Saturday, December 31, 2011

Sssh, the Secret of Farming

As it says here, for many years farmers lived on their depreciation.  What that means is that as long as you have some cash flow and low debt, you can survive.  That's how my father did it.

NY Times and Agriculture on 12/31/2011

The Times has two stories on agriculture today: one on the growth of big organic farms outside the country, drawing down water supplies and exporting organic produce to the US; the other on the conversion of non-ag land to farmland in Iowa, and the expiration of CRP contracts.

The organic piece gets lots of exposure: comments and the top emailed piece. As the article points out, we Americans want our cheap organic tomatoes in December, and Mexico, Argentina, and Chile, and the nations in between, are willing to supply them.  The growth of exports helps those nations, which isn't something the comments note, although the article does mention it.

The Iowa piece reminds me of the 70's, when Earl Butz supposedly promoted fence row to fence row planting.  If the farmer is able to buy the land, he can tear out the fence rows, gaining some acreage and improving the efficiency with which he can farm.  Again, it's the workings of the free market in agriculture.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Petty Bureaucracy in the Private Sector: B&B Complaints

James Fallows had a bad experience with a B&B (owner forgot his reservation) and petty bureaucrats prevented him from publishing his review because he didn't actually stay at the B&B.  Read the whole thing here.  In the old days, this was a Catch-22.

Organic Versus Locavore

There's a tension between organic food and the locavores, a tension I see in this NYTimes article.  There's a scarcity of organic milk, particularly on the East Coast, partly because prices haven't risen high enough, partly because of the inflexibility of supply (takes 3 years for a dairy to convert to organic production), and partly because there's not enough organic grain grown in the East.  The latter is important because grain is important for milk production; cows produce much less milk if they're simply grazing pasture and eating hay.  So there's an imbalance in the food economy, an imbalance which the free market fills by transporting food/grain from distant places, but that's not something which locavores can be happy about.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

How Society Changes: Imperceptibly

The Post has an advice columnist, Carolyn Hax, who today had this bit from a reader:

On parenting in “the good old days”:

I had two children in the 1960s, then two more in the 1990s, a generation later, and noticed in wonder that I was a different kind of father. With my first family, I was a fairly typical parent for the times. Thirty years later, I was also a pretty typical parent for the times. The change, though I was aware of it, happened unconsciously. I was not imitating or trying to be like anyone else but had adapted, it seems, to a new parenting environment, responding to new cues.
 I think the observation is true of many things: we are attuned to our environment, particularly our social environment, so whether it's fashion (observe women's fashions, tattoos, men's hairstyles), child rearing, acceptable social etiquette (jeans are okay today but smoking is not), we change.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Victory of Government Over the Natural Life

In the old days (i.e. 18th century) cities like London were sinks, people sinks, places where people died, not places where people were born and grew.  The rural areas exported people to the city.  Such facts of history have long governed our perceptions of the relative healthiness of cities versus country.  But over time good government of the city, providing things like clean water, sanitation, reasonably clean air, good healthcare, etc. have changed the balance, leading to today's announcement that New York City, the epitome of the city for Americans, is now healthier than the rest of America.  A baby born in NYC today has a longer life expectancy than a baby born elsewhere.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Understatement of the Month

Musings from a Stonehead:

"They think keeping chickens is cheap and easy with minimal effort involved.
The reality is somewhat different.'

The First Woman (CED in OK)

The NYTimes Magazine yesterday had as its theme obituaries of people who died in 2011.  Included was a piece on people who were the "first African-American" to fill various positions.  I thought of that when today I saw this obit for Lori Ross of Ardmore, OK. It includes the paragraph:
"A 1952 graduate of Wayne High School, Wayne, Okla., she then attended East Central University, Ada, Okla. Mrs. Ross was the first woman in the State of Oklahoma to hold the position of County Executive Director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture/Farm Service Agency. Following her retirement after more than 30 years of employment with that agency, she worked at the Marietta Public Works Authority and also the First National Bank of Marietta. She and Marty Ross were married in Dallas, Texas, on March 13, 1971.
I understand that different states accepted women as CED's at different times.  I remember one district director in NC telling me confidentially he didn't believe in them: women shouldn't be subject to the rough language irate NC farmers could use.  One longs for such Southern chivalry today.  Or maybe he was pulling my leg?

EU Standards for Poultry, and Spanking

Via Musings from a Stonehead, I learn that the UK has new standards for poultry, bigger and better cages if I understand.  This is, I think, the wave of the future. The richer we get, the more we pamper our children, our animals, our environment.  (I realize "pamper" reveals my age.)

See Megan McArdle's piece on spanking, the decline thereof.  She argues that modern parenting is much more intensive, which to me reflects the greater availability of time and energy for child-rearing, due in part to having fewer children per household.
[Updated--put comma in title for clarity]
[Updated 2-- a link to an effort to provide homes for former battery chickens. I guess some Brits really love their fowl.]

Friday, December 23, 2011

Retirement Parties, Past and Present

As I said I went to Star Bryant's retirement reception/party last week, which caused me to remember some retirement parties of the past.

Some 30 years ago the usual party was at a restaurant, it was in honor of a white male, the man had started his ASCS career in a county office then moved to Washington,  the party usually had been organized by the female secretaries in the division in which the man worked, it featured a lot of drinking, most of the attendees were white men, predominantly of the political party of the honoree.

Star's party reversed most of those things, but the one constant was she started her career in the county office in Johnson County, NC in 1970 or so.  As she told the story, at least as I remember her telling the story, her minister sent her down to the CED at the time (William Weller(?)) because someone good/strong was needed to integrate the office (or maybe it was the tobacco market recorder position), or maybe both.

Afghanistan Status

Here's a Foreign Policy article reporting some of the positives from Afghanistan in the last 10 years: more peaceful (at least violent deaths are down from the 1990's), healthier, better educated, more equal for women. more prosperous.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Drones and Aerial Photography

Here's a piece at TPM about the use of drones within the US.  I wonder how long it will be before FSA's aerial photography is done by drones?  And disaster reporting? Fly a drone and provide a digital feed to a ground station to get good data on the extent of flooding, etc. Won't drones eventually be more economical than small planes or helicopters?  If they can stay up for 36 hours they can presumably accomplish more photography than manned aircraft.  And streaming the data back to the base station offers a lot of flexibility, particularly if you can feed it in as a layer to the GIS system.

I don't know: is FSA compliance still being done by aerial photography? Does ACRSI include spot checks?

The Proper Role of a Subordinate (Cont)

A while back I blogged about the proper role of a subordinate in the context of Suskind's "Confidence Men," suggesting Geithner slow-walked an Obama decision and Obama's subordinates didn't always jump to.

I'm now reading "Steve Jobs", by Isaacson which includes an anecdote praising Steve's subordinates for refusing to obey his decision:
"Veterans of the Mac team had learned that they could stand upto Jobs.  If they knew what they were talking about, he would tolerate the pushback, even admire it.  By 1983 those most familiar with his reality distortion field had discovered something further: They could, if necessary, just quietly disregard what he decreed.  If they turned out to be right, he would appreaicte their renegade attitude and willingness to ignore authority.  After all, that's what he did." page 145
 The anecdote relates to the selection of the disk drive provider for the Mac (eventually Sony, rather than the upstart manufacturer Jobs said to use).

Misguided Obeisance to the Military

The Post's blog writes about a directive to TSA to expedite clearances for military personnel which was included in the appropriations bill.  As I comment there, the biggest terrorist toll in the U.S. since 9/11 was the work of a uniformed military man.  Our military thankfully still reflects our society, for all its good and bad.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On the Absolute Importance of Financial Incentives

From a Post article on the difficulties of drafting quarterbacks, the Dallas Cowboys personnel man opines:
Wooten said he also shied away from players considered unmotivated because they weren’t yet on an NFL team’s payroll.
“You inevitably hear a coach say to you, ‘When he starts getting paid, it’s going to be different,’ ” Wooten said. “That should send a red flag. I have been around long enough to know that money doesn’t make players better. If anything, it makes them worse.”

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Call Me Conservative?

I consider myself liberal, but when I read this Ezra Klein pass-on of a Timothy Noah column, I seem to have a conservative knee-jerk reaction.  The issue is a Republican proposal to allow states to require a drug test for and enrollment in a GED program for recipients of unemployment insurance.

Noah sees them this way: "Their purpose is to make people who receive unemployment benefits understand that they are losers, and must be stigmatized and harrassed [sic] until they prove themselves worthy."

Whatever the motives of the Republicans who are pushing them, and I suspect them, my bottom line is I've got no problem in requiring the recipient of taxpayer dollars (technically it's "insurance", not taxes, but it's using the authority of the government) to do something.  In my dream world I'd encourage those who don't have a job and don't have a high school diploma and have time on their hands (i.e., no pre-school kids) to work on their GED.  And I'd have no problem with a drug test, provided there's a program available to help those who are using drugs.  So I could buy a deal where the Republicans extended unemployment insurance payments and paired it with a drug testing/treatment program and a GED training program.  Of course, the Republicans I assume are including the requirements without the programs.

A Look Back at the Housing Bubble

Happened to use Zillow to check some housing prices. As we can see, in this area in Manassas Park, VA the housing bubble collapsed and has not recovered.

I think it's a true fact Manassas Park was home to a concentration of Latino immigrants, many in construction.  So when the bubble popped, along with a hostile political climate in the county (Prince William), lots left, and prices fell accordingly.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Government Doesn't Care About Taxpayers

I'm skimming a recent report on federal government websites. Page 12 shows the primary audiences which range from Federal employees, consumers, business, researchers, etc. etc.  but no taxpayers.

(Can't copy it or I would) Some excerpts, with bracketed comments:

86% of the live domains and 71% of the domains under development had been updated in the past six months, as of October, 2011, when agencies conducted the inventories. [Updating within a 6-month period is a very low threshold.]

Takeaways: [as labelled by the report}

Inconsistency across agencies:The amount of data varied greatly across agencies. Some agencies were able to provide more complete data, while other agencies struggled to develop a clear picture of their web footprint because of decentralized operating units.

Incomplete data: Several agencies did not know the answers to all of the questions, and many noted that this inventory is the first of its kind in their agency.

Decentralization: Nearly all of the agencies alluded to the fact that much of the decision-making with regard to specific domains/websites happens within operating units and not at an agency level. Varying levels of maturity: Some agencies have clearly set web policies, while many agencies are still working to develop more formal web guidance and governance policies.

Need for more Federal guidance: Many agencies asked for additional guidance and assistance in developing integrated web governance plans and migration processes for their domains.

Dedication to improvement: Nearly all of the agencies made comments to illustrate their dedication to improving web governance and communications at their agency.

Benefits may come at a cost: A few agencies noted that the benefits of integration are extremely important but that integration may come at a cost.

Measurement takeaways:

Lack of consistent performance metrics: Nineteen of the major agencies (79%) reported that they did not use the same performance metrics to consistently evaluate agency websites across the agency; each site uses its own combination of methods.

Metrics not standardized: Several agencies commented that even though the same tools are used, the metrics from those tools are not consistently gathered, implemented and applied. Web analytics is the most commonly used method: Most agencies (10 out of 24) referred to using web analytics tools to measure performance.

[I wish they had collected and published the metrics, or at least noted if any websites published the metrics.]

Here's the link to the "dialog" website they used to gather public comments.

Film Projectionist and Kodak

An interesting piece in Technology Review about an innovative digital movie camera which is taking over the industry.  Meanwhile the job of film projectionist is endangered, as is the Kodak chemist.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Those Healthy School Lunches

The cynic in me gloats over this report in the LA Times, hat tip Kevin Drum, on how poorly the newly healthy lunch menus has been greeted in the LA schools.

I wonder if USDA will pull the award: "This year, L.A. Unified, which serves 650,000 meals daily, has received awards for improving its school lunches, including one last week from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and another from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine."

To be fair, some of the innovations are working well; as I've always said, it's hard if not impossible to do things right the first time.  One of the key faults is that the food which was acceptable in their tests turned unacceptable when prepared by the regular kitchens.  As Megan McArdle would say: scalability, and repeatability could when you're basing decisions on pilot tests.

[Update: McArdle picks up the story and discusses reasons why pilot tests aren't necessarily predictive.]

Outwalking Death

This MSNBC article reports research which says if you can walk faster than 2 mph, you're probably in good enough shape to keep Death at bay.  The good news is I can easily walk faster than that.  The bad news, which the article doesn't cover, is that the Big Al (as in Alzheimers) walks faster than Death.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Henry Blodget and My Mother

Mr. Blodget has a thought experiment called Millionaire's Island, in which he gathers the 1 percent of Americans who have the biggest incomes and gives them an island to live on.  He has a lot of fun with it, sometimes in ways which my mother would approve.  She thought farmers were the most important people in the society, because without them people would go naked and starve.  Blodget says the same: without the 99 percent the 1 percent would go naked and starve.

CRS on Farm Bill Future

Here's the Congressional Research Service's latest take on the farm bill, proposals for change floated in connection with the super committee, and what happens next.

[Update: the CRS says the total farm programs cost $15.7 billion: 5.7 for commodity programs, 7.8 for risk management and crop insurance, 1.7 for disaster. ]

Twelfth Night, Martha Washington, and French Bread

In days of yore Martha Washington would have her Great Cake prepared for Twelfth Night, also her wedding anniversary.  You start by separating the yolks and whites of 40 eggs!

By chance I read about the Great Cake in the Post, then read Dirk Beauregarde's long piece on French bakers--boulangeries, which devotes space to the French custom of having the galette des rois on Twelfth Night (I think it means the "cake of the king") or at least in January. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

Riches at NCUA and FCA

A list of the highest paid Federal employees shows mostly doctors at the top.  But the National Credit Union Administration and the Farm Credit Administration are able to pay their admin heads $260,000.  Many Americans think that meets the definition of riches.

The Importance of Slack

I walk past Reston's Dogwood pool every day.  The Reston Association has a proposal to redo the pool and its surroundings which is going through the hearings process.  As part of that they've had a crew string white tape through the nearby trees, I guess to outline the area where trees will be cleared.  What the crew does is tie the tape around one sapling (2-3" at shoulder height) then run the tape to another sapling and tie again, repeating the process around the area.  Unfortunately, every time they run the tape they make it taut between each sapling. When they're through everything looks fine and neat.  As time passes though, and the wind blows, and the saplings start to move, and they move in different directions, the result is the tape is first stressed and then it snaps.  So a month later there are just a few segments of intact tape, but most are broken.  Another month passes and RA sends the crew out again to remark the site.

Sometimes in life it's important to leave some slack.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Nostalgia Day at Farm Service Agency

Just attended Star Bryant's retirement party, 41 years of service and still looking good.  Good to see some former co-workers, though the number is dwindling every year.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Target Price and Planted Acres

I hadn't heard of this possibility, but the winter canola people are opposed (from today's Farm Policy):

"Yesterday’s update noted that, “The Plains winter canola delegation made the trip to DC to voice their concerns and opposition to a new updated target price program under which deficiency payments would be ‘recoupled’ to production on planted acres up to the total aggregate crop base acres of a farm, effectively reversing the planting flexibility that has been in place since the 1996 farm bill. The target price program was reportedly a component of the legislation that the agriculture committees had intended to submit to the Super Committee as agriculture’s $23 billion contribution to deficit reduction before those efforts failed on November 23rd.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Fraud Recoveries, Bravo Obama

I could be cynical about this, but I'll take the story in the Post at face value, that is the Obama administration is doing well at identifying fraud:
Fraud recoveries are up considerably in recent years, the administration officials said, jumping by 167 percent since 2008. Justice has recovered $15 billion in total fraud since 2009, of which $8.4 billion was tied to health care fraud

Monday, December 12, 2011

"Shovel Ready" Projects

Last week's  NYTimes had a piece on Vermont's efforts to recover from the damages wrought by Irene.  Apparently they're almost done replacing and repairing the bridges, roads, etc. which were damaged, making repairs much faster and much cheaper than the governor had originally thought possible..

A couple other data points: there was the replacement of the Minneapolis bridge over the Mississippi and the repair in California of earthquake damage, IIRC, to a bridge.  In all three cases, construction went faster than people thought possible.

Compare this with Obama's complaint that the "shovel-ready" projects funded by his stimulus turned out not to be so shovel ready after all and the recurrent comparisons of the speed with which China is doing big construction jobs with our slowness.

Now the key to the fast work in VT, CA, MN was it was reconstructing something, not doing it for the first time, and the "something" was critical infrastructure. So on the one hand you had a vocal constituency for fast action; all the people whose commutes were disrupted or travel prevented by the lack of a workable bridge or highway would make their voices heard. I well remember from my working days how upset I could get if my commute was screwed up.

On the other hand, there's really no opposing force: the taxpayers recognize that damage due to natural disasters has to be repaired.  And there's no NIMY's at work--the neighbors, if any and there may not be many, have already been living with the bridge or highway and have adjusted their lives to it.  Anyone who was really hurt by the initial building has likely moved away, so the calculation of utility in this case shows everyone wins and no one loses.

Unfortunately this logic doesn't work for most projects.  Yes, there are a few straight reconstructions, but in most cases projects involve changes, replacing an old 2-lane bridge with a 4-lane, widening and straightening a highway, etc. Change means there's likely NIMBY's, who must be assuaged by a consultation and review process.  That's what democracy requires, unlike the command state of China.

Cruelty to Hens

Treehugger has a post trumpeting McDonald's decision to drop an egg supplier whose workers abused their chickens.

Here I have to reveal my crimes of the past: upon occasion when I was a boy I was cruel to some of our hens, doing some of the same things cited in the piece.  I won't defend what I did.  I will say, perhaps showing a conservative streak, whenever one person has power over something or someone you run the danger of abuse.  That's true whether you're giving a young soldier a gun and putting him in a foreign land or giving a growing boy power over hens. 

Based on that conviction I say to my foodie friends they can't assume that hens will get humane treatment with small growers.  They just can't.  Humans can be evil.  I know, I was one.

What's the Proper Role of a Subordinate?

I read  "Confidence Men" by Ron Suskind.  He criticizes Larry Summers (or quotes sources criticizing him) for "relitigating" issues rather than saluting smartly and going off to see the president's previous decision was promptly implemented. It's part of a general theory that Obama was inexperienced as a manager, not well served by Emanuel and other staff with more experience, and not comfortable with some of the issues.

Of course, in my experience, not in the White House but in the South Building, it's usually the case that the subordinate knows more than the boss; that's the result of bureaucratic specialization. And what we know, or think we know, often ties to strong emotions: most people like to be right. It's also the case the boss never knows everything the subordinate is doing, or has to do. And sometimes it's the case the boss doesn't know what has to be done to implement a decision.   Put everything together and it's quite possible for boss and subordinate to have different views on what happens after a meeting when a decision is made.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Why Bureaucrats Don't Like Contractors

Margaret Soltan at University Diaries posts about a scandal at Aerospace Corp. Seems they employed on a government contract a Phd from Oxford who really had only a high school diploma, and who didn't work the hours he claimed.  Aerospace didn't have any incentive to police him because they were charging the government more than they were paying the supposed engineer.

$20000 an Acre

Is there anyone who doesn't think this is a bubble? (Someone paid $20,000 an acre for Iowa farmland.) I'll admit it's possible that the bubble's bursting won't be like the early 1980's, but still.  The Kansas City FRB weighs in.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Atlantic on Crop Programs

Gabriel Silverman has an article on the rise of crop insurance in the Atlantic.  I think this is part of the process of educating the chattering classes on this development.  Of course, based on past experience there will still be lots of misinformation floating around. (Like the idea the government subsidizes tobacco. )

Saigon and Ho Chi Minh City

I have this picture from 1966/7 in the suburbs of Saigon.

Brad Plumer has a lunch break video of modern day Ho Chi Minh city.

Food Shortages in the U.S.?

Farm Policy carried this quote:
“‘Because we are a nation that hasn’t really experienced food shortages in recent memory, folks forget the role that [farmers] play on a lot of different levels,’ said Mike Torrey, executive vice president of Crop Insurance and Reinsurance Bureau, a lobbying group for the crop insurance industry.”

Got me wondering: when was the last time we had food scarcity in the U.S.? I mean something serious, not just a price spike.  I don't think ever, though maybe back in 1816, when I remember it was the year without a summer. (My memory for long ago times is good.)
My bottom line: the controlling factor is our land and climate.  Whether we have 9 million 40 acre farms or 90,000 4,000 acre farms we're going to have enough food, Mother Nature willing. I think farm programs and crop insurance work mostly to modify the churn, the "creative destruction" which is found in the farm economy.  Despite all the government interventions, at bottom crops are commodities produced and sold in relatively free markets where usually the buyers have lots more market power than the sellers.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Using Measurements on Social Media

This week's report: USDA had 52,122 followers, 1 inquiry, 1 answer. 

I very much like the idea of measuring what you're trying to do. Of course, extending myself to blogging seems have been a bridge just far enough, going to Facebook or Twitter is something I just haven't done.  With no first hand experience, it follow that I'm in a poor position to give advice, not that that stops me.

I'm not sure what Twitter can do for USDA, but it seems to me the metric above suggests trying something different.  If I were dictator for a day, maybe I'd offer a $5000 prize for the county employee who made the most innovative use of Twitter for FSA operations over the course of a year.  Not sure how it would be measured, but I'm sure someone could figure it out.

Doctor: What Would You Choose To Do for Yourself?

According to this post (hat tip Marginal Revolution), doctors don't choose heroic measures at the end of life. I note VA has just announced a database for advance health directives.  That's something I really should do.
[updated with the registry link]

First We Kill All the Lawyers; and Make the World Happier

In two ways: the rest of us have no lawyers to deal with and we lose a bunch of people who are so depressed they bring down the happiness curve for the rest of us. From here--the logic of the research is that lawyers are pessimists, always worrying about what could go wrong.

80,000 Square Yards

The headline on the Treehugger post is: "

Paris to Plant 80,000 Square Yards of Green Roofs and Rooftop Gardens by 2020

That converts to 16.528 acres, which might could provide food for maybe, oh I don't know, 100? gai Parisiennes?

(To give them their due, the actual article doesn't talk about food, but insulation.  But this is a prime example of how to lie with statistics; of course if they'd used square feet the figure would be even more impressive.)

Sunday, December 04, 2011

On the Virtues of Patience

Musings from a Stonehead explains what's needed to capture a moment on film.

From a different post, just as an indicator it's worth clicking through to the site.

Who Remembers the Flight Engineer? Whither the Pilot

Used to be a job, but no more.  See this Hanson pickup of a story on automated flight.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

EU Farmers and Farm Programs

A picture of EU agriculture from this  (the context is the proper relationship between payments for grassland and payments for croplant):
It is about farmers who are farmers just to obtain subsidies and who fulfil their income goals only by subsidies. Perhaps, they have a few animals, although an increasing number of them only own grassland. From the agronomic point of view, this is intolerable, as the cultivation of hay for selling is not considered economically viable. In Slovenia, there are more than a quarter of agricultural holdings with grassland but no animals, but they apply for direct payments. Among them, there are less and less farmers and more and more mere land owners, who will have an increasing interest in the expansion of land, which they would rent out and if nothing else, split the subsidies with a tenant.

Why Do Farms Grow Bigger?

The University of Illinois reports on levels of debt and machinery costs, which says farmers are investing but not overextending.   But one chart caught my eye: it's a graph showing the per acre debt/machinery costs by farm size.  The curve descends, slowly but steadily.  In other words, the bigger the farm, the more acres you can spread the cost of equipment over.  What a surprise.

Government Contracting

For many years I lived blissfully without having any dealings with government contractors. Basically ASCS was, at least as far as I knew, all its work using its own employees.  So it was an eye-opener in the late 80's when I started to run into government contracting, partly on the System/36 replacement project and a bit later on the Info Share project.

At least in my memory, the contractors were uniformly 8a firms, meaning their ownership was minority, women, disabled, with bigger outfits like Boeing and SAIC as their subcontractors. That seems to have continued with recent FSA projects.

Here's a govloop post from a disgruntled subcontractor (no relationship to USDA) which gives another side of the picture.  Essentially the story is that the prime contractor systematically screwed the sub.  Don't know whether it's true or not, don't know whether the government agency was satisfied with the performance under the contract, but it sure doesn't increase my faith in the use of contractors.

Locavore Water?

Onthepublicrecord is a blog about California water, interesting though sometimes hard to follow for an outsider.  The most recent post discusses squabbling over who has first dibs on California water, morphing into a thesis about shared resources in a political entity.

I wonder what the locavore position on water is: should we use only the rain which falls on our land, or can the whole watershed share the water, and if so what is the watershed?

Friday, December 02, 2011

Niedermayer Retires: ASCS History

Speaking of retiring employees, Chris Niedermayer is retiring from HUD.   Perhaps my clearest memory of Chris is probably from early 1986 or so, in Kansas City Management Office, specifically in the testing section, when we were both working late at night, he probably testing price support software, I involved with production adjustment software. It was the first time our paths crossed, though I'd seen him in the hallways in the South Building.

If I remember correctly, Chris had been separated from a statistical agency (maybe NASS) during one of Reagan's attempts to downsize government. Those fired got help in finding openings elsewhere, so he got picked up by ASCS, initially in the in-house statistical/policy branch of the division I was in. As we started to implement the System/36 he became the go-to person for the price support program automation.  Part of the time I was his counterpart for production adjustment. So that night in 1986 while I knew who Chris was from DC, it was the first time I realized how heavily involved he was in the price support automation.

Perhaps as a reflection of differences in persons, price support automation operated differently than production adjustment:
  • price support separated the functions of doing policy (regulations and procedures) from doing automation (user requirements, working with programmers, testing). For a while, maybe 1986-89. For a while Chris was the automation guru, then he became responsible for all of price support.
  • meanwhile on the PA side we mostly had people wearing two hats, doing both automation and the procedures. 
Personally I thought the PA model was better; of course that was my personality, trying to do everything.  It was also my background; while I didn't have county experience I did have several years developing regulations and writing procedures. I didn't have much real computer experience, doing some COBOL programs on mainframes was all, but that was enough to make me dangerous to Kansas City.   Conversely my impression is that Chris had much less hands-on experience with procedure before getting involved in price support automation.  He definitely picked up on the System/36 operation faster and in more detail than I did.

As time went on, things became more specialized on the PA side: program specialists would focus on either procedure or automation, and different units handled different areas,  but until I retired the same shop would cover both sides of the subject.  I've no idea which setup works best for the field, or whether there is any difference in the end result.

Anyhow by the late 80's the IT guys were worried about the System/36; they had underestimated the extent to which we'd load the System/36 so there was a continuous process of upgrading and moving to bigger models of the System/36, but they feared running out of room.  So Chris moved to IRMD and  was named the "Trail Boss" for the System/36 replacement, "trail boss" being a then-new, now-obsolete concept GSA had for the process of determining needs and handling procurements of big IT systems. So in 1990-92 Chris managed about 15 people trying to analyze ASCS data and operations, do a cost-benefit analysis to justify procurement of replacement hardware and software, and manage the conversion.  In other words, a precursor of the current MIDAS effort, except it was bigger, since the administrative and financial side was also covered by Chris's project.

Unfortunately, Chris couldn't move the project fast enough, so when Clinton won the election and Secretary Espy assumed office, it was subject to not-invented-here syndrome.  A part of the intra-office politics of the time was the "ins" versus the "outs". Chris IMHO had antagonized some of the Democratic outs, so when they became the "ins"  they weren't inclined to keep his project going.  Chris ended up moving to the Department level for several years, then to HUD, becoming deputy CIO, which is the job from which he's retiring.

Dreams and Reality, Where R=6 Year Old

Mrs. Obama and many others in the food movement have this romantic dream that people need only to be exposed to good food and good nutrition.  While that may perhaps  be a distortion of their real views, it's always fun to see romantics stubbing their toe on reality.  I should give Eddie Gehman Kohan credit for this post, since she's one of the romantics, but here's where a 6-year old boy rejects the food he ought to like.  The first paragraph, but read the whole thing:

"First Lady Michelle Obama's campaign to get kids to eat healthy food has a long way to go. A little boy judging a cooking battle on Tuesday night, designed to promote the Let's Move! campaign, repeatedly spit out bites of his meal, which was created by Top Chef host Tom Colicchio and 3 other James Beard Award-winning chefs. Austin Jackson, the six-year-old judge from Toledo, Ohio, gave the dishes made by some of the country's best chefs the lowest possible scores as White House Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass, emcee for The Great American Family Dinner Challenge, made light of the situation to an audience of hundreds. (Above: Kass speaks to the audience after Austin spits out his dinner; the child's mom, Kim Mrkva, looks on)
[Updated: correct EGK's name]

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Retiring FSA Employees and Their Memories

Seeing a handful of local newspapers covering the retirement of some long time FSA employees.  One here was able to become a minister while working as a CED. This reports on 3 leaving one county.  These employees have worked about 30 years, meaning they were hired in the first half of the 1980's.  

From my perspective program activity ramped up quickly in the 80's. Some highlights, or lowlights:  We had the new farm bill in 1981 and those *#^%$&$ in Congress came up with the idea of "advance payments". Although the law said disaster payments were phased out, Reagan made a deal with the boll weevil Democrats to do a disaster program in 1983 for West Texas.  Then a smart Asst. Secretary and a cooperating general counsel came up with the Payment in Kind program to get rid of CCC-owned grain and idle land.  Meanwhile KCMO was testing a minicomputer in a county office in 1983 and, if I recall, we started implementing the IBM System/36 in 1985, only to run into the new farm bill in 1986 with it's 0/92 and conservation compliance and tightened payment limitation rules....

Bottom line: these retirees went through a lot, almost none of which will ever make the history books.

Thank you.

A Republican Senator and an Earmark

Lest I be too kind to Republicans, let me pass on an outrage from the great Sen. Inhofe: he's trying to get a Thunderjet for a private party.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

On Cutting Headquarters Staff: FSA and DOD

NASCOE wants the administration to examine and cut staff at headquarters and in the staff offices, rather than relying solely on cuts and closures of county offices.  Cut the big shots, not the peons is the motto.

I wish them luck, but this update on the effort to cut the big shots in the Pentagon doesn't offer much hope:
Seventeen general and flag officers were scheduled to be eliminated between May and September through Gates’ Efficiency Initiatives. But the DoD didn’t reduce its top brass at all. Instead, six generals were added from May to September, increasing the number of general and flag officers from 964 to 970. Moreover, from July 1, 2011—Panetta’s first day as Secretary of Defense—to September 30, the Pentagon added three four-star officers. Coincidentally, this is precisely the number of four-star officers Gates cut during his final year as SecDef, from June 2010 to the end of June 2011. Thus, in just three months, Panetta undid a year’s worth of Gates’ attempts to cut the Pentagon’s very top brass. It’s doubtful that Gates would consider Panetta’s current rate of adding a new four-star officer every month conducive to efficiency.
(One of these years when I get some energy, I'll do a comparison of the number of big shots in USDA under Kennedy and the number now.)

Cats Contribute to Scholarship

From an obit of a young scholar:

" Her cats, Gandalf and Thea, assisted greatly in the writing of her dissertation by destroying staplers, knocking over stacks of research, and disappearing at the whisper of a stranger’s entrance."

Obama Beats Romney Among Corn Growers

The Iowa corn growers (hat tip Des Moines Register) give Obama better marks on farm policy, much better marks than Romney.  I can't believe it means a thing. (When you count in the non-farm issues, somehow they give Romney a B, same as Obama, but less than Gingrich's A.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Bureaucrats Lose One. So Do Taxpayers

Obama has signed the repeal of mandatory withholding of 3 percent from federal, state, and local government payments to contractors.  The theory is that the withholding aids in the collection of taxes. Of course, that involves the theory that some contractors may be failing to pay their full taxes.

I know Republicans think all taxpayers are honest and IRS bureaucrats are always oppressive. I beg to disagree.  And I've evidence to back it up: when the IRS started requiring SSN's for dependent children, there was an unreported epidemic, some millions of dependents vanished. 

On a recent political self-test, my strongest value was fairness, and it's just not fair for some to pay taxes and others to evade. Shame on Obama and both parties in the Congress.

What's Ahead: Farm Bill

The Sustainable Ag Coalition almost always has good stuff on what's happening on the Hill. See their two-part series on the farm bill. I don't necessarily agree with their views, but the info is good.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Virtues of Community

Going against the flow can be lonely.  A complaint from a locavore:
I live five miles outside a town of 850 people that could be more vibrant, more open to my ideas and goals as a farmer. I know that the customers who buy our eggs and lamb appreciate the work I do to make the food they eat, but I don't see them every day. (In fact, because I sell at an online farmers market, I rarely see any of my customers at all.) There are one or two other farmers in the area who grow things like we do, but we see them about every other month. Folks in my town are nice people, but they generally see nothing wrong with chemical farming or genetically modified seeds, as far as I can tell. Rarely does anyone think that farming without these technologies might be worth something extra. We stand by our values and practice sustainable agriculture, but pay the price of being seen as outsiders.
There can be a tendency to idealize the past. I grew up in an area of small farms and people who commuted to the city for work, but it wouldn't be  terribly warm and welcoming to newcomers.  I don't think the different ideas are as important as the actions and attitudes of the newcomers.  An extrovert who joins in community activities can be accepted regardless of any weird ideas he may have; someone who holds back won't be warmly integrated.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Forgotten Foresight or Accident of History?

James Fallows has a post triggered by the Republican debate, when Wolf Blitzer led off saying "Wolf" was his real name, then Willard Mitt Romney followed claiming "Mitt" was his real name. The discussion touches on the difficulty with modern databases, which usually force people into the WASP naming, pattern: first, middle, last name, with no tolerance for someone who wants to be known as "Mitt Romney", much less someone from a different heritage (Hispanic, Arab, Russian, whatever).

In that context I'd like to tip my hat to a long ago designer of ASCS data files, who included both the separate name fields, plus the 33 character, if I recall, name field, which at least for a time permitted us to accommodate Mitt Romney and to record his full legal name (or Bill Clinton and William Jefferson Clinton). 

On the other hand, the structure might have been simply a historical accident.  In the 60's county offices were sending an 80 character record (for the punch card) to Kansas City, which I believe included the 33 character name field. When it came time to design the master name and address record in the early 80s for use on the System/36, they added the separate name fields, one advantage of which is the ability to search and sort by last name.

So that's two alternative stories: at this point I don't know which is right.

Food Movement as Religion

That's the argument in this long post. An excerpt:
But I couldn’t help but feel I had just attended a religious revival. Lyman’s [the "Mad Vegetarian Cowboy"] talk had all the hallmarks of a revivalist sermon, minus any mention of God or Jesus. He had told of the sinful ways in his youth, his arrogance and his disregard for the wisdom of tradition. He recounted the crisis sparked by illness, a miraculous cure, and the epiphany that allowed him to see the error of his former ways. He then chronicled his path of righteousness. The lecture ended with what felt like an altar call, as Lyman exhorted listeners to renounce the sinful ways of the world and follow the narrow path of righteous eating.
I think it's stretching it a bit.  The food movement can make use, conscious or unconscious, of themes and patterns found in religion, but that doesn't make it a religion.  I would be interested though in how well food evangelism meshes/coexists with religious evangelism.

Friday, November 25, 2011

GW Bush: Lifesaver?

Any faithful readers will know I rarely say anything good of any Republican, except my parents and they're dead.  But I was struck by the good news on AIDS in the media earlier this week.
At the end of last year, there were about 34 million people with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. While that is a slight rise from previous years, experts say that’s due to people surviving longer. Last year, there were 1.8 million AIDS-related deaths, down from 1.9 million in 2009.
 Now my fellow liberals associate George W. Bush with the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Depending on how you view his decisions that's true enough.  Estimates of civilian deaths in Iraq have been in the 100,000  range; that's cumulative over the years 2003-2008.

So when you compare the 1 year reduction in AIDS deaths, it's roughly equal to the deaths GW could be considered responsible for.  Clearly, though,  one should compare the declining death rate with the death rate which would have been experienced if there were no intervention.  By that measure, the effects of foreign aid over 1 year have greatly exceeded the tolls of war.

It's true enough that GW doesn't deserve sole credit for the interventions in Africa.  But under the influence of Bono he did take the lead, both in ensuring our contributions and in getting help from other countries. [Updated: here's a Bono op-ed in the Times on the gains.  I can buy everything he says, but thanking Jesse Helms is really, really, really hard to swallow.]

So maybe we should give thanks for GW?

What Lies Ahead

On Black Friday, let me be gloomy and forecast doom over the next few months and years:

  • the Eurozone collapses as the EU continues to be a day late and a dollar short and refuses to take advice from Geithner and Obama
  • Europe goes into recession, which leads us into a period of zero growth
  • the developing nations see their growth slacken, as bubbles pop and exports to the US and Europe, now in recession, decline
  • harvests in South America, Russia and the Ukraine, Australia, China and India are record or near record levels.
  • commodity prices fall because demand from the developing world is depressed and supply has exploded.
  • the farmland price bubble pops and many farmers find themselves overextended.
  • with the US economy in a second recession, the deficit starts really to explode, making it impossible to pass a farm bill because the parties can't agree on anything.
Finished on somber Saturday.  (Not that I think the above will happen, but what do I know.)

The Persistence of Elites

Brad DeLong blogs on a Parliamentary inquiry from the 1820's. Casually skimming, I note a "Mr Bonham Carter" is a member of the committee, who I assume is a distant ancestor of  Helena Bonham Carter, whose great grandfather was  Prime Minister Asquith.  This prompted me to visit wikipedia:
Bonham Carter was born in Golders Green, London. Her mother, Elena (née Propper de Callejón), is a psychotherapist.[1] Her father, Raymond Bonham Carter, was a merchant banker, and served as the alternative British director representing the Bank of England at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. during the 1960s.[1][2][3] He came from a prominent British political family, being the son of British Liberal politician Sir Maurice Bonham Carter and renowned politician and orator Violet Bonham Carter. Helena's great-grandfather was Herbert Henry Asquith, 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith, Prime Minister of Britain from 1908–1916. She is the grand-niece of Asquith's son, Anthony Asquith, legendary English director of such classics as Carrington V.C. and The Importance of Being Earnest. Helena's maternal grandfather, Spanish diplomat Eduardo Propper de Callejón, saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust during World War II, for which he was recognised as Righteous among the Nations (his own father had been Jewish). He later served as Minister-Counselor at the Spanish Embassy in Washington, D.C.
Helena's maternal grandmother, Hélène Fould-Springer, was from an upper-class Jewish family; she was the daughter of Baron Eugène Fould-Springer (a French banker, who was descended from the Ephrussi family and the Fould dynasty) and Marie Cecile von Springer (whose father was Austrian-born industrialist Baron Gustav von Springer, and whose mother was from the de Koenigswarter family).[1][4][5] Hélène Fould-Springer converted to Catholicism after World War II.[6][7] Her sister was the French philanthropist Liliane de Rothschild (1916–2003), the wife of Baron Élie de Rothschild, of the prominent Rothschild family (who had also married within the von Springer family in the 19th century);[8] her other sister, Therese Fould-Springer, was the mother of British writer David Pryce-Jones.[4]

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Who's Your Daddy? The Fate of E-Gov

This Federal Computer Week post describes efforts to preserve the e-Gov fund. The problem, as I see it, is that the administration's e-Gov effort has no daddy on Capitol Hill. E-Gov is the sort of effort which gets pushed by an individual representative and/or senator.  In some situations it's known as an earmark; in others it's just someone's hobbyhorse; in a few situations it's brilliance.  Hold your laughter, but Senator Gore did have a major role in pushing the internet into civilian control. Or Senator Lugar has had a major role in safekeeping nuclear material in the former SSR's.

As far as I know, e-Government has no such sponsorship by someone in Congress.  It's an orphan.

Two Good Sentences

Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution writes on spiders:
Thus, the rituals of silken wrapped gifts conceal intricate conflicts over resources and sex. Only among spiders, of course.

Bubble Time

Research shows that if farm income dropped by 20% in Illinois, half of the state’s farmers could not make their loan payments. If land values dropped 30%, between 24% and 27% of Illinois’ producers would have a negative debt-to-asset ratio.
That's from an Agweb piece on "Weathering the Risk Storm".  Of course, there's no possibility that land values will drop so much. One thing we know for sure, real estate holds its value.  As someone famous said: "they aren't making more land."  And prices for grain are high and will remain high--the new middle classes of the world are eating meat, and we're the main exporter of grain.  But we can't expand production as fast as the world economy is growing. And there's no producing areas elsewhere to take up the slack.  So any farmer reading this should definitely go out and spend $15,000 an acre for good Iowa farmland and sleep peacefully at night.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What Happened to Ironing? and Washing?

A while back Megan McArdle got into an exchange with other bloggers and commenters about changes in technology which helped women.  The focus was on the kitchen, as I recall. I don't recall whether she was taking the side which said improvements since 1950 had been a big help to the homemaker (a word which may show my age) or whether she denied that.[Updated: here's a link to her post, arguing against Cowen that kitchen technology has changed.]

Anyhow I was remembering the cycles which I've experienced over my life: one of which was the weekly housewife cycle of the 1940's and 50's.  Monday was washday, Tuesday was ironing, cleaning and baking came later in the week.Which led me to muse on the changes.

Mom had a wringer washer: she rolled it into the kitchen from the "old kitchen", filled it with water (which she'd heated on the stove, since our hot water supply was limited, or nil in summer), and put in the clothes and let it agitate away.  Then she'd take the clothes from the water and put them through the wringer a few times to get the soapy water out, and put them into a washtub of clean water (actually the process varied a bit over the 20 years or so I'm remembering) to rinse, then back through the wringer to get the rinse water out.  Meanwhile she'd start the next load, probably the colors, washing.  The rinsed clothes would  be hung on the  clothesline, outside.  Towards Monday evening or maybe Tuesday morning, she'd gather the clothes off the line.

Because this was before the days of permanent press, all the clothes, except underwear, and all the linens would have to be ironed, which would take up the next day. We still had the old irons around, I mean the iron "irons", which had to be heated on the stove and then applied to the clothes.  But mom had an electric iron so she rarely had to use the old irons.  I learned to iron when in I was in college, took me probably 10 minutes to iron a shirt, not being very well coordinated. It seems to me her ironing was faster, though because dad wore overalls and wasn't a white collar worker her job was lighter than those of many other homemakers.

Compare that with today's permanent press, washers and driers.  Other than loading and unloading the appliances and folding the dried clothes there's no work at all, well, almost none.

WordPerfect: Blast from the Past

This USAToday story on the lawsuit by Novell against Microsoft over Windows 95 support for WordPerfect, or the lack thereof, brings back fond memories:
  • Remember WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS?  It was great. 
  • Remember macros in 5.1.  A guy whose name I forget made good money by writing a guide on writing macros.  And I got pretty good with them, chaining them together, doing things just for the sake of showing I could do them.
  • Remember DOS? It wasn't so great.
  • Remember Novell? It bought WordPerfect about the time of the transition to Windows 3.1.  It used to be the system to connect PC's together.
Remember, ah remember, when life was sweet.

Compromise and the Ratchet

One aspect of the discussion over the deficit and possible compromise is the ratchet effect:
  • if the Republicans accede to the Democratic demand for tax increases, that is not a permanent change--it's something which will be changed down the line.  Look at tax rates after the Reagan/Rostenkowski tax deal in 1986--they've gone up and down as it seemed appropriate and according to the power of the parties.
  • if the Democrats accede to the Republican demand for changes in entitlement programs, those are permanent changes.  Look at the Greenspan/Reagan Social Security "fixes" in 1983--the change in the age for full eligibility for Social Security was changed to 67. No one expects that change to be changed--it's a ratchet effect.
In this context, see Ezra Klein on why Republicans should like Simpson-Bowles.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Profitability of Organics

This report  (Iowa State) at the extension site says organic field crops are as productive as conventional.
The LTAR [Long-Term Agroecological Research Experiment] experiment shows that organic crops can remain competitive with conventional crops even during the three-year transition. Averaged over 13 years, yields of organic corn, soybean and oats have been equivalent to or slightly greater than their conventional counterparts. Likewise, a 12-year average for alfalfa and an 8-year average for winter wheat also show no significant difference between organic yields and the Adair County average.
Because of higher returns for organic grains, the study showed a $200 per acre premium over conventional. Given these results, I would think there'd be a lot of acreage being converted from conventional to organic; that's what economics says should happen, isn't it?. On the other hand:

I assume doing organic requires a different set of knowledges and perhaps skills, creating an entry hurdle.  A farmer who is beginning farming and who wants to begin as an organic farmer faces a major challenge.  An established farmer who want to switch to organic faces a major transition, which few people like to do when they're established.

As I've written before, I think the biggest problem for organic farmers is they produce crops for which the market is small.   Note these rotations:
Organic corn-soybean-oat/alfalfa (3 year)
Organic corn-soybean-oat/alfalfa-alfalfa (4 year)
Organic soybean-wheat/red clover (2 year)
 A farmer who converts from corn/soybeans now needs to find a market for oats, alfalfa and clover. In the old days the horses would eat those, but not any more, except for the Amish.

Think about the process of marketing these organic outputs. The transportation costs are going to be the same regardless of how the crop was raised, but because the markets are smaller on average the crop is going to have to travel a longer distance.  So the costs facing a possible organic chicken farm will mount up. 

Looking at the brochure, there's also the question of inputs. "Organic corn and soybean plots receive an average of two rotary-hoeings and two row cultivations per season for weed management."  and "The organic plots receive local compost made from a mixture of corn stover and manure"  Now the cost accounting would cover the costs, but on an operational farm four trips over the land is going to require more labor, which might be a limiting factor.  There's also the question of where the manure, and maybe the corn stover, comes from.  Once again, if we go back to the sort of farming done pre-WWI or on Amish farms, everything works together; the crop rotations include feed for the livestock; the livestock produce manure for the land, etc. But the challenges of integrating  organic operations on a large scale with today's patterns of marketing and consumption are great.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Congress and MIDAS

From the conference report on the appropriations bill:

The conferees provide that not less than $66,685,000 shall be for Modernize and Innovate the Delivery of Agricultural Systems. The conferees strongly support the implementation of Modernize
and Innovate the Delivery of Agricultural Systems (MIDAS), and encourage the agency to ensure that MIDAS’s initial operating capability will be released by October 2012. The conference agreement provides $13,000,000 for the Common Computing Environment.
October 2012 seems a bit late to me, but then it's easy to carp from the sidelines.

David Brooks of the Short Memory

From the transcript of Friday's Shields/Brooks discussion on the Newshour, in regards to the SuperCommittee:

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I mean, I'm hearing the exact same thing. [failure]
I think the tragedy of it is, if it was ever going to work, it was going to work under these circumstances. The rules were rigged to make a deal as possible as -- as possible as possible, which is to say there was going to be a clean vote on the House. They were going to meet in private. They had this sword of Damocles hanging over them. And they still couldn't reach a deal.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And still didn't...
DAVID BROOKS: And still -- and so it's a history of really 10 or 15 years of potential moments where we could have -- somebody could have made a deal with doing some spending cuts, some tax increases, jam it all together in whatever form you want to do.[emphasis added] And every think tank has their own version.
Mr. Brooks appears to have forgotten the budget was balanced for FY 2001.

Organic Versus Pasture-Raised

Grist has an interesting article from a small poultry outfit on the trade-offs between raising organic poultry/eggs and raising free range poultry.  It triggered some nostalgia.  One factor the author doesn't mention which we faced in the 1950's and he doesn't face today is big variation in prices.  In the 1950's the poultry industry was still in the process of consolidation and vertical integration, operating under the influence of the forces of specialization and economies of scale (see preceding post).  That meant egg prices could go from  $.30 a dozen to $.70 a dozen in the space of a year or 18 months (figures based on memory).

Today, after all the "sturm und drang" of the "creative destruction", something beloved of economists and hated by those who are destroyed, I'm assuming prices of eggs and chicken are much less variable. That difference in variability is probably one reason we found it necessary to have both poultry and dairy, while the author can focus only on poultry.

Local Food, Economics, and Evolution

Freakonomics has a post with this theme:
But implicit in the argument that local farming is better for the environment than industrial agriculture is an assumption that a “relocalized” food system can be just as efficient as today’s modern farming. That assumption is simply wrong. Today’s high crop yields and low costs reflect gains from specialization and trade, as well as scale and scope economies that would be forsaken under the food system that locavores endorse.
Part of the argument is "comparative advantage" and specialization: Iowa gets higher corn yields than Mississippi, Idaho gets higher potato yields than Florida, etc.  Part of the argument is "economies of scale".

Makes sense to me, though it's quite possible over the long long term that arguments from evolution will trump the arguments from economies: remember the dinosaurs.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Draft Proposal Farm Bill

Via Des Moines Register here's the current draft proposal.

Blue State, Not So Blue Air

Treehugger has a list of the 20 dirtiest cities (dirtiest air, that is). When you look at it, note that seven of the worst 10 cities are in California.  Except for Houston, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City, the other cities are mostly in blue states.  This might be a clue for the reason why conservatives and liberals talk past each other on environmental issues: they look out the window and they see a different reality.

The Poor Goats

Buried in this Politico piece on the passage of the ag (plus others) appropriations bill is a sentence: "Mohair subsidies would be ended."  First VP Gore goes after them in the 1990's, and now the program is ended again.  I wonder if there's any record for the number of times a program has been ended, and then revived?

Powerpoint: Gee We Knew That in 1991

Megan McArdle rants about the misuse of Powerpoint, including reading the slides and having the font too small to read.  My reaction: My boss, SP, and employees knew better than that 20 years ago.

No Super Committee Resolution and the Farm Bill

If the super committee fails to reach agreement, that kills the 2012 farm bill for this year.  Presumably the Ag committees and the ag lobbies will use the holidays to consider what they put together in a rush, and early next year we'll start to see legislation drafted.  In other words, we'll be back to the regular order of things.  The 64 dollar question is what sort of funding baseline they'll work with. Will they have the dollars they propose to the super committee, more or less?

The other question of importance is what will the farm economy be doing next spring and summer?  Recently corn and wheat prices have slid (see this Des Moines Register piece for corn.) Problem is that Ukraine and other grain producers have had good years.  (Back in the day, Ukraine used to be the breadbasket of Europe.  Just maybe modern farming methods and rational organization has finally arrived there so they can resume their place?)

I don't know enough to guess what will happen if prices have retreated significantly, but I would assume that it would change the bargaining and perhaps the framework of the programs in the farm bill.

As I've written, I now realize there's a window of opportunity for FSA/RMA to install MIDAS and ACRSI before being hit with the new farm bill.  But if the super committee fails, there may be an extended period of uncertainty over the future 2013 and on, meaning the bureaucrats have a compressed lead-time to get things in place. 

So if I'm an FSA bureaucrat do I pray for the success of the super committee, knowing it might well mean program changes which eviscerate much of the agency, or do I pray for failure, guessing it might make next fall torture?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Politico on the Farm Bill

As a change of pace, I take advantage of Politico's unusual attention to farm bill issues to link to their report

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Pareto and Sports: the 80/20 Thing

Ever since I learned it, I've loved the Pareto principle, the 80/20 thing.  I particularly applied it to software, most notably back in the day when we were trying to automate deficiency payments. I think I can claim credit, or blame, for splitting payments into two categories: special and regular.  The regular ones we'd try to run as a batch, the special we'd struggle with as best we could.

Now people have discovered the 80/20 rule works for sports, specifically in things like tennis the best 20 percent of the players win 80 percent of the prizes.  See this Technology Review piece

Good News for Obama

Stolen from Joshua Tucker at Monkey Cage, although reworded: While his young voters from 2008 may lose some enthusiasm as 2012 approaches, partly because they've graduated into a terrible job market, McCain's old voters from 2008 will also be losing enthusiasm for the Republican candidate, partly because they're dying off.

Bureaucrat Scores

Lifted from a comment on Ta-Nahesi Coates blog

I would like to take this opportunity to deeply thank the people on the dispute line for the Department of Labor in Maryland. There was a problem with my severance pay affecting when my unemployment started, they sent me a letter saying they'd call at 1PM. They called me exactly at 1, addressed the issue in about 30 seconds, answered a bunch of questions I had and caught and fixed a mistake on my e-file that I didn't even knew I made. All in about 5 minutes. Easily the greatest customer/client service I've ever received, public or private, and it was from a state bureaucrat at a call center.

Sex Gives Farmers Troubles

That's my takeaway from a Stu Ellis piece on waterhemp, a weed which is very difficult for farmers to control.  The reason, although I'm reading between the lines and making assumptions, is sex:
Since the waterhemp family has both male and female plants whose genes mix annually, the genetic diversity increases every year and an increasing number of plants have become resistant to a wider variety of herbicides. 
 If I recall my biology, that's the purpose of having sex, to increase diversity and therefore increase adaptability to the environment.  I'm glad to know some of my knowledge isn't obsolete.

Land on the Moon

This post at Govloop, doubting the sanity of someone selling land on the moon, brought back memories.  Sometime around 1950 in a promotion of some kind, perhaps for a breakfast cereal, an outfit sold land on the moon.  As I recall it was for a nominal sum, and a nominal area (a square foot maybe, or even a square inch).  Ah, those were the days.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

ACRE Dangers and the WTO

Via Michael Rogers at Green, Green, and Grains, here's an AEI study of the ACRE program, outlining two dangers:
  1. the likelihood a complaint against the program at the WTO would succeed, resulting in penalties like the Brazilian cotton case
  2. the possibility that market prices will decline in future years, leading to a large increase in payments.
I'm no expert on anything but for theWTO the writers speculate on a new WTO agreement which lowers the amber box limit below its current 19.1 billion and might be impacted by ACRE payments.  More likely is a "price suppression" suit in a period of declining market prices, along the lines of the Brazilian

31 Percent Is a Bubble

See this from the Des Moines Register, reporting on the increase in farmland prices.

While I'm calling a bubble, I should note differences from the bubble of the late 70's: interest rates are much lower--when I bought a house in 1976 I thought I was doing great by getting 8 percent financing; apparently there's less leveraging among farm operators.

Thoughts About the Future of Farm Programs

I've voiced concerns over the conjunction of a new farm bill and extensive changes in FSA operations.  However, my concerns may be misplaced.  It's true, I believe, the 2012 farm programs are safe, given the impending passage of the ag appropriations for the 2012 FY.  If the sequestration provisions of the debt ceiling legislation which set up the super committee are invoked, there still won't be any effect on the major programs.

So if the 2012 farm bill is passed as part of the super committee's compromise legislation, then FSA and its contractors might have a whole year to plan for its implementation, to write the regulations, and develop the software required. That assumes the new farm bill keeps a major place for FSA-type programs, rather than shifting almost entirely to crop insurance style risk management.  That assumption seems to be safe, at least as of now, given the apparent inability of the different commodity groups to come together.  Of course, if there's separate programs for wheat and feed grains, cotton, and rice and peanuts that will increase the workload and the administrative headaches. [Update: see Larry Combest's take on the situation from yesterday, via Farm Policy]

However, there's many a slip twixt cup and lip.  It seems to me if the super committee can come up with agreed legislation which is passed, there will be a long period, say from January to next elections, during which the farm bill provisions will be reviewed and questioned.  Not the cuts, particularly, it would be hard to come back in the spring or summer of 2012 and provide more money.  But commodity groups could very well ask for changes in the provisions, which could be passed so long as the overall impact on the budget is neutral.

Another unknown, at least to me, is the degree of flexibility RMA has in implementing legislative changes in its crop insurance policies.  I assume from past experience they've less flexibility than FSA.

Interesting times.

Charles Peters, NASS, and Bureaucratic Maneuvers

Charles Peters, the founder of the Washington Monthly, is a sometimes cynical viewer of the Washington merry-go-round (to mix up journalistic references).  He observed that whenever there was a battle over appropriations and budget cutting, the smart bureaucrats would, if they were in the National Park Service, plan to close the Washington Monument.  In other words, they'd threaten visible cuts of things near and dear to the appropriators, or at least the appropriators constituents. 

I think a hat tip is due to the bureaucrats at NASS, who may well have executed a classic closing-the-monument move.  With due credit to Chris Clayton, at DTN Progressive Farmer, he narrates:

Last week the New York Times had a good feature on the cutting of National Agricultural Statistics Service reports ranging from counting goats and catfish to minks, beer hops and bee keeping.

It was good timing, as the House and Senate appropriators met to hammer out differences in budgets. Appropriators opted to spend $6-9 million more on NASS than the two committees had individually budgeted, as an agricultural economics firm highlighted Tuesday.

Appropriators wrote in their conference report,

"While it is imperative for all of USDA's agencies and offices to prepare to address potential reductions in funding, the conferees are concerned that the agency made this announcement before the final appropriation was determined."

In other words, You guys made us give you more money because we didn't want to hear from the catfish guys that you are neglecting to count them."

Appropriators asked NASS to reconsider its decisions about cutting the reports and reinstate as many as possible.

Habemus Billum? Not Yet

When the white smoke rises over the Vatican, the next step is the announcement: Habemus papam--we have a pope.

But according to Chris Clayton this morning, we don't yet have a draft farm bill to submit to the supercommittee.  (I never took Latin, so I've no idea what Latin for "bill" is.)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Complexity of Regulations

The Reps often complain about complex regulations, complain, that is when they aren't complaining about any regulation at all.  Some bloggers have talked about why regulations are complex.  There's probably some truth in all positions, but there was an episode Sunday which illustrates one factor.

Scene: surfing NFL football. A contested call.  The quarterback is standing on his own 1-foot line, he draws his arm back, so the football is over the end zone. He throws the ball and is called for intentional grounding.  Now the rule is, if you're called for intentional grounding while in the end zone (note: I think this was the situation, but my memory is untrustworthy, but the issue is right) it's a safety. 

So the official called a safety.  Then the officials conferred and ended up reversing the call.  The announcers agreed they'd never seen that exact situation, and suggested that the rule book would be changed in the future to clarify that the issue is whether the quarterback is standing in the end zone, not where the ball is.

So that's an example of how regulations grow: you start with a simple rule, then you encounter a situation you've not thought of so you change and add to the rules to cover it.  And things keep on growing. How much of the growth in regulations is accounted for by this process I don't know.  But it's significant, and a factor no one addresses.

[updated with this]  Here's a somewhat related Politico post, on the issue of tomato paste in school lunches. Politico addresses it as an issue of industry influence on regulations, and it is.  But back in the day we didn't have pizza in school lunches.  I'm not sure there was pizza in the 1980's.  Back then the Reagan administration notoriously tried to change the rules to give credit for the nutrients in ketchup (another form of tomato paste) in school lunches.  They got shot down because it was framed as calling ketchup a "vegetable".  It's an example of the same process: if you count nutrients in school lunches, how do you count, and what do you count when you've got pizza or ketchup involved.  The simplest solution is to go back to the school lunches in my day: meat loaf and overcooked vegetables, and only salt and pepper.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Common Reporting Dates

From the press release announcing FMA and RMA have come up with common acreage reporting dates(ARD):
Before the streamlining, RMA had 54 ARDs for 122 crops, and FSA had 17 ARDs for 273 crops. The review team consolidated all of them into the 15 common ARDs.

 RMA and FSA will implement the July 15, 2012, and August 15, 2012, ARDs for certain commodities during the 2012 crop/program year. The remaining common ARDs will be implemented during the 2013 crop/program year.
Back in 1993 or so there was an initiative along these lines. one which obviously was unsuccessful. I wasn't involved in those discussions.   I'd be curious whether the resistance in the 1990s, and up to now, came more from RMA or FSA,. My guess, given the ratio of dates to crops between the two agencies, is that RMA had more problems.  They also perhaps had greater leverage.  Note that only 2 of the 15 common dates are being implemented next year.  That's probably because RMA needs to revise crop insurance policies, which requires a long lead time. I can imagine meetings where the prospect of such a long time to implementation was a wet blanket on any enthusiasm on the FSA side. Maybe there was more leadership from the top in 2011 than there was in 1993/4. Or maybe the people at the operating level (i.e., branch chiefs and specialists) were more capable and flexible this time around..

This is one prerequisite for the ACRSI common reporting initiative. Not sure how the software will work when you don't have common reporting dates for the crops: might be a real problem, might not be, might be something to be solved by a kludge.

EWG and Direct Payments

EWG released their database on direct payments on Friday. Here's the press release.  A quote I can't figure out:
The EWG database also smokes out the names of the individuals who ultimately cashed the subsidy checks. Their identities have been hidden by these corporate structures and not publicly disclosed by the US Department of Agriculture since the 2008 farm bill.
(FSA quoted EWG what was, IMHO, a ridiculous price for doing the processing necessary to attribute payments made to an entity like a corporation down to the constituent individuals.) I'm not sure how EWG did this.  Their statement about individuals "who ultimately cashed..." is technically inaccurate.  What they mean to say is something like "individuals who were the ultimate beneficiaries of subsidy checks written to corporations."

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Surprising Factoids

"...police work is actually less dangerous than nursing." 

The omission is a critical qualifier, in terms of nonfatal injuries.  From Matt Yglesias

A less surprising but completely true factoid: farming is twice as dangerous in terms of fatal injuries as police work.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Two Good Sentences From History

With apologies for the attitudes implicit here:
War aims, like a cat held up by the tail, have a way of clawing back at those who propose them....Women and war aims must be understood before they can be handled.
Via Brad DeLong's blog, the Harvard Crimson of Nov. 10, 1941 wrote on war aims (think Atlantic Charter and the Versailles peace conference).

One can only think of the long and extensive discussion of our war aims which occurred before the second Iraq war.

World Food Crisis?

So say some foodies.  But I see thisand I wonder:
Corn production outside the US in the 2011-12 marketing year is projected to be 6.6 percent larger than production of a year ago. Argentina, Brazil, China, and the Ukraine are all expected to have larger crops than those of last year. Of the larger producers, only Mexico is expected to have a smaller crop. Foreign wheat production is expected to be up 6.8 percent, led by a 39 percent increase in production in the countries that make up the former Soviet Union as that area recovers from the drought of 2010. Foreign soybean production is expected to increase by 1.4 percent