Farm Catch Up: RIP Ethanol

Photo by Alejandro Barru00f3n on

It’s been a while since I did one of these. It isn’t that I’ve lost interest in what’s going on in the ag industry, it’s just that since I’m not personally involved any more it just hasn’t had the same importance for me. But a lot is going on out there in the farming business, and one thing I want to focus on is ethanol today.

2020 was a bad year for the ethanol industry. This was due to the pandemic, of course, but only partly. A lot of production facilities had to cut back, even temporarily close. Some shut down completely and will probably never be brought back online. Adding to the problems the industry is facing is the fact that they primarily use corn as the base material to make ethanol from, and corn prices have jumped up to $5.50 a bushel and show no signs of going down any time soon. (It’s a bit ironic that an industry that was created, at least partly, as a government mandated program to push up corn prices is now threatened by high corn prices.)

But the real problem with the ethanol industry isn’t the pandemic or corn prices, it’s the fact that the entire ethanol fuel industry is dead and the promoters of this stuff simply refuse to admit it. Like it or not, it seems that the future of transportation is not the internal combustion engine, it is going to be electric motors.

Electric vehicles are no longer a novelty item, they’ve gone mainstream, and consumers are buying them in droves. And it’s easy to see why. There is little to no maintenance. No more oil changes, no more cooling systems to flush and fill with antifreeze, no more transmission fluid to check and change and flush, no more exhaust systems rusting off that need to be replaced regularly. They’re quiet, efficient, with ranges of up to 300 miles depending on the model. Fast charging systems that can recharge a vehicle in a half hour or less are finally starting to turn up in a lot of cities, and will quickly become more common. It seems virtually certain at this point that the vehicle you buy in the near future is almost certainly going to be electric.

It isn’t just me who’s saying this. Several countries have already declared that they will ban sales of cars and light trucks with internal combustion engines within the next 15 to 20 years. California will ban the sale of new gasoline powered cars in 2035, as will the Canadian province of Quebec. Britain will ban the sale of new gasoline and diesel powered cars in 2030. Norway is doing it in 2025. China, of all places, is considering doing something similar.

And now GM, General Motors, has announced that it will only produce zero emissions vehicles by 2035 or 2040. And they aren’t the only car maker considering it. Heck, even the railroad and tractor manufacturers are getting into it. One company already has small utility tractors in the 30 – 40 horsepower range suitable for orchards, landscapers, organic farms and the like, in the $25,000 range. Run times are up to 4+ hours, and if you can’t wait to recharge, you can get a second battery pack and swap the uncharged one out, put the charged on in and keep working while the other battery charges.

The future is clear. The entire ethanol fuel industry is as good as dead.

It isn’t going to go down without a fight. It is spending millions of dollars lobbying politicians to try to keep itself on life support. It is about to embark on a massive lobbying campaign against electric vehicles, claiming they are actually more polluting than internal combustion engines, demanding ever increasing percentages in blending with gasoline, pushing for even more government subsidies and tax breaks… The industry will bluster and threaten and lie and bribe and do everything it can to try to hang on. It isn’t going to work. It’s time to nail the lid on the coffin of ethanol and bury it once and for all.

Instead of trying to continue to prop up a dying industry with ever more government bailouts and mandates, we should be preparing to deal with the repercussions of the industry shrinking and eventually going away entirely. This will cause problems that will ripple through the entire ag industry. Corn prices could potentially plummet. Livestock and dairy will have problems because they have come to depend on brewers grain, what’s left after the ethanol is made, as a relatively low cost protein supplement for cattle. All of this, and more, will happen. And it looks like no one is going to try to deal with this before it turns into a crisis.

Cake Plate, Air Filters, Schrodinger’s Microwave, Farmers Shafted Again

Egads, it’s been a while since I did one of these, isn’t it? This time of year as the weather gets colder it’s tempting to just hunker down in my warm radio room and play with radios and computers and stuff instead of doing something useful. But stuff has been getting done, things have been going on and, well, let’s start at the beginning.

I should point out that I hate the color rendition on iPhone cameras. The real life colors of that platter up there are much richer, much deeper, and considerably darker. I don’t know what’s going on with that camera, but colors look washed out, pale, harsh, even cartoonish sometimes, especially with indoor photos.

I don’t know if I mentioned the plate before, and I’m too lazy to go back through the archives to check, but I got MrsGF’s cake plate done finally. It’s hard to judge size in these photos so to give you an idea of size the top plate is about 11″ across and it stands about 5″ high. It’s made of ambrosia maple, finished with shellac and carnauba wax so it’s a food safe surface. I think it turned out reasonably well.

The base and spindle are made out of packing material. I ordered a bunch of wood from a company called Green Valley Wood Products and the wood didn’t quite fit into the box so they chucked in some rough cut pieces of wood as packing material that turned out to be some rather nice ambrosia maple once I cleaned it up. The stuff didn’t look like it was very good at first but I trimmed it up on the bandsaw and discovered there was enough there to make the base and spindle.

I should probably have mentioned Green Valley before. I’ve bought several hundred bucks worth of wood from these guys over the past few months and it has all been excellent quality and the prices are reasonable. Anyway, here’s a shameless plug – If you’re looking for wood, check out Green Valley Wood Products, Brazil IN. I don’t get free wood or get paid by them or anything like that, I just like the quality of their wood, shipping times are reasonable and the prices are fair.

The new air filtration system seems to be doing it’s job quite well. As you can see from the dirt on the filter up there it’s pulling stuff out of the air. It’s hard for me to tell exactly how well it’s working because I don’t have any way of testing particulate content in the air around here, but it seems there is a lot less dust through the whole house since I started using it.

Even with the new filter system I still use this thing. I figure running both of them can’t hurt.

Is it any better than something like this Rube Goldberg thing over there on the left? Heck, I don’t know. Taping a furnace filter to a box fan does help pull stuff out of the air, but how effective it really is… Well, judging from the amount of dust I saw in the rest of the basement when I was doing things like this, it doesn’t work all that well. The volume of air being moved through this thing isn’t anywhere near as great as what the Shopfox thing pulls through its system. At a rough guess I’d say the Shopfox moves 5 times as much air through its filters as the box fan does. That’s just a rough guess, of course, based on the air movement I feel. I don’t have any way to actually measure CFM.

Let’s see, what else? Ah, how could I forget about the Schrodinger’s microwave fiasco? I call it Schrodinger’s microwave because it seems to both exist and not exist, at the same time.

Handy hint: Don’t buy a black microwave. It may look cool in the display room or online, but in real life trying to keep it clean is a major pain in the neck.

So, let’s start at the beginning. Last year we had to buy a new microwave oven. We ended up getting a Maytag, the one in the photo over there on the right. And it’s a very nice microwave. A bit pricey, but it’s well made and works very well indeed. We really like the thing. The problem is that this model doesn’t seem to actually exist.

We needed to replace the filters in this thing. MrsGF went out on the internet and started scrounging around looking for replacement filters. And couldn’t find any. In fact, she couldn’t even find this oven.

You’re kidding, said I. You must have typed the model number in wrong or overlooked something. Ah, said she, if you’re so smart, you go try to find it. Okay, said I, I will.

She was right. None of the parts vendors on Amazon list this model. None of the parts vendors outside of Amazon list this model. I went directly to Maytag. Maytag itself didn’t have this model in its database. Apparently we bought a microwave that doesn’t actually exist???

I took a closer look at the tag with the manufacturing data on it, including the date it was made and…

Well, that was interesting. Apparently this oven was manufactured three months after we bought it. Okay… Well, I ruled out the possibility that somehow this thing slipped through some crack in the spacetime continuum from some alternate universe or that the guy who actually installed it was Dr. Who or that it was some kind of quantum oven that both existed and didn’t exist at the same time. So what was going on? Some kind of counterfeit perhaps? It does happen. There are companies out there that gleefully rip off name brand manufacturers all the time. But that didn’t make sense. This thing is extremely good quality. Everything about it is rock solid, made to perfect tolerances, made of high quality materials, the fit and finish is flawless, it works beautifully. If this thing is a counterfeit they’re making products of better quality than most of the name brand stuff out there. So that didn’t make any sense.

Anyway, eventually I did find a filter, but by searching on the filter dimensions instead of models or brands. The one I found was actually for a Whirlpool. Of course it is entirely possible that this is a Whirlpool, or, rather, made by some OEM in China that makes ovens for two or more different companies and the only difference between them is the brand name. That kind of thing happens all the time in most industries. The name you see on the product isn’t the company that actually made it. Heck, the Ford truck I had many years ago was actually made in Canada by Mazda.

Farmers Getting Screwed Again?

Yeah, it seems so. Here’s the deal – Farmers who sold their milk to the now bankrupt Dean Foods are getting letters from lawyers demanding the farmers repay the money they were paid for milk they shipped to Dean during the “preference period” of the bankruptcy. Supposedly these parasites can go back 90 days and demand the farmers repay the money Dean paid them. Will the farmers then get their milk back or something? Of course not. Is it ethical? Good lord no! Ethically speaking this is flat out extortion. Is this legal? Apparently it is. It’s called a Trustee Avoidance Claim. But in actual fact most, if not all of the farmers who dealt with Dean who are receiving demands like this qualify for an exemption and can avoid having to repay anything. But the trustees, of course, hope the farmers don’t know this and will just cough up the money. As Roger McEowen of Washburn University said,  “These are extortion letters, there’s no other way to put it. They’re seeing what they can get.”

But if you get one of these letters, you’re going to have to get your own lawyer to respond properly, so you’re going to have to foot the bill for that. Still, hiring a lawyer is going to cost a lot less than having to potentially repay tens of thousands of dollars to these parasites.

And on that rant, let’s wrap this up.

Lathe, Flowers, and Miscellaneous Stuff

(Where the grouchy farmer rambles on and on and on about misc. stuff because he’s bored.)

What Is the Future of Ethanol?

Someone asked me about the long term future of the ethanol fuel industry, and I think I rather shocked him when my reply was that it has no future. None. Within ten to twenty years the entire ethanol fuel industry will be dead if current trends continue.

The entire transportation sector is on the cusp of a major change as consumers become increasingly interested in electric vehicles instead of gasoline and diesel cars and light trucks. The current generation of EVs are extremely good for the most part. They now have significantly expanded ranges, often on the order of 200+ miles before needing to be recharged. They’re good looking, comfortable, nice to drive, and are far less expensive to operate than gas/diesel vehicles, and require little maintenance. The biggest problem right now seems to be the lack of fast charging infrastructure, and that is a problem that can be rather easily solved.

So if current trends continue, the era of gasoline/diesel fueled transportation is nearing the end. And that means people using ever decreasing amounts of gasoline and diesel fuel. And that is going to cause huge problems in the farming business because almost 6 billion bushels of corn goes to make ethanol. That’s not a typo. In 2018, the last year I had accurate data for, almost 5.8 billion bushels of corn, more than 40% of all corn grown in the US, went to making ethanol. And in a fairly short time, that market is going to come to an end.

You’d think that the ag industry would be concerned about this. But the ag industry doesn’t seem care. As far as I’ve been able to see, the ag industry is doing absolutely nothing to prepare for the day when literally half of their corn market is simply going to disappear. And that kind of scares me. Apparently they seem to think they can keep bribing lobbying Congress to keep propping up the whole market through increasing blending requirements and other government intervention in the markets. What they should be doing is looking to the future and examining alternative crops to take the place of corn. Not even the government is going to be able to bail them out of this situation.

Lathe Stuff

Walnut and white oak

I’m having way too much fun with that new lathe. I’m new to using this thing so I’m still in the experimental stage, learning how to use the tools properly, how to prep the wood, etc. I’ve managed to crank out a few items that are actually pretty good looking, but that’s due more to the woods I used for the project than my skills as a wood turner. It’s hard to really screw up a lathe project when you start out with wood as nice as in that bowl up there in that picture.

The biggest problem is getting my hands on cheap wood to play with. So far I’ve been using up scraps left over from other woodworking projects, but I have actually spent real money on some premium hunks of wood. Really good wood, with excellent grain patterns and good color for serious projects gets expensive pretty fast. I’ve seen some hunks of “artistic” woods going not for tens of dollars or even hundreds of dollars, but thousands of dollars. But then again I’ve seen people glue up bits and pieces of old shipping pallets they got for free and turn out some pretty respectable looking stuff.

wow, I really need to learn how to do better lighting when I take these photos.

This bowl is a work in progress, made from ambrosia maple, and yeah, that little hunk of wood up there was expensive. I think it cost about $25 for a 6 inch square, 3 inch thick piece of that stuff. And I was surprised to get it that cheap. The stuff seemed really too good to be true when I read the ad, but, well, heck, I thought I’d give it a try and ordered four pieces of the stuff and, well, holy cow it’s nice. Incredible colors and grain patterns. It’s absolutely spectacular.

I’m still in the learning and experimenting phase of all of this. Not every attempt at turning something has turned out good. Some have been complete failures. In one case I was turning piece of oak and it literally exploded. If I hadn’t been wearing safety gear I’d have probably ended up in the emergency room with face injuries. Learning how to properly use the tools takes considerable practice. You can watch all of the training videos you like, read all the books, etc. but nothing except actual practice will get you to the point where you can do this with some skill.

Sometimes things turn out pretty good, though. Like this one.

This one turned out a lot better than it had any right to. I still need to make a lid for this one. MrsGF is telling me I should be trying to sell some of this stuff. Yeah, I don’t know about that. If I start trying to sell it then this turns from a hobby into a job. And sell it how? Etsy? Ha! There’s so much competition from similar products on Etsy I don’t see how anyone would even find my stuff. Just look up wooden bowls over there and you’ll see what I mean. And prices are brutally low, with decent wooden bowls selling for less than $30. Sometimes a lot less.

There is something not quite right going on there. I suspect a lot of those “hand made” bowls are mass produced junk being bought up wholesale by the vendors. You can’t turn hand turn a bowl, sand it, finish it, pay for the raw materials, equipment costs, supplies, plus your time, and then dump it for $20 – $30 and still make a profit on it. Add in Etsy’s fees… Sure, there are “art pieces” going for hundreds of bucks, but how many of those actually sell? Few if any, I’d suspect. Considering the amount of time I have in that bowl up there, plus the cost of the wood, wear and tear on the equipment, supplies, etc. I’d have to get probably around $150 to break even on that bowl up there.

Tree Problems

Speaking of wood, our pear tree is literally collapsing under the weight of the fruit. It just went completely nuts developing fruit this year. It’s almost impossible to get a decent photo of the damage because most of it is up at the top of the tree. Looks like at least three major branches have completely collapsed, snapping off or cracking because they couldn’t support the weight of the fruit. I knew the tree was overloaded but I didn’t think it would get this bad. It’s going to be difficult to see just how bad it is until the leaves start to fall. We’ve actually been thinking of taking that tree down. It’s leaning at a crazy angle that seems to get worse every year and it shades out areas where we’d like to grow other things. And while having fresh pears in the autumn is great, a few pears go a long way and probably 95% of the pears end up in the compost. Well, we’ll see.

Gardening Stuff

The gardens are going through one last burst of color before autumn comes. But some things are already starting to die back.

The hostas are starting to look pretty nasty up in front of the house. One thing with hostas is that once a leaf is damaged by bugs or anything else, it never grows back, so the accumulated damage from an entire summer of bugs, rain, etc. is pretty apparent. Still they do amazingly well for most of the summer. Once the frost hits in the fall they’ll die back and we’ll just leave them until spring. The old foliage can then be raked up easily.

The tomatoes are starting to die back as well. They’re still producing but they aren’t going to be around for more than another couple of weeks. They did really well this year. We cut way back on the number of tomato plants we put in, and even so we still had more than we really needed. And we’ve learned to use a calcium supplement to fix the problems we’ve had in the past with blossom end rot.

This is where we had the pattypan squash. While the plants did well, the squash themselves were a disappointment as far as eating is concerned. I’ve never had a squash before that literally had no flavor at all. No flavor, no aroma, nothing. I don’t think we’re going to grow those again. We don’t have a lot of space here to begin with, so growing something with no flavor doesn’t make much sense.

For the last few years we’ve been growing full sized sunflowers right outside of the south window of the living room. Not only do we get to see huge, brilliant yellow flowers right out the window, we get the added bonus of seeing flocks of goldfinches come swarming in to eat the seeds this time of year. They’re little acrobats, hopping and clinging upside down to the plants to get at the seeds.

And they’re chattering away at each other all the while. I think a couple of them got into an argument about politics the other day judging from how loud they were yelling at each other.

And that’s about it for this time!

Iowa sees most dicamba damage since 1960s

One very scary thing that turned up in the news the other day was a report that virtually all non-dicamba resistant soybeans in the entire state of Iowa have been damaged by drifting dicamba based herbicides. (Source: Iowa sees most dicamba damage since 1960s | Crop | The damage is the most expensive since dicamba was first introduced back in the 1960s. This isn’t just scattered spots. According to the article it seems that every single soybean field that wasn’t planted with dicamba resistant beans is showing various degrees of damage from drifting herbicide

This is exactly the kind of scenario some farmers and environmentalists feared when Monsanto first introduced its dicamba blend herbicides and dicamba resistant soybean seeds. The fear was that Monsanto would have a literal monopoly on the sale of soybean seed because if you didn’t plant their more expensive seed, you risked your crop being damaged by herbicide drift from the fields of other farmers. The company, of course, claimed this was false, that its herbicide was safe, and there was nothing to worry about. Yeah. Right…

You may recall that the EPA was forced to rescind its approval of Monsanto’s (now owned by Bayer) dicamba blend herbicide because it violated its own procedures and ignored data indicating serious problems with it. So why is the stuff still being used? Because it was ruled that farmers could continue to use any dicamba based herbicides they still had in stock, and because the EPA isn’t actually in control of what herbicides can be used on farm fields, the individual states are. And, of course, the court ruling applies only to two of the three dicamba blends being used with soybeans. So dicamba is still available and can still be used, depending on the rules of individual states. And the court ruling only applied to two of the three major types of dicamba blends on the market.

Granted, this situation is a bit extraordinary in that a “perfect storm” of conditions came into play that permitted the herbicide to vaporize and drift so badly in Iowa. But the basic problem is that despite all of the restrictions and conditions that apply to the application of these products, they are still vaporizing and drifting over long distances. It seems that there are simply no conditions under which there isn’t a significant risk of the herbicide getting out of control and damaging not just non-GM soybeans but other plants as well.

I Get Questions. Sometimes I Got Answers

Some readers managed to discover Grouchy Farmer’s super secret email address and have been sending in questions. (What, you don’t know what it is? Here’s a hint: So I thought I’d better deal with some of the stuff that’s been piling up over there.

I heard almost the entire US meat industry is controlled by just three or four companies. Is that right?

That is true. About two thirds of the beef market is controlled by just three companies, JBS, Cargill and Tyson. Add in National Beef and those four companies control 80% of the beef produced in the US. The same is true with pork and poultry. Three or four companies control almost the entire market for both of those products as well. And all of these companies have a long history of, oh, let’s call it shenanigans, shall we? All of these companies have a history of being accused of price fixing, collusion to manipulate markets, abuse of employees, supply manipulation, and, well, the list goes on and on. And in some cases not just allegations, but outright actual criminal activity. JBS took corruption to a whole new level in its home country of Brazil where it was involved in an enormous bribery scandal that involved hundreds of politicians, meat inspectors, etc. Run a Google search on “JBS bribes meat inspectors” and you’ll probably be astonished at the depth of the corruption, and disgusted by the other less than ethical things JBS is accused of participating in.

How is this happening? Don’t we have antitrust laws to prevent this kind of thing? Yes, we do. Laws that the government ignores whenever it feels like it. Antitrust laws intended to prevent monopolies from developing have been conveniently ignored for decades now, with the government either carving out loopholes for certain businesses/industries, or simply ignoring the laws entirely. Why? Because the big multinational monopolies pump millions of dollars into the campaign coffers of influential politicians in Congress who, in turn, pressure the officials who are supposed to police this into looking the other way. Or in the case of JBS, bypassing the clumsy “lobbying” and just passing actual suitcases full of money to people.

Are dairy farmers really being forced to dump milk?

That is also true. I’ve heard estimates that dairy farmers are dumping something like 1.2 million or more pounds of milk every day because they can’t sell it. About half of the milk produced doesn’t go into products sold directly to consumers, it sells to food service operations, school districts, restaurants, or processors that use the products to produce still other products. So when the virus hit and most of those operations shut down or were severely limited, dairy farmers lost almost half of their market literally overnight. While consumer demand did indeed go up because of an increase in usage of dairy products in the home, the institutional type products are in forms or packaging the consumer can’t use. The production facilities that make consumer dairy products were overwhelmed with high demand and weren’t able to keep up, resulting in temporary shortages in some areas. So we have a bizarre situation where farmers have to dump milk while there are shortages of some products at the same time because production facilities can’t keep up or can’t quickly convert over to making consumer products.

When you made that “doomsday” flashlight, why did you have to put a resistor in-line with the LED? Why not hook it up directly to the battery?

Ah, good question. I should probably have explained when I wrote that up back in April. (Link to flashlight post here.)

It would be nice if we could just hook an LED up to a battery or power supply and switch it on without having to worry about it, but, alas, you can’t. (Note: There are some types of LEDs that do not need a current limiting resistor because they either already have one or because the type of LED can deal with the current, but most do require one) You often need a resistor in-line with the LED to prevent it from drawing too much current and burning itself out. The amount of current flowing in an LED is a function of the voltage across the LED. And in an LED the relationship between current and voltage is not linear. A slight increase in voltage can result in a large increase in current. So if you have an LED that wants, oh, 2.7V for example, and you feed it 3V, that can result in a large increase in the current in the LED, overdriving it, causing it to heat up, burn out, or even, in rare cases, explode if the current gets too high. So that resistor is there to drop the voltage in the circuit down to a level that the LED likes.

How do you figure out exactly what size resistor to use? I could go through all of the explanations about forward voltages and all of that, deal with the math and stuff, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to simply point you at someone who does a heck of a lot better at explaining things than I do. It’s pretty simple really. Don’t let the math spook you. It’s very simple to figure out. You can find a detailed explanation of why resistors are needed with LEDs and how to pick the right size resistor over at There are even calculators (free) on-line where you just have to plug in some numbers and it figures out the size of the resistor that you need.

Your resistor doesn’t need to match the calculations exactly, either. If you don’t have one exactly the right size you can pick one that’s a bit bigger than the one the calculations indicate. I picked a larger one than I needed to reduce current draw so the batteries would last a lot longer while still letting the LEDs give enough light to be useful

What happened to the Great Radio Receiver Fiasco Project?

Ah, that. I was afraid someone would bring that up. It did not go well, mostly because of a parts supply problem. First the ferrite rods I’d ordered arrived almost crushed into powder. Then the toroids I’d ordered for coils, after about four weeks of waiting, abruptly were listed as “unavailable” from all three of the suppliers I’d ordered from. Then the tuning capacitor I’d salvaged from another radio turned out to have serious problems and a new one would have cost me almost $40. Anyway the whole thing is on hold while I look at alternatives or really scale back the design. Or just give up. I wanted to build a multiband receiver that would cover just about the entire HF spectrum from 80 meters to 10 meters, and, well, we’ll see. I built a few very simple two or three transistor receivers that sort of, kinda, almost worked, if I kept my fingers crossed, did a little dance and hooked ’em up to my 140 foot wire antenna to be able to receive anything. One I did was supposed to be an AM band receiver and when it picked up anything at all it turned out to be receiving transmissions from a train switching cars in the small rail yard a half block from here. Still haven’t figured out what the hell that was all about. Either my receiver was ridiculously screwed up, or the transmitter the railroad was using was ridiculously screwed up. Or, perhaps, it was aliens.

Are people really attacking cell phone tower technicians in Europe and trying to destroy radio towers, or is it just more clickbait? WTF is going on?

Unfortunately, those stories are all too true. It seems to be the worst in the United Kingdom, but it’s spreading everywhere. In the last two weeks or so alone, in the UK there were 30 incidents of cellular towers being attacked, usually by arson, and almost 200 cases of technicians being abused and even physically attacked, including one having a brick thrown at his head and another being stabbed. And it seems to be spreading almost as fast as the damned virus, fueled by bizarre and utterly ridiculous conspiracy theories, and spread by so-called “celebrities” who aren’t exactly the brightest bulbs in the pack to begin with, and by the anti-vax crowd. And it’s being spread everywhere by social media services who are more interested in raking in as much money as possible than they are in preventing people from using their services to push out insane conspiracy theories and promote violent behavior.

Anyway, that’s about enough of that. Time to wrap this up.

Farm Catch Up: Why Are We Seeing Shortages?

Oh, oh, GF is trying to do artsy stuff again.

I haven’t done one of these in a long time so I thought it’s high time I took a look at what’s happening in the agricultural world. Especially now because the situation is difficult, to put it mildly. Well, not exactly agriculture directly in this article. I want to try to explain why we’re seeing empty shelves in the grocery stores when we actually don’t have any real shortages of product.

Empty Shelves

We all know that when this started almost immediately stores were stripped bare of sanitizer, sanitizing cleaners, hand soap, protective equipment like masks and gloves, etc. This was followed by store shelves being stripped of toilet paper, paper towels, and then food products, especially staples like rice, beans, flour, canned foods, butter, etc. And, oddly, even things with short shelf life like milk and cream. (Why in the world would people who almost never drink milk in the first place suddenly need to buy gallons at a time? I have no idea.)

But despite the bare shelves there are no real shortages, at least not of consumer food products. There are several factors behind the empty shelves you’re seeing in the stores. Hoarders (how much hoard could a hoarder hoard if a hoarder could hoard hoard?) and profiteers are behind some of this, of course, but the biggest disruptions are due to the way our manufacturing and distribution systems work.

We have what amounts to two almost entirely separate production and supply systems. The first is the consumer system that makes and sells product to you and me. It provides products that individual consumers want, in relatively small quantities that are suitable for individuals or families. The second is the commercial system that sells in bulk quantities to institutions like restaurants, schools, hospitals, prison systems, etc. and industrial processors that use those products to make still other products, like the processed food industry.

The result of this system is that we are in a rather bizarre situation where we have surpluses and shortages, of exactly the same products, at exactly the same time. Dairy is an example of this. Even while a lot of people are reporting shortages of milk and grocery stores putting strict limits on how much milk people can buy, we have such a surplus of milk on the supply side that a lot of farmers are dumping the stuff down the drain because they can’t find a processor to buy it.

So how the hell can you have a shortage and a surplus at the same time?

Well, we have a situation where most schools are closed, most restaurants are closed, a lot of businesses are closed, and a lot of people who would normally be at work or at school are now stuck at home. This means that meals that normally would have been eaten at school, work cafeterias, food trucks, restaurants, etc. are now being eaten at home. (About 50% of the money we spend on food here in the US is spent on meals eaten away from home.) Which means people are buying a lot more groceries, and more milk and dairy products in general for consumption at home. Add in the hoarders who, for some reason, think they need to buy six gallons of milk at a time (seriously, I’ve seen people doing this) despite the fact it will go bad long before they’ll ever use it, and it puts pressure on the whole distribution system delivering milk to grocery stores.

At the same time, schools are a major buyer of milk for the school lunch program, and they are largely shut down. As are restaurants.

So at the consumer level, the grocery store part of the market, we’re seeing increased purchases of products, while at the same time on the commercial side of things we’re seeing a dramatic loss of sales of similar products. So we’re having both shortages and surpluses, at the same time, of the same product.

Why not switch the commercial production facilities to produce for the consumer market? Well, you can’t. Production facilities used to make the half pint cartons for the school lunch program can’t be switched over to making gallon jugs for grocery stores. They use entirely different manufacturing and bottling equipment. The same is true for other sectors of the market. Attempting to switch from production of products for institutional and commercial markets to production for consumer markets is extremely difficult and very expensive. By the time a switchover could be done, the pandemic situation will have subsided and manufacturers will find themselves with manufacturing facilities that are now set up to make the wrong product.

Instead of dumping milk make cheese out of it? Can’t do that either. Cheese makers were already running at nearly 100% capacity even before this started. And even if there was the capacity to produce cheese, there isn’t any market for it because the cheese market is saturated to begin with.

The same is much the same with other products. The products are there, but those products aren’t in a form consumers would accept because they’re intended for the institutional or commercial market and are available only in bulk or in a form consumers don’t want. Toilet paper is a good example of this. While there are shortages on the consumer side, there is a glut on the institutional side of the market. With schools and a lot of businesses shut down, sales of TP for those markets has dried up. But the TP intended for that market would be entirely unacceptable for consumer use. The rolls are too big, or in sizes that wouldn’t fit a home TP holder, or the quality… Well, if you’ve used a restroom in a school you know what a miserable excuse for toilet paper that stuff is.

I have to mention the distribution system, too. Most companies, including grocery stores, switched to what is generically called a “just in time inventory” system long ago. That means that stores don’t stockpile product. You won’t find back rooms chock full of TP or canned goods or whatever at your average store. The store orders only enough product for a very limited amount of time. If they get deliveries every, oh, three days let’s say, they will order only enough product to deal with three days worth of normal sales. Why? Because storage costs money. Adding square footage to a store not only increases its build cost, it also increases its property tax bills, heating and cooling costs, electric costs, etc. So space devoted exclusively to storage of product is kept to an absolute minimum.

Normally this system works fairly well. But these aren’t normal times, so when a store gets hit by abnormally high sales of specific products, well, the whole system falls apart fast. When the panic buying started, grocery stores would see an entire day’s worth of a product sold out in an hour. Seeing the empty shelves spooked other consumers, who immediately panicked and started cleaning out the shelves of other products. Stores would restock as fast as they could, only to burn through several days worth of product in just a few hours thanks to panic buying.

If the distributors had an adequate inventory on hand it wouldn’t have been such a big problem. But they didn’t either. They were using the “just in time” system too, and were only stocking enough product to support their stores for a limited amount of time. Those stocks were depleted within days, and they were scrambling to get product from the flour mills, dried bean distributors, rice distributors, etc. to try to restock. The mills and packaging companies had more than enough bulk product on hand, but their packaging facilities couldn’t increase production beyond a certain point. Basically the entire distribution system began to fail under the strain of the panic buying and the increase in consumer sales.

The system is, finally, starting to adapt, at least around here. But as for what’s going to happen in the future, well, that’s anyone’s guess.

Wisconsin Lost 10% of its Dairy Farms in 2019

There has been bad news all over the dairy industry in the past year, it seems. First Dean Foods declared bankruptcy, then just a few weeks later Borden, and now this – In 2019 Wisconsin lost 818 dairy farms, the most ever in a single year. Over the last ten years we’ve lost 44% of our dairy farms, more than 5,600.

When I was a kid, there were ten or eleven small family dairy farms on the road we lived on. Today there are only two remaining. Our place, with 140 acres and milking about 40 cows, was actually the biggest farm on the road at the time. Today that size seems almost ridiculously tiny. The average dairy farm today milks 170 cows, but even that is misleading because most of those cows are now on farms where they’re milking 500 to several thousand cows. They still call them “family farms”, and I suppose technically that’s true because a single family is the majority owner of the corporation the farm operates under. But in reality those “family farms” are no more family farms than Walmart is a family company because Sam Walton’s descendents still own stock in the company.

Borden Dairy Files Bankruptcy

Borden Dairy Company filed for bankruptcy. Borden said it had debts of $500 million and assets of only $100 million. It employs over 3,000 people. This doesn’t mean the company will completely go out of business, and the statement said the company will continue operations as it works out a way to get its finances straightened out.

Interestingly, Borden was listed as one of Forbes 2019 “Most Reputable Companies” back in May, where it was listed as number 16. Obviously Forbes didn’t look at the company’s actual finances when making up that list.

When companies like Borden and Dean Foods goes under, the pundits and the companies themselves are quick to point the finger of blame at anything and everything. The articles I’ve read about the Borden’s bankruptcy and the earlier Dean Food bankruptcy blame the decline in the consumption of milk, the increasing popularity of plant based “milk”, changes in diet, dietary fads, major retailers like Walmart building their own milk processing facilities, etc. They blame it on everything except the real reason, the company itself. Or, rather the management of the company. The company itself was unable to adapt to changing market conditions, and that is what drove them into financial failure.

Yes, consumption of liquid (drinking) milk has been declining. But this is a trend that has been going on for decades. They can’t claim that they were blindsided by this. Walmart made no secret of the fact that it wanted to build its own milk processing facilities. That was known for years before they actually did it. The growing interest in vegetarian and vegan diets that reduce or even eliminate the consumption of dairy products isn’t new either. This is a trend that has also been going on for years now. The same is true for the increased interest in grain and nut based “milk” products.

That Bordens and Dean couldn’t make it is due entirely to the failure of their own management teams being unable to adapt to changing markets.

I’m sitting here in eastern Wisconsin, just 20 miles or so south of Green Bay, and I’m surrounded by dairy companies that are doing pretty darn good. Over the last few years I’ve seen at least a half dozen major expansions by large processing companies, mostly cheese makers, including some multinational corporations. And they’re all doing pretty well. Why? Because they’ve been able to adapt to a changing market.

Dean and Borden failed because they didn’t adapt to an ever changing marketplace.

Catching Up

It’s been a while since I talked about what has been going on in the ag industry. And I’ve probably been babbling far too much about radio and other non-farming/gardening stuff lately anyway, so let’s take a look at the ag sector. And I’ll slip some radio stuff in at the end that you can ignore if you want.

USMCA (NAFTA 2.0) Passes the House

As I mentioned in a previous post the trade deal to replace NAFTA is finally done and being considered by Congress.. The House has passed one version of it now, with some minor changes, but it has yet to be dealt with by the Senate. It’s not likely it will get passed this year yet (it’s already Dec 21 as I write this) and considering what is going on in D.C., it’s anyone’s guess as to when the Senate will be taking it up. Despite all of the hype coming out of Washington, right now the agreement looks like it is going to be at least as bad as the original NAFTA was. There are some improvements in the protection of workers in Mexico and environmental protections, but other than that, it doesn’t really make many changes. It’s basically NAFTA 1 with a bandaid on it. The claims that it will create jobs for tens of thousands of people and boost the US economy are completely unrealistic. This is another of those deals where the only people who benefit from it are the big corporations and a handful of special interests, but that’s par for the course with agreements like these. The original NAFTA wiped out tens of thousands of jobs, drove a lot of US manufacturing into Mexico, and disrupted the Mexican economy, especially in rural areas. This one probably won’t be as disruptive, but it isn’t going to help much. You can go look up the analysis of the treaty yourself, but right now it looks like it is going to have little or no positive effects on the US economy, and might even be worse for us than the original treaty was.

Trade War Update

It looks like things might finally be calming down a bit with China on the trade front. The administration has been claiming agreements have been made and that China is going to start buying massive amounts of soybeans and other agricultural products from the US. And, well, no, they aren’t. At least not the quantities that they’re claiming in D.C. Some of the numbers I’ve been seeing are simply ridiculous. Things are getting better, yes, but don’t look to China to start importing massive quantities of anything from us. There might be some buys, yes, but I suspect most of those are going to be little more than token purchases with few exceptions.

China lost half of it’s entire pig production because of African Swine Fever. It seems to have finally gotten the outbreak under control, but it’s going to be years before things are close to normal. Most of the soybeans China had been buying from the US was going to pig feed. So it’s unlikely it will be making massive soybean buys to feed a pig herd that doesn’t exist any more.

One thing that has improved hugely for US agriculture is China increasing the amount of pork and chicken. Because of ASF China’s lost half of its pig production, which has caused food prices to increase and there is a shortage of protein. So China has increased its buys of US pork and it recently granted permits and licensing to Tyson to sell US chicken in China. While this will certainly help the pork and chicken producers in the US, this is going to be a temporary bump that will only last until China can rebuild it’s pig herds.

African Swine Fever

ASF continues to be a major problem not only in China, which lost over half of its pigs, but also throughout South East Asia. Serious outbreaks are going on in Vietnam and the Philippines. In Sumatra it’s killed about 33,000 pigs. It’s also been found in North and South Korea, Mongolia, Cambodia, and Myanmar, as well in eastern Europe and parts of Africa. Some people feel it’s only a matter of time before it hits Australia despite it’s extremely strict regulations. For some reason people keep trying to smuggle pork from the ASF contaminated countries into other places. Smuggling is an ongoing problem in the US. We confiscate tons of sausages and other pork products from these countries that airline passengers try to smuggle through in their luggage, and even whole shiploads of pork from them. Australia confiscated 32 tons of pork products just from passengers and mailed packages alone in the last half year, half of which was contaminated with the virus. The virus itself hasn’t been seen in the U.S. yet, but it is in the wild pigs in Europe which is making everyone over there more than a little nervous. The US has a pretty good wild pig population, and while they aren’t a big issue (yet) here in Wisconsin, the DNR has issued an advisory to hunters with just about any kind of hunting license to shoot wild pigs, no “season”, no bag limit, just shoot ’em. They’re a huge problem in a lot of states, causing massive amounts of damage. Plus they carry a lot of diseases. If ASF ever gets into the wild pig herd here we’re going to be in trouble.

It was a Rough Year in the Midwest

That’s not one of my photos over there. MrsGF’s surgeries and other things kept me from getting out with the camera, but that is pretty much how it looked around here this year, especially at harvest time. Water everywhere. We officially had the wettest year ever. According to one report I read the longest dry spell we had without rain was three days. That sounded a bit odd to me so I started digging through some of the weather data and it isn’t far from the truth.

By anyone’s standards, it wasn’t a very good year for midwest farmers. Almost non-stop rain made it difficult to get anything done. There were delays in planting, delays in harvest, reduction in yields, all because of the wet weather. Around here there are still a lot of soybean and corn fields that haven’t been harvested at all because of the rain.

Corn prices never broke $4, although soybean prices weren’t horrible. But on top of relatively low corn prices, we had propane shortages which made getting the corn dried difficult and expensive.

The only bright spot was that milk prices finally came up to a fairly decent level for the first time in years. Class III milk is currently sitting at over $19 on the commodities market, but it doesn’t look like it will stay there much longer. January and February prices are down to $17 on the futures market.

Housing Issues

As if farmers didn’t have enough to worry about, finding employees continues to be a major problem both here in Wisconsin and in the ag business throughout the country. And as if that isn’t bad enough, an increasingly serious problem is where the heck are your employees going to live even if you do find some? This is a problem for almost every employer around here, not just farmers. Chances are good that employees aren’t going to be able to afford to live anywhere reasonably close to where they actually work. There is virtually zero housing in this town that would be affordable for the average low income worker. And it’s not going to be getting better any time soon. The town is putting in a new subdivision, and is quite proud of itself for doing so, but it isn’t going to actually help the average factory or farm worker around here because all of those new houses are going to be in the $180K to $250K range. What we really need are apartments that rent for about, oh, $500 – $600 a month, not houses that will have $1,500 to $2,000 a month mortgage payments.

What’s happening here is that we have a larger and larger population of people who live here, but don’t actually, well, live here, if that makes any sense. Yes, their houses are here, but their entire lives are up in the Fox Valley area about 20 miles away (the cluster of cities and towns up in the corridor that runs from Appleton, Neenah, Menash, and extends up to Green Bay). They can’t afford a house up in the Fox Valley any more, but they can afford one here. So while this may be their residence, their entire lives are centered around the Fox Valley. They buy groceries there, go to restaurants up there, meet their friends up there, do all their shopping up there. So they may live here, but they don’t actually live here. They don’t patronize local businesses, don’t send their kids to school here, don’t participate in local social events, and aren’t really part of the community.

So not only do we not have housing that is affordable by the average person bolting together snowblowers for $14 an hour, we have an increasing percentage of the population of the town who aren’t really engaged with the community at all. Their residences are here, yes, but they live their lives up in the Valley. They almost totally disengaged from the community they live in. And as a result we no longer have a clinic, no longer have a real grocery store, no longer have a pharmacy… Well, you get the idea.

It’s especially difficult for the immigrant community who make up the majority of labor in low paying jobs like farming, manufacturing (they like to talk about how well manufacturing pays – yeah, right. Starting wages at the snowblower place are about $12.95 an hour with no benefits and technically they don’t even work for the company, but for a “temp” agency.) They’re glad to get the jobs and the employers are glad to have them because they can’t find anyone else to do the work. But where are they going to live?

The Move

I’ve been talking for a while about moving all my electronics gear, the radio equipment, etc. down into a new shop/radio shack in the basement so MrsGF can take over our shared office so she’ll have room for her own projects. She enjoys sewing, making things, and would like to do quilting, but her existing workspace is a tiny, virtually unheated room upstairs, and there isn’t the room for it up there. Plus its cold in the winter up there. And even with her new knees I don’t want her to have to go up and down stairs a lot. So she’s going to be taking over the office area and I’m moving into the basement.

Now that she’s pretty much recovered from the 2nd knee replacement, I’ve started moving the “big stuff” down there. I have my primary computer down there now (I actually have space for the drawing tablet now!), the big TS-990, the antenna tuner, etc. Much to my surprise, I actually remembered how all of the cables hooked up and when I fired it all up everything actually worked! First time that’s ever happened.

I still need to do a lot of work down there. I have walls that still need to be painted. I still don’t have the electrical straightened out. I need to add at least two outlet boxes on the wall by the computer and radios, plus I need a 240V outlet there for the amplifier. Not sure why because I haven’t used the amp in years, but would be nice if I could.

I didn’t show it in the photos because it’s a huge mess at the moment, but behind me and to the left of that photo is my work bench which is covered with misc. parts, test equipment, tools, bits and pieces of RaspberryPi computers and accessories and breadboards where I’m testing radio circuits intended for the receiver I’m building. And that leads us to…

Update On The Great Radio Fiasco Project

Nice soldering technique she’s got there… (This image is somewhat infamous. Can you see why?)

I bet you thought I conveniently ‘forgot’ about that project because I am the seventh laziest person in the state (hey, I’ve gotten better, I used to be third). I haven’t, though. I’m still puttering along with this thing, even though I haven’t even fired up a soldering iron yet. Mostly I’ve been doing research. There’s no point in reinventing the wheel. Considering that radio has been around for like a gazillion years, someone, somewhere, must have already published plans for a radio receiver that I could steal (cough cough) borrow, right?

I had some basic criteria in mind when I started this. First it had to be as simple as possible, something that just about anyone who, unlike the young woman in the photo up there, knows how to use a soldering iron without suffering third degree burns can put together. Second, it had to use easily available parts, stuff the average person could get from Amazon or one of the parts suppliers like Mouser. Third, it had to be cheap. I want to encourage people to experiment and build stuff, not blow the family’s entire grocery budget for the month on exotic electronics parts. Fourth, it was going to use “old school”, so to speak, construction techniques and components. No printed circuit boards, no ICs, no SDRs, no surface mount devices, etc.

And fifth and possibly most important, it had to be a genuinely useful radio receiver that people could actually use. There are dozens, even hundreds of plans out there of various types for things like crystal radios and one transistor receivers and other nonsense that… Well, okay, so they might work, under absolutely ideal conditions, with a great deal of fiddling around, and if you live right next door to a 100,000 watt transmitter. But in the real world none of those actually work very well, if at all.

Anyway, I’m looking at various ideas and sketching some things out and doing some experimenting, and hopefully in a short (short? Ha!) time I’ll have something to show for all of this. Hopefully something that actually works. What’s been discouraging is that the schematics and projects I’ve found often contain such basic, fundamental mistakes that it makes me believe that the author never actually built the project himself and just, well, stole it, to be blunt, from someone else who also hadn’t actually built it either. I’ve been seeing things like electrolytic capacitors installed backwards, emitter and collector pins on transistors reversed, wrong pinouts shown on ICs like opamps and similar basic errors that should have been caught if anyone had bothered to actually look at the schematics.

And that’s it for now.

Dean Foods Files for Bankruptcy

Dean Foods said it has nearly $850 million secured in debtor-in-possession financing to continue regular operations until the deal is finished.

Source: Dean Foods Files for Bankruptcy, Hopes To Sell to DFA | Farm Journal’s MILK Business


Dean Foods, one of the largest milk processors in the country, filed for bankruptcy on Tuesday and is in purchasing talks with Dairy Farmers of America, a huge co-op.

This is one of those situations that surprised me but didn’t surprise me, if that makes any sense. I knew Dean has been in financial trouble for some time, and there were rumors going back months already that it was looking around to try to sell itself. But I didn’t think the company’s financial situation was quite this bad.

Dean has been struggling for a long time. It lost a major contract with Walmart not too long ago. Dean had been supplying the retailer with milk under the Walmart house brand, and lost a major part of that market when Walmart opened its own milk processing facility. Dean’s major problem is that it has always been a supplier of liquid (drinking) milk and that market has been shrinking for decades. Dean has never been able to adapt to that. It’s tried various things, tried rebranding, different products, even tried investing in plant based alternatives to milk, but nothing ever really worked very well for the company. It hasn’t made a profit in over two years, and that just couldn’t go on any longer.

I find myself wondering how much longer milk as a beverage is going to hang around as a major factor in our diet. For at least twenty or thirty years now the consumption of beverage milk has been declining, and all the hype and propaganda being pumped out by the various milk marketing boards and the dairy industry hasn’t managed to reverse that trend.