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  • The more atheists tell me that pigs have more value than human babies (born or unborn), the more pigs I'm going to eat. Bring on the crates!! We've ...

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  • The "hot air" is the paper by McGee, not in organic farming. Please see the response of IFOAM - Organics International at www.foam.bio.

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  • I just ate a pork chop. Yummy. And i grew up on a farm and we put pigs in crates. Of course they can lie down in there. But lose sows often lie on their ...

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  • Translating Food Technology: Why do farmers hire busloads of kids to walk their corn fields?

    Why are Nebraska kids walking through cornfields?

    In an average year, according to a Lincoln personnel recruiting firm that specializes in the practice, around 100,000 high-school and college kids spend about a month every June and July participating in a Midwestern rite of passage: "detasseling corn."

    The annual practice is as old as the invention of hybrid seed corn, the most common form of corn seed used by commercial farmers today. Seed-corn companies produce that hybrid seed by forcing two strains or breeds of corn plant to mate with one another, producing an offspring seed that then carries the best traits of both parents. Detasseling, the practice you're witnessing when you watch teams of teens walk the rows of cornfields or ride above the plants on elevated platforms, is the final step in ensuring the quality of that seed.

    To produce that improved hybrid corn on a commercial scale, corn plants, which normally pollinate themselves, are instead cross-pollinated. Seed-corn companies accomplish this cross-polination by first planting a field with alternating blocks of plants from the two different parent strains. In one set of rows, workers then remove the "tassel" or top part of the maturing stalk that bears the pollen. That detasseling leaves only rows containing the second strain's plants capable of pollinating the now detasseled plants, which will then go on to bear the hybrid seed.

    Some recent attempts at mechanization notwithstanding, says Varsity Detasseling, the helping hand of the detasseler is still needed to produce a pure and superior seed. When the time is right and the weather cooperates, they must work quickly, typically beginning in late June to late July, beating the summer heat by starting at sunrise and working until mid-afternoon. Detasselers, usually working in two or three passes through each field, must remove 99.5 percent of all female-plant tassels in order to completely "clean" a field.

    Watch this explanation of how and why detasseling works to produce pure seed corn.

  • Navigating the New Food Movement: Will you pay the consequences for helping sell fairy-tale farming?

    Are you complicit in selling fairy-tale farming?

    Mercy For Animals, the nonprofit animal-rights group behind several recent undercover animal-cruelty videos, which Farmer Goes to Market has reported on, has officially called the match: Cage-free eggs are now inevitable.

    In a blog post written nearly a year ago, the group"...dedicated to preventing cruelty to farmed animals and promoting compassionate food choices and policies," quoted the United Egg Producers president as conceding the U.S. egg industry now has no options but to go cage-free.

    How did Mercy for Animals take UEP, over the course of less than a decade, from spending $10 million to fight California legislation requiring cage-free to agreeing to back a system nationally that it not only predicts will increase egg farmers' housing costs by two to three times, but also stands a good chance of actually making chickens less healthy, less productive and more stressed?

    It did so by a strategically executed public-relations campaign characterized by the group's latest cinematic drama from late June. The footage, shot this spring by a hired MFA plant pretending to be a farm worker at Washington's Briarwood Farms, a supplier for egg distributor Eggland’s Best, edited together footage of people engaging in questionably cruel behavior with somber and brooding images of caged chickens, artfully gloomy background music and poetically suggestive narration. It all combines to further the group's constant narrative: The system of caged-hen production is unacceptable.

    But had it simply stopped there, MFA may have convinced a hardcore fringe the food-animal system is unredeemable, but it wouldn't have turned it into a movement. Instead MFA leveraged a well-targeted and increasingly belligerent directed e-mail campaign against key members of the chain, including Nebraska grocers large and small, with the megaphone social media now provides and the willing support of the old-line press. It effectively named and shamed suppliers to large companies, who could then be pressured to announce changes, all in the name of giving consumers what they're asking for. Those announcements could then, in turn, be used to coerce smaller, less powerful retailers and food producers into submitting.

    "Following pressure from caring consumers," the video narrator of the latest MFA video says, for instance, "many of the biggest companies in the world, including McDonalds, Kroger, Walmart and many others, committed to stop cramming hens in cages."

    It worked.

    In only a year's time, virtually the entire food chain has acquiesed. Publix, the fifth largest grocery store chain in the country, announced in mid July it plans to transition to 100 percent cage-free eggs by 2026. Hy-Vee and Price Chopper pledged similar progress in May by 2022 and 2025, respectively. The Independent Grocers Alliance, which represents over 1,000 retailers nationwide, joined the growing list , announcing, "It is our goal to source 100 percent cage-free eggs for IGA by 2025 based on available supply. IGA, its retailers and its wholesalers do not tolerate animal abuse of any kind, and we expect our suppliers to adhere to accepted industry standards."

    Josh Balk, senior food policy director for the Humane Society of the United States, told TriplePundit that it has “fortunately become very difficult for major food companies to appear on the side of animal abuse, in this case, the cruel confinement of hens in tiny cages.” Among the benefits he cites: “It’s also good business sense to align policies with customer sentiment regarding animal welfare.”

    Fortune's most recent, overly glowing profile of McDonalds' agonizing over going cage-free likewise places the ultimate driver at the feet of consumer demand: "...the movement in the U.S. is taking on a pace that many had never expected. 'It stunned me two years ago how we leaped over enriched to cage-free,' says Craig Morris, deputy administrator of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service’s livestock, poultry, and seed program. 'It all goes back to consumer expectations of how food is produced.'"

    But are consumers really behind it? Are grocers agreeing to an unrealistic make-believe farming system because they're being told by the media, old and new, that consumer pressure is driving the trend?

    It is dangerous, accourding to Texas Tech ag economist Darren Hudson, to infer that supply-side manipulation says anything meaningful about what consumers are really willing to pay for. Hudson cites studies noting that when consumers who say they favor animal-welfare standards are asked if they still favor them when they actually cost them more, either in form of food price and taxes, their support significantly wanes. He considers the scientific literature supporting true economic impact of animal welfare to be "scant."

    Despite what Mercy for Animals claims, the fact is economics research generally agrees that willingness-to-pay estimates are inflated. Often respondents tell surveyors they do want traits like cage-free based on their own hypothetical assumptions and their unwillingness to give the politically incorrect answer. Consumers may in fact be willing to put money on the counter for animal welfare, says Danish ag economics professor Laura Mørch Andersen, but so far it's only to a small degree. Her research supports the conclusion that stated willingness to pay "to a large extent is just cheap talk." Her work cautions retailers to consider the market for higher welfare products to be only a niche market, capable of attracting only certain consumer segments.

    But perhaps the most compelling evidence that consumers say they want voluntary production constraints like Walmart's but won't pay for them comes from the biggest real-world experiment in such practices so far, says University of California at Davis economist Tina Saitone: organics. Study after study shows consumers routinely tell surveyors they will buy more organic foods at a price premium. Yet the market share for organic in the United States has remained stalled over the last decade at only about 3 percent of food sales. Saitone calls the difference between experimental studies and the real marketplace a "vast chasm."

    Similarly, " most consumers want farm animals to be treated well," writes Oklahoma State ag economist Jayson Lusk. "But judging by shopping habits, they’re only willing to pay so much for hens’ amenities. The market share for affordable, cage-produced eggs (about 90 percent) dominates the more expensive, cage-free eggs (less than 10 percent)."

    "There are many studies on consumer willingness-to-pay for non-GM, cage-free and more," Lusk tells Farmer Goes to Market. "And most of these surveys and experiments show most consumers are willing to pay something for such attributes.  The trouble is that these WTP values don’t often materialize in the marketplace.  When you look at grocery scanner data, for example, market shares for these sorts of products are typically very low. ...most consumers are not willing to pay the price premiums for non-GM, cage-free, organic, when they have to put their money where their mouth is." 

    In further evidence, Lusk's monthly consumer-panel surveying in July asked 1,000 shoppers to choose from six different characteristics in random order that might influence their egg purchases. On average, price was most important when shopping for eggs, with 26 out of 100 points allocated to this issue on average across participants. Caged vs. cage-free fell almost 50 percent below price.

    Do shoppers really want cage-free when they have to pay for it?

    So consumers will have their cage-free eggs, whether they really demand them or not. But where will these top-down restrictions, and costly, demands on food production end?

    Mercy for Animals' same blog post claiming victory in the egg battle points to the next frong: "While the egg industry may see the writing on the wall, the pork industry continues to oppose reform. National Pork Producers Council spokesman Dave Warner pledged that the group will fight [housing mandates]. Although more than 85 percent of U.S. pigs are currently kept in gestation crates, NPPC president-elect, John Weber, admitted that the status quo will change. 'In another 10 years that percentage is probably going to change significantly,' Weber said. 'I would predict longer term ... we'll be housing sows differently.'"

    MFA's June video followed the same model of MFA's past works targeting not only poultry, but also pigs, milk cows, turkeys, veal calves, and even ducks. They all skillfully use isolated depictions of animal cruelty (some real, some implied or staged) by individuals to cinematically indict the wider system of intensive animal production or individual practices like caging hens, keeping pregnant pigs in individual stalls, beak-trimming to prevent cannibalism, or confined housing. Grocers can expect those targets to be next on their list.

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  • Foresight on Food Politics: Three facts about the ethanol fuel standard

    Facts about ethanol fuel standard

    Atop news that consolidation was occurring in the ethanol-refining business, as two Nebraska ethanol plants went on the block as part of bankruptcy proceedings against Abengoa Bioenergy, Investor's Business Daily marked the 11th anniversary of the federal Renewable Fuel Standard with an editorial from the oil industry demanding its end. Signed into law by President George W. Bush as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the Renewable Fuel Standard requires refiners to blend increasing amounts of biofuels into new options for consumers at the pump. Despite sparking billions of dollars in U.S. investments and helping reduce dependence on foreign oil, the RFS remains an obviously complex and contentious issue, as the IBD editorial testifies. Clarity around RFS is important to retailers not only because of the implications for grocer's food costs, but also because of questions of whether ethanol mandates increase or decrease the cost of the gasoline most grocers now rely upon for sales or rewards programs.

    The National Corn Growers Association would caution grocers a lot of over-simplifications have been tossed about by media and critics of biofuel production. For example:

    • It's not true ethanol is robbing livestock producers of feed. Yes, roughly 40 percent of U.S. corn is processed for ethanol, as the IBD editorial notes. But fully one-third of that total then comes back into livestock feed as ethanol byproducts. If you take those feedstocks out of the equation, only 30 percent of the crop went into ethanol last year; meanwhile, 47 percent of the crop goes to livestock feed in the United States. And when you count the corn that the United States exports, of which about 80 percent is used by livestock, in reality about 57 percent of the total yearly corn supply ends up eaten by livestock.
    • Relatively high corn price did not cause massive food price increases."Because half the nation's corn production is now being refined into ethanol," IBD's Texas-based oil institute author argues, "consumers are paying higher prices for beef, milk, poultry and pork." But in November 2015 testimony to Congress, the Congressional Budget Office argued food prices would be unchanged whether the RFS was continued or repealed. CBO estimates the 2017 increase in demand for corn under the RFS statute may raise the average price of corn by about 3 percent. However, because corn and food made with corn account for only a small fraction of total U.S. spending on food, that total spending would increase by only about 0.1 percent. When it comes to food manufacturers who use corn directly in their products, even a doubling in corn price from $4 per bushel to $8 per bushel would only add about 6 cents to the price of a box of corn-based breakfast cereal.
    • Ethanol-based demand has actually helped grow, not shrink, the corn supply. And it has done so without pulling more acreage into production. The corn growers association argues that without the demand boost provided by the EPA standard, farmers would have potentially chosen a different crop than corn for an estimated 11 million acres last year. But because they did plant that corn, the additional corn that's been grown benefits all corn buyers, including the food and livestock industries. Meanwhile, according to a study in the Biomass and Bioenergy Journal, increasing ethanol demand was met not by bringing idle land into corn production, but instead by U.S. crop intensification. In other words, using technology and management, farmers got more corn out of the same amount of land, contradicting the oft-repeated theory that any acre of farmland used to produce biofuels in the United States results in "sodbusting" unfarmed land and forests in other areas of the world.

    Says Chip Bowling, president of the National Corn Growers Association, "Thanks to innovation in U.S. agriculture, we are growing more crops on less land than we cultivated when the RFS was first enacted.”

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  • Competitive Commodity Insights: Have all the rules about meat demand changed?

    Why aren't meat prices behaving as expected?

    "Why is beef demand growing as per-capita income shrinks?" BEEF magazine editor Wes Ishmael pondered in a Jan. 2014 column written to cattle ranchers. The gap between rich and poor has widened, income growth at the bottom is stalled, and beef prices are leading nagging food inflation. "None of that should be positive news for commodity products with a high price compared to substitutes;" he noted, "beef vs. chicken and pork in this case." Yet Ishmael is surprised to point out that annual retail demand for beef has continued to defy expectations and to rise during those developments. "There’s no simple explanation for this paradox between dwindling domestic per-capita wealth overall in tandem with growing demand for pricier beef."

    Now, a study scheduled for publication in the journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy by Oklahoma State ag economist Jayson Lusk and Kansas State ag economist Glynn Tonsor has attempted to explain and quantify that paradox. Why haven't expenditures for beef and pork fallen as much as some people expected given their high prices? Lusk and Tonsor's modeling, based on monthly consumer surveys conducted by Lusk's department which Farmer Goes to Market has reported on in the past, implies that the rules of meat demand may have changed. For one, although relative price swings have favored chicken over beef and pork, consumers don't seem to have switched to chicken to a high degree. Second, they suggest the elasticity of demand for meat, particularly beef, may not follow a straight line as traditionally predicted.

    Here's a little Economics 101: Price elasticity is the measure of how much demand changes when price goes up or down. Inelastic products tend to be those goods and services that are necessities and used only in fixed amounts despite price swings, like utilities. If the price comes down, people don't necessarily increase consumption. In contrast, luxury goods consumption responds to price. Demand for those goods is known as elastic.

    Lusk and Tonsor note in their study that past research has questioned the value of traditional demand models to accurately explain the elasticity of consumer demand for many commodities. Now, their work reveals non-linear demands for meat products, with demand being more inelastic at higher prices.

    As their graphs for the competing meats point out, the demand plot for each product and income class is curved, not straight, implying that demand becomes more inelastic as prices rise. Price changes at the upper end don't change the quantity demanded as much as price changes in the lower end of the distribution. This phenomenon helps explain the surprise expressed by some analysts at the continued strength of beef and pork expenditures despite higher prices. In addition, elasticity of demand also varies by income level of the consumers. For some products, like pork chops, the demand curves for low-, middle-, and high-income consumers aren't markedly different, except at high price levels. But for other products like steak, income changes result in large shifts in demand. In all cases, but perhaps most easily seen for ground beef, the demand curves for high-income consumers are more inelastic than that for low-income consumers.

    Demand curves for meat behave unexpectedly

    The ag economists point out several implications of their work. Although it's common to use estimated elasticities of demand not only for market research, but also to set policy and to forecast long-term prices, net farm income, government expenditures and other statistics, most may be over-reliant on traditional straight-line demand elasticities. In many applications, analysts assume constant elasticities over all price ranges, and as a result may over- or under-estimate economic impacts if elasticities actually behave as their modeling suggests. Even setting retail beef prices may need rethinking based on the work: The old assumption that holding retail prices high hurts demand across the board for beef may not be as cut-and-dry as assumed in the past.

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  • Meet your Farmers: Rowdy Moon, Nebraska bull fighter

    A champion team roper and national-caliber bareback bronc rider himself, 19-year-old Sargent native Rowdy Moon spends summer weekend nights under the lights in county rodeo arenas running towards the business end of 1,600 pounds of mean beef. “I’ve always wondered why he wants to step out in front of one when he could be up there on top where it’s safer,” his brother Cody once marveled.

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  • On the Lighter Side: A Labor Day salute to some real organized labor

    Observed on the first Monday in September, Labor Day pays tribute to the contributions and achievements of American workers. It was created by the labor movement in the late 19th century and became a federal holiday in 1894. Travel back in time 30 years with us, to the small Nebraska town of Bruno, where Herman Ostry and his family needed a barn moved but couldn't afford to have it done the conventional way. So they demonstrated the real power of organized labor, caught here by the local TV news station.

     

     

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