Saturday, September 28, 2013

Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Well, I really fucked up today.  Last night, the head which connects the sickle bar to the wobble box broke.  So this morning, I got the replacement part put on and fired up the machine.  As I headed across the field to get started, there was a huge boom and really bad sounds started coming out.  I shut it down and went to investigate.  There were chunks of cast iron on the ground behind the combine.  Here I had left the four pound hammer on the platform, and it didn't feed through the machine well.  I found some ground up pieces of handle in the grass waterway beside the field, but I still haven't found the head.  It really worked over the rasp bars on the rotor and took out a couple of chopper knives.  Then, we found some other things that were screwed up previously, so we got absolutely nothing done.

I hadn't heard this song until these guys came to our county seat, but the chorus made me chuckle a bit because I can relate.  I'll send this out to my combine:

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Business of Honeybees

Scientific American, via Big Picture Agriculture:
In all, more than 31 billion honeybees converge on California’s Central Valley each February to pollinate the almond trees. By the end of the bloom, having gathered plenty of nectar and pollen to feed their colonies, the honeybee population in the orchards may exceed 80 billion. These are the kinds of numbers you need when you're dealing with something like 2.5 trillion flowers, each of which likely requires several visits from pollen-laden bees to produce a nut. Each year, California produces between 50 and 80 percent of all the almonds harvested worldwide; this year California’s orchards are expected to yield 1.85 billion pounds of almonds, which works out to about 700 billion individual almonds. Every almond grows from a successfully pollinated flower, but the bees likely pollinated far more than 700 billion flowers this past spring. An almond tree can only support and nourish so many nuts, so in April and May the trees shed as much as 15 percent of their almonds, depending on the year.
After the almond bloom some beekeepers take their honeybees to cherry, plum and avocado orchards in California and apple and cherry orchards in Washington State. Come summer time, many beekeepers head east to fields of alfalfa, sunflowers and clover in North and South Dakota, where the bees produce the bulk of their honey for the year. Other beekeepers visit squashes in Texas, clementines and tangerines in Florida, cranberries in Wisconsin and blueberries in Michigan and Maine. All along the east coast migratory beekeepers pollinate apples, cherries, pumpkins, cranberries and various vegetables. By November, beekeepers begin moving their colonies to warm locales to wait out the winter: California, Texas, Florida and even temperature-controlled potato cellars in Idaho. The bees stay inside their hives, eating the honey they made in the summer and fall. Several decades ago beekeepers could let their colonies overwinter in a place as cold as Minnesota without worrying about too many bees dying. That's no longer true; in the past 10 years, many American beekeepers have lost between 30 and 60 percent or more of their hives each winter.
I knew the bees spent a bunch of time in California pollinating almond trees, but I had no idea of the massive scale of the operation.  I also had no idea where else they went after that.  I can see how the bees would be worn out and beat to hell after all of that, and therefore susceptible to disease and parasites.

Feedlots From the Sky

Wired highlights photos by Mishka Henner:

Tascosa Feedlot, Texas 2013
Seen from a satellite, an industrial feedlot has a sort of abstract beauty. The washes of colors, the juxtaposition of organic and rigid geometries, initially obscure the subject. Then comes the realization: That’s where our food comes from.
Such is the power of “Feedlots,” a new series of images crafted by British artist Mishka Henner from publicly available satellite photographs. Henner does work with the photos, enhancing the colors — the waste lagoons above, for example, are flat green rather than bright — but the physical details are unaltered.
Henner, who noticed the feedlots while scanning for pictures of oil fields in Texas, didn’t at first realize what he was looking at. Factory farms exist in the United Kingdom, but not at landscape scales.
That is a lot of cattle in one place.  The other pictures are pretty cool, too.

Crop Insurance Racket is Pretty Lucrative

It also seems to draw the well-connected:
Former American International Group Inc. chief Maurice “Hank” Greenberg has a new business partner: the U.S. taxpayer.
Greenberg’s Starr Indemnity & Liability Co. is one of 18 companies approved to get federal cash for insuring farmers against loss of crops or income. Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC), the nation’s fourth-largest bank by assets, Zurich-based Ace Ltd. (ACE) and units of American Financial Group Inc. (AFG), Deere & Co. (DE) and Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. (ADM) all enjoy similar public backing.
The government subsidies show how a program created to safeguard the nation’s farmers has evolved into a system that in most years all but guarantees profits for insurers. In 2012, taxpayers spent $14 billion paying more than 60 percent of farmers’ insurance premiums, the companies’ operating costs and the lion’s share of claims triggered by a historic drought, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Second-ranked Ace’s credit worthiness was raised to “A” in 2010 by analysts at Standard & Poor’s. The insurer, headed by Greenberg’s son Evan, reported $2.7 billion in net income last year.
Other subsidy recipients include Dublin-based XL Group Plc. (XL) In 2006, Chief Executive Officer Mike McGavick, 55, was a Republican Senate candidate in Washington state who inveighed against the “crippling national debt” and was endorsed by the Club for Growth, one of the conservative opponents of the crop insurance program.
McGavick, through XL Group, declined a request for comment.
Likewise, Great American Insurance Group of Cincinnati, a unit of American Financial Group Inc., gets government help. Its corporate parent was founded in 1959 by the late billionaire Carl Lindner whose sons Carl III, 60, and Craig, 58, run the company as co-chief executives. Along with their mother Edyth, the three Lindners own almost $1 billion in American Financial shares, according to the company’s 2012 proxy statement.
Wells Fargo has 22% of the market, and is our policy writer.  The whole story is interesting.  It mentions that Paul Ryan wants to get rid of the government subsidy on farmers' premiums.  That would really cut down on program participation. The article doesn't even get into the deal farmers get on revenue coverage. And with the new farm bill, the program will likely be more lucrative for both farmers and insurers.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Wiedemann's Comeback

I tried my first Wiedemann's Special Lager since its return from the dead.  Not too bad.  Here's a little background:
Heileman later sold the Evansville brewery to a management-led investor group, which acquired the rights to make Wiedemann and other Heileman labels as part of the deal. When the Evansville brewery closed in the 1990s, production of Wiedemann Bohemian Special Beer was shifted to Pittsburgh Brewing Co. But it also ran into financial problems. The company filed for bankruptcy reorganization in late 2006, and it ceased production and distribution of Wiedemann beer.
The brand’s sudden disappearance from store shelves was noticed by Jon Newberry, a local beer enthusiast and former home brewer who managed to save a few remaining Wiedemann bottles and cans for posterity.
By 2007 when Wiedemann Bohemian Special Beer disappeared from the market, other local beers in the Cincinnati area were making a comeback. In 2011, the Newberrys decided it was time for Newport’s famous Wiedemann’s fine beer to make a comeback of its own. The Newberrys enlisted brew master Kevin Moreland at Cincinnati-based Listermann Brewing to develop a new Wiedemann’s recipe that would bridge the gap between George Wiedemann’s fine Bohemian-style beers of old and the new craft beers that were again making a name for Cincinnati beer. The result was Wiedemann’s Special Lager™, a crisp and flavorful lager in the Bohemian tradition. The beer, which is relatively low alcohol compared to heavier craft beers, is brewed with several kinds of barley malt, including specialty pilsner and Munich malts that are used in many craft beers. Aromatic sterling hops provide a zesty punch. It’s a thirst-quenching, light-bodied beer designed to drink when you’re having more than one, maybe more than a few.
Nice work, Mr. Newberry and Mr. Moreland.

Lacking Material

I haven't done too good of a job finding things to go on here, or finding the time to put anything up.  Yesterday, I went down to the Reds game and watched them suck up the joint against the Mets, and then tonight I ran beans until dark.  I'll look around and see if I can find something to post, but even at work I was still too busy to find much.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Did Agriculture or War Lead to Complex Societies?

These data analysts say war probably led to "big government":
Early humans were hunter-gatherers. They had relatively simple social structures, which consisted of perhaps a few dozen people, all of whom knew each other, and they didn’t engage in complex cooperative tasks. But eventually, complex societies evolved — complete with governments, armies, agriculture, education, and other large scale, cooperative projects. With their paper, Turchin and his collaborators analyzed the spread of the social norms that allowed societies to expand across millions of people.
“You cannot have a large state without bureaucrats, but bureaucrats are expensive. You have to pay them,” he says. “So the big question is how do complex societies evolve when they are so expensive?”
The standard theory, which Turchin calls the “bottom up” theory, is that humans invented agriculture around 10,000 years ago, providing resource surpluses that freed people up for other ventures. But what Turchin and his team have found is that the bottom-up theory is wrong, or at least incomplete. “Competitions between societies, which historically took the form of warfare, drive the evolution of complex societies,” he says.
To test the two competing theories, Turchin and company designed two mathematical models for predicting the spread of complex societies. One based only on agriculture, ecology and geography. The other included those three factors, plus warfare. Then, they used data from historical atlases to determine whether these models matched up with the way the different states and empires actually evolved.
The model that included warfare predicted about 65 percent of the historical variance, while the agricultural model explained only about 16 percent, suggesting that warfare was more important in the spread of social norms that lead to complex societies. Turchin admits that the model is far from perfect — it includes no population data, for example — but for the most part, it was able to predict the spread of large-scale states between 1,500 BC to 1,500 AD. He also notes that whether or not simple societies were warlike is hugely controversial, but says that by the time their models start, warfare was widespread.
They may have a point.  War has driven a lot of history.  Plus, how better to get food and resources than taking them from other people?  But, I like to say that ag led to civilization, so I'll wait until they get some better evidence to jump on board.

Big Tex is Back

Dallas Morning News:
Big Tex bootprints have now decided to take a stroll over to Klyde Warren park. Apparently he is into the food trucks, the state fair says. I hope he takes it easy. Wouldn’t want him to bulk up too much before the fair. The bootprints that are making their way around town have fun facts about Tex. Like this one: “It would take more than 2,200 pairs of Big Tex boots to fill Klyde Warren Park.” Good to know. Let us know if you spot Big Tex’s boots somewhere.
Big Tex returns in just 11 days! Follow his journey around the state on the fair’s Facebook page.
Big shoes to fill: As the anticipation to see the new Big Tex reaches a fever pitch, the State Fair offers us one big tease… his “bootprints,” which the fair says will be all over the state in the coming days, but were spotted at the Perot museum today.
According to the fair, “After visiting Victory Park and WFAA’s Daybreak last week, Tex decided to visit old friends at the new Perot Museum of Nature and Science. He visited the T. Boone Pickens Life Then and Now Hall (he felt it would hit close to home) and raced against a Tyrannosaurus Rex in the Sports Hall.”
We hope that unlike Godzilla, Big Tex is careful about where he steps.
Big Tex bootprints in Klyde Warren park. (State Fair of Texas)

Wow, the State Fair of Texas is getting pretty corny.  For those who don't remember, Big Tex burned  up last year in the coolest fire since Big Butter Jesus got struck by lightning. 

One Massive Civil War Chart

Awesome (click on chart for zoomable version):

China Buys Up Ukrainian Ag Production

The Atlantic:
China has inked a deal to farm three million hectares (about 11, 583 square miles) of Ukrainian land over the span of half a century—which means the eastern European country will give up about 5% of its total land, or 9% of its arable farmland to feed China’s burgeoning population.
Under the deal between China’s Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, or XPCC, and KSG Agro, an Ukrainian agricultural company, crops and pigs raised in the eastern region of Dnipropetrovsk will be sold at preferential rates to two Chinese state-owned grain firms. The project will launch with 100,000 hectares and eventually expand to three million. Here’s some context on what that looks like:
 The deal comes after Ukraine lifted a law barring foreigners from buying Ukrainian land last year. As part of the deal, China’s Export-Import bank has given Ukraine a $3 billion loan for agricultural development. In exchange for its produce, Ukraine will receive seeds, equipment, a fertilizer plant (Ukraine imports about $1 billion worth of fertilizer every year), and a plant to produce a crop protection agent. XPCC also says it will help build a highway in Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea as well as bridge across the Strait of Kerch, a transport and industrial center for the country.
And here are some other large land deals that have taken place in the last few years:

 Personally, I expect if folks in those countries get short on food, the government will confiscate the land back and the country that purchased the land would have to invade to try to retain the land.  It just doesn't seem like a good risk to me.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

NASA Photo of the Day


Apollo's Analemma
Image Credit & Copyright: Anthony Ayiomamitis (TWAN)
Explanation: Today, the Sun crosses the celestial equator heading south at 20:44 Universal Time. An equinox (equal night), this astronomical event marks the first day of autumn in the northern hemisphere and spring in the south. With the Sun on the celestial equator, Earth dwellers will experience nearly 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness. To celebrate, consider this remarkable record of the Sun's yearly journey through planet Earth's sky, made with planned multiple exposures captured on a single piece of 35 millimeter film. Exposures were made at the same time of day (9:00am local time), capturing the Sun's position on dates from January 7 through December 20, 2003. The multiple suns trace an intersecting curve known as an analemma. A foreground base exposure of the Temple of Apollo in ancient Corinth, Greece, appropriate for an analemma, was digitally merged with the film image. Equinox dates correspond to the middle points (not the intersection point) of the analemma. The curve is oriented at the corresponding direction and altitude for the temple, so the Sun's position for the September equinox is at the upper midpoint near picture center. Summer and winter solstices are at analemma top and bottom.

Today's Boom Towns and Ghost Towns

Job Growth Change, 2009-2013

Richard Florida points out changes in the job market from 2009-2013:
One thing I didn’t foresee in 2009 was the stunning rise of America’s energy belt—a region stretching from Houston to Oklahoma City to New Orleans and their surrounding areas that in 2011, by my estimation, produced some $750 billion in total economic output, more than Switzerland or Sweden. The Sun Belt features two kinds of regional economies: declining real-estate economies and booming energy economies. Energy stands alongside knowledge as the second pillar of America’s recovery.
Cities like Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Bismarck and Fargo in North Dakota have experienced strong growth since the crisis, and fracking has brought flush times to out-of-the-way places in North Dakota, Wyoming, and other parts of the country. Several commentators have argued that places with energy-based economies or natural-resource-based economies, not knowledge metros, have been the real stars of the recovery. That goes too far. To put things in perspective, the economist Paul Krugman noted in March 2012 that while “employment in oil and gas extraction has risen more than 50 percent since the middle of the last decade … that amounts to only 70,000 jobs, around one-twentieth of one percent of total U.S. employment.”
The metros where low-wage jobs make up the largest share of job growth since 2009 are in the Rust Belt and the Sun Belt: St. Louis (where 90 percent of new jobs are low-wage); California’s so-called Inland Empire of Riverside–San Bernardino (where nearly three-quarters of new jobs are low-wage); New Orleans; Tampa; Orlando; Columbus, Ohio; and Rochester, New York (where more than half of new jobs are low-wage). Temp jobs account for an extraordinarily large share of recent job growth in Memphis, Birmingham, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and Cleveland.
Not surprisingly, in this era of federal support for the economy, Washington D.C. is seeing a massive increase in high-wage jobs.  I was fascinated that Grand Rapids shows up so big in the map above.  I know they've become a biotech center, but I don't know if that is providing most of the growth there.  I'm also not as encouraged as he is about the potential of the energy sector to provide real growth, because our dependence on oil and gas is a broad tax on the entire economy.

Topping Out?

 Des Moines Register:
Iowa farmland values are beginning to show signs of softening, a new report Thursday showed, fueling concerns that the air is seeping out of the state’s rapidly rising farmland prices.
Iowa cropland values were mostly flat over the past six months, pushing just 1.2 percent higher, according to the Iowa Chapter of the Realtors Land Institute.
Still, Iowa cropland values posted a healthy 10.6 percent average increase in the last year, driven by large gains in the first half of the year, the report showed.
“Are we going to see the bubble burst? No,” said Kyle Hansen, a real estate agent at Hertz Farm Management in Nevada, Ia. More likely, he said, “we’ll see prices slowly deflate. ... It’s not dropping overnight.”
Cropland values increased 18.5 percent in 2012 and 32.6 percent in 2011, according to the group’s reports.
The sluggish growth over the past six months was driven primarily by lower prices for corn and soybeans, rising interest rates and a challenging growing year, the group said. “We’ve lost $2 (a bushel) in the corn market since the beginning of the year,” said Hansen, the group’s president.....
A report from Rabobank AgriFinance, a St. Louis financial services group, said land values could decline 15 to 20 percent over the next three years in the central United States, because of the region’s high dependence on crops like corn and soybeans.
“Corn led the ramp-up in commodity prices and the associated increase in ag land values,” the group said. “As such, if corn were to fall below $4.50 per bushel for an extended period of time, a significant decrease in land values could follow.”
Things may get interesting (read: painful) in the next few years.  I don't expect the funds to be nearly as interested in throwing money at commodities like they were since 2007.  Right now, I think the ethanol mandate is the main thing holding up corn prices right now.

Winners And Losers of the Financial Crisis

The LA Times reports on who came out of the financial disaster of 2008 better off, and who got pummeled.  Not surprisingly, the big winners were banks, giant corporations and the ultra-wealthy, while the big losers were ordinary people with money in bank accounts, low wage and factory workers, and foreclosed and underwater homeowners.  A little bit of their analysis on the banks:
In the second quarter of this year U.S. banks earned a total of $42.2 billion — the biggest industry profit in history, and double the earnings of the same period in 2010.
It's no accident that the banks have prospered mightily since the crash, said Neil Barofsky, who was the watchdog over the U.S. bank bailout program launched in September 2008.
"We turned the entire resources of the nation toward one goal: setting up a situation where the banks could earn their way out of this," said Barofsky, now an attorney at Jenner & Block in New York. The plan was not, he lamented, "about holding institutions accountable" for the debacle.
After brokerage giant Lehman failed Sept. 15, 2008, credit seized up and the financial system became a place of titanic falling dominoes: Merrill Lynch & Co., Wachovia Corp., American International Group Inc., Washington Mutual Inc. Rotten home loans were at the core of it all.
The Bush administration scrambled for a plan to restore confidence in the system. The $700-billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, was created to buy bad loans from banks. But the government quickly switched course and instead used the money to make investments in hundreds of banks, bolstering their capital cushions.
Yet in the longer run, TARP was less significant for many banks than the aid of the Federal Reserve under Chairman Ben S. Bernanke.
And for corporations:
The government's broadest measure of corporate earnings reached an annualized rate of $2.1 trillion in the second quarter, an all-time high and more than double the rate at the end of 2008.
The dramatic rebound in earnings has occurred despite a slow-growing U.S. economy and continued weakness abroad, particularly in Europe.
Corporations' profit success stems in part from the layoffs and other deep cost-cutting many firms undertook in the 2008-09 recession — and their relative lack of domestic hiring since. And, like the banks, companies have reaped the benefits of the Fed's super-low interest rates by refinancing debt.
The surge in earnings has helped buttress stock prices, which are near record highs.
Meanwhile, most Americans are no better off, or worse off than they were before the crisis.  It would be nice if there was a political party who looked out for common folks against the banks, corporations and ultra-wealthy folks who use their wealth and power to secure more for themselves at the expense of everybody else.  However, we don't seem to have one.

Chinese Honey Smuggling

Bloomberg looks at the largest food fraud case ever brought, against a German company that imported Chinese honey to the United States by reprocessing the honey and relabeling it to mask the country of origin.  I found these parts interesting:
Americans consume more honey than anyone else in the world, nearly 400 million pounds every year. About half of that is used by food companies in cereals, bread, cookies, and all sorts of other processed food. Some 60 percent of the honey is imported from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and other trading partners. Almost none comes from China. After U.S. beekeepers accused Chinese companies of selling their honey at artificially low prices, the government imposed import duties in 2001 that as much as tripled the price of Chinese honey. Since then, little enters from China legally..... The raid on the ALW office on North Wabash Avenue occurred seven months later, after U.S. honey producers had warned Commerce and Homeland Security that companies might be smuggling in cheap Chinese honey. Low prices made them suspicious. So did the large amount of honey suddenly coming from Indonesia, Malaysia, and India—more, in total, than those countries historically produced.....
A second phase of the investigation began in 2011, when Homeland Security agents approached Honey Holding, ALW’s “garbage can,” and one of the biggest suppliers of honey to U.S. food companies. In “Project Honeygate,” as agents called it, Homeland Security had an agent work undercover for a full year as a director of procurement at Honey Holding.
In February 2013, the Department of Justice accused Honey Holding, as well as a company called Groeb Farms and several honey brokers, of evading $180 million in tariffs. Five people pleaded guilty to fraud, including one executive at Honey Holding, who was given a six-month sentence. Honey Holding and Groeb Farms entered into deferred prosecution agreements, which require them to follow a strict code of conduct and to continue cooperating with the investigation.
When it announced the deferred prosecution agreement, Groeb Farms, which is based in Onsted, Mich., said it dismissed two executives who created fake documents and lied to the board of directors even as the company’s own audits raised concerns that honey was being illegally imported.
I'm amazed that the U.S. imports so much honey.  I would have thought we might even export honey, but actually we import a higher percentage of the honey we use than we do with crude oil.  That is a surprise to me.