Thursday, November 29, 2007

Obviously we're gonna need bigger fire extinguishers...


My, doesn't that HarvestForm give a cheery flame!

A Canadian friend sends these cookout pictures. (But no money, I note. Those stinkin' rich Canucks - coming down here and buying all our jools and big TV's. ...)

Have you hugged your combine today? Some of us can't even get one...

[Thanks, Kevin]
Good thing it's almost Happy Hour...

Just called my fertilizer dealer about why my bill was so low. [Pause for laughter]

But seriously, he prepared me for a likely price announcement next week of $675-725 for NH3. There will be jumps in MAP and Potash too, but no idea on those yet.

Let's check those SX08 futures again...

[Return to AgWeb]
I'm surprised they remember what they grew last year...

Moral campaigners are often taken aback by logical market actions in every corner of human existence. For instance, it seems we're not the only producers changing our crop mix to respond to market forces.
KABUL, Afghanistan — The fields of Balkh province in northern Afghanistan were free of opium poppies this year, a success touted often by Afghan and international officials. But one look at Mohammad Alam's fields uncovers an emerging drug problem.

Ten-foot-tall cannabis plants flourish in Alam's fields. The crop — the source of both marijuana and hashish — can be just as profitable as opium but draws none of the scrutiny from Afghan officials bent on eradicating poppies.

Cannabis cultivation rose 40 percent in Afghanistan this year, to 173,000 acres from 123,550 in 2006, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime estimated in its 2007 opium survey. The crop is being grown in at least 18 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, according to the survey released last month.

"The government cannot provide a good market for other crops like cotton, watermelon and vegetables, so I have to grow marijuana instead of poppy," said Alam, a farmer in Balkh province, which the U.N. singles out as a "leading example" of an opium-free area. [More]
Making the fruitless War on Drugs even more pointless is a possible shortage of legal opium. Although disputed by some, the developed world's rapidly aging and ailing population could represent an enormous demand for morphine.

I have always wondered why we don't grow our own poppies in the US where the majority of morphine is consumed. I suppose those countries like Turkey and Afghanistan have much better policing and controls to prevent it falling into the wrong hands.
Yeah - but can you make ethanol out of 'em?...

Tumbleweed farming.
Linda started her online business, the Prairie Tumbleweed Farm, as a joke. It was 1994 and she wanted to teach herself how to design a website. Since she lived on the prairie in southwest Kansas, where rolling tumbleweeds are sometimes the only dynamic feature of an endless flat horizon, she invented a farm that sold tumbleweeds, listing prices at $15 for a small one, $20 for a medium and $25 for large.


[via Marginal Revolution]

[Return to AgWeb]
Fact-free politics...


Note the talking points:
  • Xenphobia - we will be getting our food from bad people if we lowered subsidies. Ludicrously false, unless you consider Mexicans and Canadians risky sources. We already import almost as much from other countries as we send abroad, moreover more of the imports are actual food - fruits, meats, olive oil, etc. as opposed to the feed and cotton we ship out.
  • All the other kids are getting allowances - Romney oddly mentions Brazil, who doesn't even build roads for farmers, let alone subsidize them. And never mind that the EU has millions more farmers than the US, it's the dollars that count. More ominously, what happens to this argument if the CAP is reformed?
  • Family farms - when EWG data continue to show consolidation into industrial agriculture, the claim that subsidies will save small farms will look duplicitous. Of course the 2007 Census of Ag will likely demonstrate this as well, but these candidates will have built their presidential libraries by the time the numbers get released.
Perhaps a better question would have been "What reforms would you like to see in the farm program?"

All said, I think the path of farm policy is not going to be altered by politics (unless Ron Paul is elected, by some quirk). McCain might force reform, but for everyone else it's a yawner.

The trajectory of farm policy will be most influenced by economics, IMHO.

[Return to AgWeb]
Gifts That Will Shock and Awe (Entry #7)...


Mini doughnut maker. $50. Supposedly for kids.

[Return to AgWeb]

Testing...testing...1,2,3....

I have for last few weeks been bombarded by test plot data from seed corn companies. We're all pretty used to it. But I have decided to peer into this form of persuasion from another angle, thanks to a suggestion from a friend.

OK, consider these announcements:
-DEKALB is delivering better yielding seed to corn farmers: According to
more than 14,000 comparisons taken during 2007 harvest, DEKALB corn
seeds delivered an average of 8.4 more bushels per acre yield compared
with genetics from leading competitive national corn seed brands. This
margin widened to more than 12 bushels per acre in hybrids planted in
the 110-day relative maturity zone, the area which comprises the top
corn-producing states in the Corn Belt (e.g. Illinois, Indiana and
Iowa). [More]
- ummm...
Shoot - my whole premise just evaporated.

I looked for similar broad statements from other companies like
Pioneer (need registration), AgriGold, Garst, Becks, NK, and Golden Harvest. You know, the kind of stuff you hear in commercials: "IN UMPTEEN-THOUSAND COMPARISONS OUR BRAND WON XX% OF THE TIME"

Result: Did not find any other statements like DeKalb's.

Note: Some sites had detailed local comparisons, but I could not find a similar overall (national) announcements - doesn't mean they aren't there, just I couldn't find them before my attention span ran out.

Another off-topic note: Beck is offering free refuge corn. At last, somebody in the industry is taking refuge seriously. Given that refuge-in-a-bag is around the corner, why not encourage refuge planting with seed that has an extremely low marginal cost and short future? Kudos to them - and I hope it is a precursor to a new approach to seed marketing.

Yet another note: It could be their traffic is really low, but as more people get linked into company websites to actually choose to read the stuff we toss away everyday in the mail, why not upgrade those sites, guys?

The clever point I thought I was going to amaze with was how every company seems to "win" their test plots. I'm not harshin' their communications people, but my impression of statements like the above is I have heard it before from everybody. The weasel-words of modern marketing have diluted the power of statistical evidence to the point that producers who did not take Stats and Prob 101 are pretty cynical: "figures don't lie, but yadda yadda".

For example, in some Lake-Woebegone-syndrome, all seeds seem to above average - agronomic traits from 1-10 wind up with the averages being 9.8 for hybrid selection. Agronomic "grade creep" masks for me any true comparative information.


I guess the question is do such claims create any response from you on your farm. I readily admit this post hasn't turned out the way I thought, and the Monsanto claim could be more impressive than my skepticism will allow. My only nitpick is this: when talking about "over 14,000 comparisons" it should be clear if this represents all the comparisons or were they cherry-picked.

Mostly, I think reading a statement like that "primes" us to process local data differently. "Don's DK corn made 25 bpa more than mine right next to it" suddenly can seem like evidence of a much wider phenomenon. (That actually happened, BTW).

Do national test plot summary data work for seed sales? My answer - maybe, but the effect would be pretty hard to parse out from all the information inundating us. My hunch is Don's experience will affect my choice more than any other influence.

Which leads me the to the coming seed price war. More later as formulate my case for market share wars in the seed industry.

[Thanks, Darren]

[Return to AgWeb]

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Rich enough for you?...

I've been fooling around with my accounting getting caught up (almost up to August!) I have also been mulling forecasts for 2008 and 2009. My proforma projections go out farther, but they tend to the ridiculous, I've found.

So Monday I sold some beans for delivery this year to balance my tax load. To do that I had to estimate my AGI and the number was not too ugly - despite the many poor decisions that characterized 2007.

Then I took that number and compared it with the rest of the world.

[via MeFi]

[Return to AgWeb]
They are under your bed right now...

The response e-mail address for US Farm Report (info@usfarmreport.com) gets an enormous amount of spam - hardly a surprise with a public address. As I sift through the hundreds of messages each week, I do get a sense for the latest angle is and what topics must be provoking the strongest responses.

You can guess the top categories, of course. What is becoming embarrassing to me is I no longer recognize the names of the (I assume) celebrities who have been photographed nude. But then I couldn't name 5 hip-hop artists if they held a gun on me.

Wait - that could actually happen.

Anyhoo, my favorite themes are the conspiracy-mongers. I spoke about the NAIS mail I get on the show (11/17-18) in Mailbag segment. (Watch here). There are some very intense opponents of this effort to track animals.

But every few days I get an update about the North American Union. And for those of you too young to remember the Soviet troops living under Detroit, here is an introductory course to this persistent fear.
The North American Union is a supranational organization, modeled on the European Union, that will soon fuse Canada, the United States, and Mexico into a single economic and political unit. The details are still being worked out by the countries' leaders, but the NAU's central governing body will have the power to nullify the laws of its member states. Goods and people will flow among the three countries unimpeded, aided by a network of continent-girdling superhighways. The US and Canadian dollars, along with the peso, will be phased out and replaced by a common North American currency called the amero.

If you haven't heard about the NAU, that may be because its plotters have succeeded in keeping it secret. Or, more likely, because there is no such thing. Government officials say a continental union is out of the question, and economists and political analysts overwhelmingly agree that there will not be a North American Union in our lifetimes. But belief in the NAU - that the plans are very real, and that the nation is poised to lose its independence - has been spreading from its origins in the conservative fringe, coloring political press conferences and candidate question-and-answer sessions, and reaching a kind of critical mass on the campaign trail. Republican presidential candidate and Texas congressman Ron Paul has made the North American Union one of his central issues. [More of an even-handed report]
One of the supposed pieces of evidence is the NAFTA Super-highway. This monumental undertaking is perhaps the outgrowth of the Trans-Texas Corridor.
Add up all the above ingredients--NASCO, SPP, Lázaro Cárdenas, the Kansas City SmartPort, the planned pilot program allowing Mexican truckers to drive on US roads--and you still don't have a superhighway four football fields wide connecting the entire continent. Which is why understanding the persistence of the NAFTA highway legend requires spending some time in Texas, where Governor Rick Perry and his longtime consigliere, Texas Department of Transportation commissioner Ric Williamson, are proposing the $185 billion Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC), 4,000 miles of highway, rail and freight corridors, the first of which would run up from the border through the heavily populated eastern part of the state. Plans for the TTC call for it to be up to four football fields wide at points, paving over as much as half a million acres of Texas countryside. The first section will be built and operated by a foreign enterprise, and when completed it would likely be the largest privatized toll road in the country.

And unlike the NAFTA highway, the Trans-Texas Corridor is very, very real. [More of a must read for non-Texans]

The interesting thread weaving all these fears together is simply xenophobia - our growing distaste for foreigners. The TTC would be built and operated for 50 years by a Spanish concern (with US partners). This foreign ownership really riles up some people.
In my conversations with people in Texas, it seemed that the privatized nature of the road was what got folks the angriest. Bad enough that drivers would face tolls, that ranchers would have their land cut out from under them, but all for the financial gain of a foreign company? "If you liked the Dubai ports deal, you'll love my TTC land grab," taunts an animated Rick Perry on one anti-TTC website. The cartoon goes on to portray Cintra as conquistadors clad in armor riding in to steal Texans' treasure.

"What really drives this is economic," activist Terri Hall told me. "It's about the money. We're talking about obscene levels of profit, someone literally being like the robber barons of old. And this is one thing that government actually does well, build and maintain roads."
That is the curious fact. While our government debt is in Chinese/Japanese hands, and our financial institutions glad to be acquired by Mideastern governments, why the uproar over highways?

I think it's the simple obviousness of the deal - and the fact that writing to your legislator can affect it. After all, nobody took a poll of farmers to see if they wanted Case combines to be built by an Italian company.

But the other influence, I believe is the residue of America's late entry into global living. For most of my life we were large enough and diversified enough to ignore international business as a curiosity. Unlike countries in Europe, we didn't need to learn to tolerate and conduct commerce with people unlike us. Heck - it was bad enough doing biz with people from a different region.

And while many view the current interdependence as a slide downward, it strikes me more as the logical outcome to economic advantage. While we don't mind strangers being dependent on us for feed grains, we cannot yet embrace the obverse of that exchange: we become dependent on outsiders for some good/service they provide really well (shoes).

Nor will we be convinced otherwise, I think. Globalization will continue to irritate many Americans until they are gradually displaced by children who have grown up with a different business and social climate.

So I'm expecting a steady stream of NAU warnings.

Any guesses as to the next great threat to America?

[Return to AgWeb]

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Iraq, the dollar, and the farm program...

Stay with me here. In one of those profound (or deeply misguided) sensations of insight, the news of the permanence of the US military in Iraq - as witnessed by this week's deal - coupled with the struggles of our economy (subprime, dollar, confidence, etc.) pushed me to some conclusions about the future of our tiny (1% of GDP) slice of the US economy.

We often forget about the economic consequences of our patriotic actions, but the bill is real and growing. Because it is disguised in the budget, the expense has been absorbed by good economic results. But this line item is going to be hard to hide much longer.
Naturally, advocates of the war wish to lower the fiscal stakes, whereas opponents wish to raise them. But cost estimates follow certain broad rules of logic and convention. Estimates differ along with definitions of scope and because of new information. Here are six reasons cost estimates for the Iraq war have varied and keep rising:
- The cost of invasion is a down payment. The cost of exit continues for years.
- If the war is financed by borrowing, some estimates may add interest costs.
- Costs are borne by the U.S. taxpayer, but also by others. Costs may be added relating to costs borne by individuals, especially military personnel, or by the economy.
- War is cruel and combatants bear the brunt of it. Unexpected new costs can emerge, such as undiagnosed physical damage among returning vets.
- Like life expectancies, cost estimates usually rise as the war continues. When the first estimates were prepared, the war was projected to last ten years at most. Now, five years later, the war is still being projected to last 10 more years, i.e., 15 years altogether.
- Some estimates include the war in Afghanistan or worldwide anti-terrorism costs. [More]
The rising tide of tax revenues which surprised almost all seem to be waning as capital gains become capital losses. On the other side of the ledger, our borrowing costs seem set to escalate as foreign investors need more incentive to buy our debt. In short, massive deficits could fall out of fashion - if only because nobody wants to pay for it.

The ability of the farm lobby to regularly extract $20B or so annually from the budget could come under serious pressure to scale back from both commodity price baseline effect and overall federal insolvency.

My point is farmers who are counting on the USDA to weave their "safety net" are likely in danger of being overrun by those who provide their own defenses. Whatever safety net future legislators can envisage will be competing for very scarce dollars.

Bottom line: gird your own loins.
Gifts That Will Shock and Awe (Entry #6)...


The transparent toaster.

One small issue: it's not really invented yet.


(But you can pre-order at Amazon)

(Thanks, Aaron)


[Return to AgWeb]

Monday, November 26, 2007

Too much time on his...uh, hands...



721 Claps Per Second - video powered by Metacafe



[via Presurfer]


[Return to Agweb]
Our double-whammy wealth effect...

An odd thing today - I spoke with my John Deere dealer regarding a deal we had made two weeks ago on a 9570 combine for next year. There is serious doubt whether I can get one.

Really.

Dennis (my dealer) is wondering what his year will be like. The situation may be much the same for 9000 series 4WD tractors. He remembers 1973 and customers putting their names on a list for a new tractor. (I was under the North Atlantic at the time, but my buddies all talk about that year like it was their one date with Miss America)

Wall Street has not missed this happy economic news. Deere stock prices:


I may not get a new $300,000 combine because just like me, a few of you guys have placed some orders too. Personally, I blame the producers in IA who knew they had a huge crop from about June onward. I have made sarcastic references to the sailors being in town, but it turns out economists have a better description of what is igniting farmer spending: the wealth effect.
The effect includes the changes in the amounts and composition of consumer consumption caused by changes in consumer wealth. Economists believe people spend more when one of two things is true: when people actually are richer (by objective measurement, for example, a bonus or a pay raise at work, which would be an income effect), or when people perceive themselves to be "richer" (for example, the assessed value of their home increases, or a stock they own has gone up in price recently). Economists also believe that this situation has macroeconomic implications. A typical response to the wealth effect includes a reduced supply of labor; however, personal income will still be increased. This can be seen by the parallel outward shift in the production function, which is indicative of the wealth effect. The effect's size is governed by a different calculation in either case. [More]
Given this definition we have dual engines for our wealth effect: realized wealth in the form of an extra $20B in net farm income, and perceived wealth as we all revise our capital inventory (land, equipment, etc.) by the current market prices.

Unlike our urban cousins whose home prices soared as their incomes stagnated, we are grumbling about tax problems while land prices skyrocket. This is, in my view, an unprecedented economic tsunami for US agriculture.

At this point, every other farm media article I have read to date launches into a stern Calvinistic sermon about profligacy - all the reasons why the good times can't last and why we don't deserve this windfall are carefully laid out.

My take is different.

Act now. Act boldly. Add market share [acres] (or at least defend what you have).

Tomorrow could be too late. In every bubble (which this well could be) the secret was to bet heavily early, and I think this is still early because we are not sure it's a bubble yet.

The wealth effect is generally lamented by economists and other commentators but that does not seem to make much difference. What is demonstrably true is the downside is much less devastating than we imagine it. Even at the nadir of the farm economy (1987) mortgage defaults were about 7% - or in other words, after the wildest inflationary spiral and harshest monetary response in modern farm history, 93% of borrowers found a way to keep on keepin' on.

Much of this wealth can be realized into cash or other assets right now. I think more than a few marginal operations will take this option, and enjoy the result.

Our wealth effect is real right now. Those who choose to wait and scoff cannot deny this moment.

[Return to Agweb]
Gifts That Will Shock and Awe (Entry #5)...


The Earth Puzzle.
The latest puzzle design innovation in a beautiful classic world globe. Interlock all of the challenging 264 curved plastic pieces together, assemble onto the gold tone stand and you have a showpiece to display in your home or office. The high gloss surface is marked with longitudes and latitudes. Tight fitting pieces are designed so that virtually no seam is showing where the pieces interlock. The globe rotates on its axis to help you locate countries, cities and bodies of water. A remarkable gift. The globe measures 9" in diameter x 15 1/2" high when mounted on stand.
Couldn't hurt modern geography skills - $30

[Return to AgWeb]
Reality update for Advent*...


Here is the "little" town we will be singing and reading about for the next few weeks: Bethlehem
This is not how Mary and Joseph came into Bethlehem, but this is how you enter now. You wait at the wall. It's a daunting concrete barricade, three stories high, thorned with razor wire. Standing beside it, you feel as if you're at the base of a dam. Israeli soldiers armed with assault rifles examine your papers. They search your vehicle. No Israeli civilian, by military order, is allowed in. And few Bethlehem residents are permitted out—the reason the wall exists here, according to the Israeli government, is to keep terrorists away from Jerusalem.

Bethlehem and Jerusalem are only six miles apart (ten kilometers), though in the compressed and fractious geography of the region, this places them in different realms. It can take a month for a postcard to go from one city to the other. Bethlehem is in the West Bank, on land taken by Israel during the Six Day War of 1967. It's a Palestinian city; the majority of its 35,000 residents are Muslim. In 1900, more than 90 percent of the city was Christian. Today Bethlehem is only about one-third Christian, and this proportion is steadily shrinking as Christians leave for Europe or the Americas. At least a dozen suicide bombers have come from the city and surrounding district. The truth is that Bethlehem, the "little town" venerated during Christmas, is one of the most contentious places on Earth. [More]
The myths surrounding our most precious memories are not surrendered easily - and whatever pictures we want to enjoy in our minds will usually not be displaced by mere facts. This used to drive me nuts, until I backed off and made allowances not simply for those who preferred fiction to reality, but also for my own blind allegiance to how some things are.

The striving for absolute truth can be as pointless as the effort to maintain a myth. [Some farm bill justifications spring to mind, for example]

Maybe what we need to do is simply choose better which to let go.

* Yeah - I know Advent hasn't begun, but it's hard not so start the music when you have an extra Sunday after Thanksgiving

[via 3Quarks]

[Return to AgWeb]

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Gifts That Will Shock and Awe (Entry #4)...

The Middle Ages. Yup - the whole thing from the Fall of Rome to the Renaissance.

I have been listening to these lectures - among others - during my commute to South Bend to do US Farm Report. This course has been uniformly outstanding. While I plunked down $50 for each of the three sections, they are now offering the whole Middle Ages set (Early, High, and Late) for $90.

The deal is this lecturer, Prof. Philip Daileader (College of William & Mary & Ted & Alice) is perhaps the best speaker I have ever experienced. My passing interest in this black hole of history turned into a genuine pleasure of learning. The dude can teach.

So if you know someone who spends time commuting and or otherwise has 30-minutes of listening time regularly, they could enjoy this course immensely - provided they like learning at all.

[Return to AgWeb]
Almost persuaded...

(Wasn't there a gospel song of that name?) Anyhoo, my adventures with my iMac to date.
  • Love the speed. Boots up about 1.5 hours faster than my 10 month old Dell Vista machine.
  • Super screen display (24 is a lot of inches)
  • Don't miss the cables everywhere one little bit.
  • It doesn't make any noise. Like none. Really. (OK, a tiny whir when reading a DVD)
  • The Apple mouse lacks pressure. (No engineer would use "suck" as a verb, as in, "The pilot was sucked out of the plane". The pilot was blown out of the plane.) Thanks to a useful comment, I'm switching to 2-button Bluetooth mouse which is already supported by Leopard.
  • Firefox has been problematic. I think I just need some tweaking. Safari hasn't wowed me.
  • I'm still struggling with using the "command" key for simple stuff. And how do you uninstall a program?
  • While the initial trials of iWork were fine, I plunked down for Office 2004 Mac with free upgrade (via Amazon - not the preloaded pestering) to Office 2008 in January. I'll get deeper into it in the next few weeks.
  • I will be loading in XP to try out Bootcamp for some old Windows apps I want to keep using.
  • The problems have been few and minor - like Firefox keeps showing up as a disk like the hard drive. What the heck is that about?
  • I am migrating my old files via a USB hard drive. iTunes found all the songs fine, but I haven't fooled around with them yet.
  • Soon to be added: Airport stations to hookup the printer, other computers, and the stereo.
More later.

[Return to Agweb]

Friday, November 23, 2007

My brother, the doctor...



Has way, way too much time on his hands.

Photos from his wanderings on the planet "Missouri".

[Thanks. Henry]

Unlikely Headline Department...

Would you click on this headline?

"Carbon Capitalists Grab Gas From Pig Waste in Evangelical Quest"

[More]

[Return to AgWeb]






No wonder we can't get a pizza delivered...


Unfortunate road signs.

[via Presurfer]

[Return to AgWeb]

What's the opposite of nimble?...

Luckily Cargill is in the business of grain trading - which is dominated by a few humongous and equally introverted global firms like ADM and Bunge (which account for 90% of global grain trade).

Don't get me wrong - I admire all these firms, but as an industrial group they are laughable in their adoption of information technology as it appears to farmers. Keep in mind we are their suppliers, not their customers (which, strangely, their PR departments seem intent on confusing), and they have zero motivation to give a hoot what I think.

But if any of these companies were in a technologically-driven industry like say, telecommunications - they would be blown out of the water faster than pets.com.

In fairness, the vast majority of farmers loudly assert they don't crave updates and new-fangled commerce. Yeah - right up until they get an LDP in 17 hours via e-LDP, or they sell grain during evening trade and hit the market peak. Or they get their money within hours of dumping their grain - and they get it correctly.

But (and you may be wondering) I do have a point and some actual news. Cargill [Full disclosure: my #1 customer] has announced their new website.

Don't hold your breath. By the time Cargill's IT bureaucracy finishes tweaking it, I could be on Medicare. Deep Throat-like sources (you can waterboard me - I'll never tell) at Cargill have been promising me on-line account access and management for - oh, about 18 months now.

Color me underwhelmed.

To be fair (not an easy thing for me), I have also had a chance to see some screenshots of the account management capabilities. And I did drool. For those of us on the road, the potential was mildly arousing. Think about seeing what the last load tested while back on your combine minutes after it dumped at the terminal. For that matter, the time stamp would give you a good idea of turnaround times for your hauling.

Now imagine not having to rely on days-old data to see if your contracts had been filled and payment sent. [I detest having to ask for payment!] Or writing a contract at 11 pm. in your Star Trek jammies.

This is how commerce works for the rest of the real world. The enormous resources of Cargill (or their competitors) should realize the powerful attraction of instantaneous business and if they can't get it done in-house, hire India.

My hunch is that agriculture - especially the industrial grain sector - is undergoing far more consolidation than many realize. Those tiny few at the top will command a vast bulk of the trade, and expect the same type of commerce tempo as we get from Amazon or Verizon or Google.

Namely: right now and perfect. Cargill, et al, have nothing to fear unless someone actually takes that desire seriously.

[Return to AgWeb]

Free market music...



No - not pirated CD's - The Milton Friedman Choir. After all, I have blogged about other economic choral groups.

[via Marginal Revolution]
Just in time to...

Be late for your Thanksgiving Day. Five thoughtful reasons to still be thankful.
Fewer Kids Are Dying
What’s happening: Mortality rates for young children are at a record low.


The stats: The number of children younger than 5 who died worldwide in 2006 fell to 9.7 million, the first time that figure dropped below 10 million since such records have been kept. And the good news isn’t confined to one continent. Latin America is on track to reach the Millennium Development Goal of reducing its 1990 child mortality rate by two thirds by 2015; so far, its under-5 mortality rate has already plummeted by half, from 55 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 27 in 2006. In China during the same period, child deaths dropped from 45 per 1,000 births to just 24, while India registered a 34 percent drop. Even parts of sub-Saharan Africa improved, with child mortality decreasing more than 20 percent from 2000 to 2004 in Ethiopia, Malawi, Rwanda, and Tanzania.

The reasons why: Simple solutions. More kids are getting vaccinated—measles deaths having fallen 60 percent globally since 1999. More kids are avoiding malaria by sleeping under insecticide-treated bed nets. Higher rates of breast-feeding and vitamin A supplements to strengthen immune systems are also keeping children alive. Safer water, better nutrition, more cash for public health, and more community health workers are also getting kids past their fifth birthdays. None of these solutions is particularly new or high-tech—just proof that implementing healthcare basics can save millions of lives. [More of a short, uplifting report]

What the hey - you're still eating the turkey and those weird broccoli/cheese/? casseroles and putting cranberries on your toast.

You can jolly well muster up a little leftover gratitude.

[via The Plank]

[Return to AgWeb]

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Me and Gunga Dan...

A couple of weeks ago, a crew from Dan Rather Reports came to our farm to ask us about subsidies.  Gosh, were they surprised to find a farmer who thinks they are basically a bad idea.  So they took most of the day filming and interviewing us.

Wait - it gets worse.

They filmed in HD - not my most flattering medium.  I tend to look most attractive in dim light from a distance.

Those of you who have read my stuff for a while will not be surprised by my remarks, but I imagine some will be outraged that I oppose sending money to people like myself. 

Here's the weird part - many of those same people are working furiously to make sure I still get the loot!


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A geek odyssey begins...



Unpacked my new iMac yesterday (in the kitchen - not a happy development for SWMBO) and I will be blogging about my conversion experiences. My sorry episodes with Vista and the urging of commenters led me to this drastic state.

First impression: There is ONE cable to connect. The power cord which goes in the back. It linked to my current wireless router instantly.


I ordered the wireless keyboard (tiny) and mouse (I miss the two buttons already). [CD case shown for size comparison]

The computer shipped with Leopard included, but not installed. That went fine - as far as I know. Right now I'm just getting into the different basic commands and unlearning Windows habits.

More later.

[Return to AgWeb]
Gifts That Will Shock and Awe (Entry #3)...



The beard-cap. Get the Viking look without the trouble of growing facial hair!

[Bad news: I can't find a source yet.]

[via BoingBoing]

[Return to AgWeb]

Monday, November 19, 2007

One for my baby...



The Most Beautiful Flower Garden - video powered by Metacafe

Do people still say that anymore? Anyhoo, a semi-great (too much zoom and fast panning) video of the flower gardens at Keukenhof Gardens in The Netherlands. Even for this farmer - it was worth visiting.

[More video here]

[More pictures here]

[Return to AgWeb]
Gifts That Will Shock and Awe (Entry #2)...



The LED screwdriver. ($20) Seriously, this seems like a gimmick, but I love it.

[Return to AgWeb]
Another reason to learn where Bulgaria is...


A map of where the richest farmland in Europe is. [Click on map for details][May load slow, BTW]
Leipzig. A new map showing the distribution of loess sediments in Europe has been published for the first time in 75 years, in digital format. With this map, Dagmar Haase, a geographer at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), has completed the work of various researchers who had begun as far back as the 1970s and 80s to revise the last comprehensive inventory produced by Rudolf Grahmann, which appeared in Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde in Leipzig in 1932. Haase and her colleagues have produced the new map with a scale of 1:2,500,000 with the help of modern digital information systems. [More]

A little help with the above map, in case your Eastern Europe memory is a little hazy. Where countries are:


Hmm - I'm looking for big production numbers to start coming out of Ukraine.

And in case you have forgotten about loess -

Whether they are lime-grey or dark black, loess sediments and the soils derived from them are of special importance for agriculture worldwide because they are some of the most fertile soils there are. In Germany, soil quality is given a rating using an index. The maximum value of 100 was attributed to the loess soil at Eickendorf in the Magdeburger Börde plains.

Loess sediments and their soils cover around one-tenth of the earth. In Europe, loess is a powdery product of glaciations during the Ice Age. During those cold periods, this very fine, light material was swept from bare regions on the edges of the glaciers and deposited in regions with denser vegetation. Loess consists largely of quartz grains and lime. The very fine grains ensure good aeration, water storage and mineral levels. This means that soils derived from loess are very fertile, like the black earth of the Börde plains, but are also particularly susceptible to erosion. It is therefore important to know where exactly these fertile soils so worthy of protection are to be found.
When people say they aren't making any more farmland, they are right. But what happens when really good land that has been abused or underutilized finally gets farmed well?

Meanwhile, to refresh your knowledge about how money gets distributed under the EU Common Agricultural Policy and more detail about the individual countries, try this helpful site.

I think the EU may point the way on farm program reform. What if they "unilaterally disarm" first?
Additionally, the European Union uses 87 percent of the world's export subsidies, which severely disadvantages U.S. exports. The U.S. utilizes only 3 percent and the rest of the world uses the remaining 10 percent.

“Farmers and ranchers are willing to lower farm program payments via WTO negotiations if — and only if — they can secure increased opportunities to sell their products overseas,” said Stallman. “However, we are not willing to unilaterally disarm.” [More]
People who routinely use the language of war to describe entitlement payments to a handful of farmers likely have never served in the military with real armaments or have children who now face them. The 2007 Farm Bill is not a war - Iraq is - and evoking the language of death and conflict for political advantage is contemptible and dismissive of the very real threat of very real armaments, IMHO.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

My guess is last Tuesday...

Economic forecasters are getting their chips down on early recession forecasts in the hope of winning the "Cassandra" derby and gain mucho exposure on CNBC and (O frabjous day!) and interview by a major money honey if they get lucky.
The analytic crowd likes to give odds on the U.S. economy falling into recession, but Merrill Lynch figures the consumer knows something Wall Street isn’t admitting: that a recession has already arrived.
Citing results from the latest University of Michigan survey of consumer sentiment, economist David Rosenberg points out that the year-over-year trend in buying intentions for large household goods is closing in on the pace that was evident just ahead of the last two economic downturns in 1990 and 2001. [More]
Most watched is the action of you and me and our credit cards during the early few months of the holiday season (now officially extending from Independence Day to the Ides of March). And some see a little spending fatigue.
The malaise in the mortgage market is starting to spread to credit-card and auto loans in what one analyst has dubbed consumer credit "contagion." It's an ominous warning signal for the economy.

Many of the nation's big banks and credit-card companies have begun acknowledging they are seeing a shift in consumer behavior, including more people unable pay off their debts.

Things are unraveling faster than expected for some like Capital One Financial Corp., which on Tuesday boosted its estimates for credit losses next year to potentially above $5-billion in part because of elevated delinquencies on its cards. [More]
Economists are watching the fallout from the housing market. The loss of the feeling of wealth and the ability to extract equity to fund consumption may just be beginning to be felt.
The question, though, is just how much consumers will restrain their free-spending ways. Research by economist Carroll suggests that every $1 decline in house prices lops about 9 cents off of spending. The current value of residential housing is about $21 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve. So if home prices fall by 10%, as many people expect, that would lead to roughly a $200 billion hit to spending over the next couple of years. A 15% tumble in home prices would produce a $300 billion pullback in spending, or about 3% of personal income.

That accords well with calculations by BEA economists. They figure that households took out $340 billion in cash from mortgage and home-equity financing in 2006. That source of funding could largely disappear over the next couple of years.

Three percent—that doesn't sound like a lot. Look a little closer, though, and it's a bigger hit than it seems. The reason is that much of what the government counts as consumer spending is not directly controlled by households. For example, the $1.7 trillion in medical costs is counted as consumer spending, but 85% of that is spent by the government and health insurers, not individuals. And $1.5 trillion in "housing services" is listed as part of consumer spending, but for homeowners it really just represents the value of living in a home rather than any spending they can change. It's mainly a bookkeeping convention, not a real outlay. [More]
[Note the value of residential real estate above : $21T. Now compare to the value of all farmland: $1.7T]

One of the odder statistics tracking our spending is the decline in the growth of gift cards. These were bona fide goldmines for retailers as as much as 27% of their value was never redeemed. Guess what - consumers have caught on. Whether the shrinkage or the impersonality of the gift card has finally turned recipients off, growth is slowing.
The past couple of holidays, you've patted yourself on the back for buying gift cards for your picky teenager or out-of-town relative. "They can choose what they want, and I get credit for being thoughtful," you've thought.

Well, hang on just a minute. While the popularity of gift cards has skyrocketed over the past four years, the rate of growth is slowing. The National Retail Federation said Tuesday that sales of gift cards would grow 6% to $26.3 billion in 2007. But that's much less than the 35% growth in 2006.

What's going on?

"Kids are getting bored with gift cards," says Candace Corlett of WSL Strategic Retail, a consulting firm.

Part of the problem is that the cards get lost or don't get used before their expiration dates, or the amount on the card is too small to buy anything decent. [More]
But while the consumer outlook is iffy, other experts see a different set of players in the US and global economy. For one, emerging economies like the RISC countries are growing more rapidly and could pick up much of the slack if American spenders tire.
The best hope that global growth can stay strong lies instead with emerging economies. A decade ago, the thought that so much depended on these crisis-prone places would have been terrifying. Yet thanks largely to economic reforms, their annual growth rate has surged to around 7%. This year they will contribute half of the globe's GDP growth, measured at market exchange rates, over three times as much as America. In the past, emerging economies have often needed bailing out by the rich world. This time they could be the rescuers.

Of course, a recession in America would reduce emerging economies' exports, but they are less vulnerable than they used to be. America's importance as an engine of global growth has been exaggerated. Since 2000 its share of world imports has dropped from 19% to 14%. Its vast current-account deficit has started to shrink, meaning that America is no longer pulling along the rest of the world. Yet growth in emerging economies has quickened, partly thanks to demand at home. In the first half of this year the increase in consumer spending (in actual dollar terms) in China and India added more to global GDP growth than that in America. [More]
One thing to remember as well: with the US dollar sinking, much of the overseas growth could help US-made products. A second economic "bright spot" is a questionable plus - US government spending, especially for the war. But this addition to the economy is more likely a huge cost instead.
You may recall that you got rid of your loyal White House economic adviser Lawrence B. Lindsey back in 2002 after, among other sins, he claimed that a war in Iraq might cost as much as $200 billion. At the time, White House staffers sneered that Lindsey was being alarmist. Hardly. One commonly cited estimate of Iraq's cost, based on an August analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, is $1 trillion, and that's probably on the low side. A report released last week by the Democratic staff of Congress's Joint Economic Committee put the war's 2002-08 tab at $1.3 trillion.

But all these figures don't quite get at Iraq's real cost. Indeed, we usually don't even frame the question the right way. We'd do better to recognize what we've lost, rather than focusing only on what we've paid.

We often think of cost simply in terms of dollars spent, but the real cost of a choice -- what economists call its "opportunity cost" -- consists of the forgone alternatives, of the things we could have had instead. For instance, the cost of seeing a movie is not just the dollars you plunked down for the ticket, but also the subtler cost of missing a dinner at home or a cocktail party at work. This idea sounds simple, but if applied consistently, it requires us to rethink and, yes, raise the costs of the Iraq war.

Set aside the question of what we could have accomplished at home with the energy and resources we've devoted to Iraq and concentrate just on national security. Here, the hidden cost of the war, above all, is that the United States has lost much of its ability to halt nuclear proliferation. [More of economist Tyler Cowen's superb essay]
All these factors seem to weighing on our citizens and coloring their deliberation of choices about the future. Not mere political choices, but economic and personal ones as well. I've never placed much weight in consumer confidence surveys, but the persistence of negativity in the US despite relatively good economic figures does not bode well.

If we are simply mistaken as status quo defenders allege, what will it take to make us cheer up and be more optimistic? If, on the other hand, our generalized foreboding arises from an intuitive judgment deep in our "old brains", it could prove to be remarkable prescient, simply because it can become self-fulfilling.

Are we entering (or in) a recession? Does anybody care in ag if corn stays over $4?

Let me know.

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

I smell another subsidy amendment for the 2007 (and counting) Farm Bill...

I think our Chinese counterparts have opened up a whole new avenue of payments for farmers.
When next summer's Olympics roll around, the Beijing Weather Modification Office will be poised to intercept incoming clouds, draining them before they get to the festivities. No fewer than 32,000 people nationwide are employed by the Weather Modification Office -- "some of them farmers, who are paid $100 a month to handle anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers" loaded with cloud-seeding compounds. Some estimate that up to 50 billion tons of artificial rain will be produced by 2010. But Taylor noted that this has resulted in competition between cities to seed clouds first, and bitter acrimony when when region receives water claimed by another. [More]

Another check and and artillery to boot - where do I sign up?

[via Marginal Revolution]

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