Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Islands first-

Way back there, I commented on somebody else's blog that one of the best places for new sustainable changes to be encouraged would be islands.  Everything is just a little more urgent, a little more obvious there- it should be easier to convince people of the need for substantive change.

So- here's a great island to watch in the next days and years - Zanzibar has been without power for 8 days now.  They're learning fast.

Everybody complains that photovoltaic power is "too expensive".

You know, it's really not.  At the moment, hotels in Zanzibar are running diesel generators- and it's costing them 20% of total income, daily- just for fuel and water.

Could have paid for a good solar array with that money.  All you have to do to get your economics calculations to swing around towards solar is: factor in a real power outage from the grid, sometime or other.  A month or so of "business is still working", compared to the same time period  of "business totally shut down" - really changes the bottom line.  It's been very very hard to get people to listen to that- the idea that "power" could go "out" for more than a few hours has been unthinkable in the developed world for decades now.  They thought it was unthinkable in Zanzibar too, 8 days ago.

The tricky part is- the panels will NOT put out as much power as the generator can.  So you have to learn to USE less.  That's where folks refuse to change.

But you know- if you live on Zanzibar right now- I'll bet it's making a lot more sense to you, that you really don't need some of those frills.  

It may be this is how people will learn.  Keep using- right up until the day all the power is cut.


Update June 5- the power in Zanzibar is still out.  And it going to stay out for a month, apparently.  Here's a story from a shopkeeper; and one that explains the power situation.  Basically, their power situation is/was unique- the island gets its power from a hydro plant on the mainland- through 38 kilometers of undersea cable.  Um.  What?  It's the cable that's broken- it's 28 years old.

A month? or more.  Talk about incentive for change.


Not sure what it is, but recently the New York Times has been a little cranky about accepting my comments- am I ticking somebody off?  Today I commented on an Op-Ed, about the world food crisis.  Two hours later; 2 other sets of comments have been added- but mine has not. (update, 1 hour later; they did finally post it- but boy they thought about it for a long time.)

Hey, it occurred to me- I have my own blog!  So; I'm putting my comment here.  Tell me what you think.

Lots of heat in the comments- evidence of strong convictions- but little light, or full system analysis.  World hunger has multiple causes; can we start admitting that up front? Unfortunately multiple causes gives the various factions the quick ability to point their fingers at the others.  And prevent action.  Can we be a little more adult than "but he started it!"?

Fact- yes, people are dying, now, because they are hungry.

Fact- index funds, college endowments, and hedge funds have dumped MANY BILLIONS of dollars into the ag futures markets in the last 2 years. Is that an upward pressure on prices? Yes.
Fact - profits for food (and oil) speculators have been record highs recently.
Fact- all around the world, anti-poverty programs had been making progress; millions of people were "being taught how to fish", instead of just being "given a fish" today. All that work, progress, and hope- is gone.

The profits for the hedge funds come right out of the pockets of the poorest people on earth.

How much longer will we have to point fingers, and discuss who is most to blame- before we roll back the futures market regulations to what they were 2 years ago?

What's more important to you- the profits of the financial sector? Or food in the bellies of the starving?

ALL causes of hunger should be dealt with- as soon as possible. Speculation in food should be the easiest cause to deal with, immediately.  Then- let's deal with the others.

Meanwhile- maybe Wall Street could get together, and toss one of their spare billions - just one, out of the trillions- to the UN, so they can buy food.

Hey, guys- you'll get it right back- they'll be buying your food, paying your prices. And you might sleep better.

— Greenpa, Minnesota

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

And Mexico wins the rationing lottery-

No, this isn't quite rationing- but it's the first move in that direction.

Interesting that it's in the Business section, isn't it?

"The Mexican government is to give its poorest citizens a monthly cash payment of 120 pesos ($11.55; £5.85) to help them cope with rising food prices."

Basically, their decision so far, is to continue paying speculation inflated food prices- spending taxpayer money to prevent a few folks from actual starvation.  (And quite certainly not preventing a few others.)

The gutsy government move would be to A) prohibit food speculation (and hang a few speculators to show you're serious), and B) initiate actual rationing of basics - to ensure that no citizen actually starves - starves - due to financial shenanigans.

Not quite there- but moving in that direction.

Within the financial community, there is growing admission that it's the speculators who are pushing oil prices up.  This is from the Washington Post today: Crude Analysis

Much of the article deals with the question of "how much does it drive the price of oil up when a big player "predicts" much higher prices?"  - which is certainly an interesting question.  But it ends with this casual bomb:

"Roger Diwan, a partner at the consulting firm PFC Energy, adds that people speculating about rising prices don't have to hoard oil in traditional ways. He says the financial players -- such as pension and hedge funds or firms like Goldman -- that are driving the market now don't need to own ships or tanks; they can just bid up prices on the New York Mercantile Exchange, where they can buy on margin. 'The paper market is infinite,' he says, 'and you don't have to pay for storage.' "

Like, duh, everybody knows- it's the "financial players ... that are driving the market."


In case you're worried, it's not really my intention to become a "financial doom" blog here.  What I'm still trying to focus on, and am still furious about, is the world food supply, and prices.  Right this second, the news train is focusing on oil, though, so it may be helpful to point out that the problem is parallel- and works exactly the same way.

Any responsible government needs to ACT.  Right quick.  And the new laws, and new regulations, need to cover food, as well as energy.


Meanwhile; back at the farm.  We're planting garden, and trees, as fast as we can.  Which means we're pooped out a lot.  That's going to be a factor for some time yet.  Today, I get to dig trees to ship to customers.  Used to have a couple employees to share the work...  but, uh... can't afford them any more.  Price of gas, and all that...   gosh, it's all connected, somehow...  (did I say that already?)  :-)

Saturday, May 24, 2008

cheer up, Brian! - #2

So as not to leave you all feeling too desperate and hopeless: 

This is a song I've known for ... gads, decades, now.  

The message to take away- he is not kidding.  None of these people are, and the song never was.


They survived.  And they still smile.  So can you.  Bad times- really bad times- are a long way from new in this world; or even in this country.

The first version I learned was this one: 

“Dirt Farmer” (Tracy Schwarz) lyrics:

Now the poor old dirt farmer, he lost all his corn
And now where’s the money to pay off his loan?
The loan that he signed to pay off his corn
To pay off his loan.

Now the poor old dirt farmer, he’s dry as a bone
And the only thing growin’ is a ten-pound stone
And when it gets round he'll roll it on down
To the tax man in town.

Now the poor old dirt farmer, he lives all alone
His wife and kids left him, and took all he owned
And on the next round, they took all they found
That wasn’t nailed down.

Now the poor old dirt farmer how bad he must feel
He upset his tractor, got caught in the wheel
And now his head is the shape of the tread
But he still isn’t dead.

Now the poor old dirt farmer, he lost all his corn
And now where’s the money to pay off his loan?
The loan that he signed to pay off his corn.
To pay off his loan.
To pay off his corn.
To pay off his loan.

Folks survive. And smile. We need to decide to survive; and still smile, sometimes.

And some not so bright signs.

I've got a series of articles to run past you here; on a variety of topics.  To me, they all point forcefully in one direction.  Which no one on the planet is taking; yet.  But we're going to have to, soon.  (Don't worry, Ilargi; I'm not really planning on trying to swipe your style...  :-) ).  

Be aware, in all this, that these headlines, and the news, are being "cooked", consistently, to make things seem a little nicer than they are.

(Incidentally, this is still not my promised "next" post- this stuff isn't requiring any thought- it hits me like a sledgehammer.)


Article 1, Washington Post: "Food costs push Bangladesh to brink of unrest." 

No, it's not unrest, it's the brink of utter civic chaos, or revolution at least. 

"Last month, about 20,000 garment workers defied a government ban on demonstrations to demand higher wages and protest skyrocketing food prices, especially on such staples as rice, which have doubled in price since last year. Some of the workers, mostly women, hurled rocks and bricks at police and vandalized factories in what the local media dubbed the start of the 'Rice Revolution.'  Troops from the Bangladesh Rifles, a paramilitary force that normally patrols the country's borders, now operate and guard the crowded government-subsidized rice shops."

"Bib Norjaham, 40, and her three children said they thought they had already been through the worst of it when their rice and lentil farm was washed away during floods four years ago... 'We haven't had a full stomach in months, and work is very hard to find,' said Joshna, who said she is on a waiting list for a job as a sewing-machine operator. 'There isn't much we can do. The prices are just too high. We can't go back to the village. The land has eroded.' "

" 'If it weren't for emergency rule, there would be revolution right now. Things that would be happening in this country would be unbelievable," said Nazima Akter, 33, president of the United Garment Workers Federation, which has 20,000 members. "People are already really fed up when they are working hard -- sometimes 12 hours a day -- and they still can't afford basics.' "


Article 2; Reuters/NYT; "Buffett sees long, deep recession." 

The second richest billionaire on Earth thinks things are much worse than most are saying, and the recession is not going away anywhere he can see.

One sign, besides the billions he's made by ignoring Wall Street pundits, that he's worth listening to: 

 "Buffett also renewed his criticism of derivatives trading.

'It's not right that hundreds of thousands of jobs are being eliminated, that entire industrial sectors in the real economy are being wiped out by financial bets even though the sectors are actually in good health.'

Buffett complained about the lack of effective controls.

'That's the problem," he said. "You can't steer it, you can't regulate it anymore. You can't get the genie back in the bottle.'  "

Sounds like good sense, with even a modicum of humanity in it.  

(Aside-  please notice that little phrase "in the real economy" ... people in the "financial sector" use it all the time.  See- there's a "real" economy- you know, where people produce actual goods and services, and buy and sell them?  Then- there's the "financial sector" - which they claim is desperately necessary in order for the "real" economy to function...  but you know what?  Their choice of words tells us- they know perfectly well we could all do without them.  They're just swapping piles of money around- charging fees for each swap and pretending to be doing something worth while- but they're just blowing up their own balloons.)

But even Mr. Buffett is not carrying that equation all the way out; and that's what it is, and that's what we MUST do.

Can't steer it.  Can't regulate it.  But it MUST be steered, and regulated- or we face utterly unforgivable amounts of human misery.  = ?

Are you listening Mr. Buffett?  Congress?  Anybody?  If the tools we have don't work; then: we must find, and use, different tools.  

That, of course, requires effective leadership, which as we know, the USA is utterly devoid of at the moment; and other world entities are not showing much either.


Article 3; the BBC: "Tensions Flare In Central Sudan" .  No, they don't- they have a civil war in progress; again.  Over... oil.

Scavenger birds pick through the charred remains of houses and shops in the central Sudanese town of Abyei, four days after violent clashes between troops from the North and South of the country ended.

The place is almost empty - tens of thousands of people fled from the town and surrounding area to escape days of sporadic fighting.

Looters steal what they can - beds, pots and even clothes - from the thatch huts that are still standing, the northern soldiers who now control the town looking on.
There is almost nothing left of the once-vibrant market - just the charred skeletons of buildings

After a tour of the town in a UN armoured personnel carrier, the head of the UN mission in Sudan, Ashraf Qazi, was clearly shocked by what he had seen.

"We have been to the centre of Abyei and it doesn't exist any more," he told journalists travelling with him.

This is not fantasy, folks- but the spread of war, focusing on control of oil, and its dollars.  Nigeria is already over the brink, too, though the world pretends otherwise.

This trend is not decreasing; quite the contrary.

Vallejo is " Vallejo is the 9th largest city in the San Francisco Bay Area by population,the 45th in the state of California,and 189th in the U.S. by population also."  (Wikipedia)

" deal with a ballooning budget deficit caused by soaring employee costs and declining tax revenue.   The San Francisco Bay-area suburb of about 120,000 residents became the largest California city to seek bankruptcy protection."  (CNN)

"The Indonesian government has raised fuel prices by nearly 30%, prompting fears of widespread unrest. ... 

The government is struggling to meet the cost of fuel subsidies as global oil prices escalate. ...In several cities it is beginning cash handouts, intended to shield around 19 million poor families from the price rises.

But our correspondent says many Indonesians are worried the price hikes will mean that basic goods and public transport will also become more expensive.

After sharp rises in the price of rice, it could push many more families towards poverty, she adds.

Millions of Indonesians currently live on less than $2 a day."

BTW, I got word yesterday that Websters Interplanetary Dictionary is about the change to definition of "powderkeg";  to: "Indonesia".

And we could go on, of course.  If you have an appetite for constant dire news, Ilargi is wonderful; likewise Sharon.  And as you know, I indulge myself from time to time.  It's not that hard to find it these days.

Which is the actual point of this post.  Little by little, the world IS recognizing that "things" are getting really really bad-

Then next thing you know, somebody is going to suggest - gasp - DOING SOMETHING about it.

No, really, I'll bet ya.  It'll happen.  Although at the moment, the only thing the "leaders", financial and governmental, are doing, is pointing fingers, and doing "analyses", all of which show- it's not their fault.  No action.

Possibly, when Bangladesh collapses into total chaos, and 100,000,000 (one hundred million) desperate, penniless refugees stream into India and Burma/Myanmar (I'm assuming 50 million straight deaths, first) - the world in general will say - "huh; should WE do something?"

What is the first tool at hand?  Available to all governments- and unused, so far?


Fuel; and food.  Both need to be rationed- today.  First within countries- and then; for the first time- internationally.  

They won't be, of course.  We need a lot more dead bodies, first.  If you're tenderhearted, I don't recommend you look at this one from CNN: "Starvation claiming Ethiopia's tiniest".  Only 120,000, or so.  Twice the numbers just killed by the Chinese earthquake- to huge international attention, with a visit from Ban Ki Moon, in person.


Unlike my previous request for your help in raising consciousness about the role of speculation in the world food crisis (which is still there, duh)- I don't see that there is anything effective for us to do here, yet.  The world in general is not ready to see the need; though it's obvious as all hell to anyone who actually thinks about it.

So here is my question to you- who- and where- on the planet will be the first to admit that rationing is needed?  And implement it?

Will it be Bangladesh?  One could hope- but it's a country, like many, with a wildly wealthy elite, who hold the power, and vast population of the utterly destitute.

Haiti?  If it's still there.  The UN has the only real police force in Haiti.  They could do it.  They should.  Can Ban Ki Moon find the will?

Who?  Where?  What's your guess?

Friday, May 23, 2008

Evidence of intelligent life!

I've been kind of stymied for a post for a couple days; the one I promised "next" requires some brain power to put together; and I haven't had any brains for several days.  Mostly tired from pushing various urgent icebergs right on the farm.

But I just happened across this bit of news, and it cheered me up so much I had to share it.

"SUVs Become Endangered Species" - according to CNN.

Apparently, the "American consumer" has actually changed directions; dealers are almost unable to give SUVs away now.  "Small cars are gone within a week; SUVs are sitting here since last summer."  And, "For the first four months of this year, truck and SUV sales are down a collective 24.8 percent. SUV sales plummeted 32.8 percent while pickups dipped 19.9 percent..."

The article has something for everyone - if you just want to cheer signs of intelligence, there's plenty; if you're into "schadenfreude" - well, there's an abundance of potential for that, too.

Turns out lots of people bought $40k machines- still owe about $20k or so- but the book value of their perfectly good SUV is now about $12k.  If you can sell it.   " 'The cars are literally just sitting, and it doesn't matter how much you sell them for,' Fernandez says of the SUVs and trucks nobody wants anymore. 'It's amazing. I've never seen it this bad -- ever.' "

So people who blithely bought big "Suck Uglies", as I called them; ignoring those of us who pointed out it made no sense at all- can't even sell them and switch to a smaller car to save the gas money.  They'll save hundreds of dollars in gas- and lose thousands of dollars on the swap.

Ok, it's hard not to do a little gleeful dance and sing "toldjaso, toldjaso!"

I remember making long, logical, eloquent arguments- completely ignored, of course- that virtually no one in North America actually needed an SUV.  Lots of people wanted them.  But until they looked in their bank account, and found it empty- they really didn't understand that "want" is not the same as "need".

Here perhaps is the first large public reminder of that for the US.  There will be more in the days ahead, to be sure.  Most of them are not going to be fun, of course.  Maybe we should enjoy this one, while we can.

"Want" is not the same as "need".  It's only spoiled children who think they're the same.  That's an uncomfortable truth; but one we're going to have to swallow, and live with, every day.


Hm.  Actually.  I COULD use a nice comfy SUV - on the farm.   We do a lot of pottering around; harvesting, taking data, in all kinds of weather.  Would be nice to have a machine with a good heater that didn't leak rain and snow.

Tell ya what- any of you out there own an SUV you want to get rid of?  I'll take it off your hands- for just $500.   

You pay me.

By gosh, CNN is just becoming a fount for enlightenment.  Apparently the financial community has just discovered that there may not be a lot of oil left out there.  Who'da thunk??  The analysis isn't finished yet though.  Maybe we'll luck out.  :-)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Which shell has the pea?

Yesterday I drove in to the "City" alone, for long postponed and urgent shopping.  I had a very human experience which I enjoyed enormously, and which is relevant to current threads here, to be expanded upon in the next post.

Basically, the "misdirection" magicians use to fool us into thinking that the pigeons have actually materialized in their hand, is a booby trap waiting for all us humans, all the time, every day.  You know the pea is under that shell... but having been distracted for a microsecond- your brain loses track.

I was buying a stick of 1" white schedule 40 pvc water pipe.  It's 10 feet long, of course- and totally impossible to not see.  Being an awkward object, after presenting it to the checkout girl (cute!) for her to scan, I carefully placed it, upright, leaning against the counter's display of impulse items (candy, nail clippers) , and firmly told her to NOT let me forget to take it with me, after we finished scanning all the other little objects (connectors, o-rings, geared lopping shears and 14' pole pruner to replace those stolen last fall with the truck, etc.)  

Humor, you know.  Don't let me forget this elephant, here.  She cheerfully joined in the game, ha ha.   So we turned our attention to the small stuff, and the credit card ritual.  Finished it all up, I collected the pole pruners, lopping shears - awkward enough to handle- then we both laughed, and reminded each other not to forget the 10 foot stick of pipe.  Which had, indeed, faded into the mental background in the meantime.  Ha!  Almost forgot it!  We humans are so silly.

I enjoyed it, she enjoyed it, the bagger and the adjacent cashier enjoyed it.  I struggled through the exit with this very awkward load- and set off the un-cleared merchandise alarm.  Somehow.  

Hm.  maybe it's the pole-pruner?  Back and clear (maybe) - nope, still setting off the alarm.  Glitch.

The very bright and competent check-out girl decides it's just something about the huge mass of metal I'm wrangling, and pushes me through the detector, and resets it; indeed, I'm manifestly not concealing stolen merchandise.

Cheerful waves goodbye, wishes for a good evening, and we all move on to the next chore in our worlds; for me, the fun of figuring out how to get a 10' piece of pipe and a pole pruner into in my vehicle, along with the other stuff already there...

Having managed to overcome the perversity of the inanimate, and get the pipe actually inside - cattywampus- I'm closing the hatch, to look up and be greeted by cries of "Sir!! Sir!!" - from a train of 4 people pursuing me rapidly across the parking lot...

"You forgot the bag!!"  - the little bag, of tiny parts.  Which I- we- had indeed totally spaced.

Since we were concentrating on the joke of "don't forget the enormous obvious pipe", and the tiny bit of flirting going on between the cute young shopgirl and the harmless old guy with the white beard.

The moral of the story is; now that you've finally seen the elephant in the room- that doesn't mean all the cats, dogs, tables, chairs, sofas, children, books, toys... and whatnot that you knew were in the room beforehand - have disappeared. 

They're still there, and can be tripped on, if you forget it.


Saturday, May 17, 2008

Speculators "may" drive oil prices up... ya think??

Big news in CNN Business - some folks are wondering if $130/bbl oil might be due to ... gasp... speculators! profiteers!

The article does have a nice walk-through on how futures markets work, and the "rationale" for their existence. The argument is that, done right, they make long term decision making possible, and smooth the ups and downs of markets out.

That's the argument.

No, no, the billionaires shriek; we're good, we're necessary, don't change a thing, it's all the fault of those other guys...

As they strip millions of dollars- a day- out of the market; without ever touching a barrel of oil; or in the food markets, a pound of rice.

As an ex- substitute high-school teacher (one of the things I've done in my checkered past to put coffee on the table) I'm sharply reminded of the lies told by the kids in class, when they're thinking no one can catch them.

"I always sit here, I have to, because of my asthma." Big innocent eyes.
"We never have homework on Thursdays, ask anyone."
"Teacher always lets us go to lunch 15 minutes early, because..."

Bullshit, all of it.

The people actually in the oil business are starting to get it- and they want the speculators out. "Beutel, from the consultancy Cameron Hanover and a former NYMEX floor trader, goes even further in blaming big-fund money. 'We want to see them out, they have no respect for our markets at all,' he said."

Oh, but how?? the regulators cry (all of whom come from the hedge-fund world) ... with big, innocent eyes.

While all their friends and relatives rake in the millions. (Which come, guess what- out of YOUR pocket. You think the middle traders absorb the increases?? Does the price at the pump go up every day?)

How- is incredibly easy. Revert to the rules from 2 years ago; today. Wait 3 months, and measure the impact. Who would suffer? Golly gee, a few billionaires would add only 10% to their pile in that time, instead of 30%. Nobody else.

Friday, May 16, 2008

"Cooking" the Headlines

Ok, folks, you need to really keep on your toes now.  "They" have apparently decided that "fear itself" is looking pretty scary, and "they" are now presenting us with "GOOD NEWS!" that is just totally astonishing bull puckey.

From today's New York Times: "Housing Starts Rise Unexpectedly". 

A "housing start", in case you're not familiar, is a report by some contractor, somewhere, that they are starting to build a building, of some kind.   Well, actually, it means they're thinking about starting.   The data can be gleaned in a number of ways, including building permits issued.  As part of the housing bubble, "starts" have been dropping, constantly, for quite some time now, into the "record low" area.  Basically, since there are millions (literally) of McMansions sitting empty, foreclosed and or unsold - who in their right mind would build more?
Not the contractors, apparently, in spite of that cheerful headline: 

"But most of the gain came in multifamily housing, masking further bad news on single-family homes, whose groundbreakings dropped to a 17-year low."

So, the translation, into plain English is "the building industry has started building apartments- because millions of people have discovered they cannot afford a home, and they don't see that changing."

And, from the BBC: "World Food Prices Fall in April"

hey, hot diggety damn, that's great news!  Except it's a total LIE.

Which they tell you - if you're paying attention, in the first paragraph.

"World food prices fell in April for the first time in 15 months, according to figures from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Its food price index fell to 216.7 from 217.0 in March, having surged from last April's figure of 141.7."

You wanna run that by me again?  The FAO "food price index" FELL from 217.0 to 216.7 - and this is good news??  Lessee; that's .3 whatevers; out of 217 whatevers; a  total of 0.14% of the statistic - (check my math, Colin!) IF the statistic reflects reality.

Anybody know anything about the accuracy of world food statistics?  I do.  They suck.  It's every bit as likely that prices rose by 10% in April, and the reporting and compiling of numbers just didn't catch it.

Not to mention that this index was at 141 a year ago.

I can't imagine a more stellar example of Benjamin Disraeli's well known plaint: "There are three kinds of lies; Lies; Damned Lies; and Statistics."

ha ha ha.  not funny.

Beware of headlines.  They're being skewed right now to produce happy consumers, and a majority of them are reporting "Economists were delighted this month because; while the rate a which we're going to hell accelerated by 40% - this was less than the 41% predicted!  Forty-seven bank presidents have announced that this is clear evidence of the economic turn-around.  The worst is over! (please put your retirement money back in the stock market)."

I kid you not; read carefully these days.

These are just two examples of many- I invite you to send in your own in the comments.

addendum - Sharon has a parallel post today - with lots more detail, surprise.  :-)

Why the biodiversity in your backyard matters-

We have a perfect example today- hopefully comprehensible even to the Mortimer Snerds who profess not to care what happens to the other species on the planet of why low biodiversity will bite YOU on the butt.

This is actually closely tied to my recent post on why our farm is "beyond organic" - which is tied, of course, to the status of our water table...  gosh, it all seems to be connected.  Hm.

There's an "unknown species" of ant invading Texas.  By the billions.  Expanding.  Tiny.

A few quotes from the article:

"...the little invaders (are) now seemingly everywhere: on the move underfoot; infesting woodlands, yards and gardens; nesting in electrical boxes and causing shorts.."

"a previously unknown variety with a staggering propensity to reproduce and no known enemies. The species, which bites but does not sting, was first identified here in 2002 "

"Variants of the species found in Colombia have been known to asphyxiate chickens and even attack cattle by swarming over their eyes, nasal passages and hooves"

" 'It’s a very fecund species, with multiple queens,' Mr. Meyers said.

"The ants often eat fire ants, with which they are sometimes compared, and they “outcompete” fire ants for the food supply and reproduce far faster..."

Ok.  This is exactly what we can expect to happen- over and over- in a world where the ecosystems have been simplified down to next to nothing.

The Texas suburbs, where these critters are currently exploding, have generally had their lawns nuked with pesticides; the full spectrum of insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides.  Instead of the wild situation where there are 10 species of grass, 100 species of insects, 10,000 species of parasites - there are 3 species of grass- dandelions - and some fire ants, and not much else.

Invading species trying to move into an ancient ecosystem have to face viruses, bacteria, predators, parasites... and on nearly forever.  The chances are really NOT on the side of the invader; something will be able to eat the newcomers, 999 times out of 1,000.  Because there are a MILLION potential antagonists.  Quite literally.

But-  in a biologically simplified system, the potential for explosive outbreaks is hugely higher.

And really, really expensive.

"Some might think the infestation an exterminator’s dream, but it is not so, said Mr. Rasberry. While an ordinary treatment might cost $85 every three months, treating for the rasberry ants costs up to $600, he said. Yet the efforts are so arduous and ineffective and have left customers so dissatisfied 'they are actually costing me money,' Mr. Rasberry said."

So, the next time you're talking with a Snerd who just doesn't get it- you can cite this one for them.  And ask if they'd really like to have a house FULL of tiny ants- that they can't get rid of.  

Or bees.  Or moths.  Or whatever else is next on the list.  A plague of frogs might be nice.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Tame goose chase

Unlike Sharon who OBVIOUSLY has way too much time on her hands- we're busy around here.

Not that everything we're doing is really sensible.  Like this: 

What on earth would possess theoretically sane people to acquire new geese, I hear you cry?

How about blind, pigheaded hopefulness?  The sequence goes like this: 

Our tick population has skyrocketed- up like 10x from any year in the past 30.
Lyme disease is a real possibility here.
Guinea fowl are universally recommended for tick control, though it's anecdotal info.  The number of negative anecdotes, though, is tiny.
Guineas have to be acquired at babies- transplanted adults just fly away.
Baby guineas are pretty vulnerable to lots of things, including hypothermia and raccoons.
Adult geese can be moved, and are known to kind of adopt any birdlets in need- sometimes.
Geese take care of themselves.  Pretty much.  Sort of.
Since we need to get guineas (taking 4 ticks a day off Smidgen, and 10 a day off Bruce, and it's not slowing down) - why not get geese too?
And, here we are at the local animal swap- and here's this lovely pair of - uh -

well, obviously, these are Buff Saddleback Pomeranian geese.  Which I'd never heard of, making them irresistible, of course- a mated pair, the goose all broody and laying yesterday...

Who could ask for anything more?

And isn't that the most logically compelling chain of statements you've ever run into?

These pics, incidentally, are in our apple orchard- see the sod?  :-)  And, obviously, that's a Golden Russet the geese are penned under.

And they all lived happily ever after.

Well, no.  The female was unpennable.  Escaped, was chased (Bruce was actually useful) and recaptured, after dark sometimes, about 8 times.  Finally succeeded in truly escaping, and hasn't been seen for 5 days now.  It may be she was desperate to lay an egg, in hiding somewhere- or back home- and just hit the road.

The gander we still have.  No baby guineas available for a month yet.  Bruce and Marco (the gander) seem to be coming to terms, gradually.

Otherwise- our soil has finally dried out enough so I can get on the tractor- and till!  What?? Yep, for tree planting.  Just a little.  Painfully aware of the expensive diesel being burned in the process.

Back to work.

Friday, May 9, 2008


I'm in spring planting overload mode at the moment, so just a quick post.

Many thanks for the good words on the last post.  It did take most of a day to write.  It ain't easy, trying to be lucid.  

I've had the outline of "the book" on my computer for more than 10 years.  At this point, it's good I didn't write it then; it would be obsolete and under documented by now.  

What I don't have is time to write it.  So, if you wanna see the book; help me out here- find a nice publisher who will pay a good advance, so I can afford to take the time.  :-)

And, one way to make that happen- is to increase the demand.  If you really liked that post- please do pass it on- and ask others to pass it on.  I watch my hit counter- and while the hit rate here tripled when I asked folks to pass on the fury about hunger, it didn't bump at all, for this last post- same old steady rate.

One quick link: this op-ed piece was in last Sunday's Washington Post.  Since then, it's kind of disappeared.  It's seriously radical for the Post- outrageously outspoken on just who controls the food in the world.  "They're Global Citizens, They're Hugely Rich, And They Pull The Strings."  With details.  "David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is the author of 'Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making.' "

Monday, May 5, 2008

The water is back.

When we bought this farm- 160 acres- it had a "rough corner" - a steep rocky ravine, with a dry bottom.  About 40 acres of forest there, some good timber, but this bit is not even close to being tillable.  Brought the over-all price of the land down a little.

No water in the bottom, although just over the fence with the neighbor to the south, there is a spring that runs all year, most years; have only seen it stop running once, I think.

The ravine, which we call "the valley", looks like it might well have once had a full time stream running in it.  Typically, around here, when the original lands went under the plow, the water table dropped, and some streams went dry.

I've hoped, year after year, that what we were doing here might bring the water back.  Year after year- dry.

But.  This year: 

We have water.  And not just a little- there are seeps feeding this flow all the way through our land- ending, in fact, exactly at the fence with the neighbor to the north.  It's about a quarter mile of spring and seep fed creek, that wasn't there before.  (You can hear a chickadee singing "spring-soon" early on, and then a wild  jungle-bird call, quite loud.  It's not fake- it's one of our pileated woodpeckers; just lucky to catch it.)

This is a lot of water, up from nothing.  It's crystal clear- unless we've had heavy rain, then we get run-off from the neighbors' fields, and it's muddy as can be, until the next day.  There are green mosses and algae living in the clear water- making oxygen.

It's been 30 some years.  For me, this is crazy exciting.  And satisfying.  I think, maybe, we've brought something back, that was supposed to be here.  Is water important?  What a question.

Now the stream runs, and even babbles.  Middle Child says he can hear it, from the house, if the wind is still.  He says it really changes the feel of the valley.  I knew it would.  Running water hits the human heart, and hind-brain, directly.

I can't hear it; unless I'm close.  Too much time with tractors and chainsaws.  (Yes, I ALWAYS had ear protection of some kind- except once, helping out a neighbor... I don't think the standard ear muffs do enough, over time.  Now I wear ear plugs AND muffs.)  Yeah, that makes me a little sad, but seeing the clear clean water, and having it there for my kids, makes up for it.


When we bought the farm, it had been managed in the locally normal fashion, since about 1845.  Three quarters of the land had been cleared and plowed.  About 1/4 of it had been savannah grass, that was all plowed.   Most of it was really too steep to be plowed, but it was anyway; these days 3/4 of the tilled land is technically classified as "highly erodible".  There had been cows, too; the forest had been grazed periodically, though luckily about every other owner had NOT put cows in the woods, so it wasn't totally degraded.  We had much better wildflower populations than usual.

But the land had been used very hard; there were several places where clearly it had been plowed at one time, but erosion gullies had cut so deeply that a tractor could turn over in them.  Now these places were pasture.  Before we bought the land, a soil survey done in 1956 said there were between 12" and 18" of dark topsoil on the north hill- in corn and hay strips.  In 1976- we found between 0" and 6".  A foot of soil was gone, in just 20 years.

The farm is hilly, and the soil is light, a "loess" type, technically silt-loam.  Good soil.  The truth is, most farms in the US have been used this badly, at some point.  Many, many still are.  Even good farmers are pushed by many forces to cut corners, get higher yields, more acres plowed- a few more dollars for the bank.  As long as you use a plow, the process only moves in one direction.  You will lose the soil.  I didn't like that.

How I got to that place, philosophically, is another long story; perhaps another time.  Right now, I just want to describe the directions we took.  Much of this was not fully formulated when we began- we learned as we went.


Reader RC, in comments on the previous post, was kind of demanding an exegesis (careful, your academia is showing!) of my claim that the food we produce here is "Not Organic- It's Better!"

It all ties together.  

I wanted to focus on "tree crops", building first of all on J. Russell Smith's book with that title.  Mostly because of erosion here that I felt was really out of control- far beyond "unsustainable", moving towards "desertification", rapidly.  Did you know that there are cities in Italy- which were seaports for the early Roman empire- that are now 50 miles inland?  Plows.  And wheat.  What do they grow on those hills now?  Grapes and olives.

First- get rid of the plow.  Russell Smith documented many aboriginal peoples who harvested their staple foodstuffs from trees.  He, however, was not a biologist- he was a geographer.  I could see opportunities he could not, because of our different perspectives.  So I started focusing of some specific "tree crops", and some specific pathways of my own.

No, it's not "Permaculture®".  I never heard of Bill Mollison until things here were fully developed.  I'm interested in crops- and feeding cities; and I really don't think permaculture is.

Many "horticultural" crops, including apples and grapes, often include the plow still, or at least a periodic disc cultivation of the surface.  We only disturb the soil during the first year of establishment.  Then we have grass, which we manage in a number of ways.  The grass is a problem, more often than not at this point; but we're working on ways to integrate other practices, without going to cultivation.  Cultivation is bad because; it causes erosion, it destroys biodiversity, it costs huge quantities of fossil fuel, it costs money and time- year after year.

Second- No spray.  Ever.  Meaning, no pesticides; no insecticides, no fungicides, no general herbicides.  No toxins.  Not even "organic" ones.  Two exceptions; we use a little fly spray in the greenhouse (the same stuff used in dairies), and we have, in the past, used a little Roundup during year 1 of plant establishment.  But I've almost quit doing that, too; probably will.  Don't need it.  We do, rarely spray a little fertilizer, if the plants are starving.  I don't think the frogs like it though, so we try not to.

I didn't set out to go "no spray"; in fact in the early years, I just took the received wisdom, and used the "at least!" dormant oil spray universally recommended for fruit trees. (Turns out, it's a big mistake; don't do it.)  Little by little, over the years, I've experimented (I did do all that PhD work) - quite formally - and learned; and had a number of wildly useful and illuminating accidents happen.  I'd need a long book to go through them; maybe some day.

It was my new non-horticultural tree crops that taught me that dormant oil is a mistake.   Took about 10 years to figure that out; it was not a snap dogmatic decision, but an insight based on long trained formal observation.  No, it's not published- just haven't had time.

That worked this way: the first time I saw nasty caterpillars eating all the leaves on my young trees- I was outraged, of course, as one is.  MY plants, you vermin leave them alone!  But.  The scientist/ecologist/parasitologist/ethologist in me insisted that I wait, and watch; at least a couple of years.  This is a new planting here; perhaps this caterpillar is exploding just because it has a new food source; and given some time, perhaps a predator, or disease, will catch up with it, and control it without having to resort to poisons.  I was out on new ground, crops no one had grown this way, so there were no experts to tell me otherwise.

So I waited, for several ticks of the annual clock.  You have to give predators and parasites plenty of time to show up- they may be quite rare, and they don't reproduce at the high rates the herbivores do.

Here's the thing.  So far, in 30+ years - 100% of the time; outbreaks of this bug or that- fade.  Typically, in year one of a new bug, it'll look like slaughter, and over and over, I'd think "oh, boy, here it is, I'm finally going to have to spray."  But- scientifically; the only way to know that is to wait, and watch.  And I've had the luxury of being able to do that.  In year 2 - every time- the damage caused by the bug has dropped; away from the "where's my spray gun?" point to at least the "that's ugly- but not killing us" point.  In year 3 - it's less yet.

Every time.

Except once- and that pest was a foreign invader; we just needed some different genetics; it's over, now.

That's a really huge deal, in fact.  The rock bottom dogma of conventional agriculture and horticulture is that you MUST spray, because you're growing these plants in an intensive monoculture, and there is no alternative... oh, wait...

Third.  No monocultures.  All of our plantings have species mingled, a couple rows of this, then 8 rows of that.  We've specifically striven to include diversity in species and genetics and physical structure, just for the sake of the diversity.  More diversity means more critters can live here.  The more species living here, the more stable the entire system is.  That's an ecological dogma.  But humans have never acted like we believe it.

It's true, and it works.

For example; back to dormant oil spray.  The idea there is that you're suffocating the eggs and dormant forms of your pest insects, which overwinter right there on your tree, all ready to start eating come spring.  The scum.  Sounds good, and logical, and the oil is not really even a poison, so why not?  Everybody on the planet says it's a good idea.

I did dormant oil spray on our apples for 10 years, just like everybody.  Then- extrapolating from what I was learning in my other crops- it occurred to me, via my parasitologist/ethologist training.  If you were a pest predator-  where would you lay your eggs?  

In fact, I already knew the answer- they lay them right next to their food source; eggs or dormant bugs- right there on your tree.  We know this.  But we don't act like it.  Spray your dormant oil spray- and it kills off your predatory insects- better than it kills their prey.  Because of relative population numbers and reproductive dynamics- herbivores tend to be abundant and reproduce fast, predators are few, and reproduce slowly; even if they're minute wasps instead of wolves.

The field of agriculture is rife with embedded double-think; and food is so sacred (the staff of life!  the new oil!)  that we never examine basic and hidden assumptions.  All good farmers simultaneously believe, with all their hearts: a) they grow FOOD.  b) the world will starve if they don't produce all they can.  c) farmers never get paid enough for their work- because they over-produce so much it's dirt cheap.

Some of that has changed a little, just recently, but those are all rock solid core beliefs for farmers, any time in the last 50 years.  And, in case you didn't notice- they're contradictory.

So, when my little lightbulb went off, after a mere decade, and I realized I was doing something that I knew did not make rational sense- I quit spraying my apples.  At all.

Gasp!  You can't grow apples without spray!  Everybody knows it!

Well, I do.  Yes- I had to grit my teeth through several bad years, when bugs ate everything.  But- have faith, my children- if you feed them (and don't poison them) they will come.  Predators - birds, frogs, insects, shrews, mice- parasites- bacteria- viruses- oh, my.

Hey, it's an ecosystem.  

If you plow- you can't have one.  You go back to dead sterile soil- and nowhere for the ecosystem to live.  The wasp pupae need a safe, stable place to overwinter, and bare dirt is not it.  We have permanent, deep sod; everywhere between the trees, with many species of plants in it.  And a few pines, in the apples.   Among other things.

If you spray - you can't have one.  No sprays are species specific, the claims notwithstanding.  And in any case; if you wipe out the deer; you also wipe out the wolves.  Guess which comes back first?  Now- we've had multiple visitors, knowledgeable ones, who see our apples (about 60 standard trees) and ask what our spray regimen is.  "No spray."  "Wow!  You mean you're organic!?  I've never seen an organic orchard that looks this good!"  "No- no spray, at all."  ...  "What?" ...

The years do vary- sometimes, one bug or another comes up and is pesky.  Two years ago, the Minjon apples had a bad apple maggot fly problem.  Last year- trivial, really.  Codling moth- there's always a little, but it's no biggie, fairly easy to spot.  And- we have Amish neighbors who are happy to swap us something for the codling moth affected apples- they make great apple butter or sauce, or cider, if you can cut out the bad core; and they have the labor available to do that.

Fourth.  Genetics.  Most of our apples are "heritage"- old cultivars that were developed long before spray was so universal.  They've usually got the genetic tools they need to respond to pests.  One of our worst performing apples is "Haralson" - a big commercial favorite here.  Born and raised in the University, released in 1922.  Those were the days of dousing in Bordeaux mix- and lead arsenate sprays.  I kid you not.  Without spray- we get a few to eat once every 6 years, or so.

Finding plants with the appropriate genetics for your land is an absolutely critical part of this.  And it's a long process.  If you've ever bought fruit trees, you know how the catalogs read: "Absolutely hardy; huge crops of delicious juicy peaches, every year!"   The only words in that sentence that are not a big fat lie are "of", "peaches", and "year".   And "peaches" is questionable.

Basic hint- the cost of the trees, at planting, is the tiniest part of the investment you will make in a good food tree.  Plant lots- plant them thick; let nature sort them out.

Fifth.  Fertilizer.  You have to feed your plants, one way or another.  The organic movement decided that chemical fertilizer is evil, bad for water, bad for worms, etc.  Yup, if you're putting it on bare soil, that's likely true.  If you're spreading modest amounts on top of permanent sod- getting to the trees, we hope, by timing the season right- or waiting (both work)- it's just not the same thing.  Most of the fertilizer used in farming is applied to naked soil- when the target crop has no roots to speak of.  It rains- it runs off into the Gulf of Mexico.  When we spread fertilizer, it falls on grass sod that has roots 2' deep; or trees that have roots 12' deep.  None of it ever gets away; we've tested.

Plain N-P-K fertilizer is an over-simplification of what plants need, of course.  But ours also get a steady rain of bird manure, from residents, and migrants; deer, raccoon, and whatsit manure galore- and- spider poo.  You'd be surprised at how much poo spiders put out.  If they're not dead, and there are bugs to eat.  We keep testing for micronutrient deficiencies, to keep track; so far haven't really got any, so far as we can tell.

And, as it turns out- well fed plants just kick off pests.  It's when they're starving that they get sick.

Sixth.  Tweak, don't Demand.  Way back there, I considered talking about "Pestapo" style agriculture.  Eradicate everything.  And contrasting it with my own "Tweakology".

But I decided that was just a bit too cutsey.  It does illustrate a basic attitude, though; pest "control" is not something we do- we do a little pest management.  But you will always have some pests, and pest damage...

And you WANT to.  If you have no prey- you will have no predators.  That's a setup for an epidemic outbreak.  Cheaper, easier, to tolerate low pests, and work around them.

Example: mice.  Mice are a big problem in some tree plantings; they can eat the bark and roots in winter, killing even big trees in bad years.  Lots of orchards put out mouse poison, on a schedule.  We do two things; we mow the grass down tight to the ground before the snow comes, and put up  "hawk-roosts"; big poles put up in the right places to attract hawks and owls.  It works.  We have mice.  We also have a resident pair of red-tailed hawks, who raise their brood feeding them mice, out of our plantings, every year.  Plus tons of owls, who take over the night shift.

We try to nudge a pest in the direction we want; never shoot for eradication.  That kind of total control is a trap; you'll have to do it forever, because, of course- you've also eliminated ALL the natural antagonists to the pest you're controlling.  There are dozens, at least- probably hundreds - (how many diseases do people get?) but if they have no place to live, they're gone.  Clean slate- ready for the pest to explode next season- unopposed.

Ok, better stop, before you all fall asleep.  RC- our stuff is better than organic because it comes from highly biodiverse permanent plantings- no plow, no toxins.  And full of frogs (one spray of rotenone will wipe yours out for good) and bird nests.  Eco-system based pest management.

So far, for us it's working.  Which doesn't mean there won't be bumps.  Grit your teeth.

The water in the valley- is crystal clear, but may well have some chemicals in it from all the years this land was "conventional".  Atrazine, maybe.  But for years now, all the water soaking into the ground has been free of toxins.  That's hopeful.


Haven't forgotten the hunger issue, but we all need a break.  There IS some progress; more are becoming aware- and some of it is as likely due to the noise we're making as anything.  Take a look at the articles and links here.  More before long.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

"conventional" farming gets pricey-

You remember, of course, a few posts ago when I referenced this NYT article on "Sticker Shock in the Organic Aisles." 

Plenty of folks are getting worried that organic products will "price themselves out" of the market; since they're always a bit more, and people are cutting everything they can in their budgets these days.

One of my responses was that, in time, "organic" could prove to have a competitive advantage over "conventional" - fewer inputs from oil, etc.

Well, here we are.  Conventional hog farms are looking at shutting down, either entirely, or partly.

"My wife said, 'We're either going to sell the pigs or sell the farm, and we're not going to sell the farm,' " he said.

His farm once raised 50,000 hogs a year and employed a dozen people."

The article states that at the moment, due to increased cost of feed and fuel, mainstream hog farmers in Minnesota are losing $40-50 - per pig.

The problems of conventional ag are not going to get better.  It's always been fossil fuel intensive.  That's only going to get worse.  A major component of the system, fertilizer, has been skyrocketing in price, and actually getting short- around the world, including the USA.

"  'If you want 10,000 tons, they’ll sell you 5,000 today, maybe 3,000,' said W. Scott Tinsman Jr., a fertilizer dealer in Davenport, Iowa. "

This is not good news for "commercial organic" farms; that that have to purchase certified organic feed for their dairy cows, etc.  It's great news for small organic farmers, who use on-farm inputs, green manure, animal manure, and plain labor- instead of fossil fuels.

My question is- can organic farmers- and organic consumers get used to going into the store and finding - "Hormel" pork chops at $3.20/lb; and "local, certified organic" chops at- $2.90.

Now there, is sticker shock.  It was always part of the point to organic- in the long run (and here we are!) it's more efficient- with less reliance on fossil fuels, and benefitting from the various aspects of small and local husbandry.

Both organic producers, and organic consumers, though are used to "elite" pricing.  They take pride in it, in fact.  "I get the highest prices, because my food is worth more" - and "I pay the most for  my food because I care more..."  A lot of the time, organic producers have gotten into the habit of setting their prices by looking at conventional stuff- and just bumping that up a certain percentage.  Gotta quit doing that!

Time to start working on moving up to the next level.  Shift gears, and take over the arguments always made by the massive inputs conventional ag guys.

"Organic Is Cheaper- Because We're More Fuel Efficient!"

"We Buy Organic- Cheaper, Healthier, Smarter!"

The transition, though- will be tricky.  There's a chance for "organic" to shoot itself in the foot, by trying to hold onto the elite marketing direction.  Let's face it- after fighting to be recognized as better, healthier- elite- it's going to be hard to revert to being plain farmers, for many of us.

We have lots of friends in the organic game- which we don't play, for many reasons.  The food we do sell, we label "NOT Organic- Better".  We ask for organic prices- or better- and have had no problem with acceptance.  Because our customers know us.



A cheerful, thirty year, on farm, success story.  No starving children!  No extinct species!  Hopeful stuff!

So stay tuned.  :-)