Farm Catch Up

I wasn’t going to do one of these for a while yet but some interesting stuff has been going on in the world of agriculture that I wanted to pass along… Oh, all right, I was bored, okay?

ADM and Perfect Day Make Cow Free Milk But Not Really

According to a wildly misleading headline on Fortune’s website, ADM (Archer Daniels Midland) and a San Francisco start up

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Actual real cow. Not a yeast.

company claim they can make real milk (they aren’t, not even close) with yeast. According to the article, they got “some yeast” from USDA, then “They then got a cow’s DNA sequence, had it printed via 3D-printer, and inserted it into a specific location of the yeast” according to the article. And if that statement makes you scratch your head a bit, well, yeah, I understand. That’s about as misleading as the story’s headline is.

No, they aren’t making actual milk. Not even close. All they’re making is a casein and yeast not cowwhey which are chemically similar to that produced in real milk. Casein and whey are not milk, they are merely two components of the complex compound that milk really is. Nor are they really trying to if you read carefully. They’re planning on selling the stuff as an ingredient to the food processing industry, not as some kind of substitute milk.

Trade War Drags On. And On. And On. And On…

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Shooting ourselves in the foot. Get it? Yeah, I know I can’t draw shoes.

While the administration is touting a new trade agreement hammered out with Canada and Mexico, don’t hold your breath waiting for any kind of improvement in that sector. Treaties still have to be approved by all three governments before anything goes into effect. And even if it is approved, the administration still has its steel and aluminum tariffs in place which were what helped to trigger a lot of this trade war nonsense in the first place.

And despite comments from D.C. that there will be an agreement with China real soon now, the information coming from Asian sources doesn’t indicate anything of the kind. At the Asian – Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in New Guinea attended by VP Pence the mood was anything but pleasant. The Chinese government said the US exhibited a “blaze of anger” during the meeting and Pence was “unhelpful”. Pence openly accused China of intellectual property theft and a whole laundry list of other alleged misconduct and, well, the whole meeting was pretty much a fiasco.

Will The Federal Farm Bill Pass This Year?

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Farmer Bill, not the Farm Bill.

The current farm bill expired in September. A lot of programs which did not have permanent funding are shut down until a new bill is passed by Congress and signed by the president. Some ag marketing programs are closed, food aid to locations outside of the US are shut down, as are a lot of conservation programs, because once the farm bill expired the funding for those programs ended. Crop insurance and the SNAP (food stamps) program are both permanently funded so they continue even though the bill has expired.

While I’m sure the GOP would love to get the farm bill out the door before the Dems take over the House in January, that doesn’t look likely at this point in time. The House leadership is apparently not going to back down on its insistence to include strict work requirements for the SNAP program, and the Senate already voted those down by a 2-1 margin. I’m not going to delve into what’s going on in the fight over the SNAP program because I promised myself long ago I wasn’t going to descend into politics in this blog. Considering the difference in opinion between the two bodies of Congress, I suspect the Senate would be more than content to let the farm bill languish until the Dems take over the House in January.

Complicating things is Congress facing a Dec. 7 deadline to pass a funding bill to avoid the government shutting down. The administration is threatening to veto any funding bill that doesn’t include funding for “the wall”, so you can expect this to start to get nasty pretty quickly.

It’s possible that a farm bill might get passed, of course, but I’d think the chances of that are less than 50/50 right now.

[Edit: as of Nov. 23 it seems the Senate and the House may be getting closer to an agreement on SNAP issues and might actually produce a bill to present for a vote before the end of the year. At the moment I have no idea what’s actually in this compromise, nor do I know the chances of it actually passing.]

Milk Prices

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Gadzooks! He can draw a barn!

It’s no secret that the prices dairy farmers have been getting for milk has been utterly horrible for a long time. Wisconsin alone has lost 584 dairy farms just this year and 1,086 over the last two years. You’d think that with that many farms going out of business there would be a significant reduction in the amount of milk being produced, but that isn’t true. What generally happens is that when a dairy farm goes out of business the cows end up being sold to other dairy farms that expand their operation. So while the number of farms goes down, the number of producing cows doesn’t change very much.

As we get close to the end of the year there is a trend in the ag press to start publishing optimistic articles claiming that the price of milk is going to go up, sometimes significantly. Unfortunately those overly optimistic claims are generally based on data that is looked at in isolation. For example, about 12 states in the US report that milk production has declined significantly. If you look at just that fact, that might indicate milk prices might be moving up. But it also ignores the fact that the rest of the milk producing states have actually increased production by as much as 10%. Overall, milk production in the US has gone up about 1 – 2 % (the number varies according to who’s data you look at) despite the reduction in the number of dairy farms in operation.

News on the international scene is even worse. The last big sale conducted by Global Dairy Trade in New Zealand had prices dropping on almost every type of milk product being sold. And this is despite the fact China has, according to some reports at least, lost a considerable percentage of milk production.

What it boils down to is that there is very little information to support the claim that there will be a significant increase in the price of milk any time soon.

Farm Bailout Payments

farmsinkThe administration promised that the trade war it started with much of Europe, Canada, Mexico and China wouldn’t harm farmers, and came up with a bailout plan to help financially support farmers and reduce the impact of the loss of exports to other countries. So how is that going? According the administration it’s going wonderfully. According to the actual facts, well, not so good according to at least one source.

According to the administration the program is wildly successful. In actual fact less than 8% of the money the administration claimed it was going to give out has actually been paid as of Oct. 31, and a lot of that has been given away to non-farm interests. And while the dairy and corn farmers have been hit hard, the bulk of the money seems to be going to soybean growers, with other farmers being offered so little that it’s actually insulting.

Autumn

Autumn is finally here. With temperatures in the low 80s or even higher and high humidity for large parts of September, we were beginning to wonder what the heck was going on. But we’ve had a couple of hard frosts now and daytime temps are about where they should be for this time of year, around 45 – 50 degrees, and at night down in the mid 30s. It’s something of a relief after the hot, humid summer we had.

And the mosquitoes? OMG — they were horrible this year, especially starting in August and going through September. We’ve never seen anything quite like it. Walking through the grass would cause clouds of the little blood suckers to rise up around you. Getting close to any kind of bush would result in an immediate attack by swarms of the things. The bug repellants did no good at all. Deep Woods Off and the others we tried didn’t seem to deter them in the slightest. My wife’s sister and her husband started to wear their bee keeping suits just to go out in their garden to pick berries or tomatoes. Even the hard core environmentalists I know were so fed up they were resorting to chemical warfare and fogging their bushes and yards to try to get any kind of relief.

Screen Shot 2018-10-18 at 6.24.53 AMAnd while it seems we’re finally getting a dry spell, it was raining almost every day for the first two weeks of October. There is still water standing everywhere. Down by the old stone bridge where the river is usually almost completely dry this time of year the water is 4-6 feet deep and running fast, and it’s well over it’s banks in some places. But at least the farmers have been able to get out and get their soybeans off around here.

We still haven’t gotten all of the gardens cleaned up yet, but there’s no rush on that. We’ll probably get most of that done this weekend unless something comes up or the weather gets nasty.

Screen Shot 2018-10-18 at 6.23.36 AMThe sedum — what amazing plants those are. This time of year the color is absolutely astonishing, running from a brownish red to a deep, rich burgundy. And if you get out right after sunrise in the morning and see the flowers covered with frost crystals, wow, they look absolutely magical.

Speaking of mornings — My body and I have this argument going… I want to sleep until about 6 AM. It wants to get up around 4:30 for some stupid reason. It isn’t a big deal, more annoying than anything else. But, well, why? MrsGF thinks it’s because I spent so many years having to be up around 4:30 or 5 AM to do chores on the farm, but that’s silly. I haven’t actively worked in farming for ages now. In my last job I worked 2nd shift, working until 11 PM and not getting up until about 8 in the morning, and I had absolutely no problem at all with that. I liked it, in fact. But now that I’m retired and could sleep late if I wanted to, my body decides it needs to be up at 4:30 again? Sheesh… My doctor says maybe that’s all I need to sleep. Everyone is different. Not everyone needs 8 hours of sleep. If I’m healthy, which I am (sort of) and I’m not getting tired during the day, and I’m waking up feeling refreshed and comfortable, well, don’t worry about it.

Let’s see, what else — Oh, someone asked me about the new iPhone XS Max and was wondering if it was worth all the hype and what it was like to actually use. After living with this thing for a month or so now, it is a pretty slick piece of equipment.

The camera is quite good. Not up to the standards of a dedicated mid-range or high end camera, but for a phone? Yeah, it’s good. It has a semi-decent real telephoto lens, up to 4X. Color rendition still seems a bit off to me, but that’s a personal opinion.

As a media device it’s excellent. The sound quality out of those tiny little speakers is, frankly, astonishing to me. I have no idea how they get sound like that out of something that tiny. I sprung for the AirPod thingies, Apple’s wireless ear buds. I find those astonishing as well. To me the sound quality is amazing. They were ridiculously easy to set up. Just bring them near the phone and they automatically link up. I didn’t need to do anything. No issues with those as well. But whenever I use ’em I’m always worried one of them will fall out of my ear and I’ll break it or lose it so I’m always nervous when I wear them outside. Are they worth $150? Hell no. The sound quality is good, but not that good. To my ears the sound quality isn’t any better than the $40 wired earbuds I used with my old iPod.

The screen is absolutely fantastic. Crisp, clean, outstanding color rendition, incredibly high resolution. Streaming movies or TV on this thing is a joy. It isn’t as nice as, oh, a 40 inch high-def monitor, but for a device this small it’s wonderful. I find myself reading my Kindle books on it all the time now because I don’t get eye fatigue from trying to read a fuzzy display. And for the first time the auto-brightness functions that are supposed to adjust the brightness of the display to suit viewing conditions actually works on this phone.

So it has a good camera, it’s a fantastic portable media player, how does it work as an actual phone?

Badly. I’m sorry, but as a phone it just isn’t very good. Cell reception is horrible. And I’m not the only one who’s been having this problem. There have been a lot of reports that cellular reception with the XS models is pretty poor. Frankly if the phone didn’t have WiFi calling I probably wouldn’t be able to use it as a phone at all here in the house. But that being said, WiFi calling is amazing. Just flip a switch in the settings and it turns on, and talking to someone on the phone is as clear as if they were in the room with me. But still, it isn’t, well, a cell phone then, is it? It’s using VOIP and damn well should sound that good.

Face ID – everyone knows by now that the new iPhones starting with the 10 series unlock by facial recognition. This seemed to freak some people out for some reason, but I’m not going to go down that road. The question is does it work, and the answer is definitely yes. Even wearing my bike helmet and wrap around sunglasses it recognizes me. Occasionally there will be an issue for some reason, but then it just goes to the standard PIN number unlocking system.

Wireless charging – the model I have, the XS Max, supports wireless charging and charging stations are available for well under $40. The one I have cost all of $24 and seems to work pretty well. Just put it face up on the pad, wiggle it around until you feel the phone buzz, and it starts to charge. The only issue here is that it won’t charge when it’s in a case, and who in their right mind doesn’t put a $1,200 phone in some kind of protective case?

But maybe the whole issue of needing a case is becoming unnecessary. I’ve seen tests where the XS phones have been drop tested and they’re pretty impressive. The ones that I’ve seen show the phone surviving drops of 4 feet or less on a concrete floor with no damage at all. In one test they kept increasing the height of the drop and it wasn’t until they dropped it from over 10 feet that there was any damage at all, which was slight. And the phone wasn’t actually destroyed until they dropped it from 20 feet down a stairwell to a concrete floor.

I’m sure as hell not going to try that, though. Nor am I going to test the water proofing. The XS is supposed to be pretty water resistant, but I’m not about to dunk it in a bucket of water to see if it really is.

The question is, is this thing worth the cost? This is, after all, one hell of an expensive piece of equipment. The model I have goes for around $1,200 retail. The only reason I can afford the thing is because I don’t buy my phones, I lease them and get a new one every 18-24 months under the leasing plan.  So is it worth it? Frankly, no. You can get a phone that does pretty much everything this one does for half the cost or less. It wouldn’t sound as good, wouldn’t have the beautiful display, wouldn’t be as fast, but it would work just fine and do everything you need a phone to do.

But that being said, despite the reception problem, holy cow it’s fun to play with. It’s so fast, the display is so good, the sound quality is so good, that I find myself using it more and more.

Farm Catch Up

It’s been a long time since  I did one of these, so let’s see what’s been going on in the farming world.

Bayer Acquisition of Monsanto Wraps Up — As of Aug. 17, Bayer had finished divesting itself of various businesses to satisfy regulators so it could complete the buy of Monsanto and it will fully acquire the company and Monsanto as an independent company will disappear. Bayer actually bought all of Monsanto back in June, but could not fully integrate the company until it satisfied the conditions set by various governments.

One has to wonder if Bayer is thinking this might not have been such a good idea. Monsanto just lost a $200+ million dollar lawsuit in California which claimed glyphosate caused someone to develop cancer and I’ve heard that there are many, many more lawsuits in the pipeline over the herbicide. And if that isn’t bad enough, Monsanto’s dicamba blend herbicides could actually end up being banned because of continued wide spread damage being caused by the herbicide drifting long distances and harming other crops, gardens, trees, bushes, etc. Despite stringent application requirements the problem has not gone away and there is a lot of pressure to ban the stuff entirely except as a pre-emergent herbicide that can only be used prior to planting. That would pretty much destroy Monsanto’s sales of dicamba resistant seeds.

You have to remember that the lawsuit mentioned above was in California where apparently just about everything causes cancer, even coffee. Which it doesn’t. Coffee, I mean. The slight correlation between drinking coffee and cancer appears to be due not to the coffee but to the temperature of the beverage. There seems to be a link (a very slight one) between drinking drinking hot beverages over 140 degrees and esophageal cancer and some others.

Milk Labeling Controversy Continues — The argument over what products can use the label “milk” continues. Despite the fact that FDA has, for decades, had an official, legal definition of what “milk” is, defining the term as the secretions of the mammary glands of animals, various makers of nut, grain and plant juices have been using the term “milk” in their labeling for years. Protests about the mislabeling and demands for enforcement of the existing regulations have been ignored for decades. But it seems the FDA is finally going to do something about it because of increased pressure, and it looks like the agency might actually start to enforce it’s own regulations in the fairly near future. I’ve talked about this before so I’m not going to repeat that.

The interesting thing is that a couple of senators tried to slip an amendment into an unrelated spending bill that would have kept the FDA from actually enforcing it’s own rules by prohibiting “the use of funds to enforce standards of identity with respect to certain food.” The amendment would not have altered FDA’s definitions, but would have kept the agency from actually enforcing it’s own rules. Exactly why these two tried to slip this through I don’t know. I’m sure they didn’t get, oh, large campaign contributions from people or organizations linked to the nut “milk” lobby. (Here is where I wish we had a sarcasm font)

Anyway, the amendment was shot down in flames by the Senate. The vote was something like 14 for, 84 against.

I’ve long believed that what we really need is a better definition of the term “bribery” and a law enforcement agency willing to enforce it.

Wisconsin Loses 382 Dairy Farms In First Half of Year — That number should give you some idea of how bad the dairy industry is doing right now. Last year Wisconsin lost about 465 dairy farms. If the attrition continue at this rate, we’re on track to lose more than 650 farms this year. It’s easy to look for scapegoats, of course. The dairy industry itself is a primary contributor to the problems thanks to massive over production. This administration’s nasty little trade war isn’t helping, of course. I’ve seen estimates that this trade war has knocked about $1.50 off the price of milk as countries that used to import our dairy products are now looking elsewhere.

Tariff Relief Program — USDA announced at the end of July it would be starting up a tariff relief program to try to make the hit farmers in the US are experiencing a bit less painful. It announced $12 billion would be funneled to farmers in one way or another using existing relief programs. The exact details are a bit muddy, and USDA seems to be in utter confusion about exactly how this is going to work, so if you’re a farmer who’s been hurt by this, don’t expect any kind of relief any time soon. Considering Perdue, the Secretary of Ag, claimed well over a year ago that the administration would renegotiate NAFTA in just a “few weeks” and they’re still fighting over it today with no end in sight, I wouldn’t count on seeing any actual money coming out of this program for some time.

Another big question is exactly where this $12 billion is going to come from because Congress hasn’t authorized any spending for this program.

Almond “milk” Recalled Because It Has Real Milk In It — HP Hood, makers of Almond Breeze nut juice, is recalling more than 145,000 cartons of it’s product because it may have actual real milk in it instead of it’s nut juice stuff.

Still More Tariffs — The administration will begin to levy 25% import duties on still more Chinese imports soon. This time it’s going to be mostly industrial products like chemicals, plastics and machine parts. China has promised it will strike back dollar for dollar by putting it’s own penalties against US products in place. And it could get worse fast, with the US apparently considering tariffs on an additional $200 billion of Chinese products. The administration has uttered threats of putting tariffs on all Chinese imports.

What a lot of people, especially those who blindly back what the administration is doing, don’t seem to realize is that this while this may hurt China a bit, the ones who are really paying for it are us, and not just in lost sales to China. A lot of these products that are being imported from China simply aren’t made anywhere else, or are made in such small quantities that the domestic makers can’t even come close to meeting the demand.

Let me point out one thing that people don’t seem to understand. That 25% tariff isn’t being paid by China.

That tariff is being paid by the people who buy the product here in the United States. We pay it. If a manufacturer makes a product that includes parts and materials that can only be sourced from China, it has to pay that extra 25%, and that’s what’s happening right now. Yes it will cut back on the amount of purchases from China, but in a lot of cases there is no choice. You pay that 25% tax or you can’t make your product.

That extra cost has to be accounted for somewhere. At the moment a lot of manufacturers are absorbing that extra cost in the hopes that this situation won’t last long. But eventually they aren’t going to be able to keep that up and they are going to have to increase the prices of their finished product. So in the long run, the people who are paying that tariff are us, the consumers.

Lost Valley Farm Saga Continues — A mega dairy in Oregon called Lost Valley Farm is in the news yet again. The farm has only been in existence less than two years, and it has already racked up an impressive list of operational violations that is unprecedented in my experience. Illegal manure disposal, illegal pumping of water from aquifers, illegal generation of wastewater, failure to obtain proper permits, violations of permits… The list goes on and on according to the Oregon Dept. of Ag. (ODA). Most recently the farm was ordered to produce no more than 65,000 gallons of waste water per day to meet permit requirements, but allegedly has continuously violated that agreement by producing as much as 375,000 gallons in excess of the limits.

Meanwhile, the farm’s bank has been going after them. They took out a $60 million loan from Rabobank to start this thing up and the bank is not exactly pleased with things. The farm agreed to sell off the cattle to try to pay down debt.

And then declared bankruptcy the day before the sale was supposed to happen to prevent the sale and keep the bank from foreclosing.

The attorney for the owner of the farm claims they are doing everything the ODA is asking, that they’ve made significant progress in meeting the requirements, etc. ODA counters by pointing out the farm has been in almost continuous violation of of the deal. And the judge handling the case is considering contempt charges against the owner.

Drinking Straw Bans — Oh, brother… Just about everyone seems to be jumping on this call to ban plastic drinking straws. Using data allegedly developed by a nine year old kid, everyone seems to now think that plastic drinking straws are killing the planet and have to be banned right now. Almost every time I look at a media outlet I’m seeing yet another article about some restaurant or town or university or some organization banning plastic drinking straws.

Look, has anyone actually thought about this? Hmm? I’m not sure about the exact numbers because they bounce all over the place because no one seems to know the actual facts, but it seems that straws account for something like 0.0002% of the plastic waste being generated by people. I’m all for reducing waste, especially plastic waste, but there are a heck of a lot more serious sources of plastic waste to go after than drinking straws.

Some places are talking about going to reusable straws made of stainless steel or some other substance that can tolerate cleaning. Have you ever tried to actually clean and sanitize a straw? Basically, you can’t. If put in a dishwasher, the water isn’t going to actually get inside of the straw to clean it. Some might trickle through it depending on how it’s oriented inside of the washer, but not enough to do a thorough job. And as for hand washing, you can run water through it, but that isn’t going to actually remove anything clinging to the inside of the straw. Or you can get, oh, a tiny, tiny brush and wash each one individually, but of course no one is going to do that. Then you’re going to have to try to sanitize it, perhaps by soaking it in some kind of bleach solution. But water is a tricky thing. Because of things like the surface tension of water, you can get air gaps in small spaces…

Do you really want to be drinking out of a straw that’s been used by someone with, oh, hepatitis, for  example, or norovirus?

Well, that’s enough for now. You’re probably getting as bored as I am. And the way the garden looks outside MrsGF and I are going to be busy processing tomatoes for a while. They’re starting to come on fast right now.

Catching Up With Stuff

I’m afraid I’ve been neglecting this blog recently because, well, to be honest, not a heck of a lot is really going on this time of year.

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The tomatoes are going crazy this year. They’re almost chest high and at least 4 feet wide at this point, and loaded with fruit. In about a week or two at the most we’re going to be able to start picking tomatoes. If we manage to avoid blossom end rot and other problems this year, we’re going to have more tomatoes than we know what to do with.

I’m not sure why they became this ridiculously prolific this year. MrsGF pointed out that we added a lot of compost to the beds this year and top dressed with a very mild fertilizer. But even so, this is a bit much. The wire tomato cages are starting to collapse from the weight of the plants and I’ve had to put in additional rods to keep the cages from collapsing.

I don’t know why I bother with the wire tomato cages they sell in the garden centers around here. They just can’t handle the plants we grow here. I think I’m going to have to go get some rebar or something like that, fire up the torch and weld up my own.

We put in 2 varieties, Early Girl and Wisconsin 55, and both seem to be doing equally well.

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We’ve been getting raspberries too this year. MrsGf’s sister gave her about a dozen plants a couple of years ago and they’ve completely taken over the corner of the garden where they were planted.

We aren’t getting a huge number, but enough to give us a nice sized bowl full every few days. I’m not supposed to eat them anyway. I have  diverticulosis which, fortunately, has never flared up on me, but I still need to be careful. I’m supposed to avoid eating things with seeds and chopped nuts, which means raspberries are on the avoidance list. But, well, come on, fresh raspberries right off the plant? I’m afraid probably half of the berries we get never make it into the house.

IMG_0935I picked up one of those goofy little roses in a teacup that you see at discount stores sometimes for MrsGF one day because I thought it would look neat on the window sill in the kitchen for a few days, and then it would probably die and we’d toss it and that would be the end of it. Well, MrsGF transplanted the dopy thing into a larger pot, stuck it outside and it’s been going crazy just like the tomatoes have. It’s quadrupled in size and has been putting out brilliant red flowers ever since.

We’re going to try to keep it through the winter and see what happens. If it makes it, great. If not, no big deal. It only cost me something like $5

Other Stuff:

I just realized the other day that I’ve put more miles on the bicycle than I have on the Corvette this summer. Nothing wrong with that but it does seem a bit odd for someone who enjoys driving as much as I do. MrsGF and I haven’t really managed to get away on a vacation this summer. Since, oh, 2007 or so, we’ve managed to get away for a couple of weeks or so to go somewhere, usually out west. And I used to go to South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming at least once during the summer by myself if I could. One year we took a three week road trip on the motorcycles with Eldest Son out to Maine.

One reason is MrsGF has been crazy busy this summer. The state is trying to bring an electronic health records system on-line before winter and she’s involved in that and you wouldn’t believe how difficult and complex that project has been. Plus she’s going to be on the road now for two days to do audits. She’s managed to get a few days off here and there, but any kind of real vacation for her is going to have to wait until October.

She’s still planning on retiring in March and is really looking forward to that. She’s already been looking into getting into the Master Gardener program. One local charity is pushing to get her on the board, and I’m threatening to run her for town council <grin> just to keep her busy..

Amateur Radio Stuff:

Right now there is considerably controversy about the Technician class license, which has become the entry level license for amateur radio.

AR is in a rather odd situation at the moment. We are seeing record numbers of new licensees. The latest number I’ve seen is that there are over three quarters of a million holders of an amateur radio license, most of them holding the Technician license. This may sound like amateur radio isn’t doing too bad since we have more than 750,000 people in the hobby and that number is growing every year. But there are some concerns.

First, most of those new Tech licensees don’t seem to be actually using that license. We should be hearing them popping up on those parts of the spectrum where they are licensed to operate. Only we aren’t. Tune in the local repeaters around here (and everywhere else, apparently) and you almost never hear any of the new licensees on the air. And we never hear them down on the HF (shortwave) frequencies where they are permitted to operate.

Second, the vast majority of Tech licensees never upgrade their licenses to General or Extra class to get access to all of the HF spectrum. They get the Technician license and stay Technicians.

A lot of people find this troubling. If these people are getting their licenses and never actually using those privileges, or using them only very rarely, why aren’t they? Obviously they were interested in amateur radio in the first place or they wouldn’t have gotten the license. So why aren’t they actually using it? And why aren’t they eventually upgrading to the General or Extra license?

The ARRL thinks it’s because the Techs only have extremely restricted access to the HF bands. Below 50 mHz, Techs can legally only use a very small portion of the 10 meter band for voice and CW. And below the 10 meter band they only have access to an even smaller range of frequencies, and there they can use CW (morse code) only. The ARRL believes that if Techs were granted expanded privileges on HF they would be more interested in AR and actually get on the air, and even become interested enough so they would upgrade their licenses to gain more privileges.

The problem with that is there is no actual evidence to support that belief. The ARRL is basing that on the results of a very flawed survey that almost no tech licensees actually saw or responded to, and on little more than wishful thinking.

The ARRL’s thinking in this is fundamentally flawed, I believe. The Technician licensees they’re so worried about haven’t upgraded because either A) they aren’t interested in HF at all and are only interested in VHF/UHF, or B) they aren’t interested in amateur radio in the first place and got the license for emergency communications, storm spotting, flying drones or are “preppers” of one variety or another.

In any case, any Tech who is interested in the HF frequencies can get access simply by taking the General license test. It isn’t that hard. Seriously. It isn’t. A current Tech license holder could easily pass the General with minimal preparation.

I don’t particularly care if the ARRL gets this past the FCC or not, to be honest. It isn’t going to effect me one way or the other. I rather doubt the FCC is going to grant the ARRL’s petition. I suspect the FCC will point out to the ARRL that if Techs want access to HF they should just take the General test.

 

Just What Is “Milk”?

South Mountain Creamery in Maryland is in something of a bizarre situation. The farm has it’s own bottling plant and sells milk directly to consumers, and it has the FDA going after it because it’s 100% real pasteurized skim milk is, well, 100% real skim milk and nothing else.

That’s right, the FDA claims the creamery cannot label it’s skim milk as “skim milk”. It is trying to order the creamery to label it “imitation milk product” or “imitation milk” when, well, when it absolutely is not imitation anything. The FDA claims it has to be labeled “imitation” because the product does not contain artificially added vitamins.

Now, a bit of background here. The milk you buy in the grocery store is not actually pure milk. Pretty much none of it is. It has vitamins A and D added to it. Basically the bottling plant throws a ground up vitamin pill in it. Why? Because once up on a time about 90 or so years ago, we had problems with vitamin deficiencies so the government began to mandate adding extra vitamins to milk. But the fact of the matter is that this hasn’t been necessary in, well, half a century, really. And there is actually a risk of getting too much A and D. Most European countries actually ban adding adding them to milk because of the risk of overdose. Too much D can cause heart arrhythmia and other problems and too much A can be seriously toxic as well.

And in any case, the amount of A and D being added may not even be what it says on the label to begin with as the New York Times discovered back in 1992 when  independent testing of milk samples found that the actual amounts of vitamins in the milk being sold varied wildly, and in at least one case back in 1992 the level of vitamin D was so high it was dangerous causing medical problems for at least eight people.

Now I’m not going to get into the debate about whether or not D and A should or should not be added to milk. I just want to talk about this whole labeling nonsense because, well, according to the FDA’s own regulations, the agency’s actions in this case seem to be just wrong. Here is how FDA defines “milk”:

[Code of Federal Regulations]
[Title 21, Volume 2]
[Revised as of April 1, 2017]
[CITE: 21CFR131.110]

 

TITLE 21–FOOD AND DRUGS
CHAPTER I–FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION
DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES
SUBCHAPTER B–FOOD FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION

PART 131 — MILK AND CREAM

Subpart B–Requirements for Specific Standardized Milk and Cream

Sec. 131.110 Milk.
(a) Description. Milk is the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows. Milk that is in final package form for beverage use shall have been pasteurized or ultrapasteurized, and shall contain not less than 8 1/4 percent milk solids not fat and not less than 3 1/4 percent milkfat. Milk may have been adjusted by separating part of the milkfat therefrom, or by adding thereto cream, concentrated milk, dry whole milk, skim milk, concentrated skim milk, or nonfat dry milk. Milk may be homogenized.

(b) Vitamin addition (Optional). (1) If added, vitamin A shall be present in such quantity that each quart of the food contains not less than 2000 International Units thereof within limits of good manufacturing practice.

(2) If added, vitamin D shall be present in such quantity that each quart of the food contains 400 International Units thereof within limits of good manufacturing practice.

(c) Optional ingredients. The following safe and suitable ingredients may be used:

(1) Carriers for vitamins A and D.

(2) Characterizing flavoring ingredients (with or without coloring, nutritive sweetener, emulsifiers, and stabilizers) as follows:

(i) Fruit and fruit juice (including concentrated fruit and fruit juice).

(ii) Natural and artificial food flavorings.

(d) Methods of analysis. Referenced methods are from “Official Methods of Analysis of the Association of Official Analytical Chemists,” 13th Ed. (1980), which is incorporated by reference. Copies may be obtained from the AOAC INTERNATIONAL, 481 North Frederick Ave., suite 500, Gaithersburg, MD 20877, or may be examined at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). For information on the availability of this material at NARA, call 202-741-6030, or go to: http://www.archives.gov/federal_register/code_of_federal_regulations/ibr_locations.html.

(1) Milkfat content–“Fat, Roese-Gottlieb Method–Official Final Action,” section 16.059.

(2) Milk solids not fat content–Calculated by subtracting the milk fat content from the total solids content as determined by the method “Total Solids, Method I–Official Final Action,” section 16.032.

(3) Vitamin D content–“Vitamin D–Official Final Action,” sections 43.195-43.208.

(e) Nomenclature. The name of the food is “milk”. The name of the food shall be accompanied on the label by a declaration indicating the presence of any characterizing flavoring, as specified in 101.22 of this chapter.

(1) The following terms shall accompany the name of the food wherever it appears on the principal display panel or panels of the label in letters not less than one-half the height of the letters used in such name:

(i) If vitamins are added, the phrase “vitamin A” or “vitamin A added”, or “vitamin D” or “vitamin D added”, or “vitamin A and D” or “vitamins A and D added”, as is appropriate. The word “vitamin” may be abbreviated “vit.”.

(ii) The word “ultra-pasteurized” if the food has been ultra-pasteurized.

(2) The following terms may appear on the label:

(i) The word “pasteurized” if the food has been pasteurized.

(ii) The word “homogenized” if the food has been homogenized.

(f) Label declaration. Each of the ingredients used in the food shall be declared on the label as required by the applicable sections of parts 101 and 130 of this chapter.

[42 FR 14360, Mar. 15, 1977, as amended at 47 FR 11822, Mar. 19, 1982; 49 FR 10090, Mar. 19, 1984; 54 FR 24892, June 12, 1989; 58 FR 2890, Jan. 6, 1993]

If you can wade through the legalese up there, you will note that “milk” is specifically defined, and it says things like “if” vitamin A is added, and “if” vitamin D is added, they must be at certain levels. But it doesn’t say they must be added for the product to be called “milk”. Nor does it say anything about a requirement to label milk as “imitation” if they are not added. So if this is accurate, FDA’s claim that this creamery’s skim milk must be labeled “imitation” is not in keeping with FDA’s own regulations.

Now there may be some regulation, somewhere, that requires milk to have added A and D in order to be called “milk” but I haven’t managed to find any regulations that state explicitly that in order to label something “milk” it must have A and D added to it.

This isn’t the first time this issue has come up. About a year ago there was a case in Florida where the state claimed the Ocheesee Creamery couldn’t label it’s skim milk as “skim milk” and had to call it “imitation skim milk”, despite the fact it was 100% skim milk. The state lost and lost badly, ending up with the 11th US Circuit Court ruling against the state and Florida having to pay almost half a million dollars.

The other thing I find curious is that despite the fact that the FDA has a rather strict definition of the term “milk”, i.e. “Milk is the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.”, it doesn’t seem to have a problem with various nut and legume juices and extracts labeling themselves as “milk”, such as soy milk and pea milk and almond milk.

Catching Up

Egads, it’s been a while since I did anything here. When things get a bit busy I’m afraid the first thing to suffer is this blog. So let’s take a look at what’s been going on. It’s going to be a mixed bag this time, covering a variety of different topics. Let’s look at some agricultural stuff first.


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Approximately 3.5 million acres of crops were allegedly damaged by dicamba drift

The dicamba saga continues. Monsanto’s lawsuit against the state of Alabama over its very strict regulations concerning the use of dicamba was thrown out of court. Alabama put very stringent restrictions in place on the use of the product after thousands and thousands of acres of crops were damaged by the herbicide drifting.

The case was thrown out on a legal technicality, it seems. Apparently Alabama has a “sovereign immunity” clause in it’s constitution that prevents it from being sued for things like this. So nothing has really been settled.

There are new federal regulations in place now, new training requirements and other things, so I guess we’ll see if those will be sufficient to keep the herbicide under control.


Trade Wars — Of course that’s the big news right at the moment. With NAFTA negotiations already allegedly falling apart and threatening our economic links with Canada and Mexico, the last thing we needed was for the administration to launch a full blown trade war with, well, with just about everyone. So, of course, that’s exactly what the administration has done. The administration claims that the tariffs will have no effect on the NAFTA negotiations, which is a flat out lie. Of course it will. It already is having an effect.

The negotiations were already contentious, adversarial and often completely unrealistic, and both Canada and Mexico have made comments that they were considering pulling out of NAFTA entirely if the tone of the negotiations didn’t change. The threat of tariffs has made the situation even worse. The Canadians have become far more outspoken now, openly talking about “responsive measures”, i.e. political speak for levying such huge tariffs on US made goods that US manufacturers and agribusinesses will be unable to sell products in Canada. Mexico has been a bit less open about it, saying that the country is “considering all of its options”.

If you look past NAFTA and look at what’s happening elsewhere, the response to the administration’s tariff threats has been even more forceful, with some countries threatening reciprocal tariffs that would make US goods unmarketable. And as for China, well, if we lose China as a market, that’s pretty much going to destroy the ag economy, and decimate a lot of other businesses as well.


Weather — The weather here in Wisconsin used to be pretty reliable. We could depend on blistering hot summers and cold, snowy winters that would rival anything seen in the arctic.

Yeah, well, about that whole snow and cold thing… Although we had a period of intense cold over Christmas and New Years, it’s actually been ridiculously warm here. We had a February with temps at or above freezing more often than not, and some days when it was pushing 50 degrees. In February. In Wisconsin??? WTF? Really? After a couple of days of 45+ temps, it cooled down and we got about an inch of snow, not enough to bother shoveling because it almost immediately melted off again, and now, on March 3, we’re looking at temps back up in the high 40s and low 50s again.

I’ve been hearing rumors now that the snowmobile clubs in the area are seriously considering not bothering to lay out trails any more and may even be closing down because we haven’t had any actual snow for years now. The trails never opened this year. If they opened at all last year it was only for a few days and in limited areas.

And while we still complain about the cold (we love complaining up here in Wisconsin, it’s the state hobby, I think), and we do get some intense cold periods, all things considered it hasn’t really been all that cold either. If you look at the ice data that shows how long the lakes here are ice covered, you’ll find that the number of days, on average, that lakes are ice covered has dwindled by several weeks.

Screen Shot 2018-03-03 at 6.33.57 AMAnd if you look at the growing zone map, where I live about 20 miles south of Green Bay, well, we used to be firmly in Zone 4. We’re now in zone 5 and I keep hearing from people that a lot of years now we’re actually pushing zone 6.


Speaking of gardening — MrsGF and I are getting impatient. We’ve already been talking about expanding the garden area on the south side of the house and trying to figure out an easy way to get rid of sod.

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Bag ‘O Seeds

One of the things that’s been pushing us into impatience is that whenever we go down in the basement we walk past the famous “Bag ‘O Seeds” that eldest son gave us for Christmas. It’s hard to tell how many are in there from this photo. That pile of seed packets is about a foot deep. He literally got us one of everything that the retail chain he works for sells in their garden department.

We really need to sit down and do some planning because there is no way that we are going to be able to plant more than a fraction of the different seeds we have.

I can tell MrsGF has gotten impatient because yesterday she got some pots and some potting soil and put in some daffodil bulbs and I suspect those will end up in front of some of the windows in the house and she was wondering if it was really still too early to start some seeds for the garden.


Amateur Radio Stuff — I’m still playing with the FT8 mode and I can see how it can be addicting. I know that some people have complained that it isn’t really “communicating”. The typical FT8 exchange consists of call signs, grid square, signal strength report, and then bye-bye. FT8 is pretty much completely useless for exchanging any kind of genuinely useful communications. So what’s the point of it?

A lot of AROs are interested in things like trying to contact 100 different countries or more, contacting every state in the US, or things like that. It’s making the contact that is important to them. Actually talking to someone? Not so much. They’re chasing awards or certificates of accomplishment or competing in contests, or doing it just for the personal satisfaction of having done it. For those people, FT8 is great. I worked something like 27 different countries in just a few hours while I’ve been experimenting with it. I’ve worked countries I never thought I’d ever successfully contact. I worked a station in Japan the other day and yesterday I got the Cayman Islands.

The fun thing about FT8 is that you can do all that stuff with very modest equipment. You don’t need transceivers that cost $10,000 and huge amplifiers and ten acres of antennas. You can do this running less power than it takes to run the average light bulb and little more than a wire hanging in a tree for an antenna.

But it does have “issues”, as they say. One of the biggest problems is that it is being crippled by its own success. It’s become so wildly popular that the small parts of the radio frequency spectrum that are recommended for its use are ridiculously overcrowded.

And it’s about to get much, much worse because the wonderfully skilled and creative programmers who developed the WSJT software most people use for FT8 is bring out a “Dxpedition” version of the software that will permit as many as 500 contacts per hour and will transmit up to five signals at the same time.

Now, the developers have stated that this new system is “suitable for use only by Dxpedition stations and those attempting to work them”, and that it should not be used on the normal FT8 bands. But you can be sure there are going to be people who are going to completely ignore that. If we get a significant number of operators running the Dxpedition version of the software in the normal FT8 bands, well, the situation is going to go from merely ridiculous to utterly insane.

I saw a statistic the other day that claimed that more than half of all contacts being made now are done by FT8, and considering the amount of activity I’m seeing I suspect that’s probably correct. I wonder if this is just a fad though and if in a fairly short time FT8 will end up abandoned by everyone except the DX hunters.

Where Has PSK gone? — One of the side effects of the widespread adoption of FT8 is that it seems to have almost completely killed off the use of the PSK mode. PSK was a fairly popular mode of communication. When I first started using PSK I would find dozens of contacts and conversations going on on the PSK sub-bands. But now? I generally fire up FLDIGI a couple of times a day when I have the time and check the PSK bands and, well, I’m seeing nothing. I mean nothing. I haven’t seen a single PSK signal out there in days now. It’s almost as if every PSK user out there immediately jumped ship for the FT8 mode and hasn’t gone back. That’s a bit disappointing because PSK is a great low power, weak signal mode, and is, or can be, as automated as FT8 is. When using PSK64 and properly set up macros, making a contact can be as quick and easy as with FT8. And the big plus is that PSK can be used to actually communicate with people.

There, I think I’ve bored you long enough for this time…

 

Amateur Radio’s New Digital Mode, FT8. Let the controversy begin…

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Gads, what a mess

Amateur radio has a new toy to play with, a new digital mode called FT8. The name

Screen Shot 2018-02-11 at 8.44.04 AM
WSJT software in action

comes from the first two letters of the last names of its developers, Franke (K9AN) and Taylor (K1JT), plus the number 8 because it uses 8 frequency shift keying. The new mode has only been generally available since late June or July 2017 when it released as a beta. And it almost immediately took over amateur radio down on the HF bands. I’ve seen estimates that claim that more than half of all contacts on HF are now taking place using FT8.

FT8 is a “weak signal” mode, meaning that you can often successfully decode signals that are down around -20 dB. This is not as good as some of the other digital modes out there such as JT65 which can go as low as -28 dB. But it is much, much faster to make a contact with FT8 than with JT65. Like any communications mode, it has advantages and drawbacks. And like most digital communications modes, it requires a computer interfaced to your transceiver.

I’m always up for something new, and with temperatures hovering down around 0(F) fiddling around with FT8 has seemed like a good way to spend my free time over the last few days. I already had the WSJT software installed on my Win10 computer but hadn’t really had much incentive to do much with it until now.

I won’t go into the details of getting the software installed, configured, hooking things up to your transceiver, etc. There are dozens of tutorials out there. How you set it all up is going to depend on your computer, what transceiver you’re using, sound card, etc. In my case I’m using a Kenwood TS-990 with a RigBlaster Advantage, the same equipment I use for my other digital modes.

Initial setup wasn’t too difficult. The FT8 Operating Guide by Gary Hinson was a big help in getting everything working properly and is highly recommended.

Screen Shot 2018-02-11 at 12.21.21 PM
First FT8 contact

Much to my surprise, I actually got everything working without a great deal of difficulty and after getting set up and calibrated I took a stab at calling CQ on 15 meters and actually made a contact. WA7MPG in Canada BC.

So, what’s the controversy I mentioned in the title of this? Nothing less than (drum roll please) the end of amateur radio! (Imagine spooky voice saying that)

Yes, according to some out there, FT8 heralds the end of amateur radio. Well, true, they said the same thing about SSB, packet radio, repeaters, PSK, digital voice, SSTV, dropping the morse code requirement and, well, pretty much every innovation to come along in the last 100 years or so. But this time it’s really the end! Really!

Oh, brother…

The complaints are due to the fact that FT8 is almost entirely automated. Contacts via FT8 consist of brief, 15 second long exchanges of call sign, grid location, signal strength, and then a 73 to end, all done by the software. A click or two of the mouse is all it takes to start the whole process, and then you sit back and watch the computer do the work.

And this is what they’re complaining about. It takes the “human element” out of the whole thing, they claim. It is just making contacts for the sake of racking up another contact in the log. It isn’t “real” amateur radio. It isn’t real communications. It’s just two computers talking to one another.

The arguments are just silly, of course. Yes, it’s real communications. Information is being exchanged. And as for the other arguments, well, the same things could be said about any digital mode of communications; RTTY, PSK, etc. If you monitor the people who use those modes you’ll quickly find that most “conversations” take the form of pre-written and stored messages or macros that are sent automatically. Heck, if you monitor the CW portions of the bands you’ll find a lot of people are doing the same thing even with CW using decoding software and keyers.

Look, amateur radio includes a huge variety of methods of communications, both analog and digital. Everyone has their own favorite thing to do. But there are a lot of amateur radio operators out there who can’t afford to operate a contest quality station with acres of antennas and ten thousand dollar transceivers and amplifiers, but who would still love to log contacts with other amateur radio operators in far off places. FT8 allows people with modest equipment and antennas to use a weak signal mode to make contacts that they normally would probably never be able to make. It doesn’t encroach on the territory of the SSB or CW portions of the bands.

So why all the complaints? I’m not really sure. FT8 has become wildly popular for a lot of very good reasons, and it isn’t going to go away any time soon. Even better, it’s getting a lot of amateur radio operators who weren’t all that active before to start exploring the hobby once more.

Am I going to use FT8 a lot? Heck, I don’t know. I’m one of those very odd amateur radio operators who doesn’t actually like to talk to people. I’m more into it because of the technology. But I still like to get on the air once in a while, if for no other reason than to test equipment and antennas. FT8 could at least make my contact log look a lot less sparse, so maybe. We’ll see.