Steve’s Weekly Update for 9/1/10

Dear members,

Climatology 2010: The switch to fall is in full swing.  Dry Dry Dry ever since the big flood.  Cool nights and moderate days.  We have been having nights in the low 50s and suddenly we will have a night in the upper 30s (maybe in the next 7-10 days).  Then we will have our first, light frost.

Now that the big flood is a couple of weeks behind us we can assess the damage to crops.  The greatest damage was suffered by our onions, which experienced so much stress that as they have grown out of the hail damage, they have begun to put up flower stalks, which is characteristic of the second year of the life of an onion plant.   In that second year the bulb is exhausted as the plant prepares to flower and produce seed.  So our marvelous storage onions crop will not be suitable for storage:  we will begin harvesting them soon for fresh use.  Also the winter squash crop was seriously harmed.  The fruit that was setting is scarred, which will effect its storage life, and the plants were damaged sufficiently that another round of flowers was killed off.  Now the plants are trying to flower again.  We will pick off those flowers as it is too late for them to mature into decent fruit.  In this way we will “force” that plant to grow out that first set of fruit and we’ll have to hope for the best.  Our fabulous storage butternuts, which usually keep until February or even March or April, will have to be eaten this fall and early winter.  Although they will not be “pretty,” they will be very tasty no doubt!

Steve’s Soapbox: Last Friday I attended a unique “workshop” in Ft. Collins, Colorado, put on by the USDA and the Department of Justice (DOJ).  The purpose of the workshop was to explore the issue of concentration of economic power in the livestock industry.  This was the 4th of 5 such workshops planned by USDA/DOJ.  This one was to focus on beef, and the choice of a Western location was based on the importance of ranching in the Western economy.

4 panels presented information about their experience, and there were 2 times for public comment.  Almost 2,000 ranchers from all over the west were present.  The pure logistics of the event, hosted by Colorado State University, were impressive and a lot of fun to be part of.

The facts are that currently 4 meat packers (those are the companies that operate slaughterhouses) control 80% of the capacity.  Last year 2 of of the top 4 tried to merge, and the DOJ said “enough”, and expressed its intent to fight the merger.  That caused the plan to be dropped and opened DOJ eyes to the extent and effects of concentration.

There are many ways that this near monopoly effects ranchers, starting with subtle forms of collusion and price fixing.  If there are not enough buyers wanting to buy fed cattle (ready to slaughter), then the price for those who do buy is lower (manipulation of supply and demand).  Also, in order to assure that they have the cattle that they want when they want them, packers make contracts with preferred suppliers, usually larger producers.  This penalizes smaller producers who may have animals of similar quality.  Some packers even acquire interest in feedlots, and of course in that case they would prefer cattle that they already own.  All of these are construed as “anti-competitive factors” brought about by the fact that too few companies control too much of the market.

In 1929 the GIPSA (Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Act) was passed to control monopolistic behavior in the grain and livestock sectors.  By all accounts, the act has fallen into “disuse,” and is not providing the kind of checks and balances for which it was intended.

On the surface it would seem obvious that ranchers are getting the short end of the deal.  But in fact sentiment is about evenly spilt among ranchers as to whether the current arrangement hurts or helps them.  This is largely because of the fact that the government hurts ranchers more than the beef packers do!  So given the choice of trusting a big corporation and trusting the government to intervene and assist then, about half of the ranchers say “just leave us alone”.

The common thread from ranchers was that regulation is killing them, from the ESA (Endangered Species Act) to the “Estate tax”  (dubbed the “death tax” by ranchers, for whom the common refrain is, if you are going to die soon, do it this year or the government will take half of your ranch and force your family off the land when the death tax comes back on the books in 2011), to the Clean Water Act, (a proposed amendment to the CWA would give the federal government regulatory control of every puddle and arroyo on every ranch in the west) not to mention the pending portfolio of climate change legislation that is expected to drive up fuel costs by 50 to 100%, radically effecting the cost of operations for western ranchers.

The US government is not seen as a friend of the ranching community.

It is fascinating to sit among such a group of people who love their country, their land, their way of life, and yet have such a deep distrust of the government, born of years of misunderstanding and suffering the “unintended consequences” of well intentioned programs designed by those with little experience or understanding of life on the ground, especially on our Western ranches..

I have written often about how citizens turn to the government for remedies when the private sector fails them.  In this case there is a conflict over whether the medicine is worse than the disease.  There is no doubt that the system is “sick,” but there is serious disagreement about how and to what extent the government can be trusted to be part of the cure.

I sure wish that along with the antitrust intervention, some other important changes could be made at the policy level that would assure ranchers that our leadership understands that western ranchers ARE the stewards of our land, private and public, that their brand of environmentalism has the best interest of our nation and the land itself at heart, and that their “right to farm and ranch” will be protected and enhanced in any package of policy changes going forward.

Such assurances, if effective, would allow us to look more carefully at the current supply chain which pushes power and economic gain away from the primary producers  (farmers and ranchers), eventually creating the greatest concentration of power in the hands of a few buyers, such as Walmart, who control 25% of the retail food system in the US.

This week’s Cow stories:  update on Mesa Top cows, Jim Miller Ayrshire projects and more:

I am focusing now in lining up equipment to help Kurtis build up his dairy, and also for Kenny Carter at High Desert who has been struggling all summer to locate a reasonably priced bulk tank to store and chill the cow’s milk.

As luck would have it, the painful and costly process of shutting down Twin Mtn has opened a possible new resource that may be able to help us in this regard.  Andy’s cousin Alan, who bought the land and funded Andy to renovate and equip the Twin Mtn facility, operates several larger dairies including one in Canyon, Texas, about 30 minutes south of Amarillo.  Alan and I worked together (by phone) to minimize the damage done during Andy’s meltdown, and we got to talking.  I asked Alan if he would not mind helping us secure some of the equipment we need, as he is always buying equipment out of dairies that are closing or upgrading equipment or the like.

He thinks he can help us, and this could be a terrific “silver lining” in the cloud of lost time and resources associated with the failure of Twin Mtn.

By the way, we did come out of that experience with a few wheels of good cheese, which you should be seeing soon!

This week’s cheese share update:

This week the cheese share will be Romano and Jack.

This week’s Veggie/Share Update:

The Vida Verde tomato crop is waning.  I will look for other sources of tomatoes.  This week we will have a small amount of okra from Vida Verde.  We will again feature basil from One Straw Farm.

We also have turnip and scallions, salad, kale, and squash from Mesa Top and Elijah Farm’s lemon cucumbers.

A new treat is baby bunched beets from Agricultura Farms in the South Valley of Albuquerque.  This project is a Community Food Security funded “coop” of small producers who are working together to improve their soils and gain access to larger markets through cooperative marketing.

On the fruit side we have the first of the fall Bartlett pears from Juan Velasco whose orchard is in the Gila near Silver City.  Juan will also have many different types of very tasty apples.  We are glad to have Juan back with us after a couple of years without fruit due to weather vagaries.

Membership news:

We are offering a piece of artisanal cheese or a jar of peanut butter to new members who sign up in September; please let your friends know.  We are adding new members at our new distribution site at SF Prep!

Thank you for your continued support!

Steve Warshawer

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