Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Meanwhile, an alternative...

The Danes are getting great mileage out of this article on a Danish Crown slaughterhouse and it strikes me as well deserved. The photos are outstanding and this one was the most impressive to me - hogs waiting to be slaughtered.

The slaughterhouse at Horsens was truly one of the most fascinating places I have visited on my travels. It is an experience that will leave a mark on my daily life, and help me to understand, just a little, about another important aspect of my food. As you can probably tell, this post is not an in-depth exposé of an industry, and my experience is not enough to knowledgeably critique the process of delivering Danish Crown bacon to your breakfast table; nor can I account for the processes of Danish Crown outside what I saw in Horsens. But I was pleasantly surprised by the openness of the plant about its operations and methods, and it is clear that when they designed the slaughterhouse they were thinking ahead in terms of what consumers will want to see from food producers: more transparency. And while I can’t comment on the conditions of the lives of the pigs before they get to the slaughterhouse (the vast majority of which come from Denmark), I can only make an educated guess that, through my experience as a resident of Denmark, the laws that govern the treatment of pigs would be about as strict or stricter as they would be anywhere else in the world. Anyone with any knowledge on that would be welcome to chip in. [More]

It is hard for competing meat companies to say things can be done better when faced with examples like this.  Bottom line, this could be the best answer to the slide in meat consumption, not confrontation or security.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Farm Bill...

Isn't the NCBA's biggest headache, after all, IMHO.

Chipotle is slick and the effect is cumulative.

Heck, I'm going to watch it.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Outliving Twitter...

There has been modest pressure from a few readers, etc. for me to be more active on Facebook and Twitter. Very modest.  But aside from the the time I don't want to spend checking my phone more, it could be these peculiar media have their own built-in obsolescence.
Take Justin Bieber, for example.As reports of the once-angelic and deeply troubled Canadian pop star’s arrestbegan to make its way around the web, reactions streamed onto Twitter, ranging from jokes to tongue clucks.But by far, the most common refrain was something like this: “Why is this news??”The simplest answer is that it wasn’t — at least not the most important news happening on that particular day. But Twitter isn’t really about the most important thing anymore — it stopped being about relevancy a long time ago. Twitter seems to have reached a turning point, a phase in which its contributors have stopped trying to make the service as useful as possible for the crowd, and are instead trying to distinguish themselves from one another. It’s less about drifting down the stream, absorbing what you can while you float, and more about trying to make the flashiest raft to float on, gathering fans and accolades as you go.How did this happen?A theory: The psychology of crowd dynamics may work differently on Twitter than it does on other social networks and systems. As a longtime user of the service with a sizable audience, I think the number of followers you have is often irrelevant. What does matter, however, is how many people notice you, either through retweets, favorites or the holy grail, a retweet by someone extremely well known, like a celebrity. That validation that your contribution is important, interesting or worthy is enough social proof to encourage repetition. Many times, that results in one-upmanship, straining to be the loudest or the most retweeted and referred to as the person who captured the splashiest event of the day in the pithiest way. [More
Meanwhile, the predicted imminent demise of Facebook was proven to be just bad math, but there are some indications that some type of saturation has been reached.

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, as many as 61 percent of Facebook members have tuned out the website for weeks and sometimes months at a time. The reasons listed for these extended breaks are as banal as they are predictable: 21 percent of those surveyed “are too busy/don’t have time for it”; 10 percent “just aren’t interested/just don’t like it”; and another 10 percent simply think it’s a “waste of time.” [More]
Jan uses FB and finds it helpful, but even she is noticing how it can get out of hand. There is usefulness, but you attract a lot of barnacles as the ship steams on. And it is a major time suck.

Meanwhile, as oldsters dip their wrinkled toes in the social media waters, horrified hipsters are screaming out of the water. This is not good news for advertisers looking for that highly desirable young adult cohort.

It seems to me we wear out new toys faster and faster. I've always suspected that Twitter could have a short-half life since it is built around snark as communication. The short zinger is the winner tweet. It also fails to give context for complex issues.

That said, for breaking news or unexpected events (like Bob Costas during Congressional action) it may continue to be a go-to source, languishing is a swamp of trivial self-serving celebrity chasing in between.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The diminished hammer...

Of all the dire predictions about the farm land market, I think we can deduce one thing: the action is going to change.  First, compare farmland with the red-hot fine art market.
And now, Bowley is naming names (and numbers) when it comes to the shadowy practice known as “enhanced hammer“. 
Officially, if you consign an artwork to Christie’s, and it is hammered down for millions of dollars, then you owe the auction house a piece of the action — known as “seller’s commission”. In practice, however, the art world’s biggest rollers never pay seller’s commission. For big-ticket items, the auction house is entirely reliant, for its revenues, on the buyer’s premium — the difference between the hammer price and the actual price paid. 
Increasingly, however, the hammer price has become completely meaningless. It used to give a pretty good indication of how much money the seller took home; no longer. Top clients, it turns out, aren’t just paying zero seller’s commission: they’re now paying a negative seller’s commission, and earning much if not all of buyer’s premium on top of the hammer price. [More]

"Enhanced hammer" would make a good pesticide name, BTW. 

Anyhoo, I think the buyer fee that had been introduced in some parts of the country may be about to die a deserved death.  And real estate agents may have to settle for more modest fees from all but clueless heirs who think they have to pay list price.

If the 80's are any foreshadowing, power is about to wander back to the land buyer, mostly becuase a lot of us will be scared to take on extra debt or part with cash. You'll be surprised I think how fast this transition will take effect, as it feeds on itself.

But I will also venture to forecast some of the greatest opportunities of our careers (or those younger than me, anyway) will not just knock, but hammer on the door. Those who have the courage and admittedly, inexperience could position themselves for the next ag boom.

And yes, there will be one.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Junkbox, Episode MMXIV ⅋...

A day to find a good book.

Stay warm!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

SNAP reform...

I'm open to suggestions. But first consider the worst (I hope) of the problem.

It works like this: Once a month, the debit-card accounts of those receiving what we still call food stamps are credited with a few hundred dollars — about $500 for a family of four, on average — which are immediately converted into a unit of exchange, in this case cases of soda. On the day when accounts are credited, local establishments accepting EBT cards — and all across the Big White Ghetto, “We Accept Food Stamps” is the new E pluribus unum – are swamped with locals using their public benefits to buy cases and cases — reports put the number at 30 to 40 cases for some buyers — of soda. Those cases of soda then either go on to another retailer, who buys them at 50 cents on the dollar, in effect laundering those $500 in monthly benefits into $250 in cash — a considerably worse rate than your typical organized-crime money launderer offers — or else they go into the local black-market economy, where they can be used as currency in such ventures as the dealing of unauthorized prescription painkillers — by “pillbillies,” as they are known at the sympathetic establishments in Florida that do so much business with Kentucky and West Virginia that the relevant interstate bus service is nicknamed the “OxyContin Express.” A woman who is intimately familiar with the local drug economy suggests that the exchange rate between sexual favors and cases of pop — some dealers will accept either — is about 1:1, meaning that the value of a woman in the local prescription-drug economy is about $12.99 at Walmart prices. [More of a must read for farmers who depend on SNAP for subsidy politics]
We have created a bizarrely volatile mix of economic disparity, educational left-behinds, ingenious welfare work-arounds, astonishingly effective and easily manufactured opioid narcotics, and declining social immobility that sustains such appalling lifestyles. Clearly, the best-intentioned and even administered efforts, private and public don't seem capable of eradicating these outcomes.

For some, that would justify ending such efforts. I think a better choice - or at least one somewhat easier to live with - is to continue the struggle to minimize the number of people who choose or are forced into these situations. I'm not advocating more public dollars, but relentless efforts to find ladders and and reasons for people to use them to lift themselves to better lives. In short, make The White Ghetto smaller inch by inch.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Connecting the dots...

The Cheerios announcement is the subject of intense debate right now as farmers try to figure out what it means. Frankly, I think it may signal game over for at least labeling, but I don't think our hysterical predictions of what that will mean are likely.

But more interesting to me is the juxtaposition of two public trends. First, GMO's.
With this move, General Mills is "testing" the market on a brand that is relatively easy to rid of GMOs, says Harry Balzer, chief food industry analyst for the NPD Group, a global market research firm. After all, Cheerios' main ingredient, oats, cannot be genetically modified. Heightened consumer awareness of GMOs, which has been building during the past decade, is what is driving the decision, he says. Ten years ago, 43 percent of US consumers were aware of genetically modified food; today, 55 percent are, according to an NPD Group study released in December. NPD also reports that 20 percent of US consumers are “very” or “extremely” concerned about genetically modified food; in 2002, that concern was shared among just 10 percent of consumers.The General Mills decision stems from a “movement driven by consumers, rather than driven by companies," Mr. Balzer says. "Marketers will surely follow wherever consumers go.” As more food manufacturers and grocery chains push for GMO-free products, the potential exists for higher costs for the consumer, he says.Moreover, GMO technology requires “fewer pesticides, less water, and keep(s) production costs down,” the Grocery Manufacturers Association says. Thus, it “helps reduce the price of crops used for food, such as corn, soybeans and sugar beats,” by 15 percent to 30 percent.Eliminating GMO ingredients from the American diet is largely impossible, most experts say, because processed foods are such a dominant part of it. As General Mills and other food suppliers unveil GMO-free versions of popular brands, they will likely create a niche market for those consumers who want a choice. This will be especially true of products ingested by children, such as cereal and baby food.“The way to sell any food product is to have several different versions. That’s probably where we’re going to be in a few years,” Mr. Albala says. “This is a specialty market.” [More]
Note the way consumer polls are moving on this issue even as farmers and Monsanto, et al. apply a full-court press.

Now consider this nugget of what the popular mind is thinking.

One possibility is that respondents who identified as Republican and believed in evolution in 2009 are no longer identifying as Republicans. Fewer scientists, for example, are reportedly identifying with the GOP, and the overall trend is for fewer Americans to call themselves Republicans. But both Gallup and separate polling from Pew found approximately the same party ID in 2009 and 2013.Another is that the rise of "intelligent design" education has helped to swing younger Americans against evolution. Yet the age breakdown remains similar in 2009 and 2013, with respondents ages 18 to 29 most likely to believe in evolution.What does that leave? Maybe the gap represents an emotional response by Republicans to being out of power. Among others, Chris Mooney has argued that beliefs on politically contentious topics are often more rooted in opposition to perceived attacks than anything else—an instance of "motivated reasoning." Given that Democrats have controlled the White House and Senate since 2009, this could be backlash to the political climate, though it will be hard to tell until Republicans control Washington again.Of course, motivated reasoning might help explain why many Democrats also believe in evolution. [More]
Some pundits argue there is an indication of tribalism going on here.
So what happened after 2009 that might be driving Republican views? The answer is obvious, of course: the election of a Democratic presidentWait — is the theory of evolution somehow related to Obama administration policy? Not that I’m aware of, but that’s not the point. The point, instead, is that Republicans are being driven to identify in all ways with their tribe — and the tribal belief system is dominated by anti-science fundamentalists. For some time now it has been impossible to be a good Republicans while believing in the reality of climate change; now it’s impossible to be a good Republican while believing in evolution....And look, this has to be about tribalism. All the evidence, from the failure of inflation and interest rates to rise despite huge increases in the monetary base and large deficits, to the clear correlation between austerity and economic downturns, has pointed in a Keynesian direction; but Keynes-hatred (and hatred of other economists whose names begin with K) has become a tribal marker, part of what you have to say to be a good Republican. [More]

Such ideas are worth pondering, but I would add two more points.
  1. Americans have decided science (or even rational thought) is not necessarily the last word for any policy debate. As such farmers are free to argue against global warming if it looks like it may interfere with current practices. Likewise, other special interests use the same selectivity in respecting science. Sound science is science that agrees with my ideology, so to speak.
  2. Ag and agribusiness has framed this debate as digital: either 1 or 0, no shades of compromise. This is proving to be a much riskier gamble than any of us imagined. In fact, I think the odds are now we could lose.  And losing means losing big, because we won't offer anything halfway to meet critics. Meanwhile, I have heard or seen nothing about any Plan B.
I still believe we could have negotiated some kind of labeling and eliminated much of the possible damage. But even if we see this type of Big Food action snowball, my guess is we'll dig in and rally around the same seed companies we are outraged at for trapping us into no-choice high prices by cartel action and decreasing non-GMO seed production.

In other words, we may not only lose this battle for consumer acceptance, we may actually make its consequences worse.  The sun will come up no matter which way this battle is decided, but it could be a testing time for corn/soy producers and our value chain. We may have also exhausted considerable political capital that won't be there for crop insurance, TMDL regs, animal welfare public relations, etc. Bungling this controversy will have collateral damage.

I would watch the stock price of Monsanto for a hint of a disruptive event coming down the road.