Farm Catch Up

It’s been a while since I did one of these so let’s see what’s been going on in the agriculture industry.


Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 5.43.30 AM.pngI’d be willing to bet there are a lot of people over at Bayer who are wishing that they’d never thought of the idea of buying Monsanto. Before Bayer completed its purchase of the company, it was already involved in a lawsuit in California claiming that RoundUp ™ caused the plaintiff’s (a school groundskeeper) cancer. The company lost and was hit with a $289 million dollar judgement against it. Bayer is trying desperately to get the judgement voided, claiming that there is little or no evidence to prove the product causes cancer and a lot of evidence proving it doesn’t.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Bayer, which now owns Monsanto, is facing dozens of similar lawsuits. There are apparently about 8,700 people in the US who directly blame the herbicide for their cancer, so Bayer could be in court for a long, long time over this unless the company can figure out a way to get out from under this.

Note: The day after I wrote the above item a judge in San Francisco has indicated she is inclined to set aside a $250 million punitive damage judgement against Monsanto and even reopen the case. In a preliminary statement the judge said the plaintiff’s lawyers did not present clear and convincing evidence of malice and suppression of information by Monsanto.


The Farm Bill – The farm bill has turned into more or less a very unfunny joke over the last few decades. It has less and less to do with agriculture and more and more to do with social welfare programs, especially SNAP (food stamps). Something like 80% of the funding in the so-called farm bill actually goes to the SNAP program, not to agriculture. So while the collection of laws and regulations that has become known as the “farm bill” does indeed deal with things like crop insurance, ag subsidy programs and other ag related programs, the vast majority of the money involved is funneled into the SNAP program.

This means that when it comes time to redo the bill, the political bickering gets intense and it’s gotten harder and harder to get the thing passed. It is currently bogged down over, surprise, disagreements over the SNAP program, and doesn’t look like it’s going to pass any time soon. You aren’t going to see any action on the FB until after the November elections, and there’s a good chance it could be pushed off into next year, which means the whole bill would have to be rewritten and the whole mess would have to start all over again.

One of these days I should really write an article about what the “farm bill” really is and how it was transformed from a collection of programs to help agriculture into a program where 80% of the funding goes to non-ag related support programs, and why there is so much resistance to splitting off the welfare related parts of the whole mess and making the farm bill really about agriculture again.


Sales of the abomination that is “American Cheese” are declining according to an article from Bloomberg over at AgWeb. As a friend of mine once said when confronted with so-called “American cheese” for the first time, “I don’t know what the hell that is, but it isn’t cheese.” A lot of people have said even less flattering things about the stuff, with some justification. With a list of ingredients that reads more like a chemistry lesson than something you should see in a food product, the muck was invented back in 1916 and was canned (yes, canned) and sold to the US government to feed soldiers during WWI. I’m not sure why sales are declining. Perhaps it’s because people are finally finding out that it doesn’t really taste like, well, much of anything, really. Except salt. Certainly it doesn’t taste like actual cheese. Perhaps they’re concerned about the fact that a lot of those ingredients in it shouldn’t be anywhere near any kind of product you put in your mouth. Or perhaps it’s just a trend. But whatever the reason, restaurants and even the fast food joints are moving away from the stuff and switching to actual real cheese for their products, and have been for quite a while. Except for McD’s and a few other fast food places, restaurants switched to using real cheese some time ago, substituting cheddar, swiss, asiago or blends of different cheeses for their cheeseburgers, grilled cheese, etc.


Sears Files for Bankruptcy. The Sears bankruptcy didn’t really surprise anyone. We’ve seen that coming for years now. The only really surprising thing is that it took them this lon to do it.

Why talk about Sears in a post about farm news? Well, if you grew up on a farm in the 60s like I did, Sears was the place you went for just about everything from work clothes to hand tools to car batteries to household items. I’m sure there will be (if there aren’t already) books and scholarly papers written about the decline and fall of what at one time was the biggest retailer in the country.

It is popular these days to blame Amazon for the failure of retail stores, but even as early as the 1980s the company was showing signs of serious problems. The quality of the store branded products it was selling began declining. Craftsman hand tools which had been of good quality and came with a lifetime warranty, became less polished, less well made, and that famous lifetime warranty which had always been a major selling point for them, disappeared. The company seemed to lose focus. It moved into areas that made no sense. It started selling glasses. Portrait studios began popping up in the stores. The stores started to look more and more shabby as the company tried to cut costs, and Sears’ reputation declined rapidly. The only thing its cost cutting measures did was drive more and more customers away. And the worse its financial situation became, the more strange the decisions of management seemed to become.

The purchase of Kmart (I’m not really sure who bought who, if Sears bought Kmart or Kmart bought Sears. Not that it really matters) was pretty much the last nail in the coffin, really. Who in the world thought that a failing company buying a retail chain that was in even worse financial shape than it was made any kind of sense at all?


Weather – Up here in the midwest the weather has been, well, odd. By Oct. 9 we’d already had more rain than we normally get in the entire month, and it still hasn’t stopped. We’ve had rain every day for the last 14 days or so and we’re getting a bit tired of it. Soybean harvest should be almost done by now, but a lot of fields are still standing because the farmers can’t get their equipment in the fields without burying their combines in mud.

Over in the Dakotas they got hit with a snowstorm that dumped 5-9 inches of snow on them right in the middle of soybean harvest.


E-15 On The Way – The administration announced it was going to approve the use of E-15 fuel (15% ethanol blend) during a campaign rally in the midwest. While it’s been approved for limited distribution during certain times of the year already, it will, apparently, now be available all the time. While some corn farmers (and the ethanol makers, of course) are cheering the decision in the hope it will boost corn prices, a lot of other people don’t think it will have much of an effect, if any, on corn prices in the long run.

There are a lot of problems with the whole ethanol fuel idea. It isn’t a very good fuel, it isn’t really very “green” as far as the environment is concerned, it’s a government mandated program so it can be ended overnight at the whim of congress, and, when it comes down to it, it’s a dead end technology. The future of the automobile appears to be electric. Once Tesla proved it was possible to make a vehicle with a realistic travel range at a fairly reasonable cost, the big car makers began to jump on board and now just about all of them have at least one EV or they’re going to be coming out with one soon. I suspect that the next vehicle I buy will be an EV. I’d probably already have a Tesla if they had a normal dealer network where I knew I could get the thing serviced.


Dicamba Lawsuit Coming Up – Monsanto put it’s dicamba resistant seed line on sale a year before the government approved the dicamba blend herbicide Monsanto intended to be used with the new seeds. Apparently that didn’t stop some farmers from using regular dicamba with the new crops, resulting in widespread damage to adjacent crops and other plants. The problem with dicamba is that it vaporizes easily and can drift over very long distances, causing widespread damage. So, of course, there are lawsuits. The first of these is coming to trial in October of next year. The plaintiff blames Monsanto (now Bayer) for the damage, claiming that the company should have known that as soon as it started selling the dicamba resistant seeds, farmers were going to use unapproved mixtures of dicamba on the crops.

While I think Monsanto should not have started selling the new seed lines until the herbicide blend was approved, as far as I can tell the company did indeed warn farmers, seed dealers and herbicide applicators that there were no legally available dicamba blends approved for use at that time with the new seeds. The damage was caused by growers and applicators who illegally used dicamba blends that were not approved for that use at that time. So I don’t know how Monsanto can be held responsible for that damage.

But that being said, there are serious problems with even the approved dicamba blends of herbicide. Even the approved blends seem to be drifting over long distances, damaging tens of thousands of acres of crops. While the company continues to claim this is due entirely to improper use by the applicators, states and the feds are putting ever increasing restrictions on the use of the stuff, and some states are thinking of banning it entirely.

Well, that’s enough of that. You’re probably getting as bored as I am already😜

Fall, Pears, Water, Cold (the sneezing kind) and Stuff

Alas, that photo up there was an all too common sight around here as we got bombarded with rain for a two or three week period. Things are finally starting to dry out, but a lot of rivers are still at flood stage, there’s still a lot of standing water, and that one storm spawned something like 17 tornadoes across the state. Damage estimates are still being made, but I wouldn’t be surprised in if they hit $200+ million between the flooding and the wind.

Here in Calumet County we got lucky. Things could have been a lot worse. Aside from soaked and flooded farm fields, damage here was fairly minor. Most of the more serious storms went to the north or south of us. Mostly south. The southern half of the state really got hammered.

Screen Shot 2018-09-09 at 5.37.28 AMWe weren’t entirely unscathed, though. Our poor pear tree suffered major damage one night when two of the main branches came down. I’m going to wait until the pears are picked before I go up there to see how bad it really is. We’re hoping that the tree can recover from this, but I don’t know. It’s hard to tell right now how badly it was damaged because the foliage is so thick.

Screen Shot 2018-09-09 at 5.38.03 AM.png
Nice weather at last!

Still, the weather had gotten much better, with sunny conditions and temperatures more typical of early September in Wisconsin. Daytime highs have been in the low 70s and night time temps have been in the 48 – 55 degree range. It’s been really quite pleasant after the extraordinarily hot and muggy weather we had all through August.

Screen Shot 2018-09-09 at 5.38.25 AM.pngThe bees have certainly been enjoying themselves. We’re seeing them all over the place. Just about every flower at the house is covered in bees, mostly bumble bees and native bees, which is really nice to see.

Just as conditions change so I can finally get off the allergy meds, of course I come down with a nasty cold. At first I thought the symptoms were from going off the allergy meds. I’ll often get a rebound effect when I stop taking it. But no, definitely a cold. Coughing, sneezing, wheezing, sore throat from the coughing and congestion will be the norm for the next few days, it seems. I can’t take decongestants because I have high blood pressure, and the so-called cough remedies, well, they’re virtually useless anyway. So all I can do is wait.

I’ve taken to sleeping in the recliner to keep from bothering MrsGF otherwise I keep her up at night too. And in any case, when I lay down all the garbage from my head seems to drain down into my throat and makes the coughing all the worse. Still, it seems to be getting better. Only woke up once during the night last night and managed to sleep six hours. Would have been seven if the dopey siamese hadn’t started demanding breakfast at 5 AM.

The good news is the tomato plants are finally giving up the ghost and we can put the canning equipment away. MrsGF finished off the last of the tomatoes yesterday, putting up about 22 pints of chili sauce.

Well, we call it chili sauce but there is no actual chili in it. It’s a mixture of tomatoes, onions and bell and banana peppers with a bit of lemon juice and a pinch of salt. It tastes utterly amazing and we use it in almost any kind of dish that calls for tomatoes, either as  a base for the sauce, or as a flavor enhancer.

The Wisconsin 55 tomato variety we tried this year was a bitter disappointment. Very few fruit, and the ones we did get were soft, often discolored and not a very good flavor. The Early Girl variety, on the other hand, were absolutely spectacular.

We put in 3 cucumber plants this year and, well, we might as well have not even bothered. I don’t think we got more than 6 cucumbers off them all season long and a lot were misshapen. They were disappointing as well.

The squash look pretty good. We’re going to get several nice sized butternut squash and I noticed that there are some acorn out there. But the acorn are very late this year and I’m not sure if they’re going to amount to much.

Let’s see, what else… I had to get new tires put on the bike. I have to admit I know pretty much nothing about bicycle tires. I got about 1,500 miles out of these and I don’t know if that’s about average or not. I ran it up to the bike shop to get them replaced. I could do it myself but I’m terrible with bicycle tires. I always end up wrecking the inner tubes when I’m installing them. Took the guy at the shop all of 45 minutes to change both tires, adjust the derailleur, adjust the brakes, lube it, etc. Would have taken me half a day to do all of that, and it would have involved the use of much foul language, I suspect.

That’s it for now. It’s 6:30 AM, the sun is finally up and I’m thinking of taking the bike out for a few miles despite the cold.

 

Stuff. And Nonsense. And Rain

Tariff Relief Plan Announced At Last. But Only If You Grow Soybeans

USDA finally announced some of the details of the tariff aid package and as a lot of people expected, for a lot of farmers they might as well not even bother. While soybean growers will get a pretty good deal, getting back $1.64 of the estimated $2.00 per bushel they’re losing, for a lot of others, the so called relief is almost an insult. Dairy producers are losing an estimated $1.10 per hundredweight because of the tariffs. They’re going to get a whopping $0.12/cwt. Yeah, that’s right, twelve cents. Corn growers are going to get $0.01 per bushel. That’s not a typo. They’re going to get one cent per bushel.

Why are soybean farmers getting almost all of the “tariff relief” while dairy farmers and corn growers get almost nothing? I have no idea.

Rain

IMG_1015Wow, have we been getting hammered! It’s been raining almost non-stop for days now, with one storm front after another rolling through here. That 5 1/2 inches showing in the gauge there was from just Monday evening. I haven’t heard yet what the grand total is for this whole event, but I imagine it’s going to be in excess of 25 inches for this area over the last few days.

They got hit even harder in the southern part of the state. One town down there reported 11 inches in less than 8 hours. Flooding all over, one person dead after getting swept away when trying to get out of a submerged car. Damage estimates were in excess of $100 million and I’m sure that number is going to grow dramatically because that was from two days ago.

IMG_1014.jpg
The town has good drainage, except for my backyard. It’s about 3 feet deep back there this morning.

We have pretty good drainage here because they re-did the entire town’s storm water system back in the late 1980s after we had a massive flood here that damaged just about every building in town, blew manholes covers off the sewers, and flooded every basement in town. The revised system obviously works or we’d be up to our necks in water by now.

Fortunately we’re looking at a dry spell now.

Tomato Stuff

Meanwhile I’m staring at about 30 lbs of tomatoes I have to deal with today… Not sure yet what I’m going to do with them. I’m thinking tomato soup? I’d better make up my mind soon because there are probably another 30 lbs to deal with out on the plants.

Still, it’s becoming obvious the season is coming to an end. The plants are starting to look like they’re coming to the end of their life span which, I have to admit, is something of a relief.

We put in two plants of a variety called Wisconsin 55, and they’ve been disappointing. Very little fruit from those two despite the fact the plants themselves are ridiculously healthy.

The Early Girl variety have been amazing. The fruit is small, about the size of a baseball, dense, brilliant color, not an excessive amount of seeds, and wonderful flavor and texture that’s been great for making into sauces and soups, which is exactly what we want them for. I’d say the texture is similar to that of a Roma tomato. And they’ve been incredibly prolific. I’ve never seen tomato plants produce quite this much fruit before.

The Early Girl variety is going to be on our “must plant” list for next spring.

Hmm, I’m also going to need to deal with about 20 pounds of banana peppers here in the next few days. I don’t remember what the variety is right now, but wow, they’ve been ridiculous too. The plants are 4 1/2 feet tall and they just keep producing more and more and more.

Most of those are going into the tomato sauces or are being diced up and frozen for future use. But we have so many now that I’m not sure what to do with them. We have more than enough in the freezer for use over the winter.

Amateur Radio Stuff

Not much going on there. I’m still playing with the FT8 mode. Well, I pretty much have to use it because my antenna isn’t very good and with band conditions the way they are it’s about the only way I can make contacts.

I’m closing in on the WAS (Worked All States) and while I claim I don’t really care, I find myself a bit excited by the prospect of having worked all 50 states. I’m only missing 7 states and I find myself keeping an eye out now for the ones I still need when I’m on the air. What do I get if and when I do it? Well, nothing, really. Just the satisfaction of having done it.

I really, really need to get that new vertical antenna up before the winter weather closes in…

 

What To Do With 20 Pounds of Tomatoes

We’ve been very fortunate in the tomato department this season, especially with the Early Girl variety that we planted. They’ve been ridiculously prolific. MrsGF already did plain canned tomtoes, chili sauce and we froze a lot for use later. But they’re coming on fast now and it’s getting hard to keep up. So Thursday I dealt with this:

That’s about 28 pounds of tomatoes in those two boxes,IMG_1003.jpg

So while MrsGF was at work I dealt with this situation. I made spaghetti sauce because, well, good lord this stuff is good. Once you’ve made your own you’ll never want to go back to the stuff you get at the grocery store. It’s fairly easy, although it does take some time.

Start with about 20 pounds of ripe tomatoes. If there are some that aren’t quite ripe yet, don’t worry about it, throw them in too. Wash them, then cut them in quarters. You don’t need to core or peel them, but do remove the stems.

Now get a big stainless steel stock pot with a thick, heavy bottom. Big because it has to hold at least 20 pounds of cut up tomatoes. You can’t use one of those cheap, thin bottomed stamped metal ones from the discount store because you will almost certainly scorch the tomatoes during the cooking process and ruin the whole batch. It must have a thick bottom, and must be stainless steel, not aluminum. The acid in tomatoes reacts with aluminum, and not only will it affect the flavor, it will stain the aluminum and even leach aluminum into the food, something you do not want. Aluminum, when ingested, has some serious health concerns.

Yes, a good, big stainless steel stockpot is expensive, but you can get good deals if you watch for sales and it’s worth it if you do a lot of this kind of thing.

And yes, you can do this in smaller batches if you can’t handle this much at one time. Nothing wrong with just doing 10 pounds and adjusting the recipe accordingly.

Dice up two whole onions and about a pound of green peppers or sweet banana peppers. No need to remove the seeds, they’ll be taken care of later.

Put about a quarter cup of olive oil (no, it doesn’t need to be the expensive stuff) in the bottom of the pot, put it on the stove, turn the heat up to about medium and put in the diced peppers and onions. Add about 6 nice sized cloves of garlic, crushed or finely minced. Cook them until they just start to soften a bit.

IMG_1004.jpgNow dump your tomatoes in. Yes, all of them at once. Bring the heat up to medium high. You’re going to have to bring this whole mess to a boil. You’re going to need a very sturdy, very long handled spoon or spatula so you can stir it up from time to time.

Bringing this amount of material to a boil is going to take time so be patient. And no, you don’t need to add any liquid. More than enough juice will come off of the tomatoes to turn it into, well, turn it into this:

IMG_1005.jpg

This rather nasty looking mess is going to turn into spaghetti sauce. Be patient. I know it looks like something the cat threw up at this point. Don’t worry and instead of thinking of how nasty it looks, concentrate on how good it smells.

You need to keep this mash boiling for about 20 minutes, stirring once in a while to make sure it isn’t sticking to the bottom of the pot and burning on. The long boiling process is necessary to make it easier to deal with the next step, putting it through a food mill.

IMG_1006.jpgThis is a food mill in case you’ve never seen one before. It is a heavy duty strainer with a crank handle, an angled plate that fits over the strainer part, and a nut on the bottom side with a scraper, usually a long, springy piece of wire, that holds the plate and handle in place.

It’s a simple tool that works quite well. The mash is put into the strainer basket, the handle is turned, and the plate presses the mash against the strainer forcing the juice and pulp through the holes while leaving the seeds and skins behind. to be discarded.

As you can see on the lower right, there are hooks on the side of the mill so you can set it on top of a pot to catch the juices and pulp that come out.

Put the mill over a clean, empty pot. Put about a cup of the tomato mash into the mill and rotate the handle. The good stuff that you want to keep will be squeezed out into the pot below, and the skins and other debris will remain on top. Once the juice and pulp is squeezed out, rotate the handle backwards to scrape the skins and debris off the strainer, and discard.

IMG_1008.jpgYes, it’s a rather messy and labor intensive process, and it’s going to take some time to deal with that entire pot full of mash.

Is there an easier way to do it? I suppose there is but we haven’t really found one. I suppose you could try running the mash through a blender to grind up the seeds and skins, but I’d think that might alter the taste.

It doesn’t really take that long to do it this way. Think of it this way, it’s a good opportunity to build up your arm muscles.

Once you’re done you’ll have a large amount of what is basically tomato juice and pulp. Bring out that big stock pot you used to cook up the tomatoes originally. Rinse it out, dump your juice into it, and put it back on the stove and crank the heat up to about medium high or high because you’re going to have to bring this back to a boil.

Now we add the spices. Everyone has different tastes, but this is what we use for this amount of juice: 2 tbl basil, 2 tbl oregano, 1-2 table thyme, 2 tsp salt, 1 tsp ground pepper, 1/4 – 1/2 cup of brown sugar. The amount of sugar depends on your tastes and on how acidic the tomatoes are. You can adjust that after the cooking process is done.

Now comes the part everyone hates most, cooking it down. You need to bring it to a full boil, then reduce the heat until it’s at a nice, gentle rolling boil. You want it bubbling nicely, but not so hot that it scorches on the bottom. This part takes a long time. You want to reduce this down by at least half until it gets to the consistency you want for your sauce. You need to stir it every 15 -20 minutes, making sure it isn’t scorching on the bottom. If you find it’s building up a sludge on the bottom of the pot, turn the heat down a bit or stir it more often.IMG_1009.jpg

Everyone gets impatient during this process but there isn’t much you can do to hurry things along. Just keep it at a nice, gentle boil, stir it once in a while. You’re going to have to reduce it down by about half to get the right thickness.

Once you get it cooked down to about the right thickness, we’re not done quite yet. We add two small cans of tomato paste, not so much for flavor but to help with the texture. It gives it a thicker, more pleasing texture. You can skip this part if you like, but we think it helps. Once the tomato paste is thoroughly incorporated (it takes a lot of stirring, tomato paste is difficult to get to dissolve completely sometimes) give it a taste. This is where you can add more sugar or a bit more salt to compensate for the tomato paste.

Now I’m looking at about 5 quarts of delicious sauce, so it’s time to can it.

I pressure can sauces like this. I do not recommend water bath canning for this kind of sauce. I have a big Presto canner that can hold up to 12 quarts. It was fairly expensive, I think it was about $120 when I got it a few years ago, but it was worth it because we use it a lot.

Follow the usual recommended procedures for prepping the jars and lids (i.e. wash the jars, sterilize them and the lids, etc.). Put the recommended amount of water in  your canner, put it on the stove and bring up the heat.

You want to “hot pack” the jars. That means the sauce is still very hot, just off the boil, when you fill the jars. Add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice in each quart. This isn’t for flavor, it’s an added safety measure to increase the acidity of the product. Put on the lids and rings (use hotpads or heat proof gloves because they will be hot!) and tighten down. Place the jars in the canner and attach the lid according to its instructions.

IMG_1010.jpgI did these at 11-12 lbs pressure for 25 minutes.  I should point out that how you process depends on the canner you are using, the product you are canning, and currently recommended processing techniques. Canning your own produce is a great way to preserve your fruits and vegetables, but safety is the most important thing to consider when canning. Please be sure to follow all of the instructions and safety recommendations. Don’t just rely on some recipe you find in an old cookbook because a lot of those techniques are now considered unsafe.

The University of Wisconsin Extension system has a good website for information about how to safely can foods. You can find it by clicking the link above.’

IMG_1011.jpg

And this is what we end up with.

A lot of work, yes, but consider this. When you can your own, you know exactly what is in that product. There are no strange chemicals with names you can’t pronounce, no corn syrup, no “flavor enhancers”, just your tomatoes, peppers, onions, spices, salt and sugar. You can adjust the flavor to suit your own tastes, you can reduce or eliminate the salt if you’re on a salt restricted diet, you can add additional spices or leave some out if you don’t like one. And there is something enormously satisfying about pulling out that jar of your own sauce during a blizzard in January and allowing that amazing flavor to take you back to those hot, humid days of late summer when everything was growing, tomatoes were glowing red in the sun, and letting that aroma from that sauce transport you back in time.

 

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.

Gardening: Tomatoes!!! We got Tomatoes!!!

IMG_0976I don’t think I’ve ever seen our tomatoes look quite this good. The plants are amazingly lush and have gotten absolutely enormous. The two Wisconsin 55 plants are about 4-5 feet across and would be probably 4 feet tall if the weight of the fruit wasn’t pulling the stems down. The tomato cages have proven woefully inadequate and have started collapsing. It’s ridiculous. The other variety we planted are Early Girl, a smaller tomato, but they’re just as lush and prolific as the 55s are.

And judging from the color, it looks like what MrsGF and I are going to be doing by the end of the week is processing tomatoes into sauce, soup, and just canning/freezing them.

IMG_0978I got the first ripe one of the season yesterday. I saw it peeking through the dense canopy of leaves, a flash of red, did some digging around and there it was. I still get a bit excited when I find the first tomato of the season. I found a total of three yesterday.  The rest are still pretty green but they’re coming on fast.

I’ve also found, alas, a few with blossom end rot. But only a few, maybe three or four. The rest look pretty good. Blossom end rot hits tomatoes and peppers both, and is apparently linked to a calcium deficiency in the soil. We were thinking maybe starting to save eggshells instead of putting them in the compost going down to the compost site and try an experiment with crushing them and soaking them in water and using that to water the plants next year. MrsGF said the nuns did that at the convent back when she was almost a nun. Yeah, seriously, MrsGF was almost a nun. How I “stole” her from a convent has apparently become part of the family oral history. Sigh…

IMG_0973The banana peppers are in full production and are just as loaded with fruit as the tomatoes are. We’re starting to chop and freeze them. They’re easy to deal with. Just clean ’em, dice them up, stick them in freezer bags or an airtight container and chuck them in the freezer and pull out for omelets, soup, sauce, pizza or whatever when needed.

There were supposed to be sweet banana peppers. Emphasis on the word “supposed”. Some of these stinkers are downright hot, with a few pushing the heat level of jalapeno peppers. The flavor is amazing, but the heat is something some of the family members don’t care for, so we’re going to have to use these with some caution. We have a few sweet bell peppers, but they don’t look like they’re going to produce very well this year for some reason.

IMG_0974MrsGF put in 3 squash plants this year in the garden at the back of the garage and they’re pretty much taking over everything back there like they did last year. The vines grow astonishingly fast. We’re constantly pulling vines out of the lawn, out of the raspberries, out of the rhubarb… They look like they’re doing pretty good too. We’re seeing some nice sized squash already and lots of baby squash just starting to develop.

We have 3 cucumber plants grown from seed and they haven’t been very successful this year. Very spindly vines and very few cukes. But that’s not a real issue because I’m the only one who really likes to eat fresh cucumbers anyway. As long as I get enough to make a fresh cucumber salad once in a while I’m happy.

IMG_0163Other stuff — I worked out a deal with Eldest Son on my Honda Goldwing. With her back and knee issues it’s almost impossible for MrsGF to get on and off a motorcycle any more, so the Wing has sat mostly unused since I got it. I’ve had it since 2013 and it has a whopping 3,400 miles on it. Sigh… So I worked out a deal with ES. I don’t want to give up on biking, so we’re doing a swap, his Honda VTX, which is really a one person bike, for the Wing plus some cash and other stuff.

We worked out the deal last winter but we still haven’t gotten around to actually swapping bikes, so the Wing is still parked in the garage. We were going to do the swap at the end of July but… Well, the Wing had a bad battery and the VTX needed new front fork seals so here there you go… The shop he goes to has a 2 week backlog for repairs. Oh well…

We used to do a lot of motorcycling, MrsGF and me. We took our BMW literally all over the country. We put about 50,000 miles on that bike in the few years we owned it and had a lot of fun. Then I traded it off on the Wing and– well, the problem was not long after that I got the Corvette too and, well, you tell me which you would rather do, go on a long trip on a motorcycle in the heat, cold, rain, etc, or go in a convertible Corvette which is comfortable, has a top you can put up to keep the rain out, air conditioning (it was 107 degrees when youngest son and I were out in SD with it), and a decent sized trunk.

Fuel economy better on the bike? Yeah, well, you’d be surprised at how poor the milage is on these big touring bikes and how good it is on the Vette. The Wing gets, at best, 34 mpg cruising at 55. Add MrsGF, our clothes, the trailer, and we’re lucky if we get 30 MPG on the thing when fully loaded.  And milage goes down fast as the speed ramps up. The Vette gets about 25+ if I don’t get silly.

Well, to be fair, the Vette has it’s own ‘issues’, so to speak. Like tires costing $500. Each. And oil changes costing about $100+ because it holds about 8 quarts of high end synthetic (i.e. expensive) oil. The only reason I can afford to operate it is that I don’t drive it much. And it sounds like a jet fighter taking off when you put your foot down because of the headers and Borla exhaust and, well, that part is more of a plus than a minus…

There’s an urban myth about this car setting off car alarms with the exhaust noise if you really rev up the engine and let it snort and, well, turns out it isn’t an urban myth. Not, of course, that I’d know about something like that from personal experience. Nope, not at all…

 

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.

IMG_0969.jpg

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.

IMG_0950.jpg

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.