Tag Archives: USDA

Friday Linkage 2/15/2019

It’s not a polar vortex in February, but for some reason I would take the cold temperatures over what we have had the past two weeks.  How does an inch or so of ice that gets topped off with nearly a foot of snow and capped with a little wintry mix?  Add in the drifting from 40 mile per hour winds and temperatures that swing thirty degrees in a twenty four hour period.  That is what February has been like so far in eastern Iowa.

Now you know why I am dreaming of spring.

On to the links…

Uniquely American’: Senate Passes Landmark Bill to Enlarge National Parks—Good things can happen.  This is an unalloyed win for advocates of public lands.  Granted, it still requires a signature from individual number 1 but I have to imagine that even he is inclined to go with the flow on this.

What’s Missing from the Green New Deal—I think that the most important thing is that we are having a conversation about the Green New Deal.  Could you imagine this happening just two years ago following Trump’s “victory” and the ascension of a completely Republican controlled Washington D.C.?  Nope.

Priorities: Where Do You Start with the Green New Deal?—If it were me, I would start with a nationwide reforestation effort focused on degraded lands.  It could be lands impacted by mining in Appalachia, beetle kill in Colorado, and wildfire in California.

Is Renewables’ Production Tax Credit Bullet Proof?—I have to imagine that in this political climate the production tax credit for renewables is going to get renewed past 2020.  Some red state Republicans support the PTC and Democrats are in favor, so the odds are favorable.

Trump Administration will try to Exempt Specialty Bulbs from Energy Efficiency Standards—Of course the Trump administration will try to roll back new energy efficiency standards.  Try is the operative word.  BTW, can we just kill the Edison bulb trend?

USDA says Filler once Known as ‘Pink Slime’ can be Labeled Ground Beef—Of course the USDA would allow pink slime to be labelled as ground beef.  It is like we live in a dystopia where the president feeds visitors to the White House fast food…oh shit, we do live in Idiocracy now.  Damn.

China is polluting California’s air—Pollution is both local and global.  The air may be horrible in China and India, but those same pollutants will impact other countries.  Even countries an ocean away.  Just because we have outsourced our pollution does not mean that we have avoided our pollution.

Coal Developers Take Note: Climate Change Killed This Coal Mine—Climate change is real and people are really starting to take notice.  If a judge uses this as a reason to stop coal development we may have finally turned a corner.

War on Plastics May Stunt Oil Demand Growth Projections—Take a look at the chart:

Plastic Pie Chart.jpg

Thirty six percent of the demand for plastic is for packaging.  Buy less stuff to save money and reduce the demand for disposable plastic.

Another Way To Power Electric Cars: “Refillable Technology”—Flow batteries and related technologies, which this particular article deals with, seem like a great way to get around the problem of quickly charging EVs.  I wonder if there is a way to get the best of both worlds.  Make an EV that you charge at home most days, but have the option of refilling with charged electrolyte when on a trip far from home.

How EV HVAC Use Impacts Range Much More Than Extreme Temps—If there is a negative article about EVs you can bet the press is going to pounce.  Here is the thing, even with reduced range an EV will handle your daily commute.  Why is this even a story anymore?  And another thing, where were the articles about traditional ICE cars not being able to start in the polar vortex?

California to Transition to 100 Percent Electric Buses by 2040—Why can’t we make this a goal for 2030?  If transitioning 12,000 busses is the equivalent of 4 million cars we should be all over this effort.

Bottle Recycling in Oregon Hits 90 Percent Record High—I live in a state with a bottle deposit law and it works.  I imagine that if we adopted a nationwide ten cents per bottle deposit law that recycling rates for cans and bottles would increase accordingly.

How Big-Box Stores Bilk Local Governments—Here is why our governments—local, state, and federal—do not have the money to implement programs people care about: businesses have manipulated the tax code with loopholes to avoid paying any tax.

Solar Jobs Climb in Iowa—Most of the news around solar in the U.S. has been a downer lately as the Trump tariffs have bitten the industry.  However, Iowa solar jobs were up which is a good thing.

Friday Linkage 5/1/2015

It’s hard to believe it’s May already. April disappeared in too much work and too little home life. I am committing to turning that around this month with a half dozen projects I want to tackle. First up is the transformation of a forlorn flower bed into a seasonal vegetable garden. Oh yeah!

On to the links…

New Study Shows Climate Change Is Already Hurting Coffee Growth—Here is something to take the buzz out of your morning coffee. Shade grown methods may help, but I have a feeling we are going to have to get used to the bitterness of robusta beans sooner rather than later.

The Company That Sells One In Five Chickens In The U.S. Will Stop Using Antibiotics—If you care about antibiotic resistant bacteria then you should care about this announcement. Public pressure and good sense, not government policy, is changing behavior. It probably helps that traditional fast food chains, which buy a lot of value added processed chicken, are hurting because of concerns just like this and need to bow to market pressure as well.

The Senate’s Top Climate Denier Redefines Chutzpah—James Inhofe has to be the biggest piece of scum in the Senate right now, which is a bold statement for a body that counts among its members Ted Cruz. However, Inhofe—a noted climate denier—has decided to use the threat of climate change to promote his agenda of nuclear power. Nothing like hypocrisy to make the world go round.

U.S. Maps Pinpoint Earthquakes Linked to Quest for Oil and Gas—Climate change may be hard for people to grasp—what do you mean it might get colder when the planet warms?—but manmade earthquakes should be easy to understand. We are literally changing the geological stability of the ground beneath our feet.

North America’s Oil And Gas Industry Has Taken Over 7 Million Acres Of Land Since 2000—Haven’t we given enough to oil and gas companies? Considering that these companies are some of the most profitable in the history of capitalism and these same companies tend to be subsidized through a variety of mechanisms maybe it is time to say stop.

Experiment in Irvine takes Crops’ Water Use to New Lows—As California comes to terms with what may be a new, very dry normal the ability of farmers to use less and less water to grow valuable crops will be essential.

California’s Irrigation Varies by Crop—Why is California even bothering growing corn and alfalfa with scarce water:


How Does Solar “Take Cars off the Road”?—The symbolism of “cars off the road” is easy to understand but it obscured the fact of how much energy our buildings use. Plus, only bicycles take vehicles “off the road.”

First U.S. Offshore Wind Project Breaks Ground— The project is small, but it represents a lot of potential. Imagine putting clean power generation just off the coast from millions of people in the densely populated northeastern United States?

Global Solar Demand To Grow 30% To 57 GW—I do not know where the tipping point is for when solar will be so rapidly deployed that it will fundamentally alter our relationship with utilities and the power grid, but it has to be coming soon.

Xcel Energy wants Size Limits on its Minnesota Community Solar Gardens—Xcel Energy under estimated the demand and the ability of enterprising companies to figure a way around its rules. Now it wants to put the genie back in the bottle. Given how beholden Minnesota lawmakers are to this particular power company I am inclined to believe that it will happen.

China Could Get 85 Percent Of Its Electricity From Renewables By 2050—If there is one country that needs to set an aggressive renewables target it is China. The insatiable demand for electric power has been fed by coal which has fouled the air to such a degree as to be criminal.

Dubai Confirms 800 MW Expansion For Iconic Solar Power Project—It’s a great time to be a solar advocate when only projects in the hundreds of megawatt range get your blood pumping. Too bad this is to support unsustainable development in Dubai.

Countries that Lead the Switch to Clean Energy will Reap the Financial Rewards—Those countries that make the commitment early will be poised to lead a new phase of economic growth and prosperity, while the countries that slavishly hold on to the outdated model will be forced to adapt late and at a higher cost.

The Top Imported Good in Each State, in One Map—Fixr puts together some interesting maps. This one shows the top import into each state in terms of value:


What Did Recycling Look Like In 280 BC?—This is a little tongue in cheek, but it makes you think about just how much our modern world has changed:


Hungry Pelicans Credited with Gobbling Thousands of Goldfish Infesting Boulder Lake—Generally, the removal of invasive species requires some serious human intervention. This time Mother Nature provided a very clean solution. Hungry pelicans hovered up thousands of rapidly multiplying goldfish in a veritable invasive species buffet.

An Alternative-Medicine Believer’s Journey Back to Science—Any time you disagree with someone on scientific or technical grounds and the response is death threats you know you have struck a nerve and probably found the truth. Various alternative medicine communities—be it the anti-vaccine crowd or the anti-gluten fanatics or whatever graces the couch of Dr. Oz this week—have a problem with people seeking actual scientific truth because it will probably impact their pocketbook.

Friday Linkage 5/23/2014

Who knew that Pat Sajak—he’s still on the air?—was a climate denier? Maybe he is the one feeding Marco Rubio his dubious stance on climate and the environment. It would make sense given that neither make any sense to a person with a quarter ounce of sense.

On to the links…

Minnesota Becomes First State To Ban Antibacterial Chemical Triclosan From Soaps—This is important news because I hope it is the start of a nationwide trend to get this chemical off our store shelves. There is no need for us to use this chemical and it has a lot of downside risks to the environment. Clean freaks and germophobes will probably cry into their sanitary wipes, but it is progress.

The Big Melt Accelerates—Well, here is some real crap news. We are living in the moment when our actions our visibly changing the planet. Do humans suck or what?

Dust Bowl Days: Will We Cut Carbon Pollution Fast Enough To Prevent Permanent Droughts?—There may be more water in the oceans because of global warming and ice melt, but a lot of regions are going to be a lot drier. Maybe permanently. When will we listen up and make fundamental changes?

The Red Hot Renewable That Could Incite A Green Power Revolution—I’ve linked to articles and written about geothermal power before. It’s an untapped resource—pun is actually intended. It’s clean power that can be counted on as baseload power. That is huge when you have variability in your other renewables like wind or solar.

The Birthplace Of Big Oil Is About To Get Its Biggest Solar Plant Yet—Texas is behind the eight ball when it comes to solar. It’s a state bathed in sun, but it’s also the home of big oil so you can understand why they are more prone to drill their way to freedom.

India’s New Prime Minister Plans To Make A Major Push on Solar Energy—Narendra Modi, the presumptive new prime minister of India, is making pledges to goose development of solar resources in India. If you do not think that this will have an impact on the global market, you do not understand the concept of the “India price.”

Jane Kleeb vs. the Keystone Pipeline—The opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline has made for some interesting bedfellows. You have “cowboys,” “Indians,” ranchers, environmentalists, state’s rights advocates, libertarians, etc.

How to Fight a Factory Farm and Win—Apparently, when you have exhausted trying to stop a factory farm because of the environmental and animal welfare reasons there is always the stink. People understand the stink and no one likes the stink.

EPA Finalizes Power Plant Water Intake Rules To Save Billions Of Aquatic Animals Every Year—This is totally one of those regulations where you can see John Boehner and Eric Cantor standing at a podium stressing the “job killing” administration of President Obama. Sometimes, the impact on jobs is less important than the impact of everything else.

How USDA Rubber-Stamps ‘Humane’ and ‘Sustainable’ Food Claims—This is why it is critically important to know from whom and where your food originates. Too often the people we believe are entrusted with preserving our health and safety are nothing more than shills for industry.

In Federal-State Marijuana Battle, Hemp Is The New Frontier—Apparently, there is one issue that Mitch McConnell and his opponent in November’s election Alison Lundergan Grimes can agree upon: hemp. Both candidates for elected office have declared that the federal government should release hemp seeds to the state of Kentucky. Common ground over hemp. Imagine that.

How to Make the Twin Cities the Best Region in America—You could take these ideas to any town and it would be a great list to work on. The article’s title is so interchangeable that it could be “How to Make the BLANK the Best Region in America.” Who does not want more livable communities? Oh right, republicans.

The 20 Deadliest U.S. Cities for Pedestrians—I love how this list corresponds nicely to places that I would never live. It also shows that pedestrians in Florida are little more than collateral damage.

What a Difference a Week Makes

What a difference a week of rain makes.  This was the drought picture for the state of Iowa last week per the U.S. Drought Monitor:

IA_dm_130409After a very wet week, this is what things look like this week:

IA_dm_130416The real dramatic change is how much of the state is out of “extreme” drought.  Keep in mind that this picture does not include the rain that we got all through Tuesday night and Wednesday.  Things are really wet right now.

How wet?  Roads are being closed because water is rushing over them.  Streams and creeks have broken their banks and flooded low lying areas.  Heck, Coralville Reservoir’s levels are rising to such a level that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to assuage everyone’s fears about the flood of 2008 happening again.

If the rains keep coming we are going to swing from extreme drought last year to springtime flooding this year.  Climate change anyone?



We’re Outta’ Here!

It’s official.  Linn County, where I live in eastern Iowa, is no longer in a state of drought according to the U.S. Drought Monitor:

IA_dm_130409The areas in white are considered to be “free” of drought.  How free is another question considering how persistent drought can be.

This picture will probably get better as Tuesday was the cutoff for data samples and it has rained across much of the state for the entire week.

The turnaround has been quite nice over the past few weeks as actual rain has fallen with a steady drumbeat.  Granted, the rain has also been accompanied by low temperatures so it is making for some miserable days.  Take the good with the bad and all.

Actually, I think the cooler temperatures are at play in helping us get out of drought because the soil does not dry out as fast when it is forty degrees versus seventy degrees.  Last spring it was ridiculously warm and sunny in March and April.  I am talking about seventy degrees and full sun almost every day it seemed like.

That weather trend continued into the summer where it was hot and sunny for many days on end.  It ended up that we just baked all summer because the rains did not come.

The Ground is Squishy

This may seem like an odd observation, but the ground around my house is squishy.  What’s the big deal you ask?  Well, considering the state of drought that we were in for most of 2012 it’s damn near a miracle that the ground feels like anything other than concrete.  I am just hoping that this precipitation gets locked into the ground and we can have a good warm weather season.  If it is another drought year I am going to have a hard time keeping to my planting schedule.  Damn you climate change!

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor the trend for my part of the country has been improving and we are only considered “dry” right now.  This will improve when the steady rains of the past few days are taken into account for next week’s figures.  Check out the 12-week animation:


You can see that the drought conditions in eastern Iowa are relatively persistent, so there are macro conditions to be concerned about.  However, when I make the trek out to the compost bin the ground squishes under my boots.  It has been a long time since I could say that.

A cool feature of the U.S. Drought Monitor is the ability to view a regional or state level 52 week animation of drought conditions.  Check it out.  The summer months were just brutal here in Iowa as everything went to deep tan, orange, and red.  Ugh!

Update on the Midwest Drought

Drought is an insidious thing.  Even though it seems like it might be a single season event, the depletion of subsurface moisture can take years to be replenished.  Apparently, a big part of the annual replenishment of subsurface soil moisture are fall rains and winter snows.  However, if the soil is particularly dry it cannot absorb moisture.

This seems counter intuitive, but think about a sponge.  A bone dry, hard sponge does not instantly grab and hold moisture as well as a slightly moist sponge.

Here in eastern Iowa the drought picture has improved markedly.  The area considered to be in “exceptional” drought, which is the worst category, has declined to virtually zero from a high of over 5% during the summer.  The next worst category of “extreme” drought has declined from a high of over 55% to slightly more than 11%.  Here are the numbers for all drought categories for the Midwest:

Watch the red splotch decrease substantially in this graphic from the U.S. Drought Monitor:

What this means is that the ground has started to recapture some subsurface moisture prior to the freeze of winter.  During the winter months, snowmelt will just run off but when spring comes the ground needs some moisture present to really absorb the spring snowmelt.  Otherwise the ground is just like a hard sponge and a lot of subsurface recharging will be lost.  Going into the summer with a deficit is a bad place to be.

Fair Trade and the Problem with Labels

Coffee is one of the foodstuffs that I buy with regularity for which there is no acceptable locally produced substitute.  It is one of the downsides of postponing my relocation to the Hawaiian Islands.

Barring an experience that turns me on to the subtleties of roasted dandelion root or ground chicory I am stuck purchasing coffee from faraway lands.  Oh sure, when I am feeling flush with cash I will outlay the money for coffee from Kona or Ka’u on the Big Island.  Heck, I even like the inferior coffees from the island of Kauai.  Most of the time, however, I am left to choose between coffees grown in Central and South America.  Will it be the Mexican Chiapas or the Guatemalan Dark?  Maybe the Colombian Supreme?

This where labels come in.  I cannot personally know the people growing my coffee, unless it comes from Hawaii or I undertake a trip south of the U.S. border, so I depend on third parties to assure that the coffee I am drinking aligns with my values.  This is the point of labels like organic, shade grown, rain forest certified, fair trade, etc.

Apparently, there is a problem in the world of fair trade.  The organizations that certify foodstuffs and other consumer goods as “fair trade” are somewhat balkanized.  This trend is exemplified by the split between Fairtrade International—the most well-known certifier—and the fledgling Fair Trade USA.  Both may label a foodstuff fair trade, but the methodology for determining if something is “fair trade” may be quite different.

In the case of Fair Trade USA and coffee there are several issues that bring into question the entire act of labeling something fair trade.  First, Fair Trade USA engages in the practice of labeling coffee grown on large estates or plantations which runs counter to the popularly held assumptions of many fair trade customers that the goods they buy come from smaller producers.  Second, there are somewhat confusing standards for products that contain some fair trade ingredients.  For a good rundown of that issue check out this article by Corey Hill in the East Bay Express.

The biggest problem seems to be that plantations could be considered “fair trade” when the products they ship contain as low as 10% fair trade beans .  Suddenly, everyone is serving 100% fair trade coffee because someone has changed the rules of the game.  Huh?  This reminds me of when some states during the 2000s seemed to have great performance on standardized tests and the results seemed counter to anecdotal evidence of student performance.  The problem?  The states had lowered the standards for the test to a level that was laughable.  Sure, more students were passing but it was not comparable to an earlier, more difficult exam.  Just because the label says something is fair trade does not mean it is better.  Ugh!

This story goes to the heart of why the local food movement is so important.  If you know the actual producers of the food you purchase and you interact with those producers there is no need for a third party labeling scheme that can be co-opted by an unscrupulous entity.  You buy produce from Farmer X because Farmer X does things the way you like it.  Plain and simple.

Looming Bacon Shortage

Apparently, the drought that has ravaged much of the United States this spring and summer is starting to really impact a lot of sectors of the food economy.  I could care less about the price of corn syrup for soda makers, but when it comes to bacon….

The recent surge in U.S and worldwide pigs being led to slaughter was a result of livestock producers reducing or thinning herds because anticipated feed costs are likely to be quite high through the winter.  This is predicted to lead to a long term shortage in the supplies of pork and, more importantly, bacon in 2013 and beyond.  Herds of animals do not just recover in a season.


I am an unrequited bacon lover.  In our house meat is not something that gets slapped onto every plate.  It’s no protein and two sides meal every night, but bacon is something we use quite a bit of in quite a lot of dishes.  A few ounces of bacon can turn a so-so pasta dish into something that disappears quickly.  Need to perk up that potato soup?  Just a little crumbled bacon goes a long way.

Granted, the pork that I buy does not come from the large confined animal feeding operations (CAFO) that dominate the pork producing landscape.  So, there is hope that I will not see the dramatic rise in prices that others have seen because the inputs are not the same and the methods are nowhere near similar.  I will be intrigued to find out if the drought has severely impacted the acorn crop this year, which is something that pasture raised pigs love to snack on.  If you want to see some happy animals take the time to watch pigs go crazy on a pasture sprinkled with acorns.  It’s amazing.

Some people are putting the blame on the U.S. government’s mandate for the use of ethanol in the fuel supply.  Ethanol, a product of corn distillation, competes for the same basic commodities that are used to feed livestock, usually cows and pigs.  Who knows?  Just looking at the chart for the price of corn in the U.S. tells me that the market is driving the price to insane levels regardless of cause:

The chart is from CNBC.com and was taken on Friday (9/28/2012).  It shows the price of corn for the past year.  Look at the past few months.  Wow!  The combination of reduced supply (drought) and consistent demand (feed and fuel) has led to a big increase that is going to reverberate through the economy for many months.  It’s also going to make my bacon more expensive.

Maybe the looming bacon shortage can teach us something about our food preferences and its attendant production system.

Rain, Sweet Rain

This past Sunday was a glorious day.  The temperature never crossed north of 75 degrees and it rained intermittently all day long.  When you are in the throes of an epic drought a day like that ranks right alongside a World Series victory for the Chicago Cubs.  Okay, maybe we have not gotten to that point quite yet.

With the cutoff for data being Tuesday of the current week, the rains from last night and this morning are not included.  Nonetheless, things have not gotten worse for my part of the country:

That is a small consolation when you are characterized as being in an “extreme” drought condition.  It also highlights the persistent nature of drought once it takes hold.  Even a week of good rain does nothing to ameliorate the dry conditions other than making the people living through the drought a little less crazy.

On the Mississippi River, which carries a lot of the commodity inputs for America’s agro-industrial machine, the water levels have gotten so low that barge traffic is restricted or halted.  Just to give you an idea of the impact the Mississippi River carries 60 percent of the nation’s grain, 22 percent of the oil and gas and 20 percent of the coal.  Big deal, right?  As someone who grew up just north of La Crosse, Wisconsin it is hard to believe that the river has dropped low enough to stop barge traffic. 

The real question in eastern Iowa right now is with regard to the condition of the two staple commodity crops: corn and soybeans.  Most people, experts and amateurs alike, have written off a lot of the corn crop because the drought came at a critical time in the growth of a corn plant.  Furthermore, save for some advances in breeding, corn is a fairly inefficient plant in terms of moisture usage and extraction.  If you look at the price of corn you can see what the markets think about the harvest.  On August 16th, a bushel of corn was trading north of $8 for the first time that I can remember.  This is not quite the 52-week high, but it is up quite a bit from the 52-week low of just under $5.

At these prices the ethanol industry just has to be getting hammered.  I have not seen reports of ethanol plants being shuttered, but I cannot imagine that it is very profitable to keep these facilities in operation.

Apparently, the ditch weed in Iowa is doing okay.