Farm Catch Up

It’s been a long time since  I did one of these, so let’s see what’s been going on in the farming world.

Bayer Acquisition of Monsanto Wraps Up — As of Aug. 17, Bayer had finished divesting itself of various businesses to satisfy regulators so it could complete the buy of Monsanto and it will fully acquire the company and Monsanto as an independent company will disappear. Bayer actually bought all of Monsanto back in June, but could not fully integrate the company until it satisfied the conditions set by various governments.

One has to wonder if Bayer is thinking this might not have been such a good idea. Monsanto just lost a $200+ million dollar lawsuit in California which claimed glyphosate caused someone to develop cancer and I’ve heard that there are many, many more lawsuits in the pipeline over the herbicide. And if that isn’t bad enough, Monsanto’s dicamba blend herbicides could actually end up being banned because of continued wide spread damage being caused by the herbicide drifting long distances and harming other crops, gardens, trees, bushes, etc. Despite stringent application requirements the problem has not gone away and there is a lot of pressure to ban the stuff entirely except as a pre-emergent herbicide that can only be used prior to planting. That would pretty much destroy Monsanto’s sales of dicamba resistant seeds.

You have to remember that the lawsuit mentioned above was in California where apparently just about everything causes cancer, even coffee. Which it doesn’t. Coffee, I mean. The slight correlation between drinking coffee and cancer appears to be due not to the coffee but to the temperature of the beverage. There seems to be a link (a very slight one) between drinking drinking hot beverages over 140 degrees and esophageal cancer and some others.

Milk Labeling Controversy Continues — The argument over what products can use the label “milk” continues. Despite the fact that FDA has, for decades, had an official, legal definition of what “milk” is, defining the term as the secretions of the mammary glands of animals, various makers of nut, grain and plant juices have been using the term “milk” in their labeling for years. Protests about the mislabeling and demands for enforcement of the existing regulations have been ignored for decades. But it seems the FDA is finally going to do something about it because of increased pressure, and it looks like the agency might actually start to enforce it’s own regulations in the fairly near future. I’ve talked about this before so I’m not going to repeat that.

The interesting thing is that a couple of senators tried to slip an amendment into an unrelated spending bill that would have kept the FDA from actually enforcing it’s own rules by prohibiting “the use of funds to enforce standards of identity with respect to certain food.” The amendment would not have altered FDA’s definitions, but would have kept the agency from actually enforcing it’s own rules. Exactly why these two tried to slip this through I don’t know. I’m sure they didn’t get, oh, large campaign contributions from people or organizations linked to the nut “milk” lobby. (Here is where I wish we had a sarcasm font)

Anyway, the amendment was shot down in flames by the Senate. The vote was something like 14 for, 84 against.

I’ve long believed that what we really need is a better definition of the term “bribery” and a law enforcement agency willing to enforce it.

Wisconsin Loses 382 Dairy Farms In First Half of Year — That number should give you some idea of how bad the dairy industry is doing right now. Last year Wisconsin lost about 465 dairy farms. If the attrition continue at this rate, we’re on track to lose more than 650 farms this year. It’s easy to look for scapegoats, of course. The dairy industry itself is a primary contributor to the problems thanks to massive over production. This administration’s nasty little trade war isn’t helping, of course. I’ve seen estimates that this trade war has knocked about $1.50 off the price of milk as countries that used to import our dairy products are now looking elsewhere.

Tariff Relief Program — USDA announced at the end of July it would be starting up a tariff relief program to try to make the hit farmers in the US are experiencing a bit less painful. It announced $12 billion would be funneled to farmers in one way or another using existing relief programs. The exact details are a bit muddy, and USDA seems to be in utter confusion about exactly how this is going to work, so if you’re a farmer who’s been hurt by this, don’t expect any kind of relief any time soon. Considering Perdue, the Secretary of Ag, claimed well over a year ago that the administration would renegotiate NAFTA in just a “few weeks” and they’re still fighting over it today with no end in sight, I wouldn’t count on seeing any actual money coming out of this program for some time.

Another big question is exactly where this $12 billion is going to come from because Congress hasn’t authorized any spending for this program.

Almond “milk” Recalled Because It Has Real Milk In It — HP Hood, makers of Almond Breeze nut juice, is recalling more than 145,000 cartons of it’s product because it may have actual real milk in it instead of it’s nut juice stuff.

Still More Tariffs — The administration will begin to levy 25% import duties on still more Chinese imports soon. This time it’s going to be mostly industrial products like chemicals, plastics and machine parts. China has promised it will strike back dollar for dollar by putting it’s own penalties against US products in place. And it could get worse fast, with the US apparently considering tariffs on an additional $200 billion of Chinese products. The administration has uttered threats of putting tariffs on all Chinese imports.

What a lot of people, especially those who blindly back what the administration is doing, don’t seem to realize is that this while this may hurt China a bit, the ones who are really paying for it are us, and not just in lost sales to China. A lot of these products that are being imported from China simply aren’t made anywhere else, or are made in such small quantities that the domestic makers can’t even come close to meeting the demand.

Let me point out one thing that people don’t seem to understand. That 25% tariff isn’t being paid by China.

That tariff is being paid by the people who buy the product here in the United States. We pay it. If a manufacturer makes a product that includes parts and materials that can only be sourced from China, it has to pay that extra 25%, and that’s what’s happening right now. Yes it will cut back on the amount of purchases from China, but in a lot of cases there is no choice. You pay that 25% tax or you can’t make your product.

That extra cost has to be accounted for somewhere. At the moment a lot of manufacturers are absorbing that extra cost in the hopes that this situation won’t last long. But eventually they aren’t going to be able to keep that up and they are going to have to increase the prices of their finished product. So in the long run, the people who are paying that tariff are us, the consumers.

Lost Valley Farm Saga Continues — A mega dairy in Oregon called Lost Valley Farm is in the news yet again. The farm has only been in existence less than two years, and it has already racked up an impressive list of operational violations that is unprecedented in my experience. Illegal manure disposal, illegal pumping of water from aquifers, illegal generation of wastewater, failure to obtain proper permits, violations of permits… The list goes on and on according to the Oregon Dept. of Ag. (ODA). Most recently the farm was ordered to produce no more than 65,000 gallons of waste water per day to meet permit requirements, but allegedly has continuously violated that agreement by producing as much as 375,000 gallons in excess of the limits.

Meanwhile, the farm’s bank has been going after them. They took out a $60 million loan from Rabobank to start this thing up and the bank is not exactly pleased with things. The farm agreed to sell off the cattle to try to pay down debt.

And then declared bankruptcy the day before the sale was supposed to happen to prevent the sale and keep the bank from foreclosing.

The attorney for the owner of the farm claims they are doing everything the ODA is asking, that they’ve made significant progress in meeting the requirements, etc. ODA counters by pointing out the farm has been in almost continuous violation of of the deal. And the judge handling the case is considering contempt charges against the owner.

Drinking Straw Bans — Oh, brother… Just about everyone seems to be jumping on this call to ban plastic drinking straws. Using data allegedly developed by a nine year old kid, everyone seems to now think that plastic drinking straws are killing the planet and have to be banned right now. Almost every time I look at a media outlet I’m seeing yet another article about some restaurant or town or university or some organization banning plastic drinking straws.

Look, has anyone actually thought about this? Hmm? I’m not sure about the exact numbers because they bounce all over the place because no one seems to know the actual facts, but it seems that straws account for something like 0.0002% of the plastic waste being generated by people. I’m all for reducing waste, especially plastic waste, but there are a heck of a lot more serious sources of plastic waste to go after than drinking straws.

Some places are talking about going to reusable straws made of stainless steel or some other substance that can tolerate cleaning. Have you ever tried to actually clean and sanitize a straw? Basically, you can’t. If put in a dishwasher, the water isn’t going to actually get inside of the straw to clean it. Some might trickle through it depending on how it’s oriented inside of the washer, but not enough to do a thorough job. And as for hand washing, you can run water through it, but that isn’t going to actually remove anything clinging to the inside of the straw. Or you can get, oh, a tiny, tiny brush and wash each one individually, but of course no one is going to do that. Then you’re going to have to try to sanitize it, perhaps by soaking it in some kind of bleach solution. But water is a tricky thing. Because of things like the surface tension of water, you can get air gaps in small spaces…

Do you really want to be drinking out of a straw that’s been used by someone with, oh, hepatitis, for  example, or norovirus?

Well, that’s enough for now. You’re probably getting as bored as I am. And the way the garden looks outside MrsGF and I are going to be busy processing tomatoes for a while. They’re starting to come on fast right now.

Let’s Talk About Cow Sh#t!

Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 6.46.38 AM
Manure spreaders only looked this good for about 30 seconds after they were delivered to the farm.

What sparked this piece is that the DNR here in the state is being sued by a couple of different dairy organizations over the new rules it and the state legislature instituted to try to deal with the massive problem of pollution caused by runoff from the manure generated by the CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations, or mega-farms as they’re generically called).

Manure disposal is a huge problem here in Wisconsin and in other states where there are any kind of large scale cattle operations. Forty or fifty years ago when farms here in the state were still relatively small, it wasn’t a big deal. But now, when we have farms with 3,000, 5,000 or even more cattle concentrated on a single farm, confined to a small area, it has become problem which is literally toxic. Just one of these farms generates as much sewage as a small city. And dealing with that much manure safely is not easy.

And we’ve learned that the hard way. Private wells all over the state are contaminated by the runoff. Some have been hit hard. Kewaunee County has at least 30% of it’s private wells contaminated. Some estimates I’ve read put that number as high as 45%. Some organizations and schools have been giving out bottled water to local families with contaminated wells. We have massive “dead zones” in the Bay of Green Bay where fish can’t live any more because of problems associated with runoff from farm fields. We have toxic algae blooms in lakes. We have… Well, you get the idea.

Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 6.43.38 AMOnce upon a time we dealt with cow manure like this. The cows grazed out in the field, they’d drop a pile here and there, and move on and nature dealt with it. Insects laid eggs in it, animals foraging for food scattered it about looking for the insects, rain would gradually wash it away, and over the course of many days the pile would gradually erode away, absorbed into the soil where the nutrients would be taken up by the surrounding plants.

But you can’t graze 5,000 cows. And since a single mega-farm can produce as much Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 6.49.37 AMsewage as a city, disposing of manure becomes a serious problem and you end up with this kind of thing over there on the right; massive manure pumping operations dumping tens of thousands of gallons of liquified manure across fields all over the countryside.

Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 6.45.24 AMOr imagine you live in the country and you wake up one morning and find huge tanker trucks full to the brim with reeking sludge, leaking all over the road, parked right across from your house like my friend did a couple of years ago. They woke up that morning to the sound of heavy trucks, went outside, and found this going on right in front of their house.

Each one of those trucks has about 8,000 gallons of manure in them. And they were rolling in like that all day long, dumping the stuff into a portable holding tank set up in the field while massive pumps pushed it down hoses to the tractors in the field that were spraying it. The stink was so bad they and everyone else within a quarter mile had to evacuate their homes.

There are existing rules and laws controlling the disposal of manure, but by and large those are pushed to the limits, exceeded, even blatantly ignored.

I have to admit that the situation has gotten better, at least around here. But that’s because I wasn’t kidding about people having to evacuate their homes during one of these big pumping operations. Threats of lawsuits and warnings from local governments to take action forced the worst of this nonsense to be curtailed, but it still gets pretty bad around here sometimes.

It wasn’t until about 40% of the drinking water wells were contaminated in some parts of the state like Kewaunee County that the DNR was forced to act, and then only after the situation had gotten so bad that communities were starting to give out bottled water. The DNR announced stricter regulations and enforcement, with backing from the state legislature, and it looked like they might be finally getting a handle on this.

But no. Now the lawsuits have started. At least two ag business associations have filed suit against the state claiming the DNR doesn’t have the legal authority authority to make the new rules. And because the state legislature severely curtailed the authority of the agency over the past few years, they are quite possibly right. Without intervention by the state legislature, the DNR probably doesn’t really have the legal authority to put the new regulations in place.