Sunday, August 31, 2008

Breaking news: Flies are hard to swat...

In case you just thought your reflexes are particularly slow, it's not you. 

It's the fly.  Nature made them unswattable.
Astonishingly quick thinking accounts for the ability of flies to avoid being swatted, scientists have discovered. High-speed imaging has revealed an ability to execute an emergency takeoff in a split second.

Within 200 milliseconds of spotting the looming swatter, the fly calculates the location of the threat and positions its legs for a jump in the safest direction.

All is not hopeless however.  Just follow this simple attack strategy.

"It is best not to swat at the fly's starting position, but rather aim a bit forward of that to anticipate where the fly is going to jump when it first sees your swatter," said Dickinson. Flies are also unable to register slow movement, making it possible to creep up on a fly before delivering the killer blow. [More]

Isn't this like the famous strategy of skating to where the puck will be?  And doesn't it require, like, precognition?  Besides another famous hockey player once said, "All hockey players are bilingual. They know English and profanity."  They are hardly the best sources for life plans.

I say bring back DDT.  Oddly it may not be all that crazy an idea.

 [via arbraoth]
Drilling our way to happiness...

One persistent theme by both campaigns is feeding the dream of supplying all the energy we want at "affordable" [read: cheap] prices by drilling more holes in the US. This could find new supplies, but those supplies are certainly not cheap.

Rising marginal production costs for additional barrels of oil put a pretty high long term floor on oil prices.

    Last year analysts estimated it cost around $60 a barrel to produce light oil from here. The most recent estimate from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) now puts that number at $75 to $90. Comparatively, Saudi Arabian crude is said to cost around $1 a barrel.

The oil tar sands in Alberta are not the only expensive place to produce oil. The deep water Gulf of Mexico oil has a similar cost.

    Peter Robertson, vice chairman of Chevron, recently told lawmakers that the cost of new production in the deep water Gulf of Mexico could exceed $95 a barrel.

I would expect Tupi and other deep water fields off of Brazil to have similar or even higher costs.

One can find a similar trend across the fossil fuels extraction industries. Chesapeake Energy, a big natural gas outfit, reports more than a doubling in the cost of natural gas extraction from 2Q 2003 to 2Q 2008.

A deep recession could cause prices to fall below marginal costs. But prices will eventually rise up to or above marginal production costs. The age of cheap fossil fuels has ended. We can't enter a new era in cheap energy prices without breakthroughs in solar, nuclear, and biomass energy. [Apologies for excerpting the whole post from Future Pundit, but check out the comments]

I can't see gasoline prices falling back to the $3 region anytime soon - even with a major global economic slump.  Oil supplies would fall due to cost of production, just like the crops we grow.  While this seemingly helps to put a floor under corn prices at least, it doesn't ensure profitablility every year - just enough to get the needed supplies.

I could see corn (and due to shadow prices, soy) prices echoing oil prices as our new paradigm in the Corn Belt.  This is fundamental change in what our industry is about, and how it operates.

More subtly, it will reward producers who can intuit how this new influence will affect future profits more than farmers who have simply mastered the old game.

Friday, August 29, 2008

A little backstory...

I have been watching the progression of [now] Hurricane Gustav with the same mild detachment as I watched Katrina and Rita. This is certainly not to my credit.  

But I began to wonder about the maps of projected paths I pored over.  What was the basis for these predictions?  Should I fall for them again?


This graphic shows an approximate representation of coastal areas under a hurricane warning (red), hurricane watch (pink), tropical storm warning (blue) and tropical storm watch (yellow). The orange circle indicates the current position of the center of the tropical cyclone. The black line and dots show the National Hurricane Center (NHC) forecast track of the center at the times indicated. The dot indicating the forecast center location will be black if the cyclone is forecast to be tropical and will be white with a black outline if the cyclone is forecast to be extratropical. If only an L is displayed, then the system is forecast to be a remnant low. The letter inside the dot indicates the NHC's forecast intensity for that time.

NHC forecast tracks of the center can be in error; track forecast errors in recent years were used to construct the areas of uncertainty for the first 3 days (solid white area) and for days 4 and 5 (white stippled area). These areas of uncertainty are formed by enclosing the area swept out by a set of circles (not shown) along the forecast track (at 12, 24, 36 hours, etc). The size of each circle is set so that two-thirds of historical official forecast errors over a 5-year sample fall within the circle. The historical data indicate the entire 5-day path of the center of the tropical cyclone will remain within the outer uncertainty area about 60-70% of the time. There is also uncertainty in the NHC intensity forecasts. The Maximum 1-minute Wind Speed Probability Table provides intensity forecast and uncertainty information.

It is also important to realize that a tropical cyclone is not a point. Their effects can span many hundreds of miles from the center. The area experiencing hurricane force (one-minute average wind speeds of at least 74 mph) and tropical storm force (one-minute average wind speeds of 39-73 mph) winds can extend well beyond the white areas shown enclosing the most likely track area of the center. The distribution of hurricane and tropical storm force winds in this tropical cyclone can be seen in the Wind History graphic linked above.   [More]
It is not the responsibility of NOAA to educate me on the graphical information they provide, but I appreciate the ability to learn more Indeed, if more of us just asked where numbers were coming from, I think we'd all be able to make better choices.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Our new bad habits...

Farmers are being slowly trained to alter some long-standing patterns of behavior. For many of us, we are now at least used to - if not comfortable with - buying inputs almost a year ahead, and at the same time, waiting (and waiting and waiting...) to sell.  Had we done more of both the last two years, the financial rewards would have been not just handsome, but gorgeous.

Driving the purchasing change is the fertilizer industry, especially at the retail level. While many producers grumble at suspected gouging, what the market will bear is ascertained at the top, not at the dealer position. And those guys know they have right where they want us.
This creates a much changed retail marketplace for producers who, up to now, have incurred some price risk as they purchase their fertilizer product. Price could rise if they had not priced their tons or it could fall after they had committed to a price. Most producers are accustomed to this kind of risk and routinely accept it.

But going forward producers will face the added risk of product or supply availability. With retailers unable to afford financing large inventories of un-priced fertilizer there is no assurance that enough product will be available when demand is high. If producers do not place an order and price the product well in advance, it may not be available when they need it.

An additional change in trade practices has evolved during the past 12 months at the wholesale level. Unlimited fertilizer supplies are no longer being offered to retailers from all manufacturers on a continuous basis. Defined quantities or ‘blocks’ of product are being offered on an intermittent basis to retailers. In many cases these quantities are less than the retailer would prefer to purchase or could sell promptly.

Keep communicating with dealer
This means that the retailer may no longer be able to offer a price for fertilizer product to all customers on a daily basis. Sales can be made only to the extent product has been made available for the retailer to purchase. While that quantity may be adequate to promptly fill some customer orders, it may be inadequate to meet all customer demand at the time.  [More]

At the same time our marketing has been rudely made impotent by breathtaking volatility.  In response, I have seen a common decision by many producers this summer: find a soothsayer.  Our assumption is we are simply intellectually incapable of selling in current market conditions.  Meanwhile there is a genius out there who can see clearly into the mists and deliver us mucho profit for a trivial fee.

The first assumption may be true in a way.  We may be short right now on the skills we need in these new market conditions, but I suspect these are more emotional than mental. As for the last assumption - a guru can save us - color me skeptical.  In fact, there is growing evidence, that the markets are acting the way they are because traders are acting more like farmers.
Much of what’s happening is a function of what economists call “herding.” In conditions of uncertainty, humans, like other animals, herd together for protection. In unstable markets, this leads to trend-following: buy when others buy, sell when they sell. Many studies have found that mutual-fund managers herd, for a couple of important reasons. First, herding offers money managers the reassurance that their performance, whether good or bad, won’t diverge too much from the norm. It also gives them a chance to piggyback on the knowledge of their competitors. That’s why, when a stock starts to rise, traders often assume that there must be a good reason, and therefore buy in order not to miss the party. This can create a feedback loop: as more people buy the stock, the more certain others become that there must be a good reason to do so (even if they don’t know what that is). And these feedback loops have been accentuated by the spread of quantitative-trading strategies that explicitly aim at riding the herd effect. These strategies can magnify trends instead of countering them. The result is that an individual stock can move up or down ten per cent on a day with no real news.

Uncertainty also stimulates big moves because traders react to it in an unusual way. Work done by Daniel Ellsberg in the early sixties suggests that, faced with ambiguity, most people try to minimize possible losses. But there’s considerable evidence that many traders, by contrast, deal with ambiguity by trying to maximize potential gains—thus the familiar dictum that volatility creates opportunities. In part, this is because it’s the job of traders to trade. But it’s also because market professionals appear to be chronically overconfident. A 2005 study of traders and investment bankers at two large banks, for instance, found that they significantly overestimated their knowledge of finance and the accuracy of their predictions. A 2002 survey of experienced foreign-exchange traders found, similarly, that they were far more sure of their market forecasts than performance justified. Overconfidence matters, because it can encourage excess trading. A study of individual investors by the economists Markus Glaser and Martin Weber, for instance, found that investors who thought more highly of their ability also traded more. What’s worse, the effect seems to be magnified in times of uncertainty. The business-school professors Itzhak Ben-David and John Doukas, in a study based on twenty years of trading by institutional investors, found that when there’s a profusion of “ambiguous information” about stocks investors trade more frequently, not less. And they do so even though, on average, they end up losing on their trades. [More]

My opinion is there is no cheap, effective substitute for direct hands-on market participation.  In fact, I think rather than farming it out, the returns for self-directed marketing may be higher than ever.  Moreover, once we lost the connection between what we do in the field and what happens in the bank account, I think both efforts suffer. 

Finally, as we outsource different tasks to hired guns, we run the risk of simply being a general contractor. In addition, we are incurring risks we cannot actively oversee, simply becuase they originate off-farm.

We can adapt.  We always do.  Even to today's markets.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

History can be fun...

A brief (heh) history of the bikini.



What?  You thought I was watching the convention?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Denmark gets the gold...

Certainly not an Olympic power, the Danish people could demonstrate how to win at being happy nonetheless.  In an exhaustive polling process, Danes once again proved to be the happiest people on the planet.  Of course they are relatively wealthy by any standard, but it seems the secret to happiness is more deeply buried.
Generally, a rising global sense of freedom in the last quarter-century has eclipsed the contribution of pure economic development to happiness, he says. This is especially evident in developed countries with stable economies, where the freedom of choice gained through wealth has made people happier—not necessarily the wealth itself.

What's more, "there are diminishing returns to economic progress," Inglehart says. In poorer countries, happiness can be linked to solidarity among tight-knit communities, religious conviction, and patriotism, which probably explains the happiness of some relatively poor Latin American countries, he says.

Social tolerance is another important factor in how happy a country rates itself. Over the last quarter-century, growing gender equality and acceptance of minorities and homosexuals has played a major role in those European countries found to be the most content. No. 7-ranked Switzerland, for instance, has elected two women as head of state in the last 10 years, while No. 4-ranked Iceland has recently passed laws guaranteeing virtually all the same rights to gay couples that married couples enjoy. "The less threatened people feel, the more tolerant they are," says Inglehart. Tolerance simply has a rippling effect that makes people happier.  [More]

The idea of tolerance has fallen from favor in the US.  How sad.  It is heartening to note that even the religious right has been eclipsed by voices of tolerance, instead of jeremiads of condemnation.

Maybe we have a chance to be as happy as the Danes.
The Hummerski...

The Russians, who were famous in my time at least for mammoth, and staggeringly inefficient architecture, machinery, and politics are interested in buying The Hummer.
Oleg Deripaska, Russia's richest man, has been in talks with General Motors about purchasing the Hummer brand, the US military's Humvee inspired gas-guzzler.

The Russian oligarch was in discussions with GM, according to Reuters, though any sort of final deal is a long way off. GM is looking to avert a complete financial catastrophe with Hummer sales off 40% in June. A spate of brand selling could be on the cards if the company is to try and make a turnaround.

The drop in Hummer sales has largely been attributed to the increase in gasoline prices as American drivers exchange their beloved SUV's for Toyota Hybrids en masse. [More]
Interestingly, while the connection to cheap gas seems obvious, Russian oil may have peaked.
Most of the oil produced after the country's 1998 financial collapse has come from drilling and re-drilling old Soviet oil fields with more advanced equipment - squeezing more black gold out of the same ground - and efforts to develop new fields have been slow or non-existent.

That strategy is potentially disastrous, said Valery Kryukov, who researches oil companies in western Siberia for a government-funded think tank.

"If the situation which exists now stays the same, oil production will start to decline seriously in two years," Kryukov said in a phone interview from his offices in the city of Novosibirsk.

The implications extend far beyond Russia's borders. Last year, Russia was the world's second-largest oil producer. If its output begins to decline or is hampered by inept or corrupt business practices, the price of oil could begin climbing again. [More]

Lemme see - what are the odds of corruption or ineptness in today's Russia?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Another reason I'm self-employed...

Job interviews have gotten weird. Especially for tech-types.


[More]
Keeping free trade score...

John McCain has an impressive record as a free trader.  What is even more interesting is the majority of the votes (9 of 14 bills) to determine the anti-trade subsidy votes are on farm bills or farm policy

Bluntly put, agriculture is the problem with our trade policy.

Given their opposition to free trade as expressed by our farm program, most farmers should be in love with Obama's [admittedly much smaller] record of protectionism.
Signs of the times...

Great signs from around the world(Translation can cause some problems).

 
 [More]
And all without a goverment program...

Maybe we could learn something about caring for the soil from those at the bottom rung of our profession in terms of resources.
In Burkina, Mathieu Ouédraogo was there from the beginning. He assembled the farmers in his area, and by 1981 they were experimenting together with techniques to restore the soil, some of them traditions that Ouédraogo had heard about in school. One of them was cordons pierreux: long lines of stones, each perhaps the size of a big fist. Snagged by the cordon, rains washing over crusty Sahelian soil pause long enough to percolate. Suspended silt falls to the bottom, along with seeds that sprout in this slightly richer environment. The line of stones becomes a line of plants that slows the water further. More seeds sprout at the upstream edge. Grasses are replaced by shrubs and trees, which enrich the soil with falling leaves. In a few years a simple line of rocks can restore an entire field.

For a time Ouédraogo worked with a farmer named Yacouba Sawadogo. Innovative and independent-minded, he wanted to stay on his farm with his three wives and 31 children. "From my grandfather's grandfather's grandfather, we were always here," he says. Sawadogo, too, laid cordons pierreux across his fields. But during the dry season he also hacked thousands of foot-deep holes in his fields—zaï, as they are called, a technique he had heard about from his parents. Sawadogo salted each pit with manure, which attracted termites. The termites digested the organic matter, making its nutrients more readily available to plants. Equally important, the insects dug channels in the soil. When the rains came, water trickled through the termite holes into the ground. In each hole Sawadogo planted trees. "Without trees, no soil," he says. The trees thrived in the looser, wetter soil in each zai. Stone by stone, hole by hole, Sawadogo turned 50 acres of wasteland into the biggest private forest for hundreds of miles. [More of a superb article about the world's soil]

The two most important requirments are for good agriculture seem to me to be personal freedom (to own, operate, compete and market) and information. Top-down programs are usually too inflexible and economically counterproductive. If farmers can't see the wisdom in appropriate soil conservation practices, they will soon be replaced by those who do.

The argument is offered that too much damage will be inflicted on the land by foolish operators before they go under, but simple result-based measurements (no more than X T/a erosion per year, for example) can identify them earlier.  Of course, our professional community does not take much of a shine to performance-based referee calls. But as we struggle to evolve from artisans to a true profession (I know - how elitist is that?) we're going to have to get used being expected to meet standards of conduct.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A better scam than DCP's...

Boy - think how tough it would be to get by without that direct payment this year!  I mean with gross income from corn over $1000 that $25 is C-R-U-C-I-A-L.  Well, there is a better game in town.
 The National Farmers Union said this month that some of its members had been paid a total of $8 million since 2006 by the Chicago Climate Exchange for taking voluntary actions such as no-till farming. The technique arguably cuts emissions by leaving crop waste undisturbed to decay under the soil.
But many farmers began practicing no-till years before members signed agreements with the CCX, and that is where the problem lies.
Liz Friedlander, a spokeswoman for the NFU, said many of the farmers who received the payments had made no recent changes in the way they farm. "It's not really a huge sacrifice on their part to do it," she said.
Carbon market traders have coined such credits "anyway tonnes" -- meaning they represent emissions reductions that would have happened anyway, even if the exchange did not exist. Many companies looking to offset their emissions avoid these tonnes altogether, fearing they may damage their image.
The CCX, which is run by Britain's Climate Exchange Plc , boasts a member base of over 350 members including companies, nonprofit organizations and cities, all of which voluntarily sign a legally-binding pledge to cut emissions. If members can't do so they must buy credits over the exchange, such as the no-till credits, that profess to represent emissions reductions. [More]

Almost reminds you of the the Conservation Security Program.  Another questionable attempt to spread no-till to the unbelievers. Or to simply give current adherents a check for doing were doing for free.

The trouble around here is after this spring where no-till took a real beating compared to conventional methods. Still, ya gotta wonder what we'll talk outsiders into paying us for next.

Personally, I'd like a check for mowing my roads.

Friday, August 22, 2008

I'm a Vasco de Gama-plus...

OK, another chance to prove you're smarter than me.

NameThatCity.com
NameThatCity.com - Identify The City

I wasn't really trying...

Honest.
I'm shocked - shocked, I tell you!...

My mechanic-hero confesses and falls from his pedestal.

What is happening to America!!!
The ultimate BTO...

Monsanto's announcement of breathtaking seed price increases has produced some rumbling amongst the loyal.  Some of this response is defensive sniveling of course, but much of it I believe, arises from their sheer size and market dominance.  Regardless of the actions of large organizations, obvious dominance can be off-putting.

Ask WalMart.

But there can always be a bigger dog under the porch. And my hunch it is where big is being re-defined: China.
Whether changing minds or changing markets will be easier is difficult to say. UC Davis's Ronald says she thinks "a sea change in acceptance" will come about when people associate GM food with papaya or golden rice, not with Monsanto. And according to her, the current food crisis will completely reshape the discussion on genetic engineering. Then again, China might galvanize global GM acceptance. "If China is genetically engineering rice, there's going to be less of an inhibition for others," says Ronald. "Though they've not yet distributed GM rice broadly to farmers, there are a lot of rumors that they soon will. Most people think they're just getting their seeds in order." [More]

That China is investing in biotech crops is not news.  But just like we discovered in textiles, shoes, electronics, computers, etc. when they truly arrive in a market, they take up a lot of space.  Imagine what GM seed from China would do to our seed corn market, for instance.  With the profit margins outshining even the gaming industry, I gotta believe China is throwing brainpower at this technology like crazy.  I also think that Monsanto and other seed giants could discover what other industries are facing faster than we all imagine.

The Chinese have already developed genetically engineered rice strains with bred-in pest and disease resistance. They’re also experimenting with new nitrogen-efficient rice that needs only half as much fertilizer to get top yields. The new rice thus costs much less to grow, and emits far less greenhouse gas per ton of rice produced. They also say biotech rice “escapes” will not be a problem, since they’ve pre-programmed the rice to be hyper-sensitive to a particular herbicide.

China already permits the growing of genetically engineered peppers, tomatoes, and papaya, and much of its huge cotton crop is genetically modified to resist pests. Biotech has overcome the deadly ringspot virus, which severely hampers papaya production in much of the world, and provided virus resistance for tomatoes and peppers. Another genetic modification permits Chinese tomatoes to survive the longer shipping delays caused by the poor Chinese roads and lack of refrigeration. [More]
Our assumption that China will just be the manufacturer for the world dismisses too lightly the power of that many brains with that much to gain.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The art of wanting what you get...

Not only are Amish communities not disappearing, they have expanded surprisingly fast.  While the core beliefs undoubtedly provide the glue of these communities, it is striking that the agrarian lifestyle undergirds their group success, while industrial agriculture picks up the load of providing the vast bulk of commodities.  In short, the Amish have found a way to live successful lives even with marginal economic impact on farming as a whole.  They have quietly created another model for satisfaction in our profession.
States such as Missouri, Kentucky and Minnesota have seen increases of more than 130 percent in their Amish populations. The Amish now number an estimated 227,000 nationwide, up from 123,000 in 1992, according to Elizabethtown College researchers.

"When we think they might be dying out or merely surviving, they are actually thriving," said professor Don Kraybill, who shared data from an upcoming book with The Associated Press.

The Amish are Christians who reject most modern conveniences. They began arriving in Pennsylvania around 1730. Amish couples typically have five or more children. With more than four out of every five deciding in young adulthood to remain in the church, their population has grown. More than half the population is younger than 21. A small portion of the increase is also due to conversions to the faith. [More]

Even as my own son has returned to the farm, and while I notice more young faces in farm audiences, it is agrarian agriculture like the Amish that has the most job openings.

It would also seem these positions may have the best benefits as well.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The how do you explain Charlie Brown?...

Men with round faces are more aggressive

You don't think I would make something like that up, now?

The male sex hormone testosterone makes faces more circular and now scientists have studied whether this characteristic is also linked to behaviour.
    
The shape of the face may have been honed by evolution to mark a man likely to be aggressive

A Canadian team studied 90 ice hockey players and found the rounder the face, the more aggressive the players.

For male varsity and professional hockey players, the facial ratio was linked in a statistically significant way with the number of penalty minutes per game, report Justin Carre and Prof Cheryl McCormick of Brock University, Ontario. [More]

Wait - there are non-aggressive hockey players?

[via neatorama]
Good move by AB...

While the city of St. Louis is is mourning and millions of Bud Lite drinkers are sobbing in their, well, beer, I'm beginning to believe the sudsy sellout was a shrewd move by the frankly outgunned AB board.  To being with, they are slowly losing ground to beers with a startling new characteristic: flavor.
 

The latest hot trend in the "other" pie slice is ale.  While it sounds worse than it is, I think it simply points out a new freedom being exercised by beer drinkers across the US.  Microbrews are more about taste, not alcohol.  They are also a chance to display discerning judgment.
Such good cheer may seem odd, given that beer seems to be falling out of favour in Britain. Sales have dropped by 9% over the past decade, in part because wine has grown more popular. But not all beers are the same. The festival was organised by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), a 90,000-strong lobbying group promoting traditional, unpasteurised, unfiltered beer, stored and served from casks wherein, with live yeast, it continues to ferment.

Sales of real ale have bucked beer’s downward trend. According to TNS, a market-research firm, the volume of real-ale sales has grown by 3% over the past year, whereas total beer sales were flat. Among all alcoholic drinks, only cider and wine performed better. Around 600 breweries now produce real ale, says Adrian Tierney-Jones, a journalist and beer expert. Their number has doubled in 15 years.

Beer boosters argue that consumers prefer a higher-quality product. The stewards at Earls Court draw a contemptuous distinction between real ale and the “dead and lifeless” mass-produced lagers sold by the four brewers that dominate the British market. A wholesome image helps too, says one: “Nobody likes a lager lout, but have you ever heard of a real-ale lout?” [More]
Of course, these are Brits who have drinking brews of all kinds for a millenia longer than we have. But it is a trend with legs, I think.

The more interesting possibility for me is the AB stance on GM rice.   While nominally opposed, critics say there are tests on beer which show GM.
An independent laboratory, commissioned by Greenpeace, detected the presence of GE rice (Bayer LL601) in three out of four samples taken at a mill operated by the mega-brewer. Since 2006, GE contamination has been found in approximately 30 percent of US rice stocks, negatively impacting the US rice industry because foreign markets have not approved GE rice.

“Beer drinkers need Anheuser-Busch to explain why it is not preventing use of this genetically-engineered rice in the US. If, as the company has informed Greenpeace, all of the Budweiser exported from the US or manufactured outside of the US is guaranteed GE free then Anheuser-Busch needs to state this publicly, and explain the double standard,” said Doreen Stabinsky, Greenpeace International GE Campaigner.

LL601 GE rice was retroactively granted approval by the US Dept of Agriculture in an effort to reduce public concern and company liability despite 15,000 public objections. Anheuser-Busch is the largest single rice buyer in the US, buying 6-10% of the annual US rice crop. Budweiser is one of only a few American beers to use rice as an adjunct ingredient. The brand is found in around 60 countries through a mix of exports and local brewing arrangements. [More]

It could be this gradualist approach is the best way to acclimate customers to GM ingredients.  After all, we have enough positive data with other GM crops to predict a lack of deleterious effects.  But will the new management decide the time is right to put a smile on fellow St. Louis behemoth Monsanto's face by openly buying GM rice?

I wouldn't be surprised, but then I've been drinking.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Why we are moving beyond race...

For all the kefuffle over the "race card" in this election, it is really whistling in the wind. The demographic trends are clear and accelerating.


 [More]

The real secret is agriculture is on the front lines of this shift. I have heard from tobacco farmers, dairymen, and irrigated growers who have tapped into the Hispanic labor pool and found great advantages.

Not to mention our meat industry , hog producers, and horticulture industry.

Good workers soon make labels disappear.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Are you a red shirt?...



It only took a few episodes before we picked up this pattern: security guys die. Still, ya had to admire their mindless persistence.

[via optical poptitude]
Sustainable aviation...

Whither flying?  I remember a moment in O'Hare, when after several years of looking at road warriors whose weariness was evinced by labored step and rumpled clothes, I realized I was they...I was them...them and I...we was one...


Jeez..never mind.  Let's just say I was the one of those people whose day was made when the TSA announced laptop-friendly cases.

We could be (oh, please, God!) a vanishing breed.  Air travel might be a long-term victim of high energy costs. In a fantastic article, Bradford Plumer examines the future of flying.  While he offers a wonderful summary of trends and implications, it was this paragraph that stunned me.
More important, if less evident, was the air-freight revolution of the 1980s, as companies like Federal Express bought up planes and transformed logistics and shipping in the United States, creating a system that sped up deliveries, gave the economy vast new flexibility, and fueled the rise of Internet distributors like Amazon and eBay. Air freight now plays a huge role globally, carrying, for instance, one-third of the value of all U.S. imports. And the system relies heavily on cheap fuel: Every night, FedEx keeps a number of empty planes up in the air, to better respond to requests at a moment's notice. [More] [My emphasis]
I find myself agreeing with many of his predictions.  Viewed from a distance the enormous expenditure of energy to pretend to ignore gravity cannot be the way of the future.

Others feel bigger (and necessarily, fewer) planes are the answer.
Some have expressed concern over the environmental impact a plane of the size of the A380 may have. However, powered by American aircraft engine maker, Engine Alliance's GP7200 engines, A380s have a range of up to 9,320 miles and offer better fuel economy per passenger mile than most hybrid passenger cars, burning just 3.1 litres of fuel per passenger per 100 kilometres which equates to 20% less fuel per seat than today's largest aircraft.

The distribution of digital in flight magazines will also save 2kg per seat, or almost one tonne, per aircraft, helping to make the A380 one of the greenest aircraft in the skies. [More]
I'm less sure that economies of scale will help us that much.  What it will do is concentrate traftic to those few airports that can attract and handle such leviathans.

All this may seem far from our farms and futures, but I'm not so sure.  As we have, until recently, allowed our most limited asset to be owned by others, these off-farm landlords could be even more distant.  While this seems like a good thing for many, it also implies the rental choice will also be made at a distance.

In other words, we will have to develop a presence on paper, on-line, even by phone that replaces face-to-face communications and local reputation. Few of us are truly ready for that degree of abstraction.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Another reason I like Omaha Steaks*...



Dry ice and liquid soap.

*It's where I get my dry ice.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Ouch...

From a post about rich people having more kids these days:
The lesson, I suspect, is that status is usually local status. When they pursue status, most people aren't trying to impress Brad Pitt or the Rockefellers; they're trying to impress the five or six slobs that they see every day. The best way to achieve this, strangely, is to excel in whatever this handful of slobs happens to value.

Take blogging. Most people think it's a ridiculous waste of time. I can't think of any super-rich bloggers. So why do bloggers do it? To a large degree, their goal is to raise their status with other bloggers. [More]

Luckily, I having crushingly superior refutation to this assertion.

Not, not, not!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Grandparent stuff...

As we have just increased our grandchild population 100% (Leah Abigail, born yesterday) I thought I would post this idea for Christmas for those with children into farm toys.

 
 The corrals are made of 3/8" solid rod. There are a 6 panels 8" tall and 19" long. There are 5 panels 8" long and 8" tall. The loading chute is 9" long 14" tall and has 5 height settings for different height trucks. The loading chute can be personalized with names, brands and short messages. We use a computerized plasma torch to personalize each set to your needs. The set's weight is 52 lbs. The wheels are wood made with a 2 1/4 hole saw. We wire weld the sets together and paint different colors , mainly almond or red. The portable set that is welded together has latches that are welded in so they connote be lost. We charge $300.00 plus shipping.

    We also make a set of panels that come apart. The 19" panels are $15.00 each. The 8" tall and 8" long are $12.00 each. The loading chute is $125.00 with names and brands. The trailer to haul the panels is $50.00 . So you can get as many as you want . The trailer can hold 12 long 12 short panels and has a hitch on the back to pull the portable chute.

    We also make a 16" half top easy trailer with a center gate. We can put a name in the side of the top and a brand in the front nose cone. We are working on a flat bed pickup that pulls the trailer . It has a grease zerk for a ball and will pickup a wood round bale and will also be able to have a cake box.

    We are making a straight deck cattle trailer with a half gate and funnel gate. We can put names in the front porch light . The back axles slide. We are also making the truck to pull the trailer.

    We have a rodeo arena with roping box that opens with springs and bucking chutes and a return alley. It can also be personalized.  [More]
Of course, you can always just tell people it's for your grandchild...

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Not the #1 customer...

A wakeup call for 23957 N 2100 St.  Our phone (landline) went out after several days of increasing static on the line.  This was last Tuesday.  It has been our experience Verizon would send out a repair person usually same day, but always within 24 hours.


Not this time. After wading through a 5-6 layer phone tree and agreeing to all the caveats (if it's your wiring it will cost you $18,472 dollars; there better not be a fence; or a dog; etc.) we were informed they might be able to send someone out around a week from Thursday (about 8 days).

Hello?

Rural America has relied upon government mandated service delivery funded by the other 98% of the customers. Running and maintaining landlines to my house is a horrendously costly expense, I know.  I just didn't think it would happen so fast.

We going to be on our own out here.  I can even see some deal where power companies will supply some type of generators and take us off the grid.  This sounds apocalyptic, I know, but the economics will force the problem eventually.

With few people, government services are hard to justify, especially to affluent (see current corn prices) farms.  Just like the effort to stop sending teensy DCP checks out, relief from utility service mandates have to be a rational step to better use of dwindling public money.
Sometimes graphs say it best...

For those of us handicapping the election, the turnout for younger people has been of great interest.  Will it actually happen (for once)?
Many a political campaign has been premised on the idea of motivating and turning out young voters; most have failed. If the young voter ruled American politics, George McGovern would have walloped Richard Nixon, and Howard Dean would be finishing up his first term.

Indeed, youth turnout rates in recent elections have been downright pathetic. In 1972, the first year 18-year-olds had the right to vote, nearly half of citizens aged 18-24 turned out to the ballot box. But by 1976, with the Vietnam War off the table, the turnout rate plummeted to 42%. It has since fallen as low as 32% in 2000 before rebounding slightly in 2004.  [More]



[More of a concise analysis]
In a superbly straightforward explanation of who is how old and what they do with their votes, Political Arithmetik sheds much needed light on the subject.
The Obama campaign may be right that they can gain votes by mobilizing the young. But the old play a bigger role in elections, and they are not imovable in their vote preferences. Indeed, they make the youngest group seem a bit static by comparison. It is not the candidate's age that will be the key to winning the votes of those 60 and over. Issues and personality will play a large role. Any candidate would be well advised to recognize that the dynamic swings among older voters coupled with their substantial over-representation makes them a potent force for electoral change.
A large turnout of younger voters has to occur eventually. But if it begins this year to shift the focus of political campaigning, I think we look experience modestly longer planning horizons for once, insted of what are you doing for me right now.  Squeezing baby boomers out of the spotlight would be a relief to all the other age cohorts and I suspect, even a relief to many of us.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Uh-oh...

Much of the prosperity in the grain industry is being driven by exports to growing economies around the world, but especially Asia.  While Japan has fallen into the shadow of China, it is still a larger economy and a principal driver of the Asian area.  It looks like they are back to the bad old days of the '90's.
Japan's economy contracted last quarter, bringing the country to the brink of its first recession in six years, as exports fell and consumers spent less.

Gross domestic product shrank an annualized 2.4 percent in the three months ended June 30 after expanding 3.2 percent in the first quarter, the Cabinet Office said today in Tokyo. The Nikkei 225 Stock Average fell the most in a month.

Exports fell the most since the 2001-2002 recession, robbing Japan of the engine that drove its longest postwar expansion, while record fuel and food prices deterred spending at home. Toyota Motor Corp. last week reported its worst earnings decline in five years as U.S. sales slumped, and Japan Airlines Corp. said it will cut wages to counter rising costs.

``The economy will keep flying at a low level this year as demand weakens, even from Europe and Asia,'' said Hiromichi Shirakawa, chief economist at Credit Suisse Group in Tokyo. ``Japan's economy is deteriorating.'' [More]

Of course, while Japan trod water, the US economy roared, so we can definitely have good times without them on board. But the Japan-China connection of trade and growth could be a drag factor for the Chinese.

But longer run, the continuing fitful performance of the Japanese economy could affect us by slowing their purchase of our debt - which our government is producing with gusto. It could turn out that our Fed will not have the ability to dictate intetest rates as easily as we have come to expect. Our debt customers may set the price.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Maybe all the creative minds are in marketing now...





 [More]

 We sure don't see this kind of imagination in say, farm policy.
The words of the master...

Dave Barry, the undisputed Angelina Jolie of Humor Writing covers the Olympics.
Now you are in Beijing traffic, which is like an exciting video game with the bonus element of potential death. You have fast-moving cars, trucks and buses; you have a wide variety of mutant two-and-three-wheeled motorbike-contraptions putting along at minus two miles per hour; you have many bicycles, sometimes with an entire family on the one bicycle, dad pedaling, mom balanced behind him, holding a baby; and you have the occasional pushcart, stacked high with what appears to be trash. All of these vehicles are competing for the same packed road space, and nobody ever yields to anybody. Left turns routinely produce dramatic oncoming-bus moments that cause you to very nearly void your clueless western bladder.

Sometimes your driver will gesture at another vehicle, then turn to you and say something in Chinese, which you interpret to mean, ''Can you BELIEVE these morons?'' You answer ''Ha ha!,'' meaning it in the sense of ``Please resume watching the road.'' [More]

I know my place.
How important was the Argentine farmer strike?...

Pretty dang important.
It is no longer an issue of popularity. It is an issue of political and economic clout. The repeal of the tariff initiative was a powerful blow to the government’s purse. With soybean prices on the decline, the outlook is even worse. Although tax revenues soared 40.3 percent y/y in July, approximately 81 percent of the primary surplus was generated by soybean tariffs. Now the surplus is shrinking.

The Kirchners increased spending during the crisis in order to buy friends and influence, but a reduction in government revenues will soon leave them stranded. The government froze provincial transfers last week, as well as some public spending programs. It is only a matter of time until the labor unions turns their backs on the presidential duo. The loss of economic clout translates to less political power. The Peronists are split in two, with more than half of the party under the command of former President Duhalde. This is the reason why people are doubting that the Kirchners will make it to the end of the year. [More]

Imagine if the US funded itself with taxes on agriculture! The downside is the Argentine economy will likely spasm for several months in reaction to the political fallout.  Given the rise in ag input prices, this uncertainty will likely make real headaches for growers there.

A day's drive south of Buenos Aires in a town called Coronel Suarez, Facundo Gallardo grows corn and soybeans on land his family has tilled for half a century. With the high prices of global commodities, this should be the best of times in the world's biggest supplier of soy oil, second-largest producer of corn, and third-biggest shipper of soybeans. "Business would be great if I was anywhere but Argentina," Gallardo, 47, fumes. "Margins are shrinking all the time."

Fertilizer prices have more than doubled over the past year and the price of diesel, while relatively cheap at 97% a gallon, has zoomed up by 30% to 50%. Worse, the President and her husband "hate us," Gallardo laments. President Cristina Fernndez de Kirchner, whose husband Nestor Kirchner ran the nation between 2003 and 2007, in March jacked up crop export taxes to raise government revenue and keep food prices down at home. The tax burden on farmers today exceeds 55%. [More]

So regardless what the crop report does to prices today, remember: it could be worse.

Monday, August 11, 2008

I probably won't get the crop report right either...

Behold - the US State Quarters test:


 
FWIW: my score 65%

[Feel free to add "Neener, neener, neener" to your score when you comment.]

Another one.
Finding the Goldilocks food price...

OK, we mostly agreed very low commodity prices were bad for poor farmers in the Third World.  But now high prices aren't helping them that much either, it seems.
Of course, there are winners and losers for every major change in the global economy, and it stands to reason that some poor farmers will find a way to profit from inflation. Says Columbia University economist Sanjay Reddy, who teaches courses on world poverty and development economics, a few "may have only to walk down the road and sell their produce for a lower price than people are paying." Reddy also notes that there's a difference between landowners and the landless; clearly, the former have a somewhat better chance of eking out some profit. But for most of the rural poor, the odds of cashing in are dismal.

So is there perfect price that wouldn't impoverish either farmers or consumers? Not really, says Reddy: "Price always involves a conflict of interest." That's logical enough: The higher price is in the interest of the seller, and the lower price is in the interest of the buyer. At times, the policies poor countries have adopted to make food more affordable for consumers—such as government-enforced price depression in sub-Saharan African nations—have created "terrible conditions for agriculture," says Reddy.

Agreeing it's a tricky balance, De Schutter emphasizes the need to protect consumers while also using "the increase in prices as an opportunity to promote investments in agriculture in developing countries." To that end, he points out, it's important not to bring prices down, but to help households cope with higher prices through more programs to help the poor such as school breakfast and lunch programs, cash assistance, and cash-for-work programs. This could be sensible in the U.S. context, too: In a recent hearing on economic woes here, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., observed that countries with stronger social safety nets are better able to shield their citizens from the effects of inflation, and thus can pursue a more balanced monetary policy, while in the United States, if we don't control inflation, people are left in truly dire straits. In May, Second Harvest, a national network of food pantries, reported that attendance was up 15 percent to 20 percent, with 100 percent of food pantries seeing an increase. [More]

The difficulty in finding the right price by computer simulation or economic analysis should us to encourage the use of a tried-and-true iterative device called: The Market. Decreasing subsidies (and trade barriers) would doubltess cause significant dislocations, but trying to prevent them with economic guesses simply makes those transitions larger and more painful.

Instituting a better safety net for farmers who choose to leave the business, which would permit rationalization of backward ag production systems, might make more sense that dictating unsuccessfully food and commodity prices from a government bureau.

The same principles would work well here too. If we don't free up our corn market from mandates we will fruitlessly struggle to find a price that allocates to hogs and chickens and ethanol.  Worse yet, we could be in the process right now of reaching a false equilibrium price for corn that poses a significant hazard to farmers going forward in the future. Mandates don't strike me as politically or economically sustainable for too long.

But boy - have I been wrong about those types of projections.
And while we're in England...

I think we can find a heads-up for a buzz-phrase that will be overused in speeches here as well.  I have noted it a few times, but we in the Pedant Police can't issue enough alarms.
For the last few months I've been on a mission to rid the world of the phrase "going forward". But now I see that the way forward is to admit defeat. This most horrid phrase is with us on a go-forward basis, like it or not.

I reached this sad conclusion early one morning a couple of weeks ago when listening to Farming Today. A man from the National Farmers' Union was talking about matters down on the farm and he uttered three "going forwards" in 28 seconds.

The previous radio record, by my reckoning, was held by Robert Peston, the BBC's business editor. He managed three going forwards in four minutes on the Today programme, but then maybe that wasn't such a huge achievement when you think that he spends his life rubbing shoulders with business people. And they say going forward every time they want to make any comment about the future, which is rather often. But for the farmer, who spends his life rubbing shoulders with cows, to say it so often represented a linguistic landmark. If the farms of England are now going forward, then there is no turning back for any of us.  [More from an upset language warchguard]
Ya notice how the last  straw was a farmer using the despised phrase. Apparently we are still the lowest common denominators for communications skills.
Mowing Stonehenge...


[More]

Hey, somebody had to do it.

The 50's were so obliviously cool.


[via neatorama]

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Genetically-modified hunger...

One of the more strained arguments for deploying GM technology world-wide over the wishes of detractors has been the promise of decreasing hunger.  That is a credible argument, but only in the first derivative: since GM crops are about corn, soy, canola and cotton, yield increases in these crops would free up acres to grow, you know, food.
By contrast, relatively little GM investment is going into the crops that do matter to poor farmers—cassava, sorghum, millet, pigeon pea, chickpea, and groundnut. These crops are more nutritionally balanced than corn or soybeans and are far better suited to the local soils and often-tough climates of poor nations. Yet, because poor farmers can't afford high-tech seeds, GM companies have little incentive to invest research dollars to improve "marginal" crops. Instead, they focus on the money makers: According to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, just four commercial crops—corn, soybeans, canola, and cotton—account for 85 percent of all GM crops planted worldwide. [More]

That's certainly not an indictment against GM crops, just an observation. While acceptance of GM is as American as bratwurst, it is not a panacea for most of the world.  At least, not yet.

When I was in Denmark, I spoke with a farmer who headed a large cooperative.  He was an impressive farm leader, and I was frankly taken aback by his antipathy toward Monsanto, as opposed to GMO's in general.  It seems to stem from legal action initiated by Monsanto in separate EU countries to force GM seed acceptance.  While the effort has been unsuccessful to date, one thing the litigation campaign did accomplish is shift this producer who was generally interesting in finding ways to introduce GM seeds to his operation into an adversary.

Surprisingly, more than one European producer acknowledged the disadvantage EU prohibitions have caused and more importantly, the competitive disadvantage this was saddling European producers with. We often forget how many small changes in our production techniques arose when we started planting GM seeds.  You don't just buy a bag of RR seed and catch up. EU growers now realize this.

What I can't understand is the over-the-top push. Biotech solves problems. Allowing farmers and consumers to discover this in their own time may not make the nearby quarterly profit forecasts as scintillating, but it could mean there would be more years of profit in the long run.
Reading without sleeping...

At the corn college, one long-time reader of this blog was comparing experiences with me on listening to books versus reading them. He told me on the trip over to Illinois, he listened to The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka.

Ooookay.  

Color me tres impressed. But I also flinched just thinking about it.  Great books tend to be books that can lull me senseless in ten minutes, largely due the the intricacy of the thinking, but even more so by the style of writing. I think I have read a total of six pages of Kafka in my life.
Kafka often made extensive use of a trait special to the German language allowing for long sentences that sometimes can span an entire page. Kafka's sentences then deliver an unexpected impact just before the full stop - that being the finalizing meaning and focus. This is achieved due to the construction of certain sentences in German which require that the verb be positioned at the end of the sentence. Such constructions cannot be duplicated in English, so it is up to the translator to provide the reader with the same effect found in the original text.[12] One such instance of a Kafka translator's quandary is demonstrated in the first sentence of The Metamorphosis. [More]
But after we spoke, it dawned on me this is at the heart of the enjoyment I have been having with the lectures and books I listen to in the car while commuting to South Bend.  I finally get to "read" some serious thinking without struggling to stay awake.

The traffic on I-65 and the Indiana Tollway accomplishes that task very efficiently.

Still, I think I'll pass on James Joyce.


[BTW, I'm halfway through "Emperors of Rome" in the Great Courses.  Really good, second only to "The Viking Age"]

Friday, August 08, 2008

The Earth rocks...

Dude!  Like, I mean the actual rocks.

*Gnarly.


 The result of a collaboration between 100 organizations spanning over 70 countries, OneGeology marks the first international effort to strip the Earth to its core to unveil its underlying geological features. The series of maps available on the website allows users to identify the different types of rocks by color.

Maps and geological data are available for 29 countries so far, with more to come in the near future. According to Nature's Katrina Charles, one aim of the project is to help make mineral extraction opportunities easier to find -- a hook that made several countries, including Brazil, Australia and Canada, eager to take part.  [More]


 *Who says old farmers can't be happening daddy-o's?


(What?  Really?  When did it stop being cool?)

[via andrew sullivan]
Chicago, we have a problem...

No, wait.  Maybe not...

I gave up on trying to figure out what the %@# was going on with the basis this year.  And I think it was a good choice of my time and stomach pH.  The best minds in the industry can't seem to put their finger on a problem or even describe accurately what is going on.
In our view, all of the proposed solutions put the cart before the horse because we have yet to nail down exactly what caused the convergence problems observed over the last couple of years. A relevant observation in this regard is that the nature of convergence problems has been inconsistent through time and across markets. Convergence in wheat was weakest during 2006 but recovered somewhat in late 2007 and early 2008, only to return to very poor performance with the most recent contract expiration (May 2008). Convergence in soybeans was weakest in the second half of 2007 and the first half of 2008. The inconsistency makes it difficult to identify a single cause and difficult to accept a one-solution remedy.

Without a consensus as to the causes of poor convergence performance, it is questionable whether substantial changes in contract specifications are appropriate at the present time. Unintended consequences could be worse than a poorly designed remedy, particularly if market conditions change in the near future. Tweaking some contract specifications and monitoring performance makes sense, but may not be palatable to market participants who would like an immediate fix. [More, but a better summary - as usual - by Stu Ellis here]

My crude assumption on wild and enormous basis numbers was grain merchandisers were blindly trying anything to gain some financial protection from torrid futures markets.  The wide basis looked to me like a fee to do business with them - just like having to pay for sandwiches on the plane now.  This admittedly simple view led me to accept it as another fact I would have to deal with - and not a terrible one at that.  After all, and 80-cent basis on Nov 08 beans when they were $14 was still pretty easy to manage.

As far as I knew, the lack of convergence was being priced into the basis by my grain customer, and hence it was his headache and he was simply passing the cost down to me as best he could.  But as the year has progressed, the premium products for grain producers are now the ones we assumed would always be around (and essentially free): cash forward contracts, for example.  Finding buyers and users who will provide them now strongly influences my loyalty.  What happens as prices drop will make this decision even more complicated.

It looks like the lack of a diagnosis - let alone a therapy - for the basis turmoil could make this development a long term feature of my markets.
They may not be able to run a country*...

But they can ride bikes.



Italian Motorcycle Police (circa 1950's)

*Until recently, there had been frequent government turnovers (more than 60 and counting) since 1945. The dominance of the Christian Democratic (DC) party during much of the postwar period lent continuity and comparative stability to Italy's political situation. [More]

Thursday, August 07, 2008

I hope you're happy now...

In a intriguing series of posts on Freakonomics, Justin Wolfers looks at happiness inequality.  To my surprise, it is decreasing, even as income inequality is increasing.

What the hey?
Our key finding is that most of the movements in happiness inequality reflect changes in happiness inequality within even narrowly-defined demographic groups, and these changes are quite pervasive.

While this is a statistical explanation, it simply begs the question: What changes could have narrowed happiness inequality so pervasively? And juxtaposing our observed trends in happiness inequality with measures of income inequality — which have pretty much risen for the past four decades in a row — presents a real puzzle. How might we reconcile these trends?

Our sense is that there may be important trends in the non-pecuniary domain that have had a major equalizing effect. But once you start thinking about the possibilities, the list of suspects is pretty long: what has happened to leisure, to family life, to religiosity, to communities, to notions of procedural fairness, belief in the American Dream, or to personal freedoms? Could these changes yield a more equal distribution of happiness. And how could we test these theories?

At this point, our research has simply documented the facts about the evolution of U.S. happiness, and Betsey and I are yet to dig into the bigger question of why. So let me ask: What do you think explains these trends in happiness inequality? [More]

This certainly calls for serious pondering for this casual student of both happiness and economics.  Like the commenters on above post, I think the possible explanation lies in the much awaited exit of Baby Boomers as the dominant cultural cohort. We were (and are) the most avaricious and self-obsessed group in modern history, and many of these questionable values thankfully have diminished in succeeding generations.

Concern with constantly getting ahead creates expectations that alter our present happiness levels. This is the unfortunate side of ambition and perhaps one key to the possibility we may not see the kinds of economic growth rates produced by pushy Boomers in the last two decades. Our children may be more uniformly happy because they are not as driven, regardless how crazy it makes us Boomers.

Indeed, at first glance at least, the engine of entrepreneurship in the US could be dependent on immigrants still strongly focused on getting ahead. This appears true in higher education - the most efficient ladder of achievement, at least.

I wonder what the subset of farmers would look like - especially now.  Lacking any horizontal data (over time) it would be hard to draw conclusions.  This is one great failing I believe of farm media and organization: consistent ongoing measurement of attitudes underlying the culture of farming.   We make far too many assumptions about what policies and economic factors will produce satisfaction and well-being on farms, with little or no factual basis.

Obviously, relying on economic data alone won't describe the quality of our lives.
Markets bumming you out?...

Five minutes of relief.



[via growabrain]
Risk is my business..

The swirl of cash rent conversations (it sure came up often at the Corn College) is all over the farm media. (It is interesting to note that all of the articles seem to start with an interview of Murray Wise.  Murray, Murray, Murray! I guess Murray is the Barrack Obama of agriculture media right now, like Kip Cullers was last year).

What I have noticed is the word "fair" popping up everywhere. Almost always this is viewed as an absolute value, and similarly almost always, risk is viewed as a burden.  Therein lies an opportunity.

Suppose, like an insurance company, you made risk your main business, instead of a point of contention with your landowners?  I believe this is really what is happening in the forefront of the grain production industry.  A small number of producers have discovered they can assume all the risks of production and pricing for landowners and have become increasingly expert in doing so.

What this implies is an insistence on "shared" risk or "fairness" actually infringes on their rights to do business in their own way. There is no law preventing those of us who provide this value to our landowners from doing so, and this constant yammering about how rental arrangements "must be" is a holdover from the victimhood mentality of old farm policy.

All the talk about cash renters "walking" on high priced contracts, mining the ground, and cheating landowners is mostly just that.  These guys have been arising in different areas my entire career.  After twenty years or so, I think it is safe to assume their business plan is sustainableBesides, the judge for proper rental compliance is the landowner - not community opinion.

Being the risk stop for landowners is a huge competitive edge and those who master this business skill have the right to offer it on a free market.  And it looks to me like it's selling.

Sounds fair to me.
My brain hurts...

Aaron and I attended the first session of the Corn College.  You can read much more about it here at Margy Fischer's CC blog.  To sum up the experience, I think Aaron put it best, "Dad, I've been keeping track and I think we're doing only 2 things right."

That is an easy assumption to come to for us.  While our collective backgrounds in life sciences like agronomy or botany are , ummm - minimal, we have been growing credible crops.  The epiphany is the possibility of doing a whole lot better - and how to make it happen.  While there are no magic bullets or mystic wisdom to suddenly turn our farm into consistent yield winners, it is exciting to imagine if we could boost yields 10% or so on top of the things we have been doing to this point.

The sessions were long and intense, but I can't think of any better ways to impart that much information that fast.  I think participants at least will see some new communcations from FJ to help them put it all together and keep the memory active.  That will help many of us.

The new facility Ken has created to host these educational efforts is superb, and the organization was more than up to the task - including the windstorm that broke the central tent poles on the first morning. Best of all were the attendees - energetic and impressive producers whose questions alone were an educational experience.  The number of young farmers attending was refreshing as well - this was no Farm Bureau or annual coop meeting crowd!

While I am far from an impartial observer, it was one of the best professional group experiences I have ever had.  I'm off to the second to provide some light-thinking relief this evening. 


Put it on your schedule for next year.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Bet I can tell if you are male or female...

By your browsing history.

My score: 95% male (Hoo-ahh!)


[via andrew sullivan]

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

I love toast...



But hey! Who doesn't?  



So when you have a chance to look at those fantastic toast machines of yesteryear and tomorrow, who wouldn't drool?





The Toaster Museum



And they say the Internet is just for silly obsessions!





[via boingboing]

Monday, August 04, 2008

Another robot job action...



Just like dairy farmers, nursery growers could soon be using small robots for a job I had never thought about.



Space is a large preoccupation for growers. Too little space between potted plants and the plants grow into each other or develop black spots as they mature, making them unsellable, said Grinnell.



If too much space is left between them from the start, land or greenhouse space is wasted. And because many growers use sprinkler systems, fertilizer and water that falls into the gaps is also wasted, and that wastes growers' money. Growers also want to minimize the amount of fertilizer seeping into the ground and from there into water supply, said Jones.



Currently growers use manual labor with sticks and ropes to rotate the pots and measure the space between them as the plants grow.



The autonomous robot is about two years away from being commercially available, but the current prototype can pick up potted plants between 1 and 3 gallons in size. The waterproof and sun-proof robot can carry the pots around and line them up in organized grids based on a grower's specifications. [More]


I'm starting to mentally note repetitive, boring jobs even if I cannot imagine how a robot could do them. 



Because it's a good bet somebody else can design one that can.



[Thanks, Brian]