Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The debate enlarges...

An interesting op-ed in the WaPo triggered a flurry of responses across the blogosphere.  It featured one of the more prominent discussions about industrial farming I have seen.

Once, pretty much everywhere, beating your wife and children was regarded as a father's duty, homosexuality was a hanging offense, and waterboarding was approved -- in fact, invented -- by the Catholic Church. Through the middle of the 19th century, the United States and other nations in the Americas condoned plantation slavery. Many of our grandparents were born in states where women were forbidden to vote. And well into the 20th century, lynch mobs in this country stripped, tortured, hanged and burned human beings at picnics.
Looking back at such horrors, it is easy to ask: What were people thinking?
Yet, the chances are that our own descendants will ask the same question, with the same incomprehension, about some of our practices today.
Industrial meat production

The arguments against the cruelty of factory farming have certainly been around a long time; it was Jeremy Bentham, in the 18th century, who observed that, when it comes to the treatment of animals, the key question is not whether animals can reason but whether they can suffer. People who eat factory-farmed bacon or chicken rarely offer a moral justification for what they're doing. Instead, they try not to think about it too much, shying away from stomach-turning stories about what goes on in our industrial abattoirs.
Of the more than 90 million cattle in our country, at least 10 million at any time are packed into feedlots, saved from the inevitable diseases of overcrowding only by regular doses of antibiotics, surrounded by piles of their own feces, their nostrils filled with the smell of their own urine. Picture it -- and then imagine your grandchildren seeing that picture. In the European Union, many of the most inhumane conditions we allow are already illegal or -- like the sow stalls into which pregnant pigs are often crammed in the United States -- will be illegal soon. [More - and check out the poll results]

Conservative Ross Douthat adds his two cents.
But of course it’s just as likely that something I consider morally licit will be eventually be deemed immoral and inhumane — and in that spirit, I’ll speculate that a century or so hence, breakthroughs in laboratory-created meat substitutes will have put an end to the killing of animals in general (in factory farms and family farms alike), and worked a revolution in moral sentiments that makes my present belief in the moral acceptability of meat-eating seem hopelessly barbaric.
Note, though, that I’m envisioning a technological leap as the catalyst for this shift. It’s true that deterministic arguments can go too far, and that human agency matters enormously to moral change … but it’s still the case that technological and economic trends play an enormous role in determining which moral arguments gain ground, which achieve dominance, and which slip toward eccentricity. The cotton gin launched a thousand pro-slavery polemics. The birth control pill convinced millions of people that the old moral consensus on sex and marriage was outdated and even absurd. The idea of legal abortion became more popular as the procedure itself became safer — but then opposition to abortion stiffened as medical science gave us a clearer picture of life growing in the womb. The moral arguments for vegetarianism and veganism have gained ground in the contemporary West because subsisting on those diets is easier for modern Westerners than for many earlier peoples. [More]
But my favorite response is from economist Tyler Cowen.
Ross Douthat considers the hoary question of which current practices we will someday condemn, linking also to Appiah, who raised it, and Will Wilkinson.  Prisons, factory farming, immigration barriers, and abortion are among the nominations.  I would suggest an alternate query, namely which practices currently considered to be outrageous will make a moral comeback in the court of public opinion.  Torture and loss of privacy -- in some of its forms at least -- already seem to be on the rise, at least in terms of their acceptability in the United States.
What kind of moral status will "probabilistically causing natural disasters" have in the future?  What status does it have now? 
With rising health care costs and tight budgets in many countries, can we not expect euthanasia to rise in moral popularity?  Will the principles for cutting off care force us to transparently embrace some ugly moral principle, or will the ugliness be our lack of transparency and arbitrariness on these matters?
Preemptive warfare feels unpopular, because Iraq and Afghanistan have gone poorly, and because there have no more major successful terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.  I predict the idea will make a comeback.  Robot and drone warfare may become even more commonplace, as will targeting at a distance and selective cyberwarfare.  Those practices don't have to be wrong, but they could lead us to be morally cavalier about fighting a destructive war, even more than we are today.  By the way, the French seem pretty happy about the recent U.S. intensification of drone warfare in Pakistan, which is directed at stopping an planned attack in Europe.  
Tolerance of gay individuals and alternative lifestyles is at a historic high.  I would not endorse a crude "regression toward the mean" hypothesis, but we should at least try it on for size.  That tolerance is as likely to fall back as to progress.
Won't targeted genetic tests make abortion more popular and less sanctioned?  Rural India is already full of ultrasound clinics.  Won't the possibility of discrimination on the basis of genes (not many will refuse to do it, or make use of the information, if only implicitly) make discrimination more acceptable altogether? [More]
Buried in these thoughtful speculations is somethin I think is very important.  Industrial agriculture in all its forms - such as my farm - will be publicly judged by animal agriculture practices. In other words, despite what other sectors of agriculture do to engender public supoport, we will be irrevocably linked to battery cages and gestation crates.

Grain producers are now reaping the result of hiding behind images of baby animals and failing to differentiate our work from both the past and other ag specializations, such as dairy, hogs, etc. As animal ag undergoes what appears to me intense scrutiny and reinvention to meet the consumer attitudes prevalent above, we will share in their disapprobation simply because big will be bad in and of itself.

This is not a new thought, but I think I see a hardening of public disapproval of even cheap protein and a dawn of significant consumer pushback and government regulation.  Those responses will spill over to field agriculture.

The important aspect of these posts is less what the opinions are, and more how easily opinions about "industrial agriculture" now spring to thought leaders' prose, compared to just a few months ago  This issue is not going away.

Or our way.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Pile-driver operators??...

Some statistics you can make of what you willThe divorce rates for various occupations. [Note: this is an Excel file, worth scanning all the way through - about 500 job categories]
OK, here the ten jobs with the highest relative divorce rates: massage therapists, bartenders, dancers and choreographers, health diagnosing and treating practitioners (all other), physicians and surgeons, gaming services workers, mathematicians, fish and game wardens, pile-driver operators, and first-line supervisor of gaming workers.
Here are the ten jobs with the lowest relative divorce rates: religious workers (all other), audiologists, first-line enlisted military supervisors/managers, shuttle car operators, optometrists, clergy, transit and railroad police, religious activities and education directors, agricultural engineers, and media and communication equipment workers (all other). [More about the study]
In general, ag-related folks rank very low, also most engineers.

Jan points out the divorce rate is not so surprising for engineer/farmers as the fact we are able to get married at all.

[via sullivan]

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Industrial food finds its voice...

The arguments against industrial ag, which I have already embraced have rippled up our value chain to the entire food sector. While I still hope for rapprochement of some kind in the not too distant future, at least we are marshaling some reasoned explanations as to why our system evolved this way and what is good about it. (And not everything is good, of course).

This debate has been moved forward by some thoughtful general media bloggers, and they remind us of why our food system looks like it does.

As a historian I cannot accept the account of the past implied by this movement: the sunny, rural days of yore contrasted with the gray industrial present. It gains credence not from scholarship but from evocative dichotomies: fresh and natural versus processed and preserved; local versus global; slow versus fast; artisanal and traditional versus urban and industrial; healthful versus contaminated. History shows, I believe, that the Luddites have things back to front.

That food should be fresh and natural has become an article of faith. It comes as something of a shock to realize that this is a latter-day creed.

For our ancestors, natural was something quite nasty. Natural often tasted bad. Fresh meat was rank and tough, fresh fruits inedibly sour, fresh vegetables bitter. Natural was unreliable. Fresh milk soured; eggs went rotten. Everywhere seasons of plenty were followed by seasons of hunger. Natural was also usually indigestible. Grains, which supplied 50 to 90 percent of the calories in most societies, have to be threshed, ground, and cooked to make them edible.
So to make food tasty, safe, digestible, and healthy, our forebears bred, ground, soaked, leached, curdled, fermented, and cooked naturally occurring plants and animals until they were literally beaten into submission. They created sweet oranges and juicy apples and non-bitter legumes, happily abandoning their more natural but less tasty ancestors. They built granaries, dried their meat and their fruit, salted and smoked their fish, curdled and fermented their dairy products, and cheerfully used additives and preservatives—sugar, salt, oil, vinegar, lye—to make edible foodstuffs.
Eating fresh, natural food was regarded with suspicion verging on horror; only the uncivilized, the poor, and the starving resorted to it. When the ancient Greeks took it as a sign of bad times if people were driven to eat greens and root vegetables, they were rehearsing common wisdom. Happiness was not a verdant Garden of Eden abounding in fresh fruits, but a securely locked storehouse jammed with preserved, processed foods. [More of an article all farmers should read]

This careful analysis is not saying local, artisinal food is a bad thing, but reminding us what we have is much better than the calorie chart at McDonald's suggests compared to just a few decades ago.

To be sure, I am not defending sugar and salt-laden prepared foods, nor unhelpful gorging habits, but like the writer I would suggest we have the infrastructure to make a truly healthy and efficient food system at hand.

Critics simply often fail to do the math required for recipes for 300 million, or they have philosophical axes to grind.  This includes the desire to shape what rural life should look like according to their dreams. I find this drive concerning enough to include it as a reason why farmers should sacrifice as much as possible to own, not rent land. Owners - not operators - will be the final line of defense for how we farm.

In fact, as more economists and political writers examine our food system they are led to similar conclusions, to the consternation of alternative agriculture proponents.
Apparently, the D.C. liberal-blog intelligentsia has stopped worrying and learned to love industrial food. A few weeks ago, Think Progress star blogger Matt Yglesias penned a paean to mediocre strip-mall chain restaurants, calling for "more Olive Gardens" and deeming the the faux-fancy steakhouse chain Capital Grille "excellent." So impressed is Yglesias by the food system that he would apparently like to model the education system after it!
And just Monday, Washington Post luminary Ezra Klein announced that "Industrial Farms Are the Future." The alternative food networks popping up everywhere present "no viable alternative" at all, Klein insists. We should all forget the farmers market and let Big Ag's diesel-gulping combines lead us forward. [More, also read the links]

For corn and soy farmers we need to keep in mind we are not in the food business so much as the energy business.  Our job is to capture solar energy in a way that can be converted into edible stuff efficiently. Our crops are designed and chosen to do this and our production system is propelled by the economics of this premise.

Those same raw ingredients could be converted into more healthful foods served in more socially positive ways. But even then the staggering advantages of industrial over agrarian production will ensure its dominance.

What we need a new and slightly clearer signals of how these calories need to be delivered to the market. And at the same time we need to join with others concerned about food to choose better alternatives for our own plates.

Monday, September 20, 2010

New farm visual technology...

No kidding - this is the hottest new tool on our farm this fall:

Safety Sunglasses with lower lens magnification

Functional safety sunglasses are now fashionable and comfortable with a sleek wraparound design. Not only do they look cool (less laughs from fellow co-workers or the kids at home), the wrap-around design completely covers the eyes for greater protection. Lower lens provides magnification for those of us with well-used eyes (available in four diopters – the higher the number, the greater the magnification). Distortion-free, polycarbonate lenses are hard-coated to protect against scratches. Tinted gray, these safety glasses sunglasses block 99.9% of UVA rays and 82% of UVB rays. Transparent gray frame is made of durable polycarbonate. Soft polymer nosepiece keeps glasses in place.
I am a big believer in safety glasses, and now I can read my Kindle between loads on the grain cart without fumbling with reading glasses.  I bought two pair, and Jan immediately grabbed the second set.

Take care of your eyes - it's a beautiful world out there.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

When I retire...

I'm going to download and watch all the Cheesiest Sci-Fi Movies of all time, starting with:


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Seems like I've heard this before...

Botanists and zoologists are pondering some species shifts.
If you think your spring flowers have been blooming a little earlier than they used to, or that corn in Illinois fields seems to reach as high as an elephant's eye sooner than it used to, or that the Chicago River hasn't had much ice cover in recent winters, you haven't been imagining things.

Those are telltale signs that climate scientists, botanists and zoologists have noted in recent decades, reflecting demonstrable changes in seasonal timing and weather patterns that are altering delicate balances in the Chicago region's ecosystems.

This is what experts say we should expect in the future: Shorter, warmer winters with fewer but more severe snowstorms; longer, more intense summers with fewer rainfalls and more drought, but also an increase in sporadic, intense, basement-flooding downpours; lower lake- and river-water levels; and less winter ice cover on Lake Michigan and area streams. [More]

This is the same message ag climatologists have been sending about what to expect for crops. Interestingly, Aaron noted that even after huge rains in May/June we are on track to end up below normal for precipitation on our farm.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Junkbox, Episode IVDRIP...

Some stuff that caught my eye.
More than you want to know...

Here's what I've been up to, and why posts were not forthcoming.

I have had trouble recently with an irregular heartbeat, and when I casually mentioned it to my diminutive GP she promptly propelled me to a cardiologist for testing. Hilarity ensued and to my surprise an aortic aneurysm was discovered.

I handled this with all my usual savoire-faire.  Once I stopped bawling, they scheduled me for a stress test and I won a chance to wear a heart monitor for a whole month!

It gets better.

I have never been in a hospital - and if nights count , I still haven't because when doing the stress test (treadmill) I went into atrial fibrillation.  Perversely this was good news, as I didn't have to wear the monitor. The cardiologist started me on an anti-arrhythmic, which I think means will make me dance better. But they couldn't release me until the ticker calmed down. (I passed the stress test)

Normal rhythm returned after about an hour.  I escaped that evening after some stern words about my lifestyle and some pretty expensive prescriptions. 

Yesterday I saw a cardiovascular surgeon about the aorta thingy, and I get to watch and wait on that. It's not so bad as to warrant a pretty serious carving job, so instead I'll get $3500 CT scans annually.

I'm calling it a win.

I have never had to face serious health problems, so my first time was not smooth.  To all of you who have not been so lucky, my admiration for your coolness and grace.

Meanwhile, bean harvest paused for us to get pretty good handle on how "disappointing" this corn crop is. In a word: very.  However, the news I would not have my ribcage pried open soon somehow offset this third consecutive dismal corn yield.

That and May11 corn over $5...

Posting will pick up slowly - thanks for reading.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Oh yeah, this is funny money...

Marcia Taylor offers her review of one of the latest post-mortem reports on the financial crash, The Big Short by Michael Lewis.  It was apparently a learning experience.
This month marks the second anniversary of the Wall Street meltdown that very nearly bankrupted the global financial system and triggered untolled human and economic carnage in its wake. I don't need to recount the misery wrought by the Great Recession, but I will admit that I didn't truly grasp the sheer depravity of the subprime mortgage crisis until reading author Michael Lewis's latest book, "The Big Short."
In it, Lewis decodes the financial double-speak that was meant to keep billion-dollar derivatives trades so opaque that even ratings agencies like Moody's didn't know how to properly rate them and instead magically turned Bbb- bonds into Aaa.. We learn exactly how a trader at Morgan Stanley could lose $9 billion on a single trade, apparently without adult supervision at his parent company. And--most amazing to me--that the icons of Wall Street magnified the crisis out of proportion by making their own house bets on borrowed money. [More]
This book seems to match many others flooding the market. But more interesting to me was to see the name of of one of the major actors in that drama pop up in my part of the economy.

Michael Burry, the former hedge-fund manager who predicted the housing market’s plunge, said he is investing in farmable land, small technology companies and gold as he hunts original ideas and braces for a weaker dollar.
“I believe that agriculture land -- productive agricultural land with water on site -- will be very valuable in the future,” Burry, 39, said in a Bloomberg Television interview scheduled for broadcast this morning in New York. “I’ve put a good amount of money into that.”
Burry, as head of Scion Capital LLC, prodded Wall Street banks in early 2005 to create credit-default swaps to bet against bonds backed by the riskiest home loans. The strategy paid off as borrowers defaulted, letting his investors more than quintuple their money from 2000 to 2008, according to Michael Lewis’s book “The Big Short” (Norton/Allen Lane).
Burry, who now manages his own money after shuttering the fund in 2008, said finding original investments is difficult because many trades are crowded and asset classes often move together. [More]
I'm not sure what "water on site" means, but if I were in irrigation country I'd be curious. Judging by the latest FRB Chicago report on farmland price increases the boom is hot enough in north central IA (14% y-o-y).

One more exhibit in support of my bullishness on farmland.

Howdja like to farm for one of these guys?  Think they'll be interested in a fair, risk sharing flex rent?

Monday, September 06, 2010

Full blown harvest...

Along with a stress test, column deadline, and speaking engagement.

Talk to you later.

(Early beans are great - and unexpectedly so.  Early corn is missing 40 BPA, and unexpectedly so.)

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Junkbox, Episode M&M...

I know I've been resorting to these often, but combines are rolling (corn 16%) and I'm traveling.
Self-promotion and self-regulation...

In an curious coincidence, the same conclusion is being reached in disparate corners of our economy.

First, in an round-robin of regret, some of my favorite econo-bloggers are admitting past mistakes and/or advice.
2)  I believed in the "Great Moderation".  That is, I believed that the Fed and prudent fiscal policy had, to a large extent, tamed the business cycle.  I did not believe that there was even a small risk of another Great Depression; I believed that the Fed could and would prevent the contagion from spreading.  Arguably they (and the Treasury) did, but I did not imagine anything close to that level of intervention being necessary.

3)  I believed regulators were smarter than they were.  In 2004, when the SEC decided to let the investment banks lever up to 30-to-1 instead of 12-to-1, because after all, the SEC had the tools to quickly identify and stop any contagion, I would have said they were probably right.  (I'm not sure I was aware of it).

4)  I believed bankers were smarter than they were.  Or rather, I believed the system was smarter than it was.  Individual bankers making idiotic mistakes?  Absolutely.  The occasional bank being brought low?  Sure--it happens pretty regularly, in fact.  But the whole banking system taking its entire balance sheet to the roulette table and laying it all down on a single bet? Ridiculous.  [More]

Here in agriculture we are looking a a small train wreck in the egg industry, and seeing one of the same failures in the system that we saw in banking: the reluctance to enforce professional standards of conduct within a profession.

Chris Clayton nails it.
These groups established by various producer organizations and allied industries to defend agriculture don't want to talk about how ag should respond to the recall and the large business at the center of the federal health probe and possible criminal investigation.
The recall focuses on two farm operations in Iowa, one of which is owned by Austin "Jack" DeCoster, 75, who has a long history of environmental and labor violations not just in Iowa, but in Maine and Ohio as well.
State and federal health officials have reported roughly 1,470 cases of salmonella illness since the spring. That suggests potentially 55,800 salmonella cases nationally because FDA officials told industry representatives in public hearings on the egg-quality rule last year that each reported salmonella case can have a multiplied factor of 38 unreported cases.
FDA officials cited earlier this week that the farms implicated in the recall, DeCoster's Wright County Farms and another farm, Hillandale Farms, showed "significant deviations" from how those farms should be operating and were clearly violating the egg-quality rule implemented by FDA in July. FDA officials cited large piles of manure and infestations of flies, maggots and rodents.
The report from the FDA on DeCoster's operation "speaks for itself," Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a farmer as well, said Tuesday to reporters in a weekly call.
Grassley said the recall and reports about the conditions have been difficult for Iowans to accept, "particularly for people who live in Wright County." Grassley said he was at a Farmers Union meeting where producers expressed their worries about the problems.
"When consumers don't have confidence in their food supply, even if that lack of confidence comes from one product, in this case eggs, it still has an impact on all of agriculture and if consumers don't have confidence it's going to hurt the income of farm families," he said. 
While lawmakers such as Grassley are becoming more vocal, the groups created within agriculture to address perceptions about agriculture are shying away from talking about the DeCoster fiasco.[More]

(Sen. Grassley's concern for consumers who actually ate the cotmainated eggs is remarkably muted, while his pity for other producers obviously keeps him up at night. That alone says volumes about how ag and its outspoken proponents prioritize.)

Although he beat me to it, Chris admirably points out that ag cheerleaders are seem to be little more than spinmeisters trying to use distraction to avoid tackling the hard problems.
This is the "safest" food in the world we're always bragging about?  DeCoster has been a bad actor for years and our industry was OK with it, until they really screwed up. One wonders what it would take for some to admit industrial ag could use some improvement.

To be fair (or try) mistake admission is now a signal for piling on. And lawsuits.  But without the willingness to own up and redress errors - and call them out in our professional community - we are hardly more than tribes with the same occupation.

Correcting that won't happen from within.  Since the Industrial Revolution, it has been shown that banks, egg-farms, unions, lawyers, medicine, etc. just can't seem to overcome solidarity to enforce discipline.  That's why we reluctantly end up with enforcement from outside.

Ideally, I would like to see this regulation via an industry-financed independent third party (oxymoron alert), such as licensing boards or auditors.  But having learned from Enron that even those setups are susceptible to influence if not outright subversion, the task almost always fall to government. 
Plus it gives another reason to hate the bureaucracies we build. 

My guess is ag organizations' likely strategy is to depend on the news cycle to bury this and help the public move on.  It's not like Fox News will be running constant stories on it, after all.  This one is really, really hard to link to Obama - although given enough time...

Talking the talk about how great we in ag are should require some effort to make sure we are great or aspire to greatness.  That includes taking responsibility for the mistakes we make collectively.  So far in this sad story, we are professionally AWOL.