Farm Catch Up: Rail Strike Again, Fake Meat Fizzles, Barges Grounded, Bird Flu

I haven’t done a Farm Catch Up in ages. I used to do these on a regular basis but I’ve been so busy with other stuff that I haven’t had time, so let’s see what’s been going on in the ag industry.

Rail Strike Still Possible

After union leaders, the railroads and the White House announced an agreement that would prevent a rail strike, I warned people that it was too early to do a victory lap. Union leaders may have accepted the deal, but it still had to be voted on by the union membership. Almost immediately one of the 12 unions involved in the talks rejected the deal, although a small one, and reports coming from out in the real world indicated that the rank and file of some of the other unions were not happy with the deal either. While the deal did give substantial pay raises and improved some benefits, it did little or nothing to fix the real grievances that the unions had, the biggest of which was the RR’s scheduling system which some employees called draconian and even downright sadistic. (I’ve read how the scheduling system works and if half of what I’ve heard is true, I would have quit the moment that system went into place. I won’t go into details, you can find that out yourself if do some searching for the railroad employee scheduling system.)

Now the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division Union (BMWED) the third largest of the unions involved, has rejected the deal, and we could be looking at a strike by mid-November unless the situation is solved.

The railroads have been having serious problems for decades, but you don’t hear about them because the media is too busy chasing after the latest celebrity gossip or bizarre conspiracy theory. Unless a catastrophe occurs, like a major derailment, you hear almost nothing about how the whole rail system has basically been falling apart.

What does this have to do with farming? A lot. A rail strike would cripple the agricultural sector of the economy. Ag businesses and farmers depend on the rail system to move bulk cargo like grain, beans, cattle feed, fertilizer, propane, fuel and many other products. Then add in everything else that is shipped… A rail strike would be a nightmare for all of us.

Fake Meat Markets Fizzle

Before I start this I should point out that I am not anti vegetarian or anything like that. My personal opinion is that we eat way, way too much meat to be healthy for us and we’d all be a heck of a lot better off if we could get people to eat more fruits and vegetables and less meat. But these fake meats are not the way to do it.

JBS, one of the three or four companies in the country that have a virtual monopoly on meat processing and distributing, announced it was shutting down its Plantera Foods division which was producing the “Ozo” brand plant based fake meat products, just two years after launching the company, because of disappointing sales. JBS says it will stay in the alt-meat business (that sounds better than ‘fake meat’ so I’ll go with that term) but not in the United States.

It isn’t just JBS that’s been having problems selling this stuff either. Sales of alt-meat products haven’t been doing so good. Beyond Meat’s stock value has plummeted. As of Sept.28 it’s stock value had fallen 75% this year. Sales of alt-meat products have falling by 10% in just this year along according to some data I’ve seen.

So why isn’t the stuff selling as well as they predicted? Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat’s products are supposed to be “healthy” and good for the environment and all of that and they’re supposed to be just as good as actual meat, so why aren’t people lining up to buy the stuff?

First is cost. Last time I looked the grocery store where we shop the Impossible Burger was selling for more than twice the cost of real hamburger. I haven’t bothered to look recently because frankly I don’t care, so I don’t know if prices have moderated a bit or not. What matters is that at most of the stores where I’ve found the stuff sell it for a lot more than regular hamburger šŸ” (Oooo, I just discovered that this goofy Macbook’s little status bar above the keyboard suggests emojis for me. Isn’t that just so – so useless?)

Second, the food industry as a whole has a long, long history of outright scamming the consumer and selling us garbage laced with salt, fat, sugar and artificial ingredients and labeling it not only as “food” but also claiming it is healthy. So people are justifiably skeptical of just about everything the food industry tries to tell us these days. If you read the list of ingredients on the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat products, you will find almost nothing in that list that actually looks like real food. What you’ll find is a long list of chemical names, added vitamins, modified starches and other products that come out of the back end of a factory. There basically is nothing in that list of ingredients that I want to put in my mouth and I suspect a lot of people feel the same way after reading that list.

Third, these products just aren’t that good. I tried eating one of these things once, an Impossible Burger that I found in the freezer at the local grocery store. I made it according to the instructions and… Well, I’m sorry, I don’t see how anyone could ever mistake this stuff for actual meat. The texture and mouth feel was just -wrong. The aroma was extremely odd and the taste was, frankly, unpleasant. I couldn’t finish the thing. Slather it was ketchup and mustard and onions and I might have been able to choke it down, but eating it plain? No way. I’d rather eat a Bocca Burger. Still frozen.

Shipping Problems

As if disruptions with railroads and trucking weren’t bad enough, now the Mississippi River is giving us problems. A huge amount of product of all types is shipped on barges on the Mississippi River. Farmers and agricultural businesses in the midwest depend on river shipping to not only get grain and beans for export down to the Gulf of Mexico, they also depend on it to ship fertilizer, cattle feed and other products back up the river to co-ops, fertilizer distribution facilities and other businesses that sell bulk products to farmers. And thanks to scarce rainfall the Mississippi water levels are extremely low and barges are running aground. Reports are that water levels in the river system are at “historically low levels”. There are backups of barges at choke points on the river system. Barge loads have had to be reduced by up to 30% or more and towboats which usually push many barges at one time have had to cut the number of barges they can push. As of Oct. 4th the cost of shipping on the Mississippi had jumped up over 200%.

If you’re interested in actually watching shipping along the river, both barge and rail, there is an excellent live camera operated by Virtual Rail Fan in Ft. Madison Iowa that shows both the massive amount of rail traffic going across the Mississippi and a historic swing bridge across the river that has to open to allow river traffic to pass. The camera is on 24/7 and generally has a camera operator running it. In the spirit of full disclosure I should point out I am a VRF member and sponsor and you’ll occasionally see my name (No, not grouchyfarmer, my real name) listed on some VRF camera sites as a sponsor.

Why Are Egg Prices So High? Blame The Flu

I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but around here eggs are pushing up towards $5 a dozen. I was in a local grocery store three days ago and the price there was $4.79/doz. Why? Bird flu is at least part of the problem. Since February we’ve lost 47 million birds, mostly chickens and turkeys, to avian influenza in 42 states in the US. So between losses of birds to flu to increased costs for fuel, grain, labor shortages, etc, yeah, prices have shot up.

It’s affected chicken and turkey prices as well. Unless grocery stores use turkey as a loss leader you’re going to find a lot of families looking for a substitute for the traditional thanksgiving day turkey.

And that’s about it for now. I’m getting bored and I’m sure you are too. As always, comments are welcome. (Note: All comments are moderated and yours won’t appear until it has been checked.)

Stuff In Ag: Catching UP

I was going to talk about farming less often here but there’s been so much going on and it’s hard to do that. So let’s see what’s going on, shall we?

Bird Flu – We haven’t been hearing much about bird flu since 2015, but it hasn’t gone away just because it’s fallen off the news media’s radar. There have been some serious

I don’t have a photo of a bird flu, so how about a cat instead?

outbreaks in China, including at least 84 human deaths from one form of the virus. China either already has or is in the process of shutting down live bird markets and putting other rules in place to try to curb the spread. In France the government was forced to slaughter all of the ducks in an entire region, and it’s popping up in the US now. An outbreak of a very nasty strain of the virus was found in Tennessee. A mild version of the virus was found at a turkey operation here in Wisconsin. And as a result a lot of people are very nervous indeed.

What about a vaccine? Well, vaccines are out there for some, but not all versions of the virus. Flu virus evolves very rapidly, which is why it’s necessary for us to get vaccinated every year, and even then the vaccine may not do much good. A year or so ago they estimated that the vaccine that was distributed for human use was only about 30% effective because the type of flu sweeping the country was different from the one the vaccine was developed for.

Even worse, a lot of farmers raising birds are reluctant to vaccinate their birds because the tests that are required on poultry being exported to other countries will flag vaccinated birds as having virus because vaccination gives the bird the same antibodies as if it had the actual disease. So it’s complicated.

Labor – Trying to find reliable, intelligent farm labor has always been difficult, and it’s become especially bad since, oh, the 1970s or so. Ā The days of being able to hire a couple of high school studentsĀ to stack bales, pick rocks or milk cows are long gone for a variety of reasons, some legal, some economic, some social. Even though wages and benefits have risen to the point where they are often competitive with the manufacturing sector (starting wages at some of the farms around here are higher than they are at most of the local manufacturing companies) it’s still almost impossible to find employees unless the farm is willing to employ immigrant labor, usually from Mexico and Central America. Something like 80% of the farm jobs here in Wisconsin are now held by immigrant laborers, either legal or undocumented. While it is illegal for a US employer to hire undocumented workers, the penalties for doing so are often little more than a slap on the wrist. So when a worker presents a slightly dodgy looking set of papers to prove he or she is in the country legally, well, let’s just say it’s really easy to overlook problems with the paperwork when your choice is to either hire that person, or go out of business because you can’t get people to do the work. Besides, with modern technology it’s possible to crank out very official looking documents that can fool almost anyone except the experts.

So in today’s political climate, a lot of farmers are very, very nervous about the real possibility that they are going to get up one morning and find that most of their employees are gone and they can’t replace them.

If one adheres to the ideas of the far right, then the belief is that these immigrants are taking away jobs from “real Americans”, and the reason unemployment is so high and people aren’t making money is because the immigrants are somehow stealing our jobs…

But wait a minute. Right now Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is under 4%. Almost every time I turn on the radio I hear businesses claiming they can’t find employees. Now granted a lot of the people who are employed are under-employed, that is they are working at jobs below their qualifications, at pay rates less than they really would like to have. Many, far too many, are the working poor who, despite working one or two or even three jobs, are just barely hanging on by the skin of their teeth. But the claim that we have huge numbers of “real Americans” unemployed because of immigrant labor isĀ not really true.

And most of the jobs the immigrants are “stealing” are jobs those “real Americans” don’t want to do in the first place: like shoveling manure out of calf pens, cleaning toilets, scrubbing floors, the backbreaking work of picking fruit or vegetables…

Uncertainty – Right now one of the biggest worries in agribusiness isn’t climate, isn’t flooding, isn’t weed or insect infestation, isn’t drought, it’s politics. Everyone in any kind of business associated with agriculture right now is nervous about the new administration and for very good reasons. Between threatening to institute huge tariffs on imports that would decimate the markets and cause massive retaliation by trading partners, to immigration policies that would cut off badly needed labor, to renegotiating long standing trade agreements that would open the country up to restrictions on our exports, the current administration has done little or nothing to curb the nervousness in the ag sector. The commodities markets have been churning, prices refuse to stabilize making planning difficult. No one knows what the FDA or USDA is going to be like under the new administration. Some farm operators I’ve talked to are terrified they’re going to wake up one morning and find their entire labor force has fled out of fear of the immigration authorities. One fellow I talked to said even people who are here legally are leaving because they’re hearing rumors that anyone who looks or sounds even vaguely “un-American” is going to be rounded up and deported or put in concentration camps somewhere.

Scandal – Everybody loves a good scandal, so let’s wrap this up with a nasty and expensive scandal going on in the University of Wisconsin system at the Oshkosh campus.

Apparently former UW-O chancellor Richard Wells and vice chancellor Sonnleitner, both now retired, are accused of funneling university funds to the private UWO-Foundation, a separate nonprofit that supports UWO projects through fundraising and other activities. Under state law the university is not permitted to support a private organization like the foundation in any way.

But it is alleged that Wells and Sonnleitner gave university money to the foundation and issued “memorandums of understanding” in which the university promised to cover the foundations debts in order to help the foundation procede with several multi-million dollar building projects that included two biomass digester systems, one on a private farm, a new hotel, a conference center and a sports complex. In addition it’s alleged that Sonnleitner gave money amounting to well over a quarter of a million, and signed a $700,000 a year lease agreement with the foundation to use one of the digesters.

In all it seems to have cost UWO around $11 – $12 million.

The head of the foundation has been fired, the foundations accountant was put on “administrative leave”, and everyone is wondering how the hell this happened in the first place and how they’re going to keep it from happening againĀ Investigations by the DOJ and law enforcement are going on, lawsuits are already in the works, and the whole thing is a massive mess.

What’s that got to do with agriculture? I said this post was going to be about agriculture, didn’t I? Well, the digester, of course.

One of the projects was a massive biodigester system built on a farm in Rosendale not too far from Oshkosh that was backed by the foundation. The system cost $10 million. Manure digesters use bacteria to produce methane which is then burned in generators to produce electricity. The idea is that it reduces pollution from spreading manure (it doesn’t), it produces methane (which it does, although not very well and methane has some serious problems in the first place) which is then burned to produce electricity which, apparently, none of the utilities actually want because they don’t want to pay more than a token amount for it. For reasons I won’t go into right now, manure digesters are a “solution” to a problem which doesn’t actually solve anything and which creates a whole new set of problems.

I’m not exactly sure why the foundation got involved in this project in the first place, but it’s in it up to its neck. As of June the foundation still owed almost $7 million on the thing. The university itself dumped over $4 million into the project via illegal funds transfers to the foundation. And while some of the money was repaid, the foundation still owes the university almost one and a half million.