As Milk Prices Decline, Worries About Dairy Farmer Suicides Rise : NPR

“The nation’s dairy farmers are facing their fourth year of depressed milk prices. The outlook is so bleak, it’s increased worries about farmer suicides. One recent outreach effort drew criticism.”

Source: As Milk Prices Decline, Worries About Dairy Farmer Suicides Rise : NPR

The situation for dairy farmers in 2017 was not good. A lot of diary operations are running right on the edge, trying to stay profitable at a time when there is ever shrinking demand for liquid milk for drinking, and a glut of other dairy products like cheese, butter and powdered milk. This story above from NPR illustrates just how bad the situation is getting. Go read the article if you have the time. It isn’t very long.

If you don’t have the time, here’s a brief summary: A dairy co-op in the north east US, Agri-Mark, has seen three of it’s farmer members commit suicide in the last few years. Agri-Mark makes Cabot cheese among other products, and has about 1,000 members. In February when it sent out the milk checks, it included a chart showing just how bad the dairy market was looking for the upcoming year, and a list of suicide prevention hotlines. The reporter talked with Will Rogers, who milks 75 cows in Massachusetts, who is having a difficult time keeping above water. Even more upsetting is the fact that his own father who used to own the farm, killed himself because of financial problems.

While the letter from Agri-Mark was probably well intentioned, it certainly added to the stress a lot of it’s farmers are already facing and Rogers says in the article, it might push some farmers so far that they think “there’s no point in going on.” Agri-Mark certainly could have done a better job of trying to communicate with it’s farmer members.

And as if dairy farmers don’t have enough problems, they are increasingly worried about being able to sell their milk at all. Dean Foods just told at least two dozen farmers in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and four other states that Dean will no longer take their milk as of May 31, leaving them scrambling to find a milk processor they can sell their milk to.

The same thing happened here in Wisconsin last year about this time when Grassland rather abruptly dumped a group of farmers, leaving them to desperately try to find a market for their milk.

The article at Dairy Management about Dean seems to be trying to blame Walmart for Dean’s decision. Walmart used to buy it’s in-house brand milk from Dean, but Walmart is building it’s own milk processing facility in Indiana which will come on-line in May, so Dean is going to be losing a significant amount of sales as Walmart switches to product coming from it’s own production facility.

Certainly there is enough blame to go around, but everyone is ignoring the fact that the real reason behind almost all of the money difficulties dairy farmers are having is over production. They are producing more product than the market really wants, which is pushing prices down lower and lower.

There are various marketing boards, government agencies and others trying to help the situation, but almost all of them are focusing on one thing, trying to increase sales of a product that increasingly people don’t really want, and shouldn’t be eating much of. At at time when a recent study just found that 75% of the people in this area are overweight, we have government agencies and marketing boards trying to convince food makers to shovel ever more cheese into their products.

Seventy-five percent. Think about that for a moment. We are facing a national health crisis due to people eating too much of what is bad for them, with government agencies and others trying to figure out how to help people get their weight under control, and at the same time other government agencies and marketing specialists are trying to get food manufacturers to drastically increase the amount of cheese they use in their products.


“Milk Date Labels Contribute to Food Waste |” article offers potentially dangerous advice

“Ohio State Researchers: Milk Date Labels Contribute to Food Waste”

Source: Ohio State Researchers: Milk Date Labels Contribute to Food Waste |

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 5.29.01 AMSo I ran across this item this morning over at Agweb and while I agree that the dating system used on most food products is often highly misleading, there are statements in that article that I find troubling.

Generally speaking, the dates you see on most food products you buy in the grocery store are pretty much completely bogus. I certainly agree with that. Often those dates have nothing to do with the safety of the product.

Most of the time the date is about product quality. After the date on the label, the product begins to lose flavor or the texture degrades. There is nothing actually wrong with the product, it just might not taste as good as one would like. Sometimes the dates are utterly ridiculous. I was looking at dried beans for soup the other day and noticed there were “use by” dates on them and found myself wondering how in the world dried beans could go bad because they pretty much can’t. As long as they’re stored properly, don’t get wet, and the packaging is intact, those dried beans should be perfectly fine for food for years and years. I’ve even heard that a lot of those dates aren’t based on any kind of research, but are just picked out of thin air by the manufacturer.

But when it comes to dairy products, meat and other food items that require refrigeration, I become a bit more wary, and here is where I begin to disagree with the article over on Agweb. It makes this statement:

“Pasteurized milk is safe past the sell-by date unless it has been cross-contaminated. While it may not taste as good — it can go sour and have flavors that people don’t like and may make them feel nausea — but it isn’t going to make them sick.”

Now wait just a minute…  Your senses of smell and taste are your first line of defense against spoiled or contaminated food that could potentially make you ill. If your milk smells sour, has “off” smells, has an odd texture or doesn’t seem right in some way, don’t use it. Yes, it could be “safe” in that it won’t actually make you sick, but can you tell the difference between milk that has merely gone a bit sour or milk that is actually gone bad? Do you want to take the chance?

And that statement about nausea? Really? Foods that make you throw up are fine to eat? Look, if consuming a food product makes you feel nausea or makes you throw up, that food has, by definition, made you sick. Nausea is not a normal reaction to consuming food. It is a symptom that something is wrong.

So yes, the sell-by dates on most food products are pretty much bogus. But you need to use common sense. I don’t care what this guy says up there in that quote. If a food product does not smell right, looks odd, and doesn’t taste right, don’t use it. Yes, it might be “safe”, but do you want to take that chance?


Thousands of heart patients get stents that may do more harm than good – Vox

Stents are commonly used for stable chest pain — but the devices may not be helping.

Source: Thousands of heart patients get stents that may do more harm than good – Vox

Placing stents in arteries has become one of the most common treatments for chest pain in use today. I must know a dozen or more people who’ve had it done in the last few years. And it seems they don’t actually work.

We’ve known for about ten years now that stents do not reduce the risk of death from heart disease. Patients treated with stents have the same mortality rate and risk of heart attack as did patients treated with more conservative and less invasive treatments. So stents do little or nothing to prevent heart attacks or extending the life expectancy of the patient.

Stents are still in use to treat stable angina patients as a method of reducing pain. And this Lancet study indicates that they don’t work for that either. By the end of the study they found that there were no clinically important differences between those treated with stents, and those treated with a sham procedure that actually did nothing.

Putting a stent in someone is not a risk free procedure, either. About one out of fifty will have serious complications such as stroke, heart attack, and even death.

Stents aren’t the only treatment in widespread use that seems to do little or nothing to actually help the patient. The Milwaukee Journal ran a series a while back looking at drugs used to treat cancer that were approved in the last ten or twenty years, and found a very troubling trend. While some of the drugs did slow the growth of tumors, in the long run they did nothing to extend the life of the patient, did nothing to improve the patient’s quality of life, and in many cases caused very serious side effects.

Farm Catch Up

Well, I’m bored, I haven’t written much here of late, so let’s take a look at what’s been going on in the ag world recently.

Dicamba Issues Abound — The controversy over Monsanto’s dicamba herbicide blends and those approved under license, XtendiMax, Engenia and FeXapan, continue to have problems and generate considerable controversy, complaints and legal issues. Minnesota and other states have instituted restrictions on when, where and how the herbicides can be uses, new federal restrictions regarding training requirements and new application restrictions, etc. Other states have issued wide ranging restrictions as well.  Even Mother Jones has gotten into the act with an article about the drawbacks of the product.

The companies involved are fighting back, blaming anything and everything for the fact that over 3.5 million acres of crops were allegedly damaged by the herbicide drifting away from the application area this past year. They’ve been claiming farmers are spraying the product with the wrong equipment, failing to follow the proper application techniques, etc. They’ve even tried claiming that famers are illegally spraying non-approved types of the herbicide. In one case one of the companies involved tried to get a member of the board that regulates herbicides in one of the states involved removed from the board.

Words Are Worth MoneyThe University of Arizona did a study of how consumers react to the term “natural” on meat labels and found out pretty much exactly what you might think: that people who know what the term means were unwilling to pay more for meat labeled “natural”. In the study half of the people involved were told the legal definition of the term, and half were unaware of what the legal definition was. They found that those who did not know would pay $1.26 more for steak labeled “natural”, while those who did know wouldn’t pay more.

Under USDA definitions, all fresh meat, even hamburger, can be labeled as “natural” as long as it does not contain artificial flavors, colorings, chemical preservatives or other synthetic ingredients. So basically if you’re paying more for a package of steak or roast labeled “natural” you are being scammed.

What it boils down to is that a lot of these companies will use any  kind of marketing tricks they can to fool you into paying more for a product than you should.

Meat Tax Coming? — Methane and carbon emissions from cattle raising operations makes up almost 15% of the total production of greenhouse gases, and the production of cattle is projected to increase by 70% over the next fifty years or so. So some people are considering taxing the production and sale of meat to try to reduce the reduce greenhouse gas production from cattle. There are serious talks going on in some countries to institute tax policies similar to those used to curb tobacco in order to reduce production and consumption.

Frankly this seems a bit silly to me. The two largest producers of greenhouse gases are electric power plants and motor vehicles. The amount of methane and carbon dioxide produced by cattle hardly makes more than a blip on the charts when compared to that. So I’d think that if they were really serious about greenhouse gas reduction they’d be going after those two sources far more vigorously.

Corn Acreage Shrinking — It looks like farmers are finally beginning to cut back on the amount of corn they’re raising in response to poor prices. USDA is predicting that for the first time in years the number of acres of soybeans will equal or even surpass the number of acres of corn being planted in the US. Corn prices on the Chicago Exchange never went much over $3.75 or so at the peak, and have been sitting at the $3.50 or lower level for some time now. And, of course, the commodities price generally isn’t what the farmer gets for the corn. They often get considerably less than that. When you add in other costs like storage fees, etc. farmers are often getting a lot less than the commodities price.  A awful lot of farmers out there are just barely breaking even on corn this year.

Some people are pinning their hopes on China increasing their imports of corn. China has been drawing down it’s huge stockpiles of corn over the last year or so, and some are taking that as a sign the country will begin to import more corn. But continuing to produce corn in the hopes that China might increase imports sounds like a great way to end up bankrupt.

Screen Shot 2017-12-20 at 7.33.13 AMChicken Suits — No, not that kind of suit. The legal kind. Both California and Massachusetts are being sued over regulations they’ve instituted regarding how chickens (and other farm animals  as well in the case of Massachusetts) are raised. The regulations require chickens (and in the case of Mass. other agricultural animals as well) from which products are derived for sale in the state, must be raised according to certain minimal humane standards. The plaintiffs claim that the regulations dramatically increase the cost of eggs and that it will cost consumers hundreds of millions of dollars, and that the cost of eggs nation wide has increased as much as 5% because of it. A claim I view with considerable skepticism. Locally the retail price of eggs is at almost an all time low. They’re going for about $1.00 to $1.28 per dozen at most retail outlets around here for standard, non-organic “generic” brands, and I’ve seen them as low as $0.79 and even less.

More Farm Stuff

There’s been a lot going on in the agriculture world so let’s take a look.

FDA May Remove Heart Healthy Labels on Soy Products: For years now some soy based products have been claiming that they are “heart healthy” based on a claim that using soy caused a reduction in cholesterol. But we’ve known since at least 2005 that consuming soy has little or no effect on reducing cholesterol. It looks like it only took FDA twelve years to figure that out and announce that it was going to make the 300 or so soy products that make that claim to stop using it.

Why the confusion over the issue? It’s suspected that the initial reduction in bad cholesterol that was shown wasn’t caused by soy, but by the participants in the study replacing red meat with soy products. It was the reduction in meat consumption that reduced the cholesterol, not the soy.

Food Waste and Bogus Statistics: Then I ran across this item over at AgWeb which tries to claim that there is virtually no food waste when it comes to eating meat. They claim that about 20% of fruit and vegetables get thrown away rather than eaten, but that only 3% of meat gets thrown out. Therefore, they claim, buying fruit and vegetables is far more harmful to the environment than meat production The article goes on to say that eating meat is “more satisfying” than the equivalent amount of vegetables or fruit, and that meat tastes better than plants and loading meat animals up with antibiotics is just fine and dandy because …

Oh, brother, I just can’t go on any more…  She is basically claiming that because consumers throw out only about 3% of the meat they buy, meat is somehow enormously better for the environment than fruit and vegetable production, and that producing fruit and veg is actually harmful to the environment because people throw away some of it..

I’m not even going to try to follow the mental gymnastics that she goes through to try to come to that conclusion.

But I do notice one thing, that the article completely ignores the fact that almost half of a steer is inedible. Assuming you have a 1,000 lb. steer, only about 600 pounds or less is going to be useable meat. The rest; the head, innards, bones, skin, fat, etc. is inedible. Once you add in things that are trimmed off by the consumer after purchase like fat and small bones that are discarded, etc., you quickly discover that almost half of that steer can’t be used as food.

So in one way, yes, when you get that steak home you’re going to eat almost all of it. But that’s because all of the waste has been trimmed off long before you even see it in the grocery store.

Clovis Withdraws Nomination: Sam Clovis withdrew his name from consideration for a post at USDA as undersecretary for research. The job requires a thorough understanding of agriculture, scientific research methods, and basically was intended for someone who is, if not a scientist, at least someone with a thorough understanding of farming, agriculture, and science. So what were Clovis’ qualifications? Is he a scientist? No. Is he a farmer? No. Has he ever worked in any kind of business related to agriculture?  No. He is a former talk radio host and a political science professor. Well, here is the man’s own words in response to questions from the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee’s top Democrat, Debbie Stabenow:

“Please list all graduate-level courses you have taken in natural science,” the second of 10 questions requested.

“None,” Clovis replied.

“Please list all membership and leadership roles you have held within any agricultural scientific, agricultural education, or agricultural economic organizations,” the third question read.

“None,” Clovis replied.

“Please describe any awards, designations, or academic recognition you have received specifically related to agricultural science,” the fourth question read.

“None,” Clovis replied.


Dicamba. Yes, Again: The apparently never ending saga about the herbicide dicamba continues. According to a report by the University of Missouri dicamba damaged 3.6 million acres of soybeans this past year. That’s a hell of a lot of beans.

The EPA has issued new labeling requirements that more strictly control how the dicamba herbicide blends from Monsanto, BASF and DuPont are used in an attempt to eliminate the problems, but the problem has been so wide spread that some states are considering issuing outright bans on the product. And a lot of people doubt that the new application restrictions and guidelines are going to do much to get a handle on the problem.

I think they’re playing with fire here. So far everyone has been focusing on the damage done to soybeans. Considering how easily this stuff seems to vaporize and drift long distances, it could very easily begin damaging large areas of ornamental plants, food crops, etc.

I’ve even been hearing conspiracy theories from some people. They’re claiming that the herbicide blends were deliberately made to drift like this to force farmers to plant Monsanto’s dicamba resistant soybeans whether they want to or not.

USDA Kills “Farmer Fair Practices Rules” (GIPSA): On Oct. 18 USDA announced it is totally dumping the FFPR, a set of rules that attempted to correct many of the abuses endured by “contract” farmers, farmers who don’t actually own the crop or animals they are growing. The famers own the land, the equipment, buildings, provide the labor, etc. but the product they are growing actually belongs to the company and is grown under a contract for a fixed price. Almost all of the chickens raised in the US are produced this way.

They may be “independent farmers”, because the big companies don’t own them, but they have only one client, and that client controls everything. They are essentially indentured servants with few if any rights. These companies are accused of price fixing, blacklisting farmers, canceling contracts on a whim, and engaging in retaliation against farmers who make waves.

The FFPR was intended to help give the famers a bit more control and flexibility to sue in cases of blatantly unfair practices.

I’m not going to get into this any deeper because it would take many, many pages to describe the whole situation. You can go do the research yourself if you’re interested. But as Chuck Grassley, a senator from Iowa said about killing the FFPR: “They’re just pandering to big corporations. They aren’t interested in the family farmer.”

Just What Is Organic Anyway?  I don’t know about you, but when I think of the term “organic” the definition definitely does not include acres of green houses containing thousands of trays of robotically tended plants under grow lights being grown by soaking the roots in a chemical nutrient solution. In other words, hydroponics.

But according to the National Organic Standards Board, it is. The NOSB has ruled that hydroponics is organic.

Look, I have nothing against hydroponics. It’s an extremely useful technology. But isn’t “organic” a lot more than just producing herbicide free food?

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

Screen Shot 2017-09-20 at 5.36.34 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2017-09-20 at 6.42.05 AM

The great nutrient collapse

The atmosphere is literally changing the food we eat, for the worse. And almost nobody is paying attention. Source: The great nutrient collapse

I don’t lead off these epistles with links to outside sources very often, but this one at Politico, of all places, is a wee bit scary and it’s something that effects all of us because it’s about our food.

So here’s the background: We’ve known for some time that the nutrient density in the plants we eat has dwindled over the last century. Concentrations of minerals, vitamins, etc. in plants has been shrinking. Our produce, on average, now has fewer nutrients per kilo of plant material than it had when the measurements first began. It’s been assumed that there were two reasons why.

First, our farming techniques have changed drastically over the last hundred years. We’ve moved to “industrial” farming, which relies on heavy applications of artificial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. By dramatically altering the environment the plants grow in, we’ve also alters the chemical composition of the plants.

Second, over the centuries we’ve bred plants to grow faster, produce more fruit or grain, and to produce fruits that last longer after picking and which are tough enough to tolerate rough harvesting and shipping conditions. When selecting plants for these traits, we’ve often ignored things like the nutrient content of the plant and flavor. So we’ve ended up with plants that produce fruit that can be stored longer, is easier to harvest, etc. but which is lower in nutrients and flavor.

But that isn’t all that’s been going on, it seems. Apparently increasing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere seem to have played a significant role in decreasing the nutrient levels in plants.

Maybe… The thing is, this is difficult to test for. The testing requires extensive, difficult to accomplish, and rather expensive experiments, and while there are scientists who would like to do the testing, it has been difficult to get funding to actually do it.

As of right now I don’t think the science is actually settled. The preliminary testing that has been done tends to support the belief that increased atmospheric CO2 levels can indeed result in lower nutrition levels in the plants. But there is still a lot we don’t know. We also don’t know how serious of a problem this may be. A  lot more testing and experiments need to be done to answer all of the questions that need answers.