Farm Catch Up

Farming related news you might have missed, stuff I was curious about, commentary about this and that and all that kind of stuff

Amazon Wants to Buy Whole Foods

On Friday, June 16, it was announced that Amazon is looking to buy Whole Foods for almost $14 billion.

As far as WF is concerned, the company hasn’t been doing all that well. Sales have been flat or even declining and the company seems to have stagnated. Some of it’s major shareholders, particularly a hedge fund called Jana, have been putting heavy pressure on WF to sell itself off in the hopes (they say) of shaking up the company and improving sales and WF’s CEO says they only want to do because Jana would make massive profits. Both sides are correct. WF needs to be shaken up if it’s going to survive, and yes, Jana would make massive profits off the sale. If this goes through, Jana would see about a $300 million dollar profit.

Why does Amazon want an upscale grocery chain that caters to people with more money than brains? Amazon has been trying to get into the grocery business in a big way since at least 2008, and while it’s had some limited success, groceries haven’t worked all that well for the company. Buying WF would give it 430 brick and mortar grocery stores already in place along with the supporting infrastructure, access to WF’s supply chain, etc. It would also give Amazon 430 distribution points that already cater to upper middle class patrons, a very profitable class of consumer.

It will be interesting to see how this one plays out.

Cuba

Okay, why is Cuba popping up in a blog allegedly related to farming? Because we actually sell grain to Cuba, that’s why. Over the last eight months we sold 10 million bushel of corn to Cuba, and it could be a significant buyer of other agricultural products as well.

The current administration is rolling back the lifting of some of the restrictions on Cuba that the previous administration began. It is going to once again forbid travel to the country by individuals, institute new restrictions on trade, and basically try to roll things back to the way they were, despite the fact everyone knows the fifty year old Cuban embargo has done absolutely no good at all.

The thing I don’t understand about Cuba is this — Yes, Cuba is a communist country with a history of human rights abuses. But China is also a communist country with a history of human rights abuses that is, if anything, far worse than Cuba. So why do we have virtually unlimited trade and travel to and from China, but the half century old and totally ineffective embargo against Cuba is still in place?

Lead in Baby Food

A really scary story has been popping up all over the place reporting that FDA testing has found that a large percentage of baby food is contaminated by lead. About 20% of the baby food tested by the FDA over the past ten years or so had lead in it.

The amounts were generally below what the FDA claims is “safe” but you have to remember that modern thinking is that no level of lead is safe for infants and children, and FDA standards for lead are many years out of date.

Even more troubling was that lead seemed to be more common in baby food than in adult versions of the same product. Overall 14% of the adult foods had lead, while 20% of baby foods had lead. Even more strange is that 25% of adult marketed apple juice contained lead while a whopping 55% of apple juice markets for babies contained lead. Makes you wonder what the hell is going on.

Dicamba. Again.

I’ve talked about the herbicide dicamba before and all of the problems associated with it, and the lawsuits going on against Monsanto. Let me recap things: Monsanto released a new GM line of seeds called Xtend that was resistant to dicamba as well as it’s RoundUp herbicide because weeds have developed resistance to RoundUp alone. But Monsanto began selling the seed before USDA and FDA had approved the new blend of herbicide that was intended to go along with the new seed. As a result a lot of farmers illegally used non-approved forms of dicamba, causing damage to hundreds of thousands of acres of crops from dicamba drifting into areas where it wasn’t supposed to go. Dicamba is extremely volatile, evaporate easily, and can drift long distances from where it is being applied unless great care is used. Even when the correct blend of herbicide is used and applied properly, it seems it can cause problems. Arkansas has outright banned Monsanto’s Xtendimax dicamba formulation and may ban all dicamba use under emergency regulations because there have already been almost 100 complaints from 14 different counties about misuse of the chemical

There are widespread reports coming from all over Arkansas about damage to crops because of dicamba use already this year, even when the product is being used exactly according to the instructions. There are indications that even when used with the proper equipment and when following the instructions, there dicamba is drifting over large distances, in some cases as much as a mile or more.

Addendum: Arkansas regulators had a meeting on June 20 to consider a complete ban on all in crop use of dicamba. The ban failed because “Due to a procedural error, the vote to consider a ban on in-crop use of dicamba by the Arkansas State Plant Board will be re-voted on at a later time.” So while Monsanto’s formulation was banned, BASF’s version of the herbicide is still legal to use for now.

Rain and More Rain

We’ve been getting extraordinary amounts of rain here over the last few weeks. It just doesn’t seem to want to stop. And as a result a lot of fields around here look like this:

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Fields covered in mud, standing water, and corn starting to turn yellow from too much water. And, of course, there’s more predicted for late tonight and into tomorrow morning.

The entire state isn’t like this, though. Weather patterns have been spotty, with one area getting pounded by rain while just twenty miles away they get nothing. There was considerable damage the other day from a storm that rolled through the Appleton area, even a few suspected tornados, while here, 15 miles away, all we got was a bit of light rain.

Eating Habits Changing?

Is the “fat is evil” belief finally beginning to be laid to rest once and for all? Maybe? Consumption of butter is increasing world wide, sales of “low fat” dairy products are being replaced by “full fat” dairy products. (I put that “full fat” in quotes because it implies that the fat content of the milk is not tampered with. It is. Milk straight from the cow has a fat content that can run as high as 5 – 7% while the “whole” milk you get in the store is 3.25%.)

It isn’t just butter, either. For decades we were taught that eating fatty meat will kill us too, so the trend for many years was to trim all of the fat off of meat, to develop types of cattle and diets that resulted in very little visible fat in the meat, etc. That’s changing now as well it seems.  Sales of fattier cuts of meat, bacon, well marbled cuts of beef have all been going up.

The whole “fat free” craze that finally seems to be laid to rest didn’t do us any good and may actually have done us a lot of harm. Especially when food processors resorted to loading up their products with salt, sugar and other crap to make it edible because removing the fat also removed the flavor from a lot of products.

Animal Welfare

Tyson is launching a very extensive system to monitor the welfare of the animals it raises/processes. It claims it is bringing in a third party monitoring company that will use a variety of techniques including video, data analysis and other techniques to make sure that the animals are treated well. While I am pleased they’re doing it and I hope the other big chicken processors do the same, you and I both know that the only reason they’re doing it is because of the public pressure being put on them because of the videos and information that’s been made public by the animal rights groups that have been exposing how badly many of these animals have been treated.

Milk Prices

Just a few weeks ago I saw people predicting milk would be in the mid to high $17/cwt range, with some claiming it would hit $18+. I was skeptic about that at the time because I didn’t see anything to indicate any factors that would push the prices up that much. In fact, we have an enormous surplus of milk on our hands with milk processors actually shutting off dairy farms supplying them milk because they can’t deal with the glut of product coming in. Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and a couple of other states have had incidents of milk processors cutting off dairy farms, forcing them to desperately try to find someone, somewhere, to buy their milk.

Milk on the futures market has plummeted, losing $1.40/cwt in three weeks, and falling by $0.46 just this week alone. Butter fell 4 cents, cheese is down, dry milk is down…

The reason why is simple – too much milk. And production continues to increase. This is going to keep up until there is a major shake up in the industry and dairy farms start to go bankrupt. That seems to be the only thing that will stop this never ending expansion of production.

No Rush On NAFTA

A few weeks ago Sonny Perdue, the ag secretary, was claiming that the administration would re-do NAFTA in just a couple of weeks, illustrating that neither he nor the administration knows anything about how treaties, trade deals or negotiations really work. But apparently someone, somewhere, in the administration does know, and it looks like talks and negotiations will extend well into 2018, a bit more of a rational time frame. Frankly, considering how utterly inept this administration has been in its dealings with other countries, we’ll be lucky if we don’t end up with the administration giving Texas back to Mexico and selling the U.P. to Canada.

Rain, Rain and More Rain

That’s the story around my local area. We had almost three inches of rain Wednesday night. We had two and a half inches last night, when added up with the rain we’ve received over the past week or so we’ve had between 7 – 9 inches of rain over the past week. The ground is saturated, fields have standing water, corn in low lying areas is turning yellow, and anyone trying to get out in the fields around here is pretty much completely shut down if things don’t start to dry out.

My backyard is so saturated with water that the ground makes squishing noises when you walk over the grass, and in the low part of the yard near the property line we have about eight or ten frogs that have moved in. I like frogs, great little critters. But it’s them starting to think that my backyard is a swamp that’s a bit troubling…

 

Photos

How about a hosta flower?

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This is the last surviving iris. These are some of the most amazing flowers.

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The roses are finally coming into full bloom.

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Took the one below yesterday morning just as the sun was hitting it. Didn’t notice the fly tucked away in there until just now.

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This last one is, I think, a real gem of a photo. The lighting could have been better and I suppose I could tweak that with Photoshop, but the raw image is still pretty neat I think.

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Hostas and What is it?

One of the hostas up in the hosta garden is blossoming for the first time and I was surprised by how pretty the flowers are. I generally don’t pay much attention to hosta flowers because I’m more interested in the foliage and I have to admit I don’t think the flowers are all that attractive. But this one? Take a look.

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When I was up at the state park I ran across this bush/tree:

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MrsGF and I have never seen this one before, and neither of us know what it is. Anyone out there know?

 

Miscellaneous Stuff & Retired?

IMG_0375Cactus

I think Mr. Spiny the cactus is about to bloom! The cactus has been doing really well out there tucked up against the side of the house but it hasn’t blossomed in two years. It is currently loaded with new pads, but I noticed some of the new buds looked different, and may be flowers, not pads. I really hope so. The flowers on this plant are absolutely spectacular.

Whitefish Dunes State Park has become one of my favorite places. It has about 880 acres of shoreline along Lake Michigan up in Door County, and it’s well worth the price of admission. I’m not sure what the cost is because I get a yearly pass as part of my conservation patron license, but I think it’s about $8 for a day pass.

It’s hard to pick out a single photo from the park that is representative of how beautiful it is, but perhaps this one will do:

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People seem to think Wisconsin is a rather dull place, with flat land, corn, cows and football. But we have more than 14,000 lakes, plus Lake Michigan. We have cliffs, rivers, forests, water falls… Well, you get the idea.

Alas, I’m not sure how long the state park system is going to continue to exist, though. The current administration down in Madison has cut off all state funding for the park system. It’s only funding now is what it can generate from entrance and camping fees.

Lichen

I continue to be fascinated with lichen for some reason. If I’d ever actually gone to the botany class I signed up for in college I might actually know something about it. But I find the colors, the forms, and everything about it fascinating, and if you’d look through my photo library you’d find a lot of images of lichen and mosses. Most people find the photos rather dull, without the splashy colors of my flower photos, but I think lichen has it’s own unique beauty. Like this, for example

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The subtle shadings of greens and yellows and browns, the amazing shapes. Like I said, I’m fascinated with it.

Storms

We’ve been getting a lot of them of late. We’ve had severe thunderstorms roll through here two or three days in a row now, and we’re getting a bit tired of it. Here at the house we’ve avoided the worst of it, but there have been trees taken down, power outages, minor flooding and building damage all over the area with every one of these. It’s kept the SkyWarn people busy, as well as the utility crews trying to keep up with the damage.

I was really glad we had the backup generator yesterday. Power was out for about 45 minutes and if I hadn’t been able to use the generator we’d have ended up with about a foot of water in the basement because of the heavy rains. We got over an inch and a half of rain in about half an hour here. The sump pump was kicking in every 2-3 minutes all the while.

We actually have 2 generators. One is a little 2KW Yamaha inverter that was originally intended just to run the radio equipment for field day or in emergencies for ARES operations. The other is a big Generac 9KW that was intended to power most of the house. The intention originally was to put a big connector on the outside of the house going to the Generac and using it to run the whole house. As long as we don’t use the ovens, turn on every light in the house, etc., it would have enough capacity to keep everything going. But we never got around to installing the bypass switches and connectors necessary. And when we do have a power failure, the little Yamaha can keep the sump pumps going as well as the radios and a few lights. It’s also much, much easier to move around and get started. It also uses a hell of a lot less gas and is much, much quieter.

IMG_0377Roses! The first roses of the season have popped open at last. I’m not a huge rose fan. I like them, but generally I find them a bit fussy and fiddly to deal with. The one we have in the front of the house takes care of itself pretty much. It just keeps coming back year after year, surviving drought, wet, cold, heat…

That’s my kind of plant – just stick it in the ground and ignore it and it takes care of itself.

Oh, and while I’m on the subject of plants, we found this incredible tree up in Door County as well when we were up there on Monday. Neither of us had ever seen anything quite like it before. Covered with these beautiful red, white and yellow flowers.. Absolutely breathtaking. I don’t know what it is. Have been too busy (i.e. lazy) to actually do research to look it up.

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Retired

I turned in my resignation at work last week and I am still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I am unemployed. Willingly unemployed. It doesn’t seem right somehow.

Well, it isn’t like I was putting in a lot of hours at the job anyway, to be honest. The position I’ve been in for the last two years or so was part time, and more or less on an “as needed” basis. I worked for events at the theater, filled in when one of the day guys was out sick, or there was a situation that required extra help, that kind of thing. A lot of weeks I didn’t work at all and it was rare for me to put in more than 20 – 30 hours a month.

Still, not having a job? It feels — strange. Feels, oh, not right somehow.

 

Gardens, Flowers and Mr. Spiny

I never thought I’d have a cactus growing outside in my garden here in Wisconsin, but this is the third year we’ve had Mr. Spiny and he really seems to like it here.

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When we pulled this guy out of the compost heap and brought him home I never thought he’d survive more than a single summer. Instead it’s been thriving back there against the wall of the house. When we got him, he wasn’t in real good shape to begin with, but he showed his appreciation for being rescued by putting out brilliant yellow flowers, then embarked on more than doubling his size by shooting out new pads. Then last year he put out more new pads, and this year I counted 40 new pads sprouting off him.

I admit I know nothing about cactus, so him surviving and thriving is due more to him and dumb luck, but I’m pleased. Since we got him, I’ve found the same type of cactus out in Wyoming (found the hard way, I knelt on one. OMG did that hurt!). So if they can survive Wyoming winters, it makes sense that they could survive here.

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These guys put on a brilliant show in early summer, but to be honest I don’t really like this plant all that much. The long, pointed leaves flatten down to the ground and look shaggy and unkempt and kind of ratty. But when they flower they do look pretty for a while.

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These — I love the flowers, but they’re annoying. The flower stalks are spindly and very tall and tend to fall over. And they’re rather aggressive, getting into everything. Still, they’re really cheerful looking

 

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I’m eagerly awaiting the lilies. They’re loaded with buds this year. Ours are coming a bit late. Some of the neighbors’ are in full flower already, but they’ll be here soon enough.

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This guy, he popped up out of nowhere, a “volunteer”, as they call them, I guess. We didn’t plant him. It’s always fun when surprises like this pop up in the garden. Well, sometimes. Sometimes there is stuff you don’t want, like creeping jenny and ragweed, etc. But when something this pretty pops up? It’s delightful. Our maple tree in the back yard was a volunteer, springing up from seed in one of the vegetable beds one year, so we let it grow there for a couple of years, then moved it to a more hospitable area before finally putting it in its permanent location. It’s about 8 inches thick now and 20 feet tall.

 

Hidden Beauty

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Hidden beauty because these pretty little flowers are generally overlooked because they are very small, maybe a quarter to three eighths of an inch across, and because they often grow in a place where people don’t want them, in lawns. I love finding beauty in unexpected places like this. These were growing in grass on an empty lot that’s up for sale here in town.

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.