Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Concentration of Wealth in Hogs

I was struck by 1 and 2.
Try out these on your friends. MO livestock economist Ron Plain’s market facts:
1) The smallest 75% of U.S. hog farms produced 1% of the hogs.
2) The largest 1% of U.S. hog farms produced 75% of the hogs.
3) Since 1930 the sow inventory has declined 42%, but pork production rose 221%
4) Jan-Sept pork production was 17.25 bil. lbs, up 9.3% over Jan-Sept of 2007.
5) Jan-Sept pork exports were 3.62 bil. lbs, up 65.8% over Jan-Sept of 2007.
6) Jan-Sept pork imports were 614 mil. lbs, down 16.6% from Jan-Sept of 2007.
7) Pork, beef, and poultry production will all drop in 2009, the first time since 1973.
8) In 2007, swine herds with 1-99 head averaged 7.53 pigs per litter.
9) In 2007, swine herds with 5,000+ head averaged 9.28 pigs per litter.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Turkey Weights and Misleading Science

[This post was wrong. See here.]

Here's a link to an article by one Alexis Madrigal that disses the modern turkey, modern corn, and modern potatoes as oversized, oversweet, and genetically "hacked". It has a chart, supposedly illustrating the growth of the average turkey. According to the chart, in the 1920's the average turkey weighed about 13 pounds, today's turkey weighs about 29 pounds. There's no source cited for the chart (though mousing over shows the chart title to be "new_sweet_chart"??

A brief session of Googling doesn't turn up any facts, so I'm not sure what they are, except Mr. Madrigal's chart and statements are misleading, at the least, and most likely wrong. Let's start with the concept: "average turkey". My wife and I have been having turkey since 1980 or so, each time we buy the same size bird: 10-12 pounds. Given the American household has shrunk in size over the years, I think it's safe to guess that "average turkey weight" does not mean: the average weight of turkeys sold at retail in the U.S.

So, could "average turkey weight" mean the genetic potential--what would a turkey weigh if it grew to its maximum weight? Well, probably not. From the heritage turkey page at Rodale comes this paragraph:
Heritage birds command a premium (consider a store-bought turkey at 39 cents per pound) because of their genetic value and added labor costs. They are, on average, much smaller birds (10 lbs for hens, 12 lbs for toms) that take twice as long to mature as the Large Whites. Still, Frank Reese, an experienced heritage turkey farmer (Good Shepherd Ranch in Linsborg, Kansas,, estimates that if done properly, growers can make a nice profit of $60 to $80 per bird. Thanks to careful selection and breeding, his heritage birds average 18 - 33 pounds. (Reese and other heroes in conserving heritage turkeys are recognized by the ALBC at
So heritage birds can reach 33 pounds. (The Diestel Family Turkey Ranch advertises such birds.)

For a turkey grower I'd guess the two metrics most important are weight gained per pound of food and age to marketable size. Madrigal does give a sentence to this, crediting modern turkeys with being very efficient at converting grain to meat and being twice as fast to market. But it's a lot more sexy to say: "Science Supersized Your Turkey Dinner" than to say: "Science Made Your Thanksgiving Dinner Both Energy-Efficient and Bland." (Less grain for the same meat is more energy efficient.) By focusing on size rather than efficiency, Mr. Madrigal skews his piece.

Visit DC

We've a new attraction, according to the Post's Marc Fisher, the visitor center at the U.S. Capitol. He says:
"After too many recent experiences with empty, ahistorical and timid attractions such as the World War II Memorial, the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian and this month's remake of the National Museum of American History, Washington needed a winner on the culture front. Now it has one."
Open for business on Dec. 2.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Problems in Enforcing the $2.5 Million AGI

A commenter suggests:"Why not, as with deceased people, pass a data file over to IRS and let them tell us any ID that got a FSA payment that is over the AGI limit. That way FSA does not have the data but IRS can tell us potential issues with ID's that have earned too much money to be AGI eligible. This should become easier as we move to direct attribution."

Seems to be a good question, but there's a catch. (Rule number X, there's always a catch.) Once you die, your Social security number is no longer private (just ask the genealogists who look at the Social Security death index). So SSA has no problem telling FSA who is dead. By contrast, periodically IRS gets beaten about the head and body about its abuses of taxpayers and releases of their information. (I believe Senator Grassley may even have been on the Senate committee that did the last set of hearings in 1998 or so.) Indeed, before I left USDA the Republicans (probably) passed a law putting big obstacles in sharing data among agencies. That act has probably been modified since 9/11.

So, IRS is very very reluctant to bend the laws restricting access to individual earnings data. I haven't located the description of their system of records required under the Privacy Act, but presumably they'd have to modify it to authorize this processing. That's assuming President-elect Obama calls in an attorney and says it's got to be done. (Of course, then you'd have all the Republicans calling him down for doing something the Democrats complained about when Bush/Cheney did the same thing.)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

PETA, Animal Agriculture, and Cruelty

Spokesmen for animal agriculture fight back, here and here.

And Charley Stenholm, mentioned as a possible secretary of agriculture, is very concerned: "He makes the point that this anti-livestock and anti-technology crusade sweeping the country is far more detrimental than some people perceive."

The $2.5 Million Story, Followup

And here's what the AP made of the GAO report on payments made to people earning over $2.5 mill. And here's the Des Moines Register.

Brings back memories of the stories before Congress made foreign aliens ineligible (mostly) for program payments (was that in 1985 or before?).

Just as a bonus I'll throw in a URL to a Reuters story (at EWG) about the job faced by Obama's USDA appointee.

Bush and Records

Interesting interview at NextGov over e-mail records here. One excerpt:

Fuchs: What happened when the Bush administration came in is that they scrapped the e-mail archiving system [established under the Clinton administration].... and they didn't replace it. They actually did develop a replacement in consultation with National Archives, but they made the decision not to install it. So, for the eight years of the Bush administration, there is no archive of the e-mails that were sent or received within the White House. . . .

Obama Uses Farm Program Payments as Example

From Obama's press conference today:
"Let me give you one example of what I’m talking about. There’s a report today that from 2003 to 2006, millionaire farmers received $49 million in crop subsidies even though they were earning more than the $2.5 million cutoff for such subsidies. If this is true, it is a prime example of the kind of waste I intend to end as President."
He's referring to a GAO report.

I'm rather impressed [I'm sure people are surprised] by the FSA response.

But that's a side issue, and I want to hit two points:
  • Part of the problem is that FSA accepts certifications that a person's adjusted gross income is $2.5 million or less, without having routine access to the IRS data which would allow for checking the certifications. As FSA points out, in accepting the GAO recommendation, Congress needs to permit this if they want effective administration.
  • Another part is that legal entities "farm" and get program payments. So if ABC corporation is half-owned by Joe Croesus and half by John Empty pockets, and Joe is over the $2.5 limit and John isn't, FSA is supposed to make payments to ABC corporation reduced by half (representing Joe's share). GAO claims (in their response to FSA's comments) that they accounted for this.
As a former FSA employee, I can only imagine the anger I would be feeling--GAO had access to IRS data, which was how they did the report, but refuse (i.e., is not legally permitted) to provide the data to FSA so FSA can efficiently correct the overpayments. Almost a Catch-22, and certainly dispiriting to someone who wants to enforce the law.

Finally, I suspect this is just the beginning of what's going to be a hot and hard time for USDA and FSA.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Old Roads

Just saw an ad for a Wrightstown/Chanceford toll road company, chartered 1871. And I ran across an old map (circa 1890 or so) which showed the bridge on which I had my first car accident (not my fault, I hasten to add) was then a toll bridge.

It's easy to fall into the trap of assuming things have been the way they are, that the government has always done the roads and bridges, but not so.

Rural Children and Marriages

Here's a study showing that times have changed--the percentage of rural children living in 2-parent households has dropped over the last years and is now slightly lower than that for metropolitan (non-rural children). Hat tip--Rural Information Center

Just as a guess, given that the percentage increased in central cities, I suspect much of the change reflects the impact of immigration.

Women, Politics, and Republicans

Maybe the Republicans are doomed to minority status. The Christian Science Monitor has an assessment of how women did in the 2008 elections (in brief, inched upwards). A couple factoids they don't connect, but I do:
Vermont and New Hampshire are two of the top three states in percentage of women in the state legislature (NH's senate is majority women). South Carolina has no women in its senate. No Republican Representatives in New England.
The Republicans, as befits the "conservative" party, is more resistant to social innovations, like women in politics. That's why Sarah Palin is so interesting.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Time for a Convoy System

The Post has an article on the pirate problem off Somalia.

I always loved military history, and the Horatio Hornblower novels. (Jack Aubrey was good, but Horatio was better.) That tells me the answer is the convoy system. That's always been the response to raiders, whether pirates and privateers in the 18th century or submarines in the 20th. As long as tankers and cargo ships sail independently, the advantage is on the pirate side. Start convoys and the advantage swings, particularly if you can put up air cover (as in unmanned drones).

Continuity or Change?

Does a reformer do better by doing a "big bang", lots of big change fast, or by persistence--grinding it out, 3 yards and a cloud of dust as they used to say about Woody Hayes at Ohio State? We've elected a President and the focus is on his first 100 days. Two pieces in the Post today argue, at least in the context of education, for persistence and continuity.

A teacher in Fairfax county recounts the broken promises of the 90's--he qualified for bonus pay after a long process, but the pay raises he was to receive soon evaporated under the pressure of tight budgets and the loss of the people who pushed the bonus pay initiative.

And a former superintendent of the Arlington schools argues, using examples from around the country, that worthwhile gains come from a marathoner, not a sprinter.

I've sympathy with both--I've seen an incoming administration discard the initiatives of the incumbents because of "not invented here" syndrome. But it's also true that bureaucrats, like me, are creatures of the rut. IMHO you need a mix of personalities with common goals--someone to stir the pot and someone to smooth hurt feelings--who can last for 10 years or so.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

They're Playing That Tune Again

From Keith Good's Farm Policy, excerpting from a Chris Clayton interview of the House Ag chief:

Mr. Clayton added that, “Peterson wants to reorganize USDA next year that will include emphasizing computer overhauls in major agencies such as the Farm Service Agency and the Risk Management Agency. Peterson said whoever takes the mantle at USDA needs to focus heavily on upgrading the computer systems and using software vendors that understand agricultural lending and risk management.

“Peterson added that he also thinks there are serious changes needed at RMA, particularly regarding how overall policy is created at the agency and implemented between the headquarter in Washington and satellite office in Kansas City, Mo.

Been there, done that, thoroughly disillusioned.

Bottomline--there's too many moving parts in USDA with too little forceful leadership. Add in a group of second-guessers (OMB and GAO, especially) and it's practically impossible to achieve the goals he wants.

Geezer Is Amazed by Advances: Seed Size??

Excerpt from the most recent farmgate:

"If you buy the new Roundup Ready 2 Yield seed beans, you are buying a bag with a specific number of beans inside, not bags with a uniform weight. That is the industry trend, says MO Extension’s Bill Wiebold, who says you will get 140,000 beans, but not necessarily 50 lbs. of seed. Wiebold says a seed size of 2,800/lb. is about average, but seed size will vary by variety and will vary due to environmental conditions.

The constant number of seeds per bag will not be welcomed by those farmers who buy smaller seeds, believing they will be able to plant more acres with fewer bags of seed beans. Those farmers may resist the change, says MO agronomist Bill Wiebold. But he says knowing the number of seeds per bag allows more precise calibration of planters.

The size of seed beans is not as important as yield potential and pest resistance says Wiebold, who says seed size does not affect emergence percentage, seedling vigor, or yield potential. But he says smaller seeds have less reserves, and planting depth is more critical. Read more."

No comment, I'm speechless.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Innovation in DOD, Wikis Even

A piece at Nextgov describes DOD's use of wikis during the Russian/Georgian war.

The Times and Farmers

I missed my hardcopy Times today, but the website has this article talking about Texas farmers who failed to sell their wheat at $10, and the effects now. Some reference to the boom of the 70's., but land prices are less than $1000.

Most Surprising Headline Today

Salt Lake County, Utah, Goes for Obama

From the Post blog.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Mathematical Illiteracy in the AP

From an article on this document from ERS:

50 percent more US children went hungry in 2007

Some 691,000 children went hungry in America sometime in 2007, while close to one in eight Americans struggled to feed themselves adequately even before this year's sharp economic downtown, the Agriculture Department reported Monday.

The department's annual report on food security showed that during 2007 the number of children who suffered a substantial disruption in the amount of food they typically eat was more than double the 430,000 in 2006 and the largest figure since 716,000 in 1998.

Note the headline is accurate, but the writer is not (i.e 691,000 is not double the 430,000). When you look at the ERS study, the 2005 figure for children was close to the 2007, making me suspicious of the accuracy of the 2006 figure. In general, the ERS study doesn't indicate dramatic changes in "food insecurity".

My Memory Isn't Too Bad

Despite the gloom and doom, I've had the feeling we've had comparable crashes before. Turns out to be true, though this one is faster. And granted the economic situation isn't reflected in this graph.

New Yorker and Food

The New Yorker magazine has its food issue this week. James Surowiecki, their economics correspondent, discusses food prices.

His thesis is that, over the last 20 years or so, agricultural production and marketing systems, particularly in developing countries, have been made more efficient, with fewer agricultural marketing boards, more production driven by the market and less by government subsidy, lower or no levels of government-owned grain reserves, etc. But, while the systems are more efficient, they are more fragile. He writes:
"The old emphasis on food security was undoubtedly costly, and often wasteful. But the redundancies it created also had tremendous value when things went wrong. And one sure thing about a system as complex as agriculture is that things will go wrong, often with devastating consequences."
It's an interesting contrast with Prof. Pollan's thesis which says that government subsidies have distorted production, and made corn cheap.

Farm Bill Blues in the EU Too

The greens were disturbed with the outcome of our 2008 farm bill process. Apparently similar forces are also at work in the EU--apparently the resolution of the EU CAP (common agricultural policy) "health check" debate is for very minor moves of money from income support/direct payments to conservation and minor reductions of the biggest payments.

An Economist Bureaucrat Is Still a Bureaucrat

Brad DeLong has a recommendation for Austan Goolsbee, which reflects his experience in the bureaucracy:
As a non-negotiable condition of his taking the job, Austan should insist on at least his two deputies—the other two members of the CEA—having offices inside the Eisenhower EOB. Six eyes can cover three times as much ground as two, and a surprisingly large share of the business of government is done by wandering around the Eisenhower building and the White House talking to people in hallways (or just hanging out in the Starbucks at 17th and Pennsylvania and talking to whoever comes by
I agree. Things may have changed a little bit with modern technology, but nothing fully replaces hanging out.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Organic and CRP Land

A newspaper account of a meeting on organic agriculture in Minnesota. What strikes me is the speaker's emphasis on the CRP-organic linkage. (Because CRP land has been out of production for years, it probably meets the 3-year requirement (no chemicals) to qualify as organic. )

So the greens might say, if you're getting out of CRP, go organic. But some greens must be a bit ambivalent about the idea, as tilling CRP land would cause a larger carbon footprint. Life is so complicated, it's unfair.

The Demise of Literacy

If this quote is right, not only is the author of a biography of V.S.Naipaul deficient, so too is the NY Time book reviewer and its copy editors:
Even the cameos in Mr. French’s biography are crazily vivid. Here is his hole-in-one description of the editor Francis Wyndham: “Popular, gentle, solitary and eccentric, Wyndham lived with his mother, wore heavy glasses and high-waisted trousers, gave off random murmurs and squeaks and moved with an amphibian gate.”[emphasis added]
My point--"gate" should be "gait" (a manner of walking).

Automated Analysis Isn't Reliable

Via Greg Mankiw, this site tries to analyze a blog in terms of the Myers-Briggs categories.

This blog comes out as ISTJ--Duty Fulfiller:
"The responsible and hardworking type. They are especially attuned to the details of life and are careful about getting the facts right. Conservative by nature they are often reluctant to take any risks whatsoever.

The Duty Fulfillers are happy to be let alone and to be able to work int heir[sic] own pace. They know what they have to do and how to do it."
Unfortunately, my other blog, Harshaw Family, comes out a ESFP--Performer:

"The entertaining and friendly type. They are especially attuned to pleasure and beauty and like to fill their surroundings with soft fabrics, bright colors and sweet smells. They live in the present moment and don´t like to plan ahead - they are always in risk of exhausting themselves.
The[sic] enjoy work that makes them able to help other people in a concrete and visible way. They tend to avoid conflicts and rarely initiate confrontation - qualities that can make it hard for them in management positions"
Not to be too critical--I'm definitely aware of writing differently depending on the blog. And each analysis picks up aspects--I'm averse to confrontation and I try to be careful to get my facts right.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

For Those Who Didn't Go to Harvard

Some news to please one's schadenfreude sensor--Harvard's taking big big losses on its endowment.


Understanding Government expresses concern at the Post's report of "burrowing" (i.e., political appointees being converted to career status) in the Interior Department. Personally, it's what one would expect who has been around for several administrations.

Variable Cash Rents and "Actively Engaged"

Farmgate has a post on variable cash rent arrangements. And Farm Policy has excerpts from a discussion of possible changes to the definition of "actively engaged" in farming. Both issues from the 2008 farm bill and its implementation which will create full employment for lawyers, if no one else.

Monday, November 17, 2008


A reasonable assessment of candidates for Secretary of Agriculture at Ethicurean.

I don't take the mention of John Boyd seriously, for secretary, at least--the CQ article referred to suggests a more likely position: state executive director of the FSA Virginia office. He'll get something.

The Past Under Our Feet

The NY Times has an article about Egypt, the hook being the recent discovery of another pyramid, the foundations of which were buried under yards of sand. Given Egypt's long history, the people seem haunted by the past.
Mr. Amin mused: “This deep conviction, ‘Leave it to time, leave it to God, God will resolve it, don’t worry too much, everything will be all right in the end’ — can’t this also be the result of the length of history? When you have a short amount of time, you can’t rely on bad things to be corrected or mistakes to be corrected. But in the long run, things are bound to be all right at the end.”
There's a contrast with our consciousness of history (see my recent post), or lack thereof. Certainly with the election of Obama we think we're progressing, ever onward and upward.

[Added] Strange Maps has a comparison of the Obama vote and the 1860 cotton production--for an example of how the past influences the present.

Combining Institutions

Some while back my local Safeway store installed a Starbucks counter. One would think it's good for everyone--Safeway customers get their caffeine fix, Safeway gets more traffic and profits from the counter--everyone profits.

But, as is often the case with people and institutions, it's not that simple. For one thing, the Starbucks employees are actually Safeway employees, subject to their rules. In the wider world, Starbuck stores have a tip jar at the register, which tends to fill up rather quickly. But Safeway employees aren't supposed to take tips. And I'd suspect manning Starbucks counters is probably less desirable work than being a Safeway clerk, and probably gets paid a lower starting salary.

So over time there's been a big turnover of employees. And there's been attempts to put out a tip jar, which Safeway management at my local store seemed to cast a blind eye on, for a while. But in the last weeks, the jar has vanished, along with the woman who was the best (IMHO) employee, and the one who handled the Starbucks paperwork.

(Having lived through attempts to consolidate USDA agencies, I'm sensitized to these sorts of conflicts and problems.)

Grade Inflation and Grade Deflation

It's a commonplace to observe that average grades at some colleges and high schools have increased over the years, to the point that A is average and 4.5 on a scale of 1-4 is good. I think humans have problems telling the truth, so it's easier to shade the grades slightly, which over the years becomes more than slight.

But I just started to read a review of a history of girl's scouting in which the author talked of summer camps as being "middle class". Without being too nitpicky about it, seems to me that's "grade deflation". Surely if you had enough money to send your kids to camp in the first part of the 20th century, you were probably upper class, or at least upper middle class.

I think the logic of this deflation is the same as for inflation--making people feel good by calling them something they aren't. In America, "upper class" is bad, so we deflate the term.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Changing Times--History

Walter Jeffries at Sugar Mountain Farm has a post about the ruins to be found on the mountain--not Indian but the remnants of life from the 19th century. It's all too easy to assume that history is a linear progress (there were even paintings from the 19th century showing the "march of progress", from wilderness to settled civilization). But, at least in the U.S., it's an ebb and flow.

Markets, Revisited

Ann Althouse provides a set of Fox News videos, showing the wisdom of the mavens of the financial markets (as compared to one Peter Shiff).

Competition and Free Markets and Rationality

Two pieces in the NY Times today relating to a market-based economy.

Robert FRank writes on whether competition in free markets does away with discrimination. He argues, it doesn't, except in cases where the markets are very good and very competitive. That may have been the case in the 2008 election. He cites Jackie Robinson as a case
"During Mr. Robinson’s 10-year career with the team, the Dodgers went to six World Series and he was voted to the National League All-Star team six times. In retirement, he was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Shortly after Mr. Robinson’s arrival in the major leagues, it became clear to all that failure to field the best possible team, irrespective of color, was a sure recipe for failure."
As a youthful Yankees fan (who only knew his older sister rooted for the Dodgers), I beg to differ--the Yankees mostly beat the Dodgers, despite Jackie (and Roy, and Junior, and Newk, et. al) in the Series throughout the 40's and 50's, even though they were very late to integrate their team. So it wasn't "clear to all" at the time. And irrational prejudice overrode reason.

And in the Week in Review, there's an article discussing research on the role of testosterone and cortisol (i.e., maleness) in the ups and downs of market. An academic believes "raging hormones might explain why the men who rule the global markets send them rocketing up when they’re on a roll, and swooping down when they get scared, exhibiting judgment that can remind you of the guys in an Adam Sandler movie."

Makes sense to me.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Transparency in Government II

John Dickerson of Slate is dubious over Obama's transparency promises, particularly his Saturday video broadcast.

The bottom line is few people (outside of the relevant bureaucrats and lobbyists and interest groups) are really interested in the nitty-gritty of government. I'm not aware C-Span puts up high ratings. In terms of feeding the beast, any government has to hope to catch the attention of filters, whether a news media type, or now a blogger type, which can start to amplify the information.

FSA Is Better Than EU

At administering farm program payments and getting them accurate. At least, that's a possible conclusion from this quote:
As Wyn Grant has observed, the Court of Auditors annual report on the 2007 EU budget published on Monday identified a clutch of weaknesses associated with the controls on spending on EU farm policies. The Court observes that “Some 20 percent of payments audited at final beneficiary level and revealed incorrect payments, a limited number of which had a high financial impact.” It concludes that farm subsidies remained “affected by a material level of error of legality and/or regularity”.
In its worst days, FSA never had that high a rate of erroneous payments (and even that was partially a matter of definition).

Friday, November 14, 2008

On Whole Foods

My investment in Whole Foods looks sicker by the moment. And the idea that as times become harder people will pay a premium for better food is foolish as well. But there's a straw of hope, in this post from Treehugger

Transparency in Government

Slate has a good post summarizing 10 ways in which Obama can make government more transparent (drawn from various think-tank proposals), and the drawbacks of each. Because I've blogged in the past about transparency, I feel an obligation to comment on some of Slate's comments.

2. Lobbyist disclosure. I favor disclosure, but not prohibitions. (There was a piece in the paper, perhaps the Post, this week reporting academic research that said lobbyists gave the most money to the committee members who asked the best (i.e., not grandstanding) questions in committee hearings.

3. Broadcast cabinet meetings. That's idiotic. Not broadcasting, but the idea of having cabinet meetings. The meetings which matter are not formal meetings of the full cabinet, but the meetings the cabinet member has with the director of OMB at budget time, the meetings the President has with his staff, with maybe one or two Cabinet secretaries.

5. Get rid of pseudo classifications. I agree. Each piece of paper should have two attributes: its bureaucratic distribution (i.e., Eye-only, etc.) and its classification level.

6 Make all filings electronic. Yes. Also all documents.

How Congress Works

By smoke and mirrors and stuff buried in the weeds. The POGO blog has a post describing what happened over 20 years ago. To save money, Congress changed the formula for determining hourly wages for CS employees from dividing by 2080 hours in a year to dividing by 2087. (2080 would be 52 weeks in a year, or 364 days in a year. 2087 allows for the 365th and 366th days.) So the change was more accurate, but it had the effect of lowering hourly rates, which would slightly lower budget expenses. The thing is, they've allowed government contractors to use the 2080 figure all along, which POGO objects to.

Nickels and dimes over years add up to real money (although not by Sen. Dirksen's definition).

Thursday, November 13, 2008

On Being Too Brief

I assume the writer, or at least the sources, know better than this:
For instance, nitrogen—which comes from fertilizers—in the form of nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
I'm no chemist but nitrogen, if I remember, is about 80 percent of the atmosphere. And "nitrogen" fertilizer is not nitrogen, but nitrates (that's why it takes energy to make chemical fertilizer). Wikipedia may be reliable,, or not:
Nitrous oxide is emitted by bacteria in soils and oceans, and thus has been a part of Earth's atmosphere for eons. Agriculture is the main source of human-produced nitrous oxide: cultivating soil, the use of nitrogen fertilizers, and animal waste handling can all stimulate naturally occurring bacteria to produce more nitrous oxide. The livestock sector (primarily cows, chickens, and pigs) produces 65% of human-related nitrous oxide. [1] Industrial sources make up only about 20% of all anthropogenic sources, and include the production of nylon and nitric acid, and the burning of fossil fuel in internal combustion engines. Human activity is thought to account for somewhat less than 2 teragrams of nitrogen oxides per year, nature for over 15 teragrams.[2]
If I understand, chemical "nitrogen" fertilizers are mostly anhydrous ammonia, ammonia nitrate, and urea.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

May Farmers and FSA Live in Interesting Times

John Phipps notes the problems of the ACRE program--handling a multi-year program contract when cash leases can change year to year. And Uof Illinois's farmgate has a discussion of the problems in getting lease terms which are fair to both owner and leasor. Things don't get any easier for FSA, or farmers.

One Man's War

Musings from a Stonehead has a long post describing the WWI career of a relative. Who knew Australia had hairdressers in 1916? And what about Field Punishment No. 2 (doing your military stuff while shackled). I like it because it has the grit of reality, something so often missing from ceremonies honoring veterans.

Worrying About the User

Not the drug user, the user of your IT system. The site has some basics. (Hat tip: Government Gab.) It's the best government site I've seen.

I've always been fascinated by the process of developing IT systems. Part of it is the problem of designing a system, just fitting the pieces together into a whole which hopefully accomplishes the goal, part is the interplay between reality (how users work and think) and the design, part is handling the many tradeoffs involved--what the ideal would seem to be versus what can be done in the time available with the talent and equipment available.

In the late 1980's "usability labs" started to become popular and we made a bit of use of them. The problem then was we were using an information engineering approach (descended from IBM methodology, if I recall) which didn't work well with usability tests.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Call it "industrial agriculture", call it whatever. But definitely work (at harvest time) whether corn or peanuts.


GAO doesn't have a high opinion of the USDA/FSA plans for MIDAS. (Modernize and Innovate the Delivery of Agricultural Systems) Neither do I--a quote:

As part of USDA’s plan to reduce the time frame for implementing MIDAS by 80 percent,officials plan to condense the requirements analysis phase from four years to five months. Moreover, they plan to reduce the analysis and design portion of the acquisition from three and a half years to nine months.
Several times over the years I was involved in requirements analysis, first for FSA and then for all the USDA agencies with offices at the county level. Sounds as if there have been 10 years of poor management since I left. (And years of poor management before then.)

Hunting and Locavores

An interesting article in Slate, taking off from Gov. Palin's hunting, on the history of hunting in the U.S. (hint--it's tied to aristocracy and is now in a big decline) and ending with its relationship to locavore food.

Personally, I never hunted for food--just killed woodchucks (rather unsuccessfully), possums, and skunks (raiding henhouse).

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Lesson from Organic Pecans

Here's a piece that is surprising.

First, it's reporting on research into organic farming of pecans, by the Agricultural Research Service. We usually assume, and organic proponents often allege, USDA is anti-organic, but not on this evidence.

Second, it provides evidence organic methods of improving the soil and fighting pests, while more expensive, easily pay their way by increasing yields and quality, without relying on any price premium for "organic".

Third, it's claimed probably to be applicable to other tree crops.

Fourth, while the image one has (at least I do) for organic methods is rather romantic, the methods used here sound very rational. That means, for me, it's likely that we're talking a new concept, which might be called "industrial organic" farming. That is, large scale application of industrially produced additives such as iron, zinc, boron, copper, and manganese and spinosad.

Welcome to the Glass House: Program Payments and Donations

The Tulsa World has a two-part series on farm program payments and their recipients. By matching the payments against the public records of those who make political donations they identified many Oklahomans who are professionals and receive the payments.

In the second part they identified farmers who received payments but who were also fined for violations (apparently mostly CAFO's who violated environmental rules). An FSA official was quoted, correctly, as saying there was no cross-compliance provision--eligibility for FSA program payments is independent of violations/eligibility for other programs.

This is just a start. President-elect Obama included a pledge of transparency in his platform and today, with databases and the Internet, you can see it working in some areas. I'd start a pool on how long it takes EWG and/or other publications to emulate the Tulsa paper, and then on how long it is before members of Congress start pushing to bar payments to environmental violations.

And for people who aren't involved in agriculture or farm programs, your turn is next. Farm program payments are a test case for transparency simply because EWG was able to obtain the data and put it online back in the 1990's, well ahead of similar efforts in other areas.

My Rule 1, Only for Americans, Not Germans [Rev]

My wife and I were listening to the commentary on"Independence Day" by the special effects guys, one of them a German. The special effects involved blowing up the icons of American civic architecture, the White House, Capitol, etc. One of the themes of the commentary was the movie tried to cut corners, doing lots of stuff "in camera" (whatever that means--I think faking it with models and photos and stuff) and not with high-powered computers (back then he'd mean a 486 :-)). Anyhow, the blowing up was done using models, which of course would be expensive to make and you ideally would want to get the pictures in one take, so you didn't need multiple models.

The German commented that the German crews he had worked with expected less "leeway" compared to the Americans, that is, the Germans expected to get it right on the first take. The Americans, by implication, believed in my first rule: "You never do it right the first time."

[Added] Cultures differ. Perhaps it relates to the idea that the U.S. has always had plentiful natural resources, so we could afford a fast and sloppy effort, refined by trial and error, whereas in Germany the emphasis has been on precision, following rules and not wasting resources. (I believe Germany is maybe the second or third leading exporter in the world, much of it based on its machine tools and similar products.

Geezers Don't Give a ....

One sentence extracted from a quote in a long post on conformity by Robin Hanson, which I very quickly skimmed:
The association with age confirms other research suggesting that older people are less susceptible to social pressure.
I think it's true, for me, as I grow more and more conscious of my waning days, I sometimes feel freer to say "what the hell" and venture where I wouldn't have gone before ("venture" that is, in a very safe and intellectual, not physical, way).

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Supermarket Pharmacy and Farmers Markets

The other day I passed by the pharmacy in my local Safeway. (The Safeway is the second store on the site--the original shopping center was too arty for commercial tastes, because it didn't open up to the road, so about 15-20 years ago so it got redeveloped into a more "traditional" strip-mall format with a much bigger Safeway. But the pharmacy was an issue, because there's also a drug stair in the center, which obviously didn't want the competition from a supermarket pharmacy. Resolving it delayed the redevelopment for a good while.)

Why have a pharmacy in a supermarket? Come to think of it, why have a bakery, a delicatessen, and a bank in the supermarket? Why have a meat counter and a fish counter? After all, in many European countries you have (or had) separate butcher shops and patisseries, etc.

The answer, in my mind, augurs ill for any idea of vastly expanding farmers markets. Americans, mostly, seem to have voted for convenience, for saving time, and we see the results of that election in the design of our supermarkets. I'd guess that going to any farmers market is going to cost the consumer 40 minutes of driving time and shopping time. Add that to higher prices and it's going to limit your sales potential, even if the produce is healthier and tastier.

Another Web Site for Agriculture

The NAL Blog references a new site, called the Agriculture and Public Health Gateway, sponsored by Johns Hopkins U. I've a couple reservations: some of the documents are from journals, meaning all a layman can get for free is an introduction or summary; and, at least for the farm bill area, the only documents are dated 2007 or before.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Government Management

Government Executive assesses the prospects for Obama to continue Bush management initiatives and thinks the financial reporting, e-government, and integrating performance ones will survive. The managing people and competitive outsourcing are more controversial and more likely to change greatly.

The Four Thousand Dollar Cellphone

DOD/NSA is praising its new cellphone, which costs a mere four thousand dollars. Actually, allowing for price drops for quantity purchases, it may be a bargain (it handles both secure and non-secure internet sites, etc. etc.). Now if the FBI and Census would adopt it and get some competition going, we might have something. But I'm waiting for a populist to complain about the cost.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Handling Comments

Kevin Drum is the latest to pick on the Bush administration for their procedures in handling comments on the regulations they want issued before January 20.

I never had to deal with anything like 200,000 comments, but I would give the EPA a break. 200,000 of anything can be sorted into categories. So reviewing the comments would be a relatively simple process:

  1. take a random sample of comments, say 500 or so, and develop a set of categories, including a "further review" category
  2. have your "reviewers" sort the remaining 199,500 comments into the categories
  3. analyze each category and develop a response
  4. analyze each "further review" comment and handle appropriately.
Simple, but it's a process I'd be comfortable defending against challenges.

I might challenge the Obama administration: what are you going to do with the input to your website? How will the process be better than what the EPA is doing?

[Note to self: Obama's been elected 3 days and I'm already challenging him?]

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Dissing Bush

David Katz at suggests that President Obama should reinstall the solar panels on the White House roof. That's well and good, but a Google search would have revealed they were reinstalled, not under the Clinton/Gore administration, but under GW.

One propensity of political partisans is to refuse to believe the good about their opponents. (I earlier blogged about the comparison between Bush's house at Crawford and Gore's place in Tennessee.) It means humans are hypocrites.

Bob Bergland Advises

Quotes from the Chair of House Agriculture Committee, Agricnews Online via Farm Policy:

He also wants to turn his attention to re-organizing the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He said former agriculture secretary Bob Bergland told him ‘good luck.’ An audience member asked Peterson about the National Animal Identification System. Peterson said he’s not sure it’s the No. 1 fight he wants to take on at this time.

“The United States will probably have to have NAIS if it wants to be in export markets, he said, and if a terrorist introduces Foot and Mouth Disease in this country, the U.S. will wish it had NAIS.

This I want to watch. It's going to be a fight within the agricultural community--Obama doesn't/shouldn't have a dog in the fight.

Obama's Rural Change Page

From, Obama's new web site, here's the link for rural issues.

(Don't get all excited, I think they just copied the rural page from their campaign website, not that there's anything wrong with that.)

What Is Moore's Law for Genomes?

Recently had a DNA test run by for genealogical purposes, so I'm following news on the genome side a bit more closely these days. In IT there's something known as Moore's law, which talks about the rate at which technology improves (doubling every 18 months). In genome decoding, there seems to be something similar going on, according to this Technology Review article:

  • first genome = $300 million
  • James Watson's genome = $1-2 million
  • Yoruba man's genome = $250,000

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The 30-Year Bond

Remember when the Bush Treasury killed the 30-year bond? Those were the days when people worried about budget surpluses forever and what would happen as the debt was reduced.
Calculated Risk talks here about the problems of financing the debt in today's environment. One thing that strikes me is the supply of treasury bonds is going to expand greatly. That means the price is going to go down, meaning the effective interest rate goes up. That can put President Obama back in the vicious circle we had in the late 80's--high interest rates mean the budget cost of financing the debt rises, making it all the more difficult to balance income and outgo.

A Role for Newspapers

One problem with blogs and online journalism is, how do you preserve memories? You buy a newspaper for historic dates, like 11/4/2008. See Joel Achenbach.

Good Advice for the New President

We may have shortages of many things, but advice for the new President is not one of them. Here's a bit from a piece in Government Executive
The new president and his appointees must embrace the career executive corps and effectively engage it if they are to meet those challenges. The almost 7,000 career federal executives, with an average of 26 years of experience, competed for their jobs and were selected on merit. They are an absolutely essential link between any administration's policies and agency implementation at every stage. Perhaps most important, they are the key to mobilizing the 1.8 million federal civilian employees (and millions more contractor staff) to carry out both initiatives and reforms of existing programs.
Who wrote it? Only the most objective of people, Carol Bonosaro, who is president of the SES organization.

There's probably a law of economics: the supply of advice rises as the time available to consume it declines;

Prop 2 Passes

Proposition 2 in California, requiring more space for animals (mostly hens), passed.

Speculation Begins: Payment Limitation

The prospect of a new administration always brings a lot of spin and speculation, most of which is worth very little. Sen. Grassley speculates on one of his favorite ideas, as reported by Keith Good at Farm Policy.

Payment Limits

Chris Clayton reported yesterday at the DTN Ag Policy Blog that, “An advocate for tougher payment limits, Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, looked at the glass half-full when he was asked about what he would expect to happen next year in Congress, particularly given that Democrats are expected in the elections to expand their majorities in the House and Senate.

More Democrats in Congress could likely increase the likelihood that farm payment caps could be tighter. McCain and Obama backed efforts by Grassley and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., to lower payment limits to $250,000. Grassley said hopes that the payment cap would come up in the budget discussions, as it has in the last three years.

“‘If it does come up, I would think it would have a good chance of passage, considering how bad the budget situation is,’ Grassley said in a weekly conference call with reporters Tuesday. ‘They are going to look for every way they can to save money, and particularly Obama during the debates said he was going to go through a line-by-line approach. Well, this is one very obvious line where over the course of 10 years, somewhere between $600 million and $1.3 billion can be saved. I would think he would be looking at it and of course he would have bi-partisan support for it.’

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Predictions Via Blogger--Followup

On May 30, 2008 I posted the following:

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.

Markets in Everything

I'm stealing from Marginal Revolution, but from the Left Coast (SF/Berkley) comes My Farm
which will farm your backyard. No kidding--it provides a CSA type contract using your backyard. Personally, I sometimes think the health advantages of locavore/organic gardening probably accrue more to the people who grow the food, rather than those who eat it.


Cindy Skrzycki in the Washington Post has a piece on organic dairying and the USDA regulations (basically requiring "organic" dairies to put their cows to pasture 30 percent of the year. That seems an easy requirement, we went from May to October in upstate NY.)

I found this bit to be revealing:

"Barbara Robinson, who oversees the National Organic Program at USDA, said the proposal is expansive because the agency wanted to lay out as many options as possible for the organic industry.

"We have no hidden agenda," she said, adding that she hopes a final rule will be published in the spring. "It's their rule, their industry and their marketing claim."

What's happening here is true of many programs--the government runs a program for and on behalf of a small group of people, those whose life is tied up with the program. After all, how many people really care whether the pasture requirement is 30 percent or 50 percent? The dairymen and a few organic activists. The rest of us will decide whether to buy milk labeled "organic" based on our evaluations (price, perceived health benefits, perceived animal care values, etc.). This dynamic, though, works across the board in government. It accounts for "earmarks" and lots of "waste" and "fraud", much of which is in the eye of the beholder. The ordinary citizen will perceive things to be waste which would astound the person who's "into" the program.

The Amish and Voting

Slate has a piece on the Amish and their voting, or non-voting. She doesn't mention that the Amish don't vote for their bishops, they choose them by lot. (Makes sense, if you believe that God's will rules everything, let Him choose the bishop. It's also egalitarian, which is also part of their ethos.)

Vote, If You Haven't Already

And after you vote, read how our forefathers (some of them) voted at this article,
including John Adams take on women voting and Ben Franklin's take on jackasses. Hat tip--Ancestry Weekly Journal.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Whoops, Mr. McKibben

Bill McKibben reviews Tom Friedman's new book in the New York Review of Books, finding it good but lacking in urgency. But these words, in the light of oil <$65 a barrel, look odd:
There's one other odd thing about this book—it's out of date even before it's published. Though Friedman follows some trends right up through the summer of 2008 (he has reports from June of this year about trends in Egyptian television, for instance), he doesn't even mention the largest story of the year, and indeed the dominant new trendline of our time: the sharply rising cost of oil. Though recently off its peaks, the price of oil has risen fast enough to dramatically change the way Americans behave, and indeed how we think about the world.

Ike, Roads, Archives, and My Grandparents

The National Archives has an RSS feed of a daily document from their files. (Three days ago it was a photo of John and Caroline Kennedy visiting their father in the Oval Office. ) Today it is this:
Dated November 3, 1919, this is Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s report on the Transcontinental Motor Convoy. Setting out from Washington, DC, on July 7, 1919, the Convoy was a test by the U.S. War Department to see if the country’s roads could handle long-distance movements of mechanized army units. Eisenhower’s experience during the expedition would later play a role in his support of the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 while President.
Ike apparently found the roads to be terrible. I was struck by this, because some letters of my grandparents to my aunt (then a missionary in China) reported on their travels from Minneapolis to upstate New York (my father's farm) and back. They drove, ministers then being somewhat higher on the socio-economic order than mainstream Protestants are today, they owned a car. And they preferred it to taking the train, so it couldn't have been too bad. Of course, in those days civilization, as represented by the cities in the American and National baseball leagues, was north of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Mississippi. And the roads connected civilization--once Ike got into the Plains states, it was a tough slog.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Identifying Voters, Taxpayers, and Patients

There's a sudden spurt of interest in going to a national voter-registration system. See Kevin Drum, Matt Yglesias, and Reihan Salam.

So it's time for me to renew my plea to do away with Social Security numbers. Implement a system that identifies eligible voters, potential patients (based on the recent RAND study) and taxpayers but at the same time phases out the use of SSN's. I'm convinced we could come up with a system that increases the safeguards for each person's privacy, gives people much more control over how their data is used and to whom it is available, and improves efficiency.

The key model is the virtual credit card number, not the one you're used to using but the one VISA offers which few people use. Most people give merchants their credit card number, which can be risky. But you can choose to have VISA provide a number that works only for the transaction, or the vendor. See this. Adapt the same principle and you can have a government-validated identification number for each employer-employee relationship, each patient-healthcare provider relationship, and each voter-voting district relationship; each different, each safeguarded, and none requiring an SSN.

Seems to me if you point out to reasonable people that they already have a unique identifier (their email address) and we get rid of the SSN it's a reasonable deal.

Next Secretary of Agriculture, Take Two

This Politico article mentions Gov. Vilsack and Rep. Collin Peterson as possible Obama Secretaries. I must say, I don't see a whole lot of diversity in the potential officials, but Obama hasn't, like Clinton, promised a Cabinet that looks like America.

Apples and Rocks

Many years ago when I was maybe 8 or 10 one fall evening I formed a temporary alliance with another neighborhood kid against two other kids (which represented the total number of kids within 2-3 years of me in the neighborhood). There was a creek running down the hill, with a field on one side and houses on the other side. There were one or more apple trees near the houses, and a handful of trees bordering the edge of the field. So our conflict escalated from name calling to throwing fallen apples back and forth at each other. Mostly you can dodge an apple, and if you get hit, it's not all that bad. Of coure, the problem comes when you run out of apples on the ground handy to throw. Then you have to run back to retrieve apples from further away, then dash forward to throw them, and repeat the process. It's easy in the adrenaline rush to move from fallen apples farther away to stones right handy on the ground. So soon we were tossing stones.

Don't remember how it ended, no big damage done. And none of us was ever elected President of the United States.

Saturday, November 01, 2008