Farm Catch Up

I haven’t done one of these in a while, so let’s take a look at what’s been going on in agriculture. And since this is January 2018, maybe take a peek at the crystal ball (I actually use an old tennis ball because, well, have you seen what a good crystal ball costs these days?) and see what might be going on in the upcoming year.


Dicamba has been in the news again. This time the Arkansas state legislature has weighed in on the issue. It’s legislative council has approved the Arkansas plant board’s ban on the use of Dicamba from April 16 to Oct. 31. The board put the ban in place after receiving almost 1,000 complaints of Monsanto’s new “no-drift” blend of the herbicide doing exactly that, drifting, and damaging thousands of acres of crops in the state. The company has released the hounds lawyers, is filing for court orders, is threatening to sue everyone in sight, has launched attacks against at least one individual member of the plant board, and it’s getting nasty real fast.

Meanwhile other big soybean growing states have instituted new, much stricter controls on the use of the new herbicide after hundreds of thousands of acres of crops were allegedly damaged by the new blends. Even the feds have gotten into the act, instituting stricter rules and usage regulations about using the stuff.

Monsanto and it’s partners that are selling these blends claim that the drifting isn’t their fault, and that it’s the farmers and people performing the applications that are to blame. The clam is that they’re using the wrong equipment, spraying at the wrong time, at the wrong temperature, and even using not Monsanto’s patented product, but straight dicamba that they’re purchasing elsewhere that volatilizes much more easily. But in order for this much damage to be caused that way, a huge number of farmers and applicators would have to be breaking the law, and I don’t believe that. Commercial applicators won’t risk it. They could lose their licenses, get huge fines, be sued, basically be put out of business if they didn’t apply these products in the proper way. And farmers who apply these products themselves would face similar penalties.


A2 Milk – I don’t recall now if I’ve talked about so-called “A2” milk before, but if you haven’t heard of it yet, you will in the near future. I suggest you go read the Wikipedia article on it which goes into extreme detail, and which has a plot like a soap opera, complete with bankruptcies, threats, untimely deaths, utterly ridiculous health claims including that it cured diabetes, cancer, etc., bogus marketing scams and I don’t know what all else before it finally became “legit”. I just re-read it and– oh brother, it’s a mess. The thing you want to remember about A2 milk is that it is, well, milk. The only difference is that the casein in the milk has a slightly different chemical makeup than A1 type milk. Nor is A2 milk entirely free of the A1 type of casein. Despite all of the hype, it is still just milk, and there seems to be no real basis in fact for any of the health claims being made for it. If you want to drink it, fine. But for heaven’s sake, don’t pay more for it than you’d pay for regular milk because it doesn’t cost any more to produce the stuff than it costs to produce A1 milk.


Dairy – There doesn’t seem to be much good news for the dairy industry for 2018. Thanks to continued overproduction and a projected increase in production during 2018 of 3% or more, milk prices look like they’re going to be heading down, with some people predicting the price could drop to $13/CWT or even lower. A dairy economist over at UW Madison thinks prices could climb as high as $16 in the second half of the year, but he seems to believe that production and demand are going to start to balance out, and frankly there doesn’t seem to be any real reason to believe that.

Some people think China is going to dramatically increase imports of milk products, but there’s no real reason to believe that, either. China has had a moderate increase in imports, but not to the point where it is having much effect on milk prices.

Don’t look to NAFTA for any help, either. If anything, the NAFTA negotiations are doing little more than making Mexico and Canada increasingly irritated. But more about that lower down on the page.

About the only good thing that’s happened in the dairy industry is that cattle feed prices have remained fairly low. But while that’s good news for dairy, it’s bad news for grain farmers.


Corn – Corn prices don’t look like they’re going to get much better either. Despite predictions that farmers are going to be planting less acreage in corn in 2018, the amount of grain actually produced isn’t going to be shrinking much because of improvements in yield, and as a result the price of corn on the commodities market has remained at or near the $3.50 level, where it’s been for months now. Demand for corn appears to be relatively flat.

As is the case with milk, there is hope that China will start to ramp up imports of corn, but there seems to be no real proof that is going to happen any time soon. The biggest buyer of US corn used to be Mexico. In 2017 Mexico curtailed it’s purchases of US corn, and has been talking to sellers in Brazil and Argentina. Increased sales to Japan has made up for some of that loss, but the way things are going in the political arena, don’t look for any improvement in grain exports any time soon.


NAFTA – The trade agreement that administration officials were claiming would be done in just two or three weeks back in mid summer of ’17, wasn’t, of course. Negotiations are still going on, and despite public statements by the administration indicating things are going just fine, they aren’t. Behind the scenes reports from the proverbial “unnamed source” indicate that things are definitely not going well. And when one considers that the ruling party in DC can’t even negotiate with it’s own members to keep the government funded and has to depend on the opposition to get enough votes to keep government offices open, that shouldn’t be surprising.

The question isn’t when a new NAFTA will be negotiated, the question should be is there going to be any kind of NAFTA at all. Right now I’d say that the chances of NAFTA being successfully renegotiated are around 50/50.

Agrimoney.com | Butter price surge may ‘prompt fundamental market change’ – Arla

Screen Shot 2017-08-29 at 6.25.36 AMArla boss Peder Tuborgh sees a shake-up, if the rally continues which has, for the first time, made dairy fats more expensive than protein Source: Agrimoney.com | Butter price surge may ‘prompt fundamental market change’ – Arla

I haven’t been talking much about farming lately because not much has really been going on over the last month or so. But butter — good grief. The butter market has gone goofy.

Wholesale butter prices are flirting with record prices in some markets, even surpassing record levels in some areas. Retail prices have been creeping up. Demand for butter has been just about the only thing that’s been keeping farmgate fluid milk prices at a reasonably decent level over the last few months. Around here prices for generic butter is pushing close to $4/lb. while prices for the “premium” brands is in the $4.50 range, with some of the premium brands pushing $5/lb. retail prices. The exception is KwikTrip, which is selling their house brand for $2.99 in their convenience stores around here.

I’m always fascinated by how the public’s attitude towards butter and dairy fat in general has changed over the last few years. Thanks mostly to the marketing claims made by margarine manufacturers, and with little or no actual scientific studies backing those claims, butter and dairy fat was being blamed for everything from obesity, to heart disease, to stroke, to I don’t know what all else, while margarine was being pushed as a “healthy” alternative, when the opposite was true.

I always hated margarine. I hated it’s texture and flavor, I hated how it melted or didn’t melt, hated how it worked when used in cooking. But then I’m weird that way. I have one of those hypersensitive senses of smell and taste, especially smell. I’ve a bit of a reputation as being a picky eater, but I’m really not. The problem is that I smell and taste things most people seem to be unaware of.

But let’s get back to butter…

The item up there from AgriMoney reminded me of the Great Butter War going on here in Wisconsin right now. The picture of Kerry Gold butter up there isn’t just some random butter image, it’s appropriate because at the moment Kerry Gold is banned from sale in Wisconsin along with a lot of other brands of butter.

Before butter can be sold in the state, it has to be graded on taste, texture and color through some state accepted system, by state accepted inspectors. This means that if a butter maker can’t or won’t spend the time and money to put their product through the state’s inspection system because of cost or whatever reason, it can’t be sold in the state, even though it meets all other accepted federal standards.

Consumers didn’t know about this until one day Kerry Gold butter abruptly vanished from the shelves of the grocery stores here in the state not too long ago. It isn’t that the law was just passed, it’s been on the books since the 1950s. It seems that a lot of grocers just didn’t know about the law until fairly recently.

Wisconsin has a long history of laws about butter. It is still illegal for restaurants to substitute margarine for butter without the customer specifically requesting it. It is illegal to serve margarine in state prisons, schools and hospitals except for health reasons. And until the late 1950s it was illegal to sell margarine in the state that had been dyed yellow. Margarine is actually a rather sickly looking whitish color and is dyed yellow to make it look appealing. Margarine makers used to include a yellow dye packet with the margarine sold in Wisconsin so the consumer could dye it themselves.

I should point out that Wisconsin’s butter grading law has nothing to do with food safety. The grading system the state insists on is made up of largely arbitrary standards for taste, texture, smell and appearance. Kerry Gold and the other butters banned from sale in the state meet all USDA and other federal standards for quality. They just haven’t been subjected to these arbitrary tests.

Well, the whole thing is going through the legal system now, and I suspect that sooner or later the Wisconsin requirements will be overturned. But until then you’ll have to order your Kerry Gold online or hop across the border to Illinois or Minnesota to get your fix.

Farm Catch Up

Stories you might have missed about food, agriculture, and the ever popular ‘stuff’, along with occasionally snarky commentary.

Coffee Linked To Not Dying!

Screen Shot 2017-07-12 at 2.14.11 PMOoo, coffee — that delightful, delicious beverage that both pleasures the taste buds and enlivens the brain, oh I feel so sorry for those of you who drink tea. (Come on, you tea drinkers know what you’re drinking is lawn sweepings soaked in tepid water, right?)

Anyway, now that I’m done annoying the tea drinkers out there (you know who you are), let’s get on with this.

That headline up there is not clickbait. It’s true. According to a study published actual real live doctors from an actual research facility and published in an actual science journal (not the Flintstone’s Institute for Advanced Studies of Sciency Stuff and Flat Earth Society where most of the congress apparently gets its science information) you have almost a 20% less chance from dying from just about anything if you drink coffee. Well, probably not getting hit by an asteroid or something like that. They mean heart disease, stroke, cancer, that kind of thing. If you click the link it will take you to an article over on The Guardian and you can get the links to the actual study from there.

Missouri Bans Dicamba

Missouri joined Arkansas in issuing an emergency ban on the sale and use of herbicides

Screen Shot 2017-07-11 at 6.29.22 AM
soybeans damaged by dicamba

containing dicamba after it was learned that more than 200,000 acres of non-GM soybeans were allegedly damaged by the product. The Arkansas ban was approved by the Governor’s office and will go into effect on July 11, and is in effect for 120 days. The Missouri one doesn’t seem to have a specific time limit, but the agency involved in Missouri said it hoped the problems could be resolved and the ban lifted yet this growing season.

Dicamba has always been difficult to work with. It turns to vapor and can drift for extremely long distances. Non-GM soybeans are extremely sensitive to the product, and even a tiny amount can damage the crop, so any kind of drifting is a serious problem. Monsanto has claimed that it’s “VaporGrip” version of the product cured the problems when used properly. But it doesn’t seem to be working very well.

So, you ask, what dos Monsanto say about all of this? Glad you asked.

They’re blaming everyone else, of course. In an interview over at CropLife, a Monsanto spokesperson blamed everyone and everything except, of course, it’s product. Farmers spraying at the wrong time of day, having residue from other products in the sprayer’s tanks, not following proper procedures, using the wrong spray nozzles, spraying in windy conditions. And all, of course, without offering any proof that any of this actually happened.

More Chlorpyrifos Controversy

Five states (and I’ve heard several more are in line to do it too) are suing the EPA over it’s decision to permit the continued use of Chlorpyrifos, a very nasty pesticide that is known to cause serious health problems, especially in children.

I mentioned this before. Last year the EPA determined that chlorpyrifos was dangerous, and public health organizations, doctors and other health care professionals have been pushing for it to be banned for years. The EPA was going to ban the stuff at last.

But then along came Pruitt and he claimed the stuff is just fine and dandy and that they had real actual “meaningful data and meaningful science” to prove it. Associated Press, other media, and health officials have repeatedly requested the EPA provide them with the data, but the EPA has refused to respond to any of the requests.

I don’t like being a cynical old bastard, but I get the feeling the EPA hasn’t provided it yet because they have interns locked in a back room somewhere desperately trying to write something sciency enough to fool the average reader into believing this stuff is “safe”.

Oh, I should point out that DOW, which makes chlorpyrifos, contributed $1 million to Trump to fund his inauguration, its CEO is supposedly good friends with him, and it has spent over $13 million “lobbying” various politicians in the past year.

Commodities Markets Are Weird

If you followed my old blog on Tumblr you know I’m fascinated with the agricultural commodities market and how it functions. Or, rather, how it doesn’t function, because it’s often so screwed up it’s laughable. Often what’s going on in the futures markets seems to have little to do with reality. Like right now.

USDA came out with it’s crop status report, and it’s the worst that they’ve issued since the 2012 drought, with only 65% of the corn crop rated at “good” or better, and only 62% of the soybean crop rated “good” or better.

Now during the drought, corn and soybean prices skyrocketed, with corn pushing the $8/bushel range for a time. So you would naturally think that a report that bad would push the prices up, right?

Well, no. After the report came out, corn prices fell by about 5 cents a bushel, and soybeans dropped more than 12 cents.

Apparently what drove the morning price down was that the report wasn’t as bad as they thought it would be.

Bureaucratic Run Around

More on the dicamba front: BASF, which has partnered with Monsanto to produce the special dicamba blend that was just banned in Arkansas and Missouri after enormous numbers of complaints about crops damaged by the herbicide, is trying to pull a bureaucratic end run around the ban by applying for something known as a “special local need label”.  This is a special permitting system that allows the use of a pesticide that normally cannot be used, because no other pesticide would be effective. Basically it was originally intended to help during emergency situations where there was an infestation of some pest that threatened to wipe out a crop, and only a non-registered pesticide would work. If you want, you can read the information about that whole process here.

Considering dicamba has damaged literally hundreds of thousands of acres of crops as it has drifted across the countryside, it seems that problem here is dicamba, not the weeds it’s supposed to control.

What The Hell Is Milk Anyway?

Screen Shot 2017-07-11 at 7.42.36 AMThere is a lot of fighting these days over the definition of the term “milk” when it comes to products being sold to consumers, specifically over the use of the term in describing drinks made with various nuts and beans. I.e. “soy milk” and “almond milk” and that kind of thing. Even USDA isn’t sure, and is using the word “milk” in much of it’s literature when referring to these products.

I can certainly understand why the almond industry wants to use the term. It’s because calling “almond milk” what it really is, isn’t exactly appealing. If they labeled it accurately, they’d have to call it “97% water with a few ground up almonds, emulsifiers, stabilizers, gums, flavoring agents, coloring, added vitamins and minerals and preservatives and you’d get more nutrition from just eating five or six actual almonds than drinking this stuff beverage”.

Try fitting that on the label on the bottle.

Rural Internet Access

For anyone living out in the country internet access is a major problem. There are various schemes and scams floating around that claim they will bring high speed internet to rural residents, but most of them are never going to get anywhere for various reasons.

Why won’t the ISPs connect rural customers? Cost, of course. It would take ages for them to make up the cost of connecting everyone outside of cities and towns. The same thing happened with electricity and telephone back in the day, the providers wouldn’t hook up rural areas until the government pretty much forced them to and paid a lot of the costs associated with it. And in this current political climate, well, a prominent Wisconsin politician (Sensenbrenner) is on record as saying that no one actually needs internet in the first place, thus illustrating that he hasn’t a clue as to what life is like out here in the real world.

The problem with most of these schemes is that they rely on some type of radio communication, either types of cellular networks, microwaves, or some kind of extended wifi system. And the fact of the matter is that we don’t really have the spectrum available to make these schemes work. The radio spectrum is so severely overcrowded now that cellular companies are paying billions of dollars for access to a few frequencies to expand their networks and improve their systems. So exactly where they’re going to squeeze in these new services is problematic.

The other problem is that some of these systems are already being tested or are even already in use in limited areas, and they don’t really work very well and they aren’t really all that fast. We have a kind of microwave system in use around here serving residents that live outside of the wired system, and it has some serious issues. Heavy rain and snow disrupts service, speeds slow to a crawl during ‘prime time’ when many people are trying to use the system, and most of these systems are very expensive, have some very serious data caps, and have lots of other issues associated with them.

Yet another problem is that what the feds are calling “broadband” isn’t really broadband by anyone’s definition. The US has some of the most abysmal internet speeds of any first world country. The ISPs here have been concentrating on throttling back usage, restricting bandwidth, charging utterly ridiculous amounts of money for going over artificially created caps so they can cram ever more paying users into an already overloaded system, and not investing any of that money in improving the infrastructure or in extending their coverage. The result is that US speeds are about half of what they are in the UK, the EU, Japan, Korea, and even the metro areas of China.

The feds definition for “broadband” internet for rural areas is even worse than what it is in urban areas, about 10 meg/second. So you can forget about making that conference call to work if your kid is playing WOW or your dear spouse is down in the basement watching PornHub.

Manure Rules

Wisconsin is finally doing something about the very serious contamination of wells by

Screen Shot 2017-07-12 at 2.45.57 PM
Why is she wearing a mask? If you had to pose in a swimsuit with a bunch of cows, you’d probably wear a mask too.

manure from farming operations. I’ve mentioned before that we have had problems with well contamination from farm runoff, especially in Kewaunee County, were it’s estimated that 30% – 40% of the wells are contaminated. It hasn’t been widely reported, but the problem is so bad that local organizations, schools and others have been giving out drinking water to local families because of the widespread contamination of the wells up there.

The state is going to be issuing new rules that will finally put some restrictions on when, how and where farms can spread manure. Hopefully this will help.

Okay, okay — I know that photo has nothing to do with the story. But if I come across a photo of a person in a swimsuit, wearing a mask, standing with a bunch of cows, I’m going to put it up. I can’t help myself.

 

Milk Again

Some of you are probably getting tired of me talking about the dairy industry and the

Screen Shot 2017-04-27 at 6.43.56 AM
Cow is angry.

problems it faces, but I ran across an editorial over at Wisconsin Agriculturalist that was really well written and well thought out that talks about the situation the dairy industry is facing. Go give it a look if you have a few minutes.

The writer brings up a lot of points that I’ve talked about myself, or have at least thought about. I wanted to pass some of that along with my own thoughts on the subject. So if you’re sick of me babbling about dairy farming, feel free to skip this one. I won’t blame you at all if you do.

As the author points out, blaming Canada for our overproduction problems down here is just plain stupid. He doesn’t use that word. He’s more polite than I am.

Blaming Canada for our problems and Grassland cutting off some 75 or so farmers from a market for their milk is stupid. Demanding that the government “do something” to change Canada’s milk production and marketing system because of our problems down here is sort of like a kid demanding his parents take away his friend’s Playstation because he doesn’t have one himself.

Canada has a milk production/marketing system that works fairly well. Dairy farmers enjoy relatively stable prices that let them make a reasonable profit. But the price they pay for this is that their production is strictly limited. They have a system in place that permits them to only produce a specific amount of milk. If they want to expand their operation, the only way they can do it is by acquiring the quota of a different farm that is shrinking or going out of business.

This also means that Canada has to put in place import restrictions that prevent outsiders from dumping their surplus product onto Canadian markets at cut-throat prices and destabilizing their whole system.

This, some claim, is “unfair”. Canada, they claim, should simply allow the US to dump it’s surpluses on the Canadian markets so the US can continue to ramp up milk production to make even more product that no one wants and wrecking the Canadian dairy industry just as badly as we’ve wrecked the US markets.

They want a “free market”. But only a market that’s “free” for them, and not for anyone else, it seems. They want a market where they are free to dump their excess on everyone else, but at the same time they want the US to protect them from other countries doing the same thing to us. Hence all of the rhetoric coming out of DC about tariffs on imports, claims that China and Mexican products are “destabilizing” our markets by dumping cheap products on us.

But we should be able to do it to them?

Could the government here ever develop a marketing system that actually works? Sure it could. But it won’t. It can’t.

The problem is that the government is no longer in the hands of elected leaders who represent us. Instead politicians have sold their souls (and ours) for the almighty dollar. Their actions are being influenced not by the voters who elect them, but by a handful of well financed special interest groups that are largely funded by a tiny handful of wealthy individuals and corporations and which pump hundreds of millions of dollars into election campaigns.

The author of the editorial wants farmers to join up with one marketing board or farmers’ organization or other to try to work with the government to get changes made. It’s highly unlikely that will work. It certainly hasn’t worked in the past. Farmers’ organizations attempting to change the system have come and gone by the dozens, and almost none of them have had any real positive influence on things. In some cases, they’ve made things worse.

What’s the solution? The government isn’t going to be any help. That system is largely broken. The government no longer responds to the needs of the people it’s supposed to represent, but only responds to those who can write out six figure checks or own a high priced and well funded lobbyist in DC.

I wish I had an answer. I don’t.

 

 

Farm Catch Up

Looking back at ag news over the last week

NAFTA

The new ag secretary, Perdue, gave a speech in which he claimed the administration was going to renegotiate NAFTA within the next six months. He said, “We’re not talking about this taking years to do, but weeks…”, thus clearly indicating that neither he nor the administration he works for knows what NAFTA is in the first place, or even how trade negotiations work. If they think they can do something as complex as renegotiate NAFTA in a few weeks… Oh, brother, we’re in trouble.

Ag Immigration

With the ag sector in a near panic over the potential loss of much of their labor force due to the policies of the administration, some administration officials have been trying to calm things down. Perdue was out and about again and said in a speech that he had been assured that the administration was not gong to target employers, was not going to raid farms, and that the ag sector should calm down because the administration was not going to go after it’s immigrant labor force.

And then just a couple of days later ICE did exactly that, raiding a Pennsylvania mushroom farm and hauling off nine of it’s employees. So it goes.

Other anti-immigrant activities by politicians and law enforcement have done nothing but make the panic in the ag sector even worse. Texas just put in place a law that permits police to demand proof of citizenship during routine stops and would jail police chiefs and sheriffs who do not cooperate with federal immigration officials. Arizona has passed a similar law. Basically these laws allow, or even require, police to demand proof of citizen ship from anyone they suspect is not a citizen which, in a lot of jurisdictions basically means anyone who is not white.

Some politicians are trying to do something about this. Ag businesses and others that depend on immigrant labor are having serious problems already. There is a bill in Congress that would provide a “blue card” to farmworkers who have worked in agriculture for at least 100 days. That bill will almost certainly go absolutely nowhere. Wisconsin and some other states are trying to cobble together a “state visa” program that would give states more control over immigrant rights to prevent their labor force from being deported. Wisconsin is hugely dependent on immigrant labor and employers are already having problems finding people to work. That proposal will go nowhere as well. Even if it did go through at the state level, it would be over ruled by federal law and possibly would even be unconstitutional because the federal government, not the states, has control over immigration.

Water Wars

Wisconsin has a serious problem with water quality, especially ground water. Because of contamination by huge CAFOs (mega farms) caused by the dumping of millions of gallons of liquid manure on the ground, wells all over the state are being contaminated. Up in Kewaunee county about 40 miles from here it’s estimated that 35% – 50% of the private wells in the county are contaminated. And almost nothing is being done about it. A story in the May 10 issue of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (I can’t put in a link because I read MJS on Kindle, but you can find it with Google if you want) discovered that the problem is so serious that the Algoma school district is giving out water to students and families, some farm organizations are giving out drinking water, and even the DNR may be getting into the act, providing drinking water. And almost no one has heard about the story. I’m not a conspiracy nut, so I don’t think that they are deliberately trying to bury the story. I think it is just getting swept aside because of far more important issues. Kewaunee County is a rural area and not very affluent so news organizations tend to ignore it unless something makes a big stink.

Kewaunee County is also problematic because it is bordered on one side by Lake Michigan, and by the Bay of Green Bay (yes, I know it sounds redundant, but that’s what they call it) on the other. The Bay of GB has been suffering from dead zones, areas where nothing but algae grows, because of contamination by fertilizers, phosphorous, nitrates; the same contaminants that are getting into the wells.

Wisconsin isn’t the only state with this problem. Iowa, Indiana, California… Anywhere where large scale agriculture is going on is suffering similar problems. And the politicians are listening.

But, of course, not to the people who are finding their water polluted. Here in Wisconsin they’re ramming through new rules and regulations which would allow mega farms and irrigation systems to draw virtually unlimited amounts of ground water form high capacity wells, even in areas where the draw down has been so bad rivers and lakes are literally drying up because of it. The “new” DNR is doing nothing about the issues in Kewaunee and is working on “voluntary” solutions. And in California they tried to push through a bill that would forbid people from suing suspected polluters, giving the general public no recourse at all if they find their wells contaminated. And at the federal level some members of Congress are trying to push through a similar measure. You can read about that here over at The Hill.

Who Owns What?

One trend that I find troubling is farm land being snatched up by investment companies. Farmland Partners is perhaps the best known of these, but it isn’t the only player in this. FP now owns around 154,000 acres of farmland, and it’s expanding it’s holdings every year.

Perhaps I’m a pessimist, but when I read stories like this I tend to think of how this can be abused and misused. I get nervous whenever an essential item like farmland is being concentrated in the hands of people who don’t give a damn about anything except maximizing their profit. Yeah, I know the companies talk about preserving farmland, protecting our resources, saving the environment, protecting agriculture and all that. But when it comes down to it, the only business FP is in is to make money for it’s stock holders. Period.

Unpasteurized Milk

Consuming unpasteurized milk has become a fad in the “natural food” world. From ridiculous claims that unpasteurized milk can cure everything from rashes, to baldness, to cancer, to claims that pasteurizing milk somehow destroys it’s nutritional content, the internet abounds with utterly absurd claims alleging health benefits from it that simply do not exist.

One thing that unpasteurized milk can do, though, is make you sick. According to a new study published by the CDC this week, 96% of all illnesses linked to milk products were caused by unpasteurized milk, even though only about 3% of the population drinks unpasteurized milk and even fewer eat cheese made with unpasteurized milk. You can read about it here over at Consumerist.

I know this sounds kind of ridiculous from a former dairy farmer, but the fact is that you don’t need milk at all. You can easily get the calcium, protein and other nutrients in milk from other sources. There are studies out there that indicate that contrary to what the milk marketing boards are trying to claim, drinking milk does nothing to improve bone density nor does it do anything that can’t be gained by eating other foods. There are even some studies indicating that drinking milk may be related to some of the very things the marketing people claim it helps.

[Addendum: May 12. I added this edit after someone who read this told me that you need to drink milk to get vitamin D. Yes, D is an essential nutrient and a lot of people don’t get enough of it, but you don’t get vitamin D from milk itself. The only reason D is in milk is because milk processors are required to add it. They basically grind up a vitamin pill and throw it in the jug. ]

Cheese… that’s a different story. Ooo, yummy yummy cheese… I think I have some of that gorgonzola left in the fridge…

Say it with me now — cheese….

 

Milk Wars

Well, the politicians have gotten involved in the dispute with Canada over their change Screen Shot 2017-04-27 at 6.43.56 AM.pngto their milk import policies, and as you might expect, there has been a lot of muttering, tut-tutting, bloviating and ranting, with absolutely nothing being done about anything. The president got involved, appearing in Wisconsin briefly where he said many, many things to try to make it sound like he was going to do something, and as soon as he got out of the state and safely back in DC, the Whitehouse immediately disavowed everything he said, blunted or even eliminated entirely the vague threats, and we aren’t going to do this or that, but oh, even though the dispute is about milk we’re going to put a tariff on Canadian wood…. Wood? Really? Oh, well…

The state’s ag secretary is apparently actually doing his job, trying to help the dairy farms that are being dumped by Grassland. But in the long run there isn’t a heck of a lot that can be done at the state level. Fortunately it seems like most of the farmers effected by this have now found other markets for their milk, but the situation is still very concerning, and I expect things will get worse before they get better.

Blaming Canada for this, as many are doing, is silly. These new rules should not have blind sided anyone. From what I’ve been reading, the rules have been in the works for at least a full year, if not longer. Back in November already we were seeing stories popping up about the change in rules and warnings of how it would effect the markets here. So the processor’s claim that they were blindsided by this is a bit disingenuous. If their management didn’t see this coming, they really should be in a different business.

The real problem is the dairy industry itself and the politicians who keep fiddling with it, not any specific country. And the problem is world wide, not limited to the US or Canada. The problem is that dairy farms are producing way, way too much milk. More than the market can absorb. And instead of trying to deal with the situation, the reaction of the whole industry is to try desperately to come up with some kind of market for the stuff, any way they can, even if it destabilizes some other country’s farming industry. Pressuring politicians to institute still more ways to artificially prop up prices.

Canada has done something no other country has, it has actually been trying to deal with the problem of oversupply. It has a fairly strict quota system on milk production to try to keep the market stable. But in order to make it work, they have to restrict imports of dairy products from outside of Canada or the whole system would fall apart as the country is flooded with cheap imports. (The EU tried a quota system but abandoned it a year or two ago)

Is this protectionism? Of course it is. But you have a choice: Do you protect your businesses at home, giving them a level playing field to work with, restrict production so the farms can be relatively profitable, or do you open up your markets to cheap imports, often cheap because of government subsidies, tax breaks and other things that make it cheaper for them to produce the product than you can?

Then the politicians get involved… Price supports, tax breaks, grants, subsidies, government agencies buying up surplus product to artificially prop up prices, mandates that you have to use certain products (Wisconsin still has laws that force restaurants and food service operations to serve butter, for example), the list goes on and on. The end result is that anyone who thinks there is a “free market” for dairy products is living in a dream world.

What’s the solution to the problem? I really don’t know. My father used to say that the system was so screwed up that the whole thing should be scrapped. All of it. Make it a true free market. No government subsidies, no tax breaks, no marketing boards. Leave the health and safety regulations, testing, etc. But get rid of everything else. Turn it into a real free market that has to respond to normal supply and demand rather than a government supported mess where farms are propped up by various programs and price manipulations that encourage overproduction.

Would it help? I don’t know. But it seems to be about the only thing we haven’t tried yet. It’s obvious that all of the quota systems, price supports, surplus buys and everything else isn’t doing any good.

Catching Up

Brazil Scandal

I haven’t heard much about the meat scandal going on in Brazil on the main stream media but it’s been all over the ag press since the story first broke. According to reports, Brazil’s meat exporting companies have been involved in bribery scheme where government inspectors and auditors were bribed to permit the companies to ignore sanitary regulations and inspections, falsify medical records and certificates, and ignore tampering with products to disguise problems with the meat. It’s also alleged the producers used ascorbic acid and other chemicals to disguise rotten meat, injected water into meat to inflate the weights. It’s just nasty. The whole story sounds like something straight out of “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair.

There are now reports of large numbers of arrests as the government tries to do damage control. Brazil is the largest exporter of beef and poultry in the world, and the scandal has decimated the industry. Many countries instituted outright bans on importing Brazilian meat and meat products or instituted much stricter inspection protocols. Things are slowly starting to get back to normal, but the Brazilian meat industry really took a hit on this one and it could take some time for it to recover.

The really scary part about this is that meat processing companies had allegedly been bribing the country’s federal meat inspectors for years before this was discovered.

Does No One Remember?

Does no one remember what things were like before the EPA came along and environmental laws were finally brought on-line? It seems not, judging from the stuff I’ve been hearing coming out of the “new” EPA and the new administration. If you read the laundry list of things the new administration is planning on doing when it comes to the environment, it seems none of them do.

And what’s up with this fixation on coal that this administration has? Pruitt just put on a staged event with coal miners in full gear standing around him to try to spin how the gutting of environmental regulations is going to somehow create massive “economic growth”. All things considered, coal is a very, very minor cog in the energy machine. For many years coal has been becoming increasingly irrelevant in the energy world, and not just for environmental reasons. It’s expensive, dangerous, dirty, inefficient, produces huge amounts of waste material when burned, it’s hard and dangerous to mine, and the coal industry doesn’t really employ all that many people.

When I remember what it was like back in the 1960s, and think that we might be going back to those days of cities being entombed in clouds of toxic smog, rivers that were so polluted they actually caught on fire, where if you fell into a river you’d probably die from poisoning before you drowned, and all just so a few politicians can pose for pictures with a handful of miners from an industry that was starting to fail even before they were born, it makes me wonder what the hell is going on.’

Rather than spending all this time, energy and government money propping up the coal industry allegedly to “protect” the jobs of a few thousand miners as the politicians claim they are doing, wouldn’t it make more sense to invest those resources in training the miners for other types of work, giving different types of businesses incentives to move into those areas, etc?

Canadian Dairy Fights Back

The Canadian dairy industry is pushing back against claims that it and the Canadian government are at fault in Grassland cutting off 75 dairy farms here in the state. As I pointed out previously, the story being pushed out by the company about why it abruptly cut off 75 farms, forcing them to scramble to try to find new processors to buy their milk, seems to be a bit disingenuous. Especially when Grassland is claiming it had to cut off those farms because it can’t sell the milk while the company itself is seeking permits to build it’s own 5,000 cow dairy farm.

The Canadians are pointing out that the real culprit is the US’s overproduction of milk. And they’re right. The market for dairy products is utterly saturated. Despite an increased demand for butter, the US domestic market has been flat for years, with some sectors, such as consumption of liquid milk, actually declining despite heavy marketing and various gimmicks. And while demand is shrinking, prices falling, the diary industry responds by drastically increasing production?

Even one of the farmers dropped by Grassland agrees as is noted in the story linked above.

One of the biggest problems with the whole dairy industry in the US is government intervention in the market. Political manipulation of the market has resulted in a maze of rules, regulations, laws, marketing schemes, surplus buys and I don’t know what all else, that has left us with a marketing system that is convoluted, irrational, and so outdated that parts of it go back 75 or even a hundred years.