Farm Catch up

Catching up with the past week’s ag/food news

Yoplait Sales Drop

Yoplait sales have fallen by 22% as the brand’s popularity continues to diminish. I have to point out that I hate Yoplait. I dislike pretty much everything about it; the flavor, texture, smell, everything. But then I feel the same way about almost all of the big name brand yogurts. The stuff is mostly inedible, and if you read the list of ingredients on some of these brands you’ll see why.

Drought in Spain

Spain has been having some serious drought issues this year which has been wrecking havoc with it’s farmers. The country has lost almost more than a quarter of it’s soft wheat production this year because of the weather and will probably have to import 40% more wheat than last year. There have been significant losses to the corn and barley crops as well.

The Guadalquivir delta, the Spain’s biggest rice producing area, is having serious problems with it’s water supplies. The aquifer from which water is pumped to irrigate crops is almost completely depleted, with only about 20% of the aquifer remaining, largely because of unregulated and illegal wells being drilled apparently by strawberry growers. There are reports of farmers renting drilling rigs and dragging them out in the middle of the night to or on holidays to drill wells without permits. There are an estimated 10,000 illegal wells in the area. They’ve even built their own reservoirs hidden in the forests in the area to store water they’ve been pumping illegally.

The aquifer is not being replenished because of the drought and increasing temperatures. The river itself is becoming increasingly salty as sea water creeps up into the river. Within a very short time they will have pumped the aquifer dry and put themselves entirely out of business by going after short term profits now and sacrificing the long term existence of their businesses.

China and Pork

The demand for pork in China is showing no sign of slowing down anytime soon. The country just started it’s first government approved pork pricing index on their commodities exchange to  try to help stabilize prices. The pork supply in China is still dominated by small farms that are sensitive to price swings. As the market fluctuated, pork farmers would react accordingly, cutting way back in production during times of low prices and causing a subsequent wild upsurge in prices during the subsequent shortage of pork. Gee, sounds bit like the US milk market, doesn’t it?

The index could also be leading up to the introduction of futures and options contracts which could help stabilize prices as well.

The country is also trying to end urban pig production to get the animals away from waterways and densely populated areas to reduce pollution, the spread of disease, etc. There have been bans on pig production in cities and towns being put in place by local authorities all over the place.

China and Beef

With China now importing US beef (sort of) a lot of people are speculating on what effects the Chinese market will have on the US beef industry.

At the moment, no effect at all, really, because China won’t accept the hormone and drug laced meat that most commercial growers are dumping on the US consumers. Virtually none of the commercially produced beef in this country meets Chinese health and safety standards. The beef now being exported to China is basically just PR fluff so politicians can pose for pictures with thick steaks in Beijing  while pretending they actually did something.

The Chinese market is potentially huge, but it’s going to require ranchers to grow cattle from birth without the use of the hormones and drugs they’ve been using for decades. It will be interesting to see what happens here and if US growers can adapt to the market.

Walmart Goes Angus?

Walmart is facing extreme competition from places like Aldi, Save-a-Lot and newcomer Lidl in the cut price grocery business, and it’s sales have been flat or even shrinking, so the store is trying to improve its image by claiming that all of it’s beef is now “certified Angus“. The store apparently made some kind of deal with Cargill an Tyson to get Angus steaks and roasts at the same price as whatever it was they used to sell before. They’re doing it only for steaks and roasts and not ground beef products.

Walmart might be better served by looking at the quality of it’s stores and it’s whole “shopping experience” than by trying to put yet another marketing scam in place. From unstocked shelves to dirty floors, to untrained employees, to failing to staff the checkouts lanes, to, well, you get the idea. At least three times in the past year I’ve been in one of the local stores to find entire categories of product just — just gone. One day it was sugar. There was literally not a single container of sugar on the shelves. Anther time it was iodized salt. Again, not a single container of iodized salt. Another time it was white flour…

Milk Price Insanity: Nobody Knows What’s Going On

Watching the various agricultural media outlets is utterly infuriating some days. On the very same day, in the very same ag news outlet, I found these two stories:

Milk Prices are Exceeding Expectations

Dairy Prices Fall

Oh for heaven’s sake… trying to figure out what’s actually happening is enough to make one bang one’s head against the nearest wall.

One article claims milk prices are going up, another, often in the exact same news outlet, claims they’re going down. Another claims the future is utterly horrible, another claims the future is bright and sunny…

Does anyone really know what the hell is going on?

Wisconsin Is Cheese

Well, okay, so it isn’t made of cheese, but some days it seems like it around here. Still, Wisconsin is one of the largest producers of cheese in the world, and home to some of the biggest cheese related companies in the world.

The little town of Plymouth, Wisconsin, about 20 minutes from here, apparently handles 15% of all of the cheese produced in the entire country. It’s the home of Sargento, one of the biggest cheese processors in the country. Satori is big, and some privately owned companies like Masters Gallery Foods, all have locations in Plymouth that process, package and warehouse cheese products.

These few companies are a Big Deal around here, employing thousands of people at processing and shipping facilities scattered all over this area. Sargento just put in a huge addition here in the town where I live and there is talk that they’re going to expand the facility again in the next few years. Sargento alone employs over 1,000 people in just Plymouth and hundreds more here in Hilbert.

There Are Consequences When You Piss People Off

Mexico is no longer the largest buyer of US corn. It has spent about $1 billion less when compared to last year. The country is actively talking with Argentina and Brazil to buy corn. Mexico is becoming very nervous about the horrible comments that have been made by this administration about the country and it’s people, and is no longer looking at the US as a reliable trading partner.

You can’t blame Mexico, really. Having your citizens branded as murders, rapists and drug dealers as this administration has done isn’t exactly what you could call a ‘friendly gesture’, now is it?

EPA Approves Chlorpyrifos, Gets Sued

The EPA, against the advice of almost everyone (except the manufacturer), approved the continued use of a rather nasty insecticide, chlorpyrifos.  If you click the word over there to get to the Wikipedia link, you’ll find this is nasty, nasty stuff, causing developmental problems in children, muscle weakness, seizures, coma, vomiting, paralysis, and suffocation from lung failure. Exposure to it is especially bad for children, causing low birth weight and extensive neurological problems.

Like I said, it’s nasty stuff. The EPA was on track to issue an outright ban on it’s use because of the scientific data it had developed in November of last year.

But then we had an election and, well, now Pruitt says no, it isn’t bad, and the decision to continue to permit it was based on “meaningful data and meaningful science.”

And it then refuses to give Associated Press copies of the scientific studies Pruitt claims that determined it is safe.

Editorial Comment: This kind of thing absolutely infuriates me. Study after study that I’ve turned up indicates chlorpyrifos is dangerous at even very low exposure levels, especially to children. Then Pruitt and the “new” EPA come along and claim they have studies that indicate it’s safe, and won’t tell anyone what those studies are, who did the studies, where the data came from, nothing…

 

Bikes & the Ever Popular Stuff!

IMG_0398Even before I retired I knew I needed to seriously ramp up my level of exercise or I was going to end up looking like a blimp in very short order. At first I was just walking around town twice a day, but that got old pretty fast. So Sunday I went and got myself a bicycle and much to my family’s surprise, I actually enjoy it enormously and I’ve been doing about 10 – 15 miles a day.

We’re fortunate enough to live in a fairly rural area with a lot of paved back roads that have very little traffic. I’ve found it’s a great way to just get out and enjoy nature because some of the roads run through undeveloped land around here. I’m not exactly a power rider because I’m having too much fun stopping and looking at birds, trees, turtles, streams, taking pictures… You get the idea. Great fun

I end up in places like, well, this:

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Or this:

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Or this:

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What surprised me most about all of this was the smells. I can smell cedar, spruce, flowers… Along the trail I kept smelling an almost intoxicating floral scent that turned out to be this bush:

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The air was thick with the scent. It was amazing.

But then there’s stuff like this…

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Yes, more rain. We got 2 1/2 inches overnight according to the rain gauge in the backyard, and except for an hour or two this afternoon we’ve been getting light rain most of the day.

There are bright spots, though. Like these guys.

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Another of the lilies is starting to bloom. The color on these guys is spectacular.

 

 

Farm Catch Up

SNAP Program

The SNAP (food stamp) program has been in the cross hairs of certain parties for ages now. They haven’t been able to entirely eliminate the program because it would generate an enormous amount of public outrage. So they go after it with what I call “Death From A Thousand Cuts” (DFATC). DFATC works by going after a program by deliberately instituting rules and requirements that make it so difficult to apply for and get benefits that people just give up and don’t even try. Of course that’s not how the administration presents these changes. The changes are presented as being “reasonable”, cutting fraud, or even somehow “helping” the recipients.

The latest one to be proposed for SNAP is that the administration now wants to charge retailers fees for being able to accept SNAP that range anywhere from $250 – $200,000 depending on the size of the retailer. The amount would range from $250 for small retailers, up to $200,000 for large retail chains like Walmart. It doesn’t sound like much, but small retailers are already financially stressed, and this would just add even more to their cost of doing business. A lot of them are going to think it isn’t worth the extra cost and paperwork involved and will just drop participation in the SNAP program.

Be Careful What You Ask For

People in the ag industry are getting a wee bit nervous as the date for the administration to “renegotiate” the NAFTA agreement approaches. Mexico is a huge market for US agricultural products, and the administration’s near constant use of Mexico and Mexican immigrants as scapegoats hasn’t been doing much to make Mexico willing to cooperate with us. As the article linked to above says, “Farmers are hoping NAFTA can be updated without blowing up the trade agreement.”

Considering this administration is spending almost all it’s time trying to do damage control as one scandal after another hits the media, and that it it doesn’t seem to understand what NAFTA actually is, doesn’t seem to understand how it works, and doesn’t even seem to understand how trade agreements work, and that it regularly uses one of our NAFTA partners as a scapegoat, calling the people of that country rapists, drug dealers and “bad people”… Well, let’s just say this has the potential of blowing up in everyones faces.

The biggest issue for the US dairy industry is Canada. Canada has a dairy marketing system that actually works relatively well. Granted, a lot of people up there don’t like it, but it has kept Canadian prices fairly stable, kept dairy farmers reasonably profitable, and it has avoided the boom/bust cycle that the dairy industry in the rest of the world has been following for decades now. The US dairy industry would like to see that system totally destroyed, it seems, and force Canada into the same chaos we’re enduring down here.

Don’t get me wrong, the Canadian system has a lot of problems, but you have to admit that the system has kept Canadian dairy farmers largely insulated from the insanity going on in the rest of the world where, it seems, the business model is that if the market is flooded with way, way too much milk, the solution is to produce even more milk.

China to Import US Beef

Back in 2003 China banned imports of US beef because of incidents of Mad Cow Disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE). Although the ban was eventually lifted fairly quickly, China shifted it’s imports to Australia and South America, and the US has exported pretty much no beef at all to China. That looks like it will be changing. China’s imports of beef have expanded massively in the last five years, going from $275 million in 2012 to $2.5 billion in 2016. Needless to say the US beef industry would dearly love to get a piece of that market.

Wally Melons?

For decades we’ve been putting up with fruits and vegetables that pretty much don’t taste like fruits and vegetables. Those California strawberries may look beautiful, but they don’t actually taste much like strawberries. Or pears that are so rock hard you have to boil the bloody things to make them edible. And don’t get me started on whatever the hell it is supermarkets sell as “tomatoes”. I don’t know what those things are. They look like tomatoes, but they have the flavor and texture of drywall. Well, I’ve never actually eaten drywall. I mean that would be silly. But I suspect that if I ever did eat drywall, it would have that… Wait, what was I talking about?

Oh, yeah, melons.

Apparently Walmart’s melons are so bad that even Walmart hates them, and they’ve apparently done something about it. They’ve come up with their own variety of melon.

Wally world apparently worked with Bayer to develop… I was going to make a joke about an aspirin flavored melon, but that would be in bad taste, wouldn’t it… Develop a melon that can handle the stresses of shipping long distances, but still somehow manages to taste like something reasonably close to an actual melon.

It is not genetically modified, but was specifically bred just to satisfy Walmart’s specifications. Is it any good? I have no idea, and I’m not about to try one of the things.

Weather Worries Push Prices Up

Weather concerns in the US have been slowly pushing grain futures prices up on the commodities market. Hard red spring wheat, used for bread, has been hurt by dry conditions in large parts of the US grain belt. And while there is rain in the forecasts, it’s felt that much of the crop is too far along for rain to help much at this point. One of the concerns is the protein content of the wheat. They want a protein content of at least 10.2% and it looks like large amounts of the crop is going to be coming under that level. Hard red spring wheat hit $6.45 at one point, the highest it’s been since 2014, before going to 6.41. From what I’ve seen they’re claiming the spring wheat crop is the worst it’s been in almost 30 years.

Weather concerns have the markets a bit nervous right now as the climate can’t seem to figure out what it wants to do. Here in my part of Wisconsin we’ve been abnormally wet. In other parts of the grain belt it’s been abnormally dry, with parts of the Dakotas going through drought. Corn finally has been seeing some significant movement in prices, pushing up to 3.83 as of this morning.

Mergers and still more Mergers

It seems that every ag company is trying to buy every other ag company these day. The Bayer/Monsanto merger is still in the works, with Bayer trying to sell off bits and pieces of itself so it can claim that its takeover of Monsanto won’t reduce competition. Of course it won’t. (I wish there was a “sarcasm” font, don’t you?) Of course it will reduce  competition. That’s the whole point behind these mergers, to get rid of competition and increase the market share and profits of the new company that emerges after they have merged.

Anyway, Bayer is trying to sell off it’s Libertylink genetic modification trait, it’s glufosinate weed killer, and maybe it’s garlic and pepper seed operations and some other bits and pieces it hopes will satisfy regulators. BASF and Syngenta are supposed to be interested.

Meanwhile Syngenta itself is the target of a takeover. It’s being bought by China National Chemical Co, owned by the Chinese government. DuPont is selling parts of itself off in order to try to merge with Dow Chemical.

Will any of these mergers and buyouts actually help farmers as the companies claim? Of course not. The only people who ever benefit from these mergers are the lawyers, corporate executives who cash in big time on bonuses and stock deals, and a handful of investors.

Glyphosate Study Craziness

Glyphosate, commonly known as RoundUp(TM), was ruled to be a “probable carcinogen” by the World Health Organization, despite the fact that it has been throughly studied for decades by dozens of organizations and scientists and they’ve found no real link between the herbicide and cancer. Even the European food Safety Authority, one of the most cautious and paranoid out there, didn’t find a link.

But WHO and IARC, the International Agency for Research on Cancer which is part of WHO, came to the conclusion that it was “probable”. Why?

This is where the story gets very, very strange. A fellow named Aaron Blair who led the IARC’s review panel on RoundUp, knew of a large study which indicated the herbicide did not cause cancer. If that study had been included in the data given to the IARC it would almost certainly have determined that glyphosate was not a carcinogen.

So why wasn’t that study included? Did Blair not know about it? Well, he did know about it. It was his study. He knew that if the study was included glyphosate would ruled to be not a carcinogen. He admitted that is a sworn deposition, as well as admitting that if that data had been included IARC’s analysis would have been significantly altered.

So why did a scientist deliberately withhold the results of his own study from IARC’s analysis? Because it hadn’t been published yet, he said. And that it wasn’t published yet because it was “too big” to put in a single paper, he claimed.

 

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.

 

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.

Farm Catch Up

Looking back at ag news over the last week

NAFTA

The new ag secretary, Perdue, gave a speech in which he claimed the administration was going to renegotiate NAFTA within the next six months. He said, “We’re not talking about this taking years to do, but weeks…”, thus clearly indicating that neither he nor the administration he works for knows what NAFTA is in the first place, or even how trade negotiations work. If they think they can do something as complex as renegotiate NAFTA in a few weeks… Oh, brother, we’re in trouble.

Ag Immigration

With the ag sector in a near panic over the potential loss of much of their labor force due to the policies of the administration, some administration officials have been trying to calm things down. Perdue was out and about again and said in a speech that he had been assured that the administration was not gong to target employers, was not going to raid farms, and that the ag sector should calm down because the administration was not going to go after it’s immigrant labor force.

And then just a couple of days later ICE did exactly that, raiding a Pennsylvania mushroom farm and hauling off nine of it’s employees. So it goes.

Other anti-immigrant activities by politicians and law enforcement have done nothing but make the panic in the ag sector even worse. Texas just put in place a law that permits police to demand proof of citizenship during routine stops and would jail police chiefs and sheriffs who do not cooperate with federal immigration officials. Arizona has passed a similar law. Basically these laws allow, or even require, police to demand proof of citizen ship from anyone they suspect is not a citizen which, in a lot of jurisdictions basically means anyone who is not white.

Some politicians are trying to do something about this. Ag businesses and others that depend on immigrant labor are having serious problems already. There is a bill in Congress that would provide a “blue card” to farmworkers who have worked in agriculture for at least 100 days. That bill will almost certainly go absolutely nowhere. Wisconsin and some other states are trying to cobble together a “state visa” program that would give states more control over immigrant rights to prevent their labor force from being deported. Wisconsin is hugely dependent on immigrant labor and employers are already having problems finding people to work. That proposal will go nowhere as well. Even if it did go through at the state level, it would be over ruled by federal law and possibly would even be unconstitutional because the federal government, not the states, has control over immigration.

Water Wars

Wisconsin has a serious problem with water quality, especially ground water. Because of contamination by huge CAFOs (mega farms) caused by the dumping of millions of gallons of liquid manure on the ground, wells all over the state are being contaminated. Up in Kewaunee county about 40 miles from here it’s estimated that 35% – 50% of the private wells in the county are contaminated. And almost nothing is being done about it. A story in the May 10 issue of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (I can’t put in a link because I read MJS on Kindle, but you can find it with Google if you want) discovered that the problem is so serious that the Algoma school district is giving out water to students and families, some farm organizations are giving out drinking water, and even the DNR may be getting into the act, providing drinking water. And almost no one has heard about the story. I’m not a conspiracy nut, so I don’t think that they are deliberately trying to bury the story. I think it is just getting swept aside because of far more important issues. Kewaunee County is a rural area and not very affluent so news organizations tend to ignore it unless something makes a big stink.

Kewaunee County is also problematic because it is bordered on one side by Lake Michigan, and by the Bay of Green Bay (yes, I know it sounds redundant, but that’s what they call it) on the other. The Bay of GB has been suffering from dead zones, areas where nothing but algae grows, because of contamination by fertilizers, phosphorous, nitrates; the same contaminants that are getting into the wells.

Wisconsin isn’t the only state with this problem. Iowa, Indiana, California… Anywhere where large scale agriculture is going on is suffering similar problems. And the politicians are listening.

But, of course, not to the people who are finding their water polluted. Here in Wisconsin they’re ramming through new rules and regulations which would allow mega farms and irrigation systems to draw virtually unlimited amounts of ground water form high capacity wells, even in areas where the draw down has been so bad rivers and lakes are literally drying up because of it. The “new” DNR is doing nothing about the issues in Kewaunee and is working on “voluntary” solutions. And in California they tried to push through a bill that would forbid people from suing suspected polluters, giving the general public no recourse at all if they find their wells contaminated. And at the federal level some members of Congress are trying to push through a similar measure. You can read about that here over at The Hill.

Who Owns What?

One trend that I find troubling is farm land being snatched up by investment companies. Farmland Partners is perhaps the best known of these, but it isn’t the only player in this. FP now owns around 154,000 acres of farmland, and it’s expanding it’s holdings every year.

Perhaps I’m a pessimist, but when I read stories like this I tend to think of how this can be abused and misused. I get nervous whenever an essential item like farmland is being concentrated in the hands of people who don’t give a damn about anything except maximizing their profit. Yeah, I know the companies talk about preserving farmland, protecting our resources, saving the environment, protecting agriculture and all that. But when it comes down to it, the only business FP is in is to make money for it’s stock holders. Period.

Unpasteurized Milk

Consuming unpasteurized milk has become a fad in the “natural food” world. From ridiculous claims that unpasteurized milk can cure everything from rashes, to baldness, to cancer, to claims that pasteurizing milk somehow destroys it’s nutritional content, the internet abounds with utterly absurd claims alleging health benefits from it that simply do not exist.

One thing that unpasteurized milk can do, though, is make you sick. According to a new study published by the CDC this week, 96% of all illnesses linked to milk products were caused by unpasteurized milk, even though only about 3% of the population drinks unpasteurized milk and even fewer eat cheese made with unpasteurized milk. You can read about it here over at Consumerist.

I know this sounds kind of ridiculous from a former dairy farmer, but the fact is that you don’t need milk at all. You can easily get the calcium, protein and other nutrients in milk from other sources. There are studies out there that indicate that contrary to what the milk marketing boards are trying to claim, drinking milk does nothing to improve bone density nor does it do anything that can’t be gained by eating other foods. There are even some studies indicating that drinking milk may be related to some of the very things the marketing people claim it helps.

[Addendum: May 12. I added this edit after someone who read this told me that you need to drink milk to get vitamin D. Yes, D is an essential nutrient and a lot of people don’t get enough of it, but you don’t get vitamin D from milk itself. The only reason D is in milk is because milk processors are required to add it. They basically grind up a vitamin pill and throw it in the jug. ]

Cheese… that’s a different story. Ooo, yummy yummy cheese… I think I have some of that gorgonzola left in the fridge…

Say it with me now — cheese….

 

Catching Up

Brazil Scandal

I haven’t heard much about the meat scandal going on in Brazil on the main stream media but it’s been all over the ag press since the story first broke. According to reports, Brazil’s meat exporting companies have been involved in bribery scheme where government inspectors and auditors were bribed to permit the companies to ignore sanitary regulations and inspections, falsify medical records and certificates, and ignore tampering with products to disguise problems with the meat. It’s also alleged the producers used ascorbic acid and other chemicals to disguise rotten meat, injected water into meat to inflate the weights. It’s just nasty. The whole story sounds like something straight out of “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair.

There are now reports of large numbers of arrests as the government tries to do damage control. Brazil is the largest exporter of beef and poultry in the world, and the scandal has decimated the industry. Many countries instituted outright bans on importing Brazilian meat and meat products or instituted much stricter inspection protocols. Things are slowly starting to get back to normal, but the Brazilian meat industry really took a hit on this one and it could take some time for it to recover.

The really scary part about this is that meat processing companies had allegedly been bribing the country’s federal meat inspectors for years before this was discovered.

Does No One Remember?

Does no one remember what things were like before the EPA came along and environmental laws were finally brought on-line? It seems not, judging from the stuff I’ve been hearing coming out of the “new” EPA and the new administration. If you read the laundry list of things the new administration is planning on doing when it comes to the environment, it seems none of them do.

And what’s up with this fixation on coal that this administration has? Pruitt just put on a staged event with coal miners in full gear standing around him to try to spin how the gutting of environmental regulations is going to somehow create massive “economic growth”. All things considered, coal is a very, very minor cog in the energy machine. For many years coal has been becoming increasingly irrelevant in the energy world, and not just for environmental reasons. It’s expensive, dangerous, dirty, inefficient, produces huge amounts of waste material when burned, it’s hard and dangerous to mine, and the coal industry doesn’t really employ all that many people.

When I remember what it was like back in the 1960s, and think that we might be going back to those days of cities being entombed in clouds of toxic smog, rivers that were so polluted they actually caught on fire, where if you fell into a river you’d probably die from poisoning before you drowned, and all just so a few politicians can pose for pictures with a handful of miners from an industry that was starting to fail even before they were born, it makes me wonder what the hell is going on.’

Rather than spending all this time, energy and government money propping up the coal industry allegedly to “protect” the jobs of a few thousand miners as the politicians claim they are doing, wouldn’t it make more sense to invest those resources in training the miners for other types of work, giving different types of businesses incentives to move into those areas, etc?

Canadian Dairy Fights Back

The Canadian dairy industry is pushing back against claims that it and the Canadian government are at fault in Grassland cutting off 75 dairy farms here in the state. As I pointed out previously, the story being pushed out by the company about why it abruptly cut off 75 farms, forcing them to scramble to try to find new processors to buy their milk, seems to be a bit disingenuous. Especially when Grassland is claiming it had to cut off those farms because it can’t sell the milk while the company itself is seeking permits to build it’s own 5,000 cow dairy farm.

The Canadians are pointing out that the real culprit is the US’s overproduction of milk. And they’re right. The market for dairy products is utterly saturated. Despite an increased demand for butter, the US domestic market has been flat for years, with some sectors, such as consumption of liquid milk, actually declining despite heavy marketing and various gimmicks. And while demand is shrinking, prices falling, the diary industry responds by drastically increasing production?

Even one of the farmers dropped by Grassland agrees as is noted in the story linked above.

One of the biggest problems with the whole dairy industry in the US is government intervention in the market. Political manipulation of the market has resulted in a maze of rules, regulations, laws, marketing schemes, surplus buys and I don’t know what all else, that has left us with a marketing system that is convoluted, irrational, and so outdated that parts of it go back 75 or even a hundred years.