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.

Farm Catch Up

Ah, it’s about that time again, so here’s some of the agricultural news for the past week

 

Budget Pain

Well, I think we all knew that the new administration’s budget was going to be painful, and it is. Well, unless you’re a defense contractor, run a private prison, etc. You people will do pretty good. The rest of us? Not so much.

If you’re a farmer or involved in agriculture in any way, the budget is indeed going to be painful. There are huge cuts to USDA, cuts in the crop insurance program, new fees for inspectors, cuts in research… The list is too long to put here.

In addition to that, there would be massive cuts to the SNAP food assistance program, cuts to the WIC program, cuts to the school lunch program and school nutrition services, all of which would have long term consequences for the agricultural sector.  And even worse consequences for the people who depend on those programs. Even the venerable and highly praised meals on wheels system would be hit hard.

You can read a brief article about the agricultural implications of this over at AgWeb here, and if you spend a couple of minutes on Google you can find out more quite quickly.

Hay Crop almost Total Loss

Here in Calumet County, in neighboring Manitowoc and in other counties nearby we’ve seen nearly a total loss of the hay crop. Inadequate snow cover, coupled with February temperatures that spiked as high as 70 degrees during the day, then plunging into the 20s at night, coupled with extremely wet and cold weather this spring, have decimated the hay crop around here.

To make things worse, the almost nonstop rains we’ve had this spring are making it difficult to get into the fields and do anything. A lot of farmers will try to put in peas and oats to try to get some kind of forage crop off the fields, but it’s going to be a rough year.

Pigs Take Over World

Feral pigs are becoming a major problem in the US and even in Europe. It isn’t a huge problem here in Wisconsin, but the population is growing and becoming a concern. The DNR is putting bulletins into it’s hunting publications about what to do if you find one (basically shoot it). In other parts of the country it’s such a big problem that it’s become a public health issue and they are causing massive amounts of damage to farms.

Feral pigs are very aggressive, smart, reproduce quickly with the average sow producing two litters per year with 6-12 piglets per litter, and they’ll eat anything. If it has any kind of nutritional value at all, and they can eat it, they will. They cause huge amounts of damage to crops and property, kill and eat small animals, and yes, they are physically dangerous towards people. Boars can get to be several hundred pounds, with tusks like razors. And they carry a host of diseases and parasites and spread them over a wide area. Most states have adopted an aggressive policy towards pigs in the wild. A lot of states advise hunters to shoot them on sight.

Ah, well, yummy free pork, then? I wouldn’t eat one. Some states are advising hunters that if they do shoot one, let it lay there. They can carry some very nasty diseases and parasites, many of which can be transmitted to people.

New Herbicide Mix Not So Hot

There was a lot of hype surrounding Monsanto’s introduction of seed varieties that were resistant to both Roundup and dicamba in an effort to control weeds that were becoming resistant to Roundup alone. The biggest problem is pigweed, where a Roundup resistant variety has been spreading widely.

But the new systems don’t seem to be working all that well according to early reports. Early indications are that multiple sprayings are going to be required, and perhaps even resorting to additional types of chemicals. The manufacturer recommends pigweed be no more than 4 inches tall, but since pigweed grows at up to 3 inches per day, trying to time things right is almost completely impossible.

I’m not going to get into debates about the health safety of GM crops. But I will point out that GM plants seem to be, ultimately, a complete failure. At least in their current form. The only commercially successful GM plants right now are those that have been engineered to resist herbicides or insects. And that resistance is rapidly becoming worthless as weeds and insects become resistant to the herbicides or the traits that resisted the corn root worm. These GM plants really have no other desirable traits except that. They do not increase yield, aren’t nutritionally superior. So in the long run, these commercially available GM plants are a failure.

Politics Rears Its Ugly Head

The administrations proposed budget could have widespread and devastating effects on the entire agricultural sector, and cause ripples through the whole economy. There would be big changes to the crop insurance program which could hit some farmers pretty hard. Everyone has probably heard about the cuts to the funding for the Meals on Wheels programs that serve the elderly and disabled. It looks like USDA itself would be hit hard. If I’m reading things right USDA would be looking at losing about a full third of it’s funding.

There would be huge changes to the SNAP program, i.e. “food stamps”. In addition to large cuts in funding, states would have to contribute more money to the program themselves, and would be given more control over how the programs work, who gets help, etc. It would also allow states to institute work requirements.

I don’t really understand the work requirement thing. The vast majority of people in the SNAP program can’t work. They are disabled, the elderly, or children. About two thirds of the people who get assistance through the program fall into one of those three categories. Of the remainder, most of them already do work, but make so little money they qualify for help through the program.

It’s Hard To Be Small If You Raise Meat

The big trend these days is the whole “farm to table” thing where people try to connect directly to farmers to buy food rather than rely on the big commercial processors and distributers. I’m very much in favor of these ideas. Connecting with your local farmers to buy food is generally a good thing for many reasons.

But it isn’t easy to be a small farmer. Agriculture in general doesn’t seem to like small farmers. At all. It’s hard to buy equipment designed for small farms, difficult to find ways to market your products. And if you raise meat animals, well, it’s even more difficult because it’s almost impossible to find a government inspected, licensed slaughter facility to deal with the animals. Bloomberg has an interesting article on the issue, and it’s one that’s turning up all over the country. (Warning, Bloomberg has one of the most bloody awful websites around, loaded with auto-play videos you can’t get rid of that have nothing to do with the story you’re trying to read, along with other annoyances.)

The US market has become such a monopoly that only four companies supply 90% of the meat sold in the country, and the independent meat processors that used to dot the countryside are long gone.

So while the demand for organic, free range and local meat has increased dramatically over the last few years, places where farmers can get that meat processed have become almost impossible to find in many areas of the country. Some are forced to truck their cattle for three, four hours or even more to get them to a processor.

And the government doesn’t want to make things easier. Inspection rules, processor rules and regulations are all geared to the huge meat packing facilities, not the small processors.

Some people in congress are trying to get the rules changed to make it easier for small farmers to deal with this situation, but it’s being fought hard by the big processors, as you might expect.

A Nice Gesture But…

An organization called Dairy Pricing Association put out a PR piece the other day about how they bought and donated 42,000 pounds of cheese to the Hunger Task Force. It’s a nice, feel good kind of item. DPA makes itself sound like it’s doing farmers a favor and that the buy will help push up milk prices. And certainly the Hunger Task Force can use the help. They have over 85,000 people using it’s food pantries and other forms of assistance in Milwaukee county every month.

I hate to sit here and frown at people who are trying to do something, but it’s PR fluff, really. The people at DPA are helping people who badly need food, yes. And that is a good thing. But claiming this is somehow going to help the milk price as some of the statements imply is just silly. It won’t.

That 42,000 pounds sounds impressive until you learn that is half of a single truck load of cheese. Go down to the Sargento plant about 20 miles from here and they crank out dozens of truckloads of product every single day. From one plant.

They removed “23 tanker loads of milk from the market” in 2016. That sounds like a lot until you do the math. Let’s say a tanker holds, oh, 8,000 gallons of milk. That’s 184,000 gallons of milk. A lot, right? Well, no. A 5,000 cow mega-farm puts out up to 30,000 or more gallons a day. So that 23 tankers of milk is only 6 days of production from a single farm.

It’s a nice PR piece, sounds good, and certainly it helps feed people. But boost milk prices? No. Not even a blip.

Farm Catch Up

Looking back at ag news over the last week

NAFTA

The new ag secretary, Perdue, gave a speech in which he claimed the administration was going to renegotiate NAFTA within the next six months. He said, “We’re not talking about this taking years to do, but weeks…”, thus clearly indicating that neither he nor the administration he works for knows what NAFTA is in the first place, or even how trade negotiations work. If they think they can do something as complex as renegotiate NAFTA in a few weeks… Oh, brother, we’re in trouble.

Ag Immigration

With the ag sector in a near panic over the potential loss of much of their labor force due to the policies of the administration, some administration officials have been trying to calm things down. Perdue was out and about again and said in a speech that he had been assured that the administration was not gong to target employers, was not going to raid farms, and that the ag sector should calm down because the administration was not going to go after it’s immigrant labor force.

And then just a couple of days later ICE did exactly that, raiding a Pennsylvania mushroom farm and hauling off nine of it’s employees. So it goes.

Other anti-immigrant activities by politicians and law enforcement have done nothing but make the panic in the ag sector even worse. Texas just put in place a law that permits police to demand proof of citizenship during routine stops and would jail police chiefs and sheriffs who do not cooperate with federal immigration officials. Arizona has passed a similar law. Basically these laws allow, or even require, police to demand proof of citizen ship from anyone they suspect is not a citizen which, in a lot of jurisdictions basically means anyone who is not white.

Some politicians are trying to do something about this. Ag businesses and others that depend on immigrant labor are having serious problems already. There is a bill in Congress that would provide a “blue card” to farmworkers who have worked in agriculture for at least 100 days. That bill will almost certainly go absolutely nowhere. Wisconsin and some other states are trying to cobble together a “state visa” program that would give states more control over immigrant rights to prevent their labor force from being deported. Wisconsin is hugely dependent on immigrant labor and employers are already having problems finding people to work. That proposal will go nowhere as well. Even if it did go through at the state level, it would be over ruled by federal law and possibly would even be unconstitutional because the federal government, not the states, has control over immigration.

Water Wars

Wisconsin has a serious problem with water quality, especially ground water. Because of contamination by huge CAFOs (mega farms) caused by the dumping of millions of gallons of liquid manure on the ground, wells all over the state are being contaminated. Up in Kewaunee county about 40 miles from here it’s estimated that 35% – 50% of the private wells in the county are contaminated. And almost nothing is being done about it. A story in the May 10 issue of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (I can’t put in a link because I read MJS on Kindle, but you can find it with Google if you want) discovered that the problem is so serious that the Algoma school district is giving out water to students and families, some farm organizations are giving out drinking water, and even the DNR may be getting into the act, providing drinking water. And almost no one has heard about the story. I’m not a conspiracy nut, so I don’t think that they are deliberately trying to bury the story. I think it is just getting swept aside because of far more important issues. Kewaunee County is a rural area and not very affluent so news organizations tend to ignore it unless something makes a big stink.

Kewaunee County is also problematic because it is bordered on one side by Lake Michigan, and by the Bay of Green Bay (yes, I know it sounds redundant, but that’s what they call it) on the other. The Bay of GB has been suffering from dead zones, areas where nothing but algae grows, because of contamination by fertilizers, phosphorous, nitrates; the same contaminants that are getting into the wells.

Wisconsin isn’t the only state with this problem. Iowa, Indiana, California… Anywhere where large scale agriculture is going on is suffering similar problems. And the politicians are listening.

But, of course, not to the people who are finding their water polluted. Here in Wisconsin they’re ramming through new rules and regulations which would allow mega farms and irrigation systems to draw virtually unlimited amounts of ground water form high capacity wells, even in areas where the draw down has been so bad rivers and lakes are literally drying up because of it. The “new” DNR is doing nothing about the issues in Kewaunee and is working on “voluntary” solutions. And in California they tried to push through a bill that would forbid people from suing suspected polluters, giving the general public no recourse at all if they find their wells contaminated. And at the federal level some members of Congress are trying to push through a similar measure. You can read about that here over at The Hill.

Who Owns What?

One trend that I find troubling is farm land being snatched up by investment companies. Farmland Partners is perhaps the best known of these, but it isn’t the only player in this. FP now owns around 154,000 acres of farmland, and it’s expanding it’s holdings every year.

Perhaps I’m a pessimist, but when I read stories like this I tend to think of how this can be abused and misused. I get nervous whenever an essential item like farmland is being concentrated in the hands of people who don’t give a damn about anything except maximizing their profit. Yeah, I know the companies talk about preserving farmland, protecting our resources, saving the environment, protecting agriculture and all that. But when it comes down to it, the only business FP is in is to make money for it’s stock holders. Period.

Unpasteurized Milk

Consuming unpasteurized milk has become a fad in the “natural food” world. From ridiculous claims that unpasteurized milk can cure everything from rashes, to baldness, to cancer, to claims that pasteurizing milk somehow destroys it’s nutritional content, the internet abounds with utterly absurd claims alleging health benefits from it that simply do not exist.

One thing that unpasteurized milk can do, though, is make you sick. According to a new study published by the CDC this week, 96% of all illnesses linked to milk products were caused by unpasteurized milk, even though only about 3% of the population drinks unpasteurized milk and even fewer eat cheese made with unpasteurized milk. You can read about it here over at Consumerist.

I know this sounds kind of ridiculous from a former dairy farmer, but the fact is that you don’t need milk at all. You can easily get the calcium, protein and other nutrients in milk from other sources. There are studies out there that indicate that contrary to what the milk marketing boards are trying to claim, drinking milk does nothing to improve bone density nor does it do anything that can’t be gained by eating other foods. There are even some studies indicating that drinking milk may be related to some of the very things the marketing people claim it helps.

[Addendum: May 12. I added this edit after someone who read this told me that you need to drink milk to get vitamin D. Yes, D is an essential nutrient and a lot of people don’t get enough of it, but you don’t get vitamin D from milk itself. The only reason D is in milk is because milk processors are required to add it. They basically grind up a vitamin pill and throw it in the jug. ]

Cheese… that’s a different story. Ooo, yummy yummy cheese… I think I have some of that gorgonzola left in the fridge…

Say it with me now — cheese….