Sunday, August 25, 2013

Junkbox, Episode MMXIII ∀...

 I'm having drought-flood whiplash. This month could be the driest on record for our farm.

After receiving more rain in the first seven months than all of last year. FWIW, I think corn, and especially soy yields are literally evaporating.

I have switched from Firefox to Chrome as my default browser. FF suffered several speed and hangup issues. Very happy with Chrome.  

Beats buying a new computer.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Almond juice?...

 Apparently, soy milk is soooo yesterday.
Something is clearly dampening enthusiasm for drinkable soy. WhiteWave claims that across the plant-milk industry, soy now represents just 35 percent of sales; almond milk, by contrast, has surged to more than 55 percent of the market. Research firm Euromonitor International expects U.S. retail sales of soy milk to falla further 11 percent this year.What gives? Well, almond milk contains no saturated fat, has fewer calories than soy, and is rich in vitamin E. Another factor: Soybeans just aren’t hip, says Larry Finkel, director of food and beverage research at “Nuts are trendy now,” he explains. “Soy sounds more like old-fashioned health food, like tofu, and could probably benefit by a reinvigoration of their brand.”It’s also possible that some consumers remain concerned about research linking soy and breast cancer, even if those claims may be unfounded. The American Cancer Society says soy is fine in moderation. [More]

I wonder if anti-GMO is playing a part in this. 
Two years ago, Dean Foods, owner of Silk Soymilk, was heavily criticized  for switching from organic to conventional soy beans without clearly labeling the change with different packaging. For many years, Silk soymilk was certified organic. In 2009, they introduced a “natural” line where the soymilk was made from conventionally grown soybeans (where pesticides are used along with GMOs), but the packaging was identical to the organic line. Even the price retailers charged was the same. [More]
Meanwhile, my local elevator, AC Grain - now a joint venture between Cargill and Mitsubishi - has been surveying local famers to find out what premium it would take to source non-GMO beans. What was entertaining was trying to explain to Aaron how you can grow beans without glyphosate. He found it hard to believe, but looking at our fields, we may have to relearn.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Continuous shrimp...  

This problem sounds vaguely familiar.
Prices for the tiny crustaceans are soaring because of a disease that’s crimping supplies in Thailand, Vietnam and China, the three largest producers of shrimp in the world.
“Production is down substantially,” said Paul Brown, president of Urner Barry, a food industry market research firm that tracks shrimp prices.
The popular shellfish is now approaching a record $6 per pound, up one-third from the beginning of the year. In 2010, a pound of shrimp set consumers back $3.
Producers are blaming a disorder called Early Mortality Syndrome, which thrives in the warm waters of Southeast Asia. The disease is not believed to be communicable to humans and has been gradually worsening in the last few years.
More than one-third of U.S. shrimp imports came from Thailand last year, worth about $1.1 billion. Imports from the country are down 31% this year, Brown said.
Exporters are hopeful the disease can be treated in the near term.
Until then, analysts say the crisis will open opportunities for other shrimp-producing nations to fill market share.
“After a decade of explosive growth, the global farmed shrimp industry has reached a turning point,” said Rabobank analyst Gorjan Nikolik. “However, regions unaffected by the disease are emerging to fill the supply void and are benefiting from this high price situation. Producers in Ecuador, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar are rapidly expanding production.” [More]
Like tobacco in the early US, to perhaps corn today, it seems to me natural forces make intensive continuous production in the same place difficult in the long run.

If we have one more year of below trendline corn yields will this idea get more credence?
Political debate at its best...  

I urge you to take the time to follow this TED talk (20 min.) and then note if your opinions on one-party rule vs. democracy have changed at all.


Then read this careful response [also worth your time]. An excerpt:
Like Li, I do not like the messianic tone some have invoked to support democracy. I support democracy on pragmatic grounds. The single most important benefit of democracy is its ability to tame violence. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker provided these startling statistics: During the 20th century, totalitarian regimes were responsible for 138 million deaths, of which 110 million occurred in communist countries. Authoritarian regimes caused another 28 million deaths. Democracies killed 2 million, mainly in their colonies as well as with food blockades and civilian bombings during the wars. Democracies, as Pinker pointed out, have trouble even bringing themselves to execute serial murderers. Democracies, Pinker argued, have “a tangle of institutional restraints, so a leader can’t just mobilize armies and militias on a whim to fan out over the country and start killing massive numbers of citizens.”
Contrary to what he was apparently told when he was a Berkeley hippie, the idea of democracy is not that it leads to a nirvana but that it can help prevent a living hell. Democracy has many, many problems. This insurance function of democracy — of mitigating against disasters — is often forgotten or taken for granted, but it is the single most important reason why democracy is superior to every other political system so far invented by human beings. Maybe one day there will be a better system than democracy, but the Chinese political system, in Li’s rendition, is not one of them. 
To have the opportunity to balance these two views is also a more common event in democracies I would think. But to see political debate done well and persuasively can only remind us of what we have lost in our public sphere. I found Li's suggestions persuasive until the critique jolted my memory of what our democracy has been and could be again. In fact, upon reflection I think the our two political systems could pass each other going opposite directions. Not a strong chance, but a real one.

[via Mankiw]

Monday, August 19, 2013


A fascinating (and seemingly endless) stream of "dirty secrets" from  people who work in various industries that they think consumers have no idea about. All this must be taken with a barrel of salt , but a few of my favorites:

I work at a US lobbying firm, and I'm sure no Redditor would be shocked to hear that US legislators are ignorant. You might be surprised just HOW ill-informed a lot of them are, though. Like the Congressman who believed David Cameron was a member of the Socialist party. Or the one that asked me why we called it Russia now, not the USSR. Or the Senator who told me he'd grown up drinking sea water, and it was healthier for you. Or the governor who thought all Jews were killed by Hitler. The list could go on.
75% of people on twitter are fake. I used to work for a social media company, and spent all day creating and acting like people online to connect people to our clients and make them fans of their music/food/whatever. We also had a "blast" program where we could tweet stuff out from accounts to create trending topics. So most of that stuff is organized.
Former paramedic here. I've never once checked, judged, or cared whether you had on clean underwear. Your parents lied.  
ex-Panera Bread employee here. EVERYTHING is microwaved, all soups and pastas come in frozen bags, reheated for the customer. pastries and breads come in "half-baked", bakers just slap on some frosting/fruit, and heat it up. it's all fast-food quality food, but with a good reputation. plus it was terrible to work there.  (*see below as well)
 Video editor here for reality TV. It's fake for the most part. They usually do multiple takes of the "reality" scenes that are staged beforehand. The most recent egregious use of this is Duck Dynasty. They pass the show off as reality tv and they actually have table readings for that show before shoots. Not saying that reality TV isn't sometimes entertaining. I'm just saying that you shouldn't be fooled into thinking that this is actually reality and the camera just happened to be there when these people were doing what they normally do.

My takeaway is not horror at the idea of such atrocious behavior behind my back. Indeed, it's amazement that the economy and culture that is America can absorb and overcome all these outrages.

*Restaurant food: not what you think. Even in France.
If you’ve ever wondered why French classics such as a “moelleux au chocolat” or a “tarte tatin” tastes suspiciously the same in Paris restaurants, it’s probably because it is. About a third of French restaurants say they use industrial food, and Fasquelle and other officials fear declining standards at the nation’s 150,000 restaurants threaten a tourism industry that represents 7 percent of France’s $2.8 trillion economy.
“The odds are sadly good you’ll be eating a pre-prepared dish or two if you dine out at the low to mid-level of the Paris food chain,” said Alexander Lobrano, author of “Hungry for Paris” and former European Editor of Gourmet. “I fervently hope that a law with real teeth will be passed in France, since it would not only go a long way to preserving the country’s distinguished gastronomic reputation but also reward those chefs who work so hard to prepare ’real’ freshly cooked food from quality ingredients.” [More]
Does it really matter, anyway? If the consumer is unharmed and satisfied, doesn't that imply that our internal standards don't match up with our external pretenses?

Maybe life is more like pro-wresting than we think. At every level, we just decide to believe. More and more, truth has become subjective, and something we manipulate to achieve our desires.

Whatever, it seems to work.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Junkbox, Episode MMXIII✤...  

New pastor, news issues. My prayers to all church committee members. As a trustee, I'm just dealing with bats literally in the belfry.
Hot Corn Rumor of the Day: Cool weather is causing tipping back.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Think of the fence contract...  

While this could almost classify as a frivolous post, it's becoming clearer that wild rhinos and even elephants could become effectively extinct very soon. Is the idea of a rhino farm so outlandish?
South Africa, where 75 percent of the world’s rhinos live, is also at the forefront of a counterintuitive move to legalize the rhino horn trade. If adopted, the new policy would promote safer rhino-horn farming: rhinos could be sedated while parts of their horns were cut off, and then the horns would grow back. A team of Australian conservationists signed on to the idea in March. As Kevin Charles Redmon explained at the time on Pacific Standard, lifting a trade ban would ideally increase the supply and lower the price, and thereby lower the incentive for poachers to slaughter the animals. However, Redmon wrote:
The black market will only collapse when legal horns are cheaper and easier to obtain than ill-gotten ones and penalties for operating outside the ‘central selling organization’ are severe. DNA signatures and radio chips will help trace licit horns, and exporters will be subject to regular audits. At the same time, buyers must demand cruelty- and conflict-free wares (think of efforts to demonize blood diamonds).
Legalization remains highly controversial among animal rights activists and wildlife conservationists. The World Wildlife Fund, the Environmental Investigation Agency, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare have all been critical of the idea. What if lifting the ban increases demand, as it did in fact following similar, previous experiments with the ivory market? Or what if a legal trade simply establishes a parallel but separate market, while illegal (whole) rhino horns and heads continue to sell underground?
Likewise, would legitimizing the sale of rhino cups encourage and validate the baseless myth that they actually have medicinal properties? Perhaps conservationists’ and governments’ efforts would be better directed toward fighting the very misconception that drives the demand in the first place. [More]
This free-market approach, however, does not have a good track record in products where demand is so irrational and lucrative. There are strong countering arguments.
South Africa reportedly will not seek a full legalization of all rhino-horn trade but a one-time sale of current stockpiles. The South African government has stockpiled more than 16,400 kilograms of rhino horns—mostly confiscated from poachers—while private owners possess about 2,000 kilograms more—ironically, mostly horns that have been removed from live animals to make them less attractive to poachers. With rhino horns fetching anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000 a kilogram, the South African government could net half a billion dollars or more from the proposed sale. Private ranchers, who own much of South Africa’s rhino population, would also benefit from this windfall. In fact, many ranchers have been pushing for a sale like this.
South Africa’s deputy director general for biodiversity, Fundisile Mketeni, said monies from the one-off sale “should go to conservation”—note that he didn’t say it would—but experts and conservation organizations say the sale would do little more than feed the growing desire for rhino horns and make the situation much, much worse in the long run.
History backs them up on this point. Similar one-off sales of ivory to Japan in 1999 and China in 2008 have been linked to the resultant increased demand for ivory in Asia, which has driven elephant poaching across Africa to crisis proportions in the past decade. At the time, proponents of those sales said flooding the market with stockpiled ivory would lower prices and therefore eliminate the incentive to poach more elephants. The opposite happened and prices soared. South Africa now argues that putting more than 18,000 kilograms of rhino horn up for sale would glut the market, lower prices and save more rhinos. This is an argument we have heard before. [More]
The wild rhino population is hard to nail down, with mixed prospects. Some subspecies have disappeared although there are some successes.
While most subspecies of Africa’s two rhinos, the black and white rhino, continue on the road to recovery, this is not true for two of Africa’s most threatened rhino subspecies: the West African black (Diceros bicornis longipes) and the Northern white (Ceratotherium simum cottoni). The West African black rhino is now feared extinct and numbers of the northern white rhino have reached an all time low in the wild. In both cases, poaching for rhino horn is the main cause of their demise.
This is according to new estimates announced by the African Rhino Specialist Group (AfRSG) of the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission. A recent survey of the West African black rhino by a French-based survey group has failed to locate any sign of their continued presence, despite an intensive survey earlier this year throughout its last refuges in northern Cameroon.
“As a result this subspecies has been tentatively declared as extinctm,” says Dr. Martin Brooks, AfRSG chairman. “Also the northern white rhino is on the very brink of being lost. Restricted in the wild to Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, recent ground and aerial surveys conducted under the direction of African Parks Foundation and the AfRSG have only found four animals. Efforts to locate further animals continue, but we must now face the possibility that the subspecies may not recover to a viable level,” he continued
On a more positive note, continental black rhino numbers of the remaining three subspecies have increased to 3,725 as a whole, a rise of 3.2% over the last two years: this from an all time low of 2,410 in 1995. The ultimate conservation success story continues for the other white rhino subspecies, the southern white. Down to less than 50 animals a hundred or so years ago, numbers have increased to 14,540. [More]
I wondered if there was some bizarre preference for horns from the species under strongest poaching pressure, but it demand does not appear to be species-dependent but rather linked to horn size.  This burgeoning demand is the result of rapid income growth in areas where traditional (and totally unscientific) medicine sill holds sway. Thus curbing demand could be a generational challenge, not an education process, I would think.

Maybe the first thing poor people want to buy as they get more income isn't better food, but a cure.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Tell me again...  

How industrial agriculture is going to work in Sub-Saharan Africa. I think it is an ill-advised repeat of the same condescending colonialism, however well-intentioned, that delayed African development for a century of more. 

I saw Maasai herders in Tanzania, but had failed to learn more about their lives. This article was a revelation.
And day by day, I saw more of the world of the Maasai of Maji Moto. There was the bustling weekly livestock market in the nearby town of Ewaso Nero where Maasai herders filled a dusty corral half as large as a football field with sheep, goats and cows, selling them mostly to meat merchants from Nairobi. I bathed in the Maji Moto hot springs with the locals and was led on guided hikes into the easily climbed Loita Hills, where it seemed as if everything that grew had some medicinal, nutritional or spiritual significance. The leaves of the sagelike compa bushes, for instance, are rubbed under the armpits like deodorant; twigs from the leafy olkisikongu tree are used as natural toothbrushes; and the sacred oreteti trees, under which the Maasai pray to their god, Enkai, are said to have the power to dispel bad energy and instill peace.
A couple of hundred yards behind the Cultural Camp is the “widows’ village.” In Maasai communities, women often outlive their husbands but are forbidden from remarrying. Some of these widows, and their children, are left destitute, with no livestock (the traditionally favored currency of the Maasai). Urged by his mother to address this problem, Salaton built a manyatta where poor widows live together like a family, earning money by working at the camp and selling beautifully beaded jewelry to tourists; the camp also pays for their and their children’s medical expenses. When I first went to their manyatta, the widows performed traditional welcoming songs and dances, but subsequent visits were less formal; they were happy to show me how they lived and were comfortable being photographed in their homes.
Meanwhile, I got to know the Maasai who were working and volunteering at Salaton’s camp, especially those who spoke English. There was Rose, a teenage seamstress with a hair-trigger smile, who teaches the widows how to sew when she isn’t working with tourists; Joyce, a college graduate in her early 20s recently hired to help Salaton with the business side of the camp; and Meeri, who was in her last year of high school in Maji Moto after fleeing her own village a few years earlier to escape a marriage her parents were arranging for her. “I’d heard that the leader here helped girls like me,” she said, and described her three-day walk alone across the bush, sleeping in the branches of trees at night.
Our rapport was easy as we asked and answered questions about our cultures. Among our many conversations, we compared differences between Maasai and American marriages; when I explained that we don’t have dowries, don’t practice polygamy and get to choose our spouses, they liked the way all of that sounded. But they didn’t immediately embrace the idea that a wife might be older than her husband. “That would never happen here,” Joyce said, laughing at the thought. [More of a short travel story]
 I have become more firmly convinced that applying our brand of agriculture to Africa will not help many Africans, even if it makes foreign investors rich. It is simply another form of an extractive industry, and absent any industrial development that provides jobs to displaced subsistence farmers will worsen the plight of the vast majority of locals.

Instead we need ways to promote better small farms to increase their productivity and allow them access to markets, which will allow them to develop economically on a path similar, but not identical the the US.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

For those of you...  

Who couldn't make it to the fair.

Great write-up as well of the culinary delights.
Junkbox, Episode MMXIII‡...  

Great crops, but no GDUS's.
New tile main installed through a cornfield. My contractor noted it began running immediately. Jeez - 18" gets spendy in a hurry!

 Corn looks like the best in years, but it felt like September and looked like July corn.

Update: Links repaired - Thanks, Steve.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

What an answer...  

Could look like. Will Wilkinson, one of my favorite libertarian writers responds to a one-sided post by Jonathon Chait and near the end hits a nerve with me.
That said, it remains that egalitarian anti-corporatism is a genuinely excellent, genuinely egalitarian idea. I would prefer to see it combined with a really solid scheme of social insurance. But we never see this combination because neither party is interested in it. Many Democratic partisans are even less interested in anti-cronyism than many Republicans, unless they think it will hurt Republican fund-raising, and that just goes to show that Democratic egalitarianism is as opportunistic and superficial as the Republican love of liberty. The Democratic Party is as bound up with corporate interests no less, or not much less, than the GOP. Yet Mr Chait says that "Pretending Democrats are actually succoring elites is a handy way for [advocates of conservative populism] to avoid grappling with the central issue", which is that Republicans don't like downward redistribution. Mr Chait apparently cannot see that Democrats do succor elites, that our political system is finely tuned so that the succoring will continue no matter who is in power. Moreover, all the deeper mechanisms that generate and reproduce America's peculiar patterns of income and wealth—the definition of intellectual-property rights, the structure and governance of corporations, the marginalisation and persecution of undocumented workers, the de facto apartheid of America's systems of criminal justice and public education, the evolution of family structure—seems to lack reality in Mr Chait's mind, perhaps because none affords an obvious angle for partisan electoral advantage. Rather than get bogged down in all this tricky stuff, Mr Chait prefers to reduce the whole question of inequality, of economic populism—of American politics altogether!—to a single issue, progressive redistribution, on which Democratic electoral interest and moral self-satisfaction happen to comfortably intersect. Democrats most certainly do succor elites, and this sort of glib self-righteousness about inequality is one of the ways they do it. [More]
This is where the gap between what I used to believe 10 years ago and today probably is the greatest. I have come to the realization that our system inherently marches toward lop-sided wealth and well-being distributions if left unsupervised, so to speak.

Reversing our slide to near feudal wealth distribution will be difficult, I fear. And while I find that condition morally repugnant, the bigger issue could be it causes our USA-type economy to breakdown

It appears there are many ways to categorize the two main lumps in our current wealth/income distribution accounting:
  • Takers - makers
  • Spenders - savers
  • Consumers - investors
It is this last dichotomy that uncovers the issue for me. Even if we simply stipulate that the wealthy are entitled to the fruits of their labor, or more likely their capital, when the returns come rolling in they invest, not spend. After all, they can only spend so much and can only marginally improve an already comfortable lifestyle.

This is why, unlike many ag economists, I don't see land prices swooning. Even with lower income from farming, there is little reason to shift these illiquid assets into something else, and even less urgency. Farmland sales will slow to a crawl perhaps, but there is so much wealth in the hands of investors vs. consumers that any quality asset will hold and even attract more. 

Wealth is piling up in the hands of non-spenders. While I agree saving is a virtue, postponing consumption for a greater benefit in the future is clearly more virtuous for those in the middle or lower levels than it is for the rich. Saving for them is merely not troubling to do anything else.

But without consumers/spenders won't our economy slog along? That seems to be what we're seeing. Companies are not hoarding cash because of Obamacare, regulations, or taxes. The simply don't see enough demand to warrant a new factory or more workers.

Meanwhile, trillions rush into any investment that seems to offer non-zero returns. If you think it's bad now wait until the income/wealth ratios get even more extreme. 

My view on wealth distribution amazingly is not a particularly extreme position because most Americans 1) don't know how lop-sided things are and 2) agree it should be less so.

 But danged if I can discover any reliable mechanism to alter the trends. The last time we saw a "great leveling" was WWII, and that seems to a rather drastic option. Hence my lesser of evils is to see a stronger safety net, which should resonate with farmers, I would think.

Wilkinson apparently agrees, which comforts me I haven't drifted too far off the planet in my fantasies. But like me, he stuggles to see how our political system and economic obliviousness will make changes possible.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Hints of a new economy...  

I have become convinced by several disparate factors that business will not necessarily be "as usual"going forward, and our global economy is evolving new institutions and mechanisms to compete with and perhaps replace (eventually) known agents of finance.

One of these situations our current system is handling badly is lending to the lower income people of the world. Even with risk factored in, the rates demanded strike me as, well, usurious. Could there be a better solution?
THE Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has resolved to set up new not-for-profit credit unions to compete with pay day lenders, companies who offer short-term loans at very high levels of interest. The FT has some more detail on the proposals here. The Archbishop has a clear message for the pay day leders: “we're not in the business of trying to legislate you out of existence; we're trying to compete you out of existence." A new paper by Luigi Pascali, an economist at the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics, suggests he might have the right approach.
As Ecclesiastes 1:19 tells us, there’s nothing new under the sun. 15th Century Italy had its own pay day loan problem. A doctrinal change at the end of the 14th century had prohibited the Catholic laity from lending money to make a profit. But by the late 15th century Italy was in severe recession due to constant wars and many had to resort to pawnbrokers. (My colleague wrote about how this type of short-term lending against assets is on the up in Britain a few weeks ago). The only way in which Italians could borrow money was from Italy’s Jewish population who were absolved from the ban.
Franciscan monks resolved to compete the money lenders away. The Franciscans set up new lenders, the Monti de Pieta. The name means “mount of piety”, referring to the initial capital used to set up the bank. These not-for-profit credit unions would replace the Jewish pawn shops and eventually evolved into modern banks. The monks combined this with sermons on the evils of money lending, pushing borrowers into their arms. [More]
The rest of the short post is worth reading but the spoiler is research indicates this could work.

We are allowing our global economy to pull up many of the ladders of economic progress. This is a bad idea on many levels but what I think hasn't sunk in yet is that without ways to progress (and yes, regress) by our own merits we doom all levels to just what we are seeing now: billions of people trapped in poverty and billions trillions of dollars sitting essentially idle.

Such ideas are alarming to many who have struggled to achieve a reasonably comfortable place in life, but I see everyday those same comfortable people grappling with the grim futures facing their children or grandchildren.

The Great Stagnation seems to be an apt label for our times, and even if we've made it safe to the finish line, the path for the same end looks much harder for those who follow.

I'll be posting more about some hopeful innovations like this that can turn our expectations from government to other agents to solve this growing dilemma.