Saturday, June 30, 2007

Do North...

Have you ever checked at the summer/autumnal solstice to see if your farmstead, buildings, UFO landing strips, etc. were laid out exactly E-W or lined the North Star up with your grain bin layout?

You haven't?
Well, then me neither. How nerdy would that be? Heh.

But if you farm in Manhattan, the day is approaching when you can observe an interesting solar alignment phenomenon.
For Manhattan, a place where evening matters more than morning, that special day comes on May 30th this year, one of only two occasions when the Sun sets in exact alignment with the Manhattan grid, fully illuminating every single cross-street for the last fifteen minutes of daylight. The other day is July 13th. Had Manhattan's grid been perfectly aligned with the geographic north-south line, then our special days would be the Spring and Autumn equinoxes, the only two days on the calendar when the Sun rises due east and sets due west.

But Manhattan is rotated 30 degrees east from geographic north, shifting the days of alignment elsewhere into the calendar.
Upon studying American culture, and what is important to it, future anthropologists might credit the Manhattan alignments to cosmic signs of Memorial Day and, of course, the All-Star break. War and Baseball. [More]

You guys probably don't do
druid parties either, I'm guessing.

Never mind.

[via 3Quarks]
The summer of our discontent...

I have taken the time to re-read most of my posts about the farm bill progress (?) through Congress [Note: you can do like wise by clicking on "farm bill" in the labels below.] The most upbeat spin I can put on them is they are not totally cynical.

But they are not far from it. Despite my efforts to write honestly, this likely is an unfair characterization of events, influenced no doubt by my strong belief farm policy could be so much better. (And at times my concerns about rain - foolish, but a typical farmer trait)

So it struck me hard to read these words from an observer whose work and opinion I admire immensely - Jim Weisemeyer.
Comments: Will Peterson confront the "magic beans" and "monopoly money" charges by detailing where the $17.5 billion to $18 billion from the so-called reserve funds will come from? He has failed to detail the offsets so far and most expect him to be silent again. If all this sounds bewildering, it is. It's no wonder the vast majority of voters are losing faith in their government. The House farm bill process is another sad example of how not to write a major bill.

The question Rep. Peterson should answer: How much funding has Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) agreed to, and where are the offsets coming from? Without answers to those questions, the farm bill process (or whatever you want to call it) is not transparent. Leadership on so many things in Washington is needed -- from both political parties.

Bottom line: If the split-personality farm bills go to the House floor, those seeking multibillion-dollar boosts in funding (food and nutrition, conservation, specialty crops) will likely cause a donnybrook. That is when we may finally get a true, open debate. We haven't had that in the House Ag Committee to date. And the Senate Ag Committee remains a work in non progress. [More - via a reasonable subscription]

I may get into hot water for borrowing rather liberally from subscription-firewalled material, but these thoughts are, I believe profoundly important. Jim rarely expresses even mild judgments of the politicians he chronicles meticulously in his professional writing, let alone lapse into frustration.

I do not suggest he is corroborating my low opinion of recent farm bill (in)action. His information is far purer than mine, but his thoughts do seem to address the growing concern about Americans' alienation from our own government.
How do people think the Democratic Congress is doing after six months? Lousy. But better than the alternative.

It's midyear, and the Democratic Congress is taking a break. Well-deserved? No, say Republicans.

"We are now halfway through the first year of the 110th Congress," Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, said. "And there is no question that the failure on the part of the Democrats in terms of their midterm exam is really a letdown to the expectations of the American people.''

Democratic leaders are inclined to agree. "I'm not happy with Congress, either," Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said.

And the American people? Look at the grades. President Bush is doing terribly -- an average of 30 percent job approval in six recent polls. Congress is doing worse -- 25 percent on the average in five polls. (Poll: Support for Democrats wavering)

Why the low marks? Democrats point to one issue where not much seems to be getting done. "The war in Iraq is dragging down people's confidence in what's going on in this country," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said. [More]
As many have pointed out, this discontent - which strikes me as truly more deeply felt than our usual contempt for politics - is occurring as our economy chugs along briskly. The American Way is to rank financial progress 90% of the score, right? Steve Chapman puts his finger on the reason, I believe.
A major cause of the misperception, though, is President Bush's sagging popularity. It's clear that many people let their discontent with the president color their view of everything. If he is failing to win the war in Iraq or curb illegal immigration, we assume he must also be coming up short on the economy.

The polls suggest that some people won't acknowledge anything good here lest it suggest competence on the part of a president they can't stand. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, 43 percent of Republicans say the economy is fair or poor, but 79 percent of Democrats take that view. "People are giving partisan responses," says public opinion expert Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. [More - great read]
This rings true for me. It also forces me to reconsider if presidential popularity matters. I have always considered it to be simply news fodder - I mean, it's not like we could oust our leader at any moment by a show of hands. But perhaps there is something to political capital, and we are running a deficit.

Let me hazard a prediction. If farm bill reform of some kind is not enacted (a replay of immigration), it will simply add to the widening chasm between people and government, making any political progress even harder, and fueling a spirit of futility and even despair. The farm bill debate has achieved that level of national prominence and involvement.

This disillusionment, if eventually reflected in economic terms such as consumer spending, will make any recovery all the harder. The connection between business and politics is real, but subject to delays between actions and consequences.

The inability to effect collective change would seem to be good for conservatives, but that presumes we are in a happy place right now. And fewer and fewer citizens seem to feel that way. This creates a real political conundrum. If Americans lose faith in government, no legislation will receive acceptance, because it is the creation of distrusted authors. How then will we address those issues? This is what happened perhaps to immigration reform.
I think that if people did not already have the sense that their country was in some sense slipping away from them -- if they felt secure enough about our country and its direction -- then they would be a lot less inclined to think that illegal immigrants were taking it away from them. But the reason they think their country is slipping away from them need have nothing to do with illegal immigration itself, as opposed to a more general sense that the rules are stacked against them, and no one obeys the laws, and decent people who work hard get screwed. [More]
I have no ready answer. But he urgency to accomplish something has increased. Our national character depends on a hopeful future.
The fundamentals of great music...

I spoke this weekend on USFR on the misfortune of losing our music program at our local school. Without this early training how will we keep the tradition of singing in America?

Sounds like these could be at risk.

[via DailyDish]

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The protectionist tide gets noticed...

Even while I support globalization on the whole, I have become convinced that we could do better the alleviate the misfortune of the biggest losers in the changes. Telling a 55 year-old autoworker to become a RN is no help, and rhetoric like that is one big reason many are no longer listening to rational arguments about the manifold benefits of greater world trade and integration.

Surprisingly, many of America's financial leaders are agreeing.
More striking are the report’s recommendations. It makes a strong case for the benefits of globalization (no surprise), but goes well beyond the usual corporate pablum of needing to equip American workers through better education. Since upgrading skills is a process that takes generations, the report argues, it will do little to shore up political support for globalization now. Instead the focus should be on improving the distribution of globalisation’s gains and doing more to help the losers. And that requires… a more progressive tax code and more (and better) government schemes to help displaced workers.

I especially liked some of the suggestions in the report.
The report takes particular aim at the (enormously regressive) payroll tax. Either payroll taxes should be integrated into the ordinary income tax system or the wage-cap on payroll taxes should be lifted. It brims with ideas for government tinkering: trade-adjustment assistance and unemployment assistance should be morphed into a single programme that offers wage insurance, portable health insurance and retraining. Communities should be able to federally insure their tax base against sudden economic dislocation (when, say, a factory moved to Mexico). [More]

We can afford safety nets for people other than farmers. If we don't make the effort, many of our gains could be rolled back as trade barriers are rebuilt.
For the Frodo in all of us...

Want to build your own hobbit-house? (Well, that's what it reminded me of anyway)

Much assembly required. But pretty cool.

[via BoingBoing]

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Getting along...

International reaction to our farm bill debate and the ag subsidy roadblock at the WTO is ramping up. The two issues seem to have merged in the international press.
Australia (BTW, one of our few allies in Iraq, remember):
The 2007 Farm Bill is critical to Australia's interests because US subsidies to wheat, cotton sugar and dairy farmers have the potential to distort prices of some of our major agricultural commodities.

The 2002 legislation, which is due to expire in September, has long been a source of concern to the Australian Government because it directly subsidies the incomes of American farmers, making it harder for countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Brazil to compete, despite being efficient low-cost producers. [More]

The White House and key members of Congress had been pushing for major reforms aimed at cutting overall subsidies, capping payouts to millionaire farmers and generally bringing the regime into line with international trade rules.

The agriculture committee chose to ignore all that.

If ever there was a sign that the United States isn't serious about reaching a global free-trade deal, there it was. Talk about backtracking and intransigence. [More]
California (OK, it's technically not a foreign country, but it's close):
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is urging Congress not to forget their fruits and vegetables as they write a new federal Farm Bill.

Schwarzenegger and the governors of New York, Florida and Texas co-signed a letter sent Tuesday to the congressional Agriculture Committees that outlines what the four most populous states want out of the legislation.

But what California wants may not matter when it comes time to write the bill, because the committees are stacked with Midwestern members. [More]

As Congress marches on to make the US the Land of the Corn via ethanol mandates, it strikes me as an excellent opportunity to try to give a little ground on our farm subsidies. If you haven't noticed, America is very slowly drifting into an isolated position in the world community. It was one story when we dominated every vital economic statistic, but that is hardly the case now.

Crimony, if you can't get along with Canada, who's left to be friends with?
iPods hurt corn farmers...

The entertainment industry is getting hysterical in its push to prevent video file-sharing (and outright piracy). In a breathtaking overreach, NBC is alleging video piracy hurts me out here on the farm, since fewer people will be going to the theater and won't be eating 5-gallon tubs of popcorn.

We can all have a good snicker, but obviously some copywriter considers the American farmer the perfect pathetic victim poster-boy, like handicapped children or baby animals.

Wonder how they get such ideas?

And I wonder if any other farmers have wearied of hiding behind an public image of genial incompetence.

[Thanks, Rodger]

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

What were we thinking/drinking?...

Dead colas.

And for good reasons.

[via Presurfer]
I've got some good news and, uh...

It turns out we all may have been worrying about anthropogenic climate change (global warming) unnecessarily. Following recent questions about how big US coal reserves really are, one analyst says we don't have to sweat carbon emissions - we're going to run out of fossil fuels way sooner than we thought.
This fits with my intuition: We face such a huge looming problem with fossil fuels exhaustion that we should be thinking about moving away from fossil fuels due to rising costs and lowered production rather than because we might melt the polar ice caps. We need to embrace solar, nuclear, and wind because we just do not have as much fossil fuels left as the climate doomsters think we do.

If the Peak Oil, Peak Natural Gas, and Peak Coal folks are correct then why do the IPCC types spend so much time talking about climate catastrophe? My guess: Human-caused climate disaster makes for a far more dramatic moral story of human sin. Talk of using up all the coal and oil doesn't satisfy the need to see human action in such sinful terms. If we run out of oil then we suffer from the exhaustion of the oil but nature doesn't suffer as much as we do. We sin, but against ourselves. By contrast, if we heat up the planet the argument can be made for humans as massive sinners against nature. [More]
Oookay, there is room for all kinds of ideas, but we have been continually disappointed by the failure of an Energy Judgment Day to dawn. I changed my major in college from petroleum engineering to chemical engineering because a professor assured me we would be out of oil long before now.

I think energy markets will advise us clearly about how fast we are running out of fossil fuels. And I don't see any real panic buying there yet.

Check it out on your vacation to Washington DC...

If you visit our capital this summer, take some time to at drive by the Dept. of Agriculture building. It is an enormous edifice and offers a hint of the massive bureaucracy that is sustained by our complex farm policy.

Then consider this idea to umm, downsize this behemoth.
The table shows that these reforms would eliminate 90 percent of the USDA’s budget, saving federal taxpayers $80 billion annually, or about $696 per U.S. household. Under the proposal, the USDA would retain responsibility for animal and plant health inspections, food safety, grain and packing inspections, and conservation activities.

[Click on for larger image]

I know, I know.

Still, it's a thought.
A better direction...

While the Immigration Plan lives - despite Pres. Bush's well-meaning blunder - to see another day, its fate is very much in doubt.
The senators voted, 64 to 35, to invoke cloture, or move to consideration of the bill itself. Since 60 votes are required for cloture, and only 45 voted for cloture two weeks ago, the measure’s supporters were heartened by today’s vote. Had the cloture vote failed today, the bill would have been dead for the foreseeable future.

The Senate’s next step is to consider a batch of amendments, some designed to be easier on illegal immigrants, some meant to be tougher. The amendments’ differing intentions underline the fragility of the coalition behind the bill.

Another make-or-break cloture vote could come before this weekend, and it is by no means certain that those who voted for cloture today will vote for the bill itself. [More]

This could be some of the best work this Congress will do, because you can be sure few of them want to wrestle with this issue. Nonetheless, problems like this are their job and regardless of the outcome, it is encouraging to this observer to see Congress vote for something rather against everything.

Still, along with others, I think I have found an immigration plan that addresses our real problems better.
Another problem, though, was that the Senate bill was worse than it needed to be. On the legal side of the immigration equation, there are easy trade-ups to be had. In fact, even a National Journal columnist with no apparent qualifications could write a better bill.

And what might that look like? Glad you asked.

* First, raise the number of legal immigrants by about 50 percent, to about 1.8 million a year. That meets the economy's demonstrated demand for workers.

* Second, provide pathways to permanence. Bring in these 1.8 million people on temporary visas, say for three to five years, with the promise of permanent legal residency (a green card) if they stay out of trouble, pose no security risk, and work or get a college degree.

* Third, don't micromanage who gets in. Allocate visas using a simple three-way formula that gives about equal weight to family, work, and education: 600,000 family visas for close relatives of citizens and green-card holders; 600,000 work visas for people who are sponsored by an employer and have less than a bachelor's degree; 600,000 education visas for people who hold a bachelor's degree or higher, with first call going to those who also have employer sponsorships or family ties. [More]
It may strike many of you as wrong-headed to argue for the economic merits of immigration when our culture itself seems to be at risk. I think we underestimate our ability to absorb and synthesize a new America with both Hispanic and European flavors. Besides, as I have argued ad nauseaum, the future belongs to those who will populate it. The Chinese will certainly be there, and the Indians, and with immigrants' help, America could be too.
The U.S. Census Bureau this week reported that Hispanics, the largest minority at 42.7 million, are the nation's fastest-growing group. They are 14.3 percent of the overall population, but between July 2004 and July 2005, they accounted for 49 percent of US population growth. Of the increase of 1.3 million Hispanics, the Census Bureau reported, 800,000 was because of natural increase (births minus deaths), and 500,000 was due to immigration. [More]
Many feel that national destiny is a function of wealth. I argue that our wealth is a function of population - that a growing economy needs a growing population, and furthermore, we can support far more people in the US that we have now.

After all farmers haven been arguing that for decades, and now if we have enough productivity to add fuel to our output, we can surely feed a few more fellow citizens.

At the center of our fears is, I think, the loss of our language and Northern European heritage. People speaking another language in OUR country stirs strong emotions. We have been here before. But I have great faith in the power of English ans a language and the American culture to absorb competing ways of life, simply because it is an amalgam itself. Our ability to find a new hybrid extends to more than just corn.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Domino shortage in Japan worsens...

Five hundred fifty seconds of your life you'll never get back.

[via MetaFilter]

The backlash continues...

The Food vs. Fuel disagreement is intensifying. Ron Bailey - a science writer I greatly admire - backs up his opinion with good data:
Another way to look at it is that it takes 450 pounds of corn to make enough ethanol to fill a 25-gallon gas tank. Four hundred and fifty pounds of corn supplies enough calories to feed a person for one year. The USDA projects that in 2010 the ethanol industry will consume 2.6 billion bushels of corn. A bushel weighs 56 pounds, so a quick calculation yields the result that 2.6 billion bushels of corn could supply enough calories to feed nearly 325 million people for a year. [More of a must-read for corn farmers]

Even the popular ag speaker Dennis Avery is objecting.
Unfortunately, U.S. corn land produces only 50 gallons worth of gasoline per acre per year—against an annual gasoline demand of 135 billion gallons. New U.S. ethanol plants coming on line could take 30 percent of next year’s U.S. corn for auto fuel—an unprecedented diversion of the world’s scarce cropland. Supplying the Bush goal of 35 billion gallons of ethanol per year would currently force farmers to clear more than 200 million acres of Midwest forest to supply even 10 percent of our gasoline demand from corn ethanol. [More]

Too little, too late. It looks like the 35B gal. mandate will sail through Congress, locking our crop plans for the foreseeable future. The apparent benefits (energy independence without scrimping!) are too powerful for the actual numbers.

Meanwhile, just in case we do get desperate enough for Brazilian ethanol, ADM is pursuing a rational strategy.
Archer Daniels Midland, the nation's largest producer of ethanol fuel from corn, is setting its sights on a move into Brazil's sugar cane-based ethanol business, according to a published report.

The Wall Street Journal says ADM (Charts, Fortune 500) is exploring a variety of strategies to enter Brazil's ethanol market, ranging from building sugar-cane mills and ethanol plants from the ground up to acquiring sugar-cane companies. [More]
Mandates mess your your mind - not just your economics. I don't think we can predict how this legislated demand will change American agriculture because it is outside the realm of market economics.

I'm getting the feeling this could be a spectacular ride for corn farmers.

Run, run - it's an Agribusiness Giant!...

I have been watching the media to make sure I know who the enemy is today. Number one is Terrorists, of course. They hate us for our freedom, apparently.

But surging in the polls are Agribusiness Giants (AG). Descended no doubt from ancient Titans of Greek mythology, the mere mention of their names evokes evil and merciless power. Gird your loins, I'm going to horrify you:
Oddly, I seldom see John Deere mentioned as an AG. (How embarrassing!) Nor does Pioneer - the leading seed grower (as of right now) - often fall into this category. One wonders if this is a coup by their public relations people or a failure.

Regardless, the AG epithet is becoming stale, I think - perhaps even lame. Few talk about "giants" in other sectors or even care. Think about Toyota as an "autoindustry giant". Just doesn't work, does it?

Here is how I see it. Cargill and ADM are customers of mine. I like customers of all sizes. Oddly, I have discovered that bigger customers often pay better and their checks don't bounce. All in all, I don't worry about the size of my customers, I worry about what they want to buy.

As for Monsanto, they are a supplier. If somebody else can give me more value for my money, they are soo yesterday on this farm. Even AG's can't strip me of my right to choose.

Labels like "agribusiness giant" are little more than code for "I wish I was (or worked for) them". And that envy comes from seeing business done well.
Photo That Made Me Pause...

The end of civilization as we know it...

The possibility of a different kind of farm program has moved some legislators to near hysteria.
"It's a threat to rural America. It's a threat to every consumer - a threat to the nutrition of the whole, entire world," said Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla.

In case someone missed his point, he later added, "It is a threat to everyone, a real physical threat."

How so? Another committee member suggested that Kind's bill could triple the price of breakfast cereal. Another lawmaker predicted the legislation would lead to a "vastly consolidated world of agriculture production." [More]

Oh, puleeze - pretty much the rest of the universe knows subsidized commodity prices have little effect on food prices. In fact, the NCGA is bragging about it. In fairness, milk and sugar prices could be significantly lower without current policy, but obviously Rep. Lucas is unaware of how those programs work.

The idea my $24/A payment controls my destiny is embarrassingly ludicrous. Seems to me we're consolidating pretty vigorously even as we speak under current policy. And the pennies worth of grain in cereal is dwarfed by say, the latest advertising campaign.

Do the math, for Pete's sake.
Missing in action...

The blogging has been slow for two reasons. First, our mini-drought. We have been pretending to grow corn and beans for a bout three months with a few tenths of rain. While things never looked very bad, I have taught myself the unfortunate habit of imagining really credible scenarios of doom and despair. Creativity does not come easy with those brain chemicals washing around your head.

Second, as we finally got relief (1.8" over the last few days), it came at a price - about $600 so far. Lightning stuck a power pole about 300' from our house and zapped our satellite TV and water pump. Nothing like no water to rearrange your work schedule.

Finally, I will be presenting to an ag leadership group from the IA Farm Bureau on Monday. These are superb programs (If you are in IA and are interested I can give you a contact- drop me an e-mail) and I keep revising the presentation so it's more up-to-date. At some point this afternoon, I gotta put a fork in it and call it done.

How's that for excuse-making? I haven't been married for 36 years for nothing.

Posting (and replies) should accelerate presently. Thanks for all your great comments.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Another side of the debate...

As the increasingly divisive debate over immigration continues, efforts are stepping up to manage the labor problem if immigrants are not available. Like robot fruit pickers.

The more interesting aspect of the post for me was the tone of the comments.
The immigration quarrel seems to bring out the worst in Americans.

It could also the THE issue for 2008.

[Thanks, Patrick]
Nature's most perfect junk food...

Hard-hitting investigative reporting of where Twinkies come from - a subject close to my heart.

[via Neatorama]
Remember interest rates?...

While our economists and politicians work to ignore our growing (albeit a bit more slowly) deficit, other countries are trying to figure out where to invest surpluses. Up until recently, one of the assets of choice has been American debt: T-bills and bonds.

Maybe not for much longer. Sovereign wealth funds (SWF) may total as much a $2.5T and they have been looking for a bigger bang for those bucks. All the more so with inflation heating up.
The result has been a torrent of money into a finite pool of assets. There is no precedent for such fortunes suddenly to find their way into global financial markets, and they help explain the waterfall of liquidity that has driven up the value of risky (and less risky) assets of all descriptions around the world. The world's entire supply of shares is $55 trillion, and bonds account for a similar amount. Sovereign-wealth funds could soon become the most important buyers of such assets, and many others besides. If so, the world will witness the intriguing spectacle of its largest private companies being owned by governments whose belief in capitalism is often partial. [More]
Our interest rates have been underwritten by the fanatical devotion of Chinese and Japanese governments with US debt instruments. Without those ready buyers, the Federal Reserve may have to raise rates to entice new buyers - even if they are not alarmed about inflation.
The growing importance of SWFs and diversification into other markets is beginning to attract both worry and criticism.

First, there is the impact on U.S. Treasury bonds. The IMF estimates that central bank buying has depressed yields on long-term U.S. Treasury bonds by between 30 and 100 basis points. Sudden portfolio adjustments by, say, China's SWF, could lead to a collapse of U.S. bond prices, making it more expensive for the United States to finance its debt.

Second, there is the issue of transparency. Few SWFs give details of their operations. If monitoring the currency and asset compositions of official reserves is difficult, tracking the investments of SWFs is nearly impossible. Only Norway provides anything close to transparency. The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) seems to be the model for most SWFs. ADIA has a reputation as a highly professional organization with a diversified portfolio and a cadre of talented managers. Yet despite managing $875 billion, there are next to no public details on AIDA's operations. It makes the most secretive hedge funds look like an open book. [More]
If this strikes you as mildly concerning, you are not alone. Consider this futuristic fable from an business observer:
All of that borrowed money had to come from somewhere, and most of it came from Asia. When China stopped turning up at bond auctions in 2007 and started investing directly in companies instead, alarm bells should have rung. They didn't....

...Lots of the banks had sold insurance on those IOUs and on a bunch of other stuff that they bundled together into derivatives called collateralized debt obligations. When those investments started to blow up, we all realized that nobody knew who owed what to whom. And banks and hedge funds had become such a big part of the global economy that they dragged everything else down with them. [More]

I'm not as pessimistic as the writer, although he makes good points, but I do think the days of cheap money, like cheap oil and cheap corn are probably over for some time. It also means the Fed may become less of a news source than during the Greenspan days.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Without us...

In a fascinating piece of imagination and scientific inquiry, Alan Weisman describes what would happen if we humans suddenly weren't here.
There are places in Manhattan where they’re constantly fighting rising underground rivers that are corroding the tracks. You stand in these pump rooms, and you see an enormous amount of water gushing in. And down there in a little box are these pumps, pumping it away. So, say human beings disappeared tomorrow. One of the first things that would happen is that the power would go off. A lot of our power comes out of nuclear or coal-fired plants that have automatic fail-safe switches to make sure that they don’t go out of control if no humans are monitoring their systems. Once the power goes off, the pumps stop working. Once the pumps stop working, the subways start filling with water. Within 48 hours you’re going to have a lot of flooding in New York City. Some of this would be visible on the surface. You might have some sewers overflowing. Those sewers would very quickly become clogged with debris—in the beginning the innumerable plastic bags that are blowing around the city and later, if nobody is trimming the hedges in the parks, you’re going to have leaf litter clogging up the sewers.

“But what would be happening underground? Corrosion. Just think of the subway lines below Lexington Avenue. You stand there waiting for the train, and there are all these steel columns that are holding up the roof, which is really the street. These things would start to corrode and, eventually, to collapse. After a while the streets would begin cratering, which could happen within just a couple of decades. And pretty soon, some of the streets would revert to the surface rivers that we used to have in Manhattan before we built all of this stuff. [More] [Update - Sorry, the link wasn't working. All better now.]

His book - A World Without Us - is not a scold about why we are doomed to extinction, just a science fiction experiment in what would happen. And I gotta admit, I have speculated myself on what this piece of the globe would look like without farmers like me grooming and repairing constantly.

Exactly why this captivates me I'm not sure. End-of-the-world scenarios are a part of our literature and religion (e.g. The Rapture). Perhaps it stems from our deeply held conceit the world just can't get along without us.

Google has made me the man I am today...

About 18 months ago I stopped trying to remember things. What a time saver! Instead of thinking - I just "google". The results were a greatly improved grasp of the trivial, and slightly higher electric bills.

And an even sadder social life.

Well, imagine my shock and awe when I discovered your choice of search engine really affects your search results.
For instance, the study compared the first-page searches from major engines and found that on average:

* 69.6% of Google’s [first page results] were unique to Google.
* 79.4% of Yahoo’s were unique to Yahoo.
* 80.1% of Live’s were unique to Live.
* 75.0% Ask’s were unique to Ask.

All in all, according to the survey, only 1% of results appeared on the front page of all four search engines. [More]

Are we being insidiously massaged into perfect clients of these on-line entities? Are our attitudes and beliefs at risk of being subtly shaped by which icon we click?

Not according to my search results.

[Bonus: James Fallows (the post source) also added a link to a post he did in 2004 about why Google was a bad investment. I have calculated how many acres $1000 invested in AOL or Microsoft or Google at the right moment could buy on several occasions. It seems so obvious now.]

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Those wacky foodies...

Of all the burning issues to take a stand on, our (yes, you're responsible for it) government is pushing back against the the Whole Foods-Wild Oats merger.
The background: We're in the midst of a merger mania, and the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department's antitrust division—the agencies tasked with assuring that mergers don't harm consumers by reducing competition—have approved almost every deal. If the nation's largest hog producer buys the second-largest hog producer? OK. Telecommunications giants SBC and AT&T want to merge? No problem. Giant supermarket company Albertson's and giant supermarket company SuperValu get together? You got it.

But when Whole Foods, the extremely successful, bobo-friendly, high-end, blue-state organic grocery chain and Wild Oats, the less successful, bobo-friendly, high-end, blue-state organic grocery chain, say they want to merge, the answer is no. This week, the FTC sued to stop this puny ($670 million) merger, saying the planned deal would "eliminate[e] the substantial competition between these two uniquely close competitors in numerous markets nationwide in the operation of premium natural and organic supermarkets" and result in higher prices and less consumer choice. [More]

Color me surprised. I didn't think any merger would rouse this administration to anti-trust action. This is a pretty small beachhead to take a stand on and have any legal/historical impact, IMHO. Organic consumption is still a tiny fraction of food sales, regardless of the press it receives.

Meanwhile, the organic soothsayers are parsing the morality of various forms of preservation for apples.
Currently, organic apples that go into storage are refrigerated at 0 °C (32 °F) under low oxygen conditions. The reduced oxygen content is maintained by a constant flow of low-grade nitrogen, the researchers explained in the paper. (The use of nitrogen and the manipulation of oxygen levels are not considered violations of organic growing principles because the storage environment, rather than the produce itself, is affected.) The refrigeration process is so expensive to maintain that most organic orchards have their fruit turned into apple butter, juice, and sauce rather than put into cold storage. As a result, few organic apples are available past the harvest months, driving up the price of the fruit. [More]

I don't know. Smells like science to me. This type of deep pondering over whether a specific technology is appropriate or not - similar to Amish rule making - is difficult for an engineer like me to embrace.

The war against technology and science may never end. But in the meantime, we progress.
Photo of the Day...

The cost of tradition...

Many ecological problems we struggle with are the result of traditions of human behavior being carried forward into conditions wildly different than when they originated. One such example it the traditional Hindu funeral pyre.
A SWEET whiff of burning flesh hangs over India’s open-air cremation grounds. The reason is that the traditional funeral pyres preferred by Hindus are extremely inefficient. On a windless day disposing of the remains of a fully-grown Hindu can take six hours and 500kg of wood.

With around 8.5m Hindus expiring each year in India, these pyres exact a huge environmental toll. By one estimate, they consume around 50m trees a year, producing 500,000 tonnes of ash and 8m tonnes of carbon dioxide. [More]
As Americans slowly change their funerary choices to include more cremations, unused burial plots are flooding the market.
Think the residential real estate market is tough? Try finding a buyer for your unwanted graves.

Never an easy sell, disposing of extra burial plots has become more difficult. The latest tactic is to offer them online, via at least a half-dozen sites that some marketers tout as a "multiple listing service" for cemetery lots. And, yes, you can even sell them on eBay.

Just don't expect it to happen overnight -- if at all. [More]

Farmers tend to think our business changes slowly.

We don't know from slow.
Some you win, some you lose, and some...

You don't even score. The battle to reform farm policy may turn out to be little more than a tantrum. Gosh, it was exciting for a while. Imagine treating farmers like grownups! Even the White House got caught up in it.

But we were just fooling ourselves. A House ag subcommittee just brought us back to reality.
The panel, a subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee, brought each of several proposals for change to the farm bill to a vote before rejecting them, sending a strong message to those pushing for major changes to farm legislation. They include the Bush administration and a bipartisan coalition led by Representative Ron Kind, Democrat of Wisconsin.

The Bush proposal received one vote. The Kind proposal was defeated unanimously, as was an unusual proposal from Citigroup that suggested a voluntary buyout to farmers receiving subsidies. Even modest reforms introduced by committee leaders were rejected. [More]
Extending the current farm bill is easier, of course and will allow those of us who have been winners to continue current trends. We could know the outcome soon enough for 2008 cash rent bids, and without any meaningful payment limits, we can guess what that market will look like.

While there may be some minor drama on the House floor, or even the Senate, I'm sensing a political waxing here. The effort to persuade for rational treatment of our profession by our government is just one of a number of lost causes I have supported. Like the metric system.

I'm also cashing my checks with a slightly clearer conscience. (Not really - but it sounds tough, doesn't it?)

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


How many clichés can you pack into a 150-word paragraph? Beat this entry:
I hear what you're saying but, with all due respect, it's not exactly rocket science. Basically, at the end of the day, the fact of the matter is you have got to be able to tick all the boxes. It's not the end of the world, but, to be perfectly honest with you, when push comes to shove, you don't want to be literally stuck between a rock and a hard place. Going forward we need to be singing from the same songsheet but you can't see the wood from the trees. Naturally hindsight is 20/20 vision and you have to take the rough with the smooth before proceeding onwards and upwards. The bottom line is you wear your heart on your sleeve and, when all is said and done, this is all part and parcel of the ongoing bigger picture. C'est la vie (if you know what I mean). [More]
I think we've all learned something here.

The Dream Team...

Or Nightmare on Pennsylvania Avenue? New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has dropped his affiliation with the Republican Party (haven't we all?) fueling speculation about a third party candidacy.

I would consider supporting him. He wouldn't need any special interest money, he could finance his campaign from his laundry budget.

Throw in the Gubernator and this could get interesting.
Sarkozy and farmers...

Although he made pleasing sounds about protecting French farming interests during the campaign, I think the conservative Mr. Sarkozy might be a disappointment to French agriculture.

One early signal might be the bizarre turn in the serious problem in France's wine industry.
Such frustration has now boiled over into the threats of violence by the Crav, made in a video message sent to France's new President, Nicolas Sarkozy.

In the video - shot in a secret location late at night - seven wine-makers, their faces hidden by black balaclavas, read out the spine-chilling warning that "blood will flow" if Nicolas Sarkozy does not act fast to raise the price of wine. [More]

The law-and-order issues like immigration as well as budget problems that brought Sarkozy election success may put ag support on back burner politically. French farmers have always tended to be demonstrative, so this will bear watching.
The guest worker problem...

Much of the anxiety of the current immigration debate is centered on the proposed guest worker program, which has been largely advanced by agriculture (although only 4% of immigrants work in ag) and other employers. Much of what we suspect - not know - about guest workers is ill-informed or influenced by other fears.

For example, many think outsiders depress the wages of native workers. But not to the degree you might suspect.
But immigrants tend to work in different industries than native workers, and have different skills, and so they often end up complementing native workers, rather than competing with them. That can make native workers more productive and therefore better off. (In construction, for instance, the work of carpenters and masons, who are often immigrants, can create a need for crane operators and foremen, who tend to be native-born.) According to a recent study by the economists Gianmarco Ottaviano and Giovanni Peri, between 1990 and 2004 immigration actually boosted the wages of most American workers; its only negative effect was a small one, on the wages of workers without a high-school diploma. And if by increasing the number of legal guest workers we reduced the number of undocumented workers, the economy would benefit even more. [More]

There are many aspects to the immigration debate, and the most likely outcome right now is to continue the status quo - hardly a good working solution. Hardliners who want to wall-and-deport cannot muster the political power to spend the enormous sums needed for that kind of enforcement - even if it is possible.

The current answer for most problems in the US is more police of some kind - more coercion. One the the amazing features of American success has been voluntary compliance. Or as in the case of income taxes - a pretty good try. It seems to me America works best when we simply show people our way of doing things and they choose to copy us. We are less successful using strong-arm tactics. See "policy, foreign"

I am concerned this debate will produce only a larger enforcement sector in the US economy ( a really unproductive activity), a less than charming no-man's land on our border, a crippled economy, and significant alienation for many of our citizens.

And about the same number of illegal immigrants.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Food fight...

The awakening food ethics movement has produced an oddly confrontational debate about which principle should occupy prime status.
Some may say that a food that is organic and a food that is carbon neutral are two different things. For some, to eat organic is a diet choice, and not necessarily a consideration of whether a food has been flown from Turkey or Thailand. [More]
Meanwhile the concept of "food miles" is searching for relevance.
Local food must be more environmentally friendly, they say – the distance it travels from farm to fork is shorter so its carbon footprint is smaller. Right? Wrong. Local food, per se, is not necessarily more environmentally friendly than that produced overseas. There is no reason, per se, that food produced in Kent has a lower environmental footprint than food produced in Kenya.

The concept of food miles remains easy for consumers to grasp but, in practice, it is too simplistic and we lose sight of a raft of wider sustainability issues. How does, for instance, the issue of Fair Trade fit into a concept of food miles?

And how can the food industry effectively communicate those issues on sustainability to consumers in a way they are willing and able to understand? [More]

Should industrial commodity farmers care about this tempest in a teapot? I think so - at least to the point of careful watchfulness. As the agrarian sector of agriculture develops its position it can command enough public support to affect the regulation of agriculture, making the the business of supplying 6.2 billion people with food more difficult than it could be.

Friday, June 15, 2007

What happens when people debate in good faith...

To my surprise, I have found a global warming skeptic with a cogent idea how to attack the problem. I like it, and I think ideas such as his could be the outcome once the shouting and fingerpointing becomes boring (and many of us are pretty much there already).

His idea - while hard to summarize briefly - is a carbon emissions tax with a rate set by the actual evidence of global warming. The more proof - the higher the tax, in short.

Global-warming activists would like this. But so would skeptics, because they believe the models are exaggerating the warming forecasts. After all, the averaged UAH/ RSS tropical troposphere series went up only about 0.08C over the past decade, and has been going down since 2002. Some solar scientists even expect pronounced cooling to begin in a decade. If they are right, the T3 tax will fall below zero within two decades, turning into a subsidy for carbon emissions.

At this point the global-warming alarmists would leap up to slam the proposal. But not so fast, Mr. Gore: The tax would only become a carbon subsidy if all the climate models are wrong, if greenhouse gases are not warming the atmosphere, and if the sun actually controls the climate. Alarmists sneeringly denounce such claims as "denialism," so they can hardly reject the policy on the belief that they are true.

Under the T3 tax, the regulator gets to call everyone's bluff at once, without gambling in advance on who is right. If the tax goes up, it ought to have. If it doesn't go up, it shouldn't have. Either way we get a sensible outcome. [More of a really interesting proposal]

Regardless, I appreciate suggestions for solutions in addition to proof of one position or other.

Why we don't read much about Argentina anymore...

Remember when the Argentina corn crop was a big deal for corn markets? And when we watched their growing production with nervousness? Here's why it's hard for countries to stay in competition with us long-term when they don't have the the kinks worked out of their government yet.
The economy is recovering, but it's clear that most Argentines don't have much faith that it will last. Many feel that the government is being dishonest about its economic data—or just making it up. One Argentine woman told me that though the government insists there's no inflation, the same pay that bought a cartful of groceries two months ago now buys just two bags.

Durable goods and long-term purchases usually are made with U.S. dollars, not Argentine pesos, a good indicator that Argentines aren't ready to trust their own currency. Most retail and service business will also give you a discount if you pay in cash instead of credit.

Yet for all the abuse they've endured at the hands of government, Argentines still are reflexively pro-government. Socialism and Peronism (now run by political and cultural elites who win votes by denouncing elitism) still rule Argentine politics. Market liberals are few and far between. [More]

Too often we forget how long and difficult our struggle to create our government has been. And how relatively successful. Regardless how many flaws we can find with our peculiar form of democracy, there are many worse.

Actually, about all of 'em.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Another reason newspaper ad revenues are declining...

Great bus ads...

[via Neatorama]
Icon not understand it...

One of agriculture's most enduring cultural icons has been the windmill.

I mean, what would we print on our checks and business cards without gambrel barns, windmills, and domed silos?

More importantly what does it say that we have no images from agriculture as we now practice it that we embrace as evocative of our way of life? We clothe ourselves in a past that has not just faded in reality but nearly from memory. I've never had any of the three (or even a narrow-front tractor) on my farm in my life, for example.

Indeed, to keep the memory of windmills going there is a Windmill Museum in Lubbock, TX. (If you are going by, stop in a post a note about your experience.)

Farmers wonder and occasionally fume that others consider them stuck in the 1950's. Consider this current quote from the Encyclopedia Britannica:
Nearly every well-equipped farm has at least one silo—a tall cylindrical structure in which slightly fermented fodder is stored in a controlled environment for use as animal feed. This stored fodder, called silage, or ensilage, rivals fresh feed in providing the nutrients necessary for livestock.
Maybe we are - in our minds.
You may be in a bubble if...

Signs of the economic times - our first global bubble?
If Hirst designed a vegetable display, it would look like the shop window at the just-opened Whole Foods Market Inc. branch in Kensington, one of London's ritziest shopping areas. Analysts at JPMorgan Chase & Co. calculate that Kensington could contribute as much as 1.8 percent of the food retailer's total sales. Whole Foods said last month that second-quarter revenue was $1.46 billion.

It's a food-porn cathedral dedicated to organic this, natural that and locally produced the other. On a Monday afternoon, the place was packed with gym-buffed yummy mummies driving designer pushchairs and doing battle in the produce- crammed aisles with trolley-dragging wealthy retirees.

The zeitgeist-defining product among the free-range bananas, organic spring water and corn-fed soup is a 60-year-old Vecchia Dispensa balsamic vinegar, costing almost $200 for a triangular 100 milliliter bottle stoppered with red wax seals.

You know there's a bubble when an overgrown U.S. chain store can sell antique vinegar to Britons at 32 times the price of Nicolas Feuillatte champagne. [More - check out how kids are getting to summer camp these days]

Try as I might, I cannot wrap my mind around the staggering wealth growth in the world, and especially our own country. Sometimes anecdotes help to get a perspective, but mostly I think I've dropped out of the mainstream.

Or I'm just clueless.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

To build a fire*...

A fascinating collection of fire-building techniques - not the least of which is using Stone Age tools.

[via Metafilter]

* A Jack London story I read as a boy that ruled out my ever living in the Yukon.
Take it to the bank...

I have been nattering on for some time that the ethanol business is not amenable to economic analysis because it is driven by politics, not value. A critic agrees with me:
Except - there is no ethanol "market." The ethanol business is driven by government planners, not freely acting buyers and sellers.

I didn't consider opportunities to portray ethanol distilleries as weapons in the global war on terror. I forgot about the 2008 presidential election, in which farm-state pandering will be crucial. In short, I forgot about the politicians, who show every sign of expanding the boondoggle to legendary dimensions and ensuring that investors pile into corn likker for years.

Things look bullish for ethanol projects whether or not they make economic sense. [More]
Regardless of whether you appreciate his reflections or not, it is the realization of the power of myth involved in the ethanol story. This is why, gentle readers, I am not waiting for the bubble to burst or land prices to plummet. Indeed, I consider this moment the time to double down on our corn bets.

I know, I know - I'm looking at a drought too.

But this thing is not going away.
It's true that the ethanol stocks I wrote about last summer have declined on fears of a glut. Under current law, most gas can't contain more than 10 percent ethanol, and at some point all the gas will be blended. Most cars aren't supposed to use richer blends. A fall in gas prices would also hurt ethanol producers.

But have faith in the politicians, who still haven't found a limit on how often they can play the al-Qaida card. Ethanol investments are indeed a bubble, but with government's aid there's no guessing how big it'll get.
It is not necessary to agree with every aspect of a business to profit by it.