Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Grassley Dislikes FSA's Reg

According to Chris Clayton, Sen. Grassley "wants Vilsack to establish a tighter management test for defining "actively engaged" in farming than the details posted Monday by USDA in the Federal Register."

The example in the reg seemed to me to be unrealistic (a portion of the example):

"With this rule, each of the stockholders in this example would be required to establish that their respective contribution of active personal management was made on a regular basis, and was identifiable and documentable as separate and distinct from the other stockholders of the entity. For example, stockholder B
could represent through copies of signed purchase orders that stockholder B was individually responsible for obtaining and purchasing all inputs for the farming operation on behalf of the Corporation. Stockholder C could represent through signed contracts and delivery agreements with grain elevators and a cotton gin that stockholder C was individually responsible for the marketing of all commodities produced by the Corporation’s farming operation. Stockholder D could represent through copies of payroll records that stockholder D was individually responsible for the supervision of all hired labor utilized by the Corporation’s farming operation."
I wouldn't own shares in a corporation where there was more than one manager. Of course, I've no experience in this area so my opinion is worth less than nothing. I might guess, however, one problem is married couples, where you might expect to have some joint management. But writing regulations which distinguish a married couple from a legal entity is difficult (not to mention the reality of unmarried couples, straight and gay).

Pun of the Day

From Harold Meyerson in the Post:
"Thereafter, as one giant institution after another tottered under the weight of dubious deals, the administration tossed ideology out the window and funneled money to the banks.

Laissez faire be damned, the ideologues concluded: When handed a Lehman, make Lehman aid."

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Blast from the Past--Coal Furnaces

The NY Times has an article suggesting that coal-fired stoves are gaining in popularity, inasmuch as coal is 1/3 to 1/2 the price of oil. It triggers memories, as our farmhouse had a coal burning stove (provided hot water as well) and a coal furnace (hot air). I note from the pictures and description that modern technology must have improved the stoves--where our anthracite coal was in lumps maybe the size of an egg (extra large), coal now is crunched down into thumbnail size nuggets. And where we had a coal scuttle to feed the stove, now there's some sort of automatic feed. The stove-owner says he has to replenish the coal storage bin and take out ash every couple days. We had to feed the stove several times a day, being sure at night to close down the damper and top it off so the fire would last the night.

Starting a fire in the stove was an exercise, first paper, then small kindling wood, then larger chunks, then a few pieces of coal to catch on. Mom was skilled at this, the rest of us not so much.

The greens, like Treehugger, predictably don't like the idea of expanding use of coal.

Impact of Payment Limitation Change

From the FSA interim final rule on payment limitation changes comes a conservative estimate of the economic impact:

The motivation for this change [in the farm bill] is twofold:
(1) Increase transparency by allocating payments made to farming entities to their members.
(2) Moderate payments by adding another layer of payment limits. For example, the 2008 Farm Bill maintains payment limits on the corporations themselves and adds additional limits on the owners of farming corporations.

USDA will be required to track payments made to entities, such as farming corporations, to the owners of those entities. Such tracking is called direct attribution. Both entities and their owners will now have payment limits. Direct attribution will involve extensive USDA staff resources, and consequently cost, in the implementation phase and has the potential for some reduction in Government outlays. Reductions in outlays will diminish as farmers reorganize their operations in order to capture the highest possible payments. Due to uncertainty about the costs it is difficult to estimate annual impacts.
Seems to me at one point USDA analysts were using a figure of about $125 million as the impact of payment limitations. The statement above is perhaps more realistic, as it explicitly admits that farmers will reorganize their operations.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming

That's the title of a fine movie from Cold War days; put it on your Netflix queue. As I've written before, I always anticipated adverse impacts on US field crops from an expansion of agriculture in the former USSR countries. Having predicted this, not in writing, on and off for the last 20 years, maybe I'll be able to claim 20/20 foresight. Via Farm Policy:
"With respect to agricultural trade and grains, Tom Polansek reported in today’s Wall Street Journal that, “The Black Sea region has muscled its way into the exclusive club of the world’s top wheat exporters and is expected to continue stealing business away from its most prominent member, the U.S.

FSA Regulations--

FSA's promised interim final rules were published today in the Federal Register (filed Dec. 23): DCP (and ACRE)and payment limit pdf. I note the latter document includes some examples, as Chris Clayton at the DTN blog wanted.

Most Dumbfounding Sentence Today

From John at Powerline:
"I don't think that anyone actually does believe that the planet is threatened by global warming. I think that was just an excuse--like the global cooling scare of a few decades ago--for centralizing control over the economy in the government."

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Waiting for Obama's Beard

Our President-elect seems to be imitating Lincoln, right from his announcement of his candidacy, through the train trip to DC and swearing in using the Bible Lincoln used. All of which leaves one question: when will Obama grow the beard?

(BTW, I didn't realize Lincoln was then the youngest man elected to the Presidency.)

Friday, December 26, 2008

PC [Ownership]

Which has the most PC's per 100 people: Mauritius, Costa Rica, Slovenia, Italy, Mongolia, Russia?

Which has the fewest PC's?

Answers: Slovenia has the most, Russia the fewest. According to Treehugger.

Who Knew?

"Santa Claus lives at 14th and Independence Ave. USDA says the ACRE program will use market prices from 2007 and 2008 for its two year average price computation. That means higher price guarantees in the ACRE program than if 2006 and 2007 prices had been used. ACRE is an option to the FSA direct and counter-cyclical payment programs." From farmgate.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Those Special Interests and Public Data

One of the things that's problematic these days is the line between public data and non-public data. Obama ran on transparent government, meaning government data should be freely available. But you run into problems, as is illustrated in the following, when private interests have found a way to exploit public data and sell it, or perhaps some farmers are trying to claim a privacy interest:
"If you are an FSA/NRCS/RD employee or have an E-Authentication account, go directly to the USDA Geospatial Data Gateway to order the Common Land Unit (CLU) data. Be sure to click on the Login menu item for the E-Authentication.
Please be advised that with the enactment of The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, Title I - Commodity Programs, Subtitle F - Administration, Section 1619 on May 22, 2008, the Farm Service Agency (FSA) is no longer allowed to make the geospatial data, including access to the Common Land Unit records, available to the public, even through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Section 1619 is an Exemption 3 statute that prohibits FSA from sharing this data with the public."
This isn't an "earmark", mandating the spending of taxpayer money on a particular project, but it works the same, because a narrow interest is being served without a proper debate.

A Sentimental Tale for the Holidays

My wife and I got the first DVD from the TV series made in 1979 called "Backstairs at the White House", based on the book by Lillian Rogers Park see her NY Times obit [note, not one of the Times' permalinks, but a query to their archives --Nov 12, 1997]. She was the daughter of a black maid at the White House, starting 1912, who herself later came to work at the White House.

It's affecting because the makers of the series didn't know of Obama, but we do. (It sort of follows a Wil Haygood piece in the Post, focused on a butler, still living.) Not great TV, too much exposition and too many two-dimensional characters, but it's history. And it's rare that we see that on the screen.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Burrowing in at Farm Credit Administration

This announcement of the new PR man for the Farm Credit Administration hows how politics is played in DC. (Technically it's not burrowing, because the guy wasn't in government when appointed, but it's a cause where his "power" (or his "rabbi") has just enough clout left to get him a job. (That's being cynical, because Hastert resigned in Nov. 2007, over a year ago, but I'm feeling cynical as I write.)

Carrots, Sticks, and Rewarding Conservation

Here's an interesting piece, via grist, on the problems of using "carrots". I'd extend the problem to conservation measures on farms. If you have, as you do, a range of farmers, from those who are operating responsibly (i.e., taking measures to reduce erosion) to those who are not, issuing carrots poses big problems. Either you give carrots to everyone who meets a standard, thus not getting much bang for your buck because you aren't changing the behavior of the good farmers, or you give carrots only to those bad farmers who become good, which is unfair to those who have been good all the time.

See the Bible and the prodigal son for the resentments this can cause.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Are Farmers Rich?

All depends on your definition. If you look at Census data, there are about 1 million people employed in farming, forestry, and fishing with a median earning of %16,700, which is above the $11K for food service but below the rates for other occupations.

(It probably all is a matter of definitions, with Census and ERS definitions differing.)

Bureaucracy at DHS

The New Republic has an article by Jeffrey Rosen on DHS:

"Chertoff hasn't settled into an office partly because the six-year-old Department of Homeland Security (DHS) still has no permanent, consolidated headquarters. Instead, the unwieldy amalgam of 22 separate federal agencies operates out of 70 buildings at 40 different locations in the Washington area. And the lack of a real home is just the beginning of the department's bureaucratic problems. The most recent survey by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management on the job satisfaction of federal employees in 36 agencies ranked Homeland Security last or near last in every category. Meanwhile, officials from the Pentagon who have tried to do business with DHS complained to me of organizational chaos at the department. Homeland Security employees, they said, are often unaware of overlapping initiatives championed by their colleagues, and even by Chertoff himself."
Rosen's article is anti-DHS, but I think that's short-sighted. DHS has been established for years now, so it's not going to be easy to undo it (which might have been possible within 12-15 months after the event). And the quoted bit points to one of the problems of any reorganization: you have to worry about logistics. Where is the headquarters, who sits where, how does the paper flow, who handles budget allotments, who does payroll, etc. It takes years to get things running pretty smoothly. (Sometimes it never does--I saw one passing reference to General Motors during recent discussion of the bailout which suggested the reorganization which incorporated Buick into GM (back in the teens or 20's?) never did meld it into GM.

All of the above is not saying I agreed with how they reorganized, but that Secretary Napolitano and Obama should be careful in what they do. (And Obama should press the Dems in Congress to redo the committees overseeing DHS.)

No Cuts in Middle Managers?

That's the position as reported in Government Executive of something called the "Government Managers Coalition".

They've got some valid points in dissing Al Gore's initiative in the 1990's. The problem is reorganization from the top will be resisted. It's the old story--people like the way things have been.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

What's This About--Enviros and USDA?

Beats me why Secretary Schafer would announce creation of a new USDA office about 32 days before he leaves office. Actually, it's the "intention to establish a new USDA Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets and the creation of a federal government-wide Conservation and Land Management Environmental Services Board to assist the Secretary of Agriculture in the development of new technical guidelines and science-based methods to assess environmental service benefits which will in turn promote markets for ecosystem services including carbon trading to mitigate climate change."

I guess my senility is advancing--I used to be good in deciphering bureaucratese. I think what it's saying is USDA is going to try to figure out when farmers can claim they created a carbon offset that can be traded. I wonder if Vilsack was consulted?

Merry Christmas to FSA

My condolences to current FSA employees in DC charged with implementing the farm bill. Looks to me as if, between Congress and your bosses, you got stuck with some lumps of coal for Christmas.

Chris Clayton at DTN/Progressive Farmer gripes at you for announcing the interim final rule for payment limitation (actively engaged and AGI) changes and ACRE implementation on Friday afternoon. Looking at the notices FSA just issued for 2009 DCP signup and advance payments, and on pay limit, I can only guess the amount of work put in already. And remembering the events in 1986/87 when the actively engaged rules were first attempted and the problems of training a new administration, I can only pity you. Enjoy your Christmas, because the next year is going to be grim.

Calories and Nicotine

I posted yesterday marveling at how far the country had come in 50 years, from ads on Christmas specials promoting cartons of cigarettes as stocking stuffers to now. Today the NYTimes has an article following up on the posting of calorie counts in restaurants and food vendors. It feels to me similar to the time when the Surgeon General's cancer warning was first printed on cigarette packs. While it took a while for cigarettes to become socially disapproved, it happened. I predict the same will happen for calories. Hope I'll be around 50 years from now to see it.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Vilsack and Conservation Subsidies

This Politico story says Vilsack and wife got $42,782 in farm subsidies in 2000-2006, linking to the EWG database. When you go there, you see they've got a Conservation Reserve Program contract, accounting for the payments. (Which is also described lower in the story.) So the question is, are those "subsidies"?

Merriam-Webster says: subsidy=" a grant or gift of money: as a: a sum of money formerly granted by the British Parliament to the crown and raised by special taxation b: money granted by one state to another c: a grant by a government to a private person or company to assist an enterprise deemed advantageous to the public."

So, researchers who get grants to study cancer cures are being "subsidized"? Or Pell grants are "subsidies"?

Technically, the Vilsacks have a contract, it's a quid pro quo. I suppose cancer researchers and Pell grantees also have conditions. I'm not sure what converts the Vilsack's contract into a "subsidy" when a cancer researcher is not normally seen as "subsidized". One might suppose the fact that there's no free market operating, but CRP contracts are competitive, as are NIH grants. (If I recall, there's a bid process where farmers offer land which is evaluated according to criteria as to the relative importance of taking it out of annual crop production.)

I think the bottom line is CRP payments have been tainted by the other payments FSA issues, many of which are more appropriately labeled "subsidies" (i.e., no competition) even though they all are contracts.

How Far We've Come--Tobacco

Listening to a 1956 Bing Crosby xmas special on Sirius/XM--sponsored by Chesterfield, with Bing pushing cartons of smokes for stocking stuffers just before launching into "Silent Night.."

What Would Harvey Do?

Wife and I saw "Milk" yesterday, the biopic of Harvey Milk, gay activist and martyr. It's well-done and Sean Penn probably deserves an Oscar nomination.

Meanwhile, Obama is catching heat for having Rev. Warren deliver the invocation at his inaugural.

Based on the picture, "what would Harvey do"? Invite Warren. Accept his support on issues where you agree (i.e., AIDS in Africa) and fight like hell on issues you disagree, but always talk.

Most Surprising Sentence Today

"We find evidence that constituent interests and special interests influence voting patterns during the crisis." from an academic paper looking at how people in Congress voted on two of the big bailout bills in the last couple months, relayed with commentary by Henry at the Monkey Cage.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Globalization and Locavores

Stumbled across this quote in Recollections of Troubled Times in Irish Politics By Timothy Daniel Sullivan: "Recollections of Troubled Times in Irish Politics By Timothy Daniel Sullivan: Sullivan is quoting an Irish nationalist, circa 1845+ [had to repunctuate the context while bringing it over from Google book search).
"When an Irish gentleman rises in the morning, he is lathered with a brush and shaved with a razor made in England, he is probably washed with a soap and combed with a comb made in England, for though soap and combs are manufactured at home one trade is conducted with no spirit and the other is nearly extinct. He is braced with suspenders of sitk Indian rubber or doe skin brought from Lancashire. He puts on a stock or neck tie woven by Englishmen in Manchester. His shirt was probably sewed in England, for thousands of dozens of shirts, shirt fronts, and shirt collars made from Irish linen by English hands are sold in this country, the very studs of mother of pearl bone or metal were fabricated in England. His stockings are perhaps Irish, for the Balbriggan stockings are the most durable in the world, but his vest came from Leeds, his coat by bare chance may be Irish, but the velvet on the collar the serge in the lining and the silk that sewed it belong to trades which have long disappeared from Ireland. His pocket handkerchief came from India or Glasgow, and if he is effeminate enough to perfume it, the perfume was made in England or France and sold at thousands of pounds annually to Ireland. His shoes may be sewed at home but probably the leather and certainly the bindings come from England. And yet there is nothing on this man from the shoe tie upwards that could not be made at home before the new year dawns"

I think one can sense in the passage the same particularistic emotion often found in today's anti-globalist, pro-locavore writings, even though the focus is not food, but clothing.

Consultants and FSA Reorganization

I missed this when it was initially put up. But I'll comment now on a couple things:

USDA-FSA Organizational Assessment, Findings and Recommendations, Executive Summary:
"Each division has a Director, Deputy Director, Assistant to the Director and one (1)
to two (2) Branch Chiefs, representing a total of nine (9) managers to supervise 20 employees (authorized FTE ceiling). "(page 16)
Currently, all three HQ divisions of DAFP (CEPD, PECD, and PSD) have their own automation unit structured to provide user requirements and interface with IT programmers in Kansas City ITSD. Each division, in essence, recreates a workflow process for new programs based only on the work done within the division without the benefit of drawing from previously designed programs that have been developed elsewhere in DAFP. This lack of integration and synergy has led to redundancies and inefficiencies in program development, as well as created imbalances in workload among the automation units within the various divisions and complications for the
Kansas City ITSD staff. " (page 26)

"almost all employees responded that they saw little connection between their work and the agency Strategic Plan. Many managers expressed frustration that they could not see the direction in which FSA is headed either as an agency or in their own program beyond the mission of “making sure that farmers and ranchers received payments on time.”

"We are confident that FSA top leadership understands the importance of such workforce communication and is taking the necessary steps to ensure that a communication plan and process is in place to educate employees regarding the
Assessment process and outcomes" (page 63)
Things I found interesting:
  • there's almost no reference to the organizational environment (except for USDA IT). The study assumes the existing relationships between FSA, its sister agencies, and the department. That's an assumption Secretaries Madigan, Espy, and Glickman would not have permitted during my time.
  • there's no serious discussion of past attempts to reorganize, either within FSA or in USDA. As a failed historian, I believe those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.
  • it's disappointing but not surprising that USDA at the department level ranks 215 out of 222 in terms of morale. I suspect it reflects the relative unimportance of the department vis a vis the agencies.
  • there's almost no reference to the political environment. As FSA is a political agency that makes the assessment unrealistic. (This may have been in the charge to the consultants who did the report.) For example, I'd interpret the recommendations as something state executive directors would resist. Because most SED's are politically connected, that means many influential members of Congress would resist.
  • I'm bothered by what seems to be a continuing split between the IT operations supporting the Farm Loan programs (old FmHA) and the FArm Program side (old ASCS). I'd make the common provisions division serve all FSA (and NRCS)
  • the lack of perceived connection between day to day work and the Strategic Plan I see as confirmation of my disrespect of Strategic Plans.
  • the first quote confirms my disrespect of Al Gore's Reinventing Government initiative to reduce the number of managers.
  • the last quote shows, perhaps, a naive faith in FSA management.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

FSA Computers, Again

FSA announced a new IT officer, with these words:
This position has become an important element of FSA's Modernize and Innovate the Delivery of Agricultural Systems (MIDAS) project. Over $300 million will be invested in the coming years to upgrade existing technology and streamline the Commodity Credit Corporation's (CCC) program delivery business processes. Gwinn will manage 630 federal employees and contractors and will oversee the implementation of off-the-shelf software systems via web-enabled network access.
I worked with the previous CIO, once upon a time. MIDAS is one of OMB's high risk projects.

Vilsack as Secretary

Lot's of commentary on the appointment, some pleased, some not. I won't bother to link to them. But I'll repeat my comment somewhere, perhaps on Ethicurean, suggesting the people who are disappointed should shift their focus to the under secretaries, the assistants, and the deputies, and the agency administrators and deputies (or whatever new-fangled titles they've come up with these days). There's lots of power distributed through USDA, even though the laws limit the discretion and the lords of Congress enforce the law with a capricious hand. Vilsack needs to make gestures towards the foodies and the greens with some of the lower appointments so it's important for those groups to lobby for the best and most effective person they can get.

Mobility and Bureaucracy

From a long interesing post by Reihan Salam on David Brooks, Gladwell, upward mobility, with this observation on American bureaucracy:
There’s something else that comes to mind, namely that our mental map of society only rarely captures the gritty terrain. I’m not sure I can articulate this very well, but I’ll try. My mother is a health worker and my father is an accountant who works pretty much exclusively with tiny immigrant-owned businesses and recent arrivals. A lot of the work he does is unpaid, e.g., helping people figure out how to navigate the social services bureaucracy, etc. Through both of them, I’ve learned a lot about the way the plans of the administrative state mesh with the “illegible” ethnic economy of the city. The most virtuous, hard-working people, it often seems, are the ones who most aggressively game the system, which they see in amoral, impersonal terms (which makes sense, as I’m calling it “the system”). Just as much of the prosperity of the Washington metropolitan area is parasitic and illusory — aha! we’ve turned an undesirable civil service job into a lucrative contractor position! — it’s hard not to think that the skids of upward mobility are occasionally greased by fraud. This is one reason my father has always believed that the IRS needs a much larger budget, both to aggressively audit rich tax cheats (he hates them) and also to curb low-level abuse that undermines trust in “the system.” Ronald Reagan blasted welfare queens. And yet Medicaid mills have helped build the fortunes of plenty of otherwise upstanding citizens. Of course I think this is a bad thing. But it’s complicated. The American administrative state isn’t Suharto’s Indonesia — but in some places and times, it can get badly frayed.
I'm not sure how one addresses the problem he touches on here. And I'm not sure it's simply a bureaucracy that seems inscrutable, so it's okay to defraud it. My impression is that farmers think FSA bureaucrats are pretty good (they should, because they're mostly neighbors) but certainly a minority think it's okay to evade rules (yes, I'm thinking payment limitation and eligibility requirements) just the same.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Earliest Hiring of an Attorney in an Administration

The news reports Rahm Emanuel has hired a lawyer. This must be a record--earliest hiring of a personal attorney as a result of a "political scandal". Not a record the political system should be proud of.

Clinton, Obama, and the White House

If memory serves, Bill Clinton ran against George H.W. Bush on many issues. One of the smaller ones was the size of Bush's White House. Supposedly it was too large, too autocratic and subordinated the cabinet members too much. So Bill promised to reduce the size of the White House staff by 25 percent. Carrying out the promise in his first term caused many contortions and much confusion, particularly as he also wanted to set up an economic council (under Rubin) as part of his "it's the economy, stupid".

Cut to 16 years later. Obama made no such promise, even though Dems have made a general attack on the Bush presidency for being too autocratic. As I sit here watching the news, it seems to me, without proof, that Obama is expanding the number and reach of people in his White House office. If true, a couple observations:
  • it might be a way to finesse policy differences, by giving each position a seat at the table. That would fit with Obama's perceived pattern of hoping to reconcile differences.
  • it is also a step away from "cabinet government", power moving from the departments to the White House.
  • certainly it is another layer of bureaucracy, posing another challenge to Mr. Emanuel.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Most Farmers Aren't

From the latest ERS pub (page 3): "about 80 percent of total farm household income is derived from off-farm employment" (of course, I'm being too cute with the title--in many households the woman is employed off-farm and the man is farming).

Sunday, December 14, 2008

One Problem for Black Landowners

One problem for blacks in maintaining farms is indicated by this Federal Register notice (Hat Tip--Sustainable Ag Coalition):
The Rural Business-Cooperative Service (RBS) announces the availability of approximately $230,000 in funds for fiscal year (FY) 2009 for cooperative agreements to develop and implement pilot programs aimed at: (1) Preventing and alleviating the problems facing African Americans in rural areas that are involved with real estate with clouded title due to unresolved interests of generations of heirs (otherwise known as ‘‘heir properties’’); (2) establishing an outreach/educational program that will assist farmers and homeowners with heir property issues in expanding ownership; and (3) enabling farming heir property owners to develop economically viable agricultural operations and accrue homeownership.
Having clear title is prerequisite to getting financing. I assume the problems behind the clouded title were landowners dying intestate, with the descendants never resolving the title. That's something not likely to show up in history books, or in lawsuits like Pigford. See this piece from the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. (Or Google "heir property").

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Contrarian: Farm Programs and Small Farms

One piece of conventional wisdom, among the greens and rapidly spreading among the chattering classes, is that farm programs aid big farms. This is wisdom that isn't true. The following are true, at least mostly so:
  • "farm programs" aid field crop farmers, not fruit, vegetable, or livestock farms
  • "payment limitations" are often evaded, so are not very effective in limiting farm program payments to large farmer
  • "farm program payments" often go to landowners who do no physical "farming"
  • "farm program payments" are often issued in the names of legal entities, not living persons
  • small farmers need help more than large farmers.
What you can't say is that "farm programs" distort or change the pecking order of farms for any given commodity. The big corn farms today would be the big corn farms without any programs.

Tobacco Program Aided Small Farmers

The different farm programs are just that: different. So you can't take results from one and apply them to another. But a post mortem on the now defunct tobacco quota program suggests it, at least, helped small farmers. We didn't run parallel tests, but looking at what happened after the program ended is suggestive.

Washington Times has a story on tobacco growing in the U.S as of now. When the program ended, many small farms went out of business, at least out of tobacco, to be replaced by fewer bigger growers. There also may have been an impact on smoking--the price has gone up so smoking has gone down. The program also operated as a price umbrella for developing countries, which could undercut US on price. Now we're exporting more.

No "Cow Tax"

Per EPA via Brownfield.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Clones aren't in the headlines much anymore. Sara at Down to Earth linked to this institutional video from an ag cloning company to give a glimpse of the people in the business. My reaction: I hadn't realized it had become so routine (at least for horses and cows).

Thoughts on CAFO's

Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO's) are a big topic these days, and will no doubt continue to be. I offer my thoughts:
  • the vegetarians point to CAFOs and say they're inherently cruel to animals, so people should eat vegetables. That's an extreme position, but it benefits from being logical and consistent.
  • animal rights people point to CAFOs and say, as currently operated, they're cruel, so we need legislation/constitutional provisions to provide more room for chickens, etc. Vegetarians can support such measures because it seems a step on the slippery slope to total banning. Possibly some changes, like the Florida and California initiatives, will relieve the public pressure and concern over mistreatment of animals.
  • good food people say CAFO's create the need to use antibiotics to fight disease and are otherwise dangerous (i.e., a breeding ground for MIRSA in some eyes).
  • locavores say CAFO's are not local.
  • neighbors say CAFO's pollute the air and water. Most notably, once a farming operation becomes so concentrated the resulting manure can't readily be used as fertilizer on the land, you get into waste lagoons and stream pollution.
I assume I wouldn't like a CAFO, having grown on a small dairy/poultry farm. But they result from the logic of economies of scale, which seem to work as well in agriculture as elsewhere. Despite all the efforts of the green community, I'd expect CAFO's to have a history similar to that of other growing industries. Where are the "dark, satanic mills" of yesteryear? Exxon, US Steel, GM, ATT, all had checkered histories in youth, but became more house-broken and acceptable to polite society as they aged, and as activists got government to impose regulations. So too with CAFO's. This domestication process will be aided by the greens:
  • CAFO's are a lot more susceptible to environmental regulation. It's a whole lot easier to regulate one 40,000 cow dairy farm than 400 100 cow farms (for one thing, 400 dairies have a lot more votes, as well as being more familiar and more attractive).
  • CAFO's can probably make more use of new technology. See this link on a $1 mill methane digester at an Oregon dairy. And this Brownfield piece on putting feed lots indoors. Banks will make loans more easily and the government will (until Obama's Secretary takes charge) make EQIP grants.
So, should I live another 20 years, I'd expect to see lots of CAFO's, but I'd also expect to see each one having a full-time job dealing with government regulation.

The Rational Market

Via Marginal Revolution, Virginia Postrel's very interesting discussion of academic experiments with markets. Bubbles are almost inevitable.

Graphs Are Not Facts

I stumbled across a graph of mile driven in a green site. Here Then there was one here.

And here from the gov. And this one. All the same subject, but not the same statistic, and giving different impressions of reality. Reminds me of a classic book on How to Lie With Statistics, which everyone should read around freshman year in high school.

Finally I'm Right

Ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union, I've been figuring ag prices would be pressured as Russian farmers became more efficient. Fortunately, I've never put that prediction in writing because I would have been wrong more often than not. But here's an indication the basic thought wasn't bad (via farmpolicy):

(In a related article regarding wheat, Reuters news reported yesterday that, “Russia faces a grain glut in 2009 as it prepares to harvest another bumper crop, putting domestic prices under pressure and overwhelming storage capacity already stretched by this year’s crop, the biggest in about 15 years…[F]armers in Russia, the world’s fifth-largest grain grower and exporter last year, have invested in new technology and land to increase their harvests and take advantage of booming world commodity prices that have since plummeted sharply.”)

There's also a discussion of transition discussions on ag there.

Sign of the Times

Someone admits to a Ponzi scheme, not $50 million dollar Ponzi scheme, but a $50 billion Ponzi scheme, you'd think it'd be front page news on the Times and Post?

No, didn't even make the front business page of the Post. Unreal. (Did make the Times business page.)

Almost as unreal, the guy delayed confessing so he could spread a few hundred mill among friends and relatives.

FSA, Computers, and Obama

A short piece on FSA and computers from Hoosier Ag Today.

[Associate Admn] Keppy said educating the Obama transition team about computer system shortcomings was a major priority. “And it’s vital that we continue to upgrade and improve the technology that we have. I think it’s a big enough issue and I think the counties and states will make the new team very aware of the issue.”

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Washing Ziploc Bags--a Liberal Trait?

Must be. My wife and I do. And here's the lede from a Post profile of Eric Cantor:

They surround Eric Cantor, these Democrats and liberals.

Here at home, there's his live-in mother-in-law with her Sierra Club membership and her baffling habit of hand-washing Ziploc bags -- "I don't know if that's an environment thing," the incoming Republican House whip and conservative bulwark wonders aloud, flashing a hint of a perfect smile.
And it's obviously an oddball trait.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

When Does Horse-Trading Become Bribery

Eugene Volokh raises that issue in connectionwith Gov. Blago...'s arrest yesterday: sense is that political deals of the "I appoint your political ally to X and you appoint me to Y" variety are pretty commonplace, though perhaps done with more subtlety than seemed to be contemplated here. Should these deals indeed be treated as criminal bribery? Have they generally been so treated?
After all, another Illinois man made appointments to his cabinet as part of horse-trades (notably Simon Cameron, to Secretary of War in 1861).

Volokh doesn't refer to Gov. Siegelman's conviction on a similar count, covered in a Post story today. One person quoted in the story notes that Blagojevich was looking for personal gain, at least in part, which wasn't true for Siegelman.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

History and Food

Via John Phipps, the food timeline. May be better than wikipedia (see the tiramisu entry).

Obama's Choices

It seems to me Obama has many different choices, but one is whether to involve himself in the structure and operation of Congress. There are a couple of possible areas where he might be tempted:
  • in the advice and consent of the Senate to his judicial nominees. He could try for a deal to change the environment, to avoid the threat of "holds" and filibusters which have been used in the past several administrations. (Something like the gang of 14.)
  • in the handling of "earmarks" and Congressional micromanaging in appropriations.
In both cases the calculus is the same: do nothing and hope for support from Dems and moderate Republicans to get what you want, risking a decline of your power and support as the term goes on, or try for an early bipartisan deal and risk stirring up opposition from defenders of Congressional prerogative.

Another area might be governmental reorganizations crossing committee lines. The 9/11 commission's recommendations for realigning Congressional committees were never carried out.

I realize these aren't "Perils of Pauline", but for a political/government addict, they're close.

Stimulus Package

How people work. The Historical Commission in Ipswich last night reviewed plans for a bridge replacement. Apparently the project has been under consideration for years, moving slowly for various factors, including the proximity of the current bridge to some very old houses (like maybe the oldest house in New England). My theory is the prospect of getting some money out of the proposed stimulus package has focused the bureaucrats minds and speeded up the operation.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Can We Trust This President (Elect)?

If he lies to the public about smoking and fails to honor his promise to his wife? Link.

As someone who quit multiple times (the same number of times as I started to smoke), I know how hard it is. And I know the temptation to fudge, I've done that lots of time as well. Sometimes it's good to try to establish hostages to fortune--maybe Obama thought making a big deal out of quitting would help him quit.

So, I don't know the answer to my question.

A Politician Does Good for the World

Props to President Carter, for doing good:

Cases of Guinea worm disease — a horrifying infection that culminates in worms coming out of a victim's skin — have reached an all-time low worldwide, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter announced Friday.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Ag Secretaries Speak

I caught part of a rerun of the panel of ex-Secretaries of USDA, sponsored by Farm Journal, on C-Span. Some thoughts:

  • there's not much here to please the greens. As you might expect, I find confirmation here for my ideas--the limited power of USDA administrators to act as Michael Pollan or others would wish. Money, and therefore OMB, is the prime factor.
  • these are politicans, not administrators. Instead of the President saying "do X", and their saying: "yes sir, right away". they are operators. There were discussions of allying with other Secretaries, with members of the President's staff, of Congress in order to get one's way. There were a couple instances of a Secretary (Block and Glickman) admitting they worked around OMB (meaning, at least in theory, the President).
  • the political mindset showed in discussions of possible reorganization. Most seemed to accede with Yeutter that it's just too difficult, that it's better to try to get good people, that people make more of a difference than boxes on an organization chart. On that point, I disagree. As politicians, these Secretaries have a short term focus. As administrators, you should have a longer term focus. (In their defense, most of them had a deputy secretary who focused on day-to-day management and the nitty-gritty of organization.)
The discussion did cause me to wonder whether John Podesta is doing a boot camp for the new administration memebers, just to go through, for those without experience, the process of moving regulations, getting a budget approved, coordinating message management, working with the Hill, etc.

Prairie Potholes Vanishing

The receding glaciers of the ice age left behind blocks of ice (think icebergs in the ocean) which, when melted, formed prairie potholes in the Dakotas and MN. These depressions were wet, with the degree of water varying according to the weather from year to year. Dan Morgan writes in the Post that they're now being converted to cropland.

I'd debate the story title [Updated to clarify--Morgan points the finger at subsidized crop insurance, which is valid, but most people, as did I originally and as did all the comments at, will think first of direct payments], but more importantly I wonder about NRCS and the swampbuster provisions (which make people who drain wetlands ineligible for program benefits). If Morgan is right, either I misunderstand the current situation on wetlands or there's something else going on.

Nobel Don't Guarantee Good English

Via Greg Mankiw from an AP story:

Nobel economics prize winner Paul Krugman said Sunday that the beleaguered U.S. auto industry will likely disappear.

"It will do so because of the geographical forces that me [sic] and my colleagues have discussed," the Princeton University professor and New York Times columnist told reporters in Stockholm.

In Krugman's honor, I'm establishing a new label.

And a Merry Christmas to All

Erin's Christmas letter goes for the verities.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Transparency in FSA (Recommendations for FSA)

Obama's "Your Seat at the Table" is posting the documents they receive from groups who meet with the incoming team. Here's recommendations for FSA, vis a vis CRP. Basically, bigger and better CRP, go for "sodsaver" and improve conservation compliance are the big 3 recommendations from some conservation groups.

I find it interesting the groups are hesitant about the farm bill--they want a broader consensus about the risks and benefits of reopening the 2008 Farm bill. They also don't provide any tentative cost scoring, nor any ways of possibly getting the money under pay/go financing rules.

My sense is that they're talking a few billion dollars here.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Needed-- an Agricultural "Wire"

My wife and I have gotten into the HBO series "The Wire", set in drug-ridden Baltimore. We're midway through the second season, but from reading critics I understand Ed Burns and David Simon, the creators, each season focus their drama on the operations of one Baltimore institution. The second season is the Baltimore docks (containers). Some dock workers are involved in smuggling (drugs and prostitutes--which provides some drama), there's carry over from the first season's Westside drug gangs with Omar and Stringer Bell, there's father and son tensions. Along the way you get an understanding, which feels realistic, about how this section of the world operates. That's good, that's very good.

How does this tie to agriculture? At Down to Earth Sara mourned the growing disconnect between consumers and farmers. I'm not sure about the "growing" bit--the stereotype of the city slicker ignorant of the country and the country bumpkin who can outwit the city man has roots in the far past. But, after reading "Musings from a Stonehead", who was asked whether you couldn't have pork without killing the pig, anything that contributes to mutual understanding is good. (Even, as with The Wire, it involves lots of profanity and politically incorrect language.)

Some Days You Just Can't Win

USDA takes heat from commenters for being TOO green. (Proposing too restrictive rules on grazing days needed to qualify as "organic". I'm a bit bemused by those concerned when cows are out in the cold and rain. Granted, it lowers efficiency, but it's natural,
and isn't that what we're aiming at? And, as I used to tell my soft-hearted (non-farm reared wife) after all they have natural leather coats.)

Payment Limitation

Two DTN columns relating to payment limitation:

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Misleading Graphs

Having screwed up on turkey weights, I return to the fray with a graph from Sebastian Mallaby's oped in today's Post. He argues for government intervention in the short term, but for cutbacks and wiser spending in the long term. He has a graph showing the percentage government expenditures are of the total economy, going from 20 percent in 1947 to 33 percent today.

But during the Ford administration we first breached the 30 percent level (guessing, about 32 percent) and since Reagan we've been in the 30's (except 1999). So for 25 or more years the size of government hasn't increased. That's not the inference one would draw from his words.

The CSA Experience

The Post had a writer join a CSA this year, doing weekly reports on her experience. Wednesday she interviewed other participants and posted her thoughts and on the year. She and they are not uniformly favorable:
  • waste happens--too much produce at awkward times (vacations) or which doesn't please (beets)
  • guilt (knowing the farmer creates a personal tie and personal obligations)
  • risk (IMO this year had reasonable weather, though that may reflect poor memory) CSA's aren't uniformly successful--you take your chances.
So next year, her family is switching to a farmers' market.

Seems to me it encapsulates the trade-offs in CSA's. For a rigid personality (like me) who hates the unexpected and change, it's not a good choice. For someone who is more experimental, it may be. (Or maybe it's a question of age--the younger are more accepting but time leads you into ruts.)

How Soon They Forget--John Block

Agweb has an excerpt from a symposium with eight former Ag Secretaries:

“A Conversation with the Secretaries” was held Dec. 3 in Washington D.C., in conjunction with Farm Journal and Farm Foundation. Pictured, from left, Steve Custer, Farm Journal Publisher; Charlene Finck, Farm Journal President Editorial; Roger Bernard, Farm Journal Washington and Policy Editor; Michael Johanns, former secretary 2005 to 2007; Anne Veneman, former secretary 2001 to 2005; Dan Glickman, former secretary 1995 to 2001; Michael Espy, former secretary 1993 to 1994; Clayton Yeutter, former secretary 1989 to 1991; John Block, former secretary 1977 to 1981; Neil Conklin, Farm Foundation President; Sheldon Jones, Farm Foundation Vice President; and Mary Thompson, Farm Foundation Director of Communications.

John Block was Reagan's first Ag secretary, Bob Bergland was Carter's.

Ever Hear of Dean Foods?

Neither have I, but here's a long article in the Bangor newspaper on the Maine milk industry. And it mentions Dean Foods:
The report says that Dean Foods now controls around 40 percent of the nation’s fluid milk supply, 60 percent of all organic milk and 90 percent of soy milk. Consumers may not see Dean’s label in the dairy case, but the company owns or sells Borden, Garelick, Hershey’s fluid chocolate milk, Land O’Lakes, Verifine, Horizon Organic, Organic Cow of Vermont, Silk Soy milk and several dozen others.

Picking a Secretary of USDA

The Post has an article on USDA (food safety is the top priority according to GAO) and a sidebar for three candidates for Secretary: Gov. Sebelius, Charles Stenholm, and Dennis Wolff. Interesting choice for Obama, not that I know any of the candidates or their capacity, but when does ignorance stop a blogger?

Stenholm would be strongest in the area of reforming farm programs and reorganizing the county agencies, but he doesn't exactly fit Obama's agenda or public face. Nor is there a farm bill on schedule in 2009-12. Neither Wolff nor Sebelius would bring any expertise in dealing with Congress. So the choice: take a chance on someone strong who might go off the reservation, or do a figurehead like most previous Secretaries. "Figurehead" is too strong, but IMHO Obama would be wise to go that way--USDA is simply not that important on his priorities.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

A Concentration of Wealth in Tomatoes

From Ethicurean [senility approaches, corrected from "Epicurean" to "Ethicurean"], a piece on concentration in growing tomatoes. A portion:
Before World War II, there were commercial growers and canners in many states — including Delaware, Virginia, Utah, New Jersey and New York — and California produced only 20% of the nation’s tomatoes. Thanks to the development of both mechanical harvesting equipment and tomato varieties that can be picked by machine, the number rose to 50% in 1953, and reached 95% in 2007. (The 20% and 50% figures are from the “Oxford Companion to American Food,” the 95% figure is from the Chronicle.) There are several reasons for California’s dominance in the processed tomato business, with the biggest one being a climate that allows a far longer harvest period (90 days vs. 45 days) and is less hospitable to disease because of its low humidity and lack of summer rain.

The Potato Referundum

Via the Blog for Rural America, the Onion on the potato referendum. I can only say, someone at the Onion knows USDA.

(For those who may not be familiar, commodity referendums are one legacy of New Deal programs--essentially a way to cartelize agriculture, if, like Megan McArdle, you're anti New Deal.)

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

SNAP--Keep Up With the Times

You really should keep up with the good bureaucrats at USDA--don't call it the "food stamp program" any more, call it SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). (Of course, the FNS webmaster didn't change the path to the page.)

(Actually, it wasn't USDA which renamed it, but USDA's masters in Congress, as part of the 2008 farm bill.)

Unrealistic Expectations--Pollan

A delayed reaction to Professor Pollan, who opined at Grist:
The challenge is to align the goals of federal agricultural policy with the goals of public health, energy, and environmental policy (for the first time), and no one cabinet department has an interest in making those connections. The USDA is largely a captive of the farm lobby and can't be counted on to protect the public health when formulating farm policy; responsibility for food safety is, absurdly and fatally, divided between different agencies (with USDA charged with protecting meat; the FDA fruits and vegetables); jurisdiction over the environmental regulation of agriculture is similarly divided among the USDA, EPA and FDA. This balkanized approach suits the food industry, naturally, but it jeopardizes food security while making real reform impossible. Only when we have in place a White House adviser with the power to coordinate policies across the various relevant agencies and Cabinet departments will the government truly begin to represent the interests of America's eaters in its policies.
My opinion: For the first three sentences, Pollan is operating in the real world, although I'd quibble with some of his assertions. (For example, the "farm lobby" is splintered into many pieces, each trying to capture its own agency, but yes, it mostly represents the interests of producers, not of consumers.) The last sentence is where he gets unreal. USDA and FDA operate within their legislative authorities, as pushed by the various interest groups--i.e., the organic people push their legislation, etc. Because there's no legislative basis for his adviser and no support for establishing one there's no prospect this will work. The best an adviser could do is coordinate legislative and budget proposals, which is already the job of OMB.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Turkey Weights--I Was Wrong

I posted yesterday on turkey weights. I blew it, by being too quick to be critical and jumping to assumptions. The issue was "turkey weight"; what I failed to imagine was the difference between liveweight and dressed weight. Apparently the chart and article I criticized was relying on liveweight figures, not dressed. See this link, which I reached from Freakonomics. I should have thought of NASS stats, here.

My apologies to Mr. Madrigal.

I still wonder about the figures, but he reported them correctly. One thing he didn't note: the increase in price per pound for turkey over the last 30 years?


The (Un)Importance of Being USDA Secretary

Oscar Wilde's play culminates in the hero's realization of the importance of being earnest/Earnest; the greens need to learn the unimportance of being Secretary of Agriculture.

(I write after a few weeks of concern and agitation over who Obama's Secretary will be. The latest is this post at DTN: will animal rights be a top concern or will the Secretary roll over for GM crops? The first, of course, was the omnipresent Michael Pollan in the Times Magazine, on whose piece I've drafted many more comments than I've posted.)

But the reality is, in my experience, the Secretary:
  1. can't create a new program, only Congress can do that.
  2. can't move money from one program to another, only the appropriations committees can do that.
  3. can't reorganize the department, only Congress can do that (just ask Secretary Glickman, who spent much time and effort to prepare a combination of the administrative support personnel for NRCS, FSA, and RD, only to have Congress veto it).
  4. can't close offices (without time consuming negotiation and consultation with the affected member of Congress)
  5. can't talk to the public, without telling Congress first (okay, that's an exaggeration--the prohibition is not across the board).
  6. can try to sway Congress when the farm bill is being prepared (ask Venneman and Schafer how well that worked), unfortunately there's no farm bill due during Obama's term of office.
  7. is limited in what he or she can direct USDA employees to do (like proposing user fees).

See Sec. 712 of the Agricultural Appropriations Act for an example:'"a) None of the funds provided by this Act, or provided by previous Appropriations Acts to the agencies funded by this Act that remain available for obligation or expenditure in the current fiscal year, or provided from any accounts in the Treasury of the United States derived by the collection of fees available to the agencies funded by this Act, shall be available for obligation or expenditure through a reprogramming of funds which--
      (1) creates new programs;
      (2) eliminates a program, project, or activity;
      (3) increases funds or personnel by any means for any project or activity for which funds have been denied or restricted;
      (4) relocates an office or employees;
      (5) reorganizes offices, programs, or activities; or
      (6) contracts out or privatizes any functions or activities presently performed by Federal employees; unless the Committees on Appropriations of both Houses of Congress are notified 15 days in advance of such reprogramming of funds."

(I admit, I exaggerate a bit--John Block in 1983 created a big expensive program, using CCC inventories, without Congressional authority and by strong arming the attorneys. But we don't have big CCC inventories now and Bush gave strong use of executive power a bad name.)