Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Feminization of American AGriculuture

Via Ethicurean, the Christian Science Monitor reports women own almost 50 percent of the farmland in Iowa. And they, some of them, have definite expectations for how the land should be farmed, namely with a concern for conservation and the environment. It's a long story. (I wonder if owners these days feel rich enough to be concerned for these issues, as opposed to maximizing return. Or, is it just a feminine thing?)

Reducing Base Acreage on Federally Owned Land

Here's an article about a change in rules by FSA. I'm not clear on the details. Here's the notice. I remember Mississippi had a bunch of leased land, maybe Corps of Engineer land, maybe between the river and the levee (what's that song--the chevy and the levee) ONe of the big problems in administering a nation-wide program is the variation in timing--different states have different times at which leases change, sometimes, perhaps always governed by laws. It may be DC thought Dec 2008 was early enough, but it may not have been for Mississippi.

In the old days, when Jamie Whitten was the head of the House Appropriations Committee (one of the longest serving Congressmen, though I think Dingel just broke his record) one knew the rule would get changed. I'm not clear the current delegation from MS has that much clout. We'll see.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Unappreciated Importance of Infrastructure

We take things for granted, things which over time for many people count up. Malcolm Gladwell's new book suggests that Chinese get a leg up on math because the structure of the language in counting is so much more logical than English. (For example, "one two" instead of "twelve"; "two one" instead of "twenty-one".

Another example is the metric system--one of the great Enlightenment ideas which Thomas Jefferson hoped to give to the U.S., but only succeeded in part (i.e., money). See here for some of the friction which results from our failure to adopt it. (The difference between EU metrics and US metrics on airline safety.)

Meanwhile, the Farm Payment Story in Europe...

While Obama initiates a fight against direct payments to farmers with gross income over $250,000, Europe has its own payment system costing about $50 billion (at current exchange rates). Jack Thurston starts an explanation why that's politically unsustainable:
  1. the payments started as replacement for subsidies but have been in place for 2 decades
  2. most money goes to the biggest farmers with the best land, like Queen Elizabeth II
  3. landowners get rich, not working farmers
  4. poultry, pig and horticulture people don't get paid
  5. the most money often goes to the people who do the least for the environment (i.e, who farm the most intensively)
Most of the above sound as if they could apply to the U.S.

Welcome to DC, Foodies

Via Treehugger:

CBS News Hot Sheet is reporting that Neil Hamilton, an adviser to USDA head Tom Vilsack, was heard saying:

I believe that by this summer there will be a garden – another garden, a vegetable garden – on the White House lawn...I believe the Obamas are committed to that. It’s a big idea, and its gonna happen. During the campaign, going around shaking peoples’ hands, he never got sick once. He was eating well, and it could have to do with having an organic chef with him. This is someone who 'gets' nutrition.
I've got news for you--anyone hoping to garden in DC this year needs to be started already (said smugly as I've turned a majority of my garden space already). And, unless the Park Service has been tending the lawn organically, it will be years before the Obamas can have an organic garden, at least one warranting certification by USDA.

Obama and PART

Some hints of direction on PART from Government Executive:

In addition to eliminating redundant or wasteful payments and programs, the Obama administration plans to "fundamentally reconfigure" the Program Assessment Rating Tool, a questionnaire the Bush administration used to determine which federal programs were effective.

The summary said Obama will address criticisms of PART by opening up the "insular performance measurement process" to the public, Congress and outside experts. The administration pledged to eliminate "ideological performance goals and replace them with goals Americans care about and that are based on congressional intent and feedback from the people served by government programs."

A Clarification from Chris Clayton

At DTN, Chris clarifies that Obama's proposal doesn't cap payments based on Adjusted Gross Income, but on Gross Income. Most of the articles I've seen weren't that specific.

This is going to be fascinating. There's a big difference. Sen. Chambliss and Sen. Johanns (former Sec of USDA) had a go-round on this early in the 2008 farm bill fight (if I recall correctly). Let the bloodletting begin--us geezers need the entertainment (think of Imperial Rome and the gladiators).

(See here for Sen. Johann's release, per Chris.)

[Updated] I'm not sure of the logic here. Seems to me the AGI figure is better than a gross figure so the only thing going with gross gets you is the appeal of hitting the big guy, or at least someone who sounds bigger. That's not a good basis for policy making.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Fewer the Farmers, the Bigger the Outlook Conference

Here's the fancy program for the annual Agricultural Outlook Forum now underway in DC. (I did a quick search for "organic" in the program and got no hits, but "sustainable" got 5. :-) ) It's grown much more elaborate than when it was in the Jefferson Auditorium in the South Building.

Shout out to Charles Cunningham, who keeps going though he's getting up there. (He retired long before I did and now has his own firm: Charles V. Cunningham, President,
Cunningham Associates, Mineral, Virginia. He must have 55 years in the cotton business. A nice guy.

Obama Budget on Direct Payments

From the budget, page 48:

• Reduce direct Payments. As part of an effort to transition large farms from direct
payments provided to owners of base acres to increased income from revenue derived from emerging markets for environmental services, the President’s Budget phases out direct payments over three years to farmers with sales revenue of more than $500,000 annually. Presently, direct payments are made to even large producers regardless of crop prices, losses, or whether the land is still under production. The program was introduced in the 1996 Farm Bill as a temporary payment scheduled to expire, but was included in the 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills. The President wants to maintain a strong safety net for farm families and beginning farmers while encouraging fiscal responsibility. Large farmers are well positioned to replace those payments with alternate sources of income from emerging markets for environmental services, such as carbon sequestration, renewable energy production, and providing clean air, clean water, and wildlife habitat. USDA will increase its research and analytical capabilities and conduct Government-wide coordination activities to encourage the establishment of markets for these ecosystem services

I Wonder, Was It an Error

From the President's budget, a note of an error being corrected:
The President supports the implementation of a $250,000* commodity program
payment limit, which will help ensure that payments are made only to those that most need them. To spur the development of small business and value-added agriculture in rural America, the President’s Budget provides $61 million for five Rural Development programs: the rural microentrepreneur assistance program, rural cooperative development grants, value-added producer grants, grants to minority producers, and cooperative research agreements.

* This page corrects an amount erroneously included in the printed
version of A New Era of Responsibility [Note: because the footnote "1" doesn't copy over, I replaced it with "*".
I wonder what was the figure in the print version.

The Amish and the Environment

Seeking Simplicity is a blog by a mother who has moved into a former Amish home and is living mostly as they do (no electricity, wood stoves). It's partly "back to basics", but she had an interesting post here musing on the Amish and the environment. It includes the observation that there's an impact on the forests and this:
"Although we may think of the Amish as earth friendly, it is not always the case. Many whom we have met do have the belief that the land is to use –not that we should care for and cherish the gift. Thus, as we have noticed due to snow melt, piles of garbage and unsafe environmental practices litter our land."

Bipartisan Opposition to Obama on Direct Payments

From the Washington Times:

"We'll have to see what specifically the president is talking about, but we just finished the farm bill last year, and I don't think we'll open it up," said Rep. Collin C. Peterson, Minnesota Democrat and chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.

Likewise, the ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said the farm bill, which lasts for five years, "should not be changed midstream."

"I believe it is premature to make any sweeping changes to the makeup of the farm safety net before we have even had the chance to implement the current farm bill," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Will USDA Join "Virtual USA"?

Federal Computer Week has an article on a meeting between DHS and some Southern states, looking to share geo-spatial data:

"Officials say the goal is to make local- and state-owned geospatial data interoperable and usable across jurisdictions, with non-federal authorities maintaining control over the data and deciding what data to share.

The program was inspired by the success that Alabama had in using information gathered at a local level to aid first responders. The recent meeting was hosted by Alabama’s Homeland Security Department, which created Virtual Alabama. [Google link here and Alabama link here]That is a system built on Google Earth Enterprise software that allows authorities to create data mashups by quickly pulling together information from an array of sources across the state’s 67 counties and make it available to first responders. "

As usual, I'm torn between the thought some top-down direction would be a whole lot more efficient and recognition that, in the current state of today's weak federalized government, this sort of initiative is the best we can expect.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Why Good Government Fails

Humans are self-interested. For example, the Bush Administration had some touted initiatives. One was E-government, trying to make better use of the Internet in government operations through various efforts (i.e.,,, etc.) Another was PART --which stands for Program Assessment Rating Tool. Both were well-intentioned, although I've had my reservations with both.

But what happens--Pres. Bush and his people at the White House have a great idea. So they call up the departments and say: "do A, B, and C".

The department says: "Sounds like a great idea, do we get any money for it?"

Bush: "No, make it happen using the funds you have available".

Department: "Uh, okay, you're the boss"

House Appropriations Committee says: "Why do you need these dollars?"

Department: "Uh, we had to devote x man-years and $y to the President's great ideas"

House Appropriations Committee says: "But that wasn't our great idea"

All of the above is triggered by this note in the House Approp. Committee's statement on the appropriations bill for 2009 covering USDA:

"There is concern that agencies are being required, after appropriations have been enacted for other purposes, to support E-Gov and PART studies. This diminishes, delays, or eliminates the implementation of the activities for which funds were provided. Thirty days prior to any centrally determined charges being applied to any USDA agency that are different from those amounts displayed in the budget justification materials, the Department must submit a detailed explanation' to the committees of the amounts assessed and the method for determining diose amounts. "

FSA Still Wants the Bucks for MIDAS

From NextGov:

"No, it's not enough money," said Jim Gwinn, the agency's chief information officer...." "

Taitano said 60 percent of the stimulus funds will be used to stabilize the current systems and 40 percent will go toward the agency's modernization efforts. Farm Service is planning to pursue the rest of the modernization funds, about $200 million, through the appropriations process. Several lawmakers have expressed support for the additional funds.

USDA Deputy Secretary Merrigan

From this morning's Post:

"Kathleen A. Merrigan, former administrator of the agricultural marketing service at the Agriculture Department, was tapped to be the department's deputy secretary."
(Buried after discussion of the cars Obama's people drive.)

[Updated--Tom Philpott sings her praises.--Leahy, organic, Jim Hightower.]

Monday, February 23, 2009

School Nutrition Organization and Alice Waters

I was skeptical of the Alice Waters call for tripling the amount spent on school lunches. Here's what the School Nutrition Organization is calling for (apparently the people who work in the schools):

“Every school day school nutrition professionals must meet differing local, state and federal nutrition standards; provide quality, safe and healthful meals that kids enjoy; accommodate special dietary needs and food allergies of a diverse student body; all for less than $2.57 per meal,” said Dr. Katie WIlson, SNS, president of SNA. "The time has come to raise the meal reimbursement rate to an amount that reflects the true food, transportation, labor and benefits, training, equipment and indirect expenses necessary to provide a school meal."
The key legislative issues the School Nutrition Association (SNA) is advocating for as part of child nutrition reauthorization are to:

  • Increase the per meal reimbursement by 35 cents for all meals in order to keep pace with rising costs and implementing the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
  • Update the Federal reimbursement rates semi-annually to better reflect increasing costs.
  • Expand the “free” meal category from 130% of poverty to 185%, consistent with the WIC income eligibility guidelines (eliminating the reduced price meal category).
  • Provide 10 cents in USDA commodities for each school breakfast served.
  • Grant the Secretary of Agriculture the statutory authority to regulate the sale of all foods and beverages on the school campus, consistent with the most recent edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (ending the “time and place rule”).
  • Require the Department to implement a consistent, science-based national interpretation of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans for all school meals reimbursed by USDA.

Hypocrisy Watch

We're all hypocrites, but it's good to point out the failings of the high and mighty. Here in Slate Jack Shafer goes after Bill Moyer (for searching for homosexuals and planting questions while working for LBJ). Of course, we all grow up, sometime.

Titans Fight Over Money and Broadband

Today in the NYTimes Qualcom had an ad boasting their wireless broadband could reach over 90 percent of the population. Meanwhile there was a small news item describing IBM's quest for the broadband dollars in the stimulus package: broadband over power lines. They claimed it would work if there were 6 or so users per mile of line, although the speed of download was about 256K (as they point out, this might be 10 times the speed of a dial up modem).

Of course, if a farm has 1,000 acres in a block, it means it's more than 1 mile square (also known as a "section"), so I'm not sure how well IBM will do in the wide-open spaces.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

USDA Caught Spinning

Not that USDA usually goes in circles, you understand, but Obama Foodorama caught Sec. Vilsack and NRCS out on their hyping of the garden.

(One comment on the idea of gardens at all USDA offices--mostly these facilities are rented, not government-owned, so USDA would need to get the landlord's permission. And I'm very skeptical of any top-down initiative like this--I've seen too many people full of enthusiasm for gardening in the spring, only to drop out by summer.)

Childless Amish Farmer

There is no such term findable by Google (until now).

Saturday, February 21, 2009

USDA Fails to Meet Deadline

From Government Executive:

"Agencies have had mixed success at meeting one of the first deadlines related to the massive economic stimulus package: the goal of selecting by Feb. 13 a high-level official to oversee spending.

A number of agencies contacted by Government Executive have placed someone in charge of economic recovery act activities, as requested by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag in a Feb. 9 memorandum. But at least several others missed the Feb. 13 deadline."

One of those missing is USDA, presumably because only Vilsack has been named.

Definitions Matter: What Is a Farm

A former employee of USDA's Economic Research Service elucidates the definition of a "farm" in the 2007 Ag Census. It's a reminder that statistics are usually tricky to use, because the users aren't familiar with how the data was obtained and massaged.

Elsewhere he hits more strongly on the fact that farm prices increased dramatically between 2002 and 2007, which would affect farm numbers.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Score One for Obama

One of the worst features of the Bush administration was its dishonesty in accounting--using only the 5-year window, fudging on AMT, keeping the Iraq/Afghan war off budget in supplementals. Obama is, at least for now, promising to correct those errors according to this NYTimes piece. The last paragraph breaks new ground:
He will also budget $273 billion in that [10-year] period for natural disasters. Every year the government pays billions for disaster relief, but presidents and lawmakers have long ignored budget reformers’ calls for a contingency account to reflect that certainty.
I wonder whether they'll split it between FEMA and USDA? We'll see, but it's a good first step. We should also budget for California to split off and fall into the Pacific, but this is progress.

Sen. Leahy and How Politics Works

Leahy nominated the new head of FSA in Vermont. Here's the language in the Burlington Free Press:
The job is one of four patronage appointments that change hands when a new president is elected. As the senior Democratic senator from Vermont, Leahy nominates candidates for farm post as well as for U.S. attorney, U.S. marshal and head of the Rural Development Office. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will make the USDA appointments.
And Leahy's press release.

What the Alice Waters of the world must realize is the importance of infiltrating their converts into the jobs of aides to Representatives and Senators, both so they can advocate to their bosses as bills go through Congress and cross over to the executive branch when their party wins the Presidency.

27 Billion for Good School Lunches

That's the prescription of Alice Waters and Katrina Heron in an op-ed in the NYTimes. That's about 3 times the current school lunch subsidy cost. That amount would allow: "Washington ... to give schools enough money to cook and serve unprocessed foods that are produced without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. When possible, these foods should be locally grown."

I've no comment on the political realism of their remedy.

Best Calvinist Sentence Today

From Kevin Drum:

"In fact, I'm basically on board with nearly any idea that's based on taking away the punch bowl in boom times and spiking it in bad times."

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Norwegian Bachelor Farmers, CSAs and Goats

Piece in the Mankato Free Press on Minnesota farms, where the very small and very large both increased in number:
Minnesota’s growth in small farms is largely concentrated in the Twin Cities area and is beholden to the state’s strong organic product movement and its large immigrant populations in quest of ethnic meats and vegetables. For example, inventories of goats have quadrupled in the state during the past decade.-their "tiny" farms grew in number, as more farms grew through Community Support
This relates to a book I just finished, a good read: Hit by a Farm, by Catherine Friend which sort of encapsulates the trend, although the two women who owned the farm went with sheep, not goats. It was blurbed by Garrison Keillor, to whom I look for an update on his "Norwegian bachelor farmers" (an uncle was a German bachelor farmer) to include the Hmongs and women crunchies now popping up around Minneapolis/St. Paul.

WHIP and Payment Limitation, NRCS and FSA

NRCAS published an interim final rule updating the Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program (WHIP) regulations for the 2008 farm bill changes and other input. (This is a program whereby NRCS pays part of the cost of improving habitat for wildlife.) It includes this:

Section 638.7
"(f) Payments made or attributed to a participant, directly or indirectly, may
not exceed, in the aggregate, $50,000 per year.
(g) Eligibility for payment in accordance with 7 CFR part 1400, subpart G, average adjusted gross income limitation, will be determined prior to cost-share agreement approval."
I find it interesting because, as the AGI regs are FSA's responsibility, it implies a sharing of information, possibly an exchange of paperwork between the two agencies.

Wikis and Facebook for FSA IT?

Here's a post at the Federal Computer Week discussing the possible use of Web 2.0 technologies by federal agencies. I note most of the examples cited seem to be on intranets, not accessible by the public. I think I don't like that, but am open to discussion.

It's true enough that the enthusiasm of a President and a Secretary can affect the bureaucracy, but in my experience unless the enthusiasm goes down the line, the effects die out. The cautionary lesson in this regard is the "tempos" on the Mall. When I first toured the Mall in 1965, there were these disgusting grey buildings, wood and metal, not stone, lining Constitution Avenue at the west end of the Mall. Turned out these were temporary buildings, or "tempos", occupied by the military. Oh, you say, being smart readers, they were erected in World War II as a stopgap before the Pentagon was finished.

Oh no, smart readers, you are wrong. They were erected in WWI, and were still there 50 years later. The military wasn't about to move out of them and away from their proximity to power. And no leader had the power to move the military bureaucrats. Finally, in his single greatest domestic achievement, President Nixon set his German on them (I think Erlichman, but it might have been Haldeman) and finally got them emptied and torn down. Constitution Gardens and the Vietnam Memorial occupy that area now.

The bottomline: unless the new administrator of FSA is a computer nerd, FSA won't be using Web 2.0 in the next 4 years.

[Updated--this piece in Government Executive is also relevant.]

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Make Pay Limit Regs Tougher?

So says North Dakota's Agriculture Commissioner, according to this piece in Farm and Ranch, reporting on his comments on the interim rule submitted to FSA. Apparently there's no cotton grown in ND (see my previous post on the Cotton Council reaction to Vilsack). He even had some kind words for the FSA bureaucrats in DC!

Chris Clayton and Vilsack on Pay Limits

Chris Clayton at the DTN blog covers Secretary Vilsack's talk to the Cotton people. He seemed to indicate no change in pay limit regs for 2009. The cotton people will talk to their friends (Chambliss, R and Lincoln, D) to try to get a provision requiring USDA to revert to 2008 rules. That's the sort of lawmaking tailored to specific interests which gives Congress a bad name, but don't be surprised if it doesn't get added as a rider somewhere.

Interestingly, from a philosophical viewpoint (that is, in my humble opinion) farmers should not be changing their operations at all because of payment limitation rules. They should organize the way to be the most efficient operation possible, then the rules should apply. I know that's never going to happen, it's like saying someone shouldn't decide whether or not to buy versus renting a house based on the tax deductibility of the interest. Economists point to such changes and say the government is making the economy less efficient. And it is.

And All Our Employees Are Above Average--DOD

From Government Executive:
According to figures issued by the Pentagon on Wednesday, 98 percent of the more than 170,000 employees rated under the National Security Personnel System received performance-based payouts for 2009, meaning their supervisors graded their work as a 3 or better out of five possible points. The majority of those employees -- 55.4 percent -- earned a rating of 3, defining them as valued performers.
I'm overly cynical, since the best year I ever had, in terms of accomplishments, was the worst year according to my boss's evaluation. Designing a good pay system is hard, particularly when the bureaucracy being evaluated doesn't produce measurable outputs. Look at the pay system for investment bankers.

Claims by the Corn Growers--We're Crunchy

According to a piece via EWG:

"Specifically, corn has seen the following changes between 1987 and 2007, Dickey [President of National Corn Growers] noted.

1. Land use: The amount of land needed to produce one bushel has decreased 37 percent.

2. Soil loss: Manageable soil loss per bushel of corn has decreased by 69 percent.

3. Energy: The energy used to produce a bushel of corn has decreased by 37 percent.

4. Climate impact: Corn production has seen a 30 percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions per bushel."

Fertilizer Use

So, when we say "fertilizer", which countries use the most?

The U.S. is obviously first, with Argentina and Brazil close and India and China far behind, right?

No--it's China, India, U.S. in that order. Source.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

FSA Procedures

Are available on the Internet, and Chris Clayton reads the new handbook on Adjusted Gross Income and other payment limitation rules. I wonder a little bit--the lawyers would say the regulations in the Federal Register are legally binding, the handbooks aren't. ASCS and FSA always took the approach of making the handbooks more detailed and more explanatory than the regs. (The former FmHA, however, was operating as a financial institution, which meant their lawyers forced them to publish their "handbooks" as regulations. Such publication made it harder for the bureaucracy. The gain in public notice resulted in a loss of flexibility.) Now that the public can easily see the handbooks, indeed more easily see the handbooks than the regulations if it comes to that, I wonder what the long term consequences will be.

Smarter Bureaucrats?

That's one of 13 consequences of the current world recessionDan Drezner foresees. For his rationale, and the other 12 (including longer skirts), see here.

Prof. Mankiw Proves the Point

From his website:
Gross makes another, unrelated mistake. He suggests that, as a Harvard professor, I am an example of a person with a particularly stable income. (That is why, he intimates, I fail to appreciate the consumption decisions facing real people who face substantial uncertainty.) It is true that my university salary is reasonably secure, but more of my income comes from book royalties than salary, and that income is anything but stable. Any day now, someone could come along with a better textbook and put me out of business.

On this last point, of course, I am speaking hypothetically.
Perhaps Prof. Mankiw has something to fear from the open textbook effort described by Timothy Burke. (Although the wikibooks macroeconomics discussion page has not been updated since 2005.)
But maybe his textbook is more like the one Kevin Drum describes:
I only have one of my college textbooks still in my possession, but I just got it off the shelf to see if it had a price in it. It did: $17.25. That was in 1976, and adjusted for inflation it comes to $64 in today's dollars. So what does it currently cost on Amazon? Answer: $132. It is, as near as I can tell, the exact same book. Same binding, same number of pages, same charming lack of color. In fact, browsing through it, it looks as if it's being printed from the same plates as it was in 1976.

This, then, is obviously a book that ought to be cheaper today than it was three decades ago. The costs of production have long since been paid back, there's a ton of competition from the used book market since the book hasn't changed in 30 years, and I imagine that author royalties are the same as ever. For reference, a similar size commercial hardback would run about $40 these days.

Bottom line: I don't believe Prof. Mankiw's textbook sales are nearly as volatile as say: the income of a small dairy farmer, or even the average crop farmer, or a restaurant owner, or a construction worker, or a waitperson, or... Mankiw, like me, has a good income (mine not quite as good as his) from a nonprofit institution plus somewhat more changeable income from investments (his time, my savings) which puts us in another category than employees of profit-making enterprises now facing losses. Somehow it assuages the guilt if we pretend to be insecure.

Musicians as Bureaucrats: The Definition of "Now"

From a Washington Post article on assembling an orchestra to play Carnegie Hall through YouTube auditions:

Tilson Thomas observed that even experienced orchestra players can have trouble shifting from one ensemble to another. He recalled a Carnegie Hall tribute that he conducted shortly after Leonard Bernstein's death, with members of all the orchestras Bernstein had conducted: musicians from the Vienna Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic and other top-flight ensembles.

At the first downbeat, he said, they had trouble coming in together: "There were at least five discernible attacks, because people had such different assumptions about where 'now' is."

Can the universality of music, and of YouTube -- or a strong conductor -- trump 70 different national definitions of "now"? The answer to this question should, at the very least, make for an interestingly different kind of concert.

It's an unexpected example of the importance of shared definitions, and the problems of merging institutions. It also shows musicians being bureaucratic, which they are.

Monday, February 16, 2009

HFCS, Corn Subsidies and Obesity II

Tom Philpott channels a Tufts University study. Some sentences:

"Take them [farm program subsidies] away, I've argued more than once, and you'd still have a food system that mainly produces junk churned out by a few big companies...."

"Get this:

Today, HFCS represents just 3.5% of the total cost of soft drink manufacturing as measured by the value of shipments. Meanwhile, the corn content of HFCS represents only 1.6% of this value. Thus, the impact of corn prices on the final retail price of a food product is not as high as one might think.

That means even if you take away the 27 percent discount HFCS producers got for their corn, you'd only be adding a penny or two to the final price of a Big Gulp."

Moderation in All Things--Locavore Gives Up

An Oregon man gave up his attempt to eat only locally-grown food after 8 months according to this piece in the StatesmanJournal of the Williamette Valley (HT Treehugger). Give him credit for the try. Part of the problem was he used more gas to get the food than he saved by eating food grown locally. He also, apparently, missed bananas.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Saving Energy, One Woman's Experience

Liza Mundy has an article in today's Wa Post magazine on her household and her attempts to save energy. She digs into some issues, points out some of the problems in cutting energy usage (i.e. her daughter and son have very different tolerances for low temperatures), and is amazed by how little it costs to do so much. (She's thinking as a professional woman freed from the tedium of washing, ironing, etc. etc.)

The household ends by adopting some conservation measures and resolving to spend on their biggest problem--they live in an old house in Arlington, VA, which wastes heat and cooling. That's pretty much the conclusion: focus your energies on the biggest consumers, usually heat/cooling.

One Newspaper, Separate Worlds

In today's Post, Kari Lyderson has a story from the AAAS meeting, leading off:
The pace of global warming is likely to be much faster than recent predictions, because industrial greenhouse gas emissions have increased more quickly than expected and higher temperatures are triggering self-reinforcing feedback mechanisms in global ecosystems, scientists said Saturday.
And George Will attacks Prof. Chu (Energy Secretary) and others who warn of global warming. (If I understand this post the scientists are saying the global sea ice in the Antarctic does not necessarily mean no global warming, it might be consistent with it.)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Owner's Footsteps Are the Best Manure

That's the saying (or something like it) I heard from my parents growing up. But if you've got a couple thousand acres it's pretty hard to walk all the land. But modern technology comes to the rescue, as described in this post from Extension on "site-specific farming" (i.e., using GIS and computers to keep track of the specific characteristics of your land).

Broadband for Farmers

One thing the 2007 Ag census did was identify farmers with broadband access. Tim Murphy at the DailyYonder has a map showing the rural counties by level of access here. From the article:

Over 2.2 million farms were included in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Census, which is conducted every five years. In 2002, the Census found that half the farms in the country were connected to the Internet in some way (broadband or dial-up). By 2007, the percentage of farms with some kind of Internet connection inched up to 56.5%.

However, only 33% of farms in 2007 had broadband connections.

The map shows what seems to be a pattern of greater access west of a line running NNE SSW from Minnesota to the Texas Panhandle--not sure why that pattern. Kansas has good coverage. I know 15 years ago the state was big into GIS--whether there's a relationship between state government policies and access I don't know.

Only $50 Million for FSA

From, on the final stimulus package:
But Congress cut some IT funding, including money to modernize the Farm Service Agency's computers to process payments to farmers. The final bill set aside $50 million for the effort, far less than the $245 million the House originally set.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Malamud for GPO Head

This is in connection with making Federal court records available online.

Unfortunately, Congress controls GPO, not the President, so Mr. Malamud can't be named GPO head by Obama, as he suggests in this NYTimes article. But otherwise he has a case:
Mr. Malamud said his years of activism had led him to set a long-shot goal: serving in the Obama administration, perhaps even as head of the Government Printing Office. The thought might seem far-fetched — Mr. Malamud is, by admission, more of an at-the-barricades guy than a behind-the-desk guy. But he noted that he published more pages online last year than the printing office did.
IMO, if data generated by the government is to become public, it ought to be free and easily searchable, as through Google. I strongly dislike operations like PACER, which charges a fee to access court records. (In their defense, it appears in 1988 they asked Congress for money to provide the records free, Congress said "no", get the money by user fees. But technological innovation has outstripped the courts ability to push IT solutions.

Crop Insurance Subsidies

I knew we subsidized crop insurance, but not this much:

USDA subsidies have been changed for some crop insurance policies which may cause you to adjust your decisions on coverage. William Edwards at Iowa State says whole farm and enterprise units used to have lower premiums than basic and optional units. For 2009 they will have the same dollar value subsidy, which will be 55% for basic units, 77% for enterprise units, and 80% for whole farm units when selecting 75% coverage.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Worth of a Male

In farming, not much. Brownfield on dumping bull calves.

If Crunchies Join the Military

Maybe we do need a draft. I don't suppose there's any other way which would lead the greens and organic food people to join the military voluntarily. The greens do have kids, so they study and criticize the school lunch program. (See here for an Asian comparison.) But our men and women in uniform are left with the Iraq 20 and comfort food such as:
Barbecue ribs, fried chicken, rib-eye steak, lobster tails, crab legs, roast turkey, stir-fry, cheeseburgers, fries, onion rings, egg rolls, breaded shrimp, buffalo wings, chili, crepes, pancakes, omelets, waffles, burritos, tacos, quesadillas, quiches, bacon, polish sausages, pulled pork, corned beef hash, milk shakes and smoothies — and that’s just for starters. (From Edge of the West post quoting a Chicago Tribune article, also going back to GI's in Britain in WWII.)
Makes me hungry just to read it. If it's okay for the military to eat comfort food in a war zone, is it okay for the lower class to eat comfort food in their daily life?

Anti-Locavore Pork

Interesting post on Ethicurean justifying the importing of Midwestern pork to west coast restaurants. Arguments:
  • smaller carbon footprint (more efficient to ship pork than grain to feed pigs)
  • more efficient use of by-products
  • superior taste and texture
  • more humane (Temple Grandin has worked on Iowa slaughterhouses)
Sort of boils down to the economists "comparative advantage"--CA does grass well, not grain.

(The commenters say: well, Californians shouldn't eat pork. Or they should accept the ununiform taste and texture of pigs fed a varied diet.)

IMHO, if you accept these arguments, you accept something like a global agricultural system, because similar arguments can apply to other foodstuffs.

Immigration and Housing II

Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution joins others in suggesting that encouraging immigrants who want to buy houses in the U.S. is one way out of the recession. That's the same logic as mine, in arguing that anti-immigrant agitation helped take the steam out of the bubble.

In the long run, you only get rid of surplus housing inventory by finding more buyers at the bottom of the ladder or taking the time to work off the surplus.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Your Friendly Bureaucrat Coming to on YouTube

NextGov has a piece today saying YouTube and the Feds are near an agreement to permit Feds to post videos. The next step will be requiring all Federal bureaucrats to be personable and video-ready.

Should I start a pool on how long it will take for FSA to post its first video?

Us Tightwad Seniors

Just got an email from the Cinema Arts theater in Fairfax City--the manager uses it to flog his coming attractions. Here's a line:
Our $4 ticket price for folks over 60 (which I found out today folks over 62 are seniors at the E Street Cinema in DC) has been wonderful for attendance, but nobody buys any snacks.
I feel guilty but my wife and I never buy snacks at the theater.

Labor Mobility and Immigration in a Recession

One of the arguments some economists (like Gary Becker) make against the stimulus bill is that it funds work in areas which are short-staffed, and not in areas of unemployment. (That's roughly put.) The LA Times has an article on farm labor, yesterday, which starts:
What a difference a bad economy makes. The collapse of the construction industry and a slump in the restaurant and food service sector have sent thousands of people back to looking for work on California farms, which not so long ago were hurting for workers.
Apparently there's some mobility in labor at the lower end. I don't know why this surprises me, but it did.

IT People Are Human Too

Technology Review interviews the woman touted to be Obama's Chief Technology Officer, Padmasree Warrior, currently Cisco's CTO:

"TR: But can you get rid of skips in voice calls and jitters in streaming video?

PW: Quality of service continues to be important. One of the things we believe, that we've put a lot of effort into...

TR: Hello?

PW: (a minute later) Hi, sorry, I didn't plug in my cell phone last night!"

Some nominees forget to pay all their taxes, some forget their cell phones. The problems a new President faces. As an increasingly forgetful senior, I suggest a blanket amnesty for all memory lapses.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

HFCS Debunked, It's Sugar Says the Times

Jane Brody in today's NYTimes says "sugar is sugar is sugar" and it's bad for you, regardless of whether it's high fructose or not. The column is the first of two.

High fructose corn syrup makes a convenient target for those who would blame our ills on big business, but the reality is we love sweets.

Foursquare for Morality

That's John Phipps, who argues it's in his interest to honor his rental contracts:
All told, 2009 offers a unique chance for renters to differentiate from many competitors. And contract fulfillment is a tactic at least as practical as meticulous roadside maintenance or colorful newsletters.

So how about this alternative guideline for 2009: A deal’s a deal.

Stimulus and Broadband

The Daily Yonder notes that the House and Senate both allot money for rural broadband. Except they give it to different agencies, House to USDA, Rural Development and the Senate to Commerce, NTIS.

Shot Across the Bow

For fans of Horatio Hornblower, a shot across the bow was the signal to stop (being fired by a warship in front of another ship). That's the way I read this letter to Vilsack from the Senators. And it's a reminder to the greens, who are pushing for stronger rules, who really has the power. (Hat tip to Chris Clayton at DTN and a nod of recognition to Sen Lincoln, who has it posted on her website before Sen. Chambliss.)

[Updated--fixed link.]

Monday, February 09, 2009

Best Sentence Today

University Diaries: "The lesson of Rancourt is that professors and administrators typically have little trouble discerning the difference between dissent and dysentery." (From a discussion of a Prof. Stanley Fish post on an academic.)

Worst Web Site Design?

See here (hat tip to Treehuggers).

Go North, Young Man, Go North

That's not Horace Greeley reincarnated, it's Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek, making a good case for why Canada is a society that works better than the U.S. (One example, its banking system is rated #1 in the world, ours is 44.)

Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Swallows Return, First Tourist to Iraq

The NYTimes yesterday reported the first Western tourist returning to Iraq. The Iraqis seemed to agree that reviving tourism was premature, but if tourists can go to Antarctica, Mount Everest, and space, they surely will brave the perils of Iraq.

First Gardening of 2009

Yes, the weather has turned warmish in Reston so I did my first gardening of the year--turning over some soil. I had assumed it might be still frozen, but it wasn't (the shredded leaves from the association probably helped). It's definitely premature--you know all the warnings about the soil being too cold and wet, particularly with our good clay soil, but who listens to written wisdom when the weather is in the 60's?

ASCS as an Incubator of Tolerance?

I've blogged about the Pigford case, in which USDA, the former Farmers Home Administration, and its successor, FSA, get attacked for being racist. That rests on the idea that either the local bureaucrats were racist, and/or the programs they administered were skewed against minorities. Regardless of the truth of the attacks, there is another side--as a federally funded bureaucracy, there were rules and pressures from Washington to override local prejudices. And sometimes those worked, as shown in this story about two men, one black, one white, working summer jobs with ASCS in Texas in 1965.

(A bit of background--ASCS used to hire lots of summer help to measure crop acreages, often one way it recruited its permanent employees. Over the years changes in the programs and the use of certifications and spot checks have lessened the need for measurement, and aerial imagery has enabled in-office measurement, saving taxpayer dollars.)

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Where To Cut Back reports on a survey of where people may cut back their spending:

gym memberships
fine dining
magazine and newspaper subscriptions
shopping at high-end department stores for apparel
organic foods
entertainment, such as movie and theater tickets.

Crop Insurance

I feel uncomfortable talking about the crop insurance programs which cover revenue, but this caught my eye:
An attractive feature of CRC insurance this year is that the price used to establish the estimated revenue guarantee for wheat in 2009 is $8.77 per bushel. Wheat futures for spring wheat are currently trading in the $6 to $6.50 per bushel range for September. That means that CRC is providing an opportunity to insure the price, one component of expected revenue, well above what the futures market believes the price will be at harvest time. If you have not purchased a CRC policy already, visit with your local insurance agent before March 15.
Sounds like a no-brainer, but there must be a catch (like maybe the futures markets are wrong, as if that ever happens).

Friday, February 06, 2009

USDA and Race

Mulch posts a link to a Colorlines Magazine article on farm subsidies.

Maybe I'm Wrong, GPO and Google

I've posted, I think, in the past about my impatience with government web sites--I don't see why I can't just Google them. (Yes, I know that you can run Google on some, but I want every document to be as Googlable as any magazine or newspaper article.) But yesterday GPO released its new search site. The discussion in the comments about using meta-data is enough to raise a slight doubt in my mind. I'll have to see how this works out.

Remember Snow Fences?

The Journal-Gazette and Times-Courier have an online site which promoted a conservation meeting, but this piece caught my eye. Yes, it's mostly local news, but I too wonder whatever happened to snow fences? I guess global warming has reduced the amount of snow in the areas I live in to the point where it's not economical to put them up. (They are mentioned in Wikipedia and there seem to be a scattering of articles, mostly in the West, including this one about a Wyoming youngster testing various design.)

Cooking Versus Kids and Jobs

Two factoids I stumbled on this week, but don't have urls for: In the 1960's women spent 2 hours a day (13 a week) cooking. In the 2000's, men and women increased the time spent with their kids.

And today the NYTimes reports that men are losing their jobs in the recession while women aren't (because men and women are concentrated in different fields), meaning it's possible we'll have a higher percentage of women employed than men. (It looks as if the story is based on all jobs, not full-time jobs, but still it's a big change from my childhood, when women mostly didn't work outside the home.)

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Green Faddism

The NYTimes has an article today on greens who do without a refrigerator (sometimes by using a freezer, sometimes by going to a dorm size refrigerator). At the end of the article, they quote an estimate of $6 savings per year.

There was also a piece, probably through Treehugger, that quoted a Canadian study that one day of a wood stove released more carbon than a year of driving (or some such comparison).

IMO, these examples show that sometimes greens are no more rational than Wall Street bankers have proven to be.

Pet Peeve: Elite and Pica Type

There may be someone who has noticed I have big problems with those people who still use monospaced elite or pica type these days. This dates back to the 1970's when I was diverted from researching into word-processors (to replace the IBM MT/ST's we were using) by some papers on proportional spacing and type faces. Bottom line: proportional spacing aids readability--monospacing was a limit of the typewriter's mechanism.

So I'm shocked, absolutely shocked, to find the FAA still using it, as in the transcript of the airliner ditching in the Hudson. Come on people, join the 21st century.

Brad DeLong and Turnip Townshend

Brad points to the Wikipedia article on this man here, and notes his connection to our Revolution as well.
Townshend introduced to England the four-field crop rotation pioneered by farmers in the Waasland region in the early 16th century. The system (wheat, barley, turnips and clover), opened up a fodder crop and grazing crop allowing livestock to be bred year-round, and increased productivity by avoiding leaving the soil uncultivated every third year. Previously, a three-year rotation was practiced by farmers in Europe with a rotation of rye or winter wheat, followed by spring oats or barley, then letting the soil rest (leaving it fallow) during the third stage. Crop rotation is necessary in order to avoid the build-up of crop-specific soil pests and diseases, and because different families of plant have varying nutritional requirements. The four-field crop rotation was a key development in the British Agricultural Revolution.
I should also note the Mark Overton, BBC series, who ties this into organic and industrial farming.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Obama Breaks His Promise Again

He signed the Chip bill today, without the 5 day public accessibility. See the first time.

[Updated] See this politico post.

Flexible Leases and Definition of Producer

Farmgate carries a piece lauding the change in the farm bill to permit flexible crop leases without making the landowner a "producer" for purposes of farm programs. It means the owners don't have to sign FSA contracts and related paperwork.

Given the long history of the provision, I'm wondering if there will be unanticipated effects. But, that's a question which the future will answer, I guess.

Government Web Sites--USDA Is Low

According to the detail in this report, USDA web sites don't do as well as other government sites. (See pages 15 and 19.)

ACRE Confuses Even the EU

From the DTN blog citing an EU assessment of ACRE:

"Heralded as an innovative new risk management tool, ACRE is yet another countercyclical scheme, this time for revenue," the report highlights. "So it is business as usual in that the countercyclical nature of US farm support continues, with a bewildering array of schemes all addressing the same issues. For many observers it represents a significant step backwards in terms of agricultural policy."

See also Keith Good's FarmPolicy which puts this assessment in the broader context of challenges to free trade.

A Cloud on FSA Computers

From today's Post--Obama doesn't have the votes in the Senate for the stimulus package, so Sens. Collins and Nelson (NE) are trying to fix it, by cuts:
Among the items that the Collins-Nelson initiative is targeting: $1.1 billion for comparative medical research, $350 million for Agriculture Department computers, $75 million to discourage smoking, $20 million in Interior Department funding, $400 million for HIV screening and $650 million for wildlife management.

[Updated} See this Government Executive piece as well.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Definition of a "Family Farm"

A post at Obamafoodorma on Chuck Hassebrouck's quest to serve in the USDA discusses the National Farmers Union and reads NFU out of the left, including:
Well, it's become a House Divided, as the definition of what, exactly, a family farm is has come under increasing debate. We're talking economies of scale here: A 10,000 acre "family-owned farm" is profoundly different in its capitalization and where it sells crops, in the use of genetically engineered crops, machines, animal confinement, and energy than is, say, a three/four-hundred-acre family farm. A 10,000 acre family farm, despite being "owned" on paper by a single family, is actually Big Ag, when you parse it. NFU, under Buis's leadership, has increasingly leaned towards protecting the interests of huge family farms (thus protecting the interests of Big Ag), toward commodity programs, and has foregone its progressive history.
IMO a family farm is defined as no more than 40 acres of cropland, owned by one family, and operated by one family, with minimal hired help and contracted services (like baling hay), located in upstate NY. More seriously, while a 10,000 acre farm is industrial agriculture, I could conceive it being a family farm, as in owned and operated by one nuclear family, or the families of two siblings.

Iraq Needed Bureaucrats

There was a C-Span broadcast yesterday of a hearing by an Iraq/Afghanistan contracting commission with the IG, Mr. Bowen and staff., tied to the book: "Hard Lessons". One of the interesting questions, perhaps from the former comptroller of the Pentagon, was about "absorptive capacity", whether Iraq had the bureaucratic infrastructure to absorb the $18 billion, or $25 billion, or whatever amounts were targeted for the country. Bowen said: "no", maybe $5 billion. Point--you need bureaucrats, you need a banking system (which Iraq didn't have, so they hauled cash around), in order to spend money.

But What About Battleaxe?

Good news for the animal lovers among us--British researchers find that cows with names give more milk. (Hat Tip: Freakonomics). It's the sort of warm idea which pleases everyone--images of farmers stroking the cow's nose, before sitting down to milk her. Actually, I suspect it's an artifact: dairies with lots of cows can't give names, dairies with few cows can. And the only way a small dairy can survive is to pick the most productive cows.

Then again, sometimes animals earn names. (I wonder whether the piglets in this story got named, other than the expletives I'm sure Stonehead surpressed in writing it.) Which all reminds me of a cow we had named "Battleaxe". As one might expect, she didn't have a pleasant personality, nor was she particularly productive, but dad endured her for a few years, years which saw him educate his son in profanity.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Football Players Are Too Big

Parts of last night's Superbowl were great. But I took a look at the rosters for each team--if I'm right there was only one lineman who weighed less than 300 pounds. That's a lot.

How about imposing a team weight limit--say set the cap at 95 percent of the weight of the average NFL team? Then you'd have judgment calls--do you keep your 350 pound nose tackle and cut your 280 pound middle linebacker or vice versa?

Just a thought. (The Ivy schools have a lightweight football league.)

Those Germans Loved Their Beer

Here's a map showing the saloons/bars in a German area of NYC (the eleventh ward) in 1885. It leaves me with a puzzle--according to the story Germans were good drinkers (i.e., orderly) in NYC, yet my mother, born of German parents in NYC (they moved to upstate NY farm shortly after) was death on alcohol.

Bureaucrats Are Not Liberals, or They Don't Listen to Radio

A small piece in today's Post mentions the reprogramming of a radio station--dropping its liberal programs. It was the last liberal commercial station in the DC area and its last ratings were too small to measure.

ACRE and Bureaucracy

An excerpt from a discussion of the ACRE program at DTN (subscription required):

I think the primary concern with ACRE is the administrative burden. Proving yields and keeping records straight at the FSA office could be a Herculean effort even for a 1,000 acre farm. And who wants to share all that proprietary information. And is there some ridiculous cross compliance between landowners? So if one little old lady bows out, your work is in vain?

Notice EQUIP with Tier 1, 2, 3 funding failed to launch for the same bureaucratic reasons. It just plain disappeared.

Maybe FSA finally did it, they developed a program so complex that even they don't understand it!

  • note that these days a 1,000 acre farm leaps to the tongue as an example of a small farm. Just a generation ago Jane Smiley wrote her novel of that title as an example of a large farm, a kingdom even (she based her plot on King Lear).
  • several comments to the post, all interesting, a couple on the challenge to FSA. Some confusion evident, and these are farmers who presumably should be the best informed. That's the FSA educational problem (although Illinois extension is sharing the burden, apparently). [Updated link]
  • an observation about the intra-state differences in climate in ND, which makes the program work better for some farmers than others.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Sec. 1619 in Kansas

Yes, we're in Kansas, via, and the Salina paper has a long article on the problems the Sec. 1619 restriction causes for assessors.

Bypassing Bureaucratic Rules--NYPD

The Post's Book World carries a review of a book on the NY Police Department. In an example of entrepreneurship (yes, bureaucrats can be entrepreneurs just as capitalists can), it's set up a counter-intelligence shop:
Freed from the bureaucratic restraints of Washington, Cohen [ex-CIA man heading the shop] set about building his 600-person unit with astonishing speed and efficiency, infuriating former federal colleagues along the way. In no time, he had twice as many fluent Arabic speakers on his staff as in the entire Federal Bureau of Investigation. His agents speak some 50 languages and dialects in all, which matches the reported linguistic capabilities of the Central Intelligence Agency.
The book is: SECURING THE CITY Inside America's Best Counterterror Force -- the NYPD By Christopher Dickey.

But there's also this:
"Dickey might have dug a little deeper in addressing the persistent but vague allegations in Washington that the NYPD counterterrorism unit cuts legal corners and that some of its methods are unconstitutional. "They do stuff that would get us arrested," says one three-letter guy."