The most unequal place in America

I read this article yesterday on the train returning from Manhattan….a place with its own unique inequalities.

It is remarkable. As concisely as I’ve ever seen it, John Sutter of CNN demonstrates the moral and ethical absurdity of our current economy and the cultural biases that result from an absurd economy.

He also strikes at the heart of conservative commodity farmers’ incredibly bizarre attitude toward SNAP and other social programs. These folks have gotten wealthy on USDA financial protections (and that includes both commodity protections and conservation programs).

Please pass this article around.

The CNN Report

U. S. Meat Production


Though the Pew commission is not a foodie household name, its 2008 report has subtly shaped many consumers’ view of how our food animals are produced. It’s not the rosy view — it’s the highly critical one.

Back then, the commission identified the most worrisome systemic problems of producing 9.8 billion food animals every year in the U.S. It called out the animal agriculture industry for the excessive use of medically important antibiotics, particularly the industry’s habit of giving animals low doses for nontherapeutic uses like growth promotion.

It also hammered the conventional system of handling of liquid waste from huge animal operations, and standard industry practices of confining animals in gestation crates and battery cages. And it called for enforcement of antitrust laws to restrict the concentration of the industry into a handful of companies that would have inordinate sway over the marketplace.

The NPR Report

I’ve been reading a couple of recent books on historical accounts of Jesus…and the state of the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus. Tiberius would have been great as a CAFO operator.

European Energy Markets

ON JUNE 16th something very peculiar happened in Germany’s electricity market. The wholesale price of electricity fell to minus €100 per megawatt hour (MWh). That is, generating companies were having to pay the managers of the grid to take their electricity. It was a bright, breezy Sunday. Demand was low. Between 2pm and 3pm, solar and wind generators produced 28.9 gigawatts (GW) of power, more than half the total. The grid at that time could not cope with more than 45GW without becoming unstable. At the peak, total generation was over 51GW; so prices went negative to encourage cutbacks and protect the grid from overloading.

The trouble is that power plants using nuclear fuel or brown coal are designed to run full blast and cannot easily reduce production, whereas the extra energy from solar and wind power is free. So the burden of adjustment fell on gas-fired and hard-coal power plants, whose output plummeted to only about 10% of capacity.

These events were a microcosm of the changes affecting all places where renewable sources of energy are becoming more important—Europe as a whole and Germany in particular. To environmentalists these changes are a story of triumph. Renewable, low-carbon energy accounts for an ever-greater share of production. It is helping push wholesale electricity prices down, and could one day lead to big reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. For established utilities, though, this is a disaster. Their gas plants are being shouldered aside by renewable-energy sources. They are losing money on electricity generation. They worry that the growth of solar and wind power is destabilising the grid, and may lead to blackouts or brownouts. And they point out that you cannot run a normal business, in which customers pay for services according to how much they consume, if prices go negative. In short, they argue, the growth of renewable energy is undermining established utilities and replacing them with something less reliable and much more expensive.

The Economist Article

How Big is the problem of climate change ?

Some things are so big you don’t see them, or you don’t want to think about them, or you almost can’t think about them. Climate change is one of those things. It’s impossible to see the whole, because it’s everything. It’s not just a seven-story-tall black wave about to engulf your town, it’s a complete system thrashing out of control, so that it threatens to become too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet, too wild, too destructive, too erratic for many plants and animals that depend on reliable annual cycles. It affects the entire surface of the Earth and every living thing, from the highest peaks to the depths of the oceans, from one pole to the other, from the tropics to the tundra, likely for millennia — and it’s not just coming like that wave, it’s already here.

An Appropriate Agriculture for Rhode Island – Ag Education

Yesterday I had a wonderfully informative (and formative) meeting with Andy Radin, the new (relatively…one + year) Cooperative Extension person at URI.

We shared thoughts on agricultural education in Rhode Island. Some of the themes were:

1) The need for soils and soil fertility education. Many of the new small farmers in the State have scarce local educational resources to be analytical and scientific (add knowledge) to their farming practices. The Internet and modern communications/media devices make information much more readily available – therefore, young literate farmers can find enormous amounts of on-line advice. Vetting that information, however, becomes much more difficult – particularly when there is limited agricultural staffing at the University and Division of Agriculture.

2) The need for more research and trials with small farmers. Small farmers in the State are well-suited to develop new research outreach and trials programs. This kind of effort would enhance local practice as well as inform the University in agricultural outreach efforts.

3) The need for better incentives to create environmental benefits. Small farmers currently have a difficult economy and that economy does not provide much capital for them to enhance their operations. Since many of these small farmers are already practicing with sustainable methods that accrue environmental benefits, one of the simplest ways to give them ‘another source of revenue’ is to pay them for their conservation and environmental improvement practices. ( Note: This I add, we did not discuss)

4) The need for an agricultural education curriculum. Even as a guide to practice (if it cannot be implemented by the University), the State needs an educational methodology to guide new and expanded growing and livestock raising in a manner appropriate for the State’s agro-ecology.



China produces most of the world’s edamame, handpicking and processing it there. Now lots of locally-grown edamame are being packed in the town of Mulberry, Ark. Fresh-picked pods jiggle across a massive high-speed conveyor for automated sorting, washing, blanching and flash freezing.

A Texas-based Asian foods importer chose Arkansas to build its company, called American Vegetable Soybean and Edamame Inc., here. Raymond Chung, the chief financial officer, says one reason is because plenty of local farmers are willing to grow the non-genetically modified vegetable soybeans.

The NPR Report

The House Republican Suicide Caucus

I promise to not add to the continuous buzz that is the decay of our American government, but thought this was insightful.


The ability of eighty members of the House of Representatives to push the Republican Party into a strategic course that is condemned by the party’s top strategists is a historical oddity. It’s especially strange when you consider some of the numbers behind the suicide caucus. As we approach a likely government shutdown this month and then a more perilous fight over raising the debt ceiling in October, it’s worth considering the demographics and geography of the eighty districts whose members have steered national policy over the past few weeks.

As the above map, detailing the geography of the suicide caucus, shows, half of these districts are concentrated in the South, and a quarter of them are in the Midwest, while there’s a smattering of thirteen in the rural West and four in rural Pennsylvania (outside the population centers of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh). Naturally, there are no members from New England, the megalopolis corridor from Washington to Boston, or along the Pacific coastline.

These eighty members represent just eighteen per cent of the House and just a third of the two hundred and thirty-three House Republicans. They were elected with fourteen and a half million of the hundred and eighteen million votes cast in House elections last November, or twelve per cent of the total. In all, they represent fifty-eight million constituents. That may sound like a lot, but it’s just eighteen per cent of the population.

The New Yorker Article

Farmland and Small Farmers

From a recent New York Times article:

When we went looking in upstate New York for a home for our farm, we feared competition from deep-pocketed developers, a new subdivision or a big-box store. These turned out to be the least of our problems. Though the farms best suited for our vegetables were protected from development by conservation easements, we discovered that we couldn’t compete, because conserved farmland is open to all buyers — millionaires included.

Easements are intended to protect farmland, water, animal habitat, historic sites and scenic views, and so they are successful in keeping farms from becoming malls and subdivisions. But they don’t stop Wall Street bankers from turning them into private getaways, with price tags to match.

Few bankers farm; long days with little pay lack appeal. A new report by the National Young Farmers Coalition, a group we helped start, reveals that one-quarter of the land trusts that oversee these conservation easements have seen protected land go out of production. Why? A nonfarmer had bought it.

Still, tax incentives in New York encourage nonfarmers to rent their land to farmers, so you would think suitable land would be easy to find.

Most landlords, however, offer only short-term leases. They want peace and quiet; they don’t want vegetable or livestock operations that bring traffic, workers, noise and fences. But long-term land tenure is essential for vegetable and livestock growers, who need years to build soil fertility, improve pasture and add infrastructure. Only farms that grow low-value animal feed crops like hay, corn or beans are attracted to one-year leases.

Once well-off city residents who are looking for second homes buy the land, farmer ownership is over. After they’ve added an air-conditioned home, a heated pool and an asphalt drive, the value increases so much that no working farmer can afford it. The farm, and its capacity to feed a community, is lost.

The article then goes on to point out some efforts in Vermont and Massachusetts to improve ag land conservation easements, etc.

I think the bigger issue is what has happened/continues to happen to agricultural land ownership in New England. As we begin to realize how neglectful we’ve been of local farming, we also realize much of our effort to conserve ag land has – besides lessening productive land – greatly concentrated the control of land.

From my perspective, the biggest changes in ag land ownership in the last fifteen years is a concentration of land assets in fewer and fewer hands. It has driven up prices and created a commodity price dependent bubble.