Thursday, June 28, 2012

Blooming marvellous

Patrick Sutter (Dane County), Melissa Malott (Clean Wisconsin) and Jeff Endres (Farmer) discussing nutrient conservation plans in Wisconsin.

Last month it was my great pleasure to be shown around Dane County farmland by county conservationists Patrick Sutter and David Merritt, and Melissa Malott of the conservation group Clean Wisconsin. Wisconsin is one of the many states that contribute to the nutrient pollution of the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico dead zone. With new state numerical limits on phosphorus pollution in waterways some interesting partnerships are forming. The water authorities must reduce the amount of phosphorus they release from sewage treatment, and there is a chance that it may pay for them to ask farmers to take action to reduce run off from their land.

One of the most interesting things I saw last month was a community nutrient digester run by a nice man called Monte Lamer, from the company Clear Horizons. Its basically a municipal sewage treatment works for cows, but with a twist. So each cow, I recall, produces the same amount of poo as 18 or 19 humans. So if you have thousands of cattle in an area (and Wisconsin does make a lot of cheese) you have a huge volume of manure, and nowhere to put it. On my tour one of the conservationists mentioned that some farmers had so much of the stuff that this year they were renting land just to store the vast quantities of manure their cows had produced.

Traditionally one spreads manure on the land. That is fine if cattle are at low densities. But these days with high-intensity farming and big agribusiness hard at work growing food all along the Mississippi watershed, there is more than the land can cope with in some places. Enter the manure biodigester. The basic idea is that the poo from all the cattle in an area is put into giant vats and fermented. This produces methane which is burnt to produce lots of lovely energy. Then the remaining bits of poo are dried into little bits which can then be applied as fertiliser to land that has insufficient nutrients.

Its an incredibly neat idea, and it is being partly funded by Dane County. You can see the response to the announcement by Clean Wisconsin here. And you can find out more about how the biodigester works here. It will be interesting to see how the economics work out. Ultimately, the best outcome would be if these units produce enough energy to actually generate money, which would justify their expansion elsewhere.

So last week, Jon Fasman, our Atlanta correspondent, and myself had a piece published in The Economist about nutrient pollution along the Mississippi. I've since received a letter pointing out that if municipal sewage authorities produce only 10% of the nutrient pollution then they can only trade with farmers to reduce this amount of agricultural output. This is a flaw I'd not considered before. Please someone let me know if there is a solution to this.

Nutrient pollution 

Blooming horrible 

Nutrient pollution is a growing problem all along the Mississippi 

Jun 23rd 2012 | CHICAGO AND THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER DELTA | from the print edition

Too much of a good thing SOUTH-EAST of New Orleans, where the Mississippi empties into the Gulf of Mexico, the North American land mass does not end so much as gently give up. Land subsides to welts of green poking up through the water, and the river grows wider and flatter until it meets the ocean, where a solid line divides the Mississippi’s brown water from the gulf’s blue. On its long journey south the water has scooped up nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, mainly from the fields of the Midwest. So much so that agriculture’s gift to the gulf is a “dead zone”.

The excess nutrients cause algae to bloom, consuming all the available oxygen in the sea, making it hostile to other forms of marine life. Creatures that can swim away, such as shrimp and fish, do so; those that cannot, die. In the four decades since the dead zone was discovered it has grown steadily. Today it covers 6,700 square miles, an area larger than Connecticut. [More...]

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Boondoggle harvest

Last month I took a trip to Wisconsin to visit some of the conservation work being done by Dane County officials to deal with nutrients from farmland. While I was there, I was introduced to a farmer called Jeff Endres, who has a farm near Waunakee and who is working with the county on an innovative new project to remove excess phosphorus using farming strategies. He is also very conservation minded, and takes care of the environment around his farm. Behind him, in the picture, you can see a mown strip of grass right next to the waterway--this prevents nutrients from the fertilized fields from running into the streams and creating foul-smelling and sometimes toxic algae from forming in waterways and lakes. More on this in a future blog though.

Farm Bill
In the end, just the way these things happen, Mr Endres ended up first appearing in print in a piece about the US farm bill. Writing about the US Farm bill at the moment is like trying to hit a deflating balloon in a concert hall with a water pistol--its a rapidly moving target and my firepower is limited. The farm bill is an omnibus (i.e. big) bill that comes along every five years. Everyone has a vested interest, either through its spending on the poor (through food stamps) or through its spending on farmers (via subsidies). When this piece was written the farm bill had not been approved by the floor of the Senate, it now has. But this is only half of the story as a bill in the house must also pass and there is not a great deal of progress on this front.

My feelings on the proposed additional insurance subsidies for farmers are that they are an outrageous expense at a time when the American budget needs to be cut and when crop prices are at an all time high.
Vincent Smith, a professor of agricultural economics at Montana State University and a scholar for the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute has looked at the possible costs of such a scheme and points out that the scheme will become extortionate in cost should crop prices dip from their all time high. In any case, the taxpayer should not be in the business of insuring 90% of a farmer's revenue.


Boondoggle harvest 

The new farm bill, although it cuts some unnecessary payments, is likely to increase others 

Jun 16th 2012 | CHICAGO AND WAUNAKEE, WISCONSIN | from the print edition

ON THE land farmed by Jeff Endres in Wisconsin, gently rolling fields are interlaced with streams. To prevent soil and nutrients washing away, Mr Endres has fashioned neat borders of grass between his farm and the waterways. Most farmers are increasingly uninterested in such measures to protect the environment. That is not because times are tough but because they are good, and is it worth planting every inch available.

Indeed, thanks to high crop prices and the rude health of rural America, the unthinkable has happened: farmers are under pressure to accept cuts in the generous handouts they receive from the federal government. Much of the debate over the 2012 farm bill (a debate which comes up every five years or so, when the bill must be reauthorised) is being dominated by the budget deficit and demand for fiscal restraint. Payments to farmers, which include sums for taking part in conservation programmes, have been running at around $12 billion a year since 2007 (see chart). Yet since then farmers have enjoyed record prices and incomes, and increasing yields. Farm income is at its highest in almost 40 years, and farm failures are down to a rate of less than one in 200 a year. [More...]

Friday, June 08, 2012

The jet propelled Republican

This is my piece from Wisconsin. Just to be clear, what I mean at the end of the piece is that a torrent of out-of-state money fuelling a toxic and spiteful atmosphere is not what democracy should look like--but possibly an omen for later this year.

One of the comments objects to the term 'pushy' to describe Scott Walker. I thought long and hard about a fair and accurate way to describe him in one word.

He was voted in on a conservative agenda to transform Wisconsin. Throughout the campaign he described himself as a man who likes to "do" things rather than talk about them. I don't actually think the description 'pushy' is pejorative. It can be, but in the way it is used here means forceful, or aggressively ambitious. I rather imagine that many politicians might consider this a compliment.

Wisconsin’s recall election

The jet-propelled Republican

Jun 6th 2012, 18:34 by N.L. | CHICAGO

IF HISTORY is written by the winners, this was the night for the governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, to add his name on the ledger. Yesterday Mr Walker faced a recall election to drive him out of office—only the third attempted recall of a governor in America’s history. This was prompted by statewide outrage when, last year, the pushy Republican brought in a law curbing the collective-bargaining rights of public-sector workers. [More...]

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Has Scott Walker created more jobs than everyone thinks?

Walker supporters celebrate on June 5th
A recent story in the Huffington Post gives a breakdown of campaign spending in the Scott Walker recall election in Wisconsin. It says more than "$63.5 million has been spent by candidates and independent groups, the overwhelming majority underwritten by out-of-state sources".

Now there is a big argument in Wisconsin over how many jobs Mr Walker has created.While this argument is bound to continue. Lets not forget that politics itself is an industry--one that is growing rapidly now that the Citizen's United decision allows unlimited finance to flow into it.

Impishly, then, if each private sector job costs about $120,000-150,000 could this cash infusion to the Wisconsin economy have created as many as 500 jobs?

Updated: More about the sources of funding for Mr Walker's campaign.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Election night at Scott Walker HQ

Bit quiet here at the moment. Call me childish, but I find the signage at the Scott Walker election night event rather amusing.