I was going to talk about farming less often here but there’s been so much going on and it’s hard to do that. So let’s see what’s going on, shall we?
Bird Flu – We haven’t been hearing much about bird flu since 2015, but it hasn’t gone away just because it’s fallen off the news media’s radar. There have been some serious
outbreaks in China, including at least 84 human deaths from one form of the virus. China either already has or is in the process of shutting down live bird markets and putting other rules in place to try to curb the spread. In France the government was forced to slaughter all of the ducks in an entire region, and it’s popping up in the US now. An outbreak of a very nasty strain of the virus was found in Tennessee. A mild version of the virus was found at a turkey operation here in Wisconsin. And as a result a lot of people are very nervous indeed.
What about a vaccine? Well, vaccines are out there for some, but not all versions of the virus. Flu virus evolves very rapidly, which is why it’s necessary for us to get vaccinated every year, and even then the vaccine may not do much good. A year or so ago they estimated that the vaccine that was distributed for human use was only about 30% effective because the type of flu sweeping the country was different from the one the vaccine was developed for.
Even worse, a lot of farmers raising birds are reluctant to vaccinate their birds because the tests that are required on poultry being exported to other countries will flag vaccinated birds as having virus because vaccination gives the bird the same antibodies as if it had the actual disease. So it’s complicated.
Labor – Trying to find reliable, intelligent farm labor has always been difficult, and it’s become especially bad since, oh, the 1970s or so. The days of being able to hire a couple of high school students to stack bales, pick rocks or milk cows are long gone for a variety of reasons, some legal, some economic, some social. Even though wages and benefits have risen to the point where they are often competitive with the manufacturing sector (starting wages at some of the farms around here are higher than they are at most of the local manufacturing companies) it’s still almost impossible to find employees unless the farm is willing to employ immigrant labor, usually from Mexico and Central America. Something like 80% of the farm jobs here in Wisconsin are now held by immigrant laborers, either legal or undocumented. While it is illegal for a US employer to hire undocumented workers, the penalties for doing so are often little more than a slap on the wrist. So when a worker presents a slightly dodgy looking set of papers to prove he or she is in the country legally, well, let’s just say it’s really easy to overlook problems with the paperwork when your choice is to either hire that person, or go out of business because you can’t get people to do the work. Besides, with modern technology it’s possible to crank out very official looking documents that can fool almost anyone except the experts.
So in today’s political climate, a lot of farmers are very, very nervous about the real possibility that they are going to get up one morning and find that most of their employees are gone and they can’t replace them.
If one adheres to the ideas of the far right, then the belief is that these immigrants are taking away jobs from “real Americans”, and the reason unemployment is so high and people aren’t making money is because the immigrants are somehow stealing our jobs…
But wait a minute. Right now Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is under 4%. Almost every time I turn on the radio I hear businesses claiming they can’t find employees. Now granted a lot of the people who are employed are under-employed, that is they are working at jobs below their qualifications, at pay rates less than they really would like to have. Many, far too many, are the working poor who, despite working one or two or even three jobs, are just barely hanging on by the skin of their teeth. But the claim that we have huge numbers of “real Americans” unemployed because of immigrant labor is not really true.
And most of the jobs the immigrants are “stealing” are jobs those “real Americans” don’t want to do in the first place: like shoveling manure out of calf pens, cleaning toilets, scrubbing floors, the backbreaking work of picking fruit or vegetables…
Uncertainty – Right now one of the biggest worries in agribusiness isn’t climate, isn’t flooding, isn’t weed or insect infestation, isn’t drought, it’s politics. Everyone in any kind of business associated with agriculture right now is nervous about the new administration and for very good reasons. Between threatening to institute huge tariffs on imports that would decimate the markets and cause massive retaliation by trading partners, to immigration policies that would cut off badly needed labor, to renegotiating long standing trade agreements that would open the country up to restrictions on our exports, the current administration has done little or nothing to curb the nervousness in the ag sector. The commodities markets have been churning, prices refuse to stabilize making planning difficult. No one knows what the FDA or USDA is going to be like under the new administration. Some farm operators I’ve talked to are terrified they’re going to wake up one morning and find their entire labor force has fled out of fear of the immigration authorities. One fellow I talked to said even people who are here legally are leaving because they’re hearing rumors that anyone who looks or sounds even vaguely “un-American” is going to be rounded up and deported or put in concentration camps somewhere.
Scandal – Everybody loves a good scandal, so let’s wrap this up with a nasty and expensive scandal going on in the University of Wisconsin system at the Oshkosh campus.
Apparently former UW-O chancellor Richard Wells and vice chancellor Sonnleitner, both now retired, are accused of funneling university funds to the private UWO-Foundation, a separate nonprofit that supports UWO projects through fundraising and other activities. Under state law the university is not permitted to support a private organization like the foundation in any way.
But it is alleged that Wells and Sonnleitner gave university money to the foundation and issued “memorandums of understanding” in which the university promised to cover the foundations debts in order to help the foundation procede with several multi-million dollar building projects that included two biomass digester systems, one on a private farm, a new hotel, a conference center and a sports complex. In addition it’s alleged that Sonnleitner gave money amounting to well over a quarter of a million, and signed a $700,000 a year lease agreement with the foundation to use one of the digesters.
In all it seems to have cost UWO around $11 – $12 million.
The head of the foundation has been fired, the foundations accountant was put on “administrative leave”, and everyone is wondering how the hell this happened in the first place and how they’re going to keep it from happening again Investigations by the DOJ and law enforcement are going on, lawsuits are already in the works, and the whole thing is a massive mess.
What’s that got to do with agriculture? I said this post was going to be about agriculture, didn’t I? Well, the digester, of course.
One of the projects was a massive biodigester system built on a farm in Rosendale not too far from Oshkosh that was backed by the foundation. The system cost $10 million. Manure digesters use bacteria to produce methane which is then burned in generators to produce electricity. The idea is that it reduces pollution from spreading manure (it doesn’t), it produces methane (which it does, although not very well and methane has some serious problems in the first place) which is then burned to produce electricity which, apparently, none of the utilities actually want because they don’t want to pay more than a token amount for it. For reasons I won’t go into right now, manure digesters are a “solution” to a problem which doesn’t actually solve anything and which creates a whole new set of problems.
I’m not exactly sure why the foundation got involved in this project in the first place, but it’s in it up to its neck. As of June the foundation still owed almost $7 million on the thing. The university itself dumped over $4 million into the project via illegal funds transfers to the foundation. And while some of the money was repaid, the foundation still owes the university almost one and a half million.