Saturday, May 31, 2008

Problems of Rural Life

Include broadband access (or rather limits thereon) as John Phipps discovers when Apple upgrades its OS and he runs into download limits.

And too much to do, as Erin discovers.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Amish, Mennonites, and Tom Philpott

From the Brownfield Network, this report:
Amish and Mennonite farmers currently produce about 10 percent of Missouri’s fresh commercial vegetables, but 15 years ago that market didn’t exist. That’s according to the University of Missouri Extension, which has hosted workshops to teach growers about new farming techniques.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provided a grant to help develop the workshops with MU. Extension Horticulture Specialist James Quinn says the EPA was interested in helping emphasize reduced pesticide applications with the Amish and Mennonite growers.
It's not clear from the broadcast whether the growers have been moving into the area or whether the market is new. The Amish have been expanding, courtesy of their high birth rate. And I know they've moved into new areas for them, like upstate New York, where they can find cheaper land to support their life style.

Meanwhile, from the organic ag movement, comes the news (a bit late) Tom Philpott has moved on from the NC farm he ran. No doubt he has good reasons for the change of occupation--he's now full time at Grist. But it fuels my cynicism, nurtured over the years of community gardening watching people come and go, that for many in the movement it's a phase, rather than a livelihood. That's not the case for the Amish--it's a way of life. One might view the organic /locavore niche as the scene of a contest between Amish and "crunchies". Given the rate of natural increase and the community share, the Amish will win. In another 50 years farming in the U.S. will be divided between the Amish and the Mennonites, and a few surviving megafarms.

Predictions Via Blogger

Blogger has a new feature, relatively new that is. The software will now honor a post-dated post. If I want to go on vacation, I could post date posts for the period of time I was away from the Internet and my dear readers would never know the difference.

That feature makes it possible for me to do some honest predictions--i.e., I put them out in a post now, and copy the post and date it for whatever date in the future.

So, what do I feel safe in predicting?
  • concern about "peak oil" will fade as oil prices drop. They're now about $130 a barrel, I predict them to fall to $80 by January 1. (Of course, I would have made a similar prediction last year--a big drop in prices.)
  • Obama will win the Presidency in a squeaker.

Doctor Krauthammer Misses on Science

Charles Krauthammer writes his version of an agnostic column on global warming, but misses here:
Consider: If Newton's laws of motion could, after 200 years of unfailing experimental and experiential confirmation, be overthrown, it requires religious fervor to believe that global warming -- infinitely more untested, complex and speculative -- is a closed issue.
Newton's laws weren't overthrown, they were subsumed within Einstein's. See Wikipedia.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Making Government Work--Credit to Bush

I stumbled across this site yesterday. I think I've criticized the Bush administration before for their efforts at e-government and improving management, but this is a creditable effort as applied to a program I know. The problem is persuading everyone along the line to agree on these evaluations. For example, the evaluation of the direct payment program questions the design of the program. But it was just reauthorized in the farm bill. I very much doubt that the American Corn Growers Association or the House or Senate Ag committees took much note of the evaluation. If the people with the money don't pay attention, then it's not likely the big shot bureaucrats are going to pay attention.

I'm not sure the extent to which the Secretary's office or OMB paid attention to the evaluations. If they did, it's good. If not, the only gains are in forcing bureaucrats to look at themselves--perhaps useful.

As a side note, one item that did hit the media was the issue of erroneous payments. It's good to see the latest erroneous payment figure is .37 percent (that's 37 hundredths of one percent). Of course, no one's going to put that on TV.

Morality and Politics

I've "shared" a post by Jim Manzi at the American Scene, extensively criticizing Obama's graduation address at Wesleyan. I don't necessarily share his criticism, but I am ambivalent. But it seems to me that JFK's "ask not" line was criticized at the time by some on much the same grounds.

Note: I comment on Manzi's post, challenging the $14,000 figure for college graduates. Briefly, Obama had 2 years work experience and could easily have qualified as a GS-7 at about $17,800 if he had wanted to work for the government.

The Myths We Live By

Ethicurean has a piece on a new chain, Cereality, serving breakfast, as in combining cold cereal, milk, and toppings for a big markup. But the writer's succumbed to the myths:
Of course, the reason why the cereal grains purchased by General Mills or Kellogg’s cost mere pennies is the tremendous subsidies that go to corporate agribusiness growing corn and wheat, thus creating an excess of extremely cheap and nutritionally deficient grain products that are making our nation fat and diabetic and destroying arable farmland because they are grown in huge, chemical dependent monocultures. On top of all that, subsidies force small-scale farmers both here and abroad off their land because they can’t compete with our artificially cheap grain prices.
The truth, of course, is many more family farmers (like John Phipps) grow wheat and corn than do any corporate agribusinesses.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Wired and Down to Earth

Down to Earth links to an article in Wired on green "heresies" (offenses against a supposed "green" ideology), specifically organics and genetic engineering.

C.P.Snow had his famous lecture on the Two Cultures many years ago. I think I sniff a whiff of that in some of the "green"/environmental controversies. There's the reasonably hard science of the climatologists. Most greens accept and believe that. But there's also some romanticism, often with an anti-scientific edge. I'd see that in Prof. Pollan's most recent book with its attacks on "nutritionism." Sometimes the greens/locavores seem to be the modern Luddites, distrusting the modern works of the mind.

While many years ago I decided I wanted to be a historian (and failed, but that's another story), I also then, and now, was very interested in science. Whether it was the science fiction of Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov, or the science writing of Asimov and Gamow, I got off on the ability of smart men (few women mentioned back then) to understand the natural world. (Perhaps it was genetic; my father had a BA in chemistry and BS in chemical engineering before his health forced him into farming.)

I've never lost my interest in science (though string theory is way beyond me, I still have problems with subatomic particles). And I've never lost my faith in the mind. While I acknowledge the problems often raised (usually eugenics is the first one) the mind is the only instrument we've got and we've come a long, long way since I was a boy.

So, while not a scientist, you can reasonably accuse me of great faith in science. And I don't see the great divide between the "natural" and the "engineered". All of which is a long-winded way of saying I agree that "organic farming" shouldn't be "privileged", to use current terminology over conventional farming. And the only way to progress from where we are is to use all our tools, including genetic engineering. It's easy for humans to be over-confident in their smarts, but the only alternative is faith in dumbness.

Corn Price Volatility

APAC has an interesting analysis of past run-ups in corn prices, and their subsequent declines. Having predicted current prices will fall, I'm glad to see someone with better credentials than old age agree with me.

What Will They Do Next?

There's a french film that got good reviews, maybe even an Oscar nomination, about a man locked inside his body by a stroke, except that he could blink his eye and so he wrote a book.

MIT's Technology Review has an update on work implanting chips in the brain so primates like us can communicate with external gadgets, like a mechanical arm, and feed themselves. Both fascinating and a little disturbing, until I read this paragraph:
After just two days of training, the monkeys learned to control the arm in three dimensions and to control the gripper placed at the end that functions as a hand. The animals even learned to use the arm in ways in which they hadn't been trained: an accompanying video shows an animal using the arm to push a piece of food into his mouth. In a second video, the monkey brings the gripper back to his mouth and licks it, ignoring another piece of food. "He gets so good at using the tool that he may think about it as part of his own body," says Schwartz. He likens the training process to learning to use a mouse to control a computer cursor. After a certain learning period, "you're not thinking about how you have to activate a muscle in an index finger to push the left mouse button," he says. "In that way, you've embodied the cursor on the screen."
And of course, I was moving my mouse as I read. But the dividing lines blur and blur.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Students as Farm Laborers

Many of the comments on the NY Times article I linked to below said that farmers should hire students. My guess is that's more difficult than one might imagine. Any given farmer for any given crop needs harvesting labor only for the period the fruit is ripe. In the wheat belt, I understand that harvesting crews follow the custom harvesters north, from Texas into Canada. That setup is probably better able to attract students than fruit and vegetable. I remember in my youth buses of migrant labor (black or "Negro" as we said then) would arrive to pick beans for canning (just a handful of fields in my area, on the river floodplain). They'd go north for other crops. And the film, "The Ciderhouse Rules", shows a similar setup for apples at a later date. But somehow I can't imagine today's parents of college-bound children encouraging them to follow the crops north as harvesters.

As for dairy, the other type of farming in the piece, not many teenagers are willing to get up at 4 am for first milking.

Lack of Labor for Fruits and Vegetables

The NYTimes has a nice article on the problems facing NY fruit and vegetable growers (yes, NY state is more than the Big Apple, lots of small apples and even some cabbage grown in Ontario County and points west, where my paternal grandmother grew up) because of lack of labor.

One dairy farmer bit the bullet and spent over $1 million for 4 robot milkers. (He has 700 cows.) Much of the problem is twofold--natives won't work for the wages farmers can pay and immigrant labor is uncertain, given the hype over closing the borders, etc. Unfortunately, while organic farms can attract "interns" (meaning low paid, unskilled labor) by providing psychic benefits, the run of the mill fruit or dairy farm can't. Just not that many suckers born. (Sorry--it's warm and humid today and my temper is uncertain, I don't really mean to be mean to the young who believe in saving the world by veggies and organic labor.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post has an article on the problems with empty houses in the suburbs--abandoned due to foreclosures. No explicit link in the article to the crackdown on immigrants, but I make that link. Of course, many believers in organics are anti-globalism, which in my mind means anti-immigrants. A tangled web, indeed.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Your Principal Is Your Pal

One would think an eminent college professor, particularly one in the field of English literature, would know this. But no: "Who were the principle players?"

From Stanley Fish's blog post on a proposal by the University of Colorado to have a Chair on Conservative Thought and Policy. (He's against.)

I know, I'm showing my age (and my blue pencil past) but such mistakes gripe me. (And don't get me started on "its" and "it's", which no one these days knows how to use.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Second Most Credulous Line I Read Today

From the Washington Times (similar stats on other media outlets):

For the 21st year in a row, the two-wheeled crusade called Rolling Thunder has taken over the capital of the free world. An estimated 350,000 motorcyclists — plus their intrepid passengers, activists, organizers, fans and awestruck spectators — have assembled here to draw America's attention to fallen soldiers, lost warriors, prisoners of war, honored veterans and military families.

It's true enough--someone came up with the "estimate". The only difference between Rolling Thunder and the "pro-life" or "anti-war" or whatever rallies and marches is the existence of an opposition with a motive to question the accuracy of the estimates. Rolling Thunder seems to be a sacred cow.

Most Credulous Line I Read Today

This title of a post on Casaubon's Book: "Fascinating Read". It refers to a Russian scholar who claims to have identified a famine in the U.S. during the Great Depression such that "United States lost over seven million people during the famine of 1932-1933".

Just shows what happens when people (the scholar) focus on statistics too much and on life too little. See this table.

Iowa Farming Today

From the summary of an Iowa State study of Iowa commercial farmers 2000-2007:

Within the IAFBA data set, the top 20 percent have improved their financial standing significantly over the period. The lowest 20 percent have made little financial progress. Between these extremes we see farm businesses, at varying degrees, meeting outside cash obligations and strengthening their equity position.

This study provides a snapshot of Iowa commercial farmers’ financial strengths at the beginning of the ethanol-fueled price boom and a new Farm Bill. We expect, for a few years at least, that commodity prices will continue to be strong. The grain price increases may result in cutbacks in livestock profitability depending on the growth in meat demand. Ultimately strong farm profits will be bid into land, [bolding added] rents and other asset values, resulting in tighter more volatile margins.

If commodity prices do remain strong, one of the unresolved questions is how the farms represented by the panel will fare. Will a rising tide lift all boats or will the range in adjusted cash income become wider? The lower 20 percent group has higher debt-to-asset ratios and is more dependent [bolding added] upon government payments as a source of cash income. This group may be more vulnerable to changes in the cost structure of agricultural assets. And, it is unclear how the new farm bill will influence farm income and equity growth across this rather broad spectrum of farm structures. Farm size, enterprise mix, financial condition and human capital will all contribute to the ability of farmers to adapt to changing conditions. The full version of this report is available at:

The fact that the poorest 20 percent are most dependent on payments is a clue to the persistence of government farm programs. And the idea that profits get bid into land means landowners ultimately benefit from government payments. (Some landowners are farmers, some retired farmers, some widows of farmers, and some are absentee--speculating or, like Ted Turner, pleasing themselves.)

Napoleon Got There First--Mothers Day

It was the Civil War general Nathan Bedford Forrest who supposedly said (but he didn't) "I get there firstest with the mostest", but it was Napoleon Bonaparte who first honored mothers, according to this post by Mr. Beauregarde. (Actually, it seems it was a day to honor procreation, as befits the French.)

Saturday, May 24, 2008

FSA Tries an Outreach--Mike Zook

FSA/USDA has been criticized over the decades for representing the mainstream, "progressive" farmer (i.e., aka now "industrialized") and ignoring minorities, small farmers, specialized crops, organics, etc. Much of the criticism is justified, though some isn't.

But here's an article from the Havre Daily News on some of the problems and complications faced when one county committee and office (Hill County, MT) tries an outreach to the Chippewa Cree. It takes persistence (10 years to change the zoning for county elections) and the ability to overcome bureaucratic obstacles (even within the tribe).

Credit to Mike Zook for trying.

Bureaucrat Is Pictured

I'm ambivalent about linking to this post, but it's not everyday a bureaucrat makes history, even if it's as a subject in a Lucian Freud painting. (No, it's not my idea of beauty but to each his/her own.)

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Perils of Centralization

Dirk Beauregard posts on the virtues and vices of having a centralized country. (Like no newspaper.) I follow his blog because it points out the very great differences between the U.S. and France. It's a reminder of how decentralized we are and how weak the federal government is, when compared to other countries.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Transparent Society

I've always liked the ideas in David Brin's Transparent Society. Brad DeLOng participates in a discussion of it after 10 years. IMHO federal bureaucrats, especially SES, and to a lesser degree perhaps the GS, should lose most on the job privacy. Let's stick an Internet camera in the office of each Congress person and each Federal executive. Let's let everyone know when someone in the bureaucracy is looking at their data. (Yes, it will take forever to implement, but it's the way to go.)

Sorry, I'm Doubtful

I just don't believe this claim of hundreds of thousands of bikers for Rolling Thunder. 3500 local riders I could buy.
In 2007, over 3,500 bikes from the local area as well as from points across the USA and Canada joined us for the Ride of the Patriots. The bikers assemble in an orderly manner eastbound along Fairfax Boulevard (Lee Highway) starting at Patriot Harley-Davidson and then with the help of Police motor squad units from Fairfax County, the City of Fairfax and Arlington County are escorted safely to the Pentagon staging area to join 400,000 other bikers for Rolling Thunder.

EU Ag Policy

Now we have a farm bill, we can pay a little attention to what the EU is going through. Here's a link to a summary.

It must be nice to have 27 bureaucrats (the ag ministers of the countries) be able to set policy.
And from a summary of the EU Commissions proposals:

Abolition of set-aside: The Commission proposes abolishing the requirement for arable farmers to leave 10 percent of their land fallow. This will allow them to maximise their production potential.

Phasing out milk quotas:
Milk quotas will be phased out by April 2015. To ensure a ’soft landing’, the Commission proposes five annual quota increases of one percent between 2009/10 and 2013/14.

Decoupling of support: The CAP reform “decoupled” direct aid to farmers i.e. payments were no longer linked to the production of a specific product. However, some Member States chose to maintain some “coupled” – i.e. production-linked - payments. The Commission now proposes to remove the remaining coupled payments and shift them to the Single Payment Scheme, with the exception of suckler cow, goat and sheep premia, where Member States may maintain current levels of coupled support.

Moving away from historical payments: Farmers in some Member States receive aid based on what they received in a reference period. In others, payments are on a regional, per hectare basis. As time moves on, the historical model becomes harder to justify, so the Commission is proposing to allow Member States to move to a flatter rate system.

Extending SAPS: Ten of the 12 newest EU members apply the simplified Single Area Payment Scheme. This is supposed to expire in 2010, but the Commission proposes extending it to 2013.

Cross Compliance: Aid to farmers is linked to the respect of environmental, animal welfare and food quality standards. Farmers who do not respect the rules face cuts in their support. This so-called Cross Compliance will be simplified, by withdrawing standards that are not relevant or linked to farmer responsibility. New requirements will be added to retain the environmental benefits of set-aside and improve water management.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

John Phipps Scores

John Phipps pointed out the final version of the new ACRE program in the farm bill will be lucrative if prices decline off their current highs. This morning that was picked up and discussed by Dan Morgan in the Post--concerns in Congress and in USDA. See John's new post this morning.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Caution: We Don't Know What We're Talking About

The title of this post is triggered by this bit of information:
"African Americans have replaced Asian Americans to become the ethnic group that spent the most on organic produce"
Certainly surprised the heck out of me. Source: Choices Magazine--an article by USDA/ERS--
from their summary (data is 2001-2004):
We used the Nielsen Homescan data from 2001 and 2004 to analyze consumer
purchase patterns of fresh organic produce. Our analysis shows that Asian and African Americans tend to purchase organic over conventional produce more than Whites and Hispanics. Households residing in the western region spent more on
organic produce on a per capita basis than those residing in other regions.
Contrary to popular opinion, we do not find any consistent positive association
between household income and expenditures on organic produce.

Comfort Food and Stress

John Tierney at NYTimes writes about research suggesting primates who are stressed out seek "comfort food". The suggestion is that stress would help account for the class differentials in obesity.

A Veto Forthcoming?

Commenter CDCaddy says the farm bill should be vetoed. This NY Times article describes why Bush's veto will be overridden.
"Few pieces of legislation generate the level of public scorn consistently heaped upon the farm bill.

Presidents and agriculture secretaries denounce it. Editorial boards rail against it. Good-government groups mock it. Global trading partners formally protest it. Even farmers gripe about it.

But as Congress proved again last week, few pieces of major legislation also get such overwhelming bipartisan support — enough, in the case of the current farm bill, to override the veto expected by President Bush any day now. The Senate vote on Thursday, 81 to 15, was the widest margin for a farm bill since 1973, when food stamps were added.

Daryll Ray: We've Been Here Before

One of the people who has been around long enough to remember, Prof. Daryll Ray shares memories of the 1970's vis a vis the current state of agriculture here.

Monday, May 19, 2008

I'd Be Crying If I Weren't Laughing

I don't know what Yogi Berra would call it. In part, it's "deja vu all over again", but it's also the situation where you don't know whether to laugh or cry. What am I talking about:
  1. Congress just passed a new farm bill. Although the changes in FSA programs for 2008 don't look too major, doing the ACRE program for 2009 will be. And handling the changes in payment limitation rules, particularly attribution to individuals, will be hard.
  2. GAO just released a report on USDA's attempts to modernize their IT systems. Some excerpts:
"USDA never completed the MIDAS requirements development process because key program officials lost confidence that the process would be an effective solution to meet USDA's future business needs and consequently withdrew their support...

"According to USDA officials, as of October 2007, they had spent approximately $18 million to take steps towards achieving these objectives. For example, they had expanded telecommunication channels, acquired more sophisticated firewalls, and had a contractor prepare the first draft of process flow diagrams of selected program delivery processes....

"Until USDA addresses the inconsistent tracking of users’ reported problems and the lack of clearly defined roles and responsibilities, it may not be able to establish a solid foundation for achieving and sustaining stability in the farm program delivery systems. As a result, the department faces the risk that its stabilization plan will not ensure that it is able to successfully deliver benefits to farmers in the future...
Why am I crying and laughing? Well, when we first installed System-36's in the county offices, it was in the same general period as the implementation of the 1985 farm bill. By the 1990's, we were working on Info Share, a project to share information and computer systems among ASCS, SCS, FmHA, etc. (all obsolete acronyms now) and the new farm bill. By 1996, another new farm bill and a project to merge the IT and administrative ends of NRCS, FSA, and RD. (I retired toward the end of 1997.) And to modernize the IT.

Now, some 11 years later, USDA is still in the same situation vis a vis IT systems. They seem to have dropped the idea of cross-agency coordination, but they're no nearer having documentat6ion of their business processes and they're facing the criticism of GAO. And facing implementation of a new farm bill. Time for employees to take the buyout.

The only redeeming feature is that agriculture is in better shape today than in 1985/6, so USDA/FSA screwups won't hurt farmers as much as they might.

GAO, USDA, and Discrimination

Here's a link to the Post article on GAO testimony on a GAO report charging USDA continues to mishandle discrimination cases. Here's a link to the report.

A History of Forms

If I didn't have my own personal energy crisis, I might try writing a history of forms. "Forms" are critical to the bureaucrat, even if no one else cares. They go way back in history--some of the earliest forms of writing are, in effect, filled out forms. The Catholic Church had forms for indulgences, which spurred Luther to anger. In our own history, here's a link to forms relating to imports/exports for a specific vessel back in 1803. (It's part of a "Today's Document" release from the National Archives.)

Food, Fat, and Wiki-How

The slow food movement has hit wiki-how, as I learn this morning.

And the Washington Post has the second part of a five part series on obesity in America.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Benefits of Advancing Technology

FSA has long used aerial photography as a way to measure acreages devoted to crops. To be accurate, the photography has to meet certain specifications and be adjusted to the topography. (This photography establishes field boundaries, not the crop planted.) Because it's been expensive, states have been flown in groups in different years, so the whole country is covered over the course of 5 or more years.

But this year it seems the effects of GPS and other technology have reduced costs and increased accuracy. From FSA's notice to its field offices:
"2008 marks a transition from annual acquisition of 2-meter imagery and a 5-year cycle for 1-meter base imagery to a new acquisition cycle. Annual 2-meter coverage has been discontinued, and the cycle for 1-meter base replacement imagery is moving from 5 years to 3 years. Consequently, all States in 2008:
• will be acquired in 1-meter resolution
• can be considered base replacement.
2008 recipients include States up for base replacement and States with existing partnership agreements in place. Because of the 2008 bids being significantly lower than estimated, 3 additional States are also being acquired without cost-share funds.

Interesting and Depressing Statistic

Here's a post (reached via Marginal Revolution) with some depressing statistics. Turns out non-college Republicans and Democrats are reasonably close on whether global warming exists and is caused by human activity. Or, if not reasonably, the difference is only 21 percentage points. But college educated Reps and Dems differ unreasonably, by 56 percentage points. In other words, the more education you have, the more you differ.

This does grave violence to my remaining goo-goo tendencies. Good government types, perhaps descended from the Progressives and Social Gospelers of 1900, believe in good, solid facts and, with a religious fervor, if one could only lift the cloud of error from people's eyes, everyone would believe the same, meaning there would be peace and love in the valley.

A Parallel Universe

Mother Jones interviews Ken Cook on the farm bill:

"MJ: So the president is threatening to veto the bill because it does too much to help the wealthy?

KC: Honest to god, he is. I've been describing it as a parallel universe."

Saturday, May 17, 2008

BMI and Global Warming

The LATimes notes a letter published in Lancet, a medical journal, along the lines of my earlier post.:
"Now, in a letter published Friday in the medical journal Lancet, two scientists write that obese people are disproportionately responsible for high food prices and greenhouse gas emissions because they consume 18% more food energy due to their greater body mass -- and require increased quantities of fuel to transport themselves and the food they eat".
Of course the suggestion is as welcome as a suggestion that people should give up second homes, or any other measure of consumption, in aid of the greater good.

Smaller Markets--Good or Bad?

The LA Times has an article on Safeway's trying a new, smaller market design (along with Wal-mart and Tesco). It sounds as if they might be going for both the crunchies and the rushies-
"The new smaller stores are attempting to offer convenience by editing down the selection to fewer product choices in each category and making it easier for people to do their shopping and get out. The stores offer a large selection of prepared foods and meals that can be quickly assembled by time-pressed households.

"About 50% of the offerings are fresh produce, meats, cheese and prepared foods."

A Plague of Senility--P. Noonan?

A line from her column, as quoted in by Orin Kerr: " Mr. Bush has squandered the hard-built paternity [patrimony] of 40 years."

I take this as comforting news that even a relative whippersnapper like Peggy Noonan (and a fine writer, if distressingly conservative) has her little senior moments.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Hate Them Blind Allies

David Brooks reports on an interview with Obama, in which he admires George H.W.Bush's diplomacy and cautions groups against the "blind ally" of terrorist activity. "Ally" is how it was printed in my NYTimes this morning--it's been corrected in the on-line version.

But the concept of a blind ally is intriguing. Less so is the idea that Brooks is getting old and prone to typpos--he should leave that to his seniors, like me.

Horses Are the Answer

So what's the question? Why we've gone to highly specialized agriculture over the last 60 years (according to ERS farms producing the most usually produce only one commodity)?

This study shows that a 3 and 4 year rotation using low inputs of synthetic fertilizer can beat the yields of a 2-year corn/soybean rotation. (Not organic, but low input.)

Great news, but what's the problem?

The problem is where's the market for the small grains and clover or alfalfa that are produced in the third and fourth year. In the good old days (and on Amish farms), the answer was horses--they'd eat the oats and hay. In the bad new days, no horses.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Pollan's Thesis Takes a Hit

One of Michael Pollan's arguments in "In Defense of Food" against what he calls nutritionism is that idea that, since the 1970's, our health has declined even as nutritionists have had more influence over what we eat. A report in Wednesday's Washington Post seems to counter that position:

The difference in death rates between highly educated and poorly educated people in the United States is very wide and growing wider, according to new research.

For Americans with less than a high school education, the risk of dying prematurely is on the increase -- rising most quickly for white women in that category. In contrast, the risk of premature death among college graduates is falling -- fastest of all for black men.

It's true that much of the decline is due to changes in life-style (i.e, no smoking) but it certainly doesn't support the idea the health of educated, monied people (the ones who buy Pollan's books) is declining. And here's the CBO's take on the issue

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Locavore versus Organic Dairying

I found this quote from the U of Wisconsin organic farming site amusing:
"On average, Wisconsin’s organic dairies appear to be financially competitive with those in other states. Net returns on organic dairy farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota are similar. And—largely due to higher feed costs in New England—organic farms in the northeastern United States are, on average, not competitive with any type of Wisconsin dairy farm, despite higher organic milk prices in the northeast.
Of course, it doesn't mean that NE dairies will always be non-competitive, particularly if oil prices stay high, but it does indicate some of the complexities in the locavore movement.

Pricey Farm Programs

The U.S. has fallen way behind. With the weakening of the dollar, the Europeans farm programs are way ahead of ours. 34 billion euros works out to $55 billion a year or so at current exchange rates. And their tariffs add a whole lot more. See this letter from GBritain's Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Food, Farming and New Yorker

Bee Wilson in this week's New Yorker reviews several books on food supply:
"[Paul] Roberts’s book [The End of Food] is joined by “Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System,” by Raj Patel (Melville House; $19.95); “Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood,” by Taras Grescoe (Bloomsbury; $24.99); and “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” by Michael Pollan, the poet of the group (Penguin Press; $21.95).
All of these authors agree that the entire system of Western food production is in need of radical change, right down to the spinach."
It's not a pretty picture:
"Our current food predicament resembles a Malthusian scenario—misery and famine—but one largely created by overproduction rather than underproduction. Our ability to produce vastly too many calories for our basic needs has skewed the concept of demand, and generated a wildly dysfunctional market...."
"Roberts depicts the global food market as a lumbering beast, organized on such a monolithic scale that it cannot adapt to the consequences of its own distortions. In a flexible, responsive market, producers ought to be able to react to a surplus of one thing by switching to making another thing. Industrial agriculture doesn’t work like this...."

"The food economy has created a system in which some have no food options at all and some have too many options, albeit of a somewhat spurious kind. In the middle is a bottleneck—a relatively small number of wholesalers and buyers who largely determine what the starving farmers produce and what the stuffed consumers eat."
Needless to say, I don't agree.

Scotch-Irish and Elections

The conventional wisdom seems to be encapsulated in this post by Josh Marshall at Talking Point Memo--Sen. Clinton does well in Appalachia, which is a white, poor, underdeveloped portion of the country, settled by Scots-Irish, that was strongly anti-slavery and anti-black in ante-bellum America and retains those beliefs today.

But there's a paradox--when you go to this site, of the U.S.Census, you get a long comparison of Scotch-Irish (apparently the Census' preferred term) with U.S. statistics. There you find that those people who identify themselves as Scotch-Irish are older and white (so far fitting the conventional wisdom for Appalachia) but they're also significantly better educated and wealthier than the average for the country. (Like 20 percent wealthier and 30 percent better educated and more managerial/professional and less agriculture and mining.)

I don't know how one explains the paradox, except by saying those of us who left Appalachia did very very well, those of us who stayed did very very poorly.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"Rootless Americans"

I ran across that term in this post on The Edge of the American West: "Our natural condition, as Americans, is rootlessness — immigration, internal migration, the “melting pot”.

It may be true, but it's easy for academics to overemphasize. Academics are probably the most mobile workers in the country (except for the military) so it would be easy for them judge the world by themselves. In researching genealogy I've seen a lot of stability (except for my grandfather, the Presbyterian minister). And most movements seem to have been either in company with friends, relatives, co-religionists or to areas where the same were already located.

There's an interesting map I forgot to link to showing the counties where Sen. Clinton has done well--it also corresponds to a map of where the Scots-Irish settled 200 years ago.

Profitability for Dairies

This study challenges claims that grazing is cheaper than feeding:
"The ERS-USDA data are inconsistent with conclusions highlighted in an article [link added]
appearing in the summer 2006 issue of The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
Quarterly. The article, which discusses a report authored by Tom Kriegl and Ruth
McNair (K&M) entitled, “Pastures of Plenty”, states that managed grazing techniques, such as rotational grazing, result in lower costs of production per hundredweight for dairies. These conclusions are based on farm-level records data for the years of 2001 and 2002, while the ERS-USDA data in Table 1 are for 2000. These differences in the years when the analyses were performed could explain why there are some differences in the ways the costs for grazing operations compare to the costs of production for conventional dairy farms.
The major difference between the costs reported by ERS-USDA and those underlying the conclusions of the other study relates to labor. The ERS-USDA data include measures of labor costs but the other analysis of grazing dairies presents neither estimates of labor costs nor measures of the quantities of labor used on dairies. This lack of labor information in the K&M study is important because it means this study gives no evidence of whether in fact grazing results in lower total costs of production. In contrast, the ERSUSDA dairy data gives a more complete accounting of the costs of conventional and grass-based dairy systems which includes labor costs."
Apparently, I grew up on a continuous grazing dairy farm--i.e., the cows were on pasture all the time the grass was growing (though we did turn them into the hay fields after harvesting hay). A rotational grazing plan divides the pasture into paddocks and moves the cows among paddocks every 3 days. In the Wisconsin study, they had to get 30 percent of forage by this. (A reminder that cows in northern states must be fed hay and grain a good part of the year. Nothing like coming from 0 degrees into the barn.

I may have stumbled into a duel between rival economists (regression analyses at 10 paces) but it's a reminder of the complexity of an economic analysis.

Sneaky Congress and Public Info

Ken Cook reports those sneaky Congress people put a provision in the conference report trying to overrule the release of acreage report data from FSA.

The Young Are Smarter Than Us

From Slate, Emily Yoffe on procrastination:

At least my daughter has broken my family legacy. When she comes home, she does her homework and practices her piano. I never nag her. How does she do it? She said it was something she learned in the Sunshine class, when she was 4 years old. "The teachers would hand out snacks: five pieces of popcorn, five gummy bears, and five pretzels. Everyone ate what they liked first, then they weren't happy. But I liked the pretzels best, and I realized if I saved them for last, I'd get the taste of them in my mouth the longest. So now, if I can get my homework done, then I have the rest of my night to do whatever I want."

There it was—she didn't need online support, Post-it notes, or the unschedule. She figured it out in nursery school: Save the pretzels for last. Which reminds me that I'm kind of hungry, and it's time for a break. I'd like some pretzels, and I'd like them right now.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Dan Barber on Food--Meet Adam Smith

Dan Barber has a piece in the NYTimes Week in Review section on "Change We Can Stomach". Mr. Barber is a chef at two restaurants. As is often the case, I take exception (my snark in brackets):
"...small farms are the most productive on earth. A four-acre farm in the United States nets, on average, $1,400 per acre; a 1,364-acre farm nets $39 an acre. "[Snark--yes, and a 1-acre farm will probably do $5,000 and a half-acre farm will do $12,000. His argument fails because he's comparing apples and oranges. A 4-acre farm isn't growing field corn, it's growing truck crops. That said, while a smaller farm growing the same crops might be more profitable, I'd bet it would be because of greater intensity of inputs--i.e. more hours per acres.]
"To encourage small, diversified farms is not to make a nostalgic bid to revert to the agrarian ways of our ancestors. It is to look toward the future, leapfrogging past the age of heavy machinery and pollution, to farms that take advantage of the sun’s free energy and use the waste of one species as food for another." [Snark--Dan Barber, meet Adam Smith. Believe it or not, right after WWII we didn't have heavy machinery and pollution and we had farms that were diversified and used the waste of one species as food for another. I shoveled lots of that manure. The advantages of specialization work on the farm just as much as in the restaurant--a great chef can outcook my mother 7 days a week without breaking a sweat.]

"With a less energy-intensive food system in place, we will need more muscle power devoted to food production, and more people on the farm." [Absolutely, if you reduce the inputs of capital (i.e. equipment) and supplies (fertilizer, etc.), you have to increase the inputs of labor. That's called sweat equity. You get the sweat equity by importing migrant labor to whom low U.S. wages look high, or importing romantics for whom the sweat perfumes the country air.]

"Truly great cooking — not faddish 1.5-pound rib-eye steaks with butter sauce, but food that has evolved from the world’s thriving peasant cuisines — is based on the correspondence of good farming to a healthy environment and good nutrition. It’s never been any other way, and we should be grateful. The future belongs to the gourmet." [Snark, Hell if it does, not at the prices you charge in your restaurants. Someone living on a 4-acre farm would never pass through the doorway of your restaurant and pay $78 for a dinner. That's over one percent of his net for the year.}

Body Mass--What Are the Tradeoffs

Interesting post by Stu Ellis at Farmgate on causes for food prices to increase.

I wonder--discussions of global food supply always pay attention to numbers of people, with some attention to the demand for better food when incomes increase. I wonder whether anyone has quantified the global human body-mass over time. I see the Latino construction workers laying the FIOS cable in my neighborhood and they're pretty uniformly small. (That's perhaps balanced out by how hard they work.) The Chinese in the 1970's were uniformly small, now they've got Yao Ming et. al. Diets make all the difference and allow differences in genetic endowments to be expressed.

Surely since WWII the average size of humans has increased significantly. If I remember, Gregory Clark's Farewell to Alms had some interesting data both on calories available to Westerners over the last 2-300 years and average height, but I don't think he had anything on waistline. Nor do I know how the reduction in physical labor and the increase in calories over the last 70 years fit together. Presumably the bigger the body, the more calories required to do x amount of work. So on a global basis, the per capita work has probably declined, and the per capita body has probably increased. Is it 6 of one, half dozen of the other? Inquiring minds want to know.

Whither Oil and the Dollar?

In the first place, if I knew I wouldn't be wasting my time blogging; I'd be relaxing at the English Country Home my wife wants which I could have bought from my profits.

But I've been skeptical that the current boom in farm crop prices can continue, remembering the lessons of the 1970's.

On the other hand, Kevin Drum (and Paul Krugman) think oil is permanently high. Kevin notes that the government bureaucrats have been predicting oil is at a peak for months. (I thought it'd peaked at $50.) And oil and food are linked, because both are traded in dollars. (And oil is a key input to food production.)

It seems every day you get different messages. Today I saw a post which agrees with my position (i.e., that now is most like the mid-70's) but unfortunately I didn't capture it, so you'll have to take my word for it. The common element of now and the 70's is the devaluation of the dollar--Nixon took the U.S. off the gold standard in 1971, I think it was, which made our grain cheap and the world took advantage. This decade the dollar has again gotten dramatically weaker. But here's the ERS study on the rising costs. The author doesn't totally agree with me, but close enough for government work.

(One factor not given much attention in the media is that we've had 2 years in a row of a global food production declines (i.e., bad weather):
"The result of adverse weather in 2007 was a second consecutive drop in
global average yields for grains and oilseeds. In historical perspective, two
sequential years of lower global yields occurred only three other times in the
last 37 years."
Bottom line, I'm still stubbornly holding to a prediction--oil prices and farm prices will both drop by at least 50 percent from current levels over the next years.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Mother's Day Post

Over at Raising Country Kids, though it's a post by a mother, not to a mother.

Funniest Lines Today

Is from a NYTimes article on a possible defect in hip replacement parts made of ceramic--some users are reporting squeaks when they move:
"'“It can interrupt sex when my wife starts laughing,” said one man, who discussed the matter on the condition that he not be named.'"

Saturday, May 10, 2008

A Law Requiring Local Food

A famous (I guess, I never heard of him, but I trust the BBC) British chef says so:

Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay says British restaurants should be fined if they serve fruit and vegetables which are not in season. He told the BBC that fruit and vegetables should be locally-sourced and only on menus when in season. Mr Ramsay said he had already spoken to Prime Minister Gordon Brown about outlawing out-of-season produce.
This is called: "pass the ammunition" to your opponents. Via Ann Althouse.

A Presidential Veto of Farm Bill?

That's the promise from the Secretary of Agriculture Schafer and the topic of discussion on the various blogs here and here and here

Now in 1956 President Eisenhower vetoed a farm bill because it provided for high rigid price supports. (The report of the veto wasn't accessible, but the link has Sen. Knowland threatening the veto, which actually happened.) In 1973 Nixon threatened one, and Ford did veto in 1975 (an emergency increase in target prices and supports--he eventually acted administratively in 1976 after firing Earl Butz and seeing defeat looming in the elections). And way back in 1927 Silent Cal vetoed McNary-Haugen. The NY Times archive site is having problems this morning, but the results of the query "farm bill veto" is here.

The process is similar each time--a coalition in Congress (easier to assemble back in the 1920' s when we had more farmers) gets behind legislation to benefit farmers, they go a bridge too far, and the President slaps them down. Of course, often the President threatens a veto but doesn't carry through--I wonder if a political scientist has done a study of that. It's part of the pull and haul of democratic politics.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Initial Friday Cat Blogging

The first time I've added a photo to my blog. (Takes us old people time to get caught up with new-fangled ideas. Coffee is vital to me so I wear out coffee carafes. Carrie decided the box the latest one came in was just the right size for her:

How Slowly We (Govt) Adapt to Change

From the GAO on e-mail and official records (my comments in italics):

E-mail, because of its nature, presents challenges to records management.
  • First, the information contained in e-mail records is not uniform: it may concern any subject or function and document various types of transactions. As a result, in many cases, decisions on which e-mail messages are records must be made individually. Why make decisions at all?
  • Second, the transmission data associated with an e-mail record--including information about the senders and receivers of messages, the date and time the message was sent, and any attachments to the messages--may be crucial to understanding the context of the record. So keep the whole thing.
  • Third, a given message may be part of an exchange of messages between two or more people within or outside an agency, or even of a string (sometimes branching) of many messages sent and received on a given topic. In such cases, agency staff need to decide which message or messages should be considered records and who is responsible for storing them in a recordkeeping system. Again, why decide anything--keep the whole sequence.
  • Finally, the large number of federal e-mail users and high volume of e-mails increase the management challenge.
Preliminary results of GAO's ongoing review of e-mail records management at four agencies show that not all are meeting the challenges posed by e-mail records. Although the four agencies' e-mail records management policies addressed, with a few exceptions, the regulatory requirements, these requirements were not always met for the senior officials whose e-mail practices were reviewed. Each of the four agencies generally followed a print and file process to preserve e-mail records in paper-based recordkeeping systems, but for about half of the senior officials, e-mail records were not being appropriately identified and preserved in such systems. Print and file makes no sense--electronic is cheaper

Instead, e-mail messages were being retained in e-mail systems that lacked recordkeeping capabilities. (Among other things, a recordkeeping system allows related records to be grouped into classifications according to their business purposes.) Unless they have recordkeeping capabilities, e-mail systems may not permit easy and timely retrieval of groupings of related records or individual records. Gee--I think being able to do a Google search on a body of text is a whole lot better than relying on poorly paid clerks to perform groupings according to a subject scheme that is likely 20 years out of date.

Further, keeping large numbers of record and nonrecord messages in e-mail systems potentially increases the time and effort needed to search for information in response to a business need or an outside inquiry, such as a Freedom of Information Act request. Factors contributing to this practice were the lack of adequate staff support and the volume of e-mail received. In addition, agencies had not ensured that officials and their responsible staff received training in recordkeeping requirements for e-mail. If recordkeeping requirements are not followed, agencies cannot be assured that records, including information essential to protecting the rights of individuals and the federal government, is being adequately identified and preserved.
My comments, and perhaps the emotion, date from some years associated with records management. Records management was part of the rationalization of business (see Alfred Chandler's writings)--creating, processing and filing information. But it rests on the economic fact it was costly to generate a memo (or equivalent piece of paper). You had to have a specialized individual (called a clerk-typist or secretary). She (or sometimes he) had to be able to handle multiple carbon copies for the multiple files, including something called the "official record". The piece of paper had to be routed through levels of bureaucracy until it got to an approving official. Once signed, the copies would be distributed appropriately. But all that's so 20th century.

Food Expenditures

John Phipps links to the NYTimes graphic on living expenses (which I'd read on paper, but it's a whole lot neater on line) as a great example of presentation of complex data.

What's interesting is looking at food expenditures, which are 15 percent of total. But when you mouse around the expenditures for various foods, it looks as if we're eating pretty sensibly at home. I mean snacks, misc. foods, and frozen foods together are about 1 percent of total or about 6.5 percent of food costs. That's not too bad. Vegans will have problems with all the money spent on meat (close to 2 percent). Fruits and vegetables seem to be about 1 percent of total. Dairy about 1 percent. Alcohol a little over 1 percent. Eating out about 6 percent. Coffee, tea, other drinks about 1 percent.

A little noted item--domestic service is .2 percent. Remember in the good old pre-WWI and WWII days, everyone (i.e., upper middle class and upper) had servants; now they have permanent press and fast foods.

Too Good for Your Own Good

Ah, for the days of planned obsolescence. My wife will mourn this loss of the unbreakable glass from France, as reported by Mr. Beauregard.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

New Young "Farmer"

Back once again to the old question: "Who is a farmer"? Here's the blog post of a young idealist (as mentioned in the LA Times article) just starting out. She finds that FSA isn't of help.

FSA's definition is someone who is selling to a wholesale distributor and is growing on owned (albeit mortgaged) land. That's because the law authorizing loans to beginning farmers defines it that way, probably because back in the New Deal days (when the program originated) that was all we had. Now if Ms Bradbury contacted her representatives in Congress and one of them were on the appropriate committee and...and... and...20 years from now the law might be changed.

Bottomline: while the bureaucracy has its own impediments to change, our beloved founding fathers made sure the rules by which the bureaucracy operates would be slow to change.

Even Farmers Market Farmers Get Old

The LA Times has an article on the graying of farmers selling at farmers markets. An excerpt:
IN GENERAL, experts say, new farmers market growers tend to come from one of three groups: young idealists looking for a rural lifestyle, immigrants who use farmers markets to make money from small plots of land, and those like Coleman who inherit family farms.
Assuming that's right, it tells you few people go into farming to make money, even though money can be made, at least in good years like this one. Of course, that statement is also true of teachers and even public servants (as us bureaucrats like to be known).

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Al Gore and Procurement Fraud

I blogged about a month ago on abuse of government credit cards and noted Al Gore's contribution. The Project on Government Oversight has this perfectly ironic note.
"One of the more ironic stories of purchase card abuse comes to us from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where a U.S. Forest Service employee, Suzanne Poetz, has pleaded guilty to stealing $300,000 from her agency's program. As part of her plea, Poetz admitted to over 150 instances of theft. But the best part of all? In 1998, Poetz received a Hammer Award from Vice President Al Gore--for developing the Agriculture Department's purchase card program. (The Hammer Awards were given to federal employees whose work "resulted in a government that works better and costs less")."
All I need to see now is a story telling how someone, maybe a Republican congressman, who pushed for contracting out government services made money by taking bribes from such a contractor.

What Should They Fear?

Economists (if "they" = "political candidates).

So says Brad DeLong

Somehow, I'm not convinced that economists are fearsome. Truman supposedly wanted a "one-armed" economist, because his always said: "on the one hand...on the other hand".

Best Result of the Night

The report that the Indiana ID law denied the vote to some nuns (no picture ID, too infirm to file a provisional ballot and then get an ID). I wonder how our mostly Catholic Supreme Court is feeling now about their recent decision upholding the law. (If I recall, the decision rested mainly on the idea that no harm had been shown--no one had been denied the vote.)

[I'm waiting for this to be revealed as a belated April Fool joke.]

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Clearance Process

This article says OMB is going to rely on automated matching of data to speed clearance process.
Here's a followup article

I have some doubts--the TSA watch list shows some of the problems of putting together databases. And genealogists run into the problem regularly--does record A refer to the same person as record B? I think a learning, evolutionary process could work. By which I mean, assign something like a credit rating to a person based on available data, track the person's history and adjust the rating accordingly. Unfortunately, that sort of thinking doesn't fit with the black and white, binary choice world of security clearances.

The Perversity of Rules

One thing the Dems promised in 2006 was, if they gained the majority, they would reinstate the "pay-go" rules--the procedural rule saying that any law authorizing new expenditures must also include a means to pay for it (raising taxes or cutting other programs). All right-thinking good government types applauded this, and the Dems carried through on their promise.

So what's the problem? Well, as Dan Owen at Blog for Rural America explains, it creates an incentive to maintain old programs: "What's the response of those writing the farm bill? "We need to protect our commodity program baseline"." In other words, it's true enough that most crop farmers today are doing well, but if the ag committees cut direct payments in the new farm bill, that reduces the "baseline". A reduced baseline down the road means reduced ability to increase payments if that were needed. So, a good rule encourages a bad result--there's no such thing as a free lunch.

What the World Needs Now: Smarter Flies?

Actually, yes. According to this NYTimes article on animal learning, some scientists bred flies to be smarter. That's a revelation--flies do learn. And then they determined that smarter flies had shorter lives. The general argument is that while there are benefits to being able to learn, there are also costs. (As Robert Heinlein would say, there's no such thing as a free lunch.) It's not quite clear where the costs come from, though if the young have to learn by experience, they're more vulnerable than if they were hard-wired. And brains are costly in terms of energy. (That's why there are so few in evidence these days.)

Monday, May 05, 2008

Fresh Food, Local Food

The NYTimes has an article on NYC's loss of supermarkets, meaning more people have to drive (assuming they have a car in NYC) to buy fresh produce. Apparently rents are rising (presumably because of a still hot real estate market and the rejuvenation of the city) and the profit margins just aren't there. Supermarkets are facing competition from other outlets, which sell milk, beer, etc. Reading between the lines, produce must have especially low profit margins. Perhaps because of spoilage--how often do you see lots of produce in the supermarket that's past it? And that's with the advantage of loyalty cards, so they can tell that the Harshaws will buy 14 bananas a week with about 95 percent reliability. Or maybe it's the problem of establishing reliable supplies over the year. That says something about the problems faced by the locavore movement and organic farming.

Sodsaver Provision

I hadn't been following this. At gristmill a story on the "sodsaver" provision: "The House and Senate versions of the farm bill both contained this new provision, which would have prohibited crop insurance and non-insured disaster payments for production losses to producers in any state who plowed up native grasslands in order to plant crops. This would have also prevented these farmers from receiving regular disaster payments, because farmers must first have crop insurance in order to be eligible for disaster payments."

Apparently the conference committee is restricting it to the desert pothole area (i.e., the area of small lakes/marshes left behind when the glaciers retreated that are great for ducks, etc.) and making it optional by the governor. That's much to the regret of conservationists. What concerns a former bureaucrat is the possibility the law will mix apples and oranges. Mostly in the past, eligibility provisions have been either/or, land or person. A person who violated the sod/swampbuster provisions would be ineligible for all payments everywhere. Or, if the program provisions on a farm were violated, there might be no payments for that farm. But this sounds as if it might be a mixture--someone plows grassland in ND and in SD, for example. ND says okay, but SD says no. Result--person is ineligible on all his land in SD but not in ND. Very difficult to control, unless the IT systems FSA uses have gotten considerably more sophisticated.

It's also interesting--under sodbuster NRCS would have to have an approved plan for the farm to make the producer eligible. Sounds to me as if this "sodsaver" provision is a tacit admission that NRCS was unable/unwilling to administer the "sodbuster" provisions as originally intended. No real surprise--NRCS as a bureaucracy did not have the culture of policing regulations.

Inconsistency, Thy Name is Human

Some, often on the conservative side, argue that we shouldn't increase taxes or pass laws to fight global warming. The threat of warming is projected and not proven, the cost would be too great to act now, why suffer lower growth now to help future generations?

Some, often on the conservative side, argue we should increase taxes and change laws to fight the social security trust fund deficit. The threat of SS bankruptcy is proven by projections, the cost would be minimal if we act now, we must suffer now to help future generations.

And then there are the opponents, who tend to take the opposite side of each issue.

Slow Food, No; Slow Medicine, Yes

I eat. I've previously blogged about my skepticism of "slow food", "locavore", etc. Carbon taxes, which would raise the cost of transportation (and of production on industrial ag operations), are fine. But I don't like the romanticism surrounding the movement (don't like movements, mostly).

I live, for a while longer, but this article on "slow medicine" in the NY Times today makes me lean to approving it:
Grounded in research at the Dartmouth Medical School, slow medicine encourages physicians to put on the brakes when considering care that may have high risks and limited rewards for the elderly, and it educates patients and families how to push back against emergency room trips and hospitalizations designed for those with treatable illnesses, not the inevitable erosion of advanced age.
My sister and I used a hospice for my mother, who was old, had Alzheimer's, and was diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas. That example is one reason why I like "slow medicine", but her case also gives a caution. Mom broke her hip while she was in her late 80's, but she was able to recover quite well. It's easy to think about being close to the end of life, but more difficult to tell when one is there.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Senator Roberts Opines

Senator Pat Roberts is not one of my favorite people. Back in 1996 he was the father of "Freedom to Farm", the bait and switch deal. Sold by the Republicans as a way to phase out farm payments it got converted into the ongoing direct payment program in 2002. (No, I don't know he planned it that way, but any realistic observer of farm programs knew in 1996 it wasn't going to work the way he described it.)

Anyhow, now I've vented a bit, the High Plains Journal quotes him and Rep. Moran as having problems with the way the bill is going. Read it here.

One thing I'll point to, just in case any one from NASCOE reads this--the $50 fee for going to the county office. I understand the logic, but that would be a good way to move farmers from visiting the office to working on-line. :-) That's not what NASCOE would like, I guess.

Pay Limit--Confusing Reports

From the ARgus Leader in SD:

"The tentative deal would base farm program payment limitations on whether the recipients are farmers or non-farmers, Herseth Sandlin said. In 2009, landowners with adjusted gross incomes of more than $750,000 who are not farmers would be prohibited from receiving farm payments. The amount would fall to $650,000 in 2010 and to $500,000 in 2011, she said. The income cap for farmers would be $950,000.

Farmers making more than that could still benefit from farm programs but would lose 10 percent of their direct payments for every $100,000 in income over the $950,000 cap, Herseth Sandlin said.

The tentative deal would also prohibit the U.S. Department of Agriculture from closing Farm Service Agency offices for two years, she said.

"(However) nothing is really final until the end," she said."
Not sure what "a farmer" means in this context. This might mean a three tier system:
  1. An owner of cash-rented land who doesn't share in the risk of the crop is neither actively engaged nor a farmer--no payments, period.
  2. An owner of share-rented land is not a farmer but does share in the risk so can receive payments providing AGI is under the cap.
  3. A tenant (by share or cash lease) is actively engaged in farming and a "farmer", so can receive payments but at declining rate if AGI is over the cap (which means no payment if AGI is $2 million or more).
As the senator says, we'll see.

Small Farm Provision

The House-Senate conferees on the farm bill are reported to be looking after the small farmer--they're prohibiting small farmers (less than 10 acres of ?) from getting payments. Not clear what the "?" means nor what "payments" means. I can hear the rhetoric now, particularly when people (like Ken Cook or Tom Philpott) search around and discover a very deserving, struggling small farmer.

(Not that I don't have some sympathy for the logic here.)

Uncle's Folly? Do College Freshmen Read?

Brad DeLong proposes to buy subscriptions for four periodicals for his nephew, who is off to college. I don't know whether to celebrate the idea that college freshmen still are familiar with printer's ink or the idea that uncles (and parents) are always out of touch with the real interests and concerns of the next generation.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Locavores--Think Rabbit

Yes, the best way for you locavores who haven't turned vegetarian yet to get your meat is the backyard rabbit hutch. You too can eat Flopsy, Mopsy, and save Peter Rabbit for Sunday dinner. In doing so, you'll be following in the footsteps of those in the home of great cuisine and terroir--France. See this piece on "Alice and Marcel", Mr. Beauregard's neighbors.
"Marcel lives for, and almost in his garden. From May to October he is out tending his veg at 6.30, just before he cycles to work. At 12, he comes home for lunch and does a quick bit of weeding before heading back for his afternoon stint at the arms factory. At 6pm, he is home again, and back in the garden until nightfall.

It would actually be wrong to call Marcel’s garden a garden. It is a veritable little biosphere. Aprt from fish on Fridays, pretty much everything that the family eat is from the garden. Fresh fruit and veg in summer and bottled, pickled preserved produce in winter."

It's a way of life for many in France, but fading.

U.S. and Foreign Courts--Their Interaction

Justices Stephen Breyer and Antonin Scalia have debated whether U.S. jurisprudence should be cognizant of developments in other countries, as in defining "cruel and unusual". That's a hot issue among some attorneys and even more so on cable news--the conservative types tend to say "no way", while the liberals say: "of course". (Actually, that's way over-simplified and, to a cynical old man, often depends on whose ox is gored. The usual context seems to be social issues: death penalty, etc.)

Now comes a review on H-Net of a book on the Warren Court and its influence on foreign law. (Of course, conservatives might view U.S. law, at least pre-Warren, as a model to be followed, a "city on a hill"; while liberals might be skeptical. Seems that maybe the court's example had an effect, but different in different regions.

Update on "King Corn"

An interesting discussion of Iowa ag vis a vis the documentary "King Corn". Iowa Public TV interviews two farmers/ag leaders on the subject. A couple excerpts:

"We've heard different times over the last 20 years how everything had changed. 1996 we had higher prices for corn. We had prices change in 1988 and in the early 90s as well. And each time seemed like it was forever, it wasn't....

"Yeager: But if I was to go into a banker tomorrow and try to get money to go farm, I want to take my father's 160 and farm it, I want to turn it from corn into rutabagas or rhubarb or something like that. The banker is probably going to laugh me out of the room.

Kirschenmann: Sure, and there's no way that you could do it because even -- some of the research that we have done at Iowa State University makes it very clear now that if farmers added a third crop to that corn and soybean rotation they would get a lot of benefits from that. It would reduce their disease pressure, the weed pressure.

So, there would be a lot of things that would reduce their costs. But you talk to a farmer and say, well, why don't you raise this third crop? The first question is, which one, what do I add to it? And, of course, we know that we can raise wheat in Iowa but some of the farmers that I talk to, at least in Central Iowa say, if they were to raise wheat they'd have to haul it 200 miles to find a place even that will buy it. So, that adds to the cost.

Yeager: Because their structure is set up -- we have a grain co-op in basically every town and every county across the state -- the infrastructure is there.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Why I'm Optimistic on Global Warming

It's because of articles like this one from Technology Review, indicating we're starting up the learning curve on silicon solar panels.

Changing Payment Limitation Rules in Midstream

One thing I haven't posted on, nor have I seen much discussion on is "status date". (I think that's the term.) Anyhow, for payment limitation purposes under current law, FSA offices have to determine the way a farming operation is set up as of a certain date, which may be May 1. At least, that's the way it used to be.

So, if Congress changes the rules relating to limitations, the only way they can be fair about it is to extend current rules for 2008 and make the new ones effective for 2009.