeptics on this subject.
Some of the most hilarious congressional testimony of the past thirty years has come from the lobbying organizations associated with American beekeepers. If the quinennial farm bill is the Olympics of Pork, then these boys are the gold medal winners. Every five years, we get to hear how the honey subsidy is the only thing preventing the complete die-off of all agriculture in America, as the domesticated bee population is responsible for most crop pollination, and gosh darn it, the lil’ buggers can’t make it on their own. I’m not exaggerating; the bee lobby’s rhetoric, particularly in the mid-1980s, really has included apocalyptic claims of this sort. The University of Kansas debate team achieved significant competitive success during that time period using positions built around the wilder claims of honey-subsidy enthusiasts. [More]

Man - that' s the real problem with subsidies. You end up having to defend them even when they don't make sense and look like a doofus.

The real problem here is this could be a real problem.
Somebody hold me...

Our roof has been replaced. The satellite dish has been re-pointed (on a Sunday!) and we are back online.

I'm not kidding. Jan and I both had some serious Internet-deprivation issues.

Thanks for your patience - posts and answers will be forthcoming.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Yeah, it's probably just consolidation...

Rabobank took the Australian ag lending market by storm a few years ago, fueling momentum to enter the US fray.

The historic drought is changing the picture Down Under, however. Rabobank officials credit a rise in farm debt to consolidation.
The consolidation of farming land into fewer hands has pushed up farm debt to a record high of $44 billion, rural lender Rabobank Australia said today.

The bank said the rate of debt was increasing by seven to nine per cent per year as land prices continued to rise.

James Robinson, Rabobank rural state manager in South Australia, said farms were getting bigger as owners borrowed to buy or lease the land of neighbours who retired or left the industry. [More]

This could be true. Frankly, I think it is about the disastrous farm income picture.
Government forecaster, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) said in its latest farm survey results that farm cash incomes on average are projected to be $26,600 for 2006-07, down from an estimated $81,290 in 2005-06.

ABARE said this was the largest fall in farm cash income recorded since it started the survey 29 years ago. [More]
I think that's the spin I would put on it. However, lenders could even be more than a little involved in moving bad paper to the not-so-bad file by encouraging still-solvent farmers to buy out the strugglers.

Always remember, lenders tend to be "deeply committed" to apparent winners, not all borrowers.
Finished an [expensive] book...

New book review at On the Coffee Table. Definitely a "borrower."

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Maybe my day wasn't so bad...

Ah - the refreshing pleasure of noticing somebody is having a worse day than you.

[via Neatorama]