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.

Farm Catchup

Time to get caught up with what’s been going on in the farming world.

Elderly Corn

China has a problem with corn. As in it has too much of it. It’s been sitting on a large amount of stockpiled corn for years now, and it needs to get rid of it because some of this has been sitting in storage for ages now and if they don’t get rid of it soon it’s going to be unfit for even animal consumption. Agrimoney posted a story indicating China is going to start dumping a lot of it’s aging corn on the market beginning May 5. Some of this stuff has been in storage since 2012. The country has had a problem with this for some time now, and there are rumors flying around that the quality of this stuff is marginal at best. China has been working to make their grain markets less dependent on government support programs and to draw down massive amounts of grain that they have in storage. The result has been a huge drop in the import of grain, especially corn. Chinese corn imports in March were 91% lower than they were a year ago.

GM Corn Saving Lives?

My opinion of genetically modified crops is mixed. I believe the science that proves that the GM crops in use currently are generally safe and that consuming them does not cause health problems. But GM crops have other issues associated with them that are problematic. Like the fact they don’t really improve yield at all, that they lead to the development of herbicide tolerant weeds and that in the long run, GM crops modified to resist weeds and things like the corn borer are little more than stop gap measures that will ultimately fail… The list goes on and on.

But there is one GM crop that could genuinely be of benefit. Aspergillus is a type of fungi or mold that produces aflatoxin, which is not only a carcinogen, but can also cause stunted growth in children and damage immune systems. And it causes liver cancer. It can be found in all kinds of things; peanuts, walnuts, the list goes on and on. Aflatoxin is especially a problem in corn. Corn that is harvested wet, stored improperly, can easily be hit with this stuff, and it can be very nasty.

Here in the US and other first world countries corn and other food crops are tested for the the stuff, but that’s not the case in other places that don’t have the resources, the money, or the expertise to do the testing.

They’ve developed a modified variety of corn that resists the development of the toxin in the corn kernel. Aspergillus can still develop, the the toxin itself will not get into the kernels of the corn.

The early test results are very promising, but they’re going to have to hook up with someone who can afford to foot the bill for large scale testing of the modified crop and go through all of the regulatory paper work and testing.

It wouldn’t just help poorer countries which can’t do the testing. Farmers have  huge amounts of corn rejected because of testing positive for the toxin, so a variety of corn that didn’t develop the toxin would be a significant financial benefit.

Weed Wars

I ran into this item over at agweb.com: When Will the Herbicide Cavalry Arrive? It talks about herbicide resistant weeds and new chemicals to kill them and all that stuff. The usual kind of thing that reads like a PR piece written by the chemical companies. But if you scroll down a bit over halfway through the piece, you’ll find a somewhat different tone when someone, finally, utters the phrase “we’ll never spray our way out of the problem.

And we won’t. Sooner or later the pests will develop resistance to whatever chemical solutions they come up with and the problem will come back just as bad, probably worse, than it was before. They go on to praise two Australian “innovations” that attach to the combine to capture weed seeds before the combine can blow them back out onto the field.

It’s certainly a good idea. Any weed seeds you can capture at the combine aren’t going to germinate the next year to infest your crops. But innovative? Hardly. Similar technologies have been around for decades. Back in the late 1950s our old Massy Harris combine had a device mounted on it that did something similar. It collected the weed seed that would have been blown back out onto the field or gone into the grain tank with the oats and dumped it into a feed sack attached to the back of the combine. At the end of the day we’d have bags of the stuff. It certainly wasn’t 100% effective, but every weed seed it did collect was one that wasn’t going to cause a problem the following year.

Will these devices be helpful? Hell yes, if they ever get them into production and farmers buy into the idea.

I’m not sure why the process went out of favor. I think our combine was the last one I ever saw that was equipped with it. I suppose people figured why bother when all we need to do is just spray. Just blow the weed seed out the back of the combine and let the chemicals deal with it.

School Lunch Controversy

You’d think that one thing everyone would agree on is that school kids should be fed lunches that are safe and healthy, right? But you’d be surprised. Opinions range all over the place out there, from people who think parents should be responsible to feeding their kids and the schools shouldn’t be serving any food at all, under any circumstances, to those who think schools should be feeding kids everything; breakfast, lunch and dinner.

And as for what schools should be serving, well, it’s turned into an utterly ridiculous and totally unnecessary political fight that started the moment the Obama administration announced new rules to insure that what kids were being fed in schools was, if not actually good for them, at least wouldn’t actively harm them. There is absolutely no doubt that we eat too much fat, too much sugar, too much salt, too much processed food and we don’t eat enough vegetables, fruit and whole grains. The new rules were intended to help deal with that, and from the moment they were even mentioned, the fight started because, well, Obama, and as far as certain politicians and special interest groups were concerned, anything coming out of the Obama administration was automatically the spawn of Satan.

As the current administration works to roll back or eliminate everything that it’s predecessor did, it’s been going after the school lunch program as well. The ag secretary announced in a self promotional fluff piece that reads like it was written by the food processing companies and backed with “information” that either isn’t true, is misinterpreted or cherry picked, that they’re going to “make school meals great again” by rolling back the Obama era nutritional guidelines, and allow schools to return, at least partly, to serving kids little more than junk food disguised as a meal. Restrictions on salt, fat, sugar, serving increased amounts of vegetables and whole grain breads and fat free milk are all being rolled back

One of these days I need to do an article about the school food service system. I’ve been involved in it either directly or indirectly for decades and some of the crap going on in that system, well, it’s scary sometimes.

U.S. Bites Into Cheese Mountain With Stockpile Purchase (1) | Agweb.com

Milk glut has pushed dairy prices to lowest levels since 2009.

Source: U.S. Bites Into Cheese Mountain With Stockpile Purchase (1) | Agweb.com

The buy by USDA will do little to improve farmgate milk prices, and in the long run might actually do more harm than good by temporarily improving wholesale prices and thus encourage even more overproduction.

It has not been a good time to be a dairy farmer almost anywhere in the world over the last year or two. A variety of factors, including wide spread drought one year and China stockpiling milk products led to a dramatic upturn in the farmgate price for milk. And for a time dairy farmers were doing pretty darn good.

Unfortunately, it seems that everyone, including a lot of people who should have known better, seemed to think that this situation was going to continue into the future, that dairy prices would remain high, and that there were massive profits to be made if they expanded production. As a result dairy operations began expanding all over the world. The EU lifted its production restrictions, farmers added cows, processors began building new production facilities. Fonterra, the world’s largest dairy co-op based in New Zealand, was investing heavily in the Chinese dairy industry because it saw massive profits were just waiting.

Well, it couldn’t last. And it didn’t.

China wasn’t buying up milk products because it really needed them. China was buying because it was first of all, getting a really, really good price. It wasn’t using the products it was buying, it was stockpiling them against future price increases. Chinese consumption of imported milk products was also being driven by a series of serious food contamination scares, including the deliberate adulteration of milk by criminals with chemicals that made the milk appear to have higher protein levels in order to get higher prices. The adulteration resulted in hundreds, even thousands of people becoming sick and some even dying. Ventures into marketing milk products in Southeast Asia were failing badly. The Chinese themselves were investing heavily in domestic milk production. China hates being dependent on imported foods for obvious reasons, and has been trying to do something about it. Western style mega-farms were starting to pop up, supported by the government. China was also cleaning house internally, launching extremely strict monitoring of food production to prevent things like the milk adulteration horror. They actually executed people for that crime.

So while China’s imports of milk products was shrinking drastically, world wide demand was flat, production continued to expand.

And milk prices plunged.

My father often said that a lot of farmers were their own worst enemy. Unfortunately he was largely correct.

He was also enormously skeptical of government price support efforts, and he was largely correct there as well. While these government programs like this cheese buy are well intentioned, in the long run they only serve to make the problem worse by temporarily propping up market prices and encouraging over production. Once the program ends, the market ends up being worse than it was before.