Thursday, September 3, 2009

Up from the ashes?

A follow up to my earlier post regarding the Eagle-Times of Claremont, NH

It would appear that publisher Harvey Hill has agreed to take a $4 million hit and allow a bid for the paper from Sample News Group in Pennsylvania to be approved by a bankruptcy court. The family-owned chain issued a statement that it hopes to have the paper back up and running by the end of the month.

Newspaper accounts make it appear that Hill is the paper's main unsecured creditor, and it appears that the sale has been approved.

If this all goes ahead as it appears to be headed, this would be an amazing outcome. The Sample News Group is taking a huge risk buying a small local newspaper -- although arguably at a huge discount -- and Hill is personally providing the lion's share of that discount by waiving his personal claim to what the paper owed him. Both are to be applauded.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Agribusiness monopolies to be scrutinized -- about time!

Dairy farms are getting hammered. Earlier this year, milk prices dipped to their lowest level since 1975 -- and we're not talking adjusted for inflation here. There's been a modest recovery recently, but the price is still hovering just over $11 per hundredweight, and it costs the average New England farm about $17 to produce it.

By way of conversion, there are about 12 gallons in a hundredweight of milk. So farmers are being paid about 92 cents per gallon and it costs about $1.42 to produce it. For several months this spring, the price was $9 per hundredweight, or just 75 cents per gallon.

There are very few ways that the cost of production can be reduced. The cost of fuel, fertilizer, imported feed, labor, taxes, insurance, and land are pretty much beyond the control of the farmer. Although he can choose to manage differently to avoid buying so much of some of those items, if you're going to produce milk on a commercial scale in the Northeast, you will have to buy or lease some of each of those items.

What this means in very real terms for dairy farmers is that they have exactly three choices. They can live off their equity -- which means emptying savings accounts, retirement plans, selling land and cattle; they can borrow against their equity, which means mortgaging land, buildings, and cattle in hopes that they'll be able to pay off the debt in better times ahead; or they can go out of business while they still have a little bit of equity left. Remember that when a business runs out of cash, it is done, and farms are businesses.

In past times of low milk prices, production in high cost areas like New England has declined, and it has shifted to low-cost areas like the Central Valley of California. When prices dipped a little bit, the small farms of the Northeast would sell cows, and the big farms (and we're talking tens of thousands of cows big) would add cows. But milking more cows when the price of milk is less than the cost of production -- even where the cost of production is very low -- is not a reasonable way forward.

Meanwhile, Dean Foods, a publicly traded milk company that controls about 70 percent of the milk market in the Northeast, recently reported a 69 percent increase in quarterly earnings and stated that the primary reason for its increase in profitability was the low farm gate price of milk. In other words, it was paying less for the material it sells, so it was making more money.

Now, I don't know how Dean Foods executives are compensated, but I'm sniffing the same sort of quarterly earnings race that brought down the banking industry. How much sense does it make for a company like Dean Foods to kill its suppliers in order to make a profit this quarter? Dean Foods is obviously playing the same game that Wall Street did -- counting on the fact that the US taxpayer is not going to allow the dairy industry to fail.

Fortunately, it looks like the USDA and Justice Department are going to get ahead of the curve and start looking at monopolistic practices in three ag industries: seed sales, beef packing, and dairy distribution. Perhaps this time, an ounce of prevention will save the taxpayers from a billion pounds of cure. Let's just hope that there are dairy farms left by the time they get it done.

Here's a story about it from National Public Radio.

Friday, July 10, 2009

RIP, Eagle-Times

Another dinosaur has found its way to the tar pits. The Claremont, NH, Eagle-Times abruptly ceased publication today, giving less than 24 hours notice to its 120 employees. The publisher said the company will file for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy protection. For those unfamiliar, Chapter 7 is the "gone and never coming back" version. The company's assets will be liquidated, and the proceeds divvied up among the creditors.

Claremont is a scrappy (some would say to strike out the initial "s") little city of about 15,000 souls, still reeling from the mass exodus of its economic mainstay, the machine tool industry, nearly a quarter century ago. It now finds itself without a daily newspaper covering its goings-on. The two nearest surviving dailies -- The Valley News based in Lebanon and the Keene Sentinel -- have never made much of an effort to cover the news there, and given the current state of newspaper finances, I suspect they aren't about to start.

It's a sad day. The Eagle-Times was the smallest daily newspaper in New Hampshire, and its demise doesn't bode well for the future of other small New England papers and the communities they serve.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Welcome, Luna

The Edgefield Farm Defense Force has a new cadet. Luna is a six-month old Maremma bitch who already knows that she is supposed to care for sheep. Here she is in a photograph taken just a day after she arrived on my place last week.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The joy of lambing

A week ago the first lambs of the year greeted me when I checked on the flock down by the Connecticut River. This is always a great time for me, and this particular ewe is a really good one.

When I arrived, she was lying down, facing away from me, her two new lambs right by her nose. Her head was up, her eyes were closed, and she was chewing her cud. I could see that the lambs were also full and dozing contentedly. A happy and proud mother. I felt unmitigated joy at the scene.

When she became aware of my presence she did something that moved my joy to yet another level. She stood quickly, but without alarming her lambs, turned toward me, and took one step foward and dropped her head into a defensive posture -- think of an offensive lineman in American football. Her lambs were now under her belly, still dozing, but if anyone was going to take those lambs, they were going to have to take her first.

Competence is such a wonderful thing to observe. Those lambs will survive because their mother knows what to do. In 15 seconds, I knew all was well, and I knew that any ewe lambs from this ewe were keepers.

Better still, they were both ewe lambs. If they have inherited half of their mother's competence, they'll just keep on making my job easier and easier for years into the future.

Monday, March 9, 2009

I can't tell you why.

People who live in soft places like LA or North Carolina sometimes ask why anyone lives in New Hampshire, where the summers are hot and humid and the winters are cold and bleak. Normally I just smile and say, "Why not?"

Every place on earth has its meteorological crosses to bear, after all. LA is a desert, and after three years of drought in California the vast efforts at irrigation and drinking water collection that prop people up are starting to collapse. North Carolina gets a lot more hurricanes than New England, and its summers are longer, hotter, and more humid than ours.

But today, as I prepare to head out the door, slog through four to seven inches of wet, sticky snow that has fallen on top of several inches of mud produced by two days of rapid thaws, I can sort of see their point. Today is not a weather day that will get lots of attention from the national media. This is the sort of weather that is really just an inconvenience to those who live in populated areas where all the roads are paved. It'll snow, it'll melt. But in the parts of New Hampshire where we still rely heavily on dirt roads, this time of year is the worst.

Mud season can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Four wheel drive and all wheel drive are helpful, to be sure, but they will not save you from being slung about by ruts, and there are times when what you really need are tracks to stay atop the road surface. Anything with wheels is doomed. Chains slip off the wheels and do no good anyway.

Adding a half foot of what we call "sugar snow," the slick, wet snot that falls this time of year, to the mix only makes it more challenging. Walking is complicated by the fact that just when you think your foot has found purchase on the earth under the snow, the mud under your foot slides, and you end up doing a sort of camel walk. Place one foot down, put your weight on it. Pull the other foot out of the mud and bring it forward. Repeat.

The cold of winter is bracing, and enjoyable to me. The crazy fecundity of springtime is wonderful. The warmth and bounty of summer fills me with joy. And of course, our fall foliage is world famous with its cool nights and brisk days. But mud season just plain sucks. Its the one part of New Hampshire's climate for which I can find no redeeming value.

But there's no denying it. I must head out into this mix of stinking mud and snotty wet snow and face my day. It'll be one of limited productivity outside, but perhaps it'll be a good day to catch up on some desk work in the afternoon.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Jack Kennedy understood ...

"The farmer is the only man in our economy who buys everything at retail, sells everything at wholesale and pays the freight both ways."

Quoted in The Progressive Farmer March 2008 issue.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Eat red meat and save the planet? Really?

That meat production has a large carbon footprint is an article of faith among folks who keep track of these things. The problem is that the people who keep track of these things often don't know shit from shinola about farming in general, or meat production in particular.

The website of Science News recently ran a report on the effects of human diets on greenhouse gas emissions. In a nutshell, Ulf Sonesson of the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology told the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting that beef is a powerful greenhouse gas emitter, and that pork and poultry are less so, and that vegetable based proteins, such as soy, are the best for the climate.

Sonesson looks at the beef industry from a pretty standard set of assumptions: the cattle that produce our beef are fed large amounts of corn in centralized feedlots, where the feed is trucked in, large amounts of methane are produced, cattle are trucked out to slaughter, beef is frozen, trucked around the country, and stored in large industrial freezers. All of these steps of transportation, feeding, and storage require the burning of energy, which emit greenhouse gasses. The production of the corn that feeds the cattle in the feedlots also emits greenhouse gasses.

These are all very valid points, and, unfortunately, are true for the vast majority of beef that's produced in the US.

It appears that Sonneson makes some further assumptions about the production of beef, however, that are simply untrue. Primarily, that every part of the beef production cycle is like the feedlot. It's not.

The beef industry has two very distinct components: the cow-calf operations and the feeding operations. The cow-calf operations are almost entirely grass based, using pasture and range as their main source of nutrition for the cattle. Ranchers and farmers who run these operations have herds of cows that deliver calves every year, and it is these calves (minus replacement heifers) that go on to the feedlots after they are weaned. There are also several types of operations that specialize in taking calves from relatively light weaning weights to the sizes that feedlots typically take in; many of these are also grass based operations.

What difference does that make? Tons. Millions of tons, and perhaps billions, actually. Every acre of managed pasture and range absorbs greenhouse gasses. Grass based farming increases the organic matter in the soil, and this organic matter is largely carbon. The carbon comes from decaying plants, which obtained carbon by taking it out of the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide, one of the most powerful greenhouse gasses. The management of cattle on pasture or range requires very little in the way of fossil fuel input. Pasture and range is generally not treated with chemical fertilizer. Low-horsepower vehicles (actual horses, in many cases) are used to check and round up cattle. Perhaps most importantly, the soil is not tilled.

When soil is exposed to the air, as it is when it is tilled for the production of grains and oilseeds, it loses carbon into the atmosphere. Native prairie soils are black; this is carbon -- those decomposing plants again. In places where prairies have been put to the plow, the soil turns brown, or a sickly anemic gray as carbon is released. Compared to the amount of carbon lost through oxidization, the emissions of tractors used to do the plowing is almost trivial.

The models that condemn beef production as an emitter of greenhouse gasses -- as far as I can tell -- do not give beef credit for the millions and millions of acres of carbon sequestering grasslands that underpin the admittedly wretched feedlot business.

While swine and poultry are much better converters of grains and oilseeds into human food than beef cattle (cattle are ruminants and not ideally suited to processing high levels of starch), they do not have any grassland components to their industry. They are essentially all feedlot, all the time, as the models incorrectly assume the beef industry is.

The normally thoughtful Epicurious ran a blog posting this week under the heading "Eat Soy, Save the Planet" based on the Science News article. The author admits to having her tongue in her cheek when she wrote it, but it is the take-away message that so many of these analyses seem to promote. I was heartened that my comment there was not a voice in the wilderness on this issue.

Soy as a source of human protein is also not without its environmental costs. Deforestation of the Amazon basin for soy production is a huge source of carbon emission. Every acre of land that produces soy is tilled, and loses carbon to oxidation. Most commercial soy production relies heavily on chemical fertilization, herbicide application, and is causing the loss of topsoil at a rate that is several orders of magnitude higher than that of the grass-based component of beef production.

As interesting as it would be to look at the carbon footprint of the beef industry as it actually is, it would be even more interesting to look at the carbon footprint of grass-fed beef that is processed and consumed within a 100-mile radius of where it is grown. I suspect that it would be a winner.

And lamb? Lamb is seldom even discussed in these analyses, because it represents such a tiny slice of our diet. But grass-fed lamb would require even less carbon than grass-fed beef, as the carcasses would require less energy to chill, and the production generally requires less machinery. In my own farming operation, I know that I am increasing organic matter in the soils that I graze -- I have soil tests to prove it. Organic matter is mostly carbon, mostly from carbon dioxide taken from the atmosphere by plants. I wouldn't be surprised if an analysis of my operation showed that I am either carbon neutral, or perhaps have some carbon credits to sell.

Pastured poultry still requires some grain, and most pastured pork does as well. For the very reasons that poultry and pork are better at converting grain into meat than ruminants, they are worse at converting grasses and forbs: they don't have a rumen to break the cellulose down. While local, pasture-raised pork and poultry are wonderful, I suspect they are less carbon-friendly than red meat produced from locally-raised grass fed ruminants.

I'm hopeful that we can start to see some more nuanced carbon-footprint analyses of human diets that flow from an actual understanding of how food is produced, not from faulty assumptions. It's time for science to start catching up with reality, and perhaps offering some models for how farmers can reduce the carbon footprints of their operations.

Monday, January 26, 2009

No, I'm not lambing right now

Every now and then, as I stumble through my life, I get something right. Usually not on purpose: usually I am forced into a situation where the only remaining choice is the right one.

Such is the case with the fact that I don't lamb in January and February, as so many sheep farmers in New England do.

Many of my fellow shepherds are lambing now. Some in drafty old converted dairy barns, some in sheds built more or less for the purpose. All of them are freezing as temperatures for the past few weeks have dropped below zero F more nights than not.

Lambing in the winter is a challenge. It is fun, in its own strange way -- primarily, I think, because every lamb that survives past the critical 48-hour mark is a victory. Every ewe that delivers a lamb is handled: the new lambs are collected and the family is placed in an individual pen known as a jug for a day or two while they bond. Many lambs need to be dried off quickly, as the birth fluids can pull heat from the lamb faster than its metabolism can replace it.

If maternal nutrition is anything short of excellent, the lambs will be born weak, or fade quickly after birth. The environment must be kept fresh and dry, or you risk pneumonia in both the ewes and the lambs. Providing high-quality feed and dry bedding is incredibly expensive in New England. (Straw, commonly used for bedding for sheep, actually costs more than good quality hay here, and hay is more expensive in New England than anywhere else in the US that I have heard of.) And then, in the spring while all those fat lambs are gamboling on pasture with their dozing mothers nearby, it's time to muck out the barn (unless you were doing it weekly or so all winter. Manure must be handled, composted, spread.

In 2005 I supervised two lambings. The first was a shed lambing of 450 ewes commencing Jan. 23 and ending March 1. The second was a pasture lambing of 300 ewes commencing April 20 and ending May 22.

The winter lambing flock was brought into the shed in mid-December, shorn, and bedded on straw. They were fed round bales of high-quality balage, and a mixture of whole shelled corn and roasted whole soybeans, along with a mineral mix.

The spring lambing flock was wintered outside, fed round bales of decent quality (but not fancy) balage, and no grain.

During the pre-lambing period, I had one assistant working with me. We would spend most of the morning feeding the ewes in the shed. Chores to feed and bed the winter-lambing ewes in the shed took about seven person-hours a day for 450 ewes, which works out to about one person-minute per sheep per day.

Meanwhile the spring lambing flock needed to be checked daily, its guard dog fed, and once every five days or so, it needed new bales. The daily routine took about 30 minutes, and the weekly bale feeding took about an hour, for an average of about 40 person-minutes per day, or .13 person-minutes per ewe per day.

That's right. It took nearly 10 times as much labor to care for the shed-lambing flock as it did the pasture lambing flock.

Once lambing started in the shed, we had three full-time shepherds, plus an intern or a part-time employee working. An average lambing day required about 36 person-hours in the shed, or nearly five person-minutes per ewe per day. The spring lambing flock continues to require .13 person minutes per ewe per day, or about three percent of the labor required for the winter lambing flock.

Hay and grain consumption in the shed rose as the ewes went into high production and the lambs started to eat their creep grain. At the peak, I was putting out 1,200 pounds of grain per day in the shed. The spring lambers were still fat and sassy without any grain.

When the winter lambing ended and weather outside began to warm up, we started to turn the ewes and lambs out of the shed so that we could start to remove the bedded pack. One of the shepherds went off the payroll, and one became essentially a machine operator for four to six hours a day, digging out and stacking the winter's manure.

That left me, more or less on my own, tending to 300 ewes lambing on pasture. I was working about 10 hours a day. So about two person-minutes per day per ewe for lambing time.

When all was said and done, those 450 ewes weaned 810 lambs, and the 300 we lambed outside weaned 535 -- roughly the same number of lambs per ewe (1.8). Each of those 810 lambs from the winter had more than 3 hours of labor in it, while the lambs born out on pasture had less than 45 minutes. Winter lambing was more than three times as labor intensive as pasture lambing per weaned lamb.

The winter lambing flock also required much more machine and petroleum input, as well as more purchased feed -- roughly double the pasture lambing flock. The bottom line was that I had a cost of production of a January-born lamb of about $105 at weaning, and about $75 in a pasture-born lamb. The cost of production was 40 percent higher overall for a lamb born in the winter as one born in the spring.

Since I left that farm, winter lambing has not been an option. I don't have a barn, and lambs born in the snow when it's -10 F have little chance of survival. I've also made a strategic business decision that I don't want to hire shepherds -- even at lambing time. That means spring lambing on pasture with ewes that can birth, mother, and raise their own lambs with little or no help from me.

Spring lambing is not without its problems. I have a group of lambs right now that still need to gain some weight before they are marketable, and it's really hard to get growth on lambs at this time of year; they burn up a lot of calories just keeping warm. I need more pasture land per ewe than most winter-lambing flocks, because lambs are often marketed before they place much demand on pasture. But on balance, I think I'd rather be in here by the wood stove when it's 20 below zero and blowing, than doing a nighttime barn check and trying to warm a frozen lamb.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sympathy for the Devil?

Yesterday, just for the briefest of moments, I felt sorry for George W. Bush.

I mean, I know he brought it all on himself, and I know he thinks history will absolve him. But imagine what it must be like to sit on the dais in front of hundreds of thousands of people live and in person, plus millions more watching on television, listening on the radio, or viewing live streams on the Internet, while your successor says, very politely, we reject you, Mr. Bush, and everything you stand for. What you have done for the past eight years represents all that is wrong with this country, and today we start to fix that. And the crowd goes wild.

And he slinks back to Crawford with this tail between his legs like the beaten cur that he is, relegated to the dung heap of history -- where, I remind myself, he deserves a particularly gooey, stinky spot -- so alone. I've even heard that his wife has taken a separate home in Dallas.

Let me make this clear: I am not saying that I think Dubya was a person of good will who was honestly doing what he thought was best for the country. I think he was a knuckle-dragging, slack-jawed moron powered by hate, fear, and all that is dark in the human soul. He was being manipulated by kingmakers who wanted to turn the US into a near dictatorship while avoiding all accountability.

And, what's worse, I think he liked it and generally agreed with the goals of fascists like Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, who, if given their head, would have instituted policies that would have made Franco's Guardia Civil look like a neighborhood watch program.

But just for a second there, I thought, wow. What must it be like to have so many people dislike you so intensely? To reject what you have done in their names so completely, and to adore a man who is so clearly the anti-you while decorum requires that you stand there and behave yourself?

I guess that's proof positive of my bleeding heart. I can even feel sympathy for the monster as I rejoice in its demise.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Today it ends. Today it begins.

Our national nightmare ends today. That which began a little over eight years ago when five members of the US Supreme Court conducted a bloodless coup and placed in power a little man from Texas ends today in front of throngs of people on the National Mall. A democratically elected President will replace a man who lied to us, who showed contempt for the institutions he was pledged to defend, and who just plain screwed up at every turn. A man who tried to turn us against each other -- remember the TIPS program? -- who tried to take Orwell's game and go pro with it. A man so crooked and dishonest he made Richard M. Nixon look like a freakin' boy scout.

Two good things that have come from these last eight years: first no longer can anyone say without fear of contradiction that New Hampshire produced the worst president that ever occupied the White House (Franklin Pierce). And second, there seems to be a national consensus that we can, should, and indeed must do better. Starting today.

Actually, it started a couple of years ago at the local level. Here in New Hampshire we shed some entrenched Republicans at the Congressional level and elected a Democratic governor. We finished the job last November. If you had told me 15 years ago -- hell, even five years ago -- that New Hampshire voters would vote for a black man for president, elect a Democratic Congressional delegation, a return a Democratic governor to office, and elect solid Democratic majorities in both houses of the state Legislature, I would have thought you were smoking something. But it happened.

And last week, we saw perhaps the strongest evidence of the change that is to come. Compare the answer of Dubya's attorney general, Michael Mukasey, to that of Obama nominee Eric Holder when asked, essentially, the same question: Is waterboarding torture?

"I don't know what's involved in waterboarding," [Mukasey] told Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), arguing he first needed to be "read into" the administration's program. Mukasey pledged to study the matter and said he would order a "review" after being confirmed.
(From the Huffington Post.)

ERIC HOLDER: I agree with you, Mr. Chairman, waterboarding is torture.

That review that Mukasey promised never happened, but in light of Holder's statement it seems that there's perhaps not really that much of a need for a review.

Let's hope that this sort of willingness to call a spade a spade and to right the wrongs of the last eight years permeates the rest of the administration. Let's hope that the era of politics where voters made decisions based on narrowly defined self-interest, fear, and manipulation of hot-button issues is over, and that we are going to live in a society in which people look after one another, rather than spy on one another.

See ya round, Dubya. Texas is a big place with lots of brush of brush to clear. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Canadians! Be proud, eh?

What other culture could combine ice hockey and Morris dancing?

It's the Village Green Morris Men of Winnipeg dancing to the tune of Stompin' Tom Connor's song Hockey Game.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Referendum voting dates set

Sheep producers will be able to vote on the referendum regarding the continuation of the sheep checkoff, or production tax, at local Farm Service Agency offices between Feb. 2 and Feb. 27.

Those who don't know where I stand, here's the link to the previous item on this blog about it.

Here's the USDA press release.