Sunday, March 13, 2011

Limerick Lessons of History

The Eighteenth Amendment banned booze,
Along with our own right to choose.
But people soon clamored
For ways to get hammered
On any foul thing they could use.

This created a market demand,
And gangsters were quick to expand.
Any war against drugs
Gives openings to thugs,
Who soon take control of our land.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Bald Eagles Galore!

            Today I saw something I’ve never seen before in my life, and never expected to see—a large “flock” of migrating bald eagles.    At this time of the year, in the upper Mississippi valley region, it is normal to see bald eagles migrating northward along the Mississippi and its tributaries.  But I’ve never seen a large flock of them.  I was not aware that they ever traveled in flocks.
            But today, at about noon, while driving along a stretch of I-380 near the Cedar River, between Gilbertville, Iowa and Evansdale, Iowa, I looked up and saw a flock of large, dark- colored birds--at least 50 and perhaps 100 of them.  They were at about 300 ft, and were circling in a pattern where the whole flock slowly circles as a group, much as pelicans do when migrating.  I recognized immediately that each individual bird had the unmistakable silhouette of an eagle, yet I refused to believe that these were eagles, because I’ve never seen them behave that way. As far as I know, we now have 4 nesting pair in the Gilbertville area, but that would only account for the first 8 of them.   If you were to stake out a particularly good eagle watching post at this time of year along the Mississippi, perhaps between Dubuque and Lacrosse, you might easily sight a total of a fifty birds in the course of a day.  But you would not see a “flock” of fifty birds. Eagles don’t travel in flocks—at least they didn’t until now.
            As I watched the circling hoard, the sun angle caught them such that I was sure I saw a white area on the head and tail of each bird.  Just then, two birds peeled off from the flock and swooped down right in front of my car.  It was two of the biggest, most beautiful bald eagles I’ve ever seen.  I think they were pursuing some pigeons that had just flown across the road a little earlier, but since I was driving in traffic, I lost contact. I did not see if they actually got any pigeons.
            Perhaps flocking is a completely normal behavior for the species, but few people of my generation or even my father’s generation ever witnessed it because their numbers were so depleted that there was never a sufficient concentration anywhere to form a flock.  When I was a child, I never saw an eagle.  And as recently as 20 years ago, seeing one eagle was a rare treat, to be experienced once or twice a year.   In the past several years we have had a few nesting pair and we watch them year round.  But today I saw a flock, and it was beautiful! 

Monday, March 7, 2011

U.S. Gov't Grain Stocks Now Zero.

            Syndicated farm columnist Alan Guebert tells us that the United States government now holds no grain reserves whatsoever.  At one time, back in the 1950s, the U.S. government, through its Commodity Credit Corporation, held billions of bushels of wheat, corn (maize), soybeans, cotton, dried milk, and other agricultural commodities.  Most Americans probably assume that this is still the case, but they assume incorrectly.
            The government became involved in the grain business in the 1930s, as part of the Roosevelt administration’s program to stabilize commodity prices.  The government opened a commodity loan program, which was basically a pawn shop.  If a farmer harvested his grain at a time when prices were disastrously low, instead of selling his crop at that time he could offer his stored grain as collateral for a government loan, with the loan value of the grain set by Congress.  If the market price later rose, he could pay off the loan plus interest, reclaim his grain, and then sell it at the higher price.  If the price stayed the same or went even lower, he could pay back the loan by simply allowing the government to keep the grain.  This program helped farmers in times of low market prices by giving them an alternative to selling produce at prices well below the cost of production.  The loan rate for each kind of grain was set low, but not so low that a farmer would go broke by selling at that price.
            But just as a pawn shop eventually accumulates a lot of guitars and wedding rings, a commodity loan program eventually own billions of bushels grain.  In years of overproduction, many farmers deliberately forfeit their grain rather than redeem it, and government stores increase.  In years of crop shortfalls and high prices, the government could always sell off some of its grain to prevent prices from going higher.  So the program had the effect of stabilizing prices, which was its purpose.  At a time when the United States regularly grew more food than we could usually eat or sell, there was a tendency for grain stores to continually increase.  Defenders of the program felt that this was not a bad thing, since, if we ever had a serious drought, no one would be hungry.  Critics saw the ever growing hoard of government grain as proof that the program was unworkable.  So to counter the built-in bias toward accumulation, the government imposed limits on the percentage of a farmer’s acreage that could be used to grow any particular grain.  For a couple generations, America’s farm program regulated the supply and price of many commodities by continually adjusting the loan rate and the acreage allotment.  And these vast stores of grain insured not only that Americans would never be hungry, but also offered a degree of food security to our overseas customers.
            But the critics, some of whom were farmers, observed that any price floor above the cost of production becomes an effective price ceiling, as production would expand without limit as long as farmers were assured that every additional bushel of grain produced could be sold for at least what it cost.   It was argued that while the price floor established by the loan rate kept farmers from going bankrupt, the program also kept the farmers from ever making much money, due to the price limiting action resulting from sales of government grain in times of short crops and high prices.
            A typical grain farmer might own a fifty percent equity in his farm, with the other half owned by the banks.  And every year he would take out an operating loan to plant his crops, and hope to pay it off at harvest. Over the years, the general tendency was to sink deeper and deeper in debt, although this was often offset by gradually increasing land prices, so that a farmer’s actual net equity value could increase, even as his indebtedness grew.  Yet once in a generation, a spike in farm prices might be so high that many farmers might pay off their entire debt in a single year—and then spend the next generation borrowing again.   Critics of the price stabilization plan argued that by limiting the price spikes, the program had eliminated any possibility of a farmer ever paying off the debts and owning his own land.   Interestingly, the critics' objection was not that government had regulated prices badly, but that they had done so at all.  Conservatives argued that farming had always been a wild gamble, and government should step aside and let winners win and losers lose. 
            In recent years, administrations of both parties have bowed to conservative pressure and tried to quietly get the government out of the grain business.  They did this not by enacting any statutory changes that would end the commodity loan program, but rather by setting the loan rate so far below market price than no one would use this program.  Then, as existing stocks were sold off (grain can be stored for a long time—but not forever) the bins were finally empty. 
            So, if the government no longer stores grain, then who does?  Actually, no one stores any great amount.  Corn (maize) stores are now at a record low, and it will be September before this year’s crop of North American corn will be harvested, by which time we will have less than an eighteen day supply. Wheat and soybean reserves are also at record or near record lows.  With corn at over $7.00 per bushel, farmers are making record profits and land values are going through the roof.  Mr. Guebert says some Iowa farm land has sold for $14,000 per acre.  This is a triumph of free market economics, right?  So, what happens if we have a severe drought in the northern hemisphere, or perhaps a volcanic eruption?   With essentially no food in storage, what happens to the world’s seven billion people if little or no food can be produced for a year or two? One can argue that farming should or should not be a gamble.   But should eating be a gamble?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Real Cause of State Pension Woes

                  A guest editorial by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in the March 4 issue of The Wall Street Journal explains the real cause of the fiscal shortfalls being faced by state governments, particularly in regard to pension plans.  The problem is simply the market crash and the recession.  Pension plan assets lost value when the market crashed, and state tax revenues are down because of the recession.  
                  But was it teachers and firefighters who brought down the global banking system, and who wiped out our savings?  No, of course not.  It was the greed and recklessness of Wall Street investment bankers that wrecked the system, yet these people have been asked to make no sacrifice whatsoever to repair the destruction they caused.   They still have their jobs and award themselves fat bonuses.  But Republican governors are clamoring to blame teachers, firefighters, and other public employees for the disaster, and are demanding that they give up wages, pensions, and even the right to union representation to pay for shortfalls  caused by  a corrupt and dysfunctional financial sector. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Gardening in a Currier and Ives World

Part One:  Living in the Country

            I live in Northeast Iowa, about 25 miles from town.  Except for a small country church across the road, I am surrounded by cornfields.  I live in an abandoned school building which was built in 1915, and which sits on a five acre plot.  Those five  acres were intended not only to provide a playground for the children, but also a place for horses, as many of the students in 1915 would have arrived by horse drawn buggies. 
            I deliberately allowed some of the acreage to revert to trees.   At 42.5 degrees north latitude and with 35 inches of rainfall per year, any ground not mowed, grazed, or burned will soon grow up in trees. It was barren of trees when the white man first came here, but only because the native peoples had regularly burned it off so as to cause new growth of tender shoots of grass that would attract the herds of buffalo which they hunted.  I occasionally mow about three acres with the tractor, and then allow it to remain fallow as prairie. I do these things to make a place for wildlife, both plants and animals.  And I also grow vegetables on about three quarters of an acre. It’s a pretty place, especially in winter.  Sometimes when I look out the window on a snowy day, my world looks like a Currier and Ives print.
            But there are disadvantages to living this far from town.  There is no municipal sewer or water supply, so I need my own water system and septic tank.  We have electric power and a phone line, but there is no cable service, either for cable TV or a broadband computer link. (I use an “air card,” which I presume to mean that data are transmitted one byte at a time via carrier pigeon.)  But the main disadvantage is that one consumes a lot of fuel commuting to work in town. Today I’m retired, but for many years the fuel which conveyed my wife and me to work consumed a significant part of our income.  And even today, my groceries, medical care, and social connections are at the other end of a long and fuel-intensive road.  When I bought the place in 1969, fuel was cheap and few people besides M. King Hubbert had realized that the world would soon start to run short of petroleum, and almost no one anywhere suspected that burning carbon was affecting the climate. By the oil crisis of 1973, this had changed-- but by then I had invested all that I own into this little patch of ground.  For years I felt guilty about the fuel I consumed, yet selling the place to someone else would only transfer the fuel use problem to someone else, not actually reduce it.  I tried to minimize the problem by driving a fuel efficient car.  I owned VWs, a Ford Escort, and today I have a tiny Chevy Metro that gives me 44 miles per gallon.  And I have always tried to strategically plan my trips to town so as to eliminate unnecessary trips.  Someday soon, plug-in hybrids will be cheap enough so that we can all have one, and Iowa already leads all other states in the percentage of power produced by wind. We could eventually have almost 100% of our electricity from renewables.  When that day comes, if I’m still alive, I will drive without guilt, as my driving will pollute nothing and consume nothing.
            Of course, there are other disadvantages to a rural address.  When my wife and I were still working, every winter was a death-defying struggle.  Several days a month we would risk our lives as we set out on snow and ice covered roads.  Fortunately, in forty years there was only one serious ice-related accident and no one was hurt.  We were lucky.
            Yet, besides the rural solitude, there is an advantage to a place in the country.  You can grow some of you own food--and we always have.

Part Two: Growing Your Own Food.

            The advantage of raising a large vegetable garden is not that you save a great deal of money.  You probably save a little, but not enough to be worth bothering with.  The advantages are that you get much better food, and get it more sustainably.   The average American meal has been hauled 1,400 miles. Some of it goes by rail, but most of it is shipped via refrigerated diesel trucks.  This is a very fuel-intensive way of obtaining our vegetables, and some day this fuel won’t be available. We can respond by shipping more by rail, which is how we used ship this food. But much of it will have to be produced locally, so we may as well begin the culture of food self-sufficiency now.  Iowa is a net food exporting region.  What we mostly export is meat and corn fed to animals to produce that meat, although we also grow soybeans eaten by both humans and animals.   But the fruits and vegetables eaten by most Iowans are grown in California, Texas, and Mexico.
            Before telling you why the things you grow will be better, let me explain why they won’t be cheaper.   America already has the cheapest and most abundant food supply in the world.  The only Americans who have problems buying enough food are those with little or no income, or those who pay an absurdly high percentage of their income on housing or medicine.  Americans spend a lower proportion of their income on food than any country in the world.  If you doubt this, visit any country in Europe.  Whether you buy prepared food or groceries, every meal costs about twice what you would pay in the U.S.   Not all parts of the U.S. have the same prices.  Food in large cities like New York will be pricier, and the same pattern holds in Europe.  But on average, food costs double in Europe. 
            There are many reasons why we have cheap food.  One reason is the U.S. has 30% of the world’s arable land and less than 5% of the world’s people.  America has exported food for over 200 years.  Another reason is that America was the first to industrialize its agriculture and the first to establish colleges of agricultural technology.  We also have the kind of terrain where large scale farming operations are possible.   One wheat farmer in Kansas can grow enough wheat to feed 200-400 people, and our livestock production is also highly industrialized.  Yet there is another reason why food is cheap.  Our vegetables are grown in places like California and Texas where immigrant labor toils to harvest food at much lower wages than are paid to most of the people who eat it. This is a national shame and should be corrected, yet if and when it is corrected, food will cost more—not less.  Also, the large farming operations in the Central Valley of California are irrigated by water that is provided by the government at less than its true cost, and that may not be sustainable much longer anyway. So while the American food supply is cheap, it is not without problems.  It is produced at a high fuel cost, a high environmental cost, and in the case of immigrant labor, a high social cost.  Our other problem is that industrialization of the food supply has given us foods that are increasingly unappetizing, unhealthy, and even unsafe to eat.  
            An article in the Sep 2005 issue of  Life Extension Magazine pointed out that most American vegetables have only about half the nutritional value of food grown a generation ago.  As plant breeders have selectively bred vegetables for high yield, for a firm texture that makes them easier to ship, and for bright color that makes them attractive to buyers, they have also bred out some of the flavor and vitamin content.  The same chemicals in a plant that provide flavor also provide most of the vitamins.  So if the tomato you buy is as firm as a tennis ball, then it probably tastes like a tennis ball and has about as many vitamins as a tennis ball. 
            Another problem is that commercial production of fruits and vegetables relies on chemical fertilizer, so it’s not likely that these foods have much mineral content.  Dr. Joel Wallach, a longtime advocate of mineral supplements, says that whenever the same crop is repeated year after year, the soil becomes depleted of minerals in just a couple of decades.  Most American crop land has been tilled for at least a century and some for over 300 years.   As soil becomes depleted, farmers add fertilizer, but all they add is nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and occasionally calcium.  That’s just four minerals—but the human body needs at least thirty minerals, according to Dr. Wallach. Using animal waste provides these minerals, but the commercial products do not.  Dr. Wallach claims that Americans have much more serious health problems from mineral shortage than from vitamin shortage.  I take a multi-mineral supplement every day, but I still prefer to eat food with a normal mineral content because the supplements I take will address only those needs which we have thus far identified. Natural food can provide a lot of things which we probably need, but do not yet know that we need.
            Commercial production also relies on chemical weed control and pest control.  Most pesticides are nerve poisons which kill insects on contact and frequently injure farm workers exposed to them.  So why would it be safe for humans to eat this stuff?
            Buying from local, organic growers can reduce the number of miles your food has been trucked, can limit your exposure to pesticides, and can give you food with a normal mineral content. But as for vitamins and taste, buying local may not help much.  Why?  Because small, local growers have the same dilemma as the large commercial operations.  To make a profit, they need to plant cultivars that mature quickly, yield heavily, and that are firm enough to be trucked.  So they end up planting the same varieties of “tennis ball” tomatoes as the commercial growers.  If you want good tasting, nutritious food, you have to grow it yourself. And even the seed you plant will have to be ordered from a catalogue, because your local garden shop probably won’t even stock any varieties worth eating.  Since sugar enhanced varieties of sweet corn were introduced, most young adults have never tasted an ear of corn that actually tastes like corn.  If you want to know what sweet corn used to taste like, plant a patch of Early Golden Bantam, or Iochief.  Then grill it slowly, in the husk.  Your barbecue guests will secretly feed your steak to your dog and stand in line to get more corn.