Saturday, February 15, 2014


COWBOY - As I Am from Philip Hodges on Vimeo.

USDA Predicts Lower Prices For Foreseeable Future

Politico looks at the report in light of costs under the Farm Bill, but the projected crop prices look really bad for land prices (via Sowing Agricultural Seeds Daily):
New economic projections released by the Agriculture Department Thursday carry a sober warning of what lower corn prices could mean for the cost of the new farm bill over the next few years.
For the 2014-2015 marketing year beginning Sept. 1, the report projects a seasonal average farm price of just $3.65 per bushel of corn–compared to $4.50 for the current year. In 2015-2016, the price drops further to $3.30 per bushel before beginning a slow but steady climb back up to $4.10-$4.20 per bushel by 2023 and 2024
That’s a much steeper decline than many had expected and well below the corn prices assumed by the Congressional Budget Office in scoring the new farm bill.
Just a year ago, the department was forecasting about $1 more per bushel for corn in the same 2015-2017 period. If the revised projections prove accurate, it will surely impact the cost of new counter-cyclical programs signed into law last week by President Barack Obama.
The department’s economists will present a much fuller forecast next week at the annual Agricultural Outlook Forum held Feb. 20 and 21. Because Thursday’s report was prepared before the new farm bill was completed, its value is more as a harbinger of what could lie ahead.
Of special interest is the spike shown in government payments under the so-called ACRE revenue protection program under the old 2008 farm bill.
At one level, this is an academic exercise since ACRE has been supplanted by the new ARC or Agricultural Risk Coverage program under the new bill. But the design of both programs is quite similar, and just as Thursday’s report shows a spike in payments under ACRE, it is a warning that the same dynamic could repeat itself with ARC.
“As crop prices decline from recent high levels, incentives to enroll in the ACRE program rise,” the report reads. “Payments under the program associated with 2014-16 crops (paid in 2015-17) are projected to be large, over $9 billion annually in 2015-16 and more than $4 billion in 2017.”
Indeed, from 2015 to 2017, the report shows that total government payments to farmers would jump by about $21 billion over what the department had forecast a year ago.
$3.30 a bushel doesn't do much to pay for $10,000 an acre land.  It doesn't even do much in way of covering input costs. If these prices come to pass, there will be tremendous pain in rural areas.  It's not so much that things will be that bad compared to the late '90s, but they will be unimaginably bad compared to the last seven years.  Folks have gotten pretty used to things going extremely well, and tough times will be more brutal because of it.  Hopefully, the bankers and realtors are right when they say all this land was purchased with cash, but I don't see how that could be.  As Mr. Buffett says, when the tide goes out, we'll see who's swimming without a bathing suit.

Valentine Weekend Reads

Math Explains Likely Longshots, Miracles and Winning the Lottery (excerpt) Scientific American

It's Not the Moon, It's Nevada   Smithsonian.   Nuclear test sites shown on satellite photo

As American as Peanut Butter  Pacific Standard

Two Churches, Different Financial Trajectories,  Philadelphia Inquirer.   LDS compared to Catholic Church

Making Money: The Ice Man  New Yorker.  Olympia ice surfacing machines are not Zambonis.

A curling twofur:  Why Curling Ice is Different Than Other Ice  Smithsonian and Curling 101: Where do stones come from   Colorado Springs Gazette

Work It  Jacobin.  About the dignity of work, or often lack thereof

Citius, Altius, Frigidiores  Brian Phillips on skeleton and other Olympic events as suicide attempts due to winter's seeming endlessness.

Awesome America: Photos that show a land's majesty  Washington Post on the U.S. Interior Department Instagram account.  They also do Twitter and Facebook.

UAW Loses VW Vote


In a stinging defeat that could accelerate the decades-long decline of the United Auto Workers, Volkswagen AG workers voted against union representation at a Chattanooga, Tennessee plant, which had been seen as organized labor's best chance to expand in the U.S. South.
The loss, 712 to 626, capped a sprint finish to a long race and was particularly surprising for UAW supporters, because Volkswagen had allowed the union access to the factory and officially stayed neutral on the vote, while other manufacturers have been hostile to organized labor.
UAW spent more than two years organizing and then called a snap election in an agreement with VW. German union IG Metall worked with the UAW to pressure VW to open its doors to organizers, but anti-union forces dropped a bombshell after the first of three days of voting.
Republican U.S. Senator Bob Corker, the former mayor of Chattanooga who helped win the VW plant, said on Wednesday after the first day of voting that VW would expand the factory if the union was rejected.
"Needless to say, I am thrilled," Corker said in a statement after the results were disclosed.
National Right to Work Foundation President Mark Mix hailed the outcome: "If UAW union officials cannot win when the odds are so stacked in their favor, perhaps they should re-evaluate the product they are selling to workers."
 Personally, I was pulling for the UAW mainly because I wanted them to stick it to the Republicans who were working so hard to try to prevent the union from gaining a foothold in the plant.  I'm not necessarily in the same camp as Mark Mix, but I think part of his quote is correct.  I think he's right that the UAW should re-evaluate the product they are selling to workers, but I don't think the odds were necessarily stacked in their favor in this vote. 

These workers, though non-union, have a pretty damn good wage and benefit package (one that is in part due to UAW negotiating at the Big Three), and they work for a company that is used to working cohesively with workers.  That's not exactly the best place for the union to come in and try to sign folks up for the union.  What benefits will the workers get by joining the union and paying the dues?  If the workers had significant grievances with the company, I'd think the union would be in a better place than they were in this one.  I got the impression that many of the union supporters were supporting it out of a sense of nostalgia for the "good ol' days" of the 1946-mid '70s era, when unions managed to force companies to share the fruits of their members' labor more equitably amongst the investors, the corporate chieftains and the laborers themselves.

I think this indicates a challenging strategic situation for the UAW and other old industrial unions.  The Autoworkers know an industry that has relatively high wages due to the legacy of their previous organizing victories, but the influx of foreign companies brought in a new paradigm in which companies work with workers, and don't fight them continuously, in the way the Big Three had interacted with the UAW.  Because of the labor structure in the industry, the foreign assembly plants pay competitive wages, making it hard to justify union involvement in those new plants.  The UAW needs to be organizing workers at the lower end of the manufacturing pay scale, and even more so, unions need to be working on the service side of the economy.  The problem is that the work is extremely difficult, and at the current pay scales in those segments of the economy won't support the dues needed to wage the campaigns and pay the union overhead.  A new labor strategy and structure will be necessary.

I think the current labor market is at a challenging place for unions to be organizing workers.  The main challenge is that the unions appear to be more interested in their own interests than in their members' interests.  I think there are plenty of abuses of workers which could be capitalized on in order to organize them and pressure employers, but I think our society is locked too strongly in an every-man-for-himself mindset to bring it about.  Those who possess capital have been very successful in their efforts to make government and unions into the bogeymen to be blamed for the struggles of the middle class.  I think that is grossly inaccurate, but I think it is perfectly exemplified in the political actions of the Tea Party.  It will only be with the disillusionment of  that mass mindset that we can move back toward the "good ol' days."

Friday, February 14, 2014

Land Price Growth Slows

Des Moines Register:
Farmland values in the Midwest inched higher during the fourth quarter of 2013, the Federal Reserve Bank said Thursday, even though the value of acreage in once-booming Iowa posted a small decline.
The Federal Reserve’s Chicago branch said the average dollar value of “good” farmland across Iowa was down 1 percent for the Oct. 1 to Jan. 1 period. For the year, land prices in the state fell 2 percent. The decline indicates that the torrid growth of the past few years may be coming to an end as commodity prices have fallen, reducing income that farmers used to invest in land and other purchases.
Chad Hart, an economics professor at Iowa State University, said as farmers see their income decline from lower crop prices, the amount of money they can make from the land also falls, pushing down acreage values.
“What the Chicago Fed found is a harbinger of things to come,” Hart said. “We’ll likely see lower farm values tied to those lower farm incomes that we’re going to experience in the next year to year and a half.”
Some areas in the Seventh Federal Reserve District saw declines in farmland values, said David Oppedahl, a business economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
“Combined with expectations of diminished farmland purchases by farmers in 2014, these survey responses cast a pall over the spectacular growth in agricultural land values of the past few years,” Oppedahl said.....
The average price for Iowa farmland rose to an all-time high of about $8,716 per acre in 2013, the fourth consecutive year that prices rose, according to an Iowa State University survey. But the survey showed signs that land values might have peaked in some parts of Iowa, with prices in the northwestern part of the state actually declining from the prior year.....
Similar to what happened in Iowa, land prices across states covered by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago have posted sharp gains over the last year few years, but posted mixed results during the fourth quarter. Indiana and Illinois rose 6 percent and 3 percent, respectively, but Wisconsin fell 1 percent. Michigan did not have a sufficient response to determine its change in the value of good farmland. Overall, the region overseen by the Chicago Fed was up 3 percent for the quarter and 5 percent during 2013.
The 5 percent increase in “good” farmland values for 2013 was the smallest gain since 2009 and the second-lowest gain of the past decade.
I would anticipate a gradual decline over the next six to twelve months.  After that, it's all going to depend on where crop prices go. If crop prices continue to trend downward, we'll see an accelerated decline in land prices.  If crop prices drop significantly, things will get real ugly real quick.

Fusion Experiment Makes Breakthrough

Scientists with the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced today that they have achieved a critical step in fusion research: For the first time, their hydrogen fuel has given off more energy than it took in.
Though an important milestone, the result does not mean that your Delorean is soon going to sport aMr. Fusion reactor. NIF would need to sustain temperatures and pressures much greater than they are currently capable of before they can harness fusion energy.
Nuclear fusion is the energy source of the stars. Deep in our sun’s belly, hydrogen atoms slam into one another at high speed, getting mashed together to form helium atoms and releasing copious amounts of energy. Creating viable fusion energy here on Earth has been a dream since the dawn of the Atomic Age. With true fusion power, the amount of water you use in a single shower could provide all your energy needs for a year. But for six decades, fusion has remained a far-off dream.
To create fusion reactions at NIF, scientists shoot 192 lasers simultaneously with a peak power of 500 trillion Watts, roughly 1,000 times the power output of the U.S. grid. This heats up a 1 centimeter gold cylinder to millions of degrees, producing X-rays that get focused at a plastic shell the size of a BB pellet. The X-rays blast the shell, creating an implosion that shrinks the gas inside pellet to 1/35th of its size, compressing isotopes of hydrogen known as deuterium and tritium to incredible densities. At the center of this hydrogen plasma, in an area smaller than the width of a human hair, the atoms fuse. This gives off energy, which should in theory set off a chain reaction that ignites the rest of the hydrogen and creates a self-sustaining ball of fusion.
Because of this convoluted process, only 1/200th of the energy that the lasers generate is imparted to the hydrogen fuel, compressing it enough to produce a small amount of fusion. Until now, the energy given off by the fusing hydrogen hasn’t been enough to set off a chain reaction. The hydrogen fuel also always consumed more energy than it put out. But during experiments  late last year, NIF researchers were finally able to get the hydrogen to give off as much as 1.7 times more energy than it had taken in, a result that appears today in Nature. In subsequent experiments last month, the team was able to produce as much as 2.6 times more energy than was put into the hydrogen fuel.
A photo of the National Ignition Facility is here.  I don't ever see this as commercial energy technology, but hey, if I'm going to be wrong about something, this would be a pretty good candidate for it.

German World Domination

In luge:

Since the addition of luge in the 1964 Winter Games, German athletes have won 75 of the 129 medals awarded for it, and 31 of luge's 44 gold medals. In the singles events, a German man or woman has taken home 20 out of the 30 combined Olympic titles. This year, Germany took home the gold in all four events, its eighth Olympic sweep in the sport. Tobias Arlt, who won this year's doubles gold medal with his teammate Tobias Wendl, told reporters after their victory, "Germany is on top of the world in luge. It's our sport."
So why are Germans so much better at it than everyone else?
The legendary German slider Georg Hackl, who won three gold and two silver Olympic medals in luge in the 1990s, attributes the dominance to Germany's emphasis on youth recruitment. "There is a very selective process of recruitment of athletes who have the ideal measurements and body weight," he said. "In the junior programs they focus on selecting athletes for their body structure." But the focus on Vorsprung durch Technik—advancement through technology—also plays a role. German sliders perpetually refine their aerodynamics and their sleds to shave off vital tenths of a second.
Some competitors are suspicious of the country's success. "The Germans dominate, [but] in all the inspection commissions they are getting around the rules a bit," claimed Valery Silakov, Russian's Olympic luge coach, in 2012. "But how can you fight it? They all live in the luge Mecca of Königssee, where you have the German luge and bobsleigh federation and the International Luge Federation. They've all known each other for decades." German luge officials categorically deny these accusations.
When do lugers start focusing on the sport in the U.S.?  I can't believe too many people are getting into it prior to their teens.  And recruiting?  I can't imagine anybody scouring the country looking for lugers.  My guess is that most of them come from areas near former Olympic sites, like Lake Placid and Salt Lake City. But I always thought it would be an awesome sport to get into.

Talkin' Baseball

The Reds' pitchers and catchers report to spring training today.  Twelve days until the first spring training game, and 45 days until opening day.  Spring is on its way.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Winning By Not Losing

Gay marriage supporters in Indiana scored what amounts to a victory by preventing a constitutional amendment to the state Constitution banning gay marriage:
Opponents of an effort to place Indiana's gay marriage ban in the state constitution won a surprising victory Thursday as the Senate effectively pushed off a statewide vote on the issue for at least two years, and possibly longer.
The Indiana Senate considered no amendments and did not debate before advancing the proposed ban without a provision that would have barred civil unions and could have prevented employers from offering benefits to same-sex couples. The expansive language had raised concerns among many lawmakers, including those who otherwise supported limiting marriage to being between one man and one woman.
The House stripped that language from the amendment before passing it last month, and the Senate's decision not to restore the language before voting Thursday means the effort to amend the constitution must start fresh.
Indiana requires constitutional amendments to be approved in the same form in two consecutive biennial meetings of the General Assembly. The ban with the civil unions language first passed in 2011 and had seemed a slam dunk this year in the Republican-controlled Legislature. That would have set up a statewide vote in November.
But opponents began organizing early last year and lined up powerful names in the state's business and higher education communities to support their arguments.
The delay makes it much more likely that public opinion or legal ruling will swing in favor of gay marriage, and Indiana's statute banning gay marriage will be overturned.  Lest you think conservatives will soon give up on using homophobia to rally the base, there's still Kansas looking to legalize the right of businesses to refuse provision of service on religious grounds to gay couples getting married, and Ted Cruz has decided to make upholding state gay marriage bans his latest eventual lost cause (I think we might be able to tell when the political winds have turned against an idea when Ted Cruz starts crusading for it).  In the Kansas case, I understand the general idea of where the folks are coming from, but what if a Quaker was refusing to serve members of the military on religious grounds?  How well would that go down?

Crude Oil Transport By Rail Spikes

Scientific American:
The following map shows just how many loading and unloading terminals have been constructed since 2010: 

Loading facilities (red dots) are located throughout the major tight oil plays in North America, including the Bakken formation in North Dakota and the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin (WCSB). Oil is transported in tanker cars to offloading terminals (blue dots) along the Gulf Coast and East Coast where it is then refined into products like gasoline and diesel fuel.
The map is part of the State Department’s Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (PDF) on the Keystone XL pipeline project and provides support for the agency’s determination that oil from Canadian oil sands will find their way to refiners and markets whether the pipeline is built or not.
Rail loading facilities in the WCSB are estimated by the State Department to have a capacity around 700,000 bpd, and expected to increase to 1.1 million bpd by the end of 2014. Currently, 180,000 bpd of heavy crude are transported from the WCSB across the US-Canada border, a volume that has grown drastically since 2010.
That is amazing.  I just wonder when the oil companies will invest in pipelines, or if because of the quick peak nature of shale wells they don't think it is worth it. I guess we'll know in a couple of years.

Not a Weekend For Travel In L.A.

You've got Jamzilla:

What's more complicated than Carmageddon and could seriously mess with the flow of Angelenos' long Presidents' Day weekend?
It's Jamzilla. That's the monster-evoking moniker that transportation officials have adopted for the 405 Freeway lane closures slated to begin late Friday, just in time for the post-Valentine's-Day dinner rush.
For 80 hours — from about 10 p.m. Friday until 6 a.m. Tuesday — most or all lanes on the busy northbound side of the freeway will be closed. The shutdowns through the Sepulveda Pass will allow workers to pave and re-stripe the highway where a carpool lane is being added. Transportation and law enforcement officials are urging drivers to avoid traveling north through West Los Angeles and the Sepulveda Pass for the duration of the closures. During daytime hours, two northbound lanes will be open, but all five will be closed at night.
I'm glad I'm not the project manager on that operation.  Geez, what a freaking nightmare.

Genesee Rebounds in Rochester

Rochester Democrat & Chronicle:
If ever there was an example of old meets new, it's inside the 135-year-old Genesee Brewery.
In one part of the plant, employees are fermenting beer in giant vats that have been in use since the Summer of Love in the 1960s. And they're using yeast that has been growing since at least the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.
In another section, brewmasters are using cutting-edge equipment to capture and use every last drop of alcohol from the brewery's malt beverage process.
They start with something that looks like pancake batter: old, spent yeast in a boozy liquid. They finish with a clear, potent drink that puts the pop in the fruity-flavored malt beverages sold under the Seagram's Escapes label. The $1.1 million system, installed at the end of last year, not only saves money, but also is more environmentally friendly than pouring alcohol down the drain.
Mixing equal parts of tradition and innovation, North American Breweries has turned around a brewery that nearly went extinct, reclaimed customer loyalty to its heritage labels and started developing new kinds of beers and malt beverages. And all in five years and after an investment of more than $50 million...
Just a decade ago, the old High Falls Brewing Co. made most of its money making beers for other breweries; Genny and Genny Light were a small portion of the total. Today, officials say, North American Breweries brands account for about 80 percent of production.
Between Genesee products, the Dundee craft line, beers made for sister breweries Magic Hat and Pyramid, the Seagram's line of flavored malt beverages and a range of contract products, the brewery makes a total of 300 recipes. A small fraction is made at one time, though.
Even while losing some contract business, the company's annual volume grew from 1.1 million barrels in 2009 to nearly 2 million today. The Genny brands have doubled in volume, while the Seagram's products have tripled.
Genesee has always been one of my bargain pickups when I wanted to go cheap on beer.  But that may be changing:
One of the changes was a higher price for Genesee beer, so consumers wouldn't view it as a bottom-of-the-barrel brew.
"It's still priced very competitively," said Bresnahan. "but I don't think it's viewed as just a budget beer anymore."
Damn gentrification.

Zamboni 1.0

The Atlanic features photos from the first twelve Winter Olympics (1924-1976), including this gem:

To form a fresh smooth surface, lukewarm water is poured over the ice of the speed skating rink of Lake Misurina, where the 1956 Winter Olympics speed skating events will take place in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, on January 13, 1956. (AP Photo) #
The old bobsled, luge (toboggan) and skeleton photos are pretty cool, too.

The Wheels of Progress Keep Turning

Lexington Herald-Leader:
A federal judge said Wednesday that Kentucky must recognize same-sex marriages from other states, opening the door for gay and lesbian couples to gain full legal protection as families.
Ruling in favor of four Kentucky same-sex couples who sued the state last year, U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II in Louisville struck down portions of a 1998 state law and a 2004 state constitutional amendment, both of which limited marriage in Kentucky to "one man and one woman."
The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees equal protection of the law from state to state, so Kentucky cannot deny people their fundamental rights, such as the right to marriage, Heyburn wrote.
"No one has offered any evidence that recognizing same-sex marriages will harm opposite-sex marriages, individually or collectively. One's belief to the contrary, however sincerely held, cannot alone justify denying a selected group their constitutional rights," Heyburn wrote.
Although Kentuckians are entitled to enact laws based on their "moral judgments ... those laws are subject to the guarantees of individual liberties contained within the United States Constitution," he wrote.
The tide is coming in on same-sex marriage, and yet today, stupid Hoosier bigots will be debating a resolution to put a state constitutional amendment on the November ballot in order to ban same-sex marriage.  As is normally the case (except for in the case of casinos), Indiana is at least a decade behind the times.

Read more here:

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Frozen Tundra

Frozen Tundra from Oliver Würffell on Vimeo.

I like the shot of the dude with NFL Owner on his cheese wedge headgear.

Income Inequality Amongst the 1%

NYT, via Ritholtz:

Insane.  And why can't we have a 70% marginal rate on income over $5 million?

Republican Assholes Threaten UAW and Volkswagen

The Tennessean:
House Democrats expressed astonishment Monday that Gov. Bill Haslam and other Tennessee Republicans would threaten to pull economic incentives for Volkswagen if its Chattanooga factory seeks union representation for its workers.Haslam has been outspoken in his opposition to Volkswagen’s plan to introduce a German-style workers’ council at the car manufacturer’s Chattanooga plant. The council, which would feature employees and management, would deal with issues of efficiency and working conditions, but not wages or benefits.
Republican legislators have threatened to withhold the tax incentives that brought the car manufacturer to Tennessee three years ago if the company elects to unionize.
George Barrett, a civil rights and labor lawyer, believes such a move would violate civil rights law and the U.S. Constitution.
“The state cannot discriminate against a company because it is organized or not organized,” said Barrett. “The threat is as bad as the act.”
Turner, in a news release, said Republicans “are basically threatening to kill jobs if workers exercise their federally protected rights to organize.”
The plant’s 3,000 workers will vote Wednesday through Friday on whether to accept representation by the United Automobile Workers and install the council. The Chattanooga plant is currently the only Volkswagen plant in the world without some sort of worker representation.
Volkswagen is ok with the union, but Republicans are threatening to take back tax break bribes they provided to attract the company in the first place.  How goddamn stupid is the Republican party?  Ok, that is a rhetorical question, but do they really think they can renege on a deal because the business operates legally in a way they don't like?  I think the kids in kindergarten used to call that being an "Indian giver" (origin of phrase here).  I seriously hope the workers vote in the union, the state takes back their bribe, then the company and the union sue the state and collect punitive damages.  Not that that will happen.  Most likely, if the union wins the vote, the Republicans shut up, and everybody realizes they were just being thugs.

In Other Food Industry News

13% of Americans eat pizza on any given day:

But there's also a subtle policy angle here. Pizza is popular because it's delicious. But the roaring success of pizza isn't entirely a free-market story. "In recent years, [the USDA] has spent many millions of dollars to increase pizza consumption among U.S. children and adults," explains Parke Wilde of Tufts University, who runs the excellent U.S. Food Policy blog.
Here's what he's referring to. The USDA runs a "dairy checkoff program," which levies a small assessment on milk (15 cents for every hundredweight of milk sold or used in dairy products) and raised some $202 million in 2011. The agency then uses that money to promote products like milk and cheese. And, as it turns out, pizza.
The USDA claims its checkoff program has been well worth it: For every $1 that the agency spends on increasing cheese demand, it estimates that farmers get $4.43 in additional revenue. But the results have been mixed. Milk consumption has declined in recent decades, while cheese consumption has soared.
The post also says that food industry giants receive millions from the dairy checkoff, including Dominos getting $35 million to come up with stuffed crust pizzas that use more cheese, and money going to McDonald's for McCafe, and burgers with extra slices of cheese.

I wonder if that's why the government quit giving out cheese to the poor, because corporations weren't getting a slice of the pie, so to speak?

Big Sugar Versus Big Corn

A battle has been waged for years between the sugar refiners and the corn refiners:
The corn refinery and sugar industries, bitter rivals in the manufacture of billions of dollars’ worth of sweeteners for sodas and other high-calorie foods, covertly funded dueling nonprofit groups in Washington in a multiyear effort to grab market share, while also stoking fears among consumers about possible health risks, court records made public in a federal lawsuit between the two parties show.
The lawsuit, which has brought hundreds of pages of secret corporate emails and strategy documents into the public domain, demonstrates how Washington-based groups and academic experts frequently become extensions of corporate lobbying campaigns as rival industries use them to try to inflict damage on their competitors or defend their reputations against such assaults.
In this case, academic research published a decade ago suggested that high-fructose corn syrup, the popular food additive, might be a less healthy sweetener than sugar and perhaps even partly responsible for rising obesity and diabetes.
Stung by such assertions, which the corn industry insisted were false, farming giants including Archer Daniels Midland, of Decatur, Ill., and Cargill, of Minneapolis, began an effort through their Washington trade group, the Corn Refiners Association, to rebut these studies and to persuade the Food and Drug Administration to declare its syrup “natural” and allow a more approachable product name, like “corn sugar.”
While these actions have already been the subject of public debate, the corporate documents show that the sugar and corn industries collectively spent tens of millions of dollars to influence public opinion, at times without full public disclosure, about the risks or benefits of using high-fructose corn syrup.
The public relations campaign by the Corn Refiners Association was the most extensive, spending more than $30 million since 2008, budget documents released as part of the lawsuit suggest.
The funny part is, if it wasn't for huge surpluses of corn for years and extremely high tariffs to protect sugar cane and sugar beet growers, high fructose corn syrup wouldn't exist.  I'm sure the folks at ADM get pissed when they see folks drinking throwback Pepsi or Mountain Dew.  Overall, I don't think anybody can tell a difference between high fructose corn syrup and cane sugar in processed foods, but Big Sugar has done a hell of a job convincing consumers HFCS is poison.  As if cane sugar is good for you.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Another Farm Bill Takedown, and a Rant

The Economist vents on the new law:

Farmers are not the only people whose businesses have ups and downs; there is no reason why they should get special treatment. The new law shifts away from direct payments, by which farmers received cheques for doing nothing very much, towards an insurance model, where farmers get paid if crops fail or prices fall too far. This sounds reasonable, but the insurance schemes lock in high prices when farming is profitable, as it is at the moment: since 2008 the value of farm assets has increased by half, says the Congressional Research Service.
Crop insurance has two other defects. The first is that while the risk of crop failure or low prices is largely underwritten by taxpayers, the policies are provided by insurance companies, so, in effect, they enjoy a subsidy too. Calculations by Vincent Smith of Montana State University found that between 2005 and 2009 for every dollar in crop insurance that went to farmers, $1.44 went to insurance companies. The second problem is that crop-insurance payments are skewed towards wealthier farmers. The Environmental Working Group, which campaigns against wasteful farm spending, calculates that more than 10,000 policyholders received over $100,000 from crop-insurance subsidies in 2011. The new bill tries to cap the amount that any one farmer can receive; but if the weather is bad, it could lead to higher payouts than planned.
Crop insurance is a very strange program, indeed.  I have no idea why the government pays insurance companies to handle administration.  They take almost no risk, and they rake in tons of money.  One good argument against crop insurance I saw this week that I hadn't previously seen was that the reduced risk provided by the subsidized insurance allowed the biggest farms to get even bigger.  In the end, the Farm Bill is a very large pork program, with food assistance for the poor buying enough votes to subsidize the richest folks in rural areas.

One thing from this article is clear, though, and that is that The Economist really doesn't understand how farmers see themselves, and how most other folks in rural areas see farmers.  Farmers, like CEOs and Wall Street bankers, really get their panties in a wad if people aren't kissing their asses and telling them that they are what makes America great.  I saw an editorial posted on Facebook yesterday (by a really good friend) written by a Missouri Farm Bureau hack and it made me laugh.  It was titled "Farming deserves more respect," which in itself is ridiculous, but it showed just how thin-skinned Big Ag is:
This spring will be the 65th time my dad has planted corn on the field, where I learned to plow. Dad remembers everything; two thirds of a century of experience has equipped him with farming knowledge that is broad, deep and rare. But nothing has prepared us, or any other farmer, for the challenges we’re facing as an industry.
Farms, like any other business, involve a succession of worries. Our crop prices have dropped, and we desperately need moisture, but agriculture means we are at the mercy of weather and markets (unlike small business operators, who don't have any challenges to the potential success of their businesses).
No, what concerns farmers is the growing consensus that the way we farm is nothing less than a crime against nature, nutrition, and all that is good and true. Our critics are convinced that technology applied to personal communications devices and medicine is a net good, but science applied to growing things is freakish, unnatural and dangerous. They are bi-coastal experts on agriculture, armed with a touching nostalgia for a life they never lived.
Consumers have every right to be curious about how we raise their food (so I take it that video filmed in livestock operations is ok), and I’m more than glad to spend the next year talking about why we do the things we do (and one of the main reasons is that it is easier).
But those of us out here in the agricultural hinterlands are ill-prepared to joust with eloquent journalism professors, celebrity chefs, and multimillion-dollar propaganda campaigns from franchised burrito stands (yes, because agriculture has no political influence or financial backing to put together their own lobbying and propaganda campaigns). Seed corn gimme caps, blue jeans and a stubborn refusal to darken the door of the gym are inadequate tools when your industry is in the cross hairs of Dr. Oz, Oprah, and Mark Bittman, food writer and farming critic for The New York Times (damn liberal media).
Just a tip: if you want to hold the moral high ground against your critics, you might want to reconsider Ag Gag laws.  If you don't want to have your way of life considered a crime against nature, you might not want to spread so much manure that you turn the local lake into an algae-choked toxic shit hole.  I'm not making the case that Dr. Oz, Oprah and Mark Bittman (not exactly Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot there) are correct in all of their criticisms of Big Ag, but I expect a statewide spokesman for agriculture to come up with a better argument than, "just trust us":
Farming is the most conservative of industries.
Someone once defined political conservatism as the granting of the vote to those who have gone before (and restricting the vote to brown folks [oh wait, that's my definition]). On most of our farms, the people who went before trained us, spent years riding along on the tractor fender hollering advice, and if we’re lucky, are still here on the farm imparting wisdom and experience (you know, because all old people are up on the latest technology and are ready to change how things are done when the old ways are obviously wrong [if they are, they are different than my grandpa, at least now.  He used to be much more open to new ideas, now if we say we are doing something even slightly different than what he did, we are stupid and wrong.]).
We adopt change very, very slowly (not always, see Roundup Ready beans and triple-stack corn), and don’t invest in new ideas or new technologies without plenty of proof that they make sense (see previous point, or vertical tillage). Our commitment to the place where we live is strengthened by the presumed tenure of our residence here (see algae-choked toxic shit hole above).
Every year, the extension service in Missouri recognizes dozens of farms that have been in a family for a century. (I’m pretty sure dad is planning on receiving his award in person. [that is the author's note, and not mine])
Know this about me, and most other farmers: We’re in this for the long haul. If I’m using a new method or a new technology, I’m convinced that it’s not only the right thing for me, but for my grandkids as well (see examples of extremely short-term thinking above).
 If you are in it for the long haul, you might not want to ignore the pointy-headed professors when they tell you that conventional tillage leads to massive soil erosion.  You might not want to ignore them when they tell you that continuously using the same herbicides year after year will lead to the development of herbicide-resistant weeds.  You might not want to plant corn-after-corn using the same genetic pest-control traits every year.  In other words, if you plan on winning over a skeptical audience, you shouldn't expect them to believe the hype that has been spoon-fed to you by ass-kissing politicians and marketing hacks about how much better you are than everybody else, especially when there is a lot of evidence to suggest that you shouldn't be trusted to do what is wisest just because it would be in your long-term interest.  Knowing that, you might want to construct an argument without strawmen, and with examples of how your actions are actually in your customers' best interests.

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Yuengling Ice Cream?

Nearly three decades after its plant shut down, Yuengling's ice cream has returned to stores.
The first cartons are to appear in grocers' freezers Monday, Feb. 10.
Though the Yuengling name may conjure up thoughts of beers, the ice cream company is run by a different branch of the Pottsville-based family.
There's also no beer in the ice cream - though one flavor is "Black and Tan" (chocolate and caramel ice cream).
The Yuenglings opened Yuengling Dairy in 1920 during Prohibition as a way to compensate for the loss of beer sales. It closed the ice cream operation in 1985.
Leiby's Dairy in Tamaqua produces the 10 flavors, which are being sold at Acme, Weis and some independent grocery stores in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York and West Virginia.
It's cool to see that a smaller dairy is making a comeback, and the name definitely helps their prospects.

Bay Bridge Sees Water Infiltration

LA Times:
A section of the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge sprung hundreds of leaks after a winter storm soaked Northern California, state transportation officials said Monday.
The leaks were in a supposedly watertight steel chamber that supports the new road bed of the span, California Department of Transportation officials said in an article published in the San Francisco Chronicle.
The water was leaking into the steel structure beneath a 0.3-mile section where the bridge deck is suspended from its tower. "We're taking this issue very seriously -- it is something that, if left unaddressed over several years, could become an issue," said Richard Land, Caltrans' chief deputy director.
The report said Caltrans officials consider the leaks manageable. But officials said they had not come up with a solution because they had not figured out all the reasons the leaks were occurring.
The Chronicle reported that caulking may be failing to keep out water in an area where guardrails meet the steel support structure beneath the roadway. But Caltrans officials downplayed that possibility, according to the report.
The new $6.4-billion span, which opened Labor Day, came in $5 billion over budget and years later than planned.
Last month, two engineers told a state Senate committee that their safety concerns were suppressed by Caltrans higher-ups. But the engineers said they believed that the eastern span of the structure is safe.
Wow, what else can go wrong on this project?  Well, let me knock on some wood and pretend I didn't actually ask that, because most of the possibilities that are left are pretty grim.

Conservation, at a Cost

Texas Tribune:
The drought-stricken city of Wichita Falls could soon give its residents more bad news.
Even though the 100,000 residents of this northwest Texas city have substantially cut their water use, their dry lawns may no longer continue to save them money on their water bills. Instead, they will be asked to pay more; the city lost $4.5 million in water sales last year because of the conservation efforts.
“It’s tough to tell the consumer that ‘Yeah, well, you guys did a great job out there conserving water, but lo and behold, we got hurt financially, so we’ve got to raise your rates,’” the assistant city manager, Jim Dockery, said.
Wichita Falls, whose rainfall over the last three years was 33 inches below normal, is not alone in its water conservation conundrum. Several Texas cities have collectively lost tens of millions of dollars by restricting outdoor water use, which has been a main source of revenue. At the same time, most of their expenses, like paying off debt and infrastructure maintenance, have increased, forcing utilities to raise rates for everyone, regardless of their water use.
The losses have prompted credit ratings agencies to look closer at the finances of public utilities in Texas. One agency, Fitch, downgraded some of Fort Worth’s water and sewer debt last year, and last week the firm downgraded the debt of the city’s wholesale water supplier. Fort Worth lost $11 million last year because of water conservation.
How can that be? Well:
Consumers have underpaid for water for decades, said Sharlene Leurig, a program director at Ceres, a nonprofit sustainability advocacy group with which many Texas cities have consulted on water rate structures.
"People truly don’t understand that the cost of having reliable water is not the cost of the water itself,” Leurig said. “It’s the cost of all the infrastructure you have to put in place to provide that water reliably and safely.”
Wichita Falls is spending about $1 million on a pipeline that will deliver treated wastewater to a large manufacturing company, and the city will lose an additional $100,000 a year by selling the reused water at a discount. “We’re paying to save water, is what we’re doing,” Dockery said. He added that the city has had to defer important maintenance projects because of the lost revenue.
It is imperative that governments in the southwest adequately price their water.  It is absolutely stupid to need large water usage to be able to cover debt service.  Water availability will definitely improve the competitiveness of the Great Lakes region compared to the southwest.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Really, Really Bad Predictions

Via Ritholtz, Visually (click twice to zoom):

Drought May Bankrupt California Farmers

Washington Post:
Without help from the heavens, Joe Del Bosque figures that 2014 will be the last year before many family farmers in California’s vast San Joaquin Valley begin to go bankrupt.
And 2014 is going to be bad. Really bad. Del Bosque has 2,000 acres scattered across several farms west of Fresno, near Firebaugh. He will leave 500 to 700 acres unplanted because there is no water for his crops.
That’s about 650,000 boxes of cantaloupe, regular and organic, he won’t be harvesting come July — about $3 million worth of produce, he estimated. It’s a few hundred workers, most of them migrants, he won’t be hiring. It’s money that won’t be spent in grocery and hardware stores in small towns across the region that produces half of the country’s homegrown fruits and vegetables. It’s a lot of schools with empty seats as farm workers looking for jobs move on with their families.
“Everybody will be hurt,” Del Bosque said. “When farmers idle land, the people who have small businesses in small communities . . . they’ll all suffer. It’s a huge ripple effect through the whole valley.”
California is entering its third year of drought, a recurring nightmare for those old enough to remember the prolonged dry period of 1987 to 1991 and the disaster of 1976 and 1977, the previous record-setting drought.
Now, 2013 is the driest year on record in California.
I really can't fathom a drought like that.  Then again, I can't imagine farming in a freaking desert, either.  One notable item is that the previous worst drought, in 1977, was also one of the coldest winters here in Ohio prior to this one.  It is interesting to me how continental weather patterns cause the same effects in the same places each occurrence, like this polar vortex we are getting causes the high pressure systems to be trapped out on the coast, preventing rain and snow there.  But I still can't imagine how dry it is out there.

Midwest Propane Delivery 101

EIA explains the propane price spike:

After the harvest, logistical problems prevented the region from fully replenishing inventories before the onset of winter. The Upper Midwest is supplied with propane by pipelines (Mid-American and ONEOK) flowing north from Conway (home to 30% of the nation's propane storage), the Cochin Pipeline coming south from Canada, and from rail deliveries. The Cochin Pipeline, which delivers ethane and propane from Canada to the Upper Midwest, was out of service for maintenance from late November to December 20 and unavailable to deliver supplies. Rail transportation disruptions, both due to weather and other factors, curtailed deliveries from Mont Belvieu and Conway, as well as from Canada.
The most recent cold weather increased space-heating demand at a time when markets were already tight. As demand outpaced supply, inventories dropped further, by 1.5 million barrels and 1.2 million barrels for the weeks ending December 6 and January 3, respectively. Since the week ending October 11, Midwest propane inventory levels have dropped by 12.8 million barrels, compared with a drop of 7.3 million barrels for the previous five-year average for that period. By January 21, prices at Conway had vaulted to a 95-cent/gal premium to Mont Belvieu.
Strong demand surges, low inventories, and supply challenges have led several Midwest states to implement emergency measures to provide propane to heating customers, including suspensions of limitations on hours of service for propane-delivery truck drivers.
From early 2010 until November 2013, propane prices at Mont Belvieu, the nation's largest propane storage and market hub, have been higher than at Conway by as much as 30 cents/gal, prompting propane supplies to flow south on newly expanded southbound pipelines. High demand from the local petrochemicals industry and access to the global propane market via expanded HGL export capacity supported higher Mont Belvieu prices and encouraged propane from the Rockies (PADD 4) and elsewhere in the Midwest to flow south.
This and natural gas demand, along with record demand on the electricity grid indicate that our infrastructure will be strained under increasingly frequent extreme weather events we can expect from climate change.

Bush vs. Clinton 2016?

Just shoot me.

Northeastern Tries To End Beanpot Drought

Boston Globe:
At first glance, tonight's Beanpot championship game might appear to be a David vs. Goliath matchup. After all, on one side is Boston College (21-4-3), ranked second in the country, running away with first place in Hockey East, and shooting for a fifth straight Beanpot title. Over on the other side is Northeastern, which has not won a Beanpot since 1988.
But the two programs have had some memorable meetings in recent years on one of the first two Mondays in February. Northeastern is the last team to beat BC in the Beanpot, defeating the Eagles in the 2009 semifinals. It has lost to BC in three straight Beanpots, and this will be the third time the two clubs will be playing for the championship in the last four years. Included in that run is the 2011 final, in which BC prevailed 7-6 in overtime. The gap looks to be even narrower this season. The Huskies (16-9-3) are ranked 10th in the country and are currently third in Hockey East. Their play this season is all the more impressive when you consider Northeastern didn't even qualify for the Hockey East playoffs in each of the last two seasons.
26 years is a long time.  BC has a four-time Beanpot winning streak on the line.

A Beautiful Waste

Sunday, February 9, 2014

NASA Photo of the Day

Groundhog Day:

Mars and Orion over Monument Valley
Image Credit & Copyright: Wally Pacholka (Astropics, TWAN)
Explanation: Welcome to The World At Night. Sharing the night sky seen around the world, this view from Monument Valley, USA includes a picturesque foreground of famous buttes. Buttes are composed of hard rock left behind after water eroded away the surrounding soft rock. The two buttes on the image left are known as the Mittens, while Merrick Butte is on the right. Recorded in 2007 December, planet Mars is at the left of the skyscape, a glowing beacon of orange that is the brightest object in the frame. To the right of Mars lies the constellation of Orion. Betelgeuse is the reddish star near the center and the Belt of Orion and the Orion Nebula are farther right. Finally, the bright blue star Rigel appears above Merrick Butte in this stunning view of The World At Night.

Textile Manufacturing Sees Mild Gains in the South

McClatchy Newspapers:
In 2013, companies in Brazil, Canada, China, Dubai, Great Britain, India, Israel, Japan, Korea, Mexico and Switzerland, as well as in the U.S., announced plans to open or expand textile plants in Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
The workers produce yarn, thread and fabric for apparel, furnishings, home products and industrial use. Examples include Huggies and Pampers diapers, Swiffer mops and Pledge furniture wipes, according to David Rousse, president of the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry.
"Textiles manufacturing - yarn, fabric, woven and nonwoven - is still here and growing," said A. Blanton Godfrey, dean of the College of Textiles at North Carolina State University. "We're selling cotton yarn cheaper than the Chinese."
True, textile manufacturing in the U.S. dropped precipitously in the 1990s and 2000s as cheaper labor drew jobs overseas. Automation and increased productivity of textile mills also cost jobs. More than 200,000 textile manufacturing jobs have been lost to automation in the last decade.
Textiles, mostly cotton, once dominated the economy of the South. Employment peaked in June 1948 with 1.3 million jobs. In just one state, North Carolina, 40 percent of its jobs were in textile and apparel manufacturing in 1940. By 2013, just 1.1 percent of that state's jobs were in textiles.
About 650 textile plants closed between 1997 and 2009, draining thousands of jobs and depressing communities.
But rising wages in China and other countries, combined with higher transportation costs and tariffs, have prompted foreign and domestic companies to consider American manufacturing sites. Also, with more consumers looking for the "Made in the USA" label, some companies are turning to American goods. Wal-Mart, for example, pledged last year to buy $50 billion over a decade in American-made products, among them towels and washcloths.
More than a third of all textile jobs were located in Georgia and North Carolina in 2012, and that's where many of the jobs are being created. The new plants are nothing like the dusty, noisy mills of the past.
These highly automated plants require far fewer - but more tech-savvy - workers who earn higher pay than their forebears.
Much like the heralded "reshoring" of manufacturing jobs, the number of jobs recently created here are massively overshadowed by the job losses over the last 3 decades, and technology assures that most of the lost jobs will never come back, but I'll take what good news I can where I can find it.  Mainly because looking at the past is really, really depressing:
The number of jobs in 2012 and the decline since 2002:
-Georgia: 45,154, down 46 percent from 2002
-North Carolina: 34,786, down 64 percent
-South Carolina: 18,701, down 67 percent
-California: 17,009, down 47 percent
-Alabama: 10,195, down 63 percent
-Texas: 8,584, down 27 percent
-Pennsylvania: 7,733, down 57 percent
-New York: 7,633, down 49 percent
-Virginia: 7,560, down 62 percent
-Tennessee: 6,016, down 50 percent
These 10 states account for 70 percent of the textile manufacturing jobs in the U.S.
SOURCE: Congressional Research Service
However, the war on middle class wages, along with the massive surge in energy costs, means that the U.S. is more competitive with China and other developing nations.  Expect that small numbers of textile and manufacturing jobs will return here going forward.

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Private Payrolls versus Public Payrolls

Calculated Risk looks at private employment and public employment through the presidential terms of each White House occupant since Reagan.  First, the private sector employment data:

So contrary to popular belief, the recovery in the private sector has been stronger under Obama than it was under Bush, and most of the jobs created under Bush were created by the housing bubble, in spite of Obama being forced to deal with a much more severe plunge in the economy:

The employment recovery during Mr. G.W. Bush's (red) first term was very sluggish, and private employment was down 841,000 jobs at the end of his first term.   At the end of Mr. Bush's second term, private employment was collapsing, and there were net 462,000 private sector jobs lost during Mr. Bush's two terms. 

Private sector employment increased slightly under President G.H.W. Bush (purple), with 1,510,000 private sector jobs added.

Private sector employment increased by 20,955,000 under President Clinton (light blue) and 14,717,000 under President Reagan (yellow).

There were only 1,998,000 more private sector jobs at the end of Mr. Obama's first term.  One year into Mr. Obama's second term, there are now 4,289,000 more private sector jobs than when he initially took office.
Now to the public sector:

It is clear here that government jobs have disappeared under Obama at a rate never seen before:
The public sector grew during Mr. Reagan's terms (up 1,414,000), during Mr. G.H.W. Bush's term (up 1,127,000), during Mr. Clinton's terms (up 1,934,000), and during Mr. G.W. Bush's terms (up 1,744,000 jobs).

However the public sector has declined significantly since Mr. Obama took office (down 766,000 jobs). These job losses have mostly been at the state and local level, but more recently at the Federal level.  This has been a significant drag on overall employment.
Much of this has been driven by Republican actions at state capitals.You can chalk this up to ridiculous ideology, or to intentional sabotage.  I think it has aspects of both.  But in terms of damage to the middle class and increases to income inequality, these cuts mainly at the state and local level, combined with cuts to income taxes have fueled both.  Republicans took advantage of the damage done by the Great Recession to slash state budgets AND TO CUT TAXES, which made matters worse.  Average folks saw very little in tax savings, while the richest of the rich saved more than what most government employees made in a year.  I mistakenly predicted that Republican policies enacted after their victories in the 2010 elections would cause a double dip recession.  They didn't, but they did cause a massive drag on the economic recovery.  Meanwhile, they eliminated middle class jobs while significantly decreasing what people who are the best off pay to support public services.  The Obama presidency has been defined by Republican policies.  Yet, Republicans point the finger at Obama.  What a fucking joke.

Flood Zone Changes Hit Cincinnati

From the Enquirer:

Hundreds of property owners in southeast Cincinnati must buy flood insurance for the first time, even though they’ve never had a flood – and many can’t even see a body of water from their land.
The chain of events that led to the requirement started when the city learned it had to spend tens of millions of dollars to add a foot in height to a levee near Lunken Airport to meet federal flood wall and levee standards. But the city didn’t have the money, so the engineers did nothing. It instead quietly decertified the levee. The result: a greatly expanded flood zone, requiring hundreds of area residents and business owners to purchase expensive flood insurance.
Meanwhile, area cities and towns have spent millions to certify and upgrade flood walls and levees to avoid the same fate. That includes small towns such as Dayton, Ky., which recently spent more than 5 percent of its annual $3 million budget to ensure its residents and business owners aren’t faced with the same new expense.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency isn’t necessarily a villain in this story. The agency, which oversees the nation’s flood insurance and flood zone programs, simply wants to enforce flood wall and levee standards set in the 1980s. It was a task begun before August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed New Orleans’ levee system and put new stress on a national flood insurance program that now teeters near bankruptcy.....
Cincinnati officials spent more than $500,000 on a study of levees in 2007-08 including those by Lunken, as well as those along Mill Creek.
The study revealed a flaw with the 5-mile-long levee that protects Lunken Airport and an adjacent sewage treatment plant from the nearby Little Miami and Ohio rivers. The levee was just a foot or two short of federal standards in most places – standards that call for a levee to be at least three feet higher than the point a 100-year flood is expected to crest.
Starting in 2009, the city’s engineering department tried to secure federal money for the required repairs, estimated to exceed $20 million. When three separate efforts came up empty, the city allowed the levee to become decertified without presenting the situation to City Council, and new flood maps went into effect in 2011.
“We had some estimates saying it could have cost as much as $100 million,” said Assistant City Engineer Amit Ghosh, who oversees Cincinnati’s flood-zone program. “And we knew that it upset some people, but it isn’t like the levee isn’t there at all anymore. We are still going to maintain it.”
The decision meant the entire area protected by the levee is now considered a high-risk flood zone, even though the levee offers protection for all but the most extreme floods.
Homeowners quoted in the story pay varying rates.  One says he now has to pay $900 a year for flood insurance, while another says she pays $2,100 a year, and that may double with the flood plain changes.  I don't know where the guy paying $900 a year lives, but as far as I'm concerned, that's a steal.  The article lays out some of the issues with modernizing the flood maps created in the '70s and '80s, but it doesn't even mention that climate change could be seriously redefining what we label as a 100 year flood.  Homes protected by levees are particularly at risk of flood damage, because the levees hold the flood waters at unnaturally high elevations, so if they fail, the damage to homes nearby is even greater than it would have been without them.  While the costs of the program are significant, the damages property owners face are even greater.

The program has run into huge problems over the years, most of them due to a lack of political will in addressing development in flood plains.  At my previous job, we dealt with a number of issues involving flood insurance and the 100 year flood plain.  As I remember, the regulations were interpreted to say that if someone had a basement below the 100 year flood plain elevation, they didn't need flood insurance if the ground surrounding the house was above the 100 year elevation.  If I were in charge of the program, basements wouldn't be covered for flood damage.  You can do all the work you want in your basement, but it is very likely that damage will occur.  Likewise, development in flood plains should be seriously considered, with significant factors of safety built in to the floodplain area.  Unfortunately, property developers usually have some pretty good pull with community officials, and no community officials like setting aside land for very low occurrence events like floods.

One organization which gets well-deserved mention in the linked story is the Miami Conservancy District.  This organization was created after the massive damage of the Great Flood of 1913, and it is a model of flood plain management.  It is an example of engineering overcoming politics.

A Couple Bachelor Farmers in the News

First, the Iowa farmer mentioned here.  He left the proceeds of the sale of his 1200 acres to 13 Catholic churches:
Drive Iowa Highway 191 north from Persia to Portsmouth in Shelby County, and the distinctive roof is easy to spot just west of the road.
Skalla painted his nickname there in giant red letters — B-U-D — across the barn’s southern-facing slope.
It’s not a professional paint job. Skalla was such a renowned miser that he wouldn’t have coughed up the cash for that. No, this “Bud” is scrawled in homespun script, similar to the faded white letters still discernible on both sides of the barn on the vacant farmstead several miles east where Skalla lived.
It’s just one of many quirky, enduring mysteries about Skalla, who was 92 when he died Nov. 26 in the hospital in Harlan. His name has been on everybody’s lips in western Iowa, thanks to last month’s shocker that he had willed some $10 million to 13 Catholic churches stretching from Council Bluffs to Denison....
St. Mary’s in Portsmouth — where Skalla grew up and attended Catholic school — receives its own 282.72-acre farm south of town, where the “Bud” barn stands vigil for passing motorists. It has been appraised at nearly $3 million.
All 13 churches will split the proceeds of another 858.28 acres to be auctioned off Saturday in five separate parcels. Each church could receive $500,000....
Local farmer Scott Gau harvested as much as 80 percent of Skalla’s land for 30 years. His grandparents had been neighbors with Skalla’s parents.
Gau, 52, was the rare person who was privy to Skalla’s irreverent sense of humor. He once asked Skalla why he nailed buckets and lids to his fence posts. The inscrutable farmer once affixed a chair to the roof of his house.
“Just something to make them talk, Scott,” Skalla told him. “Something to make them talk.”
The rest of the story is pretty depressing, at least to this currently bachelor farmer.  The other story is about the last farmer left in Silicon Valley:
Walter Cottle Lester, a third-generation California farmer who stubbornly refused to sell his family's 237-acre ranch to developers even as Silicon Valley rose up around it and made the land worth hundreds of millions of dollars, has died at age 88.
Lester died of natural causes on Friday, a day before a 4-mile perimeter trail representing the first piece of a future park and agricultural preserve that will occupy his family homestead opened to the public, The San Jose Mercury News reported (
Lester deeded the land, which had been in his family since the 1860s and where fruit and grains still are grown, to Santa Clara County and the state starting a decade ago on the condition that it remain as open space forever.
At his request, the future Martial Cottle Park will be named for his maternal grandfather, who bequeathed the ranch to Lester's mother, who in turn passed it on to her son and his sister, who died 15 years ago.
Lester, who never married or had children, died in the same 140-year-old farmhouse where he was born. He was the last surviving member of the Cottle family and Silicon Valley's last big farm owner, the Mercury News reported. He repeatedly turned down offers from developers eager to secure the prime south San Jose real estate and could have gotten as much as $500 million for the property, the newspaper said.
"People ask: Why didn't Walter sell and go buy an island? Well, his world was right here," said David Giordano, who managed Lester's farming operation for the past two decades. "His duty in life, as he perceived it, was to preserve the ranch in its entirety."
That isn't really a club I'm dying to join, but I haven't managed to avoid the fate yet.