Sunday, June 22, 2014

The truly "golden" years...

Jan and I have been unbelievably - and undeservedly - lucky in life. One thing we can take credit for, however, we had our children at a great time in our lives.  As such we enjoyed our "golden" years at a time and in a way many cohorts behind will never know.

The old admonition, "Life begins when the kids leave home and the dog dies" has a bit of truth behind it. Our children were born when I was 26 and 29 respectively.  Which means they left for college when we were in our mid to late forties - no age at all.

Better than that, they never came back, and more importantly achieved financial independence promptly after school. I have written how I was caught unaware by Aaron's return after nearly 15 years away, but that is another story. My point today is how - happy though we are right now - we marvel at the incredible years when we were still young enough to do anything we could afford, we could afford more than we had anticipated, and we were not yet caring for an older generation, or friends coping with health issues.

This life plan doesn't appear to be that common any more.
One in five people in their 20s and early 30s is currently living with his or her parents. And 60 percent of all young adults receive financial support from them. That’s a significant increase from a generation ago, when only one in 10 young adults moved back home and few received financial support. The common explanation for the shift is that people born in the late 1980s and early 1990s came of age amid several unfortunate and overlapping economic trends. Those who graduated college as the housing market and financial system were imploding faced the highest debt burden of any graduating class in history. Nearly 45 percent of 25-year-olds, for instance, have outstanding loans, with an average debt above $20,000. (Kasinecz still has about $60,000 to go.) And more than half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed, meaning they make substandard wages in jobs that don’t require a college degree. According to Lisa B. Kahn, an economist at Yale University, the negative impact of graduating into a recession never fully disappears. Even 20 years later, the people who graduated into the recession of the early ’80s were making substantially less money than people lucky enough to have graduated a few years afterward, when the economy was booming.Some may hope that the boomerang generation represents an unfortunate but temporary blip — that the class of 2015 will be able to land great jobs out of college, and that they’ll reach financial independence soon after reaching the drinking age. But the latest recession was only part of the boomerang generation’s problem. In reality, it simply amplified a trend that had been growing stealthily for more than 30 years. Since 1980, the U.S. economy has been destabilized by a series of systemic changes — the growth of foreign trade, rapid advances in technology, changes to the tax code, among others — that have affected all workers but particularly those just embarking on their careers. In 1968, for instance, a vast majority of 20-somethings were living independent lives; more than half were married. But over the past 30 years, the onset of sustainable economic independence has been steadily receding. By 2007, before the recession even began, fewer than one in four young adults were married, and 34 percent relied on their parents for rent. [More]

Look, we loved being parents, but we were stunned by how much fun it was to have grown children. I suppose we missed the crazy times of being 20/30-somethings without spouses or children, but postponing them to 45 ain't the worst outcome in the world either.

Most crucially, we are learning that much of what is glittering beyond 65 is fool's gold. In addition to the scenario laid out above, longer-lived parents often surprise our retirement plans, so that postponed pleasure is being eroded from both sides. 

Again, other than deciding two children were enough (which oddly we often regret) and having them early in our way-too-early marriage (I was 22, fer Pete's sake!), simple good fortune granted us a decade or more of hilarious freedom of action. I know, I know, it could all have been stolen by a health problem or similar life catastrophe, but at least we were in position to take advantage of the absence of calamity.

Our sons will be shifted slightly further down the life-track as they married and propagated at somewhat later ages, but I also know young people who may never see a grandchild, let alone her wedding. The timing just doesn't work.

I wonder if these life examples will move the trend of later marriages and families back to younger ages, or whether it will become astonishing to go on a camping trip with your grandparents when you are 12. 

Re-reading this, it could be interpreted as not merely self-congratulatory, but anti-retirement planning. That certainly wasn't my point. I'm just thinking that birth control has delivered some unexpected cultural results that may take us generations to sort out.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Odd charts...

Exercise #1: Integrate these two charts into a workable theory.

[As always, click to enlarge] 

So, apparently we are watching TV more than any other social activity, but what are we watching? Obviously not "regular" TV.


More to fret about...

Agriculture seems to me to be overly concerned about what other people think of them. While much of this has to do with defending our special status with the government is many instances, this anxiety is also present in less-subsidized sectors.

Some of it may be attributable to our odd concern over being "over-regulated".  I use quotes because what many see as intrusive regulation looks to me like being required to clean up our messes so they don't burden others. Or better yet, regulations offer strong  protection from our litigious fellow citizens. Regardless, apparently if we are well thought of, this will ameliorate the problems, the thinking goes.

I'm not sure why we are so concerned. But since we are here is some sobering news:

We are not a prestigious occupation.


I'm not sure why the survey is so old (2009) - maybe you have to buy the fresh stuff. Whatever.

It's even worse when you look at our NORC score.

Maybe I'm just getting old and grumpy, but I don't think I was ever worried about whether people were "dissing" my occupation. In fact, I can enumerate some positive aspects of being ranked lower.

  • You are non-threatening.  My brother is a DOCTOR.  People who are DOCTORS seem to slip the fact into every conversation or attach MD to the scout trip chaperone list. Not all of them, but enough to notice a trend. This gets old. When people find out I'm a farmer, defenses fall instead of raise. They are pretty sure I'm not going to try to overwhelm them with my fabulous intellect or credentials. (Suckers!)
  • It's easy to astonish them with simple competence. Let's face it, the bar is pretty low for expectations in conversation or knowledge.
  • In a way, we are exotic. Nobody really knows how we live, yet may think they do. Partly that's because we spend inordinate effort trying to mislead them, but mostly it's due to a really unusual way of life.
  • You have new stories. Life in rural America is a mystery and an endless source of fascination. 
  • You have a unique perspective on everything from health care to child-rearing.
  • You have strong ties to a long past. You know how people say "X% of the jobs Y years from now don't even exist yet"? Our does and has. For 12,000 years or so. This is often envied more than you might think.
  • You job is "explainable". Despite embracing technology like a warm cheerleader on a cold night, farming still is basically the same job it was for, like, ever. 
It's not that I don't want people to think well of my work. But I don't expect them to respect me because of my occupation. That could be what we're seeing here in agriculture: a respect entitlement attitude.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Twits on Twitter...

Yes, I've degraded myself to 140-character wisecracks and am tweeting.

Worse yet, I think I'm starting to enjoy it.

FWIW, I will tweet whenever I have a new post, so if you follow me you can follow Incoming as well.
The Chipotle affair...

I have been more than a little puzzled by the kerfuffle between the beef industry and Chipotle - for multiple reasons. But it's evident  - although virtually predictable - my opinion doesn't line up with the majority of farmers and ranchers. This became obvious when we talked about it on Agritalk Friday.

Chipotle has turned to Australia to source grass-fed beef. Considering the price of beef, especially the lean beef they need to cut our higher fat fed beef down to burrito level, this is hardly a surprise. But the beef industry took offense at their CEO comments.

In 2013, our company purchased about 45 million pounds of domestic Responsibly Raised beef; but the U.S. supply isn't growing quickly enough to match our demand. Even though our loyalty to American ranchers is strong, rather than meet the shortfall with conventionally raised beef from cattle treated with growth hormones and antibiotics, we decided to take this opportunity to start sourcing more truly grass-fed steak. So in addition to expanding our supply of beef raised without growth hormones or antibiotics, we are particularly excited to be able to serve more beef that comes from cattle raised entirely on grass. [More]
Of all the possible reasons, I think this quote hints at the most important one: the supply/price crisis in the US. Cull cows are setting records for both price and small numbers. So getting to 80/20 for ground beef is really tough with our beef output. Sure we have grass-fed beef but I can't even get any good numbers on the size of our grass-fed herd, let alone the percentage that are non-hormone and antibiotic free.
Nobody collects information on exactly how much of the grass-fed beef that Americans eat comes from abroad. Theo Weening, the global meat coordinator for Whole Foods, says his company buys very little. "We probably import maybe 3 percent. The rest is regional, local; that's what we really push for," he says.But you'll see plenty of Australian-origin beef in other supermarkets. Organic Valley, meanwhile, gets all of its grass-fed beef from Australia. There's also a lot of grass-fed beef coming in from Uruguay and Brazil.So why does the U.S., the world's biggest beef producer, have to go abroad to find enough of the grass-fed variety?Curt Lacy, an agricultural economist at the University of Georgia, says some of the reasons are pretty simple. Weather, for instance. In most of the U.S., it freezes. In Australia, it doesn't. So in Australia, as long as there's water, there's grass year-round.And then there's the issue of land. "If you're going to finish animals on grass, it takes more land," Lacy says. Grassland in Australia is relatively cheap and plentiful, and there's not much else you can do with a lot of it, apart from grazing animals.As a result, Australian grass-fed cattle operations are really big. In fact, they're the mainstream. Seventy percent of Australia's beef production comes from cattle that spent their lives grazing. And when beef operations are large-scale, everything becomes cheaper, from slaughtering to shipping.On Monday, the U.S. company Cargill announced a new deal with Australia's second-biggest beef producer — a company called Tey's. Cargill will now sell more Australian beef in the U.S., both grass-fed and grain-fed. [More]
I think Chipotle knows exactly what they are doing. And for the most part, the beef industry isn't thinking this through. Chipotle is arguably the brightest star in the food service galaxy right now, and seems to be handing both fast and casual dining competitors their heads, by inventing - along with Panera, etc. - a new category: fast casual.
There are now over 1,400 Chipotle locations in 43 states, and the chain reportedly made a 25% profit margin on $2 billion in sales in 2011.Chipotle began a trend in restaurants that the industry has dubbed “fast casual,” which offers a more upscale dining environment and food quality, along with higher prices, but in the familiar, convenient limited service format of fast food. “When I started Chipotle, I didn’t know the fast-food rules,” Ells explained years later. “People told us the food was too expensive and the menu was too limited. Neither turned out to be true.”By either ignoring or directly challenging all the dominant trends in its industry, Chipotle quickly became a great brand. Now Chipotle has become the trend-setter in the category, and trade publications feature headlines such as, “Who Will Be the Chipotle of Pizza?” Wendy’s and Taco Bell are just two of the most prominent fast food players investing in new store designs that look shockingly similar to that of Chipotle. The Wall Street Journal dubbed Ells the “Fast Food Revolutionary,” and Esquirecrowned him America’s most admired CEO....McDonald's sold its stake in Chipotle in 2006, and since then, Chipotle has moved farther and farther away from the typical fast food way of doing business. Ells’s latest obsession is the issue of sustainability. Chipotle is now the largest buyer of higher-priced pork, beef, and chicken from animals that have been naturally fed and humanely raised outside of the factory-farming system, which provides inexpensive commodity meats to the rest of the food industry. Produce served at Chipotle is also locally raised if possible (lettuce served in January on the East Coast still comes from California). What Chipotle has learned is that customers notice the difference in flavor from natural meats and fresh vegetables grown “with integrity,” as the chain’s tagline states--and they’re willing to pay extra for it. [More]
Chipotle is adding 200 restaurants a year to boot. Even the NCBA rep on the show with me pointed out the lines out the door at the stores in the DC area. Oddly, he couldn't connect that with the dots that suggest Chipotle knows what they are doing.

Mostly Big Beef hasn't gotten over their big beef (I've been saving that line for, like, ever) with the slick Chipotle videos, notably the latest - "Farmed and Dangerous". Partly this is due to the clearly top-notch production values, and mostly I think it's simply a lack of any effective response. 

The beef industry has decided, for reasons I cannot fathom, to go with "you hurt my feelings". 
Some U.S. producers say they were not given adequate opportunity to fulfill the company’s rising orders. While U.S. beef supplies are very tight, they aren't tight to the point where there's not enough supply. The company's decision to source some of its beef from Australia likely has more to due with price. Plus, the firm continues to strive for use of beef raised with no antibiotics or hormones, which it calls, "responsibly raised."Chipotle has the right to source its beef (and other meat) needs from wherever it chooses. But to say there isn't enough "responsibly raised" beef in the U.S. is a slap in the face of cattlemen here in the States. Cattlemen (and the entire farm community) should choose to "eat responsibly" and opt to dine at restaurants other than Chipotle. [More, but gated from Profarmer]
Brian Grete (above) reports this pretty accurately. I've heard and seen the "slap" reference repeatedly. It strikes me (heh) as one of the worst metaphors cattle producers could use. First, imagine somebody slapping the quintessential 'Merican cowboy (Marlboro Man, or Clint Eastwood from Rawhide). These are the rough-tough personas invoked often by our cow-calf people, so talking about a face-slap is an inexplicable transition from grizzled survivor to playground victim. Maybe the victimhood thing has worked so well for my sector (the weather/Chinese/Big Oil/etc.!), they have decided to join the whine cellar crowd.

But unlike corn farmers who are whining to government for hidden subsidies, cattle producers are aiming, I guess, for the public. This could be a big mistake. Jane Q Consumer is already aware of painful beef prices. And she is responding just like economists predicted, for once.  Beef consumption continues to drop. While there is substitution going on, total meat consumption is a tide that carries all proteins along.

[Source] [Note: I couldn't find any charts beyond 2012, but trend has not changed]

I see no evidence that pity-based marketing has been working or will work for the beef industry - unless they are shifting to subsidy-based ag, which could be, given the new livestock support in the recently passed Eventual Farm Bill ™. (This is my designation, which I thought up all on my own because the timeline for the current farm bill seems to be stretching to infinity and beyond)

Complicating this response is when you are "slapped in the face", simply griping about it seems a little...umm, limp, to put it mildly.

It could also be our grass-fed producers were simply out-hustled by the Aussies. [I would include an excerpt, but they lock down their content] At any rate, without oodles of corn, we should hardly be surprised Australia would be very, very good at growing and marketing grass-fed beef.  And just as we laud our export efforts in Asia, etc. when US beef takes market share from domestic suppliers, why are are miffed when the free markets works freely (both ways)?

But the bigger picture may be what is troubling most US cattle people (if only subconsciously). What if Chipotle's upfront promotion of "responsibly raised" beef works? What if competitors are forced to match their move? [See also: gestation crates] What if slick videos posed next to feedlot pictures sway consumers to eat less conventional beef?

Right now the answer seems to be, "We'll just export our product." This is a legitimate countermove. The US could become the high-value dominant supplier and simply leave the ground beef sector to others. While it seems to be working, there are things to watch as well. 

Increasing dependence on exports means greater volatility, IMHO. From currency fluctuations to competition to foreign policy entanglements to outright conflicts, lots can go wrong with exports. Secondly, growing income inequality here at home means the growth in the domestic market will be in exactly the sector dominated by the "Chipotles" of the industry. The domestic/export trend could intensify rapidly.

To sum up, beef producers at ticked at Chipotle for saying things they don't like, but can't answer effectively. They are also miffed at losing a grass-fed customer. But if it hasn't dawned on them there is not much they can do about it, they risk looking like ineffectual complainers.

The American and perhaps global consumer is getting used to vendors catering to even illogical preferences. Amazon has taught them they can really have it their way. Tomorrow. All of agriculture needs to realize this will ripple through our value chain and arrive our our farm gate, whether we like it or not. Meanwhile, our government is busying eating its own and can't be bothered with a tiny, never-satisfied slice of constituents. We can wrap US beef in the flag all we want, but that got tiresome back when Japanese cars kicked our automotive butts into the 20th Century. Patriotic shopping happens when consumers prefer US products.

I don't think Chipotle "slapped any cowperson's face". I think they said, "No thank you, I like Brand X".  It's not about us, it's about our products. And if we weren't plowing rangeland to grow insured-for-nearly-free crops, maybe we could play in the Big Grass-fed Leagues.

For the time being I think I'd take a pass on tattling that "Chipotle slapped me!"

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Looking back, I saw this coming...

Just like the 3.5" of rain on my soggy fields. The Cantor defeat which was utterly unpredicted (my headline notwithstanding) now shines some light on a little known anti-economist economics teacher who has some puzzling views.
The full context of his second Holocaust prognostication comes in a section about how if Christian people “had the guts to spread the word,” government would not need to “backstop every action we take.”He writes:
Capitalism is here to stay, and we need a church model that corresponds to that reality. Read Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the weak modern Christian democratic man was spot on. Jesus was a great man. Jesus said he was the Son of God. Jesus made things happen. Jesus had faith. Jesus actually made people better. Then came the Christians. What happened? What went wrong? We appear to be a bit passive. Hitler came along, and he did not meet with unified resistance. I have the sinking feeling that it could all happen again, quite easily. The church should rise up higher than Nietzsche could see and prove him wrong. We should love our neighbor so much that we actually believe in right and wrong, and do something about it. If we all did the right thing and had the guts to spread the word, we would not need the government to backstop every action we take.


Umm, okay. My knee jerk reaction is this guy could be a go-to legislator for a weird quote on a slow news day. While his relationship with the Tea Party was mostly that he was running against Cantor, there could be surprises all across the board. 

The upshot for me is the importance is the removal of Cantor, not the arrival of Brat.  It's hard to imagine the leadership battle being settled without an ugly fight, IMHO. 
In the immediate aftermath of Cantor’s defeat, camps inside the GOP were divided, with some Cantor allies urging him to stay on and help guide the party until November, while many of his critics privately warned that if he does not resign from his post they will promptly move against him.Associates of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said they were telling him to quickly declare that he will stay in his position for another term and that he would like Cantor to stay on as majority leader through the end of the year, making the argument that unity and stability are critical for a House GOP in crisis.Others close to Boehner predicted that he may say little definitive in the days ahead about his own political future as he waits to hear from House Republicans about how they would like to proceed and whether conservatives, encouraged by professor David Brat’s upset in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, decide to target him in an effort to elect an entirely new slate of House leaders. [More]
Meanwhile, back in Mississippi, I have to believe this is not good news for Sen. Thad Cochran, even though he is applying liberal (heh) amounts of money to his runoff. 

Two consensus beliefs from the punditocracy:
  1. Immigration reform is doornail dead.
  2. Hillary just got a boost.
Both I think seem plausible. But we pundits haven't been doing so well lately, have we?

I would add there is no good news for ag in the resurgence of the Tea Party. We relied on bipartisan support to get our subsidies and TP doesn't do bipartisan.  In fact, we have yet to get the actual, you know, dollars.

Indeed, it is not impossible this bill could languish in a fight over school lunches. The longer it stays in committee the more it will "evolve", I would think.  Meanwhile, Aaron attended a Farm Bill info session for his FB board and was told the FSA has locked down all information on rule-making, as well as tossed out even more distant final rules dates.  We may not be signing up for anything until next spring, for example.  Ok - this is hearsay, but juicy, ya gotta admit.

Back to the ditches...

Monday, June 09, 2014

Junkbox, Episode MMXIV ✘...

Plenty of water, little heat. Wait - I'm in the energy business.

Lotta guys getting nervous about fields not sprayed yet. I'm thinking ugly tracks...