Farm Catch Up

Farming related news you might have missed, stuff I was curious about, commentary about this and that and all that kind of stuff

Amazon Wants to Buy Whole Foods

On Friday, June 16, it was announced that Amazon is looking to buy Whole Foods for almost $14 billion.

As far as WF is concerned, the company hasn’t been doing all that well. Sales have been flat or even declining and the company seems to have stagnated. Some of it’s major shareholders, particularly a hedge fund called Jana, have been putting heavy pressure on WF to sell itself off in the hopes (they say) of shaking up the company and improving sales and WF’s CEO says they only want to do because Jana would make massive profits. Both sides are correct. WF needs to be shaken up if it’s going to survive, and yes, Jana would make massive profits off the sale. If this goes through, Jana would see about a $300 million dollar profit.

Why does Amazon want an upscale grocery chain that caters to people with more money than brains? Amazon has been trying to get into the grocery business in a big way since at least 2008, and while it’s had some limited success, groceries haven’t worked all that well for the company. Buying WF would give it 430 brick and mortar grocery stores already in place along with the supporting infrastructure, access to WF’s supply chain, etc. It would also give Amazon 430 distribution points that already cater to upper middle class patrons, a very profitable class of consumer.

It will be interesting to see how this one plays out.

Cuba

Okay, why is Cuba popping up in a blog allegedly related to farming? Because we actually sell grain to Cuba, that’s why. Over the last eight months we sold 10 million bushel of corn to Cuba, and it could be a significant buyer of other agricultural products as well.

The current administration is rolling back the lifting of some of the restrictions on Cuba that the previous administration began. It is going to once again forbid travel to the country by individuals, institute new restrictions on trade, and basically try to roll things back to the way they were, despite the fact everyone knows the fifty year old Cuban embargo has done absolutely no good at all.

The thing I don’t understand about Cuba is this — Yes, Cuba is a communist country with a history of human rights abuses. But China is also a communist country with a history of human rights abuses that is, if anything, far worse than Cuba. So why do we have virtually unlimited trade and travel to and from China, but the half century old and totally ineffective embargo against Cuba is still in place?

Lead in Baby Food

A really scary story has been popping up all over the place reporting that FDA testing has found that a large percentage of baby food is contaminated by lead. About 20% of the baby food tested by the FDA over the past ten years or so had lead in it.

The amounts were generally below what the FDA claims is “safe” but you have to remember that modern thinking is that no level of lead is safe for infants and children, and FDA standards for lead are many years out of date.

Even more troubling was that lead seemed to be more common in baby food than in adult versions of the same product. Overall 14% of the adult foods had lead, while 20% of baby foods had lead. Even more strange is that 25% of adult marketed apple juice contained lead while a whopping 55% of apple juice markets for babies contained lead. Makes you wonder what the hell is going on.

Dicamba. Again.

I’ve talked about the herbicide dicamba before and all of the problems associated with it, and the lawsuits going on against Monsanto. Let me recap things: Monsanto released a new GM line of seeds called Xtend that was resistant to dicamba as well as it’s RoundUp herbicide because weeds have developed resistance to RoundUp alone. But Monsanto began selling the seed before USDA and FDA had approved the new blend of herbicide that was intended to go along with the new seed. As a result a lot of farmers illegally used non-approved forms of dicamba, causing damage to hundreds of thousands of acres of crops from dicamba drifting into areas where it wasn’t supposed to go. Dicamba is extremely volatile, evaporate easily, and can drift long distances from where it is being applied unless great care is used. Even when the correct blend of herbicide is used and applied properly, it seems it can cause problems. Arkansas has outright banned Monsanto’s Xtendimax dicamba formulation and may ban all dicamba use under emergency regulations because there have already been almost 100 complaints from 14 different counties about misuse of the chemical

There are widespread reports coming from all over Arkansas about damage to crops because of dicamba use already this year, even when the product is being used exactly according to the instructions. There are indications that even when used with the proper equipment and when following the instructions, there dicamba is drifting over large distances, in some cases as much as a mile or more.

Addendum: Arkansas regulators had a meeting on June 20 to consider a complete ban on all in crop use of dicamba. The ban failed because “Due to a procedural error, the vote to consider a ban on in-crop use of dicamba by the Arkansas State Plant Board will be re-voted on at a later time.” So while Monsanto’s formulation was banned, BASF’s version of the herbicide is still legal to use for now.

Rain and More Rain

We’ve been getting extraordinary amounts of rain here over the last few weeks. It just doesn’t seem to want to stop. And as a result a lot of fields around here look like this:

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Fields covered in mud, standing water, and corn starting to turn yellow from too much water. And, of course, there’s more predicted for late tonight and into tomorrow morning.

The entire state isn’t like this, though. Weather patterns have been spotty, with one area getting pounded by rain while just twenty miles away they get nothing. There was considerable damage the other day from a storm that rolled through the Appleton area, even a few suspected tornados, while here, 15 miles away, all we got was a bit of light rain.

Eating Habits Changing?

Is the “fat is evil” belief finally beginning to be laid to rest once and for all? Maybe? Consumption of butter is increasing world wide, sales of “low fat” dairy products are being replaced by “full fat” dairy products. (I put that “full fat” in quotes because it implies that the fat content of the milk is not tampered with. It is. Milk straight from the cow has a fat content that can run as high as 5 – 7% while the “whole” milk you get in the store is 3.25%.)

It isn’t just butter, either. For decades we were taught that eating fatty meat will kill us too, so the trend for many years was to trim all of the fat off of meat, to develop types of cattle and diets that resulted in very little visible fat in the meat, etc. That’s changing now as well it seems.  Sales of fattier cuts of meat, bacon, well marbled cuts of beef have all been going up.

The whole “fat free” craze that finally seems to be laid to rest didn’t do us any good and may actually have done us a lot of harm. Especially when food processors resorted to loading up their products with salt, sugar and other crap to make it edible because removing the fat also removed the flavor from a lot of products.

Animal Welfare

Tyson is launching a very extensive system to monitor the welfare of the animals it raises/processes. It claims it is bringing in a third party monitoring company that will use a variety of techniques including video, data analysis and other techniques to make sure that the animals are treated well. While I am pleased they’re doing it and I hope the other big chicken processors do the same, you and I both know that the only reason they’re doing it is because of the public pressure being put on them because of the videos and information that’s been made public by the animal rights groups that have been exposing how badly many of these animals have been treated.

Milk Prices

Just a few weeks ago I saw people predicting milk would be in the mid to high $17/cwt range, with some claiming it would hit $18+. I was skeptic about that at the time because I didn’t see anything to indicate any factors that would push the prices up that much. In fact, we have an enormous surplus of milk on our hands with milk processors actually shutting off dairy farms supplying them milk because they can’t deal with the glut of product coming in. Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and a couple of other states have had incidents of milk processors cutting off dairy farms, forcing them to desperately try to find someone, somewhere, to buy their milk.

Milk on the futures market has plummeted, losing $1.40/cwt in three weeks, and falling by $0.46 just this week alone. Butter fell 4 cents, cheese is down, dry milk is down…

The reason why is simple – too much milk. And production continues to increase. This is going to keep up until there is a major shake up in the industry and dairy farms start to go bankrupt. That seems to be the only thing that will stop this never ending expansion of production.

No Rush On NAFTA

A few weeks ago Sonny Perdue, the ag secretary, was claiming that the administration would re-do NAFTA in just a couple of weeks, illustrating that neither he nor the administration knows anything about how treaties, trade deals or negotiations really work. But apparently someone, somewhere, in the administration does know, and it looks like talks and negotiations will extend well into 2018, a bit more of a rational time frame. Frankly, considering how utterly inept this administration has been in its dealings with other countries, we’ll be lucky if we don’t end up with the administration giving Texas back to Mexico and selling the U.P. to Canada.

Rain, Rain and More Rain

That’s the story around my local area. We had almost three inches of rain Wednesday night. We had two and a half inches last night, when added up with the rain we’ve received over the past week or so we’ve had between 7 – 9 inches of rain over the past week. The ground is saturated, fields have standing water, corn in low lying areas is turning yellow, and anyone trying to get out in the fields around here is pretty much completely shut down if things don’t start to dry out.

My backyard is so saturated with water that the ground makes squishing noises when you walk over the grass, and in the low part of the yard near the property line we have about eight or ten frogs that have moved in. I like frogs, great little critters. But it’s them starting to think that my backyard is a swamp that’s a bit troubling…

 

Lilies, Peppers, Water and Stuff

One of the lilies is finally coming into flower and it’s been worth the wait. I love these things and grin like an idiot whenever I walk past this plant.

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For some reason MrsGf went pepper crazy this year and we’ve ended up with something like 30 pepper plants of various types out in the gardens. One of the raised beds is full of them, and then they’re tucked away in odd corners all over the flower beds as well. They’re all starting to blossom now.

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This particular one is supposed to be a small, round, hot pepper called a cherry bomb if I remember right, although it’s hard to keep track of what’s actually planted where. There are at least 4 or 5 different types out there. Both of us really love peppers, especially fresh from the garden, but there’s no way we’re going to be able to use all of these this year. I think it’s a hint that the family wants me to make and can a big batch of pickled peppers this year. The pickled peppers were an experiment last year and turned out so good we’re down to one or two pints left. I certainly don’t mind, but damn, that’s a lot of pepper plants…

Now that I’m not working I’m going to blow up like a balloon if I don’t exercise, and walking around town day after day is pretty darn boring so I went and got myself a bicycle. Biked about five miles down to the old stone bridge outside of town.IMG_0391.jpgIMG_0393.jpgIMG_0389.jpg

the bridge goes over a shallow, slow little river that dries up into a mud hole by mid-summer usually. I never really paid much attention to it before because usually I’m going over the bridge in a car. I realized it’s really kind of pretty down there, especially with the sky reflecting off the water.

Four thirty in the morning? Really? Ick… Why do I keep getting up this early? I have turned into one of those most obnoxious of people, a “morning person”. As soon as the sky begins to turn light in the pre-dawn, my idiotic brain has decided I need to be up. Right now. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s annoying because I don’t want to be up at bloody 4:30 or 5 in the morning.

The cats are delighted by this, of course. Being the utterly annoying little goofballs they are, they’re generally all sitting outside of the bedroom door by 4:30 anyway because they want their breakfast. So I’m out here, bleary eyed, still half in the dark, trying to make coffee and tripping over cats, stumbling over cats, having cats butting against my legs (it’s not a sign of affection, they’re trying to trip you, you know) and having cats yelling at me. And trying to keep things quiet so MrsGF can get an extra half hour of sleep or so.

If they’re especially bored or hungry, they will drag their food bowl all the way across the room and put it directly in front of the bedroom door so I trip over it when I come stumbling out. One of them has developed the habit of going through the house, finding every cat toy she can, and depositing it in the empty food dish. Apparently she’s under the impression that if she makes some kind of offering the cat food gods will refill her bowl?

Come to think of it, it works, doesn’t it? She puts her toys in the empty food dish and like magic I show up and refill it.

Miscellaneous Stuff & Retired?

IMG_0375Cactus

I think Mr. Spiny the cactus is about to bloom! The cactus has been doing really well out there tucked up against the side of the house but it hasn’t blossomed in two years. It is currently loaded with new pads, but I noticed some of the new buds looked different, and may be flowers, not pads. I really hope so. The flowers on this plant are absolutely spectacular.

Whitefish Dunes State Park has become one of my favorite places. It has about 880 acres of shoreline along Lake Michigan up in Door County, and it’s well worth the price of admission. I’m not sure what the cost is because I get a yearly pass as part of my conservation patron license, but I think it’s about $8 for a day pass.

It’s hard to pick out a single photo from the park that is representative of how beautiful it is, but perhaps this one will do:

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People seem to think Wisconsin is a rather dull place, with flat land, corn, cows and football. But we have more than 14,000 lakes, plus Lake Michigan. We have cliffs, rivers, forests, water falls… Well, you get the idea.

Alas, I’m not sure how long the state park system is going to continue to exist, though. The current administration down in Madison has cut off all state funding for the park system. It’s only funding now is what it can generate from entrance and camping fees.

Lichen

I continue to be fascinated with lichen for some reason. If I’d ever actually gone to the botany class I signed up for in college I might actually know something about it. But I find the colors, the forms, and everything about it fascinating, and if you’d look through my photo library you’d find a lot of images of lichen and mosses. Most people find the photos rather dull, without the splashy colors of my flower photos, but I think lichen has it’s own unique beauty. Like this, for example

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The subtle shadings of greens and yellows and browns, the amazing shapes. Like I said, I’m fascinated with it.

Storms

We’ve been getting a lot of them of late. We’ve had severe thunderstorms roll through here two or three days in a row now, and we’re getting a bit tired of it. Here at the house we’ve avoided the worst of it, but there have been trees taken down, power outages, minor flooding and building damage all over the area with every one of these. It’s kept the SkyWarn people busy, as well as the utility crews trying to keep up with the damage.

I was really glad we had the backup generator yesterday. Power was out for about 45 minutes and if I hadn’t been able to use the generator we’d have ended up with about a foot of water in the basement because of the heavy rains. We got over an inch and a half of rain in about half an hour here. The sump pump was kicking in every 2-3 minutes all the while.

We actually have 2 generators. One is a little 2KW Yamaha inverter that was originally intended just to run the radio equipment for field day or in emergencies for ARES operations. The other is a big Generac 9KW that was intended to power most of the house. The intention originally was to put a big connector on the outside of the house going to the Generac and using it to run the whole house. As long as we don’t use the ovens, turn on every light in the house, etc., it would have enough capacity to keep everything going. But we never got around to installing the bypass switches and connectors necessary. And when we do have a power failure, the little Yamaha can keep the sump pumps going as well as the radios and a few lights. It’s also much, much easier to move around and get started. It also uses a hell of a lot less gas and is much, much quieter.

IMG_0377Roses! The first roses of the season have popped open at last. I’m not a huge rose fan. I like them, but generally I find them a bit fussy and fiddly to deal with. The one we have in the front of the house takes care of itself pretty much. It just keeps coming back year after year, surviving drought, wet, cold, heat…

That’s my kind of plant – just stick it in the ground and ignore it and it takes care of itself.

Oh, and while I’m on the subject of plants, we found this incredible tree up in Door County as well when we were up there on Monday. Neither of us had ever seen anything quite like it before. Covered with these beautiful red, white and yellow flowers.. Absolutely breathtaking. I don’t know what it is. Have been too busy (i.e. lazy) to actually do research to look it up.

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Retired

I turned in my resignation at work last week and I am still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I am unemployed. Willingly unemployed. It doesn’t seem right somehow.

Well, it isn’t like I was putting in a lot of hours at the job anyway, to be honest. The position I’ve been in for the last two years or so was part time, and more or less on an “as needed” basis. I worked for events at the theater, filled in when one of the day guys was out sick, or there was a situation that required extra help, that kind of thing. A lot of weeks I didn’t work at all and it was rare for me to put in more than 20 – 30 hours a month.

Still, not having a job? It feels — strange. Feels, oh, not right somehow.

 

Farm Catch Up

 

Organic: Is it, or isn’t it?

There was a rather troubling item released the other day showing about 40% of organic produce tested was contaminated with pesticides that are not permitted for use by organic growers. The article in Wisconsin Agriculturalist talks about the whole organic situation briefly.

While organic growers in the US are fairly well monitored, the same can’t be said for sources outside of the US. And with up to 80% of organics being sold in this country coming from elsewhere, that’s a bit troubling. USDA doesn’t have the staff or funding to do more than token inspections of organics coming into the US and has to rely on certifications and inspections being done in the country of origin. And considering the horrific stories coming out of places like Brazil involving the meat industry, well, let’s jus say that the inspection systems in other countries are a bit problematic and leave it at that.

And am I wrong in this, or was one of the principals of organic farming supposed to be that food should be grown close to where it’s consumed? Organic isn’t just about growing crops without pesticides. It was a whole philosophy of reducing the use of fossil fuels, producing crops in a sustainable manner, tying to keep food production as local as possible. If you’re shipping “organic” produce 5,000 miles in massive container ships or flying it in via cargo plane, how exactly is that “organic” in the first place?

Canola Oil – The Short Story

I ran across this item over on Wisconsin Agriculturist. It’s a brief little item about how canola oil, one of the most important vegetable oils we produce, was originally developed and how it’s become one of Canada’s most important ag products.

It’s an interesting story. Canola oil didn’t even exist until the mid 1970s when plant scientists bred a type of rapeseed plant that lacked the undesirable traits of the original plants, and processing technologies permitted turning the seed of the plant into one of the most widely used vegetable oils we have. The problem rapeseed had originally was that it contained relatively high concentrations of euric acid, which can be toxic in large amounts. The new plants still have some trace amounts of euric acid.

Then, of course, they had to change the name of the stuff because “rapeseed oil” isn’t exactly appealing for consumers, so they came up with the name “canola” for it. The rapeseed plant’s name has nothing to do with acts of violence, but instead comes from the latin word rapum, which means turnip.

Anyway, go give it a read. It’s a nice little article.

In the “What the Hell Is The Matter With Them” department, we have Illinois

It seems that no matter how bad things get here in Wisconsin, we can always indulge in a bit of schadenfreude by looking at our neighbor to the south, Illinois. No matter how corrupt, inefficient, callous and cruel our political system here in Wisconsin has become, we can always look south and say “well, at least we aren’t in Illinois”.

Illinois is in the middle of a financial hell hole of it’s own making. The state just failed to pass a budget. Again. They haven’t had a state budget in two years, and are well on their way to three years in a row without one. The state is operating largely on a serious of short term spending resolutions, court orders forcing it to pay people, and legally mandated debt payments. Other than that, the state is in financial hell as bills continue to pile up, interest piles up, it’s credit rating plunges, and a bond rating that is just one level above junk bond status. The interest payments caused by it’s failure to pay bills promptly is going to cost it almost three quarters of a billion dollars alone.

This didn’t happen overnight, of course. The state (and the city of Chicago) has a long history of playing fast and loose with it’s bookkeeping practices, using accounting tricks to cover things up, postpone paying things into the future, shortchanging it’s pension funds and basically engaging in practices which, if done in the real world, would have ended with a lot of them going to jail for a very long time indeed. It owes it’s pension fund alone something like $129 billion because of it’s fiscal mismanagement. But since it’s the government and they make their own rules, they’ve been getting away with it

For those of us in Wisconsin who are sitting up here chuckling over the misfortune of the FIBs, well, it can happen here. This administration has been fiddling with the books as well, using accounting tricks that would be illegal in the real world to postpone debt payment, borrowing money to prop up the budget, especially the transportation budget. At the moment about 20% of every dollar going into the transportation budget is being used to make payments on past borrowings because the administration hasn’t been willing to fully fund all of the road projects it has mandated. This budget cycle we’re looking at the state borrowing another $500 million to try to keep it’s road projects going.

If you think Illinois can’t happen here, just remember what happened to the money the state got from the settlement with the tobacco company years ago. Wisconsin got almost a billion dollars to settle up with the tobacco industry. The money was supposed to go to health care, tobacco prevention programs, and programs to help people get off of tobacco addiction. It didn’t, of course. The state just flat out stole it, using the money to plug a hole in the state budget.

Weather Related Crop Failures

I haven’t seen a lot of news items about it yet, but we’ve already seen a lot of crop failures due to unusual weather all around the country. In many of the counties around here we’ve seen an almost total failure of the alfalfa crop, with losses as high as 80% or more. Down in Georgia and South Carolina there is a near total failure of the peach crop, with losses as high as 85%. The blueberry crop down there was hit hard as well. Farmers there are looking at a $300 million loss to the fruit crop. Large parts of the midwest have had significant delays in getting the corn and soybean crops in the ground because of abnormally wet weather. Up in Canada one region has been unable to plant tens of thousands of acres of wheat because of wet weather. Down in Australia they’re having the opposite problem, not enough rain, with significant damage to the canola and garbanzo bean crops.

Curiously enough, the commodities markets seem to have been ignoring all of this and there has been little movement in the futures prices except for the usual thrashing up and down a few cents.

Pink Slime Redux

Remember “pink slime”? You may not. It’s been a while since that scandal story hit the airwaves. ABC ran a story about this stuff, “finely textured beef”, that was made from stuff scraped off the bones of cattle, left over from the trimming process, basically stuff that would have otherwise gone into pet food or be thrown out, which was then ground up, had the fat removed from it, was treated with ammonia, and then injected into hamburger, and then they didn’t tell anyone about it. The stuff is… Well, let’s just say it’s not exactly appealing and leave it at that. Even more troubling was the fact that this was being done without any labeling or any indication that something other than normal beef was in your hamburger.

One of the major manufacturers of the stuff was not happy about the story because their sales plummeted, and they sued ABC and several individuals back in 2012, and it’s finally going to be coming to trial. The company is asking for about $1 billion in damages.

It will be interesting to see what happens with this one. Despite everything the company says, I don’t remember ABC claiming anything that wasn’t absolutely true during the report. But the way things are these days, the outcome of the trial is a coin toss, really. Whatever happens it will probably end up in the courts for years with the losing side appealing.

It’s a sad but true fact that you pretty much don’t know what the hell is in the food you buy unless you’re preparing it yourself.

Grain Facility Explodes

A corn processing facility in Cambria Wisconsin exploded, killing two and injuring more than a dozen others. According to the story in the link above, the facility had a history of safety violations, including failing to properly control potentially explosive dust.

These facilities can be extremely dangerous. Grain dust is not just a fire hazard, it is also an explosive. Until government agencies like OSHA clamped down, grain elevators and other grain processing facilities used to explode every year. There is a mill just down the street from my place and until fairly recently it was a running joke that the place burned down every year, and just a few years ago they had a massive fire that had units from a dozen or more fire departments scurrying down our street to try to get it under control. For an entire day after the worst was over, we had water tankers running down our street every 4 minutes (we timed it) to dump water on the smoldering remains.

 

Milk Again

Some of you are probably getting tired of me talking about the dairy industry and the

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Cow is angry.

problems it faces, but I ran across an editorial over at Wisconsin Agriculturalist that was really well written and well thought out that talks about the situation the dairy industry is facing. Go give it a look if you have a few minutes.

The writer brings up a lot of points that I’ve talked about myself, or have at least thought about. I wanted to pass some of that along with my own thoughts on the subject. So if you’re sick of me babbling about dairy farming, feel free to skip this one. I won’t blame you at all if you do.

As the author points out, blaming Canada for our overproduction problems down here is just plain stupid. He doesn’t use that word. He’s more polite than I am.

Blaming Canada for our problems and Grassland cutting off some 75 or so farmers from a market for their milk is stupid. Demanding that the government “do something” to change Canada’s milk production and marketing system because of our problems down here is sort of like a kid demanding his parents take away his friend’s Playstation because he doesn’t have one himself.

Canada has a milk production/marketing system that works fairly well. Dairy farmers enjoy relatively stable prices that let them make a reasonable profit. But the price they pay for this is that their production is strictly limited. They have a system in place that permits them to only produce a specific amount of milk. If they want to expand their operation, the only way they can do it is by acquiring the quota of a different farm that is shrinking or going out of business.

This also means that Canada has to put in place import restrictions that prevent outsiders from dumping their surplus product onto Canadian markets at cut-throat prices and destabilizing their whole system.

This, some claim, is “unfair”. Canada, they claim, should simply allow the US to dump it’s surpluses on the Canadian markets so the US can continue to ramp up milk production to make even more product that no one wants and wrecking the Canadian dairy industry just as badly as we’ve wrecked the US markets.

They want a “free market”. But only a market that’s “free” for them, and not for anyone else, it seems. They want a market where they are free to dump their excess on everyone else, but at the same time they want the US to protect them from other countries doing the same thing to us. Hence all of the rhetoric coming out of DC about tariffs on imports, claims that China and Mexican products are “destabilizing” our markets by dumping cheap products on us.

But we should be able to do it to them?

Could the government here ever develop a marketing system that actually works? Sure it could. But it won’t. It can’t.

The problem is that the government is no longer in the hands of elected leaders who represent us. Instead politicians have sold their souls (and ours) for the almighty dollar. Their actions are being influenced not by the voters who elect them, but by a handful of well financed special interest groups that are largely funded by a tiny handful of wealthy individuals and corporations and which pump hundreds of millions of dollars into election campaigns.

The author of the editorial wants farmers to join up with one marketing board or farmers’ organization or other to try to work with the government to get changes made. It’s highly unlikely that will work. It certainly hasn’t worked in the past. Farmers’ organizations attempting to change the system have come and gone by the dozens, and almost none of them have had any real positive influence on things. In some cases, they’ve made things worse.

What’s the solution? The government isn’t going to be any help. That system is largely broken. The government no longer responds to the needs of the people it’s supposed to represent, but only responds to those who can write out six figure checks or own a high priced and well funded lobbyist in DC.

I wish I had an answer. I don’t.

 

 

Farm Catch Up

Ah, it’s about that time again, so here’s some of the agricultural news for the past week

 

Budget Pain

Well, I think we all knew that the new administration’s budget was going to be painful, and it is. Well, unless you’re a defense contractor, run a private prison, etc. You people will do pretty good. The rest of us? Not so much.

If you’re a farmer or involved in agriculture in any way, the budget is indeed going to be painful. There are huge cuts to USDA, cuts in the crop insurance program, new fees for inspectors, cuts in research… The list is too long to put here.

In addition to that, there would be massive cuts to the SNAP food assistance program, cuts to the WIC program, cuts to the school lunch program and school nutrition services, all of which would have long term consequences for the agricultural sector.  And even worse consequences for the people who depend on those programs. Even the venerable and highly praised meals on wheels system would be hit hard.

You can read a brief article about the agricultural implications of this over at AgWeb here, and if you spend a couple of minutes on Google you can find out more quite quickly.

Hay Crop almost Total Loss

Here in Calumet County, in neighboring Manitowoc and in other counties nearby we’ve seen nearly a total loss of the hay crop. Inadequate snow cover, coupled with February temperatures that spiked as high as 70 degrees during the day, then plunging into the 20s at night, coupled with extremely wet and cold weather this spring, have decimated the hay crop around here.

To make things worse, the almost nonstop rains we’ve had this spring are making it difficult to get into the fields and do anything. A lot of farmers will try to put in peas and oats to try to get some kind of forage crop off the fields, but it’s going to be a rough year.

Pigs Take Over World

Feral pigs are becoming a major problem in the US and even in Europe. It isn’t a huge problem here in Wisconsin, but the population is growing and becoming a concern. The DNR is putting bulletins into it’s hunting publications about what to do if you find one (basically shoot it). In other parts of the country it’s such a big problem that it’s become a public health issue and they are causing massive amounts of damage to farms.

Feral pigs are very aggressive, smart, reproduce quickly with the average sow producing two litters per year with 6-12 piglets per litter, and they’ll eat anything. If it has any kind of nutritional value at all, and they can eat it, they will. They cause huge amounts of damage to crops and property, kill and eat small animals, and yes, they are physically dangerous towards people. Boars can get to be several hundred pounds, with tusks like razors. And they carry a host of diseases and parasites and spread them over a wide area. Most states have adopted an aggressive policy towards pigs in the wild. A lot of states advise hunters to shoot them on sight.

Ah, well, yummy free pork, then? I wouldn’t eat one. Some states are advising hunters that if they do shoot one, let it lay there. They can carry some very nasty diseases and parasites, many of which can be transmitted to people.

New Herbicide Mix Not So Hot

There was a lot of hype surrounding Monsanto’s introduction of seed varieties that were resistant to both Roundup and dicamba in an effort to control weeds that were becoming resistant to Roundup alone. The biggest problem is pigweed, where a Roundup resistant variety has been spreading widely.

But the new systems don’t seem to be working all that well according to early reports. Early indications are that multiple sprayings are going to be required, and perhaps even resorting to additional types of chemicals. The manufacturer recommends pigweed be no more than 4 inches tall, but since pigweed grows at up to 3 inches per day, trying to time things right is almost completely impossible.

I’m not going to get into debates about the health safety of GM crops. But I will point out that GM plants seem to be, ultimately, a complete failure. At least in their current form. The only commercially successful GM plants right now are those that have been engineered to resist herbicides or insects. And that resistance is rapidly becoming worthless as weeds and insects become resistant to the herbicides or the traits that resisted the corn root worm. These GM plants really have no other desirable traits except that. They do not increase yield, aren’t nutritionally superior. So in the long run, these commercially available GM plants are a failure.

Politics Rears Its Ugly Head

The administrations proposed budget could have widespread and devastating effects on the entire agricultural sector, and cause ripples through the whole economy. There would be big changes to the crop insurance program which could hit some farmers pretty hard. Everyone has probably heard about the cuts to the funding for the Meals on Wheels programs that serve the elderly and disabled. It looks like USDA itself would be hit hard. If I’m reading things right USDA would be looking at losing about a full third of it’s funding.

There would be huge changes to the SNAP program, i.e. “food stamps”. In addition to large cuts in funding, states would have to contribute more money to the program themselves, and would be given more control over how the programs work, who gets help, etc. It would also allow states to institute work requirements.

I don’t really understand the work requirement thing. The vast majority of people in the SNAP program can’t work. They are disabled, the elderly, or children. About two thirds of the people who get assistance through the program fall into one of those three categories. Of the remainder, most of them already do work, but make so little money they qualify for help through the program.

It’s Hard To Be Small If You Raise Meat

The big trend these days is the whole “farm to table” thing where people try to connect directly to farmers to buy food rather than rely on the big commercial processors and distributers. I’m very much in favor of these ideas. Connecting with your local farmers to buy food is generally a good thing for many reasons.

But it isn’t easy to be a small farmer. Agriculture in general doesn’t seem to like small farmers. At all. It’s hard to buy equipment designed for small farms, difficult to find ways to market your products. And if you raise meat animals, well, it’s even more difficult because it’s almost impossible to find a government inspected, licensed slaughter facility to deal with the animals. Bloomberg has an interesting article on the issue, and it’s one that’s turning up all over the country. (Warning, Bloomberg has one of the most bloody awful websites around, loaded with auto-play videos you can’t get rid of that have nothing to do with the story you’re trying to read, along with other annoyances.)

The US market has become such a monopoly that only four companies supply 90% of the meat sold in the country, and the independent meat processors that used to dot the countryside are long gone.

So while the demand for organic, free range and local meat has increased dramatically over the last few years, places where farmers can get that meat processed have become almost impossible to find in many areas of the country. Some are forced to truck their cattle for three, four hours or even more to get them to a processor.

And the government doesn’t want to make things easier. Inspection rules, processor rules and regulations are all geared to the huge meat packing facilities, not the small processors.

Some people in congress are trying to get the rules changed to make it easier for small farmers to deal with this situation, but it’s being fought hard by the big processors, as you might expect.

A Nice Gesture But…

An organization called Dairy Pricing Association put out a PR piece the other day about how they bought and donated 42,000 pounds of cheese to the Hunger Task Force. It’s a nice, feel good kind of item. DPA makes itself sound like it’s doing farmers a favor and that the buy will help push up milk prices. And certainly the Hunger Task Force can use the help. They have over 85,000 people using it’s food pantries and other forms of assistance in Milwaukee county every month.

I hate to sit here and frown at people who are trying to do something, but it’s PR fluff, really. The people at DPA are helping people who badly need food, yes. And that is a good thing. But claiming this is somehow going to help the milk price as some of the statements imply is just silly. It won’t.

That 42,000 pounds sounds impressive until you learn that is half of a single truck load of cheese. Go down to the Sargento plant about 20 miles from here and they crank out dozens of truckloads of product every single day. From one plant.

They removed “23 tanker loads of milk from the market” in 2016. That sounds like a lot until you do the math. Let’s say a tanker holds, oh, 8,000 gallons of milk. That’s 184,000 gallons of milk. A lot, right? Well, no. A 5,000 cow mega-farm puts out up to 30,000 or more gallons a day. So that 23 tankers of milk is only 6 days of production from a single farm.

It’s a nice PR piece, sounds good, and certainly it helps feed people. But boost milk prices? No. Not even a blip.

Hey, Grouchy, Whatcha Watchin’?

Seriously? You want to know? You don’t know what you’re letting yourself in for, do you? Well, you’ll find out. You’ve been warned. Here’s what I’ve been watching of late and brief, sometimes not so brief, reviews/impressions.

Oh, and yes, there will be spoilers. Well, not that there’s much to spoil for most of these since the writers, directors and actors have already pretty much spoiled ’em.

OA – Oh, dear lord… Okay, OA created a lot of buzz when it popped up. People started reading all kinds of things into it’s surreal atmosphere and searching for some kind of hidden meaning.

And failed because there isn’t anything there to find.

Here’s the basic plot: Obviously mentally ill young woman has been missing for 7 years, reappears jumping off a bridge. Over the course of the series she gathers together a group of equally disturbed teens and one very odd adult in a house that’s under construction late at night and spins an even more odd tale about being the daughter of a Russian oligarch, going blind for no apparent reason after her school bus fell into a lake, ending up in the US adopted by a very strange and possibly abusive couple, being kidnapped, repeatedly tortured to death by drowning, and learning how to hallucinate through the magic of interpretive dance. And I wish I was making up that last part, but I’m not. The story says it’s some kind of interdimensional thing, but, well, no. I’m sorry, just no. Lots of people die in the end and by that time I really didn’t care any more. Actually I stopped caring about twenty minutes into the first show and just wished they’d get some therapy for that poor girl.

And for the writers.

Iron Fist – Son of a rich company owner disappears where he learns all kind of weird ninja and martial arts stuff, comes back to find his company taken over by evil people and his city being swept by corruption…

Hey, wait a minute, you say, isn’t that the plot from The Arrow? Yeah, it is. Only without The Arrow’s production values and, judging from the horrible sets and costumes, without its budget, either. Certainly without its acting talent.

It’s called Iron Fist because the hero, if you can call him that, has fists that glow in the dark when he’s really, really mad. You can tell when he’s really really mad because he looks like he has mild indigestion. And his fists glow in the dark.

Glow in the dark fists? Really? Let me guess, Marvel has finally run out of super powers. “Let’s see, we have a guy who turns green, we have a guy who thinks he’s a spider, we have a guy who bursts into flame, a guy who wears a robot suit, a guy who thinks he’s a god with a big hammer. I know, we haven’t done a guy who’s fists glow in the dark yet! Let’s try that!”

Luke Cage – One of the very, very few good shows I’ve seen, and pretty much the only one where the cast is almost entirely black and hispanic, with a lot of genuinely good actors. Yeah, how Cage gets his superpowers is pretty silly, but so is how Wolverine got his stabby things that shoot out of his knuckles and nobody seems to mind that. And yeah, the writing and acting is over the top at times. But still, it can be riveting and touching and genuinely hopeful. I’m looking forward to this one continuing in the future. Luke Cage believes that there is hope, that things can be better no matter how bad they may seem sometimes. And that kind of hope is contagious.

The Flash – I grew up in the 1960s and went through comic books like crazy. I occasionally picked up The Flash, but to be honest I wasn’t that much of a fan. A guy in red long underwear who runs really fast? Yeah, right…

When DC brought Flash to television, I wasn’t even going to bother. The previews I saw were not that good. But I gave it a shot and for some reason I got hooked on the damned thing, despite the fact I hate the character who plays Barry Allen/Flash. I hate him to the point where I won’t even allow myself to find out what his name is. I hate him even more than I hate Tom Hanks. Who cast this guy? He looks like he’s, what, about fourteen years old? I know sixth graders who look more mature (and act more mature) than he does.

But I keep watching the damned thing because some of the supporting characters are genuinely good.

And because of the writing. Not because the writing is any good. It isn’t. I just keep wondering how the hell the writers are going to get out of the corners they write themselves into on a regular basis. The answer to that is that they pretty much don’t. When they get themselves into a mess they can’t get out of, they send Flash back into the past to fiddle with something and do a sort of mini reboot. Only the reboot always seems to make things worse instead of better.

At this point I keep watching not so much because I enjoy the show but because I can’t wait to see how badly the writers mess things up.

Supergirl – Oh dear lord, what have they done to Supergirl??? Let’s, said the writers, take an intelligent, moral, strong, confidant young woman, stick her in a short skirt, crank her IQ down a few points and turn her into a giddy, relationship obsessed adolescent who can’t do anything right without a lot of help from men because, well, she’s a girl and girls can’t do anything right without help from men…

Oh, let’s make her sister a lesbian while we’re at it. And a spy or super cop or something.

And let’s put Jimmy Olson in a robot suit that isn’t at all a rip off of Iron Man.

Oh, let’s throw in some Martians, too.

Hey, let’s make her and Lex Luthor’s sister BFFs while we’re at it.

Oh, brother…

Covert Affairs – A series about a young, female CIA agent that is, well, it’s actually not horrible. It’s totally ridiculous, true, with technology straight out of the pages of a science fiction magazine, they haven’t a clue as to how computers actually work, 90% of what they do is totally illegal, and thanks largely to Piper Perabo and Christopher Gorham, who play Annie Walker, the star, and her “handler” at the CIA, Auggie, I didn’t care. I just enjoyed it. Perabo is good, making Annie Walker a character I really cared about. And Gorham as Auggie, a former soldier who was blinded by an IED in Iraq, was just as good, if not better.