Friday, April 30, 2010

The ongoing farmland wars...

While I have been posting about the demand for farmland from developing countries - well, mostly China - there is another ugly wrinkle, it would appear, as the Indian government seems to be fronting for the very large and successful.

In principle there ought to be an economic answer to the economic question of whether a steel mill is a better use of land than a farm. If the mill is so valuable, why can't its owner offer the peasants an irresistible sum to leave? But here the market takes a back seat behind politics and thuggery.
It's no mystery why things have gotten worse. "India's boom period has coincided with maximum dissent and dissatisfaction in rural India," says Ajai Sahni, executive director for the Institute for Conflict Management, a New Delhi think tank. Over the last decade the Indian government has been trying by legal and other means to lock up the land for public projects like power plants and, more recently, for private enterprises like Tata. (Under the Indian constitution nontribal people are prohibited from directly acquiring land in certain parts of the country, so the government must obtain it on their behalf and sell it to the companies.) That trend has put the state more and more in conflict with the Maoist rebels, and it has ratcheted up paramilitary operations against them. The government has also squared off more frequently against those who have farmed the land for centuries, using various legal entitlements--and, villagers often claim, resorting to fraud or force--to gain possession of the property. Other times the state simply seizes the land, labeling any resistance rebel-inspired. Hundreds of thousands of people have been dispossessed and displaced. Many now live in what could become permanent refugee camps, where they are prey to both sides of the proxy war and easy converts to radicalism. [More]
This is another difficult aspect of wildly uneven prosperity, and reinforcement for my concerns about what could happen here as well.  Not necessarily like this, but our own brand of government by wealth.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Carved out...

It would appear my concerns about the Farm Credit System being impacted by the financial reform package under debate in the Senate were unwarranted.  Like several other adept political players, they have score a carve-out.
Attorneys, insurers and real-estate agents aren't the only ones exempted from the bill's consumer-protection provisions. The Farm Credit System, a government-sponsored lender that directly competes with banks, is excluded, too. Perhaps this should come as no surprise, because Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, those crackerjack institutions at the heart of the mortgage meltdown, are also exempt. Worse yet is that Wall Street is exempted from the reach of the proposed consumer-protection agency -- its regulation will remain with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which proved itself asleep at the switch during this last period of financial shenanigans. [More]
Unless...Republicans have their say about GSE's
The Republican proposal deals with two things that the Democratic proposal does not touch. First, the Republicans take on the government-sponsored entities Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — bailed out during the collapse of the housing bubble. Democratic staffers say that figuring out how to handle the GSEs and re-regulating the trillion-dollar market in government-backed mortgage finance requires its own bill. They have just started researching what they want to accomplish and how best to achieve it. Republicans, in fewer than 400 words, take the massive market on. They create a special regulator and indicate that no further taxpayer money should be at risk. [More, with a very helpful comparison of Rep/Dem versions]
The R-version may also exclude FCS, but it will be curious if the advantages enjoyed by the GSE's remain as ample as they have been. 

At the very least, the debate is now on, and lobbyists are scrambling for loopholes.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Why we're running out of zeroes...

When I read the article below, I thought about a truly clever short story written by Steve Martin which contained no periods. It could be the world will run out of zeroes if financiers continue their invention of derivatives.

Consider these sobering words from Hernando de Soto, who wrote one of the best books on property rights and finance I have read:
Today's global crisis -- a loss on paper of more than $50 trillion in stocks, real estate, commodities and operational earnings within 15 months -- cannot be explained only by the default on a meager 7% of subprime mortgages (worth probably no more than $1 trillion) that triggered it. The real villain is the lack of trust in the paper on which they -- and all other assets -- are printed. If we don't restore trust in paper, the next default -- on credit cards or student loans -- will trigger another collapse in paper and bring the world economy to its knees.
If you think about it, everything of value we own travels on property paper. At the beginning of the decade there was about $100 trillion worth of property paper representing tangible goods such as land, buildings, and patents world-wide, and some $170 trillion representing ownership over such semiliquid assets as mortgages, stocks and bonds. Since then, however, aggressive financiers have manufactured what the Bank for International Settlements estimates to be $1 quadrillion worth of new derivatives (mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, and credit default swaps) that have flooded the market.
These derivatives are the root of the credit crunch. Why? Unlike all other property paper, derivatives are not required by law to be recorded, continually tracked and tied to the assets they represent. Nobody knows precisely how many there are, where they are, and who is finally accountable for them. Thus, there is widespread fear that potential borrowers and recipients of capital with too many nonperforming derivatives will be unable to repay their loans. As trust in property paper breaks down it sets off a chain reaction, paralyzing credit and investment, which shrinks transactions and leads to a catastrophic drop in employment and in the value of everyone's property. [More][My emphasis]
This is, I believe the crucial issue at the center of the storm over financial regulation changes. While I have trouble wrapping my mind around the amount of money looking for investment plays, and the leverage they can obtain from such instruments, it seems clear to me, as well as others, these products are time bombs being foisted from fool to fool.
The purpose of financial reform is to, at the very least, take a first pass at re-regulating markets and behaviours that have caused untold hardship and suffering. Derivatives trading was, in many ways, at the heart of that suffering. And while the Lincoln bill might not have best dealt with actions by banks like Lehman Brothers, Bear Sterns, Merrill Lynch, AIG and Fannie/Freddie, it is the banks like Goldman Sacks and JP Morgan Chase who got away with the risks they took and are primed to inflict more harm — at no cost to themselves — that are the even greater worry. [More]
Getting back to the pure arithmetic, I am aware the nominal value of derivatives can be misleading. As farmers know, options - a form of derivatives - can simply disappear at a given date as they expire unexercised. But the sheer size of the bets being made (a quadrillion is 15 zeroes, folks!) sorta hints at the range of catastrophe possible when the black swan paddles into view.
Policing derivatives. Importance: High. Derivatives are invented securities such as futures contracts, collateralized debt obligations, and credit-default swaps that are related to real assets or events but have no inherent value of their own. They have legitimate uses, such as allowing airlines to hedge against wild swings in energy prices, so they can better control costs. But derivatives are also unregulated, which allows speculators to place huge bets on various parts of the economy in secret, which can amplify real problems and occasionally produce disastrous results. Congressional reform proposals call for regulating derivatives on exchanges, the way stocks and commodities are regulated. Hedge funds and financial firms oppose this, because it would shine light on one of the shadiest parts of the financial system and cut into profits for the most privileged firms. But it's hard to argue against transparency, which is why some regulation of derivatives looks likely. [More]
Coping with the astonishing amount of wealth in the world and its ability to move at the speed of light compounds our economic problems by exceeding our instinctive grasp of quantity and consequence. Any trivial mistake multiplied by a quadrillion is a disaster, and forcing these transaction into a marketplace open to public scrutiny would not be an unwarranted burden for an industry already capturing most of the profits in the US.

Finance is supposed to be how we allocate capital to useful purposes, but seems to have become an end unto itself. To be sure, folks with big money have the right to make whatever investments/bets they wish, but what has been demonstrated is their mistakes have external costs far beyond their own yacht.

Regulating this shadow economy is not just prudent, I think, but urgent as our global economy continues to defy prediction for intricacy and risk innovation. If you don't buy that idea, name all the things you now keep an eye on that you didn't care diddly about 10 years ago.
I notice they don't mention in-laws...

As we focus on Boomers retiring and succession issues, this rather surprising finding could shed some light on some of the awkward family dynamics that cloud economic and business problems for family businesses.

The bar chart shows the percent of time people are in an unpleasant state when they are around different types of companions.
It’s probably no surprise that people find spending time with their bosses — authority figures who keep them in line — to be most unpleasant. Almost a third of the time that women spend around their bosses feels unpleasant; for men, nearly half of the time spent around supervisors is unpleasant. It’s also probably no surprise that hanging out with friends — the people we choose to spend time with — is least unpleasant.
For most of the categories, men and women report being in an unpleasant state about the same portion of the time. But the biggest divergences relate to spending time with family, and not in the way that stereotypes of feminine domestic bliss might predict: Women appear much less happy when spending time with their children and parents than men do.
This can be partly explained by the different types of activities the two genders are likely to be doing around their families.
For example, when women are spending time with their children, they are more likely to be doing chores and handling child care, which can both be relatively stressful activities. When men spend time with their children, on the other hand, they spend relatively more time watching television and traveling — more leisurely activities.
The biggest gap relates to how men and women feel when spending time with their parents. When men are around their parents, they are in an unpleasant state about 7 percent of the time. Women find being around their parents to be unpleasant 27 percent of the time.
Again, some of this can be explained by what men versus women are likely to be doing when they’re with their parents. As Nancy Folbre has written here before, women are more likely to be tasked with caring for their elderly or disabled parents than their male counterparts are.
But even if you control for these different types of activities — that is, even when both genders are engaging in the exact same labors or pastimes with their kin — there are still “sizable differences in the U-index between men and women when they are in the company of their parents or children,” the study’s authors write. [More]
One thing I have come to appreciate is how difficult it is to establish a working relationship with in-laws going both directions in generations. The stereotypical "daughter-in-law" stories from farm family advice columns could be missing the point. It may not be just the husband's parents, but parents in general that some women struggle to get along with.

Another reason women remain a mystery to me.
Eat your heart out, Bellagio...

THIS is a musical fountain!

The Dubai Fountain. Located next to the soon-to-be second tallest building in the world.

[via sullivan]

Sunday, April 25, 2010

My life (short version)...

Agristemic closure...

I have been following with amazement the Great Epistemic Closure Debate of 2010 that is raging in the political blogosphere. I won't begin the claim to have an accurate handle on the subtlety of the philosophy involved, so to set the stage, here is one pretty clear description:
There’s been a surprising amount of online commentary in the last few weeks that prominently uses the term “epistemic closure,” a term I’d never actually heard used in casual conversation before this year. It started with some posts by libertarian blogger Julian Sanchez, who was writing about the excommunication of David Frum from the conservative think tank AEI. Sanchez argued that this was part of a conservative move toward “epistemic closure,” meaning being unreceptive to facts that don’t fit into the pre-approved worldview:
One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!)  This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile.
This argument was taken up both by heterodox conservatives and by liberals, who agree with the claim that Frum and Bruce Bartlett and other conservative apostates have been making: that in the era of Fox News, conservatives have effectively created their own reality which cannot be violated by outside facts. [More]
I found this debate clarifying for several reasons. First, it helps me understand my own drift and now, outright flight from what passes for "conservative thought" currently. Not that I am justified in my position, just that I'm not the only person wondering what these people are thinking.

Most curious is the growing number of former stalwarts of conservative thought like Bruce Bartlett, David Frum, and now, apparently, Jim Manzi, with whom I have sometimes disagreed but always admired their thoughtful comments, who have been excommunicated from the right wing for thinking unapproved thoughts And then writing them down. (BTW, it occurs to me I cannot name a counterexample of a liberal thinkmeister being dropped from the club for drifting right. I guess there is some social security (heh) in being more liberal, if nothing else)

But more importantly, doesn't this closed information system ring a cowbell for any of us in farming? For the most part we listen to the same ag news sources which reiterate the same litany of "truths", such as:
  • Farmers are the backbone of the nation
  • Farmers deserve a different deal from the government as other citizens
  • Current ag production is not only good, it is the best of all possible farms
  • Farms producing the Sacred 7 Crops (corn, soy, wheat, rice, sugar, dairy, cotton) must be publicly funded.
  • Farmers are just better than other Americans
  • Farms are the best place to raise children
  • Every farmer has a right to farm the way he* sees fit
  • Farmer taxes are too high - even if they are less than others.
  • Ethanol from corn is a brilliant idea, despite the mandates and subsidies needed to make it work.
  • Farmers work harder than anyone else in the universe.
I could go on. But the point is - and I have heard it delicately phrased by people in the ag media - you don't contradict these dogma and live to tell the story.

This is the same type of information bubble that got us into the never-ending Iraq sandmire. And our own ag policy, I might add. By limiting the introduction of new information, or ruling out facts that are incompatible with our world view, we have contructed an insular and self-reinforcing reality that is rapidly sliding away from reality.

Just as has been illustrated well in the issue of epistemic closure, our own industrial parochialism will have to cope with a new information system. Say what you will about the blogosphere, but the absence of editors and publishers is remarkably empowering at the individual level.

More to the point, as I tried to illuminate earlier, the new media demands proof - not just assertion. One quick test for closure is the quality and breadth of the links in any blog post.  If they are simply others in the echo chamber (of which I am frequently guilty) then it is rapidly becoming obvious the opinions are likely the product of circular reasoning.

Agriculture, like everything else, is always at a crossroads. But we have never had so many choices of directions to move.  What a shame - and how professionally suicidal - it would be if we simply regurgitated popular bromides instead of engaging in real debate.

*Still not sure about female farmers

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The other census...

The Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) just came out, so you can stop holding your breath.

The high(?)lights:
−    Fatal work injuries in the private construction sector in 2008 declined by 20 percent from the updated 2007 total, twice the all-worker decline of 10 percent.
−    Fatal workplace falls, which had risen to a series high in 2007, also declined by 20 percent in 2008.
−    Workplace suicides were up 28 percent to a series high of 251 cases in 2008, but workplace homicides declined 18 percent in 2008.
−    The number and rate of fatal work injuries among 16 to 17 year-old workers were higher in 2008. −    Fatal occupational injuries involving Hispanic or Latino workers in 2008 were 17 percent lower
than in 2007. Fatalities among non-Hispanic Black or African American workers were down 16
−    The number of fatal workplace injuries in farming, fishing, and forestry occupations rose 6
percent in 2008 after declining in 2007. 
−    Transportation incidents, which accounted for approximately two-fifths of all the workplace
fatalities in 2008, fell 13 percent from the previous series low of 2,351 cases reported in 2007. [More, pdf] [My emphasis]

Before we go blaming the fisherpersons and loggers, consider these graphs:

Hardly good news, but something to which we are so accustomed as to be invisible as a problem.  I still think we are gradually moving to a time in our industry when safety and reduced injuries will be so economically advantageous as to be a prime focus for leading competitors.

It may take a legion of lawyers and hard-nosed insurance companies to make this happen, but as the number of family-only operations slides and those with employees (and their concomitant legal exposure) increase, I suspect these numbers will begin to drop rapidly.

Friday, April 23, 2010

And we've plenty to choose from...

It seems more often than not, our choices on policy are ugly, uglier, and OMG. This menu might be shaping the outcome of climate change legislation even while many still think the idea of AGW is dead.

Major players from business are gingerly climbing aboard climate change legislation as the least of the evils.
That's pretty much been the plan all along: use the threat of EPA action to gain support from Republicans and the business community. It seems to be working on the business community, so the only question left is whether it will work on Republicans. Normally I'd say no, but the threat of EPA action is quite real and might prompt the GOP's business wing to put some serious pressure on them to get this bill passed. That will mean standing up to the "carbon taxes are tyranny" crowd in the tea party movement, but in the past the business wing of the party has usually won these kinds of showdowns. It's still not clear if there's enough time on the congressional calendar to pass a climate bill this year, but at least the odds are now a little better. [More]
My view is this boat has already sailed for businesses who cannot afford to look only to next quarter's results. Too many industries have begun investing too much to handle possible climate change mitigation efforts by greening up for this to reverse itself easily.

But it may not be clear how that will play out for farmers, since perversely enough, our "green" jobs may be the most tenuous.

There is no more fashionable solution to the current global recession than "green jobs." President Obama, Britain's Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy of France, and China's Hu Jintao are all eagerly promoting clean-technology industries, like wind and solar power, or recycling saw grass as fuel. It sounds like the ultimate win-win deal: create jobs, cut down on energy dependence, and save the planet from global warming, all in one stimulus plan. Ever since the recession began, governments, environmental groups, and even labor unions have been spinning out reports on just how many jobs might be created by these new industries—estimates that range from tens of thousands to millions.
Those kinds of predictions, however, may be overoptimistic. As a new study from McKinsey points out, the clean-energy industry doesn't have much in common with old, labor-intensive manufacturing industries like steel and cars. A more accurate comparison would be to the semiconductor industry, which was also expected to create a boom in high-tech jobs but today employs mainly robots. Green-tech workers—people who do things like design and build wind turbines or solar panels—now make up only 0.6 percent of the American workforce. McKinsey figures that clean energy won't command much more of the total job market in the years ahead. "The bottom line is that these 'clean' industries are too small to create the millions of jobs that are needed right away," says James Manyika, a director at the McKinsey Global Institute.
On the other hand, a booming green sector could fuel job growth in other industries. Here, too, the story of the computer chip is instructive. Today the big chip makers like Intel employ only 0.4 percent of the U.S. workforce, down from a peak of 0.6 percent in 2000. But indirectly they helped create millions of jobs by making other industries more efficient: throughout the 1990s, new technologies based on advanced semiconductors helped firms achieve massive gains in labor productivity and efficiency. Companies in retail, manufacturing, and many other areas got faster and stronger.
McKinsey and others say that the same process could play out today if governments focused less on building a "green economy"—by which they really mean a clean-energy industry—and more on greening every part of the existing economy. U.S. efforts to promote corn-based ethanol, and giant German subsidies for the solar industry, for instance, are incredibly counter-productive. In both cases the state is creating bloated, inefficient sectors, with jobs that are not likely to last. [More]
This issue will, like so many this century require exhaustive attention and learning to prepare our farms to cope with sudden economic and regulatory outcomes.

I'm tired already.
Farmers, travel agents, astronauts...

Common theme: low demand for new entrants.  Consider the need for spacepersons, for example.

The Air Force launched a secretive space plane into orbit last night from Cape Canaveral, Florida. And they’re not sure when it’s returning to Earth.
Perched atop an Atlas V rocket, the Air Force’s unmanned and reusable X-37B made its first flight after a decade in development shrouded in mystery; most of the mission goals remain unknown to the public.
The Air Force has fended off statements calling the X-37B a space weapon, or a space-based drone to be used for spying or delivering weapons from orbit. In a conference call with reporters, deputy undersecretary for the Air Force for space programs Gary Payton,  space programs did acknowledge much of the current mission is classified. But perhaps the most intriguing answer came when he was asked by a reporter wanting to cover the landing as to when the X-37B would be making its way back to the planet.
“In all honesty, we don’t know when it’s coming back for sure,” Payton said.
Payton went on to say that the timing depends on how the experiments and testing progress during the flight. Though he declined to elaborate on the details. The vague answer did little to quell questions about the ultimate purpose of the X-37B test program. [More]
In addition to being unmanned, the project is being run by a private contractor, another possible harbinger for the space program.
A post on an official Air Force blog described the X-37B as "a flexible space test platform to conduct various experiments to allow satellite sensors, subsystems, components and associated technology to be efficiently transported to and from the space environment."
Some observers have theorized that the X-37B is meant to be an orbital platform for lasers or other weapons that could be used to knock out satellites belonging to hostile countries.
Whatever its purpose, the X-37B's successful launch by a consortium of private contractors could provide a boost for President Obama's plan to outsource some space missions and launches to the private sector.
The plan has drawn heat from some lawmakers, who claim it will cost jobs in states that support NASA launches and that launches are best left to the space agency's experts.
ULA officials, for their part, said Thursday's launch of the X-37B shows the efficiency of public-private partnerships. [More]
Given the budget issues looming before us, this transfer of mission to the private sector is the right way to go in my book. It's also pretty un-socialist, no?
New, improved money...

For those who still use cash.

 Megan McArdle left me leaning with this take on the new bill.
On the other hand, we don't use that much currency, so I'm not sure what all the fuss is about.  In theory, currency counterfeiting causes mild inflation.  In practice, the amount of currency that gets used in the United States is too small for counterfeiting to have any realistic impact on prices; these days, money is created not with the printing press, but in the electronic accounts of banks and the Federal Reserve.

But fraud! you will say.  Well, sort of.  If the stuff isn't distinguishable from real money, then who's defrauded?  The people who get the money will be perfectly able to exchange it for real goods and services. [More]

But what I do know is I rarely use cash and now routinely put my change in the collection box or penny tray.  I'm just too likely to lose it or forget where I sent it.
True story:  I dropped my "emergency" hundred from my cash wadded in my pocket whilst paying for some urgently needed vanilla ice cream at our local grocery. A really nice woman found it, called Jan and mailed it to us. Jan sent her some flowers, and it restored some measure of faith in folks for me.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Maybe it was the name...

High fructose corn syrup was named by a chemist, I'll bet. It described the product and the label was invested way before modern marketing became the final arbiter of all corporate communication.  And my guess is had somebody at ADM or Cargill just said, "Let's call it 'enriched corn syrup' or something less arcane the building backlash would have been less.
Choosing sugar for its reputed health properties might sound bizarre, but it makes sense for some of the nation's biggest food-makers.

From Gatorade sports drinks to Heinz ketchup, familiar products are being reformulated with that well-known wonder food: snowy-white, refined cane sugar.

It's a quiet revolution, since many of these same companies see no advantage in bashing the ingredient that sugar increasingly is replacing: corn syrup.

Reading the labels of processed food today, a shopper might wonder whether high-fructose corn syrup makes up the very stuff of the universe. It's seemingly everywhere, from soup and salad dressing to bakery goods — and especially soft drinks.

But corn syrup carries a taint in the marketplace. Some U.S. consumers believe the grain-derived sweetener contributes more to obesity than an equal amount of sugar.

Like golfer Tiger Woods, corn syrup has a team of spin doctors working on its image, and many researchers find nothing particularly bad about it. Some do, however, including a team at Princeton University that found lab rats gained more weight eating corn syrup than sugar.

The study's much-debated details hardly matter. Whatever the facts, the lobbyists at the Corn Refiners Association don't stand a chance in the credibility contest against Princeton, which is bad news for Midwest syrup-makers such as Archer Daniels Midland Co., Cargill Inc. and Corn Products International Inc. [More]

I don't think the Princeton study will endure as breakthrough science, but the obesity epidemic and food dissatisfaction - how it is produced, how it tastes, and what it means - will be around. I keep looking for some possible link to HFCS and satiety at which point soda makers will drop it like a hot rock. 

That has NOT been proven. But the "if -you-can't-pronounce-it-don't-eat-it" adage is hard to stomp out of existence. Of course, maybe nobody even suspected HFCS would become the workhorse ingredient to titillate our sweetness cravings.

But it nonetheless could be shrinking market simply because it doesn't sound like something the average consumer wants to ingest.

See also: Chilean sea bass.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Cuts and trust...

I have been pretty critical of those who think we can just slash spending to deal with the deficit.  But now adding to this conviction is the intersection of "cutters" with those who distrust government. Since the latter group is huge, I would say the overlap is immense, if not complete.

Americans continue to distrust the government, although there are signs that hostility toward government has begun to diminish. There is also considerable evidence that distrust of government is strongly connected to how people feel about the overall state of the nation.
Today, personal satisfaction is soaring, the economy is thriving and confidence in state and local governments is growing, but neither satisfaction with the condition of the country nor confidence in the federal government has been transformed. The national mood and trust are both up from the mid-1990s, but still just 20% of Americans are highly satisfied with the state of the nation and only 34% basically trust the government.
Worry about the moral health of American society is suppressing satisfaction with the state of the nation, just as discontent with the honesty of elected officials is a leading cause of distrust of government. In the broadest sense, these ethical concerns are now weighing down American attitudes as Vietnam, Watergate, double digit inflation and unemployment once did.
Disillusionment with political leaders is essentially as important a factor in distrust of government as is criticism of the way government performs its duties. Cynicism about leaders is especially critical to distrust among the generations of Americans who came of age during and after the Vietnam and Watergate eras, while performance failures are more important to older Americans.
Distrust of government and discontent with the country notwithstanding, there is no indication that these attitudes are near a crisis stage. Public desire for government services and activism has remained nearly steady over the past 30 years. And distrust of government is not fostering a disregard for the nation's laws, eroding patriotism or discouraging government service. About as many people would recommend a government job to a child today as would have in the early 1960s, when there was much less distrust of government.
Refining these views, most Americans describe themselves as frustrated with government, not angry at it. And that frustration is taking a toll on the quality and nature of the dialogue between the American public and its leaders in Washington. [More]
More importantly at this economic juncture, is how this distrust complicates any effort to cut government spending.
Basically, the federal government spends money on programs that are popular, which makes reductions in spending politically difficult. In practice, populist mistrust of government seems to me to make it more difficult to grapple with the issue. If people were generally inclined to trust government officials, then people saying “reducing the rate of long-term growth in Medicare spending is necessary to prevent the country from going bankrupt” then the public might support reducing the rate of long-term growth in Medicare spending. But insofar as people are convinced that all the money is going to (presumably non-white) moochers while feckless politicians try to steal from deserving seniors, veterans, and soldiers then operationally it’s going to be very hard to persuade people to take specific steps that save non-trivial sums of money. [More]
Now a strong argument has been advanced that the political tactic of undermining trust in government will frustrate those who want to trim it to size. In short, it appears one good way to mitigate potential large tax increases is to ease up on the rhetoric of anti-government hatred.
The received wisdom in the United States is that deep spending cuts are politically impossible. But a number of economically advanced countries, including Sweden, Finland, Canada and, most recently, Ireland, have cut their government budgets when needed.
Most relevant, perhaps, is Canada, which cut federal government spending by about 20 percent from 1992 to 1997. The Liberal Party, headed by Jean Chrétien as prime minister and Paul Martin as finance minister, led most of this shift. Prompted by the financial debacle in Mexico, Canadian leaders had the courage and the foresight to make those spending cuts before a fiscal crisis was upon them. In his book “In the Long Run We’re All Dead: The Canadian Turn to Fiscal Restraint,” Timothy Lewis describes Canada’s move from fiscal irresponsibility to a balanced budget — a history that helps explain why the country has managed the current global recession relatively well.
To be sure, the spending cuts meant fewer government services, most of all for health care, and big cuts in agricultural subsidies. But Canada remained a highly humane society, and American liberals continue to cite it as a beacon of progressive values.
Counterintuitively, the relatively strong Canadian trust in government may have paved the way for government spending cuts, a pattern that also appears in Scandinavia. Citizens were told by their government leadership that such cuts were necessary and, to some extent, they trusted the messenger.
IT’S less obvious that the United States can head down the same path, partly because many Americans are so cynical about policy makers. In many ways, this cynicism may be justified, but it is not always helpful, as it lowers trust and impedes useful social bargains.
Forces like the Tea Party movement argue for fiscal conservatism, though it isn’t obvious that they are creating the conditions for success. Over the last year, we have been treated to the spectacle of conservatives defending Medicare against proposed cuts, in large part to curry favor with voters and mobilize sentiment against the Democratic health care plan. [More]
I have been telling farmers this winter how important it is to begin to rebuild trust in our industry. Perhaps I underestimated the scope and imperative of this effort. As long as we want to fan the flames of anger and suspicion, we will be rewarded with exactly what we claim to not want.
Planting - not posting...

As is obvious, we're trying to expunge the memory of 2008-9 from our memories by getting done.  Running out of moisture, however.

Now for the tough call, plant deep to get into moist dirt or shallow and wait for rain?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Just like it's spelled...

First, here's how to pronounce the volcano in Iceland, “Eyjafjallajökull.”  Amaze your friends.

Now here's why the planes are grounded.
The intake of an airplane engine (far left) brings air into the combustion chamber.  The particles are small enough that they have no problem getting in past the intake and combustion stages (unlike birds).  When the particles reach the combustion stage, however, they get hot enough to soften or melt and instead of going through the engine, they stick on the turbine blades.  Once enough of the particles have accumulated, they block the flow of air through the engine, the engine stops generating thrust and the aircraft plunges.  This has been documented in about 20 civil aviation craft, in which the plane was essentially a glider for 5-10 minutes.  During that time of freefall, the engine usually cools, the particles agglomerates get pushed out and the engines can be restarted.  But that's an awfully uncertain way to unclog an engine. [More, including the radar problem]
It could last for months, too. This could be a serious economic headache as well, methinks.

[via iglesias]

Saturday, April 17, 2010

I want one...

OK - I'm a sucker for technology, but is this cool or what?

[via sullivan]

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Maybe we're realizing...

What part-time rational thinking gets us.  This TED talk struck me as brave and timely.  And while many producers may cheer much of what he says about GMO's, he is also talking about carbon emissions, energy conservation, economics, etc.  The same commitment to reason and scientific consensus still applies.

For too long we have indulged in the cafeteria approach to logic - we'll support it if it yield the most profit.  Otherwise we reserve the right to choose psuedo-science and denialism, just as he mentions.

It is indeed capable of taking us to a very bad place.

[via sullivan]
So - what else ya got for me?...

Potential record setters.

Read about these strangely motivated people here.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

When I was a boy...

We didn't hold with the idea of "other planets"

Now we got 'em in all shapes and flavors - including backwards.

Thank your lucky stars you live in a relatively peaceful corner of the galaxy. Astronomers have found six large planets whose off-kilter orbits suggest that they crashed through their solar systems, swallowing any smaller planets that got in their way. The findings indicate that solar system formation is often disorderly and unpredictable, and that some potential cousins of Earth may have been destroyed in the chaos.
Astronomers have long thought that the formation of a star and its solar system was straightforward. A large cloud of gas and dust begins to congeal gravitationally, starts rotating, and eventually flattens into an object called a protostellar disk. That rotation dictates the future spin of the sun and the orbit of its planets. This is essentially what happened in our own solar system. There can be irregularities, of course, such as the odd spin axis of Uranus, which for as-yet-unexplained reasons is nearly tilted on its side, and Pluto's odd orbit, which occasionally takes it inside the path of Neptune. But these oddballs are nothing compared with what astronomers are seeing with six newly discovered planets known as hot Jupiters.
Hot Jupiters resemble our largest planet in size and composition, yet they orbit much closer to their stars, sometimes well within what would be the orbit of Mercury. But the newly discovered worlds add an extra twist: all orbit in the opposite direction from all of the other objects in their solar system (a so-called retrograde orbit), and all orbit at severe angles. [More]
I think Spock predicted this...
People who don't get blogs...

After all this time, I am still somewhat amazed at my colleagues in the ag media who think a blog post is merely an online article.  I'll use my former editor Marcia Taylor as an example:
Rumors have floated since 2006 that institutions like pension funds, insurance companies and even a few world-famous billionaires were rekindling their romance with farmland as an investment, perhaps at levels not seen since the 1970s. The appeal back then was that raw Iowa land appreciated fivefold, from about $419 an acre to about $2,000 an acre in the space of 10 years. Two new economic reports from Iowa State University's Mike Duffy and University of Illinois' Bruce Sherrick touting the Corn Belt's more recent gains--and its 50-year track record of beating stocks in most years--has only fanned more interest (subscribers can see last week's DTN series, "The Good Earth" in recent features). [More]
The italics are mine to illustrate what should have happened. Links are what make blogs valuable!
"Two new economic reports from Iowa State University's Mike Duffy and University of Illinois' Bruce Sherrick touting the Corn Belt's more recent gains..."
Or compare it to an analogous post on a real business blog (the subject isn't important):
I posed a question on this recent CD post asking why the St. Louis Fed graphs are showing the recession ending in July 2009. Max commented and provided the answer. In the Notes section below each graph you can click on "US recession dates" where it says:

"The NBER has not yet determined the end of the recession that began in December 2007. The date 2009-07-01 has been substituted in graphs as an estimate. This estimate is based on a statistical model for dating business cycle turning points developed by Marcelle Chauvet and Jeremy Piger (A Comparison of the Real-Time Performance of Business Cycle Dating Methods, Journal of Business and Economic Statistics, 2008, 26, 42-49). For more information, see"

The graph above shows the Chauvet and Piger recession probabilities back to January 2010 (data here). By July 2009, the recession probability had decreased to 15%, from 77.3% in June 2009, and that huge drop signalled the end of the last recession. Since August of last year, the recession probabilities have been in single-digits and falling, to only 2.8% for January 2010 (most recent month). [More]
 The problem, I think is the old media mindset of being able to decide what information the reader is entititled to.  This privilege is not given up lightly. The idea of actually making the source material easy to get to is unthinkable - otherwise your conclusions and coverage might be open to criticism.

Steve Cornett and I talked about this recently (BTW - without the hat you wouldn't recognize him!) and to my knowledge he is the only ag blogger who has ever linked to me in response to something I wrote.  This lack of linkage also suggests to me most ag bloggers don't read the larger blogosphere - whether it's Red State, Marginal Revolution or Kevin Drum.  They should.  That kind of exchange is both enriching to readers and entertaining as well. 

A clue is how few ag bloggers have a blogroll. (Yeah, I know - I need to update mine)

While we may evolve a real blogosphere like political pundits, economists, and others where sources are linked and debates ensue as well, my guess is it will be with new players who don't hold onto some dated idea of being the arbiter of what the public gets to see.

The reason I try to link to my sources is I'm pretty sure there is a possibility I'm wrong and some of you could helpfully point out why.
Grandma on the front lines...

In a fascinating coincidence, I have begun thinking about what I think will be a true squeeze on many farm operations now aggressively expanding to bring in the next generation. (There is a good reason we're all about succession at FJ, for instance.)

But I think we could be headed for a difficult margin-erosion period and that all the histrionic pestering of Congress for mandated ethanol markets will arrive too slowly in demand (if at all).  Meanwhile, production is grow briskly.

The result will be fathers and sons eating through some high-priced rents (and Aaron and I will be poster-farmers).  This is pessimistic (except for the survivors), but I think a real possibility.  Of course, not gambling on rents has its own abrupt ending as well - like not farming.

So last week on USFR I mentioned our game plan in abstract: my ideal retirement will be one expense we will cut to stay in the game.  (Nice response here) The idea of oldsters leading care-free, independent, and fully funded life is fairly new, and for much the same reasons. It was a luxury that took resources from families and generations who needed them more.

Old people hanging on to their worldly goods also threatened the social and economic fabric of Colonial America. Celebrated Puritan zealot Cotton Mather is generally credited with stimulating the national appetite for witch trials. But few people realize that he was among the first to try to force the elderly to retire. ''Be so wise as to disappear of your own Accord,'' he exhorted them. ''Be glad of dismission. . . . Be pleased with the Retirement which you are dismissed into.'' Nobody listened.
In 1883, Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck of Germany had a problem. Marxists were threatening to take control of Europe. To help his countrymen resist their blandishments, Bismarck announced that he would pay a pension to any nonworking German over age 65. Bismarck was no dummy. Hardly anyone lived to be 65 at the time, given that penicillin would not be available for another half century. Bismarck not only co-opted the Marxists, but set the arbitrary world standard for the exact year at which old age begins and established the precedent that government should pay people for growing old. [More]
So, if we have to economize, the first to go will be stacks of cash laying around just to reassure my increasing fearful mind. Further, in order to capitalize the farm and minimize debt, I will essentially become dependent on my sons, as they run the farm.  It will be their younger and brighter minds that determine dad's allowance, as it were.

This may be more natural than we think. Consider this story from about ants:
In a fascinating turn, Wilson does the opposite in the book’s middle section, titled “The Anthill Chronicles.” Presented as Raff’s undergraduate thesis, it carries the reader down the ant-hole to describe life from the ants’ point of view. No writer could do this better, and Wilson’s passion serves him best here. His language achieves poetic transcendence when describing “the decency of ants,” whose disabled members “leave and trouble no more.” When the nest must be defended, its eldest residents — with the least long-term utility remaining to them — become the most suicidally aggressive, “obedient to a simple truth that separates our two species: Where humans send their young men to war, ants send their old ladies.” [More]
The way I look at it, Jan and I have extracted wealth from the farm as needed to live pretty well.  Indeed, we now have a lower "long-term utility". We can do our share of the scrimping in the next few years, especially if it advances the lives and possibilities of the following generations.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Oh, John!...

So I'm listening to my history lectures on Friday coming home, and the prof is talking about colonial Georgia.  It seems one of the early one of the early visitors was John Wesley - the founder of Methodism.  He then causally mentioned the trip was a fiasco because of Wesley's affair with a parishoner.

Say what?   Don't remember that from Sunday School!  But here it is:

On 14 October 1735, Wesley and his brother Charles sailed for Savannah in the Province of Georgia in the American colonies at the request of Governor James Oglethorpe. Oglethorpe wanted Wesley to be the minister of the newly formed Savannah parish.
It was on the voyage to the colonies that Wesley first came into contact with Moravian settlers. Wesley was influenced by their deep faith and spirituality rooted in pietism. At one point in the voyage a storm came up and broke the mast off the ship. While the English panicked, the Moravians calmly sang hymns and prayed. This experience led Wesley to believe that the Moravians possessed an inner strength which he lacked.[8] The deeply personal religion that the Moravian pietists practiced heavily influenced Wesley's theology of Methodism.[9]
Wesley saw Oglethorpe's offer as an opportunity to spread Christianity to the Native Americans in the colony. Wesley's mission, however, was unsuccessful, and he and his brother Charles were constantly beset by troubles in the colonies.
On top of his struggles with teaching, Wesley found disaster in his relations with Sophia Hopkey, a woman who had journeyed across the Atlantic on the same ship as Wesley. Wesley and Hopkey became romantically involved, but Wesley abruptly broke off the relationship on the advice of a Moravian minister in whom he confided. Hopkey contended that Wesley had promised to marry her and therefore had gone back on his word in breaking off the relationship. Wesley's problems came to a head when he refused Hopkey communion. She and her new husband, William Williamson, filed suit against Wesley. Wesley stood trial and faced the accusations made by Hopkey. The proceedings ended in a mistrial, but Wesley's reputation had already been tarnished too greatly, and he made it known that he intended to return to England. Williamson again tried to raise charges against Wesley to prevent him from leaving the colony, but he managed to escape back to England. He was left exhausted by the whole experience. His mission to Georgia contributed to a life-long struggle with self-doubt. [More]
It wasn't as tawdry as I first thought, but it was news to this pew-sitter.

Meanwhile, the Pope hasn't put the fires out yet.  This could drag on for some time, I'm afraid.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Farming 2009...

We're in the field, and with the memory of 2009 still fresh in our gray cells, hitting it hard.  Posting could be very sparse.

I hope spring is equally hopeful for you!
What news?...

Recent viewership numbers for CNN could hardly be worse.
Six years later, CNN is still the network Americans turn to when an earthquake strikes Haiti or a crucial health care vote takes place. But most days are slow news days, opinionated journalism is more interesting than the elusive quest for perfect objectivity and CNN is getting absolutely murdered in the ratings.
It was bad before this year; now it’s terrible. CNN’s prime-time hosts have lost almost half their viewers in the last 12 months. In February, the once-proud network slipped behind not only Fox News and MSNBC, but HLN (its sister network) and CNBC as well. Anderson Cooper sometimes gets beaten by re-runs of Keith Olbermann’s “Countdown.”[More]
We all can put our finger on the problem, but as convinced as we are, we still don't agree very much.
 The sneaky opinion — Anderson Cooper’s sneering contempt for conservative protesters — is what people don’t like. Cooper and company try to be stealth but they come of as snide and fake, as if they are trying to hide who they really are. [More]
Ah yes, the condescension problem.  But there are other takes.
The rise in ideological broadcast news coupled with the declines witnessed in the newspaper industry poses a larger question for journalism in America. CNN's exposure reflects a growing disinterest in straight news reporting.
"What do they stand for?" MSNBC's CEO Phil Griffin told AP. "That's their biggest challenge. CNN ain't what it used to be, and that has given us an opening because we stand for something and they don't." But are news sources supposed to stand for anything? [More]
Despite the crowing from Fox (hmm - bad metaphor, I guess), I'm not sure this signifies some big rightward shift in American tastes.  We'll have elections to validate that claim.  And the larger problem is TV news viewership as a whole. Ditto (heh) with radio.
More than 70 years ago, back in the 1930s when the United States had only 122 million people, less than 40% of its current 308 million, a priest named Charles Caughlin (a priest long before that designation carried the negative weight of recent revelations) had twice the number of radio listeners Rush Limbaugh has now. Father Caughlin regularly reached some 40 million Americans. That's hardly a contest: Caughlin 33% of the American people, Rush Limbaugh 6%. Check Caughlin out. You'll find his show business style quite different from Limbaugh, but their content and approach to those in political power is strikingly similar. While Caughlin was sure Franklin Roosevelt meant the end of Western Civilization, as we know it, Rush Limbaugh feels the same way about Barack Obama. If Obama is really worried about the effect of right wing entertainers, especially Limbaugh, he might want to remember that FDR was elected President of the United States four times in a row from 1932 to 1944.
Another long ago favorite, Walter Winchell, also had many more listeners 60 years ago than Rush Limbaugh has in 2010. Plus, in his later years Winchell, with his trademark hat, was a TV hit -- quite the opposite of Limbaugh's failed attempt to make it on television. Walter Winchell was also in more than 2000 newspapers, at a time when newspapers were the major source for Americans to get their news and information. In terms of political leaning and ideology, Rush Limbaugh, Charles Caughlin and Walter Winchell are three peas in a pod. The right wing radio entertainers have been warning us of impending socialism for nearly 80 years. So, what separates these men besides the size of their listening audience? The answer is, the attention paid to them by others especially other media. In their day nobody, particularly other media, except those who tuned-in cared one way or the other about Caughlin or Winchell.
This same question applies to all the modern right wing media entertainers -- Beck, O'Reilly, Hannity, and the lesser-known but equally outlandish performers who populate the radio airwaves -- people like Michael Savage, Laura Ingram and Neal Boortz. These are all great entertainers, excellent "air personalities" and performers. But the question is: Why does anyone pay serious attention to anything they say? For that, I have no quick answer. My guess is we are easily bored and just as easily, albeit temporarily, entertained. That doesn't say much for those who invest themselves in entertaining us with what are often factually incorrect or entirely made-up political positions. And, let's face it -- that doesn't say much for us either. [More]
But it was this chart, that also caught my attention, as Aaron listens to NPR all the time.

Douthat argues that CNN’s ratings decline can be fixed with “conversations that are lengthy, respectful and often riveting” and that eschew standard red-blue binaries and give “free rein to eccentricity and unpredictability.”
I rarely watch cable news, but that plan sounds plausible enough. Indeed, it actually sounds a lot like NPR, although NPR’s eccentricities are fairly muted, at least relative to Glenn Beck’s (Douthat’s exemplar of eccentricity and unpredictability). Of course, we should distinguish between NPR’s news programming and their entertainment programming. Perhaps the news programming is too stultifying to meet Douthat’s standard. I would describe it as “lengthy” and “respectful.” Certain stories can be “riveting.” But your mileage may vary. [More]
In my usual policy of assembling three anecdotes and calling them "data", I offer these other examples:
  •  My barbershop has turned of Fox and I think HLN is droning in the background.
  • My usual hotel in South Bend has turned off Fox and switched to CNN.
So my cage-free guess is fashion controls much of our media habits.  Sooner or later we get tired of the usual fare, and look for something else. There is also a bigger trend, perhaps.

TV can't compete in mobile media well.  First, because of it's two-sensory engagement.  You can't watch TV and drive  - despite the best efforts of some idiots on our roads.  Meanwhile Aaron loads up podcasts before he goes to the field, or tunes into the radio while planting, etc.  Given the stuff he's been passing on to me - and the fact he has programmed all the radios - I may fill some field boredom with NPR, etc. I used to listen to WGN, but the programming there has gotten bizarre recently (possibly due the the Trib bankruptcy, and the desperate need for cash).

Mobile TV also requires larger files, bandwidth and the largest display possible - all turn-offs. While Korea-level Internet could allow watching live TV, you get back to point 1 above.

Finally, I think we could be reaching the tapering-off of our outrage enjoyment. At least, most of us other than the few percent who religiously tune into sources like Fox. We're ready to get people OUT of our faces, and as things like the economy crawl toward a slightly better place, exhausting ourselves with anger could become soooo yesterday.

Oh, yeah - thanks for watching USFR, folks.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Don't lie...

Just don't tell. 

In a moment of uncharacteristic honesty, I sat down with some colleagues to talk about cash rents.  Greg Vincent captures it well. But like most loudmouths, I have twinges of regret.

My basic position is rents are similar to your operating note interest rate, or your discussions with your attorney: private.  There is little upside in sharing that information other than commanding local attention for a few moments.

Moreover, such candor simply underwrites the predation of $10/acre-better renters. Nonetheless, these things seem to happen. So my current view of the problems is this:

If your relation to your landlord is based on 1) the ignorance of the landowner of current rental values, or  2) a check sent every spring/fall, THEN

You are not long for this business.
Why I don't watch cable TV news (#47)...

Pardon the language, but this is spot on.

Breaking News: Some Bullshit Happening Somewhere
Still plenty of surprising news...

This week didn't see the end of "Say what??" headlines:
  • China logs a trade deficit
China posted its first trade deficit in six years in March even as the yuan stayed pegged to the dollar, aiding government efforts to play down the currency’s role in global economic imbalances.
The $7.24 billion shortfall, reported by the customs bureau on its Web site today, compared with a median forecast for a $390 million deficit in a Bloomberg News survey of 26 economists. Imports surged 66 percent from a year earlier as exports gained 24 percent.
A trade deficit for a single month may not persuade the U.S. to ease pressure on China to scrap the 21-month-old peg amid calls in Congress for the nation to be branded a currency manipulator. A return to a surplus is likely as soon as this month after seasonal labor shortages hurt exporters of clothes, shoes and bags in March, the customs bureau said yesterday. [More]

I still look for gradual appreciation in their currency, with trade benefits for US farm commodities.
  •  New element - unumseptium  - discovered (briefly)
In recent years, scientists have created several new elements at the Dubna accelerator, called a cyclotron, by smacking calcium into targets containing heavier radioactive elements that are rich in neutrons — a technique developed by Dr. Oganessian.
Because calcium contains 20 protons, simple math indicates scientists would have to fire the calcium at something with 97 protons — berkelium — to produce ununseptium, element 117.
Berkelium is mighty hard to come by, but a research nuclear reactor at Oak Ridge produced about 20 milligrams of highly purified berkelium and sent it to Russia, where the substance was bombarded for five months late last year and early this year.
An analysis of decay products from the accelerator indicated that the team had produced a scant six atoms of ununseptium. But that was enough to title the paper, “Synthesis of a new element with atomic number Z=117.”
That is about the closest thing to “Eureka!” that the dry conventions of scientific publication will allow. The new atoms and their decay products displayed the trend toward longer lifetimes seen in past discoveries of such heavy elements. The largest atomic number so far created is 118, also at the Dubna accelerator. [More]
Just one more "gotcha" for periodic table freaks.  Still, I like "unobtainium" better.
  •  Tiger Woods didn't buy iPad for Sandra Bullock!
Really, I like totally mean it. We're watching 'round the clock, ya know.

Friday, April 09, 2010

The urge to write is like a...

From high school essays, the best  most unforgettable analogies penned by beginning writers:

(My favorites)
  •  John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.
  • He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck either, but a real duck that was actually lame. Maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.
  •  She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.
  • He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant and she was the East River.
  • She grew on him like she was a colony of E. coli and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.

[via sullivan]

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Quote of the Day...

I have been following (sporadically) the California vote to legalize marijuana, and found this jewel.
Illegal marijuana "is the government's best agricultural price-support program ever," said Gerald Myers, a retired engineer and former volunteer fire chief who moved to the county in 1970. "If they ever want to help the wheat farmers, make wheat illegal." [More that should be read for context]
Tackling the deficit (IV)...

By now all right-thinking citizens are horrified by our deficit projections - and rightfully so.  Since raising taxes to pay for stuff is unthinkable, let's stop spending on stuff.

In fact, this is our historical answer.
In a reassuring sign, Goldman Sachs said in a note released Tuesday that U.S. governments have had a strong track record of stabilizing the debt by tightening fiscal policy. Taking a sample span from 1962 to 2008, the bank's economists said that debt has historically been brought back under control mainly via spending cuts, while taxes haven't been raised significantly. [More]
In this order, apparently:


 I've already dealt with the only popular one - foreign aid - and good luck cutting aid to Israel, BTW.

 So farmers need to note what else is even faintly unpopular enough to become a target.  While we have always depended on our considerable Congressional clout, I wonder if this is reasonable in coming months.  The fervor for budget cuts instead of tax increases will be intense from the right, with which more farmers align generally.

It may be possible to retain ag spending at similar levels, but folks, doesn't it seem a stretch to be pressing legislators with Christmas list of projects right now?  Or at least to do it while complaining about the deficit?

Perhaps the theory is to grab what you can when you can and let idealist wusses come up with cuts to their own programs.  Regardless, this level of cynicism would do little to help with our ongoing PR efforts to undercut possible regulation, I suspect.

But I hope our ag leadership has a retreat plan somewhere.  It could prove useful.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Remember herbicides?...

I'm spending time with my FJ colleagues in South Bend as part of our editorial Grand High Conclave, or whatever.  One topic that emerged (actually I brought it up, as one of the revered Old Ones) was what if we get back to the old days of herbicide competition?

No seriously. I'm already putting down half-rates of residuals to help my RR crops and control resistant weeds. At what point does the RR trait become worth less? 

My guess is 2008.  And this may be the reason why we have this announcement...
When Monsanto said three years ago it would double its annual profit by 2012, the company was making a bold bet on its future — selling biotech seeds rather than old-line chemicals.
Now, the company's past is catching up with it. And the future of biotech seed is looking tougher than imagined.
On Wednesday, Chief Executive Hugh Grant said for the first time Wednesday that Monsanto won't likely hit its 2012 goal. The reason is twofold. Unexpected losses in the herbicide division are dragging down the rest of the company, and farmers don't seem willing to pay a premium price for next-generation biotech seeds.
As a result, the world's biggest seed maker is trimming its expectations. Grant said the company would now deliver profit growth in the "mid-teens" annually, rather than hitting its mark for 2012. [More]
Not to simply add coals, but what if the Bt traits have similar lifespans?  I've wondered, for example if the remarkable performance of Bt hybrids on corn borers would wipe the little suckers out.
Population levels of ECB appear to have declined in recent years in many regions along the eastern and central United States. The reason for this apparent decline is not definitively known, but most likely involves the increased use of transgenic Bt corn, which provides virtually 100% control of ECB. Since ECB utilizes corn as its major host plant for food and reproduction (4), ECB population dynamics will undoubtedly be negatively impacted in areas where Bt corn dominates the agricultural landscape. This phenomenon can be demonstrated in Painter, VA, where ECB pest management research has been conducted for several decades, and where Bt corn use on the surrounding farmland of the Delmarva Peninsula has increased steadily over the last 10 years. Historical counts of ECB moths caught in a black light trap located in Painter have shown a distinct drop over the past decade (Fig. 2). Similarly, there has been a decline in ECB damage in the untreated control plots from potato and bell pepper insecticide experiments over that same time period (Fig. 3). Evidence of ECB decline has been reported in the Midwestern United States as well (8). Annual fall surveys of overwintering ECB larvae have shown evidence of landscape-scale suppression by Bt corn (2). [More]
While I have always flinched when farmers declaimed themselves to be "victims of their own success", this might be a bona fide example. Suppose we have reduced the ECB populations to trivial levels.  What value does that trait deliver?

Right now I think this is a big gamble, but next year or 2012 might be a different story.

Meanwhile, what if the dosage levels are creating resistant rootworms?  (BTW, this keeps me awake at night)

Bruce Potter, University of Minnesota Extension integrated pest management specialist, learned there was an atypical corn rootworm problem when he started getting phone calls last September.

“Rootworm Bt corn was falling down. There were a lot of corn rootworms,” Potter said. “If you looked at the roots, the lower nodes were doing fine, it was the upper nodes that were getting hammered.”

The phone calls came in from southeast and southwest Minnesota, as well as from a couple of smaller regions in south central Minnesota.

Based out of the Southwest Research & Outreach Center near Lamberton, Minn., Potter was surprised by the late feeding.

Corn rootworms (CRW) hatch from over-wintering eggs in mid-June. The larvae pass through three instars as they feed on corn roots.

Peak feeding occurs for several weeks and pupation occurs in mid-July. The adults emerge five to 10 days later.

Emergence is normally observed from mid-July to mid-August, and egg laying begins 10-14 days after adult emergence.

“We don't know the reason for this (September emergence),” he said. “We don't know if it was resistance. We don't know if it was reduced protein levels. In other words, perhaps there wasn't as much Bt protein in the older roots and that's what they were attacking.

“We don't know if the hatch or the attack on roots was delayed for some reason. We don't know what's going on, and we really don't know how widespread the issue it was,” he added.

Potter hopes the scenario was a result of last year's unique weather conditions and not a situation caused by CRW selection pressure. [More]
None of this is proof that traits have let us down, but such evidence raises doubts for this corn grower. At the very least, I will be pushing my spreadsheet for numbers to quantify those doubts about trait efficacy.