Friday, August 29, 2014

How Agriculture Has Changed

Once upon a time, back when AAA was young, I understand the pattern was for the Administrator to come from one section of the country and the Associate Administrator from another: usually the pattern was for one section to be the midwest (corn) and the other the south (cotton/tobacco).

That pattern has now changed: the new FSA administrator is from  California.  Don't know the numbers but there have been several from that state recently.  That suggests the rise of Californian agriculture and the diminishing importance of the farm programs for the major field crops in FSA's portfolio.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What's Up--ACRSI

I've seen a recent jump in page views on the blog.  A popular page is the one I did in 2011 on the Federal Register request for comments on the Acreage Crop Reporting and Streamlining Initiative (being able to share data between RMA and FSA). I hadn't noticed much activity since, at least not enough to get me motivated to blog about it again, but my curiosity is aroused so I googled.

Two points--the 2014 farm bill requires ACRSI be implemented and this FarmForum article of a month ago.  I quote from Farmforum:
For example [of private enterprise coming up with advanced systems faster than FSA], MyAgData is already being used by Authorized Insurance Providers (AIPs) this crop year for acreage and production reporting in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Minnesota. But test programs in Illinois and Indiana at local Farm Service Agency offices this year didn’t quite work as efficiently as one might hope. The data was collected and matched to the common land units required for USDA acreage and production reports, but then was printed and had to be hand-entered at the local FSA office.
My heart bleeds (very easily--I'm a bleeding heart liberal) for those bureaucrats who've had to work on this effort--it's amazing how long it's taken to get action, though I see Congress has gotten USDA's attention by attaching money--FSA gets $10 million additional if they can show progress by Sept. 30.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

New Yorker on GMO and the State of Agriculture

Here's last week's New Yorker article on GMO's and Dr. Vendana Shiva.  While it's a good takedown of some of her positions I do have a couple quibbles with the writer's understanding of modern agriculture:
  • "For most of the past ten thousand years, feeding more people simply meant farming more land. That option no longer exists; nearly every arable patch of ground has been cultivated, and irrigation for agriculture already consumes seventy per cent of the Earth’s freshwater."
I won't quarrel with the water point, but there's a lot of land which once was farmed and no longer is. (About 20 acres of the former Harshaw farm, for one.)  Much of the land once farmed in the Northeast has now reverted to forest or brush.  I can't find the set of maps demonstrating this fact so you'll have to take my word for it.  After the USSR broke up, a lot of farmland was abandoned.  Here's a quote from the abstract of a scholarly article:
'"The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to widespread abandonment of agricultural lands, but the extent and spatial patterns of abandonment are unclear. We quantified the extent of abandoned farmland, both croplands and pastures, across the region using MODIS NDVI satellite image time series from 2004 to 2006 and support vector machine classifications. Abandoned farmland was widespread, totaling 52.5 Mha, particularly in temperate European Russia (32 Mha), northern and western Ukraine, and Belarus. Differences in abandonment rates among countries were striking, suggesting that institutional and socio-economic factors were more important in determining the amount of abandonment than biophysical conditions. Indeed, much abandoned farmland occurred in areas without major constraints for agriculture"
Granted the fact that land was abandoned probably means it's less productive than that which is still cultivated, but the right prices will bring it back into production.
  • The only commercial farmers in the United States without crop insurance are those who have a philosophical objection to government support.  
The statement may be true for production agriculture of field crops, but I don't believe it's true for other crops, nor for organic farmers.

Monday, August 25, 2014

A Different Time: October 29, 1869 NY Times

Happened to run a query on the NYTimes archive (firewall) which resulted in the Oct. 29, 1869 issue being retrieved.  Some the stories, all from the first page:

  • a steamer, the Stonewall, took fire and burned near Carbondate--222 lives lost.
  • the Dublin Fenian Amnesty Association met and criticize PM Gladstone's decision not to release Fenian prisoners.
  • short piece on President Grant and the gold speculation
  • blurb on France--the Press not to be prosecuted for violations of Press law
  • Austrian government censures Prince Metternich for being connected to a duel
  • fires in Scranton (coal breaker), Bath, NY (flour mill) Marion IN (factory) burned.
  • report on a schism in the Mormon church
  • summary of crop report from USDA, "importance of draining and thorough culture"
  • woman's suffrage convention in Hartford
  • two ships sunk on the Great Lakes
  • a report on the movements of President Grant
  • WV elections
  • report on affairs and movements of various bureaucrats and government affairs
  • report on the salaries and expenses of our ministers (ambassadors) abroad, down to the penny.
  • meeting of "colored citizens" sending delegates to the National Labor Convention
  • telegrapher's strik
  • letter to the Secretary of Treasury on taxes and tariffs
The last item covers close to two columns on the front page.  It includes this statement:  "A Cure for Extravagance-- Every member of Congress and SEanator looks upon the public offices of his district as his own especial patronage, and gets appointed thereto, not those who by mental and moral acquirements are fitted for the office, but those whose appointment would be most likely to advance his own interest."

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Hard Work or Luck: the 17 Billon Dollar Question

We liberals have always suspected that the rich just luck into their wealth, but now we have proof due to the divorce proceedings of billionaire Harold Hamm, as reported here by NBCNews.  Seems that if he can prove his money is just the result of luck, his wife gets zilch; if it's the result of his skill and effort, she gets a share.  So he's instructed his lawyers to say he was a lucky SOB, just like all of the rich.  So Texans may "remember the Alamo" but liberals will say "remember the Hamm".

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Three Mistakes You Make

Found this quote in an old NoahSmith post:
There are three common mistakes that many Westerners make when observing or analyzing Japanese culture. First, they essentialize it - they assume there are some core things that never change, and that you can understand these things by studying samurai culture, or stuff like that. Second, they exoticize it - they assume that Japanese culture is very different from Western culture, and that there are deep secrets that only Japanese people themselves understand. Third, they homogenize it - they assume that the difference between Japanese individuals or subcultures is much smaller than the group difference between Japan and other cultures.
Seems to me we often make the same sort of mistakes in analyzing many things we don't  have first hand knowledge of:

  • bureaucracy: bureaucrats are essentially [something--lazy, overpaid, not interested in the job, stupid, disinterested specialists, etc.]; Washington bureaucrats are not people like you and me, but a strange breed; bureaucrats and entrepreneurs are entirely different breeds.
  • [do it yourself--apply the three mistakes to: blacks, whites, gays, professional athletes, weathermen, farmers, ...--see if the formula doesn't work for them]

Friday, August 22, 2014

Farmers Don't Make Money and Blue Jeans

Ben Smith  had a piece in the NYTimes recently complaining that farmers, specifically small food movement type farmers, can't make money.  He points back to past farmer organizations and  writes:
But none of these demands will be met until we start our own organizations — as in generations past — and shape a vision of a new food economy that ensures that growing good food also means making a good living.
He never deals with the idea that the Grange, the Populists, the National Farmers Union, the American Agriculture Movement, the various cooperatives weren't able to mold the environment to make the country safe for the sort of small family farmer he wants to preserve. 

I may have made this comparison before, but I forget.  :-(  Anyway, in my youth you could buy blue jeans from Sears or Montgomery Ward or buy Levis or Lees from department stores.  That was about it.  Blue jeans were associated, in my mind at least, with sailors coming back from active duty.  (Farmers wore overalls.)  Today you can still buy Lees, Levis, and Sears blue jeans, but also Lands End and LLBean and Carhart and Kmart and so on for many more brands, and that's not getting into the absurdly priced "fashion" blue jeans which go in and out of popularity. And at least the cheaper jeans are cheaper than when I grew up.  That variety is the result of our wealth as a country: we spend on food maybe a third or fourth of what we did when I was a kid, and incomes are much higher; therefore we can afford to indulge our tastes.

I see the same thing happening with food: a mixture of  fast cheap food, better tasting and often better food (even McDonalds food is better tasting and cheaper than the overcooked pot roast my mother made) along with a much greater choice and a much bigger price range.  I don't know what the best restaurants in New York City charged for a meal in 1950, but I'm sure it's gone up many times more than a basic diner meal has.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Foodies and Their Myths

Nathaniel Johnson at Grist ties in a New Yorker piece on Vandana Shiva to talk about her big ideas, which he likes, and her analysis of the details, which he doesn't:
Romantic environmentalists tend to get the big-picture problems right, while fudging the details. Rationalists nail the details, but sometimes become so immersed in the minutiae that they lose sight of the big picture.

I don't agree with Johnson on the total big picture, but I greatly respect his willingness to look at the holes in some foodie arguments.

A more ascerbic person might consider "fudging" to be the same as "lying", but today I'm feeling generous, and willing to admit all parties have their myths: liberals, conservatives, foodies, production ag.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Pizzly Bears

A new term to me, but not to biologists who study hybrids.  A very interesting article in the NYTimes magazine.

EU Agriculture Policy

I've lost track of what's been happening in the EU farm programs over the last few years.  Here's a BBC piece of about a year ago.  

Some highlights:
  • cost about $80 billion for direction farm payments and rural development
  • direct payments to farmers in central and east Europe countries being phased in (those countries much more dependent on agriculture) but farmers in the old EU countries get most benefits
  • fights over environmental incentives and payment limitations
  • enjoyed this: "The definition of an "active farmer" has also been contentious. The current payments system is largely based on land area and past subsidy levels, meaning that landowners like airports and sports clubs, which do not farm, have been getting subsidies based on their grasslands or other eligible land areas."
  • big farmers get most benefits

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Great Sharon Astyk on Reading to Kids

Several years ago I found Ms Astyk's Casaubon's Book blog, which then was devoted to the food movement, locavores, peak oil, etc.  I mostly disagreed with her views, but she wrote very well so it was worth following her RSS feed.  She and her husband live on a small farm in upstate New York where he's a professor and she's a writer/lecturer and, for some years now, a foster mother.  She has several sons of her own and an amazing procession of foster kids, all of which has made her blogging very very sporadic, and perhaps eliminated her writing and speaking.

Her occasional posts on the foster parenting experience are good, and particularly interesting as she meditates on the effects of class and culture. Her last post is  a long essay on reading to kids.  I strongly recommend it.

Friday, August 15, 2014

From Seeds to Tanks, the History of Government Giving

Lots of publicity these days about the government giving surplus military arms and money to buy equipment to the nation's police forces.  It reminds me of the good old days, back when Congressmen gave out seeds--no I wasn't alive then but those gifts are credited as the seeds (pun intended) which grew into the USDA.

Much the same political dynamic may be going on today.  The public always asks its government: "what have you done for me lately" and it's nice for Congresspeople to be able to point with pride to their gifts.  Used to be that they pointed to "pork", once they distributed seeds, in the 21st century they can point to shiny objects from DOD or money from TSA.  All part of GWOT.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Foodies Lose in Public Vote

Burger King tried "Satisfries", which are french fries with less fat and sodium.  After their trial, they allowed their franchises to choose whether to keep them on the menu or not.  Apparently 3 out of 4 franchises opted to stop cooking Satisfries.  

Voter Fraud--Almost Nonexistent

Actually my title is misleading.  This article doesn't report any voter fraud; it simply says that our voting files are in a mess. And that proven cases of fraud are rare. Dead people aren't removed; people who move aren't updated, etc. etc.  All of which would permit some fraud, but nothing has been proved.  Our federal system is prone to this sort of problem because there's no centralized clearinghouse.

What interests me is the fact that an NGO, IBM, and local election officials are developing a system to crosscheck records and cleanse the files.  As a bureaucrat, my kneejerk reaction is/was that the feds should have developed the system, but that's not going to happen as long as our governmental structure works/doesn't work the way it does.  So score one, or maybe a tenth of one, for the libertarians and conservatives who talk about order emerging, rather than being imposed.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Obama Greatly Disappoints Me

I think over the years I have mentioned my near-obsession with mono-spaced type.  To summarize: in the old days typewriters mostly were either pica or elite, using the same amount of space for each letter.  Once we moved to word processing, particularly with inkjet and laser printers, we could easily produce proportionally spaced type. There's now no reason to use monospaced type.  Readers do much better with proportionally spaced type.

So what does President Obama use for his War Powers Act letter to Congress?  See here.

Epithets and the Bureaucrat

Turns out Lois Lerner used "___hole"  in an email to her husband, referring to some conservatives.    I know nothing about Ms Lerner except what I read on wikipedia . She seems to have been a career government lawyer.  Now I don't like lawyers much, though I suspect our family attorney with whom we've been dealing this summer doesn't know that.  I also believe I did a good job of hiding my feelings back in the 1980's, when I used routinely to refer to President Reagan as the "senior idiot" and my division director as the "junior idiot".

My point is that a professional bureaucrat should be able to separate personal feelings and professional behavior, just as an attorney should be able to defend a person she believes is guilty.  Maybe it's that separation which many may perceive as inauthentic which leads people to dislike both attorneys and bureaucrats.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

What We're Good At

As reported by Dan Drezner:
As a senior U.S. diplomat once told me, “If there’s anything the United States is good at, it’s telling other countries what’s in their best interests.”

Thursday, August 07, 2014

I'm From Wall Street and I've Got a Deal for You

ProPublica studies the tobacco bonds.  Last century (1998) the state attorneys general and the tobacco companies reached a settlement, which gave states money over a number of years with the amount dependent on how much people smoked: the more they smoked, the more money since the logic was to cover the costs/externalities of smoking.

Wall Street came along and persuaded states to securitize the settlement, to sell bonds based on the stream of anticipated income from the tobacco settlement.  States would get more cash upfront (to be used as the politicians desired).  That's not a new idea but surprise, surprise, the deal is turning out to be better for Wall Street firms than for the states.

There were a lot of fancy deals made during the 90's and 00's; I hope someday there's an overview study which shows how many turned out okay and how many were snake oil.  The KISS rule also applies to finance.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

SNAP and the USe of Time

Don't remember where I got this from.

Note the significant difference in time usage. What it says to me is that SNAP recipients, specifically mothers with kids, are time-constrained so they buy food which can be microwaved or is otherwise ready to go.  Individuals who receive SNAP benefits have time to cook.  Extrapolating, it means that SNAP  mothers are feeding their kids more fast foods.  My guess is that's less a "food desert" problem than a time scarcity problem.

Rights, We Have Rights

Two interesting bits on the rights front today: 
  • A district court judge in Alabama issued a decision comparing regulation of abortion clinics to regulation of gun shops.  Both relate to constitutional rights, so shouldn't the balance between restrictive regulation and protecting rights be similar in both cases?
  • And Missouri appears to have incorporated the "right to farm" into its constitution by referendum.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

GMO's and Drugs

Buried in an article on the experimental drug cocktail given to the Ebola patients is the information that the contents of the cocktail derive from genetically modified tobacco plants.  Tobacco has attracted a lot of research interest, partly to find an alternate use instead of cigarettes and partly because it has characteristics which make it adaptable to producing proteins in its leaves (my memory of the science--likely to be inaccurate).

This raises a question for those foodies who diss GMO food: will you also diss GMO drugs?  Seems to me the arguments against both are the same. The possibility of harm to humans from something new.

A Blast From the Past--Price-Gouging on Rail Cars

Back in the 1800's farmers complained bitterly about freight rates charged by the railroads.  There was some justice to the rails' pattern, but because farmers depended so much on the rails to get harvests to market, any exploitation was too much. The result was our first independent regulatory commission, the ICC (Interstate Commerce Commission) and a strong impulse to the populist movement.

Fast forward to today, and this excerpt from Farm Policy:
What’s more, rail car rates than ran $300 to $400 a car a year ago have ballooned to $3,000 to $3,500 now, he says [Jerry Lehnert]. Eventually, those excess costs get passed on in bids, eroding farm incomes in the process.”

Monday, August 04, 2014

Not a Good Morning for Farmers in the Post

Two articles in the Washington Post: the toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie is blamed on runoffs of fertilizer and manure; the increase in "intersexed fish" in the Chesapeake over the years is blamed on runoffs of fertilizer and manure.  (An interseced

Friday, August 01, 2014

Duplicative Payments and Management's Use of People and Money

GAO has a report on duplicative payments by USDA farm agencies. Basically, they found a lot of overlap (producers getting benefits from multiple programs) but not a whole lot of duplication (producers getting benefits from multiple programs for the identical cause, such as loss of production). They did recommend data matching in cases where duplication is possible, but RMA and FSA pushed back, arguing lack of resources. 

Bottom line: even though the taxpayer would gain if they identified the duplication (because the cost would be less than the money to be refunded, assuming there was 100 percent collection) it doesn't make sense to managers.  Assuming managers are good and rational, they see a bigger bang for the personnel and IR bucks in other areas.  The answer is to allow the agencies to keep  part of their collections, but that's not something likely to happen.