Farm Catch Up

 

Syngenta Loses Lawsuit

Hundreds of farmers in both class action lawsuits and individual suits, along with Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Cargill are suing Syngenta, claiming that the company misled them into believing that it’s GM corn was accepted for import by China when it wasn’t. They claim that the company cost them billions of dollars in lost sales and shipping fees and caused corn prices to plummet.

One trial just ended last week, and Syngenta lost. It was ordered to pay $217.7 million to Kansas farmers. It’s not over yet. Syngenta is going to appeal, of course, so this Kansas suit could drag on for years yet. And this is just the start. Lawsuits involving 350,000 corn growers plus ADM And Cargill have yet to go to trial. Another suit is scheduled to start in Minnesota in August for more than $600 million. Cargill’s suit is supposed to start next year, and another one is coming up in Louisiana yet this year.

Still More Dicamba News

It isn’t just Arkansas with reports of dicamba drift causing crop damage. Now Tennessee has been hit with problems as well. As of June 26 there have been 27 reports of crop damage caused by dicamba drift. Not many compared with Arkansas, but Tennessee doesn’t get its crops in the ground as early as Arkansas does so it’s still relatively early in that state. No one seems to know yet if this is a problem with the herbicide blend itself or if it is a problem with the application techniques and equipment. Monsanto, of course, is claiming that either A) no such thing is happening at all, B) the product wasn’t used in accordance with proper application techniques, or C) insert your favorite excuse here. I don’t know, maybe fairies are killing off hundreds of acres of beans.

German Grocery Invasion

The Germans are coming. Lidl, the no frills German grocery store chain, is coming to the US. They’re planning on opening 500 new stores over the next five years. They’ve opened 10 new stores in the Carolinas and Virginia. The store is similar to Aldi’s model; no frills, very limited selection of product, lots of private label products at cheap prices, no shelves, just boxes of product stacked up.

Will it survive? My best guess is that they’re going to have a rough time of it. Most of the areas where they want to put stores are already more than saturated with grocery stores, and the chain has little to distinguish it from the other no-frills outfits like Aldi and Save-a-Lot. And it’s going to have a difficult time competing against Walmart which has fairly good prices and much better selection of product.

I have two major problems whenever I go to one of these places. The first is that if you really watch what the prices are, they generally aren’t all that cheap when compared to other stores. If you average out the overall cost of all the products, except for a few loss-leader items you aren’t really saving all that much money. The second is that the quality of the store brand products often isn’t all that good.

Beef Exports to China Begin

Well, sort of. A packing company sold a whopping 40 boxes of ribeyes and other steaks to somebody in Shanghai a couple of weeks ago. And I suspect most of those were eaten by US politicians for photo ops where they were trying to take credit for China announcing it was going to start buying US beef.

There are, of course, some problems. One of the biggest being that the vast majority of beef raised commercially in the US doesn’t meet Chinese health and safety standards. China bans the use of growth promoting drugs and hormones, feed additives, antibiotics and artificial growth promoting tricks US growers use. As the Farm Bureau pointed out, “only a small proportion of commercial beef production would fit the current parameters”. Commercial growers who want to get in on the market are probably going to have to start from scratch, raising cattle from birth to meet Chinese standards. As of right now, it’s going to cost growers more to meet the stringent health and safety requirements than it’s worth for most of them.

The articles I’ve seen on this subject all seem to also ignore the fact that the primary reason China is suddenly interested in US beef is because their suppliers in Brazil are now embroiled in a massive corruption scandal that seems to involve much of the Brazilian government. The scandal included bribing inspectors, shipping out diseased and contaminated beef and I don’t know what all else. The president of Brazil has been formally charged with corruption, allegedly taking $150,000 in bribes from the huge JBS meat processing company. China, like the US and most other countries, has banned imports of beef from Brazil until they get the situation straightened out down there.

“Pink Slime” Case Finally Over?

It seems that ABC has settled out of court with BPI in the slander case BPI brought against ABC for it’s stories about so-called “pink slime”, a heavily processed, treated meat substance made from scraps and trimmings, and then injected into hamburger. BPI was suing ABC for almost $2 billion. With damages and other penalties, ABC could have been on the hook for $5.7 billion if it lost the case.

ABC is claiming the stories “accurately presented the facts and views of knowledgeable people about this product”, while BPI claims it’s product is “safe, wholesome, and nutritious”.

What bugged me the most about the whole thing wasn’t the “pink slime” itself. I’ve eaten raw eel, lutefisk and cheese that smells so bad it wouldn’t be allowed in a landfill. What bothered me about it was no one told me this stuff was in the hamburger in the first place.

Ethanol Still Doesn’t Make Sense

While this was sparked by an article about ethanol production possibly ramping up in the UK, this is more of an editorial comment, so feel free to skip this one if you like.

I’m not a fan of ethanol. It makes no sense at all. At least not the way we’re doing it. If you look at the entire production cycle of ethanol production and it’s overall effects, one could argue that producing ethanol is actually worse for the environment than producing the equivalent amount of energy in traditional fossil fuel. If you trace back all of the energy inputs into the system, the things like transportation costs, fertilizer costs, herbicide costs, the energy used to plant, grow and harvest the crops, it quickly becomes apparent that ethanol, as a “green” fuel, isn’t all that much better than gasoline. Yes, it produces less carbon and pollution when it’s burned, but that is just looking at the end product and its use, and is ignoring everything else that goes into actually making the stuff. When everything is added in, the adverse environmental effects of ethanol production and use is almost as bad as fossil fuels, and according to some studies, actually worse. Go look it up. You got Google. If you ignore the industry funded fluff and nonsense studies and look at the truly independent research, you’ll quickly find that the whole ethanol system is far from being environmentally friendly.

Then there is the economics of the whole industry. Without massive government subsidies, tax breaks, usage mandates, and other taxpayer funded subsidies, i.e. “corporate welfare”, the whole system would fall apart like the house of cards in an earthquake.

Disconnected from Reality?

That’s what I suspect a lot of “experts” are when it comes to milk prices, disconnected from reality. While various experts are claiming milk prices will be pushing $18/cwt “real soon now”, things out in the real world are considerably different. The market has actually been trending down for a while now, with prices on the commodities market falling on the futures market.

Of course the futures market isn’t what farmers actually get paid for their products. What a product trades for and what the farmer is actually paid for the physical product often have no relationship to one another. As a lot of farmers found out when Grassland told them they were going to have to find a different place to sell their milk and some got offers as low as $6/cwt from some processing facilities.

Farm Catch Up

SNAP Program

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

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

Be Careful What You Ask For

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

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

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

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

China to Import US Beef

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

Wally Melons?

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

Oh, yeah, melons.

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

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

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

Weather Worries Push Prices Up

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

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

Mergers and still more Mergers

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

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

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

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

Glyphosate Study Craziness

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

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

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

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

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

 

Farm Catch Up

The ag news stories you might have missed this past week

Conagra sells Wesson Oil

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 6.45.31 AMConagra is selling it’s Wesson brand of oils to Smucker for about $285 million. Conagra has been going through a reorganization since 2015. Wesson is just the latest part of the business to go on the auction block. The company is trying to change it’s business from selling low profit staples and cheap processed food to producing higher end and higher profit items with fresh(er) ingredients including salsas, organic pot pies and speciality pork and chicken products.

Conagra has sold off it’s private label operations which made products like soups, cookies and other foods that supermarkets sold under their own brand name. The company bought that business in 2012 for $5 billion, never made a decent profit at it, and sold it off in 2015 for half the original purchase price. It even sold of Lamb Weston, the company that’s the french fry supplier to McDonalds and other restaurants. That didn’t make a lot of sense to be because Lamb Weston had had sales of $3 billion and was pretty profitable.

The Wesson brand has been around for more than 100 years. It was originally started by David Wesson in 1899, a chemist who invented a way to refine cottonseed oil to remove bad taste and smell from it so it could be used as a cooking oil.

The acquisition by Smucker is a bit troubling because it already owns Crisco shortening and oils so it’s certainly going to reduce competition in the market. I’ve heard that both products are going to be made at it’s processing facility in Ohio, so basically Wesson oil and Crisco oil are going to be exactly the same product with different labels. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Crisco oil brand (not the shortening) disappears entirely.

Syngenta Lawsuit Goes Forward

Screen Shot 2017-06-06 at 5.34.23 AMBack in 2012 Syngenta released a new GM variety of corn and promoted it heavily. farmers planted it, only to find that they couldn’t sell it to China. The Chinese government had not yet approved that variety of corn for import, and rejected all shipments that were contaminated with it, costing the farmers a lot of money. Grain exporter ADM is also suing Syngenta in a separate suit, as is Cargil.

The claim against Syngenta is that the company knew it’s new corn was not approved for import into China, and was deliberately misrepresenting the approval status of the corn when it was marketing it to farmers so they went ahead and used it. There are other lawsuits going on with more than 350,000 corn growers involved in individual or class action lawsuits against the company, with potential damages hitting $13 billion.

Making things even more interesting is that the China National Chemical Corp, owned by the Chinese government, is in the process of trying to buy Syngenta. So if Syngenta loses, China, which rejected Syngenta corn originally, will own the company.

This particular lawsuit involved 7,000 Kansas farmers, and as noted, others are in the pipeline.  It will be interesting to see how this one plays out.

Home Bakery Ban Overturned

The church/school bake sale is something of a tradition around here. Parents bake up all kinds of goodies and sell them at events to raise money for churches, schools, kids groups, etc. It’s also probably illegal here in Wisconsin. Or at least it was until the ban was overturned recently.

Wisconsin law states that bakery for commercial sale must be produced in a licensed, fully inspected commercial kitchen by staff that are properly licensed. While the state generally has ignored things like school/church bake sales for fund raising, it’s a different story if you try to sell your goodies at farmers’ markets and other places.

Until now. A judge overturned that law, and I’m not really sure if that’s a good thing or not.

While I have some sympathy for the women who were cited for selling their baked goods, there are valid reasons why these rules are in place, and the biggest is food safety.  I’m a stickler for food safety for a couple of reasons.

First because I’ve worked in the food service business, and Mrs. GF is still involved in it, and both of us know how incredibly easy it is for food to become contaminated and cause someone to become very, very sick indeed.

Second, because I’ve been one of those sick people. I was already nearly unconscious, suffering from explosive diarrhea, severe dehydration and I don’t know what all else when the paramedics carted me out of work on a stretcher and rushed me to the ER where I spent the night with multiple IVs hooked to me and wired up like a Christmas tree.

While I’m sure these women feel the state requirements are unnecessary, they are there for a reason. And I should point out that one of the reasons they are there is to protect them. If one of their products makes someone sick, don’t they realize that they are liable, especially if it can be proven that they were making products in a relatively uncontrolled environment like a home kitchen? They could end up being sued and losing everything they own.

Milk Mess

Screen Shot 2017-06-07 at 4.45.45 PMIf you look at some of the data being published in the press about the dairy industry, the markets now actually look pretty good. Sort of. In some parts of the world, at least, the dairy markets seem to be improving considerably, especially down in New Zealand. Prices are going up, in some cases significantly, improving the financial picture for farmers. Butter prices are strong and getting better, even the powdered milk market, which had been hit very hard by China’s cutbacks in dairy imports, is doing better. Milk production in the EU continues to drop, showing a decrease of about 2% or more.

But if you take a closer look at the entire picture, there are some troubling indications. Most of this positive data is coming from GlobalDairyTrade, a trade organization which pretends it is a free market in Australia and New Zealand, but really isn’t. It’s actually owned by Fonterra, the huge dairy co-op, and it sells only Fonterra milk products, so the data coming from it is skewed to begin with. And Fonterra has deliberately manipulated the market in the past by increasing or decreasing the amount of product flowing through GDT. So any time I see anyone taking GDT data seriously I wince a bit because not only are GDT prices easily manipulated, but it also deals with a fairly limited market, China and south east Asia, and a fairly limited supply source. A huge market, true, and a significant one. But dairy is a global business and is influenced by a lot more than just China.

The biggest problem right now seems to be US production which continues to go up despite a glut of milk on the market. Speculation that milk prices are going to improve significantly are pushing a lot of mega-farms to add more production, and new mega-farms are in the works. Here in Wisconsin Grassland, the company that infamously stopped taking milk from some 75 farmers here in the state because they claimed new Canadian trade rules cost them sales, is working to build it’s own, 5,000 cow dairy farm.

UW ag economist Cropps says milk prices could go over $17, maybe even hit $18 by the fall of this year, despite the fact US production could be going up by as much as 4%. But that’s based on the belief that China is going to significantly increase milk imports, that EU milk production is going to continue to decline, and production in New Zealand is going to remain flat or even go down a bit.

Changes Oh My

Well, this is going to take a while to get used to. For the first time in like forever, I’m unemployed. Deliberately unemployed. I submitted my resignation at work and I am retiring. Sort of. I won’t be filing for social security for another four years or so, but we planned for this and the finances are already worked out for this situation and active. But it still makes me nervous, anxious.

Granted, I wasn’t exactly working my tail off the last couple of years. I’d dropped back to part time and actually was only dealing with special events at the theater and filling in when one of the day crew was out or we had an emergency to deal with.

Still, it’s a strange feeling, not having a job to worry about.

Fat Saves Dairy Industry?

That’s what it is starting to look like. About the only bright spot in the dairy industry right now seems to be butter and, to a lesser extent, cheese. Butter sales are up dramatically, largely because the fact that eating dairy fats isn’t going to kill you (at least not any quicker than anything else) is finally starting to filter out into the mainstream.

One of these days I’m going to do an article about food and health, and all of the BS we’ve been told over the years. The amount of pure bullshit that we’ve been fed over the decades is mind boggling. From “healthy” hydrogenated plant fats in margarines and shortenings that were supposed to be “good” for us turning out to be responsible for tens of thousands of deaths, to coffee still being demonized despite the fact it seems to help reduce incidences of some cancers and may help prevent some kinds of dementia, to “juice cleanses” that don’t cleanse anything, to the multi-billion dollar “supplement” industry that is selling us little more than snake oil…

Infrastructure Plan? What Infrastructure Plan?

There’s been a lot of press about the administrations “$1 trillion” plan to rebuild the country’s infrastructure and everyone is going “Oh, goodie, isn’t that wonderful!”

But… Well, sorry, but there pretty much isn’t an infrastructure plan. Seriously. Oh, they’re talking a lot about it but no one is actually doing anything about it because talk is free and bridges cost money, so where’s the cash? There isn’t any. The administration can talk all it likes, but the administration doesn’t hand out the money, Congress does. Congress, not the administration, develops the plan, finds the money for it, etc, not the office of the president. And there is little or no work going on in Congress to do anything pertaining to the administration’s plans.

And some of the things the administration has been talking about are more than a little troubling, especially this “private partnership” thing. Why? Because in most cases these “private partnership” deals end up with things worse than they were before.

There is a reason why we don’t have a lot of toll roads and bridges in this country. It’s because we tried it before, going back 200 years or more, and it was a nightmare. Outrageous tolls, violence, unsafe bridges and roads, no investments in improving the system… One of the reasons we adopted a publicly funded, government owned highway and bridge system in this country in the first place was because the private operators so horribly abused the public, gouged them so badly on prices, that the government had to step in because the private model was destroying the transportation system in the country.

The problem with history is that no one seems to actually remember it.

As for this particular infrastructure plan, well, there isn’t one, as I said. Most of the things the administration is talking about like federal grants to local jurisdictions and all of that? That’s going on right now, for heaven’s sake. The federal government almost never directly funds highways and bridges, it does it through a system of low cost loans, grants, etc. Which is what the administration is claiming is its “new” plan. Oh, please…

And let’s face it, most of the problems we’re facing when it comes to the infrastructure system are our own fault because we don’t want to pay for it. Or, rather, the politicians we elect don’t want to because in order to actually pay for maintenance and new construction and all the rest they might have to raise taxes a few cents and that would make the corporations and lobbyists who bribe them buy their souls [ahem, sorry about that, funny how those typos slip in there] make nice contributions to their campaigns so they can continue the democratic process, a wee bit upset.

But here’s the thing, you are going to pay for it. One way or another. If we don’t pay for it through taxes, we’re going to pay through the nose for it in tolls or user fees. Someone has to pay the bill. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

4:30 AM? Really???

Not farm related but… This is the third day in a row all three of those stupid cats have been sitting outside the bedroom door yelling at us at 4:30 in the morning. And I come stumbling out of the bedroom in dim light of dawn and stumble over their food dish because they have now gotten into the habit of moving their food dish right in front of the freaking door during the night. How do they even do that? They don’t even have hands much less thumbs and fingers so how do they move a dish half full of kibble all the way across the floor and plant it right in front of the bedroom door???

Oh, very funny, cats. Ha freakin Ha… Good joke. Now stop it!

I don’t know what the world is coming to — cats pulling practical jokes on people…

Just wait, guys. I’m going to find where you’re hiding during the day to take your little 9 hour naps and see how you like being woken up out of a sound sleep…

 

Meal Kits? What the heck is a meal kit?

Yesterday I ran across an item over at Mother Jone’s website talking about meal kits, which are supposed to be the hot new thing in the food service industry. These things started up a fairly short time ago, offered by companies like Blue Apron, HelloFresh and many others, and according to the press (some of it anyway, not all) meal kits are the best thing ever.

So what exactly is a ‘meal kit’? The idea is this: Every day a box arrives on your doorstep. Inside of it are all the raw ingredients to make a dinner. Everything you need from the entree, to side dishes, to seasonings,to condiments are pre-portioned and individually packaged. And a recipe telling you how to make it.

And that’s it. You get a box full of raw ingredients and a recipe.

You still have to cook it. You still have to use a stove, oven, etc. You still have to mix and stir. You still have all of the dirty dishes to deal with.

Well, they at least deliver it to your door so you don’t have to shop, right?  Uh, well, no, because these are only dinners. Unless you’re eating breakfast and lunch at a restaurant every day, you still have to go shopping for food.

So you still have to shop. You still have to mix, stir and actually cook. You still have to clean up afterwards and deal with the dishes. So this is useful for, well, who, exactly? People who can’t plan a meal, I suppose?

Then there is the cost. These things seem to be just a wee bit on the pricey side. We’re looking at anywhere from $9 to $50 or more per meal, per person depending on the service you’re talking about. Now I don’t know what restaurant prices are like where you live, but around here that basically means you’d be paying more for a box full of raw ingredients that you have to cook yourself, than  you would pay for a comparable meal at a restaurant, even at the low end of the meal kit price structure. I took a look at some of the menus from these places and figured that one chicken based meal they were sending out for $9 per person could be made for about $3.75 per person.

So just what is the point of all of this? Apparently the only thing this service does is relieve you of the horrible responsibility of — of planning what to have for dinner?

The ads for these places tout the ‘freshness’ of their ingredients. They wax poetic about ‘sustainable’ this and ‘environmental’ that, about how their “chefs” partner with “trusted farmers”. And all of that means pretty much nothing because all of those terms could be applied to just about anything.

The Mother Jones article linked to at the start of this turned up some rather troubling information about these meal kit companies. It seems that I’m not the only one who looks at meal kits with a skeptical eye. Apparently their own customers do as well.

According to independent marketing data that MJ dug up, half or more of the people who sign up for these things cancel the service within the first week. And only 10% or less kept the service after six months. Despite massive injections of venture capital, none of these companies have managed to achieve a positive cash flow from the scanty data I’ve tracked down. They’re continuing to exist only by burning through hundreds of millions of dollars of venture capital as they desperately try to attract new customers to replace the customers who almost immediately cancel the service once they’ve tried it.

The companies themselves vehemently deny that their customers abandon them in droves after trying the service for only a brief time, but refuse to show any data that supports their claims.

Still, the hype goes on. Celebrity chefs are hooking up with these places, the food service press waxes poetic about the ‘potential’ of meal kits. There are services that offer specialty kits, like strictly vegan, or “all organic” or vegetarian or, hell, places that only ship their product in ‘free range’ cardboard boxes, I suppose.

I don’t know, is it just me? Am I the only one who thinks this whole concept is, frankly, ridiculously silly?

The Decline and Fall of Yahoo and The Death of Tumblr?

Screen Shot 2016 07 27 at 6 20 25 AM

If you follow the business news, you’ve probably heard about the problems of YaHoo, the former internet giant that has, through an extensive series of bad management decisions, questionable, high cost acquisitions and other problems, driven itself into the toilet. Once valued at over $120 billion, Yahoo ended up selling itself, or at least large parts of itself, for just $4.8 billion.

Apparently unable to come up with new products, new technology or new business models to keep itself functional, YaHoo instead tried to buy itself out of trouble. It embarked on a spending spree, snapping up high profile start up businesses, often at premium prices.

Sometimes this works. If done correctly. Microsoft, Apple and other successful companies do this frequently. They discover a new company with new technology or new business models that would fit in with their core  business plans, buy it or invest in it heavily, nurture it, foster it, and develop it into a successful part of the new parent company.

Unfortunately Yahoo didn’t seem to have either the expertise or the motivation to do that in many cases. A few were successful, but not many. Most performed poorly at best. At worst, Yahoo’s incompetent management and corporate policies quickly drove them into the dirt and many failed completely. If you scrounge around on the net and look at sources like Forbes, Bloomberg and other financial media organizations, you can find entire lists of the companies Yahoo bought, and ruined over the years for one reason or another.

How did they ruin them? Mainly through mismanagement, poor decisions, and often attempts to squeeze as much cash out of them as they possibly could while investing as close to nothing in them as possible. I know a few people who worked in ‘silicon valley’ over the years, and a lot of them were terrified about the possibility of being acquired by YaHoo because it meant they’d be looking for jobs in a very short time. An acquisition by Yahoo became regarded as sounding the death knell. It was automatically assumed, justifiably or not, that acquisition by Yahoo meant mass layoffs as it tried to squeeze as much cash out of it as possible, or being mismanaged into extinction.

But let’s talk about Tumblr… I’ve been on the service for more years than I care to think of now. By and large I’ve enjoyed it. Yes, I have other outlets if I want to blog, put photos or stories or bad jokes or whatever up for public view. This is one of them, after all. Most of those outlets are, frankly, a lot more flexible, more useful, and allow far more creative outlet than Tumblr ever did. Nor is the fact Tumblr is free much an incentive. There are, frankly, a lot better, much easier to use free services out there which allow far more creative freedom.

What Tumblr had going for it was a sense of community. It was as much a social network as it was a blogging service. A lot of the users developed friendships with other users of the service. The people reading your blog were almost certainly other Tumblr users themselves, with their own blogs, and you quickly accumulated an enormous collection of other Tumblr users you read, followed, and exchanged thoughts with. Some of us became pretty good friends. I know maybe a dozen people over there that I now consider friends because our interactions through the system. I’ve even visited some of them.

When Yahoo bought Tumblr for the utterly ridiculous price of $1.1 billion, a lot of us regular users over there saw, frankly, doom on the horizon. And not just because of Yahoo’s well deserved reputation of driving their acquisitions into the toilet.

Tumblr was a ridiculously popular service. But it had a serious problem. No one was able to figure out how to make money off it. The system that made it so popular made it very difficult to try to monetize it without destroying the very features that made it popular.

Tumblr’s main way of making money seemed to be silly things like trying to sell users stuff like ‘premium’ templates, fancy, pretty formatting for their blog’s home page. That’s fine, but I haven’t even seen my home page over there since I set up my account for the first time. Nor have I ever seen the home pages of any of the blogs I follow there. One of Tumblr’s features is that registered users have a dashboard, a more or less bare bones, distraction free system that aggregates all of the posts from the blogs you follow into a single page. Since virtually all of the readers of Tumblr blogs are also Tumblr users, we all have dashboards, and we do everything from them, reading, posting, commenting, everything. I follow a lot of blogs over there and I’ve never even seen the home pages of any of them. So why waste the time and money setting up a fancy premium template when no one’s going to see it anyway?

Tumblr survived largely by infusions of capital from outside investors. I’m not sure if it ever made a profit to be honest.

At the time Yahoo bought Tumblr, well, we figured that was going to be the end of it. Yahoo, with it’s reputation of running new businesses into the dirt, mismanagement, laying off the very people who had created the startup to begin with to save money, and above all, it’s desperate need to make money any way it could because the CEO was under pressure to resign or be fired and stockholders were up in arms, well, we figured this was going to be it. Yahoo would either utterly wreck the service, or gut it and turn it into a ghost town.

Yahoo did indeed try to do just that, but the enormous backlash from users forced them to pull back or at least make it’s attempts at monetizing the system less obnoxious. Attempts at censoring the massive amount of outright porn on the service pretty much failed as Tumblr users fought back, left in droves and otherwise forced the company to back down. They did a lot of annoying and damaging things that often made no sense at all, like completely removing the ability to comment on posts, one of the things that had turned Tumblr into a successful social network. Eventually they brought it back, but in ways that made it harder to use, more difficult to follow and extremely irritating. “Improvements” they promised either never materialized, or were completely useless, and often made the system more difficult to use.

They made a real dog’s breakfast of it, but somehow managed to keep from completely destroying it. Barely.

But now… YaHoo just sold off almost all of it’s internet businesses to Verizon. The CEO will get a $53 million buyout. I suspect she’s the only one actually making money off the deal.

As for those of us who use the service…

We just got word now that they are going to be injecting ads into blogs. In order to make this less painful, less obnoxious, they’re even offering to actually pay the bloggers. With real money! Ooo, be still my beating heart…

Well, maybe they are. They’re “still working out the details” about exactly how they’re going to pay the bloggers, how much they’re going to pay, But we all know that any amount that eventually filters down to us, the people who actually write the content, well, we will be lucky if we make enough for a cup of really, really bad coffee. All we know for sure is that they are going to start injecting advertising now, and later, maybe, they’ll figure out a payment system for the actual bloggers. Yeah, right.

The advertising can, they claim, be turned off if you wish. We’ll see how that goes. A dozen or more people I’ve talked to are claiming that as soon as they turn it off in the settings, it somehow mysteriously turns itself back on again… sigh. Mine is turned off. We’ll see if it stays that way. Or if it does any good.

Some will probably do pretty well. Like the porn blogs, the spam blogs, the scam blogs. They’ll probably do very well indeed. They have tens of thousands of followers, largely due to the use of bots that tamper with, manipulate the system. I’ve heard rumors that something like half of the “users” of Tumblr are actually bots that fish through the system, following random bloggers in the hopes that it will lure them back to follow some automated porn or spam site.

Most of us, though? We’re lucky if we have a few hundred. Any money that would filter down to the majority of us would be little compensation for putting up with the advertising, and quite possibly could prove to be an enormous headache.

I took a look at the comments attached to the announcement from Tumblr’s staff, and they were about what I expected; Lots and lots of cursing, frustration, anger, outrage, and a nearly universal impression that this was the beginning of the end. This time for real.

Is this the end of Tumblr? Well, that’s why there’s a question mark up there in the headline. I really don’t know. I suspect not, but I do know I’m not really happy with what’s going on over there. Neither are most of the other users I know.

I’m not going to leave Tumblr. I have too many friends over there. But I don’t think I’m going to be over there as much.

Tumblr is — comfortable, like an old pair of shoes. Easy to slip into, kind of ragged around the edges, but who cares, it feels good. But sometimes you have to admit that it’s time for them to go live in that great dumpster in the sky.

I don’t think Tumblr has reached that point. Yet. But it’s getting close.

I’ve often asked myself why I didn’t switch over to this forum completely. It’s easier to use, I have an excellent off-line editor that let’s me write, edit, proof-read material easily. Grouchyfarmer is easier to use, give me more creative freedom over formatting, I don’t have to deal with Tumblr degrading my photographs, don’t have my drafts mysteriously disappearing (that’s happened a dozen or more times over the past year, so often I don’t even bother to try to save anything as a draft over there any more). The commenting system here is light years better than Tumblr’s… I have wonderful tools here that let me quickly refer to outside websites and sources. Basically this system here is light years beyond anything Tumblr has to offer.

I suspect that as time passes, as the ads start to become more obtrusive over there, as the service continues to degrade as the new owners try desperately to make it profitable, I’ll be turning up over here more often than there.

We’ll see…

The Future of Tumblr

You may not be aware of it, but I’ve had a blog over at Tumblr for years now, and I’m far more active over there than I am here for a variety of reasons. But that is probably going to be changing in the near future.

Tumblr was bought up by Yahoo a while back, and they have not exactly been kind to their new toy. They’ve made a number of questionable decisions that have seriously annoyed many of it’s long time users. Advertising has become far more intrusive, paid, commercial blogs are being injected into our feeds over there. They’ve tampered with the user interface, adding features that no one seems to want, while removing features that people liked.

A few months ago they removed the “Reply” function, replacing it with some kind of messaging function so you can send a message to the author of the blog, but not make a public comment. They really hyped up the message function. And hype was exactly what it was. We always could send messages to the author of a blog if we wished to. It was already part of the system. All their “new” version did was add an icon to the bottom of each post to make it easier to do.

Meanwhile, the Reply function, which was widely used and widely liked, was eliminated, causing such a storm of protest that they’ve been promising to bring it back RSN (Real Soon Now).

The biggest problem with Tumblr, though, is it’s parent company, Yahoo. Yahoo hasn’t had a very good track record. It’s been losing money for years. It’s only really profitable venture is Alibaba, and there is ever increasing pressure on the company to reorganize itself, shed it’s unprofitable ventures and try to become something it hasn’t been in a long, long time, a profitable business. It’s CEO is under fire constantly, with increasing pressure to either resign, or attempts to force the board of directors to fire her. There is even pressure now from some of the bigger stockholders to fire the entire board. And to be perfectly honest, there seems to be considerable justification for both of those actions.

Shortly after buying Tumblr, Yahoo announced some sweeping changes. There would be new terms of service which would regulate what content could be posted to try to eliminate ‘offensive’ material in an effort to make the service more attractive to advertisers. Censorship/filtering software to weed out ‘unsuitable’ content would be installed. Advertising would be injected into people’s dashboards. Paid blogs would be injected into people’s dashboards. Etc. etc. etc…

There was such an enormous outrage over these new policies that they were forced to back off. While the injection of advertising into the service did take place, they backed off on the threats of censorship and other types of content restrictions. I won’t go into all of the other attempts they’ve made to “improve” the service that have irritated and alienated it’s users. While they’ve backed off on some of the more potentially destructive changes they wanted to make, they’ve continued to do things that have irritated it’s users.

But to return to Yahoo and it’s problems…

Right now Yahoo has announced it’s drastically cutting staff, firing people left and right. It’s trying to either sell off or spin off different units of the company in order to shed it’s unprofitable ventures. One of the ideas the CEO put forward was that they’d spin off everything except Alibaba. Basically Yahoo would become Alibaba, and everything else would be dumped into a company that would immediately go bankrupt because all of Yahoo’s less than successful ventures would be rolled up into that new business.

That plan got shot down. Now they’re trying to sell off various parts of the business. If they can find buyers for the stuff. In any case, the handwriting is on the wall. Yahoo, as it is known today, is not going to exist for much longer. 

What’s going to happen to Tumblr? I have no idea. Tumblr isn’t all that profitable, to be honest. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to monetize it to the extent they would like because doing so would drive away the people who create the content that draws viewers to the site in the first place, as Yahoo quickly discovered when it took over the service.

I think it’s highly likely that Tumblr will not remain the property of Yahoo for much longer. Whether they sell the service or spin it off into an independent company is something I don’t know. (Frankly, from what I’ve been reading in the financial press, I don’t think anyone at Yahoo knows what the hell they’re doing.)

My dissatisfaction with what’s going on at Tumblr and the uncertainty about the future of the service means I’m going to try to move more content over to grouchyfarmer.com in the future. Over here I don’t have to worry about injected advertising, dealing with the ridiculous way they keep changing the user interface, etc. 

Agrimoney.com | Farmland Partners unveils $197m land purchase – and plans for more

The group takes its portfolio of US land nearly to 100,000 acres – in a deal which will provide collateral for funding for more acquisitions

Source: Agrimoney.com | Farmland Partners unveils $197m land purchase – and plans for more

I’m beginning to wonder if it’s time to start to become worried about this trend. Farmland Partners is just one of dozens of investment companies buying up enormous amounts of farmland. Not to farm it themselves, but to turn around and rent it at the highest prices they can possibly get.

Given the volatility of the stock, bond and commodities markets, and the ridiculously low interest rates being paid by banks for standard savings accounts, the desire to invest in a fairly stable and relatively profitable venture like farmland is understandable. Farmland values do fluctuate, true, but not nearly as wildly as stocks and commodities. Compared to those ventures, farmland seems a fairly safe investment.

And a potentially profitable one because the land doesn’t just sit there, it gets rented for as much as $200 – $500 an acre, depending on local demand.

But I get very nervous when I see more and more farmland being concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer owners, especially investment companies who have no vested interest in preserving the long term quality of the land, and only in making a return on investment. This practice makes it increasingly difficult for real farmers who want to get into the business to get started. Land has become so expensive in many parts of the country that it’s difficult or even impossible for a small start up farm to get off the ground without having the backing of outside investors.

Even worse, because the holding companies are going to charge the maximum rent they possibly can, those who can afford to rent the land are going to be forced to engage in the most intensive, potentially damaging, high chemical input farming techniques they can in order to maximize their own profits. This results not just in increased pollution from fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide run off, but also results in the degradation of the quality of the land and it’s fertility, causing even further reliance on intensive chemical intervention to continue to get the best yields.

Is this legal? Yeah. It is. At least in most states. Some states have restrictions on the amount of farmland that can be owned by out of state investors, but over the years those laws have been changed or even eliminated to permit companies like Farmland Partners to move in and take over. And I can understand the attraction. I own a fairly big stock portfolio, and the volatility of the market often makes me more than a little nervous. Farmland seems a far more stable, if a bit less profitable, investment for a lot of people.

While it may be legal and understandable, that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

Personally I feel the adverse effects of these companies; the artificial inflation of land prices, potential degradation of farmland, etc. outweighs the benefits.