A busy week in ag news

Spring planting is wrapping up and farmers are trying to decide if requesting prevented-planting payments is the right decision, or if there’s another, better option.

Canadian grain handlers are asking their federal government to require major rail companies to devote a minimum number of cars to grain shipments each month, in an effort to avoid worsening of already unprecedented logjams in shipments.

The Minnesota Corn Growers Association is urging farmers to begin planning and preparing for their propane needs at harvest time, even though it’s months away, to avoid issues with propane shortages from last year’s harvest and drying season.

U.S. farmers are mad about Japan’s trade barriers and say they could derail the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

That’s only a little taste of the news that’s come across my desk this week, and most of that is just from today.

The dorky newsy in me is ecstatic about the amount of news coming up in Agweek’s June 16 issue.

Don’t miss it. And I hope I can fit it all in.


A stroke of mom genius

So much news came out this week about bees. And it’s all bad.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report saying honeybees that are crucial for pollinating crops are still dying off at alarming rates.

Minnesota legislators are recommending pesticide reviews include the possibility of restricting or banning certain pesticides that are found to kill bees. The European Union already does this.

U.S. environmentalist groups are suing government agencies, demanding that the rusty patched bumble bee be added to the endangered species list, as a result of its steep population decline.

My head is buzzing (sorry).

If you read my blog regularly, you know I like bees. And I have a particular soft spot for bumble bees, with their fat, fuzzy bodies. I think they’re cute.

While mentioning my appreciation, I got into a discussion with a fellow Agweek team member in the office today about instances where I’ve been stung by bees. One in particular stands out.

I was about 4 or 5 and lying on the living room floor in our family home watching TV (Sesame Street or the Muppet Babies, I think). It was a hot summer day and we had no air conditioning, so the windows were open to let in the breeze. Suddenly, I felt a searing pain in my pinky finger and looked down to see a small bee sitting on it, stinger already detached and protruding from my quickly swelling finger.

I was so upset. Not because it hurt so much, but because I couldn’t understand why this tiny little bee wanted to hurt me.

My mom scooped me into her lap with a small bag of ice for my chubby, kid finger and explained he was just trying to sit down because I was welcoming and he accidentally stung me. I liked that explanation — so much that I didn’t question it. I probably still told people the story into adulthood.

But moms always have the answers. My mom knew everything when I was a kid. She still does.

So Mom, how do we save those cute little critters who like watching Sesame Street with 5-year-old strawberry-blonds?

The federal government needs your genius.

A side effect of favoritism

The rail delays hampering agribusiness in the Upper Midwest have been big news for weeks now. Federal authorities are getting involved to help alleviate the problem and assist elevators and farmers.

They’ve lost millions. An NDSU study showed farmers in North Dakota lost almost $67 million this year so far because of the delays of grain shipments, and could lose another $100 million if the situation doesn’t improve. It’s important to note that that figure just represents farmers — not elevators or other small businesses — and only in North Dakota.

Railroad companies and even the NDSU study say the delays are caused by a combination of factors: oil traffic, cold weather and a large grain crop.

I disagree.

There’s one cause for this: oil traffic.

Railways made a business decision to favor that industry because transporting oil brings in more money than transporting ag products. The farmers know it and have been saying it for months. It’s not a mystery. If it’s supposed to be a secret, it’s impossible to keep because it’s so obvious. This truth is staring (if not slapping) us in the face.

I guess we aren’t supposed to notice those things.

Grain cars for one rail company are almost a month late now in North Dakota. Two area railways were asked by the Surface Transportation Board during a recent hearing if oil cars are experiencing the same unprecedented delays. Officials from both companies said they didn’t know.

I think they do. I think the answer to that question (clearly, “No”) is an embarrassing one that nobody wants to admit to, in light of the attention this problem is getting and the disapproval of the STB and state-level organizations, not to mention farmers, businesses, farm groups, etc.

And now it’s not just grain cars. Fertilizer deliveries are behind, too. This week’s Agweek cover story is about the fact that late planting has eased that pressure a bit, but it’s still a problem. The STB is mandating weekly updates from two major railway companies on their progress in getting fertilizer to farmers.

This is a problem. A big one.

It needs a fix. And it needs to be quick. Legislators from North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota sent a letter this week to the chairman of the STB, asking for more, swift action to help farmers and others whose business has been deemed less important by rail companies.

The letter praises the recent action the board took, but says more work needs to be done.

Finally we are seeing some progress. Let’s hope that progress doesn’t slow.

A cattleman’s beef with Brazil

I read with interest an article this week about Brazil finding its second case of mad cow disease within a few weeks.

That’s far away, you might think, and of little importance to us.


The U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering allowing beef imports from Brazil, which currently are barred. Fourteen states would be given permission to export beef to the U.S. under the new rule, whose comment period recently closed. Not surprisingly, a throng of industry groups spoke out against it.

But not because of mad cow disease. It’s because of foot and mouth disease (not foot-in-mouth, mind you; that’s a totally different condition).

Foot and mouth affects cloven-hoofed animals, causing fever, blisters in the mouth and on the feet, and can be fatal. It typically doesn’t affect humans but can be spread from animal to animal through feed and other contact, or from person to animal on footwear, clothing, etc. According to Columbia University in New York, it can be spread through infected meat.

Scary stuff.

Sidenote: The U.S. has been FMD-free since 1929. Not surprising, then, that cattlemen here are against it.

“The economic cost of an FMD outbreak in the United States would be tremendous,” says Doug Sombke, president of the South Dakota Farmers Union.

“(FMD) could pose a threat to U.S. livestock herds and consequently to family farmers and ranchers across Montana,” says Alan Merrill, president of the Montana Farmers Union.

The National Farmers Union, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and other state, local and national farm groups let out a resounding “No” in response to the proposal.

But it has its supporters, too.

The American Meat Institute and American Farm Bureau are in favor.

“… the proposed rule promotes regulatory consistency and uniformity to the benefit of U.S. producers, processors and exporters of these same products,” the American Meat Institute says, adding that USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service performed analyses of the risks of an FMD outbreak in the U.S., and determined that beef can be imported safely.

The rule would allow an average of about 40,000 metric tons (44,000 tons) per year of Brazilian beef, increasing U.S. imports by less than 1 percent. APHIS says this would reduce the wholesale price of beef by 0.11 percent, retail price by 0.04 percent and the price of cattle by 0.14 percent.

Those figures aren’t impressive to me.

With outbreaks of multiple diseases in Brazil, minimal cost savings just don’t seem to be worth the risk (however small it might be), regardless of regulations and safeguards. You know what they say: Hindsight is 20-20.

Yep. But foresight should be adequate to catch plenty of mistakes before they happen — before they negatively affect livestock and the families that sacrifice so much to keep their animals alive and healthy.

Is this proposal a good one? Is it a worthwhile endeavor?

Personally, I don’t know. Do you?

An interesting theory about horses

I got a press release today about a North Dakota State University assistant professor studying the therapeutic effects of horses. Specifically, she is looking into the effects on youth with troubled backgrounds.

This is intriguing to me. I don’t have a troubled background and my family never raised horses. We had some family friends who did and I vaguely remember being able to ride their horses on just a few occasions as a kid, under the diligent supervision of my parents and the owners.

The only documented evidence of this is a picture of me — probably around 6 years old —sporting my signature wild, curly hair and an ear-to-ear grin as I hold the reins, sitting atop a beautiful, shiny brown horse.

I had gotten a special day with Mom and Dad and their friend’s horse. Why? My big sister had been invited to a sleepover. And I had not.

In the NDSU professor’s study, young people at Home on the Range child care facility get to ride and groom the horses, and also participate in regular, equine assisted psychotherapy sessions with an equine specialist and a mental health expert.

Preliminary findings indicate problematic behaviors of those children participating in the equine program normalized in all areas. The study isn’t complete yet and the professor has much more to do in continuing her research, but the clinical director at Home on the Range calls her findings “groundbreaking.”

I would in no way compare my one day of sleepover-exclusion blues to kids with troubled backgrounds. Obviously, it pales in comparison.

I don’t know what those kids feel and can’t begin to predict what sadness or loss causes extreme behavioral problems.

But I know one 6-year-old kid whose giant, toothless grin was wholly attributable to that shiny brown horse.

A controversial opinion piece

In the March 10 issue of Agweek, I included an opinion piece that attacks ethanol and its production mandate in the Renewable Fuels Standard. “Ethanol mandate hurts environment” (www.agweek.com/event/article/id/22868/) was written by an executive of a group known for its loud opposition of ethanol.

I got a few responses from readers on it: one angry it was printed at all and requesting information be deleted from it; one who just wanted to discuss his opinion and disappointment that the letter writer included only her side of the issue; and a few who submitted rebuttal pieces, which is always appreciated and welcome.

Agweek has readers who are for ethanol and readers who are against it. Agweek has readers who are for pesticide use on crops and readers who are against it for a multitude of reasons, including contamination of organic crops or preserving honeybee colonies. We straddle the line between passionate sides on several hot button issues.

So Agweek printed an opinion piece that would please some of its readers and anger others. We have published countless pieces in support of ethanol and the RFS, many of which tout their side of the story. And rightfully so — it’s an opinion piece, the perfect opportunity to do it.

It’s difficult to read the passionate opinion of someone on the other side of an issue, when your own opinion is just as passionate. But doesn’t reading the other side’s opinion help shape and perhaps reinforce your own? Doesn’t it help you think more critically about your opinion and doesn’t it help you see what their points are and develop your arguments against those points? I would argue that it does. It’s healthy to listen to people who feel differently about something than you do.

So if this article angered you, write to me about it. Submit your own opinion piece: lgibson@agweek.com.

A bit of pride

If you watch my weekly Agweek promo video, you might have noticed that I’ve been rambling longer than usual. That’s because Agweek has been so on top of our news lately that I can’t pack all the teasers into just one minute.

So perhaps I’ll just start talking faster.

While it might have prompted my regular viewers (both of them) to stop watching before the promo is over, I’m incredibly pleased with the coverage Agweek has been churning out for our readers.

We’ve packed the magazine with timely coverage of the farm bill passage, the privatization of the Canadian Wheat Board (thereby opening the market for farmers instead of forcing them to sell to the government agency), a propane shortage in the Upper Midwest, and rail issues that have put a historic pinch on agribusiness in our region. And those are just the cover stories.

Agweek strives to bring the best, most relevant coverage to our readers and we always do. But I am particularly proud of my team in the past few weeks. We’ve been busy and a bit frazzled at times, but we’re staying on top of it.

I’d like to extend a huge thank you to caffeine.

A waiting game

I see a lot of reports on the farm bill and speculation about when it will be finished. I read an article today that quoted U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., saying it could be done this week. Doubtful.

If it’s not food stamps, it’s dairy policy; if it’s not crop insurance, it’ll be issues with implementing the Packers and Stockyards Act. Something will cause a divide. Something always does.

Agweek’s Washington correspondent tells me — from right in the thick of the action — that we won’t have a farm bill until February.

So hang in there.

We’ve been playing this fruitless game for years now. Extension? New bill? What will we get? I’m tired of it, as are you, and I’ve heard too many politicians say it’s right around the corner; it’ll be done this week, month. So I’m done listening to them.

What do you think? How are you dealing with it in your business? Email me (lgibson@agweek.com) about what exactly has frustrated you personally with this utter failure in Congress to come up with legislation for the industry that keeps food on our tables.

I want to hear what you have to say and the rest of our readers do, too.

A cover story about bees

The cover story in the upcoming issue of Agweek features a man who owns apiaries in North Dakota and California, but also started a company to research colony collapse disorder.

CCD terrifies me.

Pollination is pretty crucial to life on Earth, so anything that mysteriously and devastatingly wipes out the creatures responsible for that function is a huge problem for all of us.

I’ve stepped up on my “I love bees” soapbox before, so I’ll spare you that speech.

David Moreland, the focus of our cover story, is working to find out what causes the problem and he’s looking at insecticides as one of the main culprits. Sounds logical. After all, bees are insects…

Moreland is a walnut and almond farmer in California and originally started beekeeping as a way to keep pollination costs down on his farm. That’s interesting to me, as well. The worlds of beekeeping and traditional farming collide sometimes, mainly because of chemicals used in farming that are thought to cause problems for bees. Moreland has his hand in both industries so cooperation between the two is clearly possible.

Check out the Jan. 6 issue to learn more about Moreland, his farms, his bees and his research. With North Dakota’s new pollinator protection plan, the news is “abuzz” with bees (Sorry).

A tropical vacation (loosely tied to ag)

I returned to North Dakota this week from a vacation in Jamaica. I have a newfound empathy for people who suffer from seasonal depression.

After almost an entire week of sunshine, hot temperatures, beaches and crashing ocean waves, Grand Forks punched me in the face with whipping winds, subzero temperatures and a sheet of ice on my car.

Upon stepping off the plane, my warm memories of multiple sunscreen applications on my above-canopy zip line outing in Montego Bay were replaced with a cold, hard fall back to reality. Ouch.

The fresh, warm, pool-side island breeze was wrenched from my lungs and replaced with a biting freeze that I was sure would take my lungs out of commission for life.

All whining aside, I am glad to be back.

Christmas doesn’t look the same in Jamaica. Goats grazing on the sides of the roads (there it is — ag-related reference) just doesn’t scream Christmas to me like snowbanks and snowmen do. Christmas lights don’t look as cheery or cozy on the side of a house surrounded by palm trees and fallen coconuts.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my entry for the office-wide Christmas stocking decorating contest is late.