The War On Weeds

So, let’s talk farming. I ran into this article about weed control over at Agweb and it’s actually pretty good so go take a peek at it if you have the time.

Differentiate fact and fiction as you plan your weed control strategy. Source: Myth-Busting Weed and Herbicide Rumors | Agweb.com

Now, the reason this article has popped up (and I’m sure you will see others in the ag press similar to this in the future) is that there are a few new GM crops coming on-line now, modified to work with a couple of new blends of herbicides in an effort to deal with increasing weed resistance to glycophase. The herbicides aren’t really new, though. They are simply blends of previously existing herbicides with glycophase. They incorporate either 2,4-D or dicamba, both of which have been around for decades already. The only thing new about the system is the GM crops that have been engineered to tolerate 2,4-D and/or dicamba.

And they aren’t going to work any better than glycophase alone did. At least not in the long run. Sooner or later weeds will eventually develop resistance to these new blends as well, and we’ll be right back where we are now. In fact, there is already resistance to both of those herbicides “out in the wild” so to speak, because both have been in use for some time.

We have allowed ourselves to become dependent upon a system of weed control that we know is eventually going to fail. So, if we already know that these reformulated mixes are going to eventually fail, why are we bothering with them at at all?

Part of the reason this isn’t going to change any time soon is that over the last few decades we have adopted almost across the board farming techniques that make it difficult, if not impossible, for us to change.

 

How did we do it in the “good old days”? Well, like this:

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Oliver 70 with cultivator attachment

Now, if this text editor has managed to put the image in the right place, that is an old Oliver 70 with it’s optional corn cultivator rig. I used to drive one of those when I was a kid. For hours. And hours. And hours. And hours. And hours. And.. Well, you get the idea.

It was boring, tedious, took huge amounts of time, huge amounts of fuel. And with how expensive fuel is these days, how expensive labor is, if you can even find labor, how time consuming it is… Well, it isn’t surprising that the agricultural industry has always been looking for something, anything, to try to eliminate weeds that doesn’t involve so much time, labor and expense.

But some alternative to this never ending cycle of herbicide failures is going to have to be found. We’re running out of options. No matter what kind of chemical intervention we may come up with, sooner or later nature will figure out a loophole to work around it because that’s just how nature works.

 

I wish I could tell you that there is a solution to this, but there isn’t. People are experimenting, yes. But so far all of the efforts I’ve seen in trying to get out of this dependency on herbicides have involved techniques that simply can’t be scaled up. I’ve seen flame throwers to burn weeds, steamers to steam weeds, “cookers” that scoop up soil and literally cook it to kill weed seeds… All of them are tedious, time consuming, and worst of all, very energy hungry.

There are some new robotics and AI technologies that are looking promising. I suspect that may be one possible solution; machines that do the cultivation for you using cameras, LIDAR, GPS to guide them. Even systems that can identify weeds by sight and mechanically remove them, leaving the desired plants alone.

But those are years away, maybe decades. But who knows? Maybe there is some kind of “magic bullet” out there. Ah, well, no, there isn’t, but we keep looking for one, don’t we?

Nebraska Gov. Ricketts Touts ‘Major’ Property Tax Bill in Nebraska

“Property tax reforms in Nebraska could help farmers, but not as much as some groups want.”

Source: Nebraska Gov. Ricketts Touts ‘Major’ Property Tax Bill | Agweb.com

Please have patience with me while I talk about agriculture and property taxes for a moment so I can explain why this is important for farmers and environmentalists. Talking about things like taxes and government policies tends to make my eyes glaze over and I find myself with a sudden desire to take a long nap. But if you aren’t a farmer you may not know why this move by Nebraska is important for farmers. Wisconsin already did something like this years ago, and I think it’s the right thing to do.

Property taxes are based on the value of your property, of course. If your house, for example, is valued at, oh, $100,000, you pay property taxes based on that value. If it’s valued at $200,000, your property taxes are going to be significantly higher.

It’s the same with farmland. Under law here in Wisconsin the property is supposed to be assessed for purposes of property taxes at fair market value. (That law had to be instituted because some local jurisdictions were playing fast and loose with property evaluations in order to jack up the tax money they were getting. Before that law was put in place, I knew one poor bugger who had a mobile home that was worth about $10,000 get a tax assessment for $64,000. Seriously. I saw the documents myself.)

The question now is what exactly is “fair market value”? Is it the value of the property as it currently exists, what it is being used for at the moment, or the potential value of the property if it were sold for some other purpose.

That distinction is important, because what was happening in Wisconsin and a lot of other states is that local jurisdictions were assessing property not at it the value of the property as it currently existed, but what the property could be worth if it were sold for some other purpose.

The result was that if you had a farm on the outskirts of a town or city, you were pretty much screwed. Local governments were assessing the farms not on their value as farms, but their value as if they were commercial or residential property.

To illustrate what I mean, let’s look at an example. Farmland in this area is currently going for around – well, let’s round it off to $7,000 an acre to keep the math simple. So if you have a small, 100 acre farm, it’s worth about $700,000.

Meanwhile, land being used for, oh, let’s say a fairly upscale housing development in a nearby town, is going for about $20,000 per 1/4 acre lot, or about $80,000 an acre. Over time the town grows, and now you find that your farm is on the outskirts of the town. And as a result of that, the local government is now assessing your farm not for what it is worth as a farm, but for what it would be worth if it were sold for a housing development. You are now being forced to pay property taxes not on a farm worth $700,000, but property worth $8 million. Your property taxes just went up more than ten times what they’d been before.

While that’s a bit extreme, it isn’t exaggerated by much. I knew farmers who were seeing their property tax bills shooting up into the astronomical range because the jurisdiction they were in decided to evaluate their property not for what it was, but for what it could be. Their taxes were going up five, eight times what they’d been before when their property was evaluated at commercial or residential rates rather than agricultural.

There was some very heated debates over this, of course. The towns (and the developers) claiming that the new value was fair because that was what the property was actually worth if it were sold off to some developer, and the farmers on the other side saying no it isn’t because that’s not what it’s being used for… It was nasty.

I don’t think anyone ever actually proved that the governmental jurisdictions, seeking ever more tax money, along with developers smelling profits, abused the system by ratcheting up the taxes on farms specifically to force farmers to sell at bargain basement prices to a developer, but it was pretty much an open secret that this was exactly what was going on. At the time the laws curbing this were under consideration dozens of farmers appeared before the legislature claiming that this was exactly what was going on. Developers would find a nice farm in a good location near a town, smell the heady scent of money, convince the local government that it would be to it’s advantage to annex the farm into the town, evaluate the farm as commercial or residential property rather than farmland, and the farmer would be forced to sell at cut throat prices to the developer or go bankrupt from the taxes… It was nasty.

And for those concerned with urban sprawl it was nasty as well. This kind of thing was driving the construction of huge housing developments on the outskirts of cities and towns with McMansions sitting on quarter acre “estates”, endless cookie cutter boxes, hastily constructed, looking exactly alike…

Wisconsin did finally change the property assessment laws, but local jurisdictions and developers are still griping about it and occasionally manage to bribe convince some legislator to try to introduce a measure to “reform” the system, turn back the clock and let local jurisdictions snap up all that yummy, yummy tax money by assessing farmland at utterly absurd valuations.

The change didn’t halt urban sprawl, but it did help to slow it down a tiny bit. Maybe. Depends on who you talk to, really. Certainly it helped a lot of farmers whose property is adjacent to towns and cities.

Changes…

Despite the name of this blog, it isn’t really about farming. I guess it’s more like a journal where I write about things I find interesting, curious, infuriating, irritating, fun. But I often return to talking about farming because it was such a big part of my life for so long. But this one is about farming for a change.

What does that have to do with changes? A lot. I was reading an article about new ag technologies, automated and robotic systems to replace human labor. This has been going on for some time, of course. Robotics and automation have taken over product assembly, car manufacturing and a whole host of other industries. Ag has been slower to adopt robotics because it requires above average intelligence, dexterity, strength and gentleness and a lot of other qualities that are difficult to do with robotics. Until now. New advances in software, AI systems, new engineering, new materials and a lot of other technologies have sprung up that are making fundamental changes in how we grow food over the next couple of decades.

Neat, I thought. But then I thought further and realized that this has been going on my entire life. The pace of change has accelerated, true, but when I look at what farming was like when I was a kid and what it’s like today, it’s actually a bit mind boggling.

When I was a kid we still had a crank style phone. We didn’t get a dial phone until I was in second grade. Electricity service went out so often we still had old kerosene lanterns laying around ready to use just in case. A lot of the equipment we used looked like some kind of steampunk nightmare, to be honest.

We still had a few farmers in the area who were harvesting grain with grain binders,dscn1419 shocking it, and running it through threshing machines, for heaven’s sake. In case you’ve never seen one, here’s a photo of a grain binder from an antique farm equipment show I took some years ago. And yes, that thing over there that looks like it was cobbled together out of bits of old string, wire and old barn boards, is an actual commercially made machine. It was pulled by horses (that’s why there’s a seat on it). It cut the grain off with a sickle bar, put it in a bunch, tied the bunch with twine, then dumped it on the field. Workers would come along, stand the bundles on end with the grain heads up so it would dry. Then it would be loaded onto wagons and taken to a threshing machine.

And in case you’ve never seen a threshing machine, here’s one. Well, it’s sort of a dscn1422threshing machine. This is actually a special machine designed specifically for threshing or hulling clover seed, not wheat or oats, but the principle is the same. Workers would throw the bundles onto the elevator over on the left where it would run through threshing bars, fans, screens, etc. to be separated from the stalks and hulls. The hopefully clean seed would come out one pipe to be bagged, the straw would blow out onto a pile. The whole thing was originally powered by a massive steam traction engine via that long belt you see extending out the left side of the photo. Steam engines were replaced in the 1920s or so by gasoline powered tractors, but the threshing machines themselves remained in use well into the 1950s in some parts of the state. There were still a couple of farmers in the area who were using this setup when I was a kid. These things hung on because as long as you could get inexpensive labor it was cheaper to keep using it than buying a combine.

Then there were tractors. Take a look at this beast, for example. Believe it or not, when I img_0279was a kid we actually had one of these beasts, this exact same model. And we didn’t have it for some collection, this monstrosity was an actual working tractor at the time. The only thing we used it for was running the blowers to blow grain or forage into the barns or silos, but it was still a working tractor on the farm. And dear lord we hated that thing. Trying to start that beast… Oh, my. It started by manually cranking it with that big lever  you see just below the radiator. That connected to the crankshaft to turn the engine over. And if you didn’t know what you were doing when you tried cranking it, it would gleefully break your arm. Seriously. It would if you didn’t know what you were doing.

Lest you think we were weird or something, the rest of our tractors looked like this.

A modern (at the time) Oliver 1655 and a 1950s era Oliver 77. (That 77 actually belongs to my eldest son.) So why did we hang onto that old monstrosity? It was cheap power. You could buy them for little more than scrap metal price.

Almost all of the changes that have gone on in agriculture have occurred for one reason: money. They did something that improved the profits of the farm in one way or another. The old threshing machines hung on as long as they did because for some of the tiny farms around at the time it made more sense to keep running them long after they should have gone to the scrapyard than to drop thousands of dollars on a modern combine. Same with the old McCormick tractor. It was cheap power, good enough to run a forage blower, but for nothing else. As soon as it was no longer economical to hang onto the thing, it got dumped. We ended up buying another 1650 to replace it.

Just in my lifetime we’ve gone from grain binders and threshing machines, to GPS guided computerized combines. Harvesting crops by hand to a facility in New Hampshire that raises lettuce that is never touched by a human during its entire life. From planting to harvesting and packaging, everything is done by automated systems or robots.

Changes… Sometimes I look at the world around me and think I’m living in a science fiction novel.

Procrastination, Political Posts, Catching Up, Tumblr…

Procrastination

The problem with a non-commercial, privately funded blog like this, one that is as unfocused and rambling as this one is, is that there are no deadlines, no sense of urgency to get something written and posted. Don’t feel like writing? Fine. Don’t. No worries…

But it also means I tend to procrastinate terribly. This poor blog has sometimes sat here for weeks, maybe even a month or more, with nothing new appearing. And the only thing urging me to write something are feelings of guilt. Especially when the annual bill for keeping this thing up and running turned up in my email the other day. That’s always a shock. (Wait, what? How much am I paying for this thing? Why did I opt for the ‘business platinum’ package in the first place? Sheesh…)

The thing is, I hate deadlines. Decades ago I was a writer and editor for small market (very small) computer magazines and I came to loathe deadlines. But they were a fact of life. There were notes taped all over my computer with various dates and times, “drop dead” dates that had to be met or the magazine wouldn’t get to the printer in time, writers I had to call to find out where the article they’d promised was, last minute rewrites, getting the new ad from that software company and finding out it’s .25 inches taller than last month’s and having to scramble to try to cut two lines from an already dense technical article to try to make room…

No, I do not like deadlines. But they are sometimes necessary. Maybe I should set deadlines for this thing…

Dear mother of milk of magnesia, no. No no no no…

Political Posts

With the entire country having apparently gone stark, raving mad, I must admit that the temptation to join what seems to be about four hundred million self-appointed political experts and launch into lengthy and impassioned political rants is indeed lurking in the back of my head.

But, well, why? What good would it do to join the ranks of the outraged and turn this into yet another toxic and ultimately useless political blog? None, of course. All it would do is ratchet up my blood pressure, irritate you, attract trolls and other undesirables, and, in the long run, do absolutely no good at all.

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A Political Post

If you want political posts, here’s one for you. It’s a post. It’s political. Well, I think it’s political. I questioned this post very carefully and from various comments I suspect it’s an ardent supporter of the Bull Moose party. But it’s answers were very confusing. Mostly it was complaining about birds pooping on it.

Oh, wait, it’s not in the Bull Moose party, it was complaining about a bull moose that was using it to scratch its butt last week…

To be blunt, I am not going to turn this into a political rant. I hereby declare this to be a political free zone.

Maybe.

 

Tumblr

Ah, Tumblr, the blogging service I love to hate. Or hate to love. Or hate to hate. Or something like that.

Do you mind if, for a moment, I use strong language? No? Thanks

Tumblr is really pissing me off.

There, I said it. I’ve been reduced to expressing my irritation with vulgarity.

It seems like I’ve been on Tumblr since the end of the last ice age. I think I’m up to over 6,000 posts over there or something equally ridiculous. But it’s become so irritating…

I’ve had 30 new followers of the Tumblr blog over the last week. Of those, 21 were hard core porn blogs, almost certainly part of the infamous “pornbot” system operating on Tumblr. Eight were blatant advertising scams, filled with post after post of links leading to commercial advertising sites.

And one actual real person.

Seriously, only one was an actual real person.

And then there’s the advertising. Dear lord… I run ad blockers, security software, firewalls, etc. so when I’m on Tumblr about 99.9% of that crap is blocked before I can see it. But every once in a while I’ll have the blockers turned off for some reason and, oh, dear lord, it’s horrible. It’s like every scam, fraud and fly by night outfit in the world is advertising over there now. Ads for ambulance chasing “legal services”, ads for fraudulent “alternative” health products, ads for dietary supplements that claim to cure everything from bad breath to cancer…

Then there are the bots… A lot of us are convinced that the ten gazillion users Tumblr claims it has are a wee bit exaggerated. In actual fact there are only about 300 accounts by actual real people and all of the others are pornbots and spambots.

Some of us suspect that’s how Tumblr makes money, the bots serving up advertising to other bots, which in turn serve up ads to still more fake accounts, with Tumblr’s counters ticking them all off and counting them as legitimate hits when in actual fact it’s just an unending circle jerk of bots botting other bots…

And I’ve just run out of things to say

I suppose at this point I should come up with some pithy, insightful, thought provoking comment that would make you all nod and go “oh my I wish I’d thought of that” to wrap this all up. Sorry. Can’t think of one.

Give Me Land Lots of Land

screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-4-37-48-pmOne trend in agriculture has been making me nervous for some time now, and that is how large quantities of farmland are being concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people.

This has been going on for some time, of course. When I was a kid the road we lived on was dotted with small farms of various sizes ranging about 80 acres to 150 acres or so. Ours was actually one of the larger ones when I was a kid, with 140 acres and about 120 under cultivation. If memory serves me correctly, there were ten or twelve farms just on that one stretch of road when I was a kid. Today the houses and even many of the barns are still standing, but they aren’t farms any more, they’re residences. The actual farmland is now owned by one of three huge farming operations.

Whether or not this is a “good thing” is open to debate. But there is one trend that I think is definitely not a good thing, and that is that large amounts of farmland is being snapped up by investment companies.

Corporations like Farmland Partners (which doesn’t actually do any farming) and a lot of others, located both in the US and in other countries, are buying up farmland wherever they can find it and then renting it back to real farmers. For, of course, a profit

One can understand their point of view. People have to eat, after all. Therefore there is always going to be demand for land on which to grow crops. If a farmer can’t afford to buy land, he or she has to get it from somewhere, so they’re forced to rent it from a land owner. To an investor this seems like a fairly safe type of investment, especially with the stock markets being as volatile as they are.

But for farmers, for agriculture in general, this practice is disturbing in more than one way and is potentially damaging for consumers, farmers and agribusiness in general.

These companies do no farming, grow no crops, harvest no grain, raise no cattle. They do nothing to improve the quality of the land they own. They exist for only one reason, to rent land back to real farmers for the maximum amount of money they can squeeze out of them. They contribute nothing to agriculture. I dislike the term ‘parasite’, but, well… Isn’t that what you call an entity which does nothing but syphon off the resources of others and provides no benefit to those it feeds off of?

So far these companies have had little adverse effect on agriculture. Up until now they have been picking off the ‘low hanging fruit’, so to speak, snapping up deals here and there, in widely scattered areas. But as they acquire more, as more farmland is taken out of the control of farmers and placed in the hands of a few companies that care only for making profit… Well, the potential for abuse is obvious.

This kind of thing is legal. I certainly can understand the attraction people may have for this kind of an investment. With the stock market going through endless series of boom/bust cycles over the last few decades, a fairly stable investment like farmland is certainly attractive.

But what kind of effect is this going to have on agriculture as ever increasing amounts of land are being held in perpetuity by companies whose only goal is to squeeze as much profit out of farmers as possible?

Dairy prices – will their recovery continue in 2017?

Dairy proved one of the best commodity performers of 2016, as the price slump of the previous two years at last curbed output. Has the rally got legs?

Source: Agrimoney.com | Dairy prices – will their recovery continue in 2017?

At the start of the year everyone seems eager to present their predictions of what’s coming for the future, and the markets gurus are no exception.

Right now their view of the future looks fairly good, although not exactly what I would call glowing. USDA is predicting a milk price of around $17.25/CWT. While better than the $13-$14 farmers were getting at one point, it’s still not really all that good. To give you some historical perspective, with bonuses for butterfat, protein, low somatic cell count (i.e. our cows were healthy) we were getting around $13 for our milk back in 1979 or 1980. So now you know why dairy farmers were in so much financial trouble over the last year or so as prices dipped below $14/CWT(2).

The US actually escaped the worst of it. New Zealand and other milk producing regions around the world suffered far worse than we did. NZ was hit especially hard because a huge amount of their milk goes to China, and when China began to cut imports of milk, the NZ market crashed so hard it actually caused a devaluation in the NZ dollar and had repercussions through their whole economy.

China has been slowly ramping up imports again. While the country has been increasing its own dairy production, it’s having trouble meeting demand for various reasons. Many Chinese consumers still remember the melamine horror of a few years ago where domestic milk was deliberately contaminated with melamine(1). Consumer confidence in domestic products plummeted, increasing the demand for imported dairy products. Over the last few years China has increased it’s own milk production, and by improving food safety they’ve made some progress in restoring the confidence of consumers. But China still doesn’t produce enough milk to satisfy demand and imports have had to increase to keep pace.

New Zealand and the EU both saw production decline because of the plummeting prices. The EU didn’t return to the quota system it had a couple of years ago, but it did institute pricing incentives to get dairy farmers to reduce quantities. Between the low prices, farmers in NZ being pushed out of business, and the new pricing system in the EU, milk production in both areas has dropped by several percent.

Not in the US, though. Here production has continued to ramp up. Depending on whose data you believe, production in the US during 2016 went up anywhere from 2 – 4%, and there seems to be no end in sight at the moment. But then the US isn’t as sensitive to the international market as is the EU and NZ. Domestic demand has more of an effect, and it has remained fairly strong. But while we weren’t hit quite as hard as the EU or New Zealand, the prices dropped to the point where a lot of dairy farmers were suffering financially and were just barely hanging on. At $17 – $17.50 the situation is a bit better, but not by much.

I’m not all that optimistic, to be honest. In the US we’re looking at continued growth in production, and almost no increase in demand for milk products. While demand for butter has grown and the cheese market has remained fairly stable, we still have huge stockpiles of both sitting in warehouses. The market for fluid drinking milk is flat or is even shrinking. And now that the holiday season is over demand for both butter and cheese is going to shrink.

None of this bodes well for dairy farmers in the upcoming year. About the only good news dairy farmers have seen is that feed prices have remained low. But that’s bad news for the farmers who raise grain, especially corn. Corn prices have been sitting in the $3.40 – $3.52 range for months on the futures market, with farmgate prices dipping down to the $2.75 level or even less.

Will things ever improve? I hate to say this, but in all honesty, no. Farming has always been like this. You have long periods of mediocre prices, followed by a year or two of absolute panic, with the occasional good year thrown in just often enough to give you hope that maybe things will get better. And then the rug gets pulled out from under your feet…

 

 


  1. When melamine is added to milk, it makes milk quality tests indicate it has a higher protein content than it really has so they can get a higher price for it. It sickened hundreds, even thousands of people and even caused the death of some children. China acted quickly and clamped down hard, even executing some of the people responsible. But the damage was done and people didn’t trust domestically produced milk any more.
  2. CWT stands for hundred weight. While you may buy milk by the gallon in the store, farmers get paid by weight, not volume.

Comments…

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Don’t feed trolls!

One of my favorite websites, Doubtful News, has joined many other websites in shutting down its comments section. While I’m a bit disappointed, I can’t really blame her for making that decision. Even non-controversial websites can be deluged with trolls, loonies, people who think that screaming, insults and making threats are a legitimate form of debate. A site like hers is like dangling a juicy worm in front of a hungry fish for people like that. I’ve been fortunate enough that GF is small enough and non-controversial enough that it doesn’t attract a great deal of that.

I occasionally enjoy the comments sections. Or did. Once upon a time you might find additional information about the story, or insightful comments, polite disagreement, well thought out arguments. But for the last couple of years or so I generally don’t bother any more. Those days of rational debate are long gone. (If they ever existed.) Now it seems that there is no topic so innocuous, no subject so non-controversial, no statement so utterly innocent, that it doesn’t cause a writer to be verbally abused by someone. Having an unmoderated comments section on almost any website these days is an invitation to descend into pure lunacy.

It is simply impossible to have a comments section without some kind of controls being placed that restricts that kind of behavior. But the simple act of refusing to publish the more outrageous comments is itself an excuse for further abuse. If you refuse to print even the most insane and abusive comments, someone, somewhere,  will accuse you of somehow violating their right of “free speech”.

When it comes to that “right”, however, you don’t have one. At least not in those circumstances. The right to free speech applies really only to government control of the media. Privately owned magazines, newspapers, websites, etc. can publish or refuse to publish anything they wish. You may have the right to say whatever you want, but no one is under any obligation to give you a forum for your words.

So while I regret Sharon closed down the comments over at Doubtful News, I do not blame her in the slightest.