Farm Catch Up

Well, I’m bored, I haven’t written much here of late, so let’s take a look at what’s been going on in the ag world recently.

Dicamba Issues Abound — The controversy over Monsanto’s dicamba herbicide blends and those approved under license, XtendiMax, Engenia and FeXapan, continue to have problems and generate considerable controversy, complaints and legal issues. Minnesota and other states have instituted restrictions on when, where and how the herbicides can be uses, new federal restrictions regarding training requirements and new application restrictions, etc. Other states have issued wide ranging restrictions as well.  Even Mother Jones has gotten into the act with an article about the drawbacks of the product.

The companies involved are fighting back, blaming anything and everything for the fact that over 3.5 million acres of crops were allegedly damaged by the herbicide drifting away from the application area this past year. They’ve been claiming farmers are spraying the product with the wrong equipment, failing to follow the proper application techniques, etc. They’ve even tried claiming that famers are illegally spraying non-approved types of the herbicide. In one case one of the companies involved tried to get a member of the board that regulates herbicides in one of the states involved removed from the board.

Words Are Worth MoneyThe University of Arizona did a study of how consumers react to the term “natural” on meat labels and found out pretty much exactly what you might think: that people who know what the term means were unwilling to pay more for meat labeled “natural”. In the study half of the people involved were told the legal definition of the term, and half were unaware of what the legal definition was. They found that those who did not know would pay $1.26 more for steak labeled “natural”, while those who did know wouldn’t pay more.

Under USDA definitions, all fresh meat, even hamburger, can be labeled as “natural” as long as it does not contain artificial flavors, colorings, chemical preservatives or other synthetic ingredients. So basically if you’re paying more for a package of steak or roast labeled “natural” you are being scammed.

What it boils down to is that a lot of these companies will use any  kind of marketing tricks they can to fool you into paying more for a product than you should.

Meat Tax Coming? — Methane and carbon emissions from cattle raising operations makes up almost 15% of the total production of greenhouse gases, and the production of cattle is projected to increase by 70% over the next fifty years or so. So some people are considering taxing the production and sale of meat to try to reduce the reduce greenhouse gas production from cattle. There are serious talks going on in some countries to institute tax policies similar to those used to curb tobacco in order to reduce production and consumption.

Frankly this seems a bit silly to me. The two largest producers of greenhouse gases are electric power plants and motor vehicles. The amount of methane and carbon dioxide produced by cattle hardly makes more than a blip on the charts when compared to that. So I’d think that if they were really serious about greenhouse gas reduction they’d be going after those two sources far more vigorously.

Corn Acreage Shrinking — It looks like farmers are finally beginning to cut back on the amount of corn they’re raising in response to poor prices. USDA is predicting that for the first time in years the number of acres of soybeans will equal or even surpass the number of acres of corn being planted in the US. Corn prices on the Chicago Exchange never went much over $3.75 or so at the peak, and have been sitting at the $3.50 or lower level for some time now. And, of course, the commodities price generally isn’t what the farmer gets for the corn. They often get considerably less than that. When you add in other costs like storage fees, etc. farmers are often getting a lot less than the commodities price.  A awful lot of farmers out there are just barely breaking even on corn this year.

Some people are pinning their hopes on China increasing their imports of corn. China has been drawing down it’s huge stockpiles of corn over the last year or so, and some are taking that as a sign the country will begin to import more corn. But continuing to produce corn in the hopes that China might increase imports sounds like a great way to end up bankrupt.

Screen Shot 2017-12-20 at 7.33.13 AMChicken Suits — No, not that kind of suit. The legal kind. Both California and Massachusetts are being sued over regulations they’ve instituted regarding how chickens (and other farm animals  as well in the case of Massachusetts) are raised. The regulations require chickens (and in the case of Mass. other agricultural animals as well) from which products are derived for sale in the state, must be raised according to certain minimal humane standards. The plaintiffs claim that the regulations dramatically increase the cost of eggs and that it will cost consumers hundreds of millions of dollars, and that the cost of eggs nation wide has increased as much as 5% because of it. A claim I view with considerable skepticism. Locally the retail price of eggs is at almost an all time low. They’re going for about $1.00 to $1.28 per dozen at most retail outlets around here for standard, non-organic “generic” brands, and I’ve seen them as low as $0.79 and even less.


Let’s talk about herbicides. It’s almost the time of year when we’ll start seeing the spraying equipment hitting the fields around here, so let’s talk about herbicides, one in particular called dicamba. And if you read the agriculture press, you’ll be seeing articles like this one that warn of the pitfalls of using this old-but-new-again herbicide:  Caution Lights Ahead For Dicamba Use | Ag Professional. (And before you ask, yes, there are already dicamba resistant weeds out there and one experiment showed it took one type of weed only three generations to develop resistance to the herbicide. <read that article here>)

Now I should point out that dicamba has been around for a long time. It was developed back in the late 1950s and has been on the market ever since. It’s used to control broadleaf weeds and brush. What’s new about it is that Monsanto has developed a line of dicamba resistant crops such as soybeans which can tolerate the herbicide. With these crops being resistant to both glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUP, and dicamba, the hope is that this double dose of herbicide will help to control weeds that are resistant to glyphosate alone.

But there are, as always, problems.

The first of these is dicamba itself. It volatilizes easily, going into vapor, which then moves over large areas. It also is subject to drift while spraying. The droplets from the sprayers can drift over large areas as well. This combination of easy volatility and tendency to drift makes it troublesome to work with because it can spread over large areas, killing or damaging plants well outside of the area being treated. In order for dicamba to be used in the way Monsanto wanted, special blends and compounds had to be created to help prevent the easy volatility and drift of the product so it wouldn’t contaminate adjacent fields.

Monsanto decided to sell its Xtend seeds before the herbicide blend it was designed to work with was approved by the government. The result was that farmers who should have known better planted the seed, and then used dicamba blends that were not approved for use, and tens of thousands of acres (some estimates are in the hundreds of thousands of acres) of crops were damaged or killed by the drift from the herbicide. There are currently lawsuits going on against Monsanto claiming the company is responsible because it released the Xtend seed before the accompanying herbicide blend was available, and Monsanto should have known that some farmers would use dicamba illegally.

The new legal blend is now available, but even that isn’t going to solve the problem. There are a whole host of restrictions, requirements and warnings adorning the labels of the new herbicide. It can only be used with a particular type of sprayer nozzle, has to be applied no more than X inches above the weeds, has to be used at a certain point in the weeds’ life span, the wind can be no more than 10-15 MPH… The list goes on and on. All of the warnings and requirements indicate that this new “safer” blend isn’t all that much safer than the original form of dicamba was.

And in the long run dicamba is going to end up being just as useless in controlling weeds as glyphosate is becoming because as that article I linked to at the beginning points out, weeds will quickly become immune to it as well.

I keep wondering how much longer we can keep this up, concocting ever more toxic and complex blends of herbicides to try to control weeds, when we know that it is, at best, a temporary fix and that the weeds will eventually become immune to even that.

Meanwhile over in France the government has been trying to push things in the other direction, trying to get agriculture away from the ever increasing reliance on herbicides and pesticides. France <story here> has set a goal of cutting the use of pesticides of various types by 50% over the next ten years through the use of alternative methods of pest and weed control. How successful the program has been is a bit questionable, but studies have indicated that farms could significantly cut their use of pesticides and herbicides without a loss of income. But it would require some significant changes in farming practices.

Can we get away from this apparently never ending cycle of herbicide/pesticide resistance? We’re going to find out and in the not too distant future because the current situation simply cannot continue indefinitely.


Merger Fever


If you follow ag news you must be aware of the high profile mergers and buyouts going on in agribusiness. After months of trying to sell itself or merge with another agribusiness company, Monsanto seems as if it is going to be snapped up by pharmaceutical giant, Bayer, so the German company can increase it’s ag presence. Bayer is already a major maker of pesticides and snapping up Monsanto would give it a significant presence in the GM seed market as well.

It is not a done deal by any means. It still has to be passed by antitrust regulators both here and in the EU. There seems to be considerable resistance to the merger in Germany and in the EU as a whole, and a lot of politicians over there have been making disapproving noises.

This isn’t the only big ag merger going on, either. Dupont and Dow Chemical are in the process of merging, with the details still a bit up in the air. Swiss company Syngenta, which Monsanto had attempted to cut a deal with earlier, is being snapped up by the China National Chemical corporation, which is owned by the Chinese government. All four of these companies are major players in the agricultural chemical industry. (ChemChina seems to be on a buying spree. Last year it bought Pirelli, the Italian tire maker)

Mergers, acquisitions, buyouts, etc. aren’t anything new, especially in the ag industry. It’s been going on for ages. And generally the results, at least for the farmers, aren’t pretty. Over the years we’ve seen virtually every small, independent co-op, feed processor, seed maker, machinery dealer and independent mechanic be bought up, forced out of business or merged into ever larger semi-monopolistic businesses. And while competition has dwindled, farmers have fewer choices of where to go to buy seed, fertilizer, feed, chemicals and equipment, prices have, of course, skyrocketed.

The problem with all of these mergers is that they don’t seem to benefit anyone except a handful of investors, lawyers and, of course, the upper management of the companies themselves. They certainly don’t benefit the consumers, that is the farmers and you, the people who buy the milk, cheese, eggs, meat, vegetables and fruit that the farmers produce.

We used to plant 30 to 40 different types of soybeans in the US. Today, 90% of all the soybeans planted in the US are a single variety, produced by Monsanto. The fact that Monsanto has a literal monopoly on soybean seed isn’t the only problem with the situation. It’s the fact that we could be facing a very serious biological crisis. If a new disease pops up that this one variety of bean is susceptible to, the entire US soybean crop could be jeopardized because of this lack of genetic diversity. These monopolies have resulted in such a lack of genetic diversity in our agricultural systems that many of them now lack the genetic diversity to be sustained if a disease strikes them.

What these companies try to do, want to do, is lock farmers into a specific “system” of agriculture. You buy a specific type of seed to plant. That plant comes along with a specific program of herbicide and pesticide control systems, also sold by the company. Farmers do it because it’s easy. Sort of one stop shopping. They get everything they need from one vendor. And generally these systems are profitable.

At least at first. What generally happens is the company starts to get greedy. After releasing the system at a relatively decent price, the company starts ratcheting the price up once farmers get hooked into it. Prices go up until farmers realize the system isn’t all that profitable any longer. But by that time, well, they have such a heavy investment in the system they can’t really get out of it any more. Besides, where else are they going to go because the company has driven all of it’s competition out of business.

Farmers who want an alternative have enormous trouble even trying to find one. These semi-monopolies claim there is still a lot of competition out there. And it’s true that there are some competitors. But not many, and even fewer who could provide large scale farmers with the quantity of seed they need at a price they can afford to pay.