Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Robot Day: Cows and Grapes

The NY Times has an article on milking robots. 
I'd read about robotic milkers before, perhaps even posted on them, but this is the first report describing units with no human intervention, meaning the cows can determine when they want to be milked!  So the march of technology has the effect of increasing the "agency" of cows, making for more contented cows, I suppose.  (Was it Elsie, the Carnation cow, which keyed their ad campaigns in the 1950's?   NO, my memory is faulty--Elsie was the Borden's cow.  And, coincidentally, one of the dairymen in the article is named Borden, a seventh-generation farmer.)  Will the crunchy food movement celebrate this advance in animal liberation? 

Seriously, this and similar advances elsewhere in farming pose the problem for the farmer: give up, get out, grow up.  You need a bigger operation to make the best use of machines (although apparently California operations are too big) or cope with new regulations, etc.   The other problem is the infrastructure.  If you're depending on a machine to milk your cows, you can't afford power outages (hand-milking even 12 cows when the power goes off is not fun).  And you can't afford malfunctions--I assume the vendors have some support system to provide loaner units with a very short response time, like 1-3 hours.

Elsewhere, Technology Review has a post on agricultural drones. I wonder when FSA will start using them?

Monday, April 21, 2014


From the NASCOE President's message: "
"Here we are in 2014 and we still don’t have a good online tool for producers to communicate and file applications on the simplest of programs (okay there are no simple programs)."
Now I don't know how complex the ACA health insurance program is, as compared to the FSA programs.  Obviously there were problems with the software last October, and I gather it's still incomplete as far as payments goes.  But HHS only had a few years to get the software done and tested, while FSA has had over 20 years since the idea was floated.  I'm really p****d at the botched rollout of; it's almost enough to make me regret my political allegiance.  But I guess if I'm going to be fair, I should admit that compared to USDA/FSA HHS looks pretty good.  (That's probably the first and last compliment HHS will ever receive on their IT implementation.)

It's easy to argue I'm comparing apples and oranges, because I think administering the insurance program will be handled by the insurance company, not by the website. And the philosophical question is simple: do you want to maximize efficiency or employment in rural areas.  If the former, then go the way some of the loan programs did--centralize administration in St. Louis.  If the latter, become friends with the senators and representative and fight to keep all offices open. 

I suspect we'll continue to muddle our way down the road, closing some offices, doing some modernization, trying to reach both goals: efficiency and rural life.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Price of Eggs (Volatility, Integration, and Tuition)

Yglesias at Vox posts on the recent price of eggs.

What's interesting is the volatility; over the course of a year (2008) it looks as if the price increased about a dollar, or maybe by 80 percent.  Now I can remember the price of eggs bouncing around in my youth.  IIRC they maybe went from 30 cents to 70 cents and back down (and up and down and up and down).  This was at the end of the era of small flocks, right as the industry started to be vertically integrated, with companies contracting with farmers.  I had always thought the purpose was to gain market power, by reducing the egg suppliers to a handful of companies they could collaborate to adjust supply and thereby keep prices relatively steady.  Now the graph only covers the last 10 years and shows a steady rise in prices but not much volatility except for the one year, so I'm not sure whether my understanding of the economics is wrong, or whether 2008 was an outlier. 

A side note: if the change in the price of eggs from 1954 to 2014 had tracked the price of tuition and fees at the college I attended, the price would be close to $100 now.

"Responsible drinkers don't build breweries. "

That's my sentence of the day, from an interview at Vox with someone who studied legalization of pot.

We humans always overdo on something, or rather there's always some humans who will overdo on any good thing.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Taxpayer Receipt

At the Whitehouse website you can put in the income tax and FICA taxes you pay and see where the money went.  I tried to embed it here, but the code didn't work for me.  I wrote the White House--will be interested to see what the result, if any, is. 

Anyhow, it's a useful idea--people when polled have little idea of how much money goes for each function in government.

FSA Faces the Future, Sort of

Some states have legalized industrial hemp growing, so FSA has to determine how to report it.  I guess the response is rational; it's adding a new "product" to the table.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Boxers or Briefs?

That was the question President Clinton was asked on some show which some people thought he shouldn't have been on and definitely shouldn't have answered.  We value our privacy, maybe.

I was reminded today of the good old days, before clothes dryers, when washed clothes were hung on the line, even in winter, because somehow they'd dry even though they froze.  But I digress.  What I really was reminded of was how the neighbors could and would eye your lines, knowing whether the woman of the house was adhering to the proper schedule for washing clothes, etc.  And seeing what you wore.  At least in principle, although apparently some housewives would hang the underwear of the family on the interior lines, more hidden from prying eyes, except on the days the wind blew.   (I say apparently because we lived far enough off the main road that we were safe from such eyes, except for the people who came in to buy eggs and milk.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Was Everything Better in the Old Days?

No.  For proof, compare this photograph of the cherry blossoms post-WWI with this one from this year.  A reminder: trees grow and fill out.  And inventive people come up with things like color photography and the Internet, permitting millions to share in the beauty.

Tidbits from John Phipps

John has a post on global warming, noting the expansion of Canada's growing season, meaning their acreage of corn is expanding. (He suggests looking at such evidence on the ground is more likely to be convincing than the IPCC studies, and I agree. A sidenote: apparently Canada and the US are on the same path of expanding the use of crop insurance.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Who Wins and Loses With Crop Insurance

Farmdocdaily (IL extension) has a post on the state-level distribution of direct payments versus crop insurance.  Most states (32 of them) are pretty close in their share but these states differ significantly:

Eleven states had a difference of 1.5 or more percentage points (a "+" sign means insurance share exceeded direct payment share):  Texas (+8.8%), North Dakota (+4.1%), South Dakota (+3.3%), Kansas (+1.9%), California (-1.8%), Louisiana (-1.9%), Iowa (-2.0%), Ohio (-2.1%), Minnesota (-2.9%), Nebraska (-3.0%), and Arkansas (-3.8%).
Bottomline: Great Plains states with higher risk and more variable production get more crop insurance, non Great Plains states less.  As the study observes, it raises the possibility that crop insurance will encourage the shift of production to more risky areas.  As a second thought, though, "shift" is perhaps the wrong term; "expansion" might be better.   Maybe we should view crop insurance as one measure by which agriculture is adjusting to global warming?