Wait, what??? Strawberries? Really?

Okay, so we had a pretty poor year here in my home county for some crops this year because of the weather. So it wasn’t a surprise when I learned USDA had declared Calumet and the surrounding counties a disaster area because of the crop damage we had. But this?

MADISON – United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue designated Calumet County and six surrounding counties as disaster areas due to crop losses from heavy rains in late June and early July. Calumet County lost more than 30 percent of its strawberry crop as a result of excessive rain and flooding that kept fields underwater and soils oversaturated for an extended time.

What the hell is going on here? Strawberries? Strawberries??

Calumet County doesn’t have a strawberry industry. Not really. Oh, there are a few “pick your own” places and home gardens, but other than that there are no large commercial strawberry growing places in Calumet County. I doubt if the entire strawberry crop in the county, including the pick your own, home gardens, etc., amounts to more than a few dozen acres total.

On the other hand, we lost our entire hay crop this year. The figures I’ve seen indicate the hay crop was a 90+% loss here and in neighboring Manitowoc County.  Thousands of acres of hay were a total loss. Anyone who raises cattle is scrambling to find fodder for their animals. Corn that was supposed to go for grain is being chopped for fodder to feed cattle at a massive loss to the dairy farms around here.

But we’re getting the disaster declaration because of strawberries according to the governor’s office…

 

 

Farm Catch Up

I haven’t done one of these in a while, so let’s take a look at what’s been happening in the farming world.

Dicamba Herbicide Fight Continues: The fighting over the new Dicamba blends of herbicides continues. BASF and Monsanto continue to argue that their newly approved blends of herbicides containing dicamba are completely safe and aren’t a problem at all, while the farmers who have had thousands of acres of soybeans ruined by the herbicide after it drifted long distances, argue that it isn’t safe for use.

Arkansas is pushing for a ban on all dicamba use except for those uses that were permitted before the new blends came on the market. The ban would last until October, 2018, and would halt the sale and use of both Monsanto and BASF’s new dicamba based products, and probably halt the sale of Monsanto’s dicamba resistant soybeans as well because if the herbicide can’t be used, there’s no point in paying a premium for Monsanto’s new beans, either.

Monsanto is, of course, not happy about any of this since they stand to lose millions of dollars in sales of both their herbicide and seed. The company is blaming anyone and anything for the problems that have been going on, claiming that there is no “scientific” basis for the ban, that “scientists” have discovered that even if their product does drift outside of the application area, it doesn’t really hurt anything anyway, that some of the experts testifying in favor of the ban are prejudiced against the company, blaming the people who apply the herbicide, blaming the equipment used.

It isn’t just Arkansas that’s having problems. In Missouri it’s estimated that up to 22% of the soybeans planted in the Bootheel area were damaged by dicamba drift, along with acres upon acres of tomato, watermelons, vineyards, pumpkins, organic vegetables and even trees, shrubs and people’s home gardens. The product isn’t just moving a few yards, in some cases there are indications the herbicide is drifting for miles according to the Missouri Extension weed specialist Kevin Bradley.

Farmland Partners Makes Major Buy: Farmland Partners is an investment company that buys up farmland for no reason other than to rent it to actual farmers. The company now has about 160,000 acres of farmland. They just bought over 5,000 acres of nut orchards for $110 million from Olam, a Singapore based company that ventured into the nut business.

My feelings about this kind of thing? I find it extremely concerning. Companies like this are, well, to put it bluntly, parasites. They insert themselves into the process, competing against actual farmers for a scarce resource, farmland. They artificially inflate demand for that resource, driving prices up. They rent the land back to the farmers at ever increasing prices because the shareholders demand ever increasing profits, and at the same time the company itself provides absolutely no value at all to the whole process. It exists only to skim off profits from the whole system while contributing nothing itself, while at the same time destabilizing the whole system and actually degrading its health through it’s manipulation of the market.

Seed Terminator: Combines are great at two things; harvesting wheat, corn, soybeans, Screen Shot 2017-09-26 at 5.53.30 AMetc., and spreading weed seeds all over your fields. The problem is that a lot of weeds are coming ripe at around the same time as your crop. So when you combine your crop, you’re also combining the weeds and blowing the weed seeds out the back of the combine and scattering them all over the field. A lot of people have worked for a very long time on this problem, with various attempts at a solution.

This one which is now going into production it seems, adds a screening system and high speed flails that pulverizes the weed seeds before they get blown back onto the field. If you click the link up there you’ll jump to the article about it. Apparently it works pretty good, and I’m always in favor of anything that helps farmers reduce the need for herbicides.

The problem is that this puppy costs about $70,000. Even when we’re talking about combines that cost a quarter of a million dollars or more, that is a pretty significant amount of money. Is it worth it? No idea.

Pork Cheap, Beef getting more Expensive: Beef prices at the consumer level haven’t been all that good for some time now. Pork is almost ridiculously cheap right now. Pork futures have fallen like a stone since July, dropping some 30%. Pork bellies, where we get bacon from, dove straight into the dumper, falling 60%. Although I note that hasn’t helped the price of bacon in the store. That keeps going up and up, it seems.

Beef on the other hand… Sheesh. Prices on some cuts have moderated a bit, but not by much, and they’re claiming prices are going to go up significantly over the upcoming months. We generally buy a lot of beef from MrsGF’s brother and sister, but because of logistics issues they aren’t going to have any ready to go for probably a year now. So MrsGF and I are looking into seeing if we have enough freezer space to get a quarter or half of beef from the local butcher because we can get that dressed, cut, wrapped and frozen, for $3.90 a pound which is less than what hamburger is going for in the grocery stores around here.

Syngenta Lawsuit Settled: Syngenta, a seed company, was sued a while back over one variety of it’s corn. The corn, a GM variety, was heavily marketed by the company and a  lot of farmers planted it. Only to find that when it came time to actually sell their corn to China, the country rejected it because Syngenta allegedly hadn’t told told the farmers that China had not approved that type of corn for import. In addition, it was alleged that the company deliberately misled farmers by claiming the corn variety had been approved by China when it had not.

Farmers, grain shipping companies, etc. lost millions of dollars on the deal and sued. Syngenta claimed they had told them that China hadn’t approved it. Lots of lawyers paid for their kids’ college education out of this one, raking in millions in legal fees, and the final result is Syngenta and the plaintiffs are apparently now going to settle out of court. I haven’t heard yet what the settlement will be, but you can expect that the company is going to have to pay a huge amount of money to make this one go away.

Addendum: Just ran cross another story that had more details. Syngenta is apparently going to cough up $1.4 billion to make this lawsuit go away. The company already lost a $218 million jury trial to a group of Kansas farmers about three months ago. There are still lawsuits pending in Canada against the company that will not fall under this agreement and will be thrashed out in the Canadian courts.

That Organic Food You’re Buying May Not Be. Oh, and a Cat Picture.

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With demand for organics growing every year, the US can’t produce enough to meet the demand, and hasn’t been able to for some time. At least not at a price that US consumers are willing to pay. So we rely on imports from other countries to fill the gap. Imports of organic produce, cattle feed and other organic products has been increasing every year for a long time now.  We imported about $1.2 billion worth of organic products last year, and that number is going to keep growing.

That brings up the question of how you know that a product labeled as organic, produced 7,000 miles away, is really organic? You can’t know, of course. You have to rely on government agencies to do the proper inspections, certifications and tracking to make sure the stuff you are buying is really what the seller claims it is.

And apparently USDA and its Agricultural Marketing Service, isn’t doing a very good job of doing any of that according to USDA’s own internal audits. A story originating at Bloomberg reports that USDA’s internal audits indicate that the AMS couldn’t prove that cargo labeled “organic” coming into the US were actually organic. It couldn’t even properly track whether or not the product came from an actual certified organic source.

To quote the report, “The lack of controls at U.S. ports of entry increases the risk that non-organic products may be imported as organic into the United States”.

The problem isn’t just with a potential failure to grow the product according to organic standards, it’s shipping as well. A lot of products, especially bulk shipments of grains, beans, etc, are routinely fumigated by storage facility operators and shipping companies to reduce the formation of mold, prevent rodent infestations, etc, which, of course, violates organic regulations.

So the agency responsible for making sure that organic products coming into the US actually came from certified organic sources, and weren’t fumigated or treated with non-organic substances along the way, pretty much can’t do it’s job.

Kind of depressing, so here’s a picture of one of the cats staring at me while I’m writing this, wondering why I’m not playing with her.

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Brrr. And Stuff

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 7.29.39 AMWith early morning temperatures hovering in the mid 40s around here, the dawn bike rides have pretty much come to an end for the season. I have to put it off until close to mid day when the temps get up to around 60 or so. This upcoming week is supposed to be warmer, but I have to face the fact that the bike season is going to be over in the very near future and it’s going to be back to walking and jogging to try to get exercise, so I’d better check out the treadmill and make sure it’s in good shape. A lot of streets here in town don’t have sidewalks at all, so if you’re a walker/runner you’re either forced out onto the slush and salt covered streets and risking cracking your head open when you slide on the ice, or you look for indoor alternatives.

IMG_0053Despite the cold mornings, it’s still amazingly beautiful out there. I’m determined to enjoy it while I can because it isn’t going to be long before it looks like this over there on the right.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m one of those weird people who actually likes winter. But even I have to admit that as I get older my tolerance for cold has diminished.

I keep telling myself every winter that I really need to get outside with the camera because snowscapes and winter scenes can be amazingly beautiful. But then there’s the whole thing with the feet turning into blocks of ice, fingers going numb, the camera’s focus freezing up and all that.

Equifax debacle – By this time you’ll have heard about the Equifax data theft incident where apparently everyone’s SS number, name, address, date of birth and other identifying information was stolen. Basically if you’ve ever had a credit card, applied for a loan, etc., your data was in the system and it got stolen. Mine did, my kids’ data, my wife’s… Pretty much everyone I know who’s checked was hit.

So if you’re wondering if you’re one of us, you almost certainly are. I won’t give you the web address to go to check at Equifax. That info is available all over. Just make sure you go to the right one and not some phishing site. You can be sure that in the coming days the scammers will be trying to take advantage of the situation with phony credit monitoring services and other BS. So be careful out there.

If you’ve been hit, what do you do? Do you sign up for the one year of free monitoring the company is offering? How much good it will do is questionable, but it might give an early alert if something starts to happen. The thing is, the company is only offering you one year of free monitoring, but that data that was stolen is going to be out there forever. Just because it wasn’t used in one year doesn’t mean it won’t be used next year, or the year after.

You should seriously consider freezing your credit entirely. Yes, you can do that. If nothing else, that should prevent scammers from using your identity to open up new lines of credit, take out loans in your name, etc. You have to do it with all three credit bureaus, and there are fees involved. That depends on the state you live in.

I’m going to do something I don’t normally do very often, recommend someplace to go to for advice and information. That’s Clark Howard’s website .  Clark Howard’s website will give you information on what to do, how to monitor your credit for fraud, and how to freeze your credit.

I’ve heard of several incidents where the Equifax site is giving conflicting information about whether or not a person has been hit by this. One person checked on the Equifax site and was told it “appeared” they were not. She checked again a few hours later, and was then told she was. She went through the process again a short time later, and was told again that she wasn’t. In any case, Equifax isn’t giving any firm answer. There are a lot of “might”, “maybe”, “apparently” and other weasel words being used with no actual confirmation.

There are a whole lot of questions that need to be answered over this. Like how did this happen? Why wasn’t this data heavily encrypted so even if it was stolen it would be useless? And why did two or more corporate officers sell their stock in the company after the breech was discovered but before the data theft was made public?

I can’t leave you all depressed and worried, so here’s a flower to cheer you up.

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Let’s Talk About Cow Sh#t!

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Manure spreaders only looked this good for about 30 seconds after they were delivered to the farm.

What sparked this piece is that the DNR here in the state is being sued by a couple of different dairy organizations over the new rules it and the state legislature instituted to try to deal with the massive problem of pollution caused by runoff from the manure generated by the CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations, or mega-farms as they’re generically called).

Manure disposal is a huge problem here in Wisconsin and in other states where there are any kind of large scale cattle operations. Forty or fifty years ago when farms here in the state were still relatively small, it wasn’t a big deal. But now, when we have farms with 3,000, 5,000 or even more cattle concentrated on a single farm, confined to a small area, it has become problem which is literally toxic. Just one of these farms generates as much sewage as a small city. And dealing with that much manure safely is not easy.

And we’ve learned that the hard way. Private wells all over the state are contaminated by the runoff. Some have been hit hard. Kewaunee County has at least 30% of it’s private wells contaminated. Some estimates I’ve read put that number as high as 45%. Some organizations and schools have been giving out bottled water to local families with contaminated wells. We have massive “dead zones” in the Bay of Green Bay where fish can’t live any more because of problems associated with runoff from farm fields. We have toxic algae blooms in lakes. We have… Well, you get the idea.

Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 6.43.38 AMOnce upon a time we dealt with cow manure like this. The cows grazed out in the field, they’d drop a pile here and there, and move on and nature dealt with it. Insects laid eggs in it, animals foraging for food scattered it about looking for the insects, rain would gradually wash it away, and over the course of many days the pile would gradually erode away, absorbed into the soil where the nutrients would be taken up by the surrounding plants.

But you can’t graze 5,000 cows. And since a single mega-farm can produce as much Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 6.49.37 AMsewage as a city, disposing of manure becomes a serious problem and you end up with this kind of thing over there on the right; massive manure pumping operations dumping tens of thousands of gallons of liquified manure across fields all over the countryside.

Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 6.45.24 AMOr imagine you live in the country and you wake up one morning and find huge tanker trucks full to the brim with reeking sludge, leaking all over the road, parked right across from your house like my friend did a couple of years ago. They woke up that morning to the sound of heavy trucks, went outside, and found this going on right in front of their house.

Each one of those trucks has about 8,000 gallons of manure in them. And they were rolling in like that all day long, dumping the stuff into a portable holding tank set up in the field while massive pumps pushed it down hoses to the tractors in the field that were spraying it. The stink was so bad they and everyone else within a quarter mile had to evacuate their homes.

There are existing rules and laws controlling the disposal of manure, but by and large those are pushed to the limits, exceeded, even blatantly ignored.

I have to admit that the situation has gotten better, at least around here. But that’s because I wasn’t kidding about people having to evacuate their homes during one of these big pumping operations. Threats of lawsuits and warnings from local governments to take action forced the worst of this nonsense to be curtailed, but it still gets pretty bad around here sometimes.

It wasn’t until about 40% of the drinking water wells were contaminated in some parts of the state like Kewaunee County that the DNR was forced to act, and then only after the situation had gotten so bad that communities were starting to give out bottled water. The DNR announced stricter regulations and enforcement, with backing from the state legislature, and it looked like they might be finally getting a handle on this.

But no. Now the lawsuits have started. At least two ag business associations have filed suit against the state claiming the DNR doesn’t have the legal authority authority to make the new rules. And because the state legislature severely curtailed the authority of the agency over the past few years, they are quite possibly right. Without intervention by the state legislature, the DNR probably doesn’t really have the legal authority to put the new regulations in place.

 

Agrimoney.com | Butter price surge may ‘prompt fundamental market change’ – Arla

Screen Shot 2017-08-29 at 6.25.36 AMArla boss Peder Tuborgh sees a shake-up, if the rally continues which has, for the first time, made dairy fats more expensive than protein Source: Agrimoney.com | Butter price surge may ‘prompt fundamental market change’ – Arla

I haven’t been talking much about farming lately because not much has really been going on over the last month or so. But butter — good grief. The butter market has gone goofy.

Wholesale butter prices are flirting with record prices in some markets, even surpassing record levels in some areas. Retail prices have been creeping up. Demand for butter has been just about the only thing that’s been keeping farmgate fluid milk prices at a reasonably decent level over the last few months. Around here prices for generic butter is pushing close to $4/lb. while prices for the “premium” brands is in the $4.50 range, with some of the premium brands pushing $5/lb. retail prices. The exception is KwikTrip, which is selling their house brand for $2.99 in their convenience stores around here.

I’m always fascinated by how the public’s attitude towards butter and dairy fat in general has changed over the last few years. Thanks mostly to the marketing claims made by margarine manufacturers, and with little or no actual scientific studies backing those claims, butter and dairy fat was being blamed for everything from obesity, to heart disease, to stroke, to I don’t know what all else, while margarine was being pushed as a “healthy” alternative, when the opposite was true.

I always hated margarine. I hated it’s texture and flavor, I hated how it melted or didn’t melt, hated how it worked when used in cooking. But then I’m weird that way. I have one of those hypersensitive senses of smell and taste, especially smell. I’ve a bit of a reputation as being a picky eater, but I’m really not. The problem is that I smell and taste things most people seem to be unaware of.

But let’s get back to butter…

The item up there from AgriMoney reminded me of the Great Butter War going on here in Wisconsin right now. The picture of Kerry Gold butter up there isn’t just some random butter image, it’s appropriate because at the moment Kerry Gold is banned from sale in Wisconsin along with a lot of other brands of butter.

Before butter can be sold in the state, it has to be graded on taste, texture and color through some state accepted system, by state accepted inspectors. This means that if a butter maker can’t or won’t spend the time and money to put their product through the state’s inspection system because of cost or whatever reason, it can’t be sold in the state, even though it meets all other accepted federal standards.

Consumers didn’t know about this until one day Kerry Gold butter abruptly vanished from the shelves of the grocery stores here in the state not too long ago. It isn’t that the law was just passed, it’s been on the books since the 1950s. It seems that a lot of grocers just didn’t know about the law until fairly recently.

Wisconsin has a long history of laws about butter. It is still illegal for restaurants to substitute margarine for butter without the customer specifically requesting it. It is illegal to serve margarine in state prisons, schools and hospitals except for health reasons. And until the late 1950s it was illegal to sell margarine in the state that had been dyed yellow. Margarine is actually a rather sickly looking whitish color and is dyed yellow to make it look appealing. Margarine makers used to include a yellow dye packet with the margarine sold in Wisconsin so the consumer could dye it themselves.

I should point out that Wisconsin’s butter grading law has nothing to do with food safety. The grading system the state insists on is made up of largely arbitrary standards for taste, texture, smell and appearance. Kerry Gold and the other butters banned from sale in the state meet all USDA and other federal standards for quality. They just haven’t been subjected to these arbitrary tests.

Well, the whole thing is going through the legal system now, and I suspect that sooner or later the Wisconsin requirements will be overturned. But until then you’ll have to order your Kerry Gold online or hop across the border to Illinois or Minnesota to get your fix.

Assembly Passes $3B Foxconn Incentive Package | Wisconsin Public Radio

The Wisconsin Assembly approved a $3 billion tax break bill for Taiwan-based Foxconn to build a new display panel factory in the state. Source: Assembly Passes $3B Foxconn Incentive Package | Wisconsin Public Radio

I almost never talk about politics here and I try to refrain from headlining a post with a referral to a news story, but this whole Foxconn deal has me rather concerned.

While the governor’s office and the state legislature are collectively wetting themselves over this deal, and are flooding the airwaves with self congratulatory images and stories hyping this whole thing, if you start to look into the deal itself, if you really look into the details of the whole thing, it starts to look more than a little concerning. There is so much misinformation and outright lying going on over this deal it’s hard to keep track of what’s a fact, what’s hyperbole, and what’s an outright lie.

The whole 13,000 jobs claim is, at best, a wild exaggeration, accompanied by rarely mentioned and even deliberately hidden disclaimers of “if this” and “if that” and “maybe”. The actual number of jobs Foxconn is going to develop is 3,000. And even that number is in dispute because if you read the fine print there are a lot of “maybes” and “ifs” buried in that as well.

Then the governor’s office is claiming that the plant will add 22,000 or even as many as 35,000 jobs in associated support industries. That is a number that is wildly exaggerated as well. If the company ramps up to the full 13,000 positions that the politicians are claiming, it might, might result in the creation of 15,000 new jobs in businesses that support the facility.

The state claims that all of this will be watched carefully, largely by the Wisconsin Economic Development Council or WEDC, to make sure they adhere to the terms of the deal. Well, that’s part of the problem. The WEDC has a long history of being utterly incompetent and there are charges of it being actually corrupt because of it’s dealings in the past. It has “lost” loans that it had given out, gave loans and tax deals to people under indictment on criminal charges in other states, given deals to individuals and companies that donated heavily to politicians or to their PACs, given deals to companies that moved jobs out of the state… The list goes on and on. And while the administration claims it’s all better now, recent audits of the organization’s operations indicate that no, it isn’t. It still has serious problems and if it were a department in a business out in the real world, most of them would have been fired for incompetence or even brought up on charges.

The data I’ve been seeing about the actual financial arrangements don’t look very encouraging either. Not only is the state giving the company exemptions from specific taxes, other tax breaks, free infrastructure and dozens of other deals, there are actual cash payments to the company in play as well. If I’m reading this right, not only is the company going to pay virtually no taxes at all, the state is actually going to pay them up to $250 million a year, depending on the number of people it employs.

Then there is the fact that a lot of those jobs aren’t going to be going to people from Wisconsin. The facility is being built down near the Illinois border, and they’re estimating that as many as 40% of the jobs are going to be going to people from across the border.

Then there is the company itself. Let’s face it, this is not a good place to work. They had to put safety nets around their factories in China because employees were committing suicide because of the working conditions. It’s CEO publicly called the company employees animals and said he hired zoo keepers to train his managers in how to deal with the rank and file employees.

This whole deal — I hope it works out, but nothing about this smells right.