Farm Catch Up: Why Are We Seeing Shortages?

Oh, oh, GF is trying to do artsy stuff again.

I haven’t done one of these in a long time so I thought it’s high time I took a look at what’s happening in the agricultural world. Especially now because the situation is difficult, to put it mildly. Well, not exactly agriculture directly in this article. I want to try to explain why we’re seeing empty shelves in the grocery stores when we actually don’t have any real shortages of product.

Empty Shelves

We all know that when this started almost immediately stores were stripped bare of sanitizer, sanitizing cleaners, hand soap, protective equipment like masks and gloves, etc. This was followed by store shelves being stripped of toilet paper, paper towels, and then food products, especially staples like rice, beans, flour, canned foods, butter, etc. And, oddly, even things with short shelf life like milk and cream. (Why in the world would people who almost never drink milk in the first place suddenly need to buy gallons at a time? I have no idea.)

But despite the bare shelves there are no real shortages, at least not of consumer food products. There are several factors behind the empty shelves you’re seeing in the stores. Hoarders (how much hoard could a hoarder hoard if a hoarder could hoard hoard?) and profiteers are behind some of this, of course, but the biggest disruptions are due to the way our manufacturing and distribution systems work.

We have what amounts to two almost entirely separate production and supply systems. The first is the consumer system that makes and sells product to you and me. It provides products that individual consumers want, in relatively small quantities that are suitable for individuals or families. The second is the commercial system that sells in bulk quantities to institutions like restaurants, schools, hospitals, prison systems, etc. and industrial processors that use those products to make still other products, like the processed food industry.

The result of this system is that we are in a rather bizarre situation where we have surpluses and shortages, of exactly the same products, at exactly the same time. Dairy is an example of this. Even while a lot of people are reporting shortages of milk and grocery stores putting strict limits on how much milk people can buy, we have such a surplus of milk on the supply side that a lot of farmers are dumping the stuff down the drain because they can’t find a processor to buy it.

So how the hell can you have a shortage and a surplus at the same time?

Well, we have a situation where most schools are closed, most restaurants are closed, a lot of businesses are closed, and a lot of people who would normally be at work or at school are now stuck at home. This means that meals that normally would have been eaten at school, work cafeterias, food trucks, restaurants, etc. are now being eaten at home. (About 50% of the money we spend on food here in the US is spent on meals eaten away from home.) Which means people are buying a lot more groceries, and more milk and dairy products in general for consumption at home. Add in the hoarders who, for some reason, think they need to buy six gallons of milk at a time (seriously, I’ve seen people doing this) despite the fact it will go bad long before they’ll ever use it, and it puts pressure on the whole distribution system delivering milk to grocery stores.

At the same time, schools are a major buyer of milk for the school lunch program, and they are largely shut down. As are restaurants.

So at the consumer level, the grocery store part of the market, we’re seeing increased purchases of products, while at the same time on the commercial side of things we’re seeing a dramatic loss of sales of similar products. So we’re having both shortages and surpluses, at the same time, of the same product.

Why not switch the commercial production facilities to produce for the consumer market? Well, you can’t. Production facilities used to make the half pint cartons for the school lunch program can’t be switched over to making gallon jugs for grocery stores. They use entirely different manufacturing and bottling equipment. The same is true for other sectors of the market. Attempting to switch from production of products for institutional and commercial markets to production for consumer markets is extremely difficult and very expensive. By the time a switchover could be done, the pandemic situation will have subsided and manufacturers will find themselves with manufacturing facilities that are now set up to make the wrong product.

Instead of dumping milk make cheese out of it? Can’t do that either. Cheese makers were already running at nearly 100% capacity even before this started. And even if there was the capacity to produce cheese, there isn’t any market for it because the cheese market is saturated to begin with.

The same is much the same with other products. The products are there, but those products aren’t in a form consumers would accept because they’re intended for the institutional or commercial market and are available only in bulk or in a form consumers don’t want. Toilet paper is a good example of this. While there are shortages on the consumer side, there is a glut on the institutional side of the market. With schools and a lot of businesses shut down, sales of TP for those markets has dried up. But the TP intended for that market would be entirely unacceptable for consumer use. The rolls are too big, or in sizes that wouldn’t fit a home TP holder, or the quality… Well, if you’ve used a restroom in a school you know what a miserable excuse for toilet paper that stuff is.

I have to mention the distribution system, too. Most companies, including grocery stores, switched to what is generically called a “just in time inventory” system long ago. That means that stores don’t stockpile product. You won’t find back rooms chock full of TP or canned goods or whatever at your average store. The store orders only enough product for a very limited amount of time. If they get deliveries every, oh, three days let’s say, they will order only enough product to deal with three days worth of normal sales. Why? Because storage costs money. Adding square footage to a store not only increases its build cost, it also increases its property tax bills, heating and cooling costs, electric costs, etc. So space devoted exclusively to storage of product is kept to an absolute minimum.

Normally this system works fairly well. But these aren’t normal times, so when a store gets hit by abnormally high sales of specific products, well, the whole system falls apart fast. When the panic buying started, grocery stores would see an entire day’s worth of a product sold out in an hour. Seeing the empty shelves spooked other consumers, who immediately panicked and started cleaning out the shelves of other products. Stores would restock as fast as they could, only to burn through several days worth of product in just a few hours thanks to panic buying.

If the distributors had an adequate inventory on hand it wouldn’t have been such a big problem. But they didn’t either. They were using the “just in time” system too, and were only stocking enough product to support their stores for a limited amount of time. Those stocks were depleted within days, and they were scrambling to get product from the flour mills, dried bean distributors, rice distributors, etc. to try to restock. The mills and packaging companies had more than enough bulk product on hand, but their packaging facilities couldn’t increase production beyond a certain point. Basically the entire distribution system began to fail under the strain of the panic buying and the increase in consumer sales.

The system is, finally, starting to adapt, at least around here. But as for what’s going to happen in the future, well, that’s anyone’s guess.

Wisconsin Lost 10% of its Dairy Farms in 2019

There has been bad news all over the dairy industry in the past year, it seems. First Dean Foods declared bankruptcy, then just a few weeks later Borden, and now this – In 2019 Wisconsin lost 818 dairy farms, the most ever in a single year. Over the last ten years we’ve lost 44% of our dairy farms, more than 5,600.

When I was a kid, there were ten or eleven small family dairy farms on the road we lived on. Today there are only two remaining. Our place, with 140 acres and milking about 40 cows, was actually the biggest farm on the road at the time. Today that size seems almost ridiculously tiny. The average dairy farm today milks 170 cows, but even that is misleading because most of those cows are now on farms where they’re milking 500 to several thousand cows. They still call them “family farms”, and I suppose technically that’s true because a single family is the majority owner of the corporation the farm operates under. But in reality those “family farms” are no more family farms than Walmart is a family company because Sam Walton’s descendents still own stock in the company.

Borden Dairy Files Bankruptcy

Borden Dairy Company filed for bankruptcy. Borden said it had debts of $500 million and assets of only $100 million. It employs over 3,000 people. This doesn’t mean the company will completely go out of business, and the statement said the company will continue operations as it works out a way to get its finances straightened out.

Interestingly, Borden was listed as one of Forbes 2019 “Most Reputable Companies” back in May, where it was listed as number 16. Obviously Forbes didn’t look at the company’s actual finances when making up that list.

When companies like Borden and Dean Foods goes under, the pundits and the companies themselves are quick to point the finger of blame at anything and everything. The articles I’ve read about the Borden’s bankruptcy and the earlier Dean Food bankruptcy blame the decline in the consumption of milk, the increasing popularity of plant based “milk”, changes in diet, dietary fads, major retailers like Walmart building their own milk processing facilities, etc. They blame it on everything except the real reason, the company itself. Or, rather the management of the company. The company itself was unable to adapt to changing market conditions, and that is what drove them into financial failure.

Yes, consumption of liquid (drinking) milk has been declining. But this is a trend that has been going on for decades. They can’t claim that they were blindsided by this. Walmart made no secret of the fact that it wanted to build its own milk processing facilities. That was known for years before they actually did it. The growing interest in vegetarian and vegan diets that reduce or even eliminate the consumption of dairy products isn’t new either. This is a trend that has also been going on for years now. The same is true for the increased interest in grain and nut based “milk” products.

That Bordens and Dean couldn’t make it is due entirely to the failure of their own management teams being unable to adapt to changing markets.

I’m sitting here in eastern Wisconsin, just 20 miles or so south of Green Bay, and I’m surrounded by dairy companies that are doing pretty darn good. Over the last few years I’ve seen at least a half dozen major expansions by large processing companies, mostly cheese makers, including some multinational corporations. And they’re all doing pretty well. Why? Because they’ve been able to adapt to a changing market.

Dean and Borden failed because they didn’t adapt to an ever changing marketplace.

Catching Up

It’s been a while since I talked about what has been going on in the ag industry. And I’ve probably been babbling far too much about radio and other non-farming/gardening stuff lately anyway, so let’s take a look at the ag sector. And I’ll slip some radio stuff in at the end that you can ignore if you want.

USMCA (NAFTA 2.0) Passes the House

As I mentioned in a previous post the trade deal to replace NAFTA is finally done and being considered by Congress.. The House has passed one version of it now, with some minor changes, but it has yet to be dealt with by the Senate. It’s not likely it will get passed this year yet (it’s already Dec 21 as I write this) and considering what is going on in D.C., it’s anyone’s guess as to when the Senate will be taking it up. Despite all of the hype coming out of Washington, right now the agreement looks like it is going to be at least as bad as the original NAFTA was. There are some improvements in the protection of workers in Mexico and environmental protections, but other than that, it doesn’t really make many changes. It’s basically NAFTA 1 with a bandaid on it. The claims that it will create jobs for tens of thousands of people and boost the US economy are completely unrealistic. This is another of those deals where the only people who benefit from it are the big corporations and a handful of special interests, but that’s par for the course with agreements like these. The original NAFTA wiped out tens of thousands of jobs, drove a lot of US manufacturing into Mexico, and disrupted the Mexican economy, especially in rural areas. This one probably won’t be as disruptive, but it isn’t going to help much. You can go look up the analysis of the treaty yourself, but right now it looks like it is going to have little or no positive effects on the US economy, and might even be worse for us than the original treaty was.

Trade War Update

It looks like things might finally be calming down a bit with China on the trade front. The administration has been claiming agreements have been made and that China is going to start buying massive amounts of soybeans and other agricultural products from the US. And, well, no, they aren’t. At least not the quantities that they’re claiming in D.C. Some of the numbers I’ve been seeing are simply ridiculous. Things are getting better, yes, but don’t look to China to start importing massive quantities of anything from us. There might be some buys, yes, but I suspect most of those are going to be little more than token purchases with few exceptions.

China lost half of it’s entire pig production because of African Swine Fever. It seems to have finally gotten the outbreak under control, but it’s going to be years before things are close to normal. Most of the soybeans China had been buying from the US was going to pig feed. So it’s unlikely it will be making massive soybean buys to feed a pig herd that doesn’t exist any more.

One thing that has improved hugely for US agriculture is China increasing the amount of pork and chicken. Because of ASF China’s lost half of its pig production, which has caused food prices to increase and there is a shortage of protein. So China has increased its buys of US pork and it recently granted permits and licensing to Tyson to sell US chicken in China. While this will certainly help the pork and chicken producers in the US, this is going to be a temporary bump that will only last until China can rebuild it’s pig herds.

African Swine Fever

ASF continues to be a major problem not only in China, which lost over half of its pigs, but also throughout South East Asia. Serious outbreaks are going on in Vietnam and the Philippines. In Sumatra it’s killed about 33,000 pigs. It’s also been found in North and South Korea, Mongolia, Cambodia, and Myanmar, as well in eastern Europe and parts of Africa. Some people feel it’s only a matter of time before it hits Australia despite it’s extremely strict regulations. For some reason people keep trying to smuggle pork from the ASF contaminated countries into other places. Smuggling is an ongoing problem in the US. We confiscate tons of sausages and other pork products from these countries that airline passengers try to smuggle through in their luggage, and even whole shiploads of pork from them. Australia confiscated 32 tons of pork products just from passengers and mailed packages alone in the last half year, half of which was contaminated with the virus. The virus itself hasn’t been seen in the U.S. yet, but it is in the wild pigs in Europe which is making everyone over there more than a little nervous. The US has a pretty good wild pig population, and while they aren’t a big issue (yet) here in Wisconsin, the DNR has issued an advisory to hunters with just about any kind of hunting license to shoot wild pigs, no “season”, no bag limit, just shoot ’em. They’re a huge problem in a lot of states, causing massive amounts of damage. Plus they carry a lot of diseases. If ASF ever gets into the wild pig herd here we’re going to be in trouble.

It was a Rough Year in the Midwest


That’s not one of my photos over there. MrsGF’s surgeries and other things kept me from getting out with the camera, but that is pretty much how it looked around here this year, especially at harvest time. Water everywhere. We officially had the wettest year ever. According to one report I read the longest dry spell we had without rain was three days. That sounded a bit odd to me so I started digging through some of the weather data and it isn’t far from the truth.

By anyone’s standards, it wasn’t a very good year for midwest farmers. Almost non-stop rain made it difficult to get anything done. There were delays in planting, delays in harvest, reduction in yields, all because of the wet weather. Around here there are still a lot of soybean and corn fields that haven’t been harvested at all because of the rain.

Corn prices never broke $4, although soybean prices weren’t horrible. But on top of relatively low corn prices, we had propane shortages which made getting the corn dried difficult and expensive.

The only bright spot was that milk prices finally came up to a fairly decent level for the first time in years. Class III milk is currently sitting at over $19 on the commodities market, but it doesn’t look like it will stay there much longer. January and February prices are down to $17 on the futures market.

Housing Issues

As if farmers didn’t have enough to worry about, finding employees continues to be a major problem both here in Wisconsin and in the ag business throughout the country. And as if that isn’t bad enough, an increasingly serious problem is where the heck are your employees going to live even if you do find some? This is a problem for almost every employer around here, not just farmers. Chances are good that employees aren’t going to be able to afford to live anywhere reasonably close to where they actually work. There is virtually zero housing in this town that would be affordable for the average low income worker. And it’s not going to be getting better any time soon. The town is putting in a new subdivision, and is quite proud of itself for doing so, but it isn’t going to actually help the average factory or farm worker around here because all of those new houses are going to be in the $180K to $250K range. What we really need are apartments that rent for about, oh, $500 – $600 a month, not houses that will have $1,500 to $2,000 a month mortgage payments.

What’s happening here is that we have a larger and larger population of people who live here, but don’t actually, well, live here, if that makes any sense. Yes, their houses are here, but their entire lives are up in the Fox Valley area about 20 miles away (the cluster of cities and towns up in the corridor that runs from Appleton, Neenah, Menash, and extends up to Green Bay). They can’t afford a house up in the Fox Valley any more, but they can afford one here. So while this may be their residence, their entire lives are centered around the Fox Valley. They buy groceries there, go to restaurants up there, meet their friends up there, do all their shopping up there. So they may live here, but they don’t actually live here. They don’t patronize local businesses, don’t send their kids to school here, don’t participate in local social events, and aren’t really part of the community.

So not only do we not have housing that is affordable by the average person bolting together snowblowers for $14 an hour, we have an increasing percentage of the population of the town who aren’t really engaged with the community at all. Their residences are here, yes, but they live their lives up in the Valley. They almost totally disengaged from the community they live in. And as a result we no longer have a clinic, no longer have a real grocery store, no longer have a pharmacy… Well, you get the idea.

It’s especially difficult for the immigrant community who make up the majority of labor in low paying jobs like farming, manufacturing (they like to talk about how well manufacturing pays – yeah, right. Starting wages at the snowblower place are about $12.95 an hour with no benefits and technically they don’t even work for the company, but for a “temp” agency.) They’re glad to get the jobs and the employers are glad to have them because they can’t find anyone else to do the work. But where are they going to live?

The Move

I’ve been talking for a while about moving all my electronics gear, the radio equipment, etc. down into a new shop/radio shack in the basement so MrsGF can take over our shared office so she’ll have room for her own projects. She enjoys sewing, making things, and would like to do quilting, but her existing workspace is a tiny, virtually unheated room upstairs, and there isn’t the room for it up there. Plus its cold in the winter up there. And even with her new knees I don’t want her to have to go up and down stairs a lot. So she’s going to be taking over the office area and I’m moving into the basement.

Now that she’s pretty much recovered from the 2nd knee replacement, I’ve started moving the “big stuff” down there. I have my primary computer down there now (I actually have space for the drawing tablet now!), the big TS-990, the antenna tuner, etc. Much to my surprise, I actually remembered how all of the cables hooked up and when I fired it all up everything actually worked! First time that’s ever happened.

I still need to do a lot of work down there. I have walls that still need to be painted. I still don’t have the electrical straightened out. I need to add at least two outlet boxes on the wall by the computer and radios, plus I need a 240V outlet there for the amplifier. Not sure why because I haven’t used the amp in years, but would be nice if I could.

I didn’t show it in the photos because it’s a huge mess at the moment, but behind me and to the left of that photo is my work bench which is covered with misc. parts, test equipment, tools, bits and pieces of RaspberryPi computers and accessories and breadboards where I’m testing radio circuits intended for the receiver I’m building. And that leads us to…

Update On The Great Radio Fiasco Project

Nice soldering technique she’s got there… (This image is somewhat infamous. Can you see why?)

I bet you thought I conveniently ‘forgot’ about that project because I am the seventh laziest person in the state (hey, I’ve gotten better, I used to be third). I haven’t, though. I’m still puttering along with this thing, even though I haven’t even fired up a soldering iron yet. Mostly I’ve been doing research. There’s no point in reinventing the wheel. Considering that radio has been around for like a gazillion years, someone, somewhere, must have already published plans for a radio receiver that I could steal (cough cough) borrow, right?

I had some basic criteria in mind when I started this. First it had to be as simple as possible, something that just about anyone who, unlike the young woman in the photo up there, knows how to use a soldering iron without suffering third degree burns can put together. Second, it had to use easily available parts, stuff the average person could get from Amazon or one of the parts suppliers like Mouser. Third, it had to be cheap. I want to encourage people to experiment and build stuff, not blow the family’s entire grocery budget for the month on exotic electronics parts. Fourth, it was going to use “old school”, so to speak, construction techniques and components. No printed circuit boards, no ICs, no SDRs, no surface mount devices, etc.

And fifth and possibly most important, it had to be a genuinely useful radio receiver that people could actually use. There are dozens, even hundreds of plans out there of various types for things like crystal radios and one transistor receivers and other nonsense that… Well, okay, so they might work, under absolutely ideal conditions, with a great deal of fiddling around, and if you live right next door to a 100,000 watt transmitter. But in the real world none of those actually work very well, if at all.

Anyway, I’m looking at various ideas and sketching some things out and doing some experimenting, and hopefully in a short (short? Ha!) time I’ll have something to show for all of this. Hopefully something that actually works. What’s been discouraging is that the schematics and projects I’ve found often contain such basic, fundamental mistakes that it makes me believe that the author never actually built the project himself and just, well, stole it, to be blunt, from someone else who also hadn’t actually built it either. I’ve been seeing things like electrolytic capacitors installed backwards, emitter and collector pins on transistors reversed, wrong pinouts shown on ICs like opamps and similar basic errors that should have been caught if anyone had bothered to actually look at the schematics.

And that’s it for now.

USDA To Re-Survey Planted Acres for Entire Corn Belt | Agweb.com

USDA To Re-Survey Planted Acres for Entire Corn Belt

Source: USDA To Re-Survey Planted Acres for Entire Corn Belt | Agweb.com

Perhaps a few days ago you heard a rather loud “thud” that echoed all across the farm belt. That was the sound of every corn farmer’s jaw in the U.S. hitting the floor at the same time as they read the estimated corn planted acres just released by the USDA. If you’ve been reading this blog, you know we’ve been having weather problems here in the corn belt. Rain, and lots of it, has meant big delays in getting crops in the ground, and a lot of fields are standing empty because the farmers couldn’t plant at all.

So when the USDA report of acres planted came out and USDA claimed 91.7 million acres of corn was planted this spring 3% more than last year, a lot of farmers looked out the window at fields that were either still seas of mud, unplanted, or planted with cover crops that aren’t going to pay their bills, there was a collective “WTF???” uttered across the entire corn belt as we all wondered what the hell USDA is smoking.

There was so much disbelief and outright anger over the estimate that USDA had to start backpedaling almost immediately and admit that there might be “a problem” with some of their data, and start looking for excuses to explain how their estimates are almost 10 million acres higher than what the best estimates have been from other sources. Typically, they did what they do best, shifted the blame to the farmers themselves, stating that their data isn’t based on the actual number of acres farmers planted, but it was based on what farmers said they might plant at the start of the season…

Anyway, USDA now says they’re going to take a do-over and resurvey the entire midwest to see if they can get better numbers, but that isn’t going to be done until August, we’re told, by which time, well, it isn’t going to matter much anyway so in reality the resurvey is really going to be little more than a waste of time and money.

I haven’t seen so much anger and outrage in the ag community in a long time. Normally the comments sections at AgWeb are, well, empty, really. If someone does make a comment it’s relatively thoughtful and calm. But now? The comments on this story were livid. How could USDA screw up the numbers so badly? We’re talking close to a ten million acre discrepancy here according to some sources.

USDA’s reputation was already on somewhat shakey ground before this happened. The agency already had a reputation of providing crop and yield estimates that weren’t accurate. That was generally attributed to sheer incompetence and not outright fraud.

But it wasn’t just the crop numbers that seemed a bit off. Other things were going on at USDA as well have made the agency look, well, more than a little shady. It’s made decisions that have favored the big ag monopolies and multinational corporations at the expense of the farmers the agency is supposed to protect. It’s seemed way too cosy with certain big ag business companies. And a lot of the people at USDA who are supposed to be helping and protecting farmers have come straight from the offices of the very companies USDA is supposed to be regulating.

After this report was released, a lot of farmers now think the fix is in, and that USDA is actively manipulating the data for the financial benefit of big commodities brokers, financial institutions, and the big ag companies. Just read the comments following some of these stories and you’ll see that even the farmers who don’t believe USDA has sold itself out lock, stock and barrel, think there is something going on over there.

World’s First Floating Dairy = Silliest Thing Ever?

Earning their sea legs, 32 cows have made agricultural history after boarding the world’s first floating dairy farm located in the Netherlands. Source: Cows Set Sail at World’s First Floating Dairy | Dairy Herd Management

I had to read this article twice before I realized that it wasn’t a belated April Fool joke and that they were serious about this. Yes, they’ve really built a kind of dairy farm on a barge floating in a harbor. Now I’ve tried to find out more information about this but all I’ve been able to find have been more PR fluff pieces, with little or no actual facts. The Beladon website link in the original story has been “in maintenance mode” for several days now (just what are they maintaining?) but there is a link to a site https://floatingfarm.nl/ about the farm itself. Sort of. If you like more PR speak, that is. (You’ll have to use Google Translate) And again, there are no actual facts, just lots and lots of enviro-babble and grand statements and “oh my, aren’t we wonderful!” silliness, and things like that tend to make me a bit skeptical.

I also noted that there is no mention of exactly what this white elephant cost them to build in any of the stories I found. It took a bit of digging to find that out and again, as with everything else about this, everything was more than a little vague. The only numbers I found were from about three years ago when they first proposed this project. They claimed at that time it would cost about $3 million to build this thing. $3 million… To house just 32 cows. (And they claim that traditional farming is wasteful???) And I’d be willing to bet that when all of the bills are added up, this was considerably more than that.

But then nothing about this project makes sense if you look at it closely. They claim that we need different methods of farming going into the future, that raising cattle is extremely wasteful in terms of land use, has pollution problems, etc. And they certainly are right about all of that. But this project doesn’t solve any of those problems.

They claim that moving the cows offshore onto a barge eliminates the need for large spaces for cattle to be raised. But the biggest use of land when it comes to cattle isn’t housing the cattle, it’s growing food for them. Millions of acres of cropland is used just to raise grain, soybeans and hay to feed cattle. The cows themselves are generally housed in feedlots or housing units that actually take up very little acerage. Simply moving the cows off the ground onto a barge doesn’t do anything to eliminate the need to grow food for them.

Now they claim that they’re going to grow 20% of the cattle feed right there in a sort of greenhouse on the top level using LED grow lights, and, well, good for them, but it ain’t going to happen. Do they even know how much cows eat? The average milking dairy cow eats about 100 pounds of feed per day. That means they need about 3,200 pounds of feed a day for their small herd. So their little green house will have to produce 640 pounds of high quality cattle feed per day. Ain’t gonna happen, as I said. But even if they did, that means they still need to come up with 80% of the cows’ diet from other sources, and they claim that’s going to come from human food waste. And there is a huge problem with that. Human food waste doesn’t make very good cattle feed.

Cows evolved to eat mostly grass with a bit of grass seed (i.e. grain) mixed in. And not much else. Modern cattle rations include soybeans and corn and other grains for added protein, mineral supplements and a lot of other stuff that isn’t part of a cow’s normal diet, but is added to improve milk production.

Now I don’t know about you, but here at the house we don’t eat a hell of a lot of grass, and what grain we do eat is almost all in the form of various baked goods like bread. Human food waste is made up mostly of things like spoiled fruit and vegetables, spoiled or outdated, highly processed baked goods, bits of fat, gristle and meat, and all of it thoroughly laced with salt, fats from a variety of sources, and lots and lots of preservatives, “flavor enhancers”, texture modifiers and other things that, while edible, aren’t really, well, food. Not for people and certainly not for cows.

Granted, there are some human foods cattle can eat, but that material is going to have to be carefully selected (requiring labor and energy), is going to have to be processed (more energy and labor), is going to have to be tested (more energy and labor), other feed products are going to have to be added to make sure the cattle are getting a diet that meets their nutritional needs (still more energy, labor and added feed costs), and… Well, when you add in the labor, the energy, the supplements, etc., then add in the cost of running that LED lighted green house that’s supposed to produce 20% of the cows’ diet, this is going to be the most expensive cow diet of all time.

Then there are other questions I’d like answered, like where is the energy going to come from to operate this thing and what is that going to cost? This is going to be very energy intensive, far more so than a normal cattle housing operation. Robotic milkers, the LED lighted greenhouse, the sophisticated sewage treatment system on the lower level, heating, cooling, ventilation… This operation is going to suck up a lot of energy.

So, how much milk are they going to get out of this system so they can pay their bills? They claim they’ll get about 200 gallons a day out of those 32 cows, and while that sounds like a lot, it really isn’t. Running calculations are a bit tedious because the dairy industry doesn’t generally deal with gallons of milk, at least at the farm level. Farmers are paid by the pound, not the gallon. Milk weighs about 8.6 pounds per gallon, so 200 gallons would be about 1,700 pounds, and they have 32 cows so that would mean production of about 53 pounds of milk per cow per day, while the average dairy cow in Wisconsin produces about 64+ pounds per day on average and our best producing cows put out considerably more than that. So when you look at the cost per pound of milk, this operation is going to be ridiculously expensive to operate and extremely inefficient in terms of milk production.

And then why in the world float the whole thing on a barge in a harbor? How are they going to deal with storms, waves, flooding, connecting pipelines, electric cables, communications cables, etc. back to the mainland? All that is going to require special infrastructure that is going to have to be built from scratch and will be very expensive.

Now I’m all for experimentation and innovation. But there is nothing innovative going on here. Every single technology and technique that they’re touting here has already been tried and is already, if it’s useful, being used. Robotic milking? Already being done and spreading rapidly. Using human food waste? Already being done where financially feasible. Treating cattle waste? Already being done. LED growing lights? Been around for ages. There is literally nothing new here. All of the technologies and techniques being used here are already being used, or have been tried and discarded because they weren’t practical or economical, or, like putting cattle on a barge, are so fraught with problems and impractical on the face of it that no one would bother even trying.

Back in the Victorian era there was a fad where wealthy people would build ornate, ridiculous and rather silly structures on their estates for no other reason than they could. These structures were often technically advanced, attractive, even artistic. But ultimately they were useless for any practical purpose. These structures started to be called a “folly”. That’s what this is. A modern version of the folly. Interesting but ultimately useless and utterly impractical.

Farm Catch Up

Spring has finally arrived! Well, sort of. At least according to the calendar if not the weather. It’s been too wet and too cold to be able to do much of anything outside except cleaning up the flower beds and yard. So let’s take a look at what’s going on in the ag industry since the last time I did one of these.

Dean Foods For Sale

If you’ve ever had a hankering to own one of the largest dairy processors in the world, now is your chance. Dean Foods, once the largest dairy processor in the U.S., is apparently trying to sell itself off. The company has been having a difficult time of it. It’s been forced to close processing facilities, it lost a major contract with Walmart, and its efforts to rebrand some of its products and buy into other businesses haven’t been successful, or at least not successful enough to prop up the company’s dwindling sales. It’s been missing its sales targets for something like two years in a row now, and there are no signs things are going to get any better. Supposedly Canadian based Saputo, the 8th largest dairy company in the world, is interested in acquiring Dean. If successful this would be just the latest in a wave of mega-mergers among agriculture related businesses in the last few years.

If you find these mega-mergers to be troubling, well, you should. Despite claims to the contrary, these mergers are resulting in the creation of huge, multinational companies that dominate their markets and often they have virtual monopolies on the product lines they sell.

Bayer Stockholders Angry

Speaking of mega-mergers, Bayer’s management is facing repercussions from stockholders over it’s acquisition of Monsanto. It was expected that a lot of large stockholders were going to disapprove of the board of directors’ and management’s acquisition of Monsanto at the annual general meeting of the company. While this doesn’t change what management has done, it does indicate that a lot of stockholders are very angry over the decision to buy Monsanto, and the subsequent legal problems over the lawsuits about the adverse health effects from RoundUp, and most importantly, Bayer’s plummeting stock value.

Frankly, buying Monsanto was a really bad idea from the beginning, and if the executives at Bayer didn’t realize it, the company’s lawyers sure as hell should have. Even back when the negotiations for the purchase started Monsanto was already facing thousands of lawsuits over the alleged cancer risks of glyphosate. Now there are about 13,000 lawsuits in the pipeline concerning the herbicide. No, that was not a typo. Thirteen thousand.

And that isn’t the end of Monsanto’s legal problems. There is the whole dicamba fiasco to be concerned about as well. The lawsuits over the damage the company’s dicamba based herbicide has done since it was released a couple of years ago, along with lawsuits over Monsanto’s marketing tactics for it’s dicamba resistant soybeans, are starting to pop up now and are only going to get worse. Basically Monsanto is a legal nightmare and it is dragging down Bayer with it.

Beef Industry Lawsuits

While I’m on the subject of legal problems, the beef industry has been hit with two separate but related lawsuits alleging the four biggest beef packing companies, Tyson, JBS, Cargill and United Beef Packing (together they control 80% of the US beef market) conspired together to manipulate the price they paid to cattle growers and the prices charged to consumers. Basically it’s another claim of monopolies using their lock on the market to manipulate prices. Just those four companies control about 80% of the beef market in the US. Anyway, I won’t go into depth on this one. I’ll leave it to you to follow the link and sort out the details if you’re interested.

Walmart Gets Into Beef

I mentioned Walmart briefly when I talked about Dean Foods. Dean lost a huge contract to make Walmart’s house brand liquid milk not long ago when the retailer decided to experiment with eliminating the middleman and become its own processor. It built a large milk processing facility, cut deals with dairy farms to supply milk, and cut Dean Foods out completely in one district.

Walmart is now trying to do the same thing with beef. It is developing its own end to end supply chain to supply beef to some 500 Walmart stores. This won’t take care of all of Walmart’s meat. Most of it will still be supplied by Tyson and Cargill. But it does indicate a troubling trend where these big companies are trying to develop a complete monopoly over not only sales, but supply as well. Costco is doing something similar with chicken, developing its own supply chain that will supply about 40% of its needs.

Trade Wars Continue: Updated 5/6/19

I had this section all wrapped up and ready to go when the you-know-what hit the fan and… Okay, here’s what’s going on.

I really want to talk about the China situation, but let’s deal with something closer to home first, the new NAFTA treaty, USMCA, the US-Mexic0-Canada-Agreement. The USMCA negotiations finished some time ago, a treaty was agreed to, and all is well and good now, right? (Side note: Am I the only one who thinks USMCA is the title of a Village People song?)

Well, no. Yes, the treaty was negotiated, but everything is most definitely not good because not only are we still operating under the old NAFTA treaty, the administration has still left the punitive tariffs in place that have been causing disruptions of the economies of all three countries.

So what the hell is going on? We have the new treaty, so why are we still operating under the old NAFTA and why are the tariffs in place yet? Because before a treaty can go into effect it has to be ratified by the US Senate, and the US Senate has been doing what it does best, acting like a bunch of petulant, spoiled brats who are more interested in back stabbing each other and playing at politics and dabbling in personal attacks than they are in actually doing their bloody jobs. Supposedly one of the reasons why the tariffs are still in place is because the administration is trying to use that to goad the Senate into doing something. And since that hasn’t worked, the administration has threatened to cancel the existing NAFTA treaty, which would cause utter chaos, if the Senate doesn’t get off its ass and actually do its job for a change.

Now let’s move on to China. Now if you haven’t really been following what’s been going on there, you can be excused for thinking that all is sweetness and goodness and we’re all well on the way to being best buddies and all of this trade war nonsense will be over soon and, well, no. Sorry, but no.

As you’ve probably found out in the last couple of days, despite all of the positive PR fluff that’s been released by both sides over the last few months, things have most definitely not been going well with the negotiations. While both sides have been putting out positive sounding press releases, there have been issues, as they say. Behind the scenes things have been more than a bit testy.

Yes, China did a soybean purchase, but that was more PR than anything else. While the amount they purchased sounds quite large to the average person, in actual fact it was little more than a token purchase to indicate good faith on their part.

Things did sound positive for a while, though. Both sides were stating that things were going well and that they were on the verge of coming to an agreement. But then something happened. I’m not sure what, exactly, but whatever it was put a definite chill on the whole thing. There are a lot of rumors flying around. One is that the Chinese are very much aware of the legal and ethics issues the administration is involved with here in the US and as a result they just don’t trust anything the White House says.

Anyway, we suddenly had the administration muttering vague threats that it was considering pulling out of the negotiations entirely. Then the administration started threatening to ramp up the trade war to new heights, doubling the cost of the tariffs and including even more Chinese products in the tariff war. Then the Chinese started threatening to pull out of the negotiations… Oh, brother…

As I write this (May 7, 2019) things look tense, and the effects from this little tiff are rippling through the economy. The stock market is down. Commodities prices have fallen. Corn is down to 3.55, soybeans are down to 8.20… Sigh…

Even more disturbing is the fact that statements being made by the administration indicate that the administration doesn’t really know how tariffs work in the first place. One statement implied that the administration believes that China is paying the tariffs and that they are actually good for our economy. If the administration really believes that, it shows a fundamental ignorance about what tariffs are. Let me explain.

A tariff is intended to discourage the importing of a particular product into the US by increasing it’s cost to the importer. Let me emphasize that by repeating it: “increasing it’s cost to the importer.” Not the country of origin, but to the person or company that is importing the product. So for the most part, China doesn’t pay anything extra on products it exports to the US (except indirectly through lost sales). The people who pay the tariff are the US companies that are importing the products. And that cost is passed along directly or indirectly to us, the consumers.

Let me emphasize that: China doesn’t pay the tariffs, we do.

This is one of the reasons why tariffs are generally a bad idea except under extreme circumstances. It causes as much economic pain or more to the country importing the products as it does to the country exporting them.

It also makes the stock and commodities markets very, very nervous, especially in this situation because they don’t know what the hell this administration is going to do next. The markets like stability. They like predictability. And this administration is providing neither of those things at the moment.

Well, I’ve been babbling along for far too long already here, so let’s wrap this up.

Hopefully in the very near future I’ll have some new radio equipment to talk about. I’m seriously considering going QRP and I’ve been looking at mag loop antennas and the Yaesu FT-818ND QRP transceiver. We’ll see how that goes.

Farm Catch Up

It’s bloody cold out there. In the last few of weeks we’ve had a 14 inch snow storm, some of the coldest weather the state’s ever had, followed by temperatures jumping from -37F to +50F in just a couple of days, then more snow, then back in the deep freeze again, then freezing rain and more snow. In other words, a fairly typical Wisconsin winter. So with nothing to do outside I might as as well do something to justify the name of this website and talk about farming for a while.

Stoned Pigs??

No, that’s not some kind of strange code or some new meme up there in that title. I mean seriously, we’re talking about feeding pigs weed. Well, sort of. Moto Perpetuo Farm in Oregon is feeding their pigs marijuana. They’re feeding scraps and outdated marijuana laced bakery products to their pigs because, well, they can, I guess. I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone would do something like this as some kind of marketing gimmick. And I suppose it’s better to feed the stuff to pigs than landfill all those brownies, cookies and other stuff when they go stale. Feeding bakery waste to pigs and other cattle is a pretty common practice and has been going on for as long as there have been bakeries. But feeding them marijuana brownies? Well, hell, why not, I guess. As MrsGF said when I told her about this she said “Damn, I bet those are some happy pigs!”

I wonder what this is doing to the pigs, though. Marijuana is not a normal part of a pig’s diet and while it doesn’t seem to be harming them, no one knows for sure. They seem to be doing this for no reason other than as some kind of marketing gimmick and that troubles me.

African Swine Fever

I haven’t seen much about ASF outside of the ag press, but this is a seriously scary disease if you’re in the pork business. ASF doesn’t harm humans, but it is highly contagious among pigs, and almost always fatal. There is no vaccine or treatment for it. It can’t be cured. All they can do is try to isolate it, and that is proving to be almost impossible. In China it has quickly spread to more than 25 provinces. The country has instituted bans on moving live pigs and other measures to try to contain it, but that doesn’t seem to have done much good. It’s been hitting small Chinese pig farmers hard because they have trouble dealing with the restrictions and health measures. It’s looking like a lot, if not all of the small pig farms will be put out of business by this.

It’s been spotted in the EU as well. Authorities are urging hunters to kill wild pigs which can carry the disease. There has even been talk of putting up fences along borders to keep wild pigs from spreading it into adjacent countries. France has supposedly deployed the military along the border with Belgium because they’re afraid swine from Belgium will sneak across the border

There is a swine fever problem going on in Japan as well, but that seems to be a different strain of disease that isn’t related to ASF. The country has slaughtered thousands of pigs in some prefectures in an effort to halt the spread of the disease, and the farm minister called the situation “extremely serious”. The major concern there is that no one knows how the disease is spreading.

Whole Milk in Schools?

You may not know this, but it is illegal to serve anything except low fat or skim milk in public school lunch programs. Apparently the belief is that if you let one tiny, tiny bit of milk fat past the lips of a child they will immediately swell up to 300 pounds, get diabetes and drop dead of a heart attack. Yeah, right… As if the few calories they’d get from whole milk is going to make any difference to a kid who is gorging on chips, soda, candy, and sodium loaded fast food outside of school.

Anyway, a couple of professional criminals — ahem, excuse me, I mean congress persons, are trying to change that and are putting forward a new regulation that would permit whole milk to be served, accompanied by the usual hype from the dairy industry. The usual suspects, the various dairy marketing organizations, are hyping the hell out of this, using it as an opportunity to promote the alleged “health benefits” of drinking milk. They are desperate to try to prop up ever decreasing consumption of milk. About 10 ethically challenged bas… oops, a bit of a typo there… Ten congress persons have signed onto this thing so far and I would think more will join up because it’s “for the children”, makes them look like they really care when they don’t, and doesn’t cost them anything while letting them suck up those yummy bribes … oops, another typo there. I mean, of course, campaign contributions from the dairy industry. Wink wink nudge nudge…

Uh? What do you mean I’m a cynical old grouch?

Dicamba Antitrust Lawsuit

I’ve talked about the herbicide dicamba before so I won’t go into detail about it here except say it is nasty stuff with a habit of vaporizing and drifting long distances and killing and damaging millions of acres of crops, mostly soybeans, and a lot of other plants. Despite changing the formula of the herbicide, more strict application regulations, etc., nothing seems to have stopped the damage.

A new lawsuit has been started against Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, claiming it violated antitrust laws when it introduced it’s “Xtend” brand dicamba resistant soybeans. Xtend soybeans have taken over almost 75% of the North American soybean market in just three years. The company claims this is because their seed is just better. The plaintiffs claim that sales are driven, at least partly, by fear.

The claim is that farmers are planting the stuff not because it’s better, but because they’re afraid they’re going to lose their whole crop if their neighbors use the stuff and the herbicide drifts over their fields. That fear is entirely justified because dicamba damaged or killed millions of acres traditional soybeans across the country since it came into widespread use when Xtend seed came on the market. They also claim that seed salespeople are actively promoting this fear, telling farmers that if they don’t buy Xtend seed, they risk losing their whole crop. The lawsuit claims that Monsanto knew about the risk of dicamba drift and deliberately exploited it in order to drive competitors out of the market.

Bayer, which bought Monsanto last year, denies it, claims that the herbicide doesn’t drift if used properly, and claims that damage from drift were down last year after new restrictions were put in place. The plaintiffs claim that the damage has been reduced because farmers have been forced to buy the Xtend seed or face losing their crops.

Rent A Chicken. Seriously?

In the “no one ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American people” department: There is something out there called “Rent a Chicken”. For “just” $450 – $600 a season, this outfit will rent you a couple of chickens, a small coop, a bag of feed and a couple of dishes. And…

Oh, come on, really? The free range “organic” eggs you’ll get out of those two birds will cost you something like $20 a dozen. Plus you will experience the “joy” of taking care of a pair of birds that will try to escape, run out into the road and get run over, piss off your neighbors and leave chicken crap all over your yard for your kids to play in.

But apparently people are actually doing this. And enough of them are doing it to let this outfit have outlets in 23 states and parts of Canada and…

Look, you can get free range, organic eggs from small farmers around here for about $5/doz if you’re looking for eggs. And if you think a chicken is going to be your pet, well, tell that to the emergency room doctor when you have to take your four year old in to get her face stitched up after the bird went for her. Can you say tetanus shots?

Look, if you really, really want to have a couple of chickens for some reason, here’s how you can do it for free.

You can cobble together a pretty good coop out of an old pallet or two and chances are good you can pick up a couple free. The birds themselves? Check Craigslist or other community bulletin boards and you’ll generally find ads from people trying to give the things away because they found out what you’re about to find out, that chickens are A) stupid, B) vicious, C) annoying, D) filthy, E) without a carefully controlled diet the eggs they produce (if any) taste bloody awful, and F) drop dead for no apparent reason leaving you to try to explain to little Rachel why her bird went to live in chicken heaven, and costing you thousands of dollars in therapy bills when you haven’t even paid off the ER bill yet from the time the chicken tried to peck her face off. And as for feeding them, well, that’s free too because, well, your neighbors got bird feeders, right? Besides, chickens will eat damn near anything including small rodents, bugs, snakes and each other.

Fake Yogurt

Danone, makers of Dannon and Activia coagulated milk products (yogurt), bought a building in Pennsylvania that it plans to use to make “vegan yogurt”. Basically you take soybeans or some other legume or nut, process the hell out of it, spin off some kind of juice from it, throw in a bunch of chemicals and additives to make it vaguely resemble real yogurt, add a lot of sugar and/or artificial sweeteners and flavoring agents so people can gag it down, then throw in some bacteria, cheap vitamins mass produced in China, and then use a massive marketing campaign to convince you it’s “healthy”.

Anyway, the company has jumped into the fake dairy product market with both feet. Back in ’16 it bought the company that manufactures Silk and other vegan products for something like $12 billion so they want to get into the fake milk and dairy business really, really bad because, well, profits, of course. Sales of regular yogurt have gone flat or even started to decline in some areas so it has to do something to prop up the sales.

What really caught my eye in this story was the term “flexitarian”. I’d never heard of it before. What the hell is, some of you are asking, a flexitarian? A flexitarian, my friends, is a vegetarian who eats meat. Seriously. Oh, they say, I’m better than you are because I don’t eat a lot of meat… And, well, it’s all just pretentious drivel. It’s greenwashing on a personal level

Tinder for Cows

Yeah, seriously, Tinder for cows. A company in the UK has introduced an app called “Tudder” which lets farmers find breeding matches for their cattle by using a Tinder style app where you can swipe left or right as you page through a selection of cows and bulls. You can narrow things down by specifying various characteristics such as breed of animal, whether it’s organic or not, health, age, etc. I know it sounds silly but there is a genuine market for this kind of app. It isn’t being put out by a fly by night company, either. It’s backed by Hectare, which provides marketing platforms for trading cattle and grains that are used by about a third of UK farmers.

And, of course, the article offers the obligatory pun about a possible sheep version called “Ewe-Harmony”.

A2 Milk. Again…

as2mlkI hadn’t really planned on talking about a2 milk but it’s started to show up at a few stores locally and some people were asking me about it. I thought I’d covered so-called “a2” milk here before in depth but a quick search through the archives only turned up a couple of brief comments about it. I know I wrote about it before so either the search failed to turn it up in the archives or I published that piece somewhere else. I suppose it could have been on my defunct Tumblr blog. So I’m going to take a look at it again and if I did publish this before, well, it won’t be the first time I’ve repeated myself. Hey, I’m old. I’m lucky if I can remember my phone number some days.

Now, the news…

Back in mid summer a2 Milk (the company) got itself a new CEO, Jayne Hrdlicka, brought over from Qantas Airways because apparently selling airplane tickets is just like selling milk.

Just two months later, in September, Hrdlicka abruptly sold all of the stock in the company that she owned, some 357,000 shares.

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Note clever re-use of cow drawing from past blog entry thus saving writer time so he can watch cheesy Korean soap operas.

Now when the brand new CEO of a company abruptly sells every single share of the company she heads up, a lot of people sort of stare and go WTF??? The company issued a statement saying that she did so to meet “tax obligations”. And, of course, everyone sort of chuckled and said “yeah, sure she did”. Especially after those people found out that the company’s CFO, Craig Loutit, sold off 150,000 shares in the company a couple of weeks before the CEO did, and, well… Makes you wonder, doesn’t it, when the CFO sells off a large percentage of his shares in the company and the new CEO who has been on the job for only two months sells off all of her shares in the company?

And then came the announcement that Nestle is jumping into the “a2” milk market by selling infant formula based on “a2” milk in China, a major market for the A2 Milk company and…

Well, let’s sum things up here:  The CFO of the company sells off a large chunk of stock in the company. Shortly thereafter the new CEO sells all of her stock in the company for “tax obligations”, and a few weeks later Nestle announces it is moving into what had been A2M’s exclusive territory with a virtually identical product… Nope, nothing to see here. Let’s move on, shall we?

What the heck is a2 milk anyway?

There is a lot of different stuff in milk, and some people are sensitive to some of the things in milk or are even outright allergic to some of the components. My oldest son, for example,  is mildly lactose intolerant.

So prepare for your eyes to glaze over because I’m about to get all sciencey here for a few minutes. Or you can take a nap until I’m done with this and pick it up when I’m finished with this part.

Woman Stomach Ache
He’s either having stomach cramps or trying to keep the alien baby from bursting out of his stomach. And what the hell kind of pants is he wearing, anyway?

The biggest problem people have with milk is lactose intolerance. Lactose is a type of sugar found in milk. People who are lactose intolerant are unable to fully digest the lactose in milk, resulting in gas, bloating and even diarrhea after eating dairy products. They don’t make enough of an enzyme called lactase which is needed to digest lactose.

Or is it? Here’s where it starts to get complicated and more than a little controversial.

One of the components of milk is a protein called beta-casein. It is present in significant quantities, making up about 30% of the total proteins in milk. There are two different types of beta-casein, a1 and a2. The only difference between the two is a single amino acid. Beta-casein contains a total of 209 amino acids whether it is a1 or a2 type. The difference is that at position 67, a1 milk has a histidine and a2 has a proline. Now when digested in the small intestine, this histidine may cause the release of a peptide called beta-casomorphine-7 or BCM-7 because that’s a hell of a lot easier to spell. And BCM-7 is what causes the controversy. (I say may produce BCM-7 because there doesn’t seem to be any consistent proof that BCM-7 is even produced in the human digestive system in the first place. But let’s ignore that for the moment.)

Back in the 90s there was a study that indicated that BCM-7 was not a good thing, well, in rats, anyway. There was a claim that it caused diabetes because apparently some rats in the test that were fed a1 milk produced BCM-7 and got diabetes, while rats that weren’t fed the stuff didn’t.

Only that was mostly bunk, as it turned out. The study was seriously flawed. As were others that claimed a1 milk caused not just diabetes but heart disease as well. A paper published in Nature (you can read it yourself here) debunks the whole theory that a1 type milk caused any such problems in human beings. The conclusion of the paper was that:

there is no convincing or probable evidence that A1 beta-casein in cows milk is a factor causing DM-I diabetes.

It was also concluded that the same was true when it came to chronic heart disease. There was no evidence that a1 type milk was a factor in causing CHD. Another study supported the study published in Nature (abstract here) and says that

Evidence from several epidemiological studies and animal models does not support the association of milk proteins, even proteins in breast milk, and the development of T1D [type 1 diabetes]. Ecological data, primarily based on A1/ A2 variations among livestock breeds, do not demonstrate causation, even among countries where there is considerable dairy consumption.”

So how did these health claims for a2 milk get to be ‘a thing’ as they say?  Why does so-called “a2” milk even exist as a product?

In the 1990s someone came up with a genetic test to determine if a cow would produce the a1 or the a2 type of protein, and a company called A2 Corporation was started in New Zealand in 2000 to try to make money off it. They started a campaign to try to make people terrified of a1 milk by claiming that a1 type milk was responsible for heart disease and diabetes, and even tried to link it to schizophrenia and autism. It even launched a campaign to try to force the New Zealand government to declare a1 type milk a health hazard and require warnings on packaging.

Then the push back began.

First the New Zealand Commerce Commission turned up and pointed out some labeling issues. The company was claiming there was no a1 protein in its milk. But there was. Testing indicated there was indeed a1 type proteins in the a2 labeled milk and finally the company had to admit that they “could not be certain that there was no A1 in A2 milk.”

Then the NZ Food Safety Authority and Australia’s Ministry of Health and Food Standards got involved. Warnings were issued, threats were uttered, and finally the company had to withdraw its claims about the health effects of a1 and a2 milk, fines were issued, companies linked to the product went under, and, well, the whole thing was a mess.

The company itself, now called “The a2 Milk Company Limited” withdrew health claims for its product except the claim that it may cause less gastric distress for those who have problems consuming other types of milk.

That is the only alleged health effect that has any kind of actual scientific backing, but even that claim is dubious. There were a couple of apparently independent studies, very small ones, that gave some indication that for people who experience gastric distress from consuming milk, consuming “a2” milk might cause fewer symptoms in a few cases. But those studies each looked at only about 40 – 50 people, and the results were self-reported in at least one of those studies, so it isn’t really known if what they were experiencing was accurate or not.

But that hasn’t prevented a lot of other people from making the same unsubstantiated and outright false claims that the original company and its founders tried to push. While scrounging around doing research for this piece I found dozens of websites making the same health claims that got the company in trouble back in the early 2000s.

Let’s wrap this up because this is getting longer than I really wanted.

  1. Despite what some of the promoters of this stuff claim, “a1” milk does not cause disease in human beings.
  2. Despite what some of the promoters claim, “a2” milk does not cure anything.
  3. The only difference between “a1” and “a2” milk is a single amino acid in a single component of a milk protein.
  4. All dairy cows produce both the “a1” and “a2” type proteins, whether they have the so-called “a2” gene or not. The only difference is that cows with the genetic marker produce a larger percentage of the “a2” type. So-called “a2” milk still contains some “a1” type proteins.
  5. If you are truly lactose intolerant, you still should not drink “a2” milk because it contains normal lactose. You will still experience the same discomfort, bloating and other symptoms.
  6. If you are allergic to any of the components of milk you should not drink “a2” milk because it still has all of those components.
  7. The only alleged health benefit with any kind of actual proof is an indication that a small percentage of people who experience gastric distress from consuming milk experience somewhat less gastric distress when consuming “a2” milk, but even those few studies are questionable.

So why do people pay extraordinary prices for the stuff? As H.L. Mencken allegedly said, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the [American] public.”

Farm Catch Up

I wasn’t going to do one of these for a while yet but some interesting stuff has been going on in the world of agriculture that I wanted to pass along… Oh, all right, I was bored, okay?

ADM and Perfect Day Make Cow Free Milk But Not Really

According to a wildly misleading headline on Fortune’s website, ADM (Archer Daniels Midland) and a San Francisco start up

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Actual real cow. Not a yeast.

company claim they can make real milk (they aren’t, not even close) with yeast. According to the article, they got “some yeast” from USDA, then “They then got a cow’s DNA sequence, had it printed via 3D-printer, and inserted it into a specific location of the yeast” according to the article. And if that statement makes you scratch your head a bit, well, yeah, I understand. That’s about as misleading as the story’s headline is.

No, they aren’t making actual milk. Not even close. All they’re making is a casein and yeast not cowwhey which are chemically similar to that produced in real milk. Casein and whey are not milk, they are merely two components of the complex compound that milk really is. Nor are they really trying to if you read carefully. They’re planning on selling the stuff as an ingredient to the food processing industry, not as some kind of substitute milk.

Trade War Drags On. And On. And On. And On…

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Shooting ourselves in the foot. Get it? Yeah, I know I can’t draw shoes.

While the administration is touting a new trade agreement hammered out with Canada and Mexico, don’t hold your breath waiting for any kind of improvement in that sector. Treaties still have to be approved by all three governments before anything goes into effect. And even if it is approved, the administration still has its steel and aluminum tariffs in place which were what helped to trigger a lot of this trade war nonsense in the first place.

And despite comments from D.C. that there will be an agreement with China real soon now, the information coming from Asian sources doesn’t indicate anything of the kind. At the Asian – Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in New Guinea attended by VP Pence the mood was anything but pleasant. The Chinese government said the US exhibited a “blaze of anger” during the meeting and Pence was “unhelpful”. Pence openly accused China of intellectual property theft and a whole laundry list of other alleged misconduct and, well, the whole meeting was pretty much a fiasco.

Will The Federal Farm Bill Pass This Year?

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Farmer Bill, not the Farm Bill.

The current farm bill expired in September. A lot of programs which did not have permanent funding are shut down until a new bill is passed by Congress and signed by the president. Some ag marketing programs are closed, food aid to locations outside of the US are shut down, as are a lot of conservation programs, because once the farm bill expired the funding for those programs ended. Crop insurance and the SNAP (food stamps) program are both permanently funded so they continue even though the bill has expired.

While I’m sure the GOP would love to get the farm bill out the door before the Dems take over the House in January, that doesn’t look likely at this point in time. The House leadership is apparently not going to back down on its insistence to include strict work requirements for the SNAP program, and the Senate already voted those down by a 2-1 margin. I’m not going to delve into what’s going on in the fight over the SNAP program because I promised myself long ago I wasn’t going to descend into politics in this blog. Considering the difference in opinion between the two bodies of Congress, I suspect the Senate would be more than content to let the farm bill languish until the Dems take over the House in January.

Complicating things is Congress facing a Dec. 7 deadline to pass a funding bill to avoid the government shutting down. The administration is threatening to veto any funding bill that doesn’t include funding for “the wall”, so you can expect this to start to get nasty pretty quickly.

It’s possible that a farm bill might get passed, of course, but I’d think the chances of that are less than 50/50 right now.

[Edit: as of Nov. 23 it seems the Senate and the House may be getting closer to an agreement on SNAP issues and might actually produce a bill to present for a vote before the end of the year. At the moment I have no idea what’s actually in this compromise, nor do I know the chances of it actually passing.]

Milk Prices

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Gadzooks! He can draw a barn!

It’s no secret that the prices dairy farmers have been getting for milk has been utterly horrible for a long time. Wisconsin alone has lost 584 dairy farms just this year and 1,086 over the last two years. You’d think that with that many farms going out of business there would be a significant reduction in the amount of milk being produced, but that isn’t true. What generally happens is that when a dairy farm goes out of business the cows end up being sold to other dairy farms that expand their operation. So while the number of farms goes down, the number of producing cows doesn’t change very much.

As we get close to the end of the year there is a trend in the ag press to start publishing optimistic articles claiming that the price of milk is going to go up, sometimes significantly. Unfortunately those overly optimistic claims are generally based on data that is looked at in isolation. For example, about 12 states in the US report that milk production has declined significantly. If you look at just that fact, that might indicate milk prices might be moving up. But it also ignores the fact that the rest of the milk producing states have actually increased production by as much as 10%. Overall, milk production in the US has gone up about 1 – 2 % (the number varies according to who’s data you look at) despite the reduction in the number of dairy farms in operation.

News on the international scene is even worse. The last big sale conducted by Global Dairy Trade in New Zealand had prices dropping on almost every type of milk product being sold. And this is despite the fact China has, according to some reports at least, lost a considerable percentage of milk production.

What it boils down to is that there is very little information to support the claim that there will be a significant increase in the price of milk any time soon.

Farm Bailout Payments

farmsinkThe administration promised that the trade war it started with much of Europe, Canada, Mexico and China wouldn’t harm farmers, and came up with a bailout plan to help financially support farmers and reduce the impact of the loss of exports to other countries. So how is that going? According the administration it’s going wonderfully. According to the actual facts, well, not so good according to at least one source.

According to the administration the program is wildly successful. In actual fact less than 8% of the money the administration claimed it was going to give out has actually been paid as of Oct. 31, and a lot of that has been given away to non-farm interests. And while the dairy and corn farmers have been hit hard, the bulk of the money seems to be going to soybean growers, with other farmers being offered so little that it’s actually insulting.