Food and Cooking, Pie Crust, and Way More Than You Ever Wanted To Know About Sake

I love food. A bit too much as you would see immediately if you met me in person. I also love to cook. And I’m pretty good at it. But for years now my nemesis has been the pie crust. I couldn’t turn out a decent pie crust for anything. I tried all of the tips and tricks that people and cookbooks recommended. Nothing worked. It either turned out soggy or hard as a rock, or the flavor was bad.

The problem is, of course shortening. Shortening is basically plant oils that are normally liquid at room temperature. They are heavily processed, modified chemically and altered to make them solid. And despite the push to eliminate hydrogenated vegetable oils from our food because the health problems it causes, the stuff is still in most shortenings because it’s difficult to make a shortening that is solid at room temperature without it.

Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 7.00.25 AM

Mmmm…. yummy, yummy lard…

Once upon a time the fat used in cooking came from animal sources. The type of fat used specifically for making pastry was leaf lard, which was rendered from specific areas of pigs. It was favored because of it’s texture and because it had very little flavor of its own, and it resulted in tender, flakey pastry. There are all sorts of reasons why people switched from lard to vegetable shortening. I could write a whole series of articles just about that so I won’t get into it. But we now know that the hydrogenated vegetable oils that the advertisers have been telling us for years were so “healthy” for us, are a serious health risk and should be avoided.

IMG_0784

My home made chicken pot pie. The edge of the crust looks rough because I misjudged the size and had to “back fill” with extra dough to seal it, but wow it tasted good.

To make a long story short, I’ve given up entirely on shortening and found a pie crust that uses butter instead of shortening, a food processor to do the mixing, and wow, what a difference. I experimented on the family (come on, if you cook, you’ve used your family as test subjects too) and the results were unanimous, the butter crust was a hands down winner over shortening. The texture, flavor, appearance, the butter crust won in every single category.

Okay, so yes, it’s a lot more expensive than shortening. Butter is currently going for around $4/lb. for the generic brands around here, so that means there is about $2 of butter alone in a pie crust. But pie is a treat. It isn’t something we make more than once a month or so or during holiday seasons. A pie is supposed to be special, savory, flakey, delicious. A good pie isn’t just food, it’s part of a celebration. So I’m more than willing to spend the extra money to get the results I want.

And then there’s this new sushi restaurant we went to in Green Bay the other day, Sushi Lovers. Well, it isn’t new, it’s been around for a while now, but it’s new to me, and it was actually pretty good. And it had Hakutsuru junmai draft sake.

If someone had told me about 30 years ago that I’d be eating sushi and drinking sake and enjoying it at this point in my life, I’d have thought they were nuts. And if someone had told me that here in the land of deep fried cheese, beer and whiskey sours and sausages, that sushi restaurants would be popping up all over the place and a lot of grocery stores would be selling it in the deli section, I’d have suggested they need therapy. But that seems to be the case.

The problem is finding a good sushi restaurant. We have all manner of them around here. Some are pretty high end, where each table has it’s own individual chef who makes everything right there in front of you, to places where you sit at a counter with a water trough in front of you and pieces float past you on little boats, to the “chinese buffet” style places that seem to have moved into all of the old Hardee’s fast food joints that closed down a few years ago. And price has little to do with the actual quality of the food. Some of the cheaper places we’ve found have better sushi than some of the over the top fancy places. There are one or two up in the Fox Valley where a party of four won’t get out the door for less than $400 -$500 and the food they crank out there isn’t any better than Sushi Lovers where they charge $18 per adult for all you can eat, plus drinks.

But I really wanted to talk about sake. And like a lot of things dealing with drink, it gets complicated, so bear with me.

First of all, sake is not rice wine as many people call it. Sake is actually brewed from rice like beer, and traditional sake making is a very lengthy and labor intensive process. If you want to see what it’s like, click here for a Youtube video. Like everything else, though, making sake has become industrialized in order to reduce costs and increase quantities, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune for a bottle of traditionally made, hand crafted sake if you want good sake.

There are two different types, junmai-shu and honjozo-shu. The first is made only from rice, water, yeast and koji, which is the same mold that is used in the fermentation of miso. The second type is brewed in the same ways, but has a small amount of distilled alcohol added to it. Some people prefer the honjozo type, claiming the extra alcohol makes the sake more aromatic, while some prefer the junmai type.

Until a few years ago, junmai meant that at least 30% of the rice kernel had been polished away before the rice was used in brewing. So, you ask, why would you polish off that much of the rice? Because when brewing sake what you want is the rice starch, and most of that is concentrated in the middle of the kernel. The outer layers of the kernel has most of the minerals, fats and proteins that can introduce flavors that some people don’t like.

But the polishing requirement for junmai has gone away now, it seems. The major sake brewers convinced the government to change the definition. Junmai style sake still has only rice, water, yeast and koji, but it no longer needs to be polished to meet the legal definition, I’ve been told. Most brewers still adhere to the old 70% rules, but you have to check the bottle to make sure.

There are other terms as well that refer to how much of the rice is lost in polishing or milling. Ginjo means it’s polished to 60%, and seimaibuai and daginjo are milled to 50%, and are usually labeled junmai gingo and junmai daiginjo. (If it says honjozo instead of junmai it means some distilled alcohol has been added.)

And there is a difference in flavors. Junmai sake tends to be less aromatic and more, oh, earthy than the gingo and daginjo style, and goes better with richer, heavier food.

Oh good grief, listen to all that guff, I’m starting to sound like one of those wine snobs, aren’t I? And there is still a lot more, like whether it should be served hot or cold. And the answer to that is: well, maybe?

Traditionally sake was served hot for the same reason we serve beer ice cold here in the U.S., to disguise the fact it doesn’t taste very good. Until about 50 years ago, sake was often very woody, with heavy flavors that were often unpalatable, and heating it helped to mask this. But that has changed and the sake produced now often has very pleasant, lively tastes and aromas, and heating would destroy the flavor and fragrances that the brewers work hard to create.

Generally speaking, better quality sake should not be chilled, but should be cool, a bit below room temperature. Some of the sakagura will list on the label the temperature they feel will bring out the best of their product. But it all depends on the individual drinking it and what they like.

Now, to get back (finally!) to Hakutsuru. The company has been around since something like 1740, and they are now a major brewer in Japan. And while it’s mass produced it is still a pretty good product. It’s considered to be well balanced, a good match for a lot of different foods, with a slightly earthy aroma that isn’t overpowering. It’s one of the better sakes that is available locally.

I can’t believe I’ve babbled along about this for so long. Here’s a picture of the last rose of the season to make up for boring you with all of this guff.

IMG_0788

IMG_0786

More Farm Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“None,” Clovis replied.

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

“None,” Clovis replied.

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

“None,” Clovis replied.

Sigh…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2017-09-20 at 5.36.34 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2017-09-20 at 6.42.05 AM

The great nutrient collapse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catching Up With Stuff

I’ve been procrastinating terribly with a lot of projects around here because, well, because summer! I’m sorry, but when the weather is reasonably nice outside I want to be outside doing stuff; puttering in the garden, biking around the back roads, walking

Screen Shot 2017-08-27 at 5.54.10 AM

That’s one of the most perfect flowers I’ve ever seen growing out in my backyard. My wife picked up these seeds for almost nothing on sale, just threw them out into one of the gardens, and this is what we ended up with. Wow. That woman can grow anything.

around town, taking pictures of flowers and plants and trees and birds and… Well you get the idea. So indoor projects and hobbies take a backseat to outdoor stuff this time of year. When the temperature starts dipping below freezing and the snow begins to fly, that’s the time to work on those indoor projects. Maybe.

Screen Shot 2017-08-27 at 5.53.24 AMSpeaking of flowers, I really, really wish I’d put in more of these guys. We only have two or three of these and they are absolutely amazing. The brilliant red color, the shape. They just shot up through the white alyssum with that amazing contrasting red. Make note to self to put in more of these next year.

We finally admitted that we planted a lot of stuff way too close together in the vegetable gardens and did some serious weeding out of the pepper plants last weekend. This wasn’t much of a sacrifice because we just pulled out all of the “cherry bomb” hot pepper plants which were just nasty. I suspected they were going to be a bust when I brought one in, cut it in half, and almost immediately my eyes began burning. I like a bit of heat, but these things? I gave one to my neighbor who loves really hot peppers, he took a bite, and about five minutes later put down a half gallon of milk to try to stop the burning.

Screen Shot 2017-08-27 at 5.55.05 AMSo out they went. And it’s resulted in an almost immediate improvement in the other peppers we had planted in there.

The poblanos and banana peppers began looking much healthier and started to set a lot more fruit as soon as we thinned things out.

I don’t know why we can’t learn this lesson. Every year we end up crowding things too close together in the beds, and at the end of every season we promise ourselves we won’t do it again. But the following spring there we are crowding things in again.

We really like the poblanos (ancho) peppers and the banana peppers. MrsGF and I both think they have far more flavor than the more common sweet bell peppers that are more commonly grown around here. But we did put in a few bell peppers as well and they seem to do be doing pretty good. We were a bit worried about them for a while there. The plants looked good but they were late in putting out blossoms and Screen Shot 2017-08-27 at 5.53.35 AMsetting fruit, but now they seem to be making up for lost time.

We’d never grown squash here before, and since we love acorn and butternut squash, we put some in just to see what would happen and this is what we ended up with.

That’s only four plants in there, and they’ve taken over that whole garden on the west side of the garage. Loaded with squash now. I don’t know how they grow that fast. The other day I mowed the lawn near there, and the following afternoon there were vines running three feet out onto the grass. How does a plant grow that fast?

Some are just starting to come ripe. We had one of the acorn squash last night. Just cut it in half, scoop out the seeds, put some butter and brown sugar in the empty seed cavity and bake until tender. Then just scoop out of the skin and eat.

Screen Shot 2017-08-27 at 5.53.14 AMThe cucumbers have been disappointing. I’m the only one who eats fresh cucumbers around here, so I only put in two or three plants and that usually gives me enough to satisfy my craving for fresh cukes, plus a few extra to make refrigerator pickles or something. But this year they haven’t been doing all that well. The plants themselves are doing just fine, they’re putting out flowers, but actual cucumbers? Not so much. I think I’ve gotten maybe six cucumbers off three plants so far this year.

MrsGF thinks it’s because we’ve seen so few bees around this summer. I hadn’t noticed it until she mentioned it, but she’s right. Aside from a few bumble bees, I haven’t really seen any. I haven’t seen any honey bees at all. Usually this time of year we have a many different types of bees busily working away at the flowers. I have yet to see a single honey bee here this year. That’s very troubling.

Screen Shot 2017-08-27 at 5.52.49 AMThen I ran into this yesterday. A single, lone raspberry. We only have a dozen or so raspberry plants tucked away in a corner of the garden behind the garage. I love raspberries but I’m not supposed to eat them because of the seeds. Still, it’s interesting how none of the berries ever seem to make it into the house. They seem to mysteriously vanish before they get in the door. Funny how that happens, isn’t it?

The raspberries were done producing fruit long, long ago, so I was surprised to see this lone berry out there when I was puttering in the garden yesterday. I’m surprised the birds didn’t get it.

Screen Shot 2017-08-27 at 5.51.44 AMGetting out of the garden and into the countryside, some people around here are wondering what in the world this stuff is. Fields of this have been popping up around here for the last couple of years now. It sort of looks like badly stunted corn, no more than three or four feet tall. It isn’t corn, though, it’s sorghum, or milo, and it’s being grown for Kaytee, the bird seed company. Their headquarters is in Chilton, about six miles from here. When I was a kid it used to be fairly common. It was grown as cattle feed or to make syrup. Looks like they have a pretty good crop of it this year.

Let’s see — The Old Timers are claiming we’re going to have a really, really nasty winter based on the proverbial “signs”. They’re also claiming winter is going to come early as well.

Screen Shot 2017-08-27 at 5.52.14 AM

A few maple trees have started to turn color. This is supposed to be a “sign” that we’re going to have a miserable winter. A safe prediction because in Wisconsin we generally always have a miserable winter.

The “signs” — ah, yes, the signs… I’m told the Old Timers can predict the weather based on the signs provided by nature, if only we were smart enough to interpret them. Things like the width of the band on fuzzy caterpillars, how and when birds flock together in the fall, how fat the bears are (well, not that any of them have ever actually seen a bear because they’re sitting down in the restaurant lingering for hours while nursing a cup of coffee while the waitstaff go crazy because they’re taking up a seat that a paying customer could be sitting in), maple trees starting to turn color early, that kind of thing.

Exactly how these mechanisms work is something they never explain, of course. I would be very interested in knowing how a caterpillar knows we’re going to have three weeks of -20 temperatures in January, or the geese know that we’re going to have a blizzard right after Christmas so they’re flocking up in August so — so they can what, exactly? Why would the geese even care? They’re not here when it happens so a blizzard in January isn’t exactly something they care about in the first place.

Of course the Old Timers don’t care about accuracy. By the time winter comes, anything they said will be long forgotten. Unless, of course, they hit a home run and actually manage to predict something, in which case they will remember and make sure you do too. It’s harmless and they get a kick out of it, so I just sit there and nod.

Screen Shot 2017-08-27 at 5.55.31 AMLet’s see, anything else? Oh, almost forgot. I hit 500 miles on the bike last week. When I turned up with a new bicycle on the back of the truck everyone was thinking yeah, right, he’ll ride it once or twice and it’ll end up hanging on the wall gathering dust until he drops dead and then we’ll have to sell the damned thing at the estate sale. If I keep up my current pace and the weather cooperates I should hit 1,000 before winter shuts things down.

And that is about it.

Farm Catch up

Catching up with the past week’s ag/food news

Yoplait Sales Drop

Yoplait sales have fallen by 22% as the brand’s popularity continues to diminish. I have to point out that I hate Yoplait. I dislike pretty much everything about it; the flavor, texture, smell, everything. But then I feel the same way about almost all of the big name brand yogurts. The stuff is mostly inedible, and if you read the list of ingredients on some of these brands you’ll see why.

Drought in Spain

Spain has been having some serious drought issues this year which has been wrecking havoc with it’s farmers. The country has lost almost more than a quarter of it’s soft wheat production this year because of the weather and will probably have to import 40% more wheat than last year. There have been significant losses to the corn and barley crops as well.

The Guadalquivir delta, the Spain’s biggest rice producing area, is having serious problems with it’s water supplies. The aquifer from which water is pumped to irrigate crops is almost completely depleted, with only about 20% of the aquifer remaining, largely because of unregulated and illegal wells being drilled apparently by strawberry growers. There are reports of farmers renting drilling rigs and dragging them out in the middle of the night to or on holidays to drill wells without permits. There are an estimated 10,000 illegal wells in the area. They’ve even built their own reservoirs hidden in the forests in the area to store water they’ve been pumping illegally.

The aquifer is not being replenished because of the drought and increasing temperatures. The river itself is becoming increasingly salty as sea water creeps up into the river. Within a very short time they will have pumped the aquifer dry and put themselves entirely out of business by going after short term profits now and sacrificing the long term existence of their businesses.

China and Pork

The demand for pork in China is showing no sign of slowing down anytime soon. The country just started it’s first government approved pork pricing index on their commodities exchange to  try to help stabilize prices. The pork supply in China is still dominated by small farms that are sensitive to price swings. As the market fluctuated, pork farmers would react accordingly, cutting way back in production during times of low prices and causing a subsequent wild upsurge in prices during the subsequent shortage of pork. Gee, sounds bit like the US milk market, doesn’t it?

The index could also be leading up to the introduction of futures and options contracts which could help stabilize prices as well.

The country is also trying to end urban pig production to get the animals away from waterways and densely populated areas to reduce pollution, the spread of disease, etc. There have been bans on pig production in cities and towns being put in place by local authorities all over the place.

China and Beef

With China now importing US beef (sort of) a lot of people are speculating on what effects the Chinese market will have on the US beef industry.

At the moment, no effect at all, really, because China won’t accept the hormone and drug laced meat that most commercial growers are dumping on the US consumers. Virtually none of the commercially produced beef in this country meets Chinese health and safety standards. The beef now being exported to China is basically just PR fluff so politicians can pose for pictures with thick steaks in Beijing  while pretending they actually did something.

The Chinese market is potentially huge, but it’s going to require ranchers to grow cattle from birth without the use of the hormones and drugs they’ve been using for decades. It will be interesting to see what happens here and if US growers can adapt to the market.

Walmart Goes Angus?

Walmart is facing extreme competition from places like Aldi, Save-a-Lot and newcomer Lidl in the cut price grocery business, and it’s sales have been flat or even shrinking, so the store is trying to improve its image by claiming that all of it’s beef is now “certified Angus“. The store apparently made some kind of deal with Cargill an Tyson to get Angus steaks and roasts at the same price as whatever it was they used to sell before. They’re doing it only for steaks and roasts and not ground beef products.

Walmart might be better served by looking at the quality of it’s stores and it’s whole “shopping experience” than by trying to put yet another marketing scam in place. From unstocked shelves to dirty floors, to untrained employees, to failing to staff the checkouts lanes, to, well, you get the idea. At least three times in the past year I’ve been in one of the local stores to find entire categories of product just — just gone. One day it was sugar. There was literally not a single container of sugar on the shelves. Anther time it was iodized salt. Again, not a single container of iodized salt. Another time it was white flour…

Milk Price Insanity: Nobody Knows What’s Going On

Watching the various agricultural media outlets is utterly infuriating some days. On the very same day, in the very same ag news outlet, I found these two stories:

Milk Prices are Exceeding Expectations

Dairy Prices Fall

Oh for heaven’s sake… trying to figure out what’s actually happening is enough to make one bang one’s head against the nearest wall.

One article claims milk prices are going up, another, often in the exact same news outlet, claims they’re going down. Another claims the future is utterly horrible, another claims the future is bright and sunny…

Does anyone really know what the hell is going on?

Wisconsin Is Cheese

Well, okay, so it isn’t made of cheese, but some days it seems like it around here. Still, Wisconsin is one of the largest producers of cheese in the world, and home to some of the biggest cheese related companies in the world.

The little town of Plymouth, Wisconsin, about 20 minutes from here, apparently handles 15% of all of the cheese produced in the entire country. It’s the home of Sargento, one of the biggest cheese processors in the country. Satori is big, and some privately owned companies like Masters Gallery Foods, all have locations in Plymouth that process, package and warehouse cheese products.

These few companies are a Big Deal around here, employing thousands of people at processing and shipping facilities scattered all over this area. Sargento just put in a huge addition here in the town where I live and there is talk that they’re going to expand the facility again in the next few years. Sargento alone employs over 1,000 people in just Plymouth and hundreds more here in Hilbert.

There Are Consequences When You Piss People Off

Mexico is no longer the largest buyer of US corn. It has spent about $1 billion less when compared to last year. The country is actively talking with Argentina and Brazil to buy corn. Mexico is becoming very nervous about the horrible comments that have been made by this administration about the country and it’s people, and is no longer looking at the US as a reliable trading partner.

You can’t blame Mexico, really. Having your citizens branded as murders, rapists and drug dealers as this administration has done isn’t exactly what you could call a ‘friendly gesture’, now is it?

EPA Approves Chlorpyrifos, Gets Sued

The EPA, against the advice of almost everyone (except the manufacturer), approved the continued use of a rather nasty insecticide, chlorpyrifos.  If you click the word over there to get to the Wikipedia link, you’ll find this is nasty, nasty stuff, causing developmental problems in children, muscle weakness, seizures, coma, vomiting, paralysis, and suffocation from lung failure. Exposure to it is especially bad for children, causing low birth weight and extensive neurological problems.

Like I said, it’s nasty stuff. The EPA was on track to issue an outright ban on it’s use because of the scientific data it had developed in November of last year.

But then we had an election and, well, now Pruitt says no, it isn’t bad, and the decision to continue to permit it was based on “meaningful data and meaningful science.”

And it then refuses to give Associated Press copies of the scientific studies Pruitt claims that determined it is safe.

Editorial Comment: This kind of thing absolutely infuriates me. Study after study that I’ve turned up indicates chlorpyrifos is dangerous at even very low exposure levels, especially to children. Then Pruitt and the “new” EPA come along and claim they have studies that indicate it’s safe, and won’t tell anyone what those studies are, who did the studies, where the data came from, nothing…

 

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.