Farm Catch Up

 

Organic: Is it, or isn’t it?

There was a rather troubling item released the other day showing about 40% of organic produce tested was contaminated with pesticides that are not permitted for use by organic growers. The article in Wisconsin Agriculturalist talks about the whole organic situation briefly.

While organic growers in the US are fairly well monitored, the same can’t be said for sources outside of the US. And with up to 80% of organics being sold in this country coming from elsewhere, that’s a bit troubling. USDA doesn’t have the staff or funding to do more than token inspections of organics coming into the US and has to rely on certifications and inspections being done in the country of origin. And considering the horrific stories coming out of places like Brazil involving the meat industry, well, let’s jus say that the inspection systems in other countries are a bit problematic and leave it at that.

And am I wrong in this, or was one of the principals of organic farming supposed to be that food should be grown close to where it’s consumed? Organic isn’t just about growing crops without pesticides. It was a whole philosophy of reducing the use of fossil fuels, producing crops in a sustainable manner, tying to keep food production as local as possible. If you’re shipping “organic” produce 5,000 miles in massive container ships or flying it in via cargo plane, how exactly is that “organic” in the first place?

Canola Oil – The Short Story

I ran across this item over on Wisconsin Agriculturist. It’s a brief little item about how canola oil, one of the most important vegetable oils we produce, was originally developed and how it’s become one of Canada’s most important ag products.

It’s an interesting story. Canola oil didn’t even exist until the mid 1970s when plant scientists bred a type of rapeseed plant that lacked the undesirable traits of the original plants, and processing technologies permitted turning the seed of the plant into one of the most widely used vegetable oils we have. The problem rapeseed had originally was that it contained relatively high concentrations of euric acid, which can be toxic in large amounts. The new plants still have some trace amounts of euric acid.

Then, of course, they had to change the name of the stuff because “rapeseed oil” isn’t exactly appealing for consumers, so they came up with the name “canola” for it. The rapeseed plant’s name has nothing to do with acts of violence, but instead comes from the latin word rapum, which means turnip.

Anyway, go give it a read. It’s a nice little article.

In the “What the Hell Is The Matter With Them” department, we have Illinois

It seems that no matter how bad things get here in Wisconsin, we can always indulge in a bit of schadenfreude by looking at our neighbor to the south, Illinois. No matter how corrupt, inefficient, callous and cruel our political system here in Wisconsin has become, we can always look south and say “well, at least we aren’t in Illinois”.

Illinois is in the middle of a financial hell hole of it’s own making. The state just failed to pass a budget. Again. They haven’t had a state budget in two years, and are well on their way to three years in a row without one. The state is operating largely on a serious of short term spending resolutions, court orders forcing it to pay people, and legally mandated debt payments. Other than that, the state is in financial hell as bills continue to pile up, interest piles up, it’s credit rating plunges, and a bond rating that is just one level above junk bond status. The interest payments caused by it’s failure to pay bills promptly is going to cost it almost three quarters of a billion dollars alone.

This didn’t happen overnight, of course. The state (and the city of Chicago) has a long history of playing fast and loose with it’s bookkeeping practices, using accounting tricks to cover things up, postpone paying things into the future, shortchanging it’s pension funds and basically engaging in practices which, if done in the real world, would have ended with a lot of them going to jail for a very long time indeed. It owes it’s pension fund alone something like $129 billion because of it’s fiscal mismanagement. But since it’s the government and they make their own rules, they’ve been getting away with it

For those of us in Wisconsin who are sitting up here chuckling over the misfortune of the FIBs, well, it can happen here. This administration has been fiddling with the books as well, using accounting tricks that would be illegal in the real world to postpone debt payment, borrowing money to prop up the budget, especially the transportation budget. At the moment about 20% of every dollar going into the transportation budget is being used to make payments on past borrowings because the administration hasn’t been willing to fully fund all of the road projects it has mandated. This budget cycle we’re looking at the state borrowing another $500 million to try to keep it’s road projects going.

If you think Illinois can’t happen here, just remember what happened to the money the state got from the settlement with the tobacco company years ago. Wisconsin got almost a billion dollars to settle up with the tobacco industry. The money was supposed to go to health care, tobacco prevention programs, and programs to help people get off of tobacco addiction. It didn’t, of course. The state just flat out stole it, using the money to plug a hole in the state budget.

Weather Related Crop Failures

I haven’t seen a lot of news items about it yet, but we’ve already seen a lot of crop failures due to unusual weather all around the country. In many of the counties around here we’ve seen an almost total failure of the alfalfa crop, with losses as high as 80% or more. Down in Georgia and South Carolina there is a near total failure of the peach crop, with losses as high as 85%. The blueberry crop down there was hit hard as well. Farmers there are looking at a $300 million loss to the fruit crop. Large parts of the midwest have had significant delays in getting the corn and soybean crops in the ground because of abnormally wet weather. Up in Canada one region has been unable to plant tens of thousands of acres of wheat because of wet weather. Down in Australia they’re having the opposite problem, not enough rain, with significant damage to the canola and garbanzo bean crops.

Curiously enough, the commodities markets seem to have been ignoring all of this and there has been little movement in the futures prices except for the usual thrashing up and down a few cents.

Pink Slime Redux

Remember “pink slime”? You may not. It’s been a while since that scandal story hit the airwaves. ABC ran a story about this stuff, “finely textured beef”, that was made from stuff scraped off the bones of cattle, left over from the trimming process, basically stuff that would have otherwise gone into pet food or be thrown out, which was then ground up, had the fat removed from it, was treated with ammonia, and then injected into hamburger, and then they didn’t tell anyone about it. The stuff is… Well, let’s just say it’s not exactly appealing and leave it at that. Even more troubling was the fact that this was being done without any labeling or any indication that something other than normal beef was in your hamburger.

One of the major manufacturers of the stuff was not happy about the story because their sales plummeted, and they sued ABC and several individuals back in 2012, and it’s finally going to be coming to trial. The company is asking for about $1 billion in damages.

It will be interesting to see what happens with this one. Despite everything the company says, I don’t remember ABC claiming anything that wasn’t absolutely true during the report. But the way things are these days, the outcome of the trial is a coin toss, really. Whatever happens it will probably end up in the courts for years with the losing side appealing.

It’s a sad but true fact that you pretty much don’t know what the hell is in the food you buy unless you’re preparing it yourself.

Grain Facility Explodes

A corn processing facility in Cambria Wisconsin exploded, killing two and injuring more than a dozen others. According to the story in the link above, the facility had a history of safety violations, including failing to properly control potentially explosive dust.

These facilities can be extremely dangerous. Grain dust is not just a fire hazard, it is also an explosive. Until government agencies like OSHA clamped down, grain elevators and other grain processing facilities used to explode every year. There is a mill just down the street from my place and until fairly recently it was a running joke that the place burned down every year, and just a few years ago they had a massive fire that had units from a dozen or more fire departments scurrying down our street to try to get it under control. For an entire day after the worst was over, we had water tankers running down our street every 4 minutes (we timed it) to dump water on the smoldering remains.

 

Stupidity Roundup

Let’s face it, a lot of the things we do are stupid. They just are. There is no rational reason for some of them, a lot of good reasons why we shouldn’t do them, but we do them anyway. So let’s take a look at some of the stupid things we do.

And yes, before you ask, I’m bored again otherwise I wouldn’t have come up with such a ridiculous topic

Daylight Savings Time

It’s that time of year again when we shove the clocks ahead an hour in the spring. The insanity that is daylight savings time has been with us for many decades now, and while there might have been some valid reason for it back in the 1940s when we were in the middle of a world war, any rational reason to hang on to this ridiculous practice, if there ever was one, ended around the same time WWII did. Bloomberg has a neat little article about the fact that daylight savings time doesn’t help anyone and actually harms a lot of people so if you want to read it click here for the link thingie.

The argument that it somehow saves energy is completely bogus. When Indiana finally switched to daylight savings time in 2006, the state actually used more energy than it did before it adopted the time change. When you add in the spike in car accidents, other accidents, heart attacks and other adverse effects directly linked to the time change, there is simply no rational reason to support it and a lot of reasons to get rid of the damned thing.

So absolutely no one benefits from the twice a year time change. A lot of people are harmed by it. It doesn’t save energy. It is just a plain bad idea.

But we keep doing it anyway.

There was a bill in the state legislature here to try to get rid of it. It was promptly dismissed as being ‘trivial’ and not worth the valuable time of the state’s politicians. The same politicians who found the time to declare the polka the state dance, put through a bill to declare sandy loam as the state dirt and… Well,  you get the idea.

Butter Wars –

The butter war has been heating up in Wisconsin long after most people thought a ceasefire had been signed decades ago. Wisconsin’s agriculture business is enormously important, especially the milk business, and over the years the state has done some rather curious things to try to promote and even force people to use dairy products like butter. It was, for example, illegal until around 1967 to sell margarine in Wisconsin that was colored yellow. Well, to be fair you could, but it was subject to such a heavy tax that it made the product very expensive to buy if it was colored. Only margarine that was uncolored could be sold without being heavily taxed in the state, and since margarine is not exactly very appealing looking when uncolored, it didn’t help sales very much. Some makers of margarine, in an attempt to get around the law, sold margarine in plastic bags with a capsule of yellow dye inside. You emptied the yellow dye into the margarine and then kneaded it in the package to distribute the dye through the product. That was finally lifted in 1967, but anyplace that serves food to the public is required to serve butter to people unless they specifically ask for margarine. You can cook with margarine in the back, you can offer margarine packets along with butter packets at the table, but if you pre-butter toast or bread, it’s supposed to be done with real butter.

Well this time the kerfuffle is over Kerry Butter, an imported butter from Ireland. Now Kerry is a very fine butter. The stuff is excellent. I’ve had it myself. It’s way, way too expensive for me to buy it, you pay a pretty stiff premium for it, but it’s very nice, tasty butter. But because it isn’t graded the way state law claims it should be, it’s illegal to sell it in the state. Wisconsin is the only state that requires this type of grading. You can read about the whole thing here at Wisconsin Public Radio.

Snake Oil – 

There are a lot of scammers out there trying to steal your money by making phoney health claims about their products that it’s hard to know who you can trust any more. But every once in a while one comes along that’s so utterly ridiculous that even the government figures out what’s going on and steps in. You can jump to the Iowa Attorney General’s press release about it by clicking here. There is apparently a company out there that claims it makes a “drinkable” sunscreen, along with other “drinkable” products that do everything from “stabilizing bacteria levels”, whatever that means, to curing infertility, reducing hair loss and preventing acne.

There are two companies involved, Osmosis and Harmonized Water, both apparently owned by someone named Benjamin Johnson of Colorado. The companies produce a line of products that are… Well, they’re water, really. That’s it. Water.

But it’s special water…

The water is allegedly put through some kind of machine called a “harmonizer” that somehow imprints “frequencies” on ordinary water. The “drinkable sunscreen”, they claim will, with just a few squirts on your tongue, protect you from UV radiation by “generating scalar waves above the skin” before it even touches you, and you can buy a tiny little bottle of the stuff for about $40.

Scalar waves are one of the darlings of the “alternative medicine” and “free energy” conspiracy theorists and the like. You can build your own special transformer to make “scalar waves”. It’s not hard to do. You can pump a huge amount of energy into such a transformer and accomplish, well, nothing, really except covert your electricity into heat. These “scalar” devices basically produce two electromagnetic fields that cancel each other out and produce heat and nothing else. But an enormous mythology has developed about them that includes Soviet Union super weapons, weather changing devices, mind control devices.

I won’t go into all of the nonsense that some in the “alternative medicine” world have conjured up, but it involves “supercoil DNA” and mobius coils inside of your DNA that generates “scalar” waves… If you want to delve into it, wear your hip boots because the bull shit gets really deep, really fast. There is supposedly a “scalar wave laser” out on the market that uses “quantum cold laser rejuvenation technology” that can be used to cure, well, everything, it seems. From what I’ve seen these things are little more than the same lasers used for reading CDs and DVDs in a hand held package, and if you want to buy one they’ll set you back about $3,500 for what is basically a bunch of parts out of some DVD players that cost about twenty bucks. It’s also supposed to cure goat polio.

But I’ve gotten off topic here, haven’t I? The Iowa AG is going after the company for various reasons, including the fact “Doctor” Johnson hasn’t been able to practice medicine since 2001 because his license was yanked, that there is absolutely no evidence this stuff does anything at all, that the “testimonials” were largely written by people who sell the stuff themselves or have some other financial interest in the company… Well, the list goes on and on.

The Magic Bullet Syndrome

Magic bullets. You’ve seen them. We all have. The pill that claims it will melt away pounds while letting you gorge on Big Macs and never exercise. The miracle wrist bands you can get for just $19.95 that will make your joint pain vanish. The miracle nutrition supplement that will let you throw away your glasses, or keep you from getting dementia or cure the ailment of your choice. The miracle food that will prevent cancer. The list is endless.

Every generation has their own unique set, it seems. When I was in college one was laetrile, a quack remedy made from apricot pits that was alleged to cure cancer. It didn’t, of course. Previous generations suffered through a variety of radium cures that claimed to help everything from impotence to ‘female problems’ to gray hair. Or electric cures, or ultraviolet light cures. I could go on listing them all day.

The magic bullet syndrome has infected almost every aspect of society. Medical, nutritional, political. They have the ‘magic bullet’, that if only you’ll elect them or buy them, will be a fast and cheap cure for whatever problem you have.

They don’t work, of course, these magic bullets. They never have. They never will. The frustrating thing is that even though we know they don’t work, that they can’t work, huge numbers of people keep buying into the belief that there is something, somewhere, that will solve whatever problem they need solved, without any work on their part, without them having to make any kind of significant sacrifice or effort, and which won’t cost them much.

And magic bullets almost always make things worse, not better. This belief in a magic bullet masks the real problems and the real solutions to the problems. Often until the situation has become so bad that we can’t hide it, can’t try to ignore it, and finally are forced to do something. And by that time, things have gotten so bad, so out of control, that it’s going to cost ten times more to fix it than it would have if we’d just tackled the problem the right way in the beginning. Or in the case of some of the health scams, you end up dead.

They’re seductive, though, these magic bullets. There is no doubt about that. I can certainly understand the temptation to believe in them despite the fact that I know that, ultimately, they will always make the problem worse than it was before.

But it’s oh so tempting… The magic bullet, well, that means you don’t have to accept responsibility for the problem. You don’t have to change. You don’t have to give anything up. It isn’t going to cost you anything, financially or personally.

As the election insanity approaches its climax, we have packs of politicians swarming around the country, each promoting their own particular magic bullets, they themselves. They are the magic bullet that will solve all of the country’s problems. They can fix the economy. They can create new jobs. They can improve the schools. They can bring peace. They can stop terrorism. They can fix anything and everything.

The root of the magic bullet syndrome seems to be intimately linked to our refusal to take responsibility. No one wants to admit that the problems we are facing are our own fault, and the politicians are taking full advantage of that. They’ve latched  on to  the magic bullet syndrome’s close relative, scapegoatism.

Scapegoatism is simply a different form of the magic bullet syndrome. Instead of a magic bullet fixing something, scapegoatism is the attempt to blame all problems on an individual or small group. It’s been around as long as magic bullets have been, and it has it’s roots in the same basic human fault that makes magic bullets so attractive, our unwillingness to admit that we are responsible for our own problems.

And like magic bullets, it’s so easy to do, so tempting to blame someone else, isn’t it? It’s not our fault, it’s, oh, immigrants or one’s political opponent, or the government. The list of scapegoats is as long as the list of magic bullets, really. Unions, teachers, students, young people, old people, immigrants, governments, politicians, religions, communists, democrats, republicans, liberals, conservatives, rich people, poor people, middle class people… They’ve all been used as scapegoats.

When are we ever going to get over the magic bullet syndrome? When are we ever going to be able to admit that our problems are largely our own fault? When are we going to be able to admit that there is no magic bullet, that the scapegoat is really us?