Thursday, April 30, 2009

National Black Farmers

Had their demonstration on April 28. It didn't get much coverage, and the accuracy of the coverage it got was a bit lacking. The conference scheduled for yesterday seems to have evaporated, or at least disappeared from the website.

White House Harvest

Obamafoororama says the White House had their first harvest yesterday--lettuce. The accompanying picture looks more as if the kids are planting than harvesting. (The girls predominate--is that a reflection of the feminine nurturing principle.) They might have gotten some lettuce, because the pictures back when showed they were using transplants, not seeds. So a couple weeks growth made them harvestable, and purely by accident it's 100 days into the administration.

My wife's lettuce is up and coming, but it will be a while yet before we have salad--probably May 15 or so.

H1N1 Flu and Locavores

Walt Jeffries at Sugar Mountain sees things differently than I did here--he believes locavore pig farmers won't be hurt, indeed will be helped, by the flu headlines. Perhaps he and his wife have more faith in the ability of people to resist scares. Or perhaps he's right, his niche is better bounded and more secure than I think. Time will tell (and hopefully I'll remember to check back on the issue. If not, blame senility.)

Expanding Animal Rights: Privacy?

NYTimes has an article on drugs and Kentucky Derby horses--one trainer cited the horse's privacy in refusing to talk to the reporter.

Stimulus Helping Curious George?

USDA has a new site for the stimulus act, a map showing the locations of work being funded by the act. Hat tip:

It's progress as far as transparency goes, but the underlying data is sparse. For example, Forest Service has $18K for Curious George. Actually, that's a cheap shot--the creators of "Curious George" founded a center for good crunchy type activities, about which you can read more at their site. I'm sure they'll make good use of the money. But when FS gives the dollar figure and the recipient, without providing any explanation, it's short-sighted and not very helpful. As I've suggested to USDA in their comments, they should either provide a paragraph of explanation or require the recipient to put up a page of explanation of what they're doing with the money, and include the URL of the page in the USDA site.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Obama and Old-Time Farming

From an Obama speech on education:
We can no longer afford an academic calendar designed when America was a nation of farmers who needed their children at home plowing the land at the end of each day. That calendar may have once made sense, but today, it puts us at a competitive disadvantage. Our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea. [emphasis added]
Our President may know many things, but not farms. (Or, more likely, his speechwriter(s) don' know farms.) Farm kids do plow, did plow. My grandfather remembered breaking a field in southern Illinois probably at the end of the Civil War. But getting out of school early in the afternoon in order to plow isn't and wasn't standard practice. They could have said " home to do the chores, milk the cows and feed the chickens." That would fit if they're concerned about the short school day. (Some charter schools, particularly KIPP, make a point of lengthening the school day.

Or, if they're concerned about the short school year, they could have talked about tending the crops, doing the haying, harvesting. That would vary depending on the area and the type of farming.

(On something different, if I read it right Iowa went from 5 percent to 45 percent of corn planted in about a week. I know modern equipment can cover lots of ground very fast, but that seems incredible. Must have been a lot of 16-hour days.)

Acre Handbook

FSA has posted the handbook which includes instructions for the ACRE program on their website. I hope Chris Clayton at DTN is satisfied with it. (But a warning--a handbook covering a new program is just the same as version 1.0 of software used to be (remember back in the 1980's when we actually had versions 1.0?)--subject to bugs and needing improvement.)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Agricultural History--Michael J Roberts

Prof. Roberts has an invaluable post at Greed, Green and Grains with some historical graphs of field crop yields and prices, entitled Six Stylized Facts about U.S. Agricultural Subsidies. A shorthand list, but read the whole thing:
  1. Agricultural subsidies started in the mid-30's at the same time crop yields started increasing.
  2. (In economese--my dubious interpretation). Farmers change their use of cropland based on federal policy, not prices.
  3. About half the ag land is rented.
  4. Over last 20 years, farmers get biggest fastest in areas with the highest per-acre subsidy.
  5. Farmers are wealthy, particularly compared to other rural residents.
  6. Nature of subsidies has changed over time and don't depress world prices.
Unfortunately, some of his references are available only to academics.

Babcock on FCIC

From Farmgate:

The question of governmental support for farmers’ risk management will receive either strong support or opposition, and a lesser number of folks who ride the fence. One of those with strong opinions is Iowa State University ag economist Bruce Babcock, whose thoughts are published in the Spring edition of the Iowa Ag Review. Babcock describes the programs as complex in their administration, and adds that crop insurance agents are paid commissions fully funded by taxpayers, most of the RMA (crop insurance) program risk is borne by taxpayers, and all of the FSA program risk is paid for by taxpayers....

Babcock says Congress continues to support the status quo, which is not surprising if it maintains the industry of agriculture. But he says it is not easy to understand the support of the crop insurance industry, since it duplicates FSA programs. He suggests more public awareness will result in change or the need to save money to finance the rest of the federal budget.
Almost 30 years ago we supposedly made the decision to end the duplication. :-) I'm hardly an objective observer, but I think the course of history since then is a tribute to the lobbying power of the crop insurance industry.

(For a more objective view, from CRS via Farm Policy.)

North American Flu and Locavores

It's not "swine-flu", it's "North American flu" because it is a mixture of strains of flu (human, bird, swine) so WHO says to call it by its location.

I assume foodies like Obamafoodorama will jump on it, as in this:

"There are all kinds of environmental and "nutritional" arguments for smaller, regional and local food production, and an event like the current pork pushback is yet another reason why unchaining American Ag from the vagaries of global trade makes sense in the 21st century. Local and regional food sourcing is also a better model in terms of general food safety (we currently are capable of inspecting less than one percent of our own imported foods). Our recent domestic foodborne disease outbreaks have been national in scope because of our trans-continental distribution system, in which a single peanut or pistachio plant can poison the entire country. Smaller and more local also makes much sense in terms of economic security for American farmers, because they're not put at risk for economic destruction by the decisions---perhaps panic based--of distant foreign governments."
It seems to make sense, but I doubt it. The problem is the market is not truly local. For example, if CAFO's can't export pork, they won't plow under the pigs, they'll sell the pork in the U.S. Now a locavore pasture-raised pig grower probably depends on being able to charge a significant premium for her higher-quality pork. But if a pork chop at the Safeway goes to half price, that's likely to draw away customers for the locavore pork. And the lesson learned over and over in agriculture is that the big boys have the reserves to ride out the hard times.

Do We Have 60?

My latent party feeling is stirred by the prospect Sen. Specter may switch to the Dems, which, with Sen. Franken (as oxymoronic as that phrase is), would give the Dems 60 votes in the Senate. It would be very interesting to see what would happen to the idea of lowering the political temperature in DC in that case.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Get Out Those Gardening Tools

From a Government executive post on the USDA garden:
Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan "... also repeated Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's challenge to USDA facilities worldwide to create similar gardens and create healthier landscapes. When asked if the gardens at USDA facilities around the world have to be organic, Merrigan replied she understands that organic is not possible everywhere because she comes from New England, where it is hard to raise some crops organically. Gardening methods "are not going to be dictated decisions from headquarters," she said. That should come as a relief to USDA's workers in Farm Service Agency, Rural Development and Natural Resources and Conservation Service offices in nearly every county in the country, as well as Foreign Agricultural Service offices overseas. The workers will undoubtedly want their gardens to be blooming by whatever method when Vilsack and Merrigan visit and ask to see them."
Of course, USDA owns few, if any, of its buildings. (I'm not even sure they own the lawn to the Administration Building and there is no lawn to the South Building.) So the question becomes whether the landlords will agree to gardens and if they will charge for such agreement.

A Good Sentence

"We had slime mold growing upstairs.”

There are certain people who belong on a different planet than the rest of us, and the person who uttered that sentence is one of them. It's from a short Freakonomics post on the Sereno family of Chicago, whose accomplishments seem to outweigh those of the Emanuel family of Chicago (who definitely beong on a different planet).

And no, the Serenos weren't poor housekeepers, they were nurturing intellectual curiosity.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Unsung Hero of Copyright

Barbara A. Ringer died at 83. Why should you care? Well- she was a great bureaucrat who pushed through our modern copyright law, as well as being a pathbreaking feminist in the Federal service.

No, I hadn't heard of her before I read her obit in today's Post. A sentence from it:
Foreseeing the rise of the Internet, she inserted provisions into the law to protect authors from the unauthorized reproduction of their work, even by means not yet devised.

Is There a Nitpickers'Anonymous?

I need a 12-step program. I was casually surfing the Growing Power site (the Chicago/Milwaukee urban farming operation that's gotten ink and a MacArthur Genius Award) and ran across this:

"At Growing Power it becomes worm food. We collect

over 20,000 lbs. of brewery waste from Lakefront Brewery every week

for compost or 1.4 million tons of waste annually."

20,000 lbs a week is 10 tons, or 520 tons a year according to old math. To be fair, I suspect some enthusiastic humanities student was writing the blurb (look at all those "o" sounds), and had a mind lapse when setting down the units of measure).

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Sometimes You Can't Win

The CourierPress (KY) has a piece on a long conflict between FSA and a black farmer over farm loans. The latest episode has the man arrested for his words on a phone call, which were interpreted as a threat. As he's 82, it seems to have been overreaction. On the other hand, how much strength does it take to pull a trigger?

One doesn't know the rights and wrongs of the case, though there's lots of comments on the article, most of which assume some misaction on the part of the government. Of course, the infamous $60 million lawsuit in DC over the missing pants from the drycleaners is a reminder that not all suits are well-founded.

Poor Walt Whitman

Margaret Soltan at University Diaries quotes a piece on a protest of Walt, at the school named in his honor. The protestors were from Topeka, KS. They think he doesn't deserve a school.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Today's Amish Problems

LA Times has a story on the Amish in Indiana--many are off the farm due to high land prices and high population, pushing them into the system. Now some are laid off, and collecting unemployment.
The Amish have adapted to economic crises before. During the Depression, some men were permitted to register for driver's licenses, according to research by Nolt. That special exemption is less likely to happen this time, the professor said, because the Amish have come to view the horse and buggy as core parts of their identity.

This recession is especially brutal because the Amish factory workers became accustomed to earning annual salaries of $60,000 to $100,000, which provided for mortgages and shopping trips. A fiberglass basketball hoop hangs above a buggy in one driveway. The Wal-Mart has a hitching post. And some Amish men are as attached to their cellphones as their beards.
Prof. Kraybill has observed there's a tension between someone being the leader of an enterprise and boss of a number of employees and the self-effacement that's expected of Amish. Will be interesting to see how this works out over the years.

Slowness Serves as Validation Check

My wife and I had some problems getting our passports through. (A word of advice--never say you have no plans for foreign travel, even when you don't. The system seems to be set up to expect a specific departure date. When I looked up my grandfather's passport application in it showed specific departure date and place. So probably the State Dept. has just carried that forward over the centuries, regardless of the fact that passports are being required for any foreign travel, even Canada and Mexico, these days.)

Anyhow, my problems made me attend to news reports, including this. GAO found they were issuing some passports based on SSN's of dead people (also sounds like FSA's problem in the past). Turns out:
State was experiencing a relative lull in applications in late 2008 after a spike in 2007, Sprague noted. The database check can take a day, which was never an issue when employees faced a backlog of applications in 2007, she said. But when the workload decreased and passport applications could be processed much faster, some specialists and supervisors didn't know to wait for the database check to be completed.
So the interface between State and SSA worked fine as long as State was slow enough. I love it.

Our Ancestors Ruined the Soil

From Farmgate summary, on combating soil compaction: "He says MN researchers have found compaction remaining from 1880’s covered wagons."

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Byrd Benevolence and American History

For those interested in the teaching of history, in teaching, period, and in how our government works (which means anyone interested in humans), I recommend this post at History Net. (The context is a discussion of the effectiveness or lack thereof of the money spent on history teaching by the federal government, under a program instigated by Senator Byrd.)

Don't Understand--15 Weeks of CSA?

I clicked on the Borski Farms site via a link from a foodie site. It's an organic farm in Utah, but its CSA shares run only 15 weeks. I guess that must reflect a much shorter growing season in Utah than in VA, but I don't know what Mormon locavores are supposed to do the other 37 weeks of the year?

But the Free Market Depends on Enlightened Self Interest

"it’s almost impossible to overstate the power of the laziness of the bond investor."

That's a quote via Kevin Drum from Felix Salmon discussing economics and risk. Enlightened self-interest implies something other than being a couch potato. That's one problem with the free market economists--they're idealists who see humans as better than we are.

Doug Caruso Has Friends

That's how he become FSA administrator --see Brownfield. (It's true in DC as elsewhere, it's who you know.) He's tight with the head of the House appropriations ag subcommittee and the Senate appropriations ag subcommittee. (That's better than being friends with Peterson and Harkin, the heads of the ag committees--the appropriations people control what's actually done. That's the reason the Ag building is the Jamie Whitten building, named after the longtime House approp man.)

A Good Sentence and a Horrible One--David Brooks

David Brooks had an op-ed on Obama's administration Tuesday with two sentences I want to note:
"If he pulls this mantle [of being the party of order, responsibility and small-town values] away from the Republicans, it would be the greatest train robbery in American politics...."
"Even F.D.R. decided to concentrate on the banking crisis in his first year and put other issues off until 1934 and beyond. "

The second sentence is simply wrong. FDR proposed a bunch of major legislation during his first hundred days, and didn't do that much legislatively in 1934.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Office Supplies: A Tangled Web from Gore?

Just noted a Politico post on the Obama cabinet meeting, mocking the idea that DHS can save money by buying office supplies in bulk. The following is pure speculation:

Long ago, when I was a new Federal employee, it was explained to me that the General Services Administration essentially had a monopoly on government procurements. I believe it was a FEDSTRIP program, operated using 80 column IBM punch cards. 80 characters was enough to identify the supply item from the GSA catalog, the quantity, and the destination. For some items, GSA had supply contracts the agency had to order from (like typewriters, etc.).

Over the years the GSA monopoly eroded. A major contributor was Vice President Gore, who pushed for the "reengineering of government procurement", much of it by giving government credit cards to employees who could then go to the local Office Depot store to shop for supplies.

So, DHS may be in the process of reinventing the wheel again, deciding it's cheaper to do centralized purchases than decentralized.

(BTW, for what it's worth, which is nothing, it's possible all the changes were rational. If you compare an existing process, encumbered by lots of junk inherited from the past, to a new process, rationally designed, the new may always win. Of course, rational designs often don't allow for human weaknesses, like fraud, or irrational purchases.)

NYTimes Reports the End of the World

But they buried the information inside the business section. I'm referring to an article with this lede:
Lockheed Martin will accept the Pentagon’s plans to phase out the F-22 fighter jet and will not lobby Congress to build more of the expensive planes, a top executive said on Tuesday.
This news, if true, is in the "hell freezes over" category.

White Smoke--We Have an FSA Administrator-Designate

Doug Caruso, former Wisconsin SED, has been named

Payment Limitation Twists

John Phipps seems to report a reaction to the FSA forms.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Pigford Returns

I'm not sure what the Pigford case has to do with food, but Obamafoodorama posts about its current and near future status:

Most of the post is given over to a history, rather inaccurate IMHO, of USDA's discrimination against black farmers and to a rally at USDA announced by John Boyd, National Black Farmers Association President (and mentioned at one time as a candidate for Secretary of Agriculture) for April 28, which is the date on the NBFA website. (The post said March 28, which must be a typo.) There's an impressive list of speakers for a followup conference on April 29. It will be interesting to see which of the invitees show up.

To continue my snark, I'd note sections of the NBFA website haven't been recently updated. However, there's some interesting recent messages on the message board, including one from a USDA retiree dissing the California people, particularly NRCS and RCD.

But, back to Obamafoodorama--its post links to an AP piece by Ben Evans, but skims its summary. Evans's piece includes this:
"With pressure to hold down costs, lawmakers set an artificially low $100 million budget. They called it a first step and said more money could be approved later.

But with 25,000 new claims and counting, the Obama administration is now arguing that the $100 million budget should be considered a cap to be split among the successful cases.

The position - spelled out in a legal motion filed in February and reiterated in recent settlement talks - would leave payments as low as $2,000 or $3,000 per farmer. Boyd called that "insulting."
So that position is the stimulus for Boyd's rally and conference.

Saving Money at USDA

From Obama's cabinet meeting comes the savings at USDA, the first item of which shouldn't really count for anything, since it was underway before the meeting (and, I strongly suspect, before Obama was sworn in, because the GAO audit probably triggered the change in procedure and that was last year.) (From a Post article of yesterday, see the preceding post.)

Improper Payments – USDA has worked with the Treasury Department to identify potential fraud and improper payments in farm programs. Beginning with the 2009 crop year and in successive years, all farm program payment recipients will be required to sign a form which grants the Treasury Department the authority to provide income information to USDA for verification purposes. The reform proposal would render those out of compliance ineligible for USDA payments. Savings under this proposal could reach $16 million a year.

Office Leases – USDA is working to combine 1,500 USDA employees from seven leased locations into a single facility in early 2011, saving $62 million over a 15-year lease term.

Training – The Rural Development office has been utilizing Internet training in place of in-person training with projected annual savings of $1.3 million.

An Answer on Publishing Official Notices

I blogged the other day on publishing official notices. From a Post piece on Obama's money-saving campaign:

In a blow to the newspaper industry, the U.S. Attorneys and the U.S. Marshals Offices’ Asset Forfeiture program will stop publishing judicial forfeiture notices in print and will do so online only, saving $6.7 million over the first five years of the move.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The World Is Overrun by the Young

Just saw Josh Marshall on the TPM RSS feed misspell Nikita Khrushchev's name twice. Not that I miss the Cold War, you understand.

Bureaucrat Brokaw

Tom Brokaw reveals his inner bureaucrat in today's NYTimes.

When I write "bureaucrat", I'm referring to the idea that reason and rationality are the supreme considerations, that order is important and history is not.

Brokaw points out the abundance of county and local governmental bodies in various states. He points to the abundance of higher educational institutions in the Dakotas. He suggests, as I think Gov. Corzine of NJ did a while back and a panel reviewing NY local government did, if we rationalized and consolidated functions we would save money.

No doubt it would, and no doubt we won't. Schools, governments, and similar bodies tend to die only when there's no bodies left to populate them or when a superior paradigm comes along. (I added the last phrase as a hat tip to my father, who was part of the "central school" movement in NY back in the 1920's. The movement got rid of the one-room schools by consigning pupils to bus rides to the "central school".

Words to Live By

"In other words, why procrastinate when you can perendinate? " From A.Word.A.Day from

Sunday, April 19, 2009

FSA's Old Programs

This article about the possible conversion of VA health care programs from MUMPS to Java (based on success in similar conversions of legacy programs) raises the question:

Is there anyone out there who would offer to convert COBOL programs to Java for FSA?

License Plates in France

Dirk Beauregard blogs about license plates, the numbering system used in France and the new one used in the EU. Seems the French will now have lifetime license numbers, just as we can have lifetime phone numbers. The universally bureaucratic society creeps in on little cat feet.

Facebook: The Bureaucracy and I Have the Same Problem

Which is figuring out how to use the damn thing. See this article. (Actually, if I were in FSA, I'd try using it for internal communications, particularly field to DC. )

A Phrase I Never Thought to Hear

"boomer work ethic" --from a NY Times article on a financial company which hired boomers as temporary employees to answer phones complaining about their accounts.

I guess I'm brainwashed, but I never saw the boomers as conscientious employees, more like Sonny I guess.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Our Weak Government

I keep finding proof of our government's weakness. Here's another example--SSA is reliant on the states to process disability

The nation’s top Social Security official says benefits for tens of thousands of people with severe disabilities are being delayed by furloughs and layoffs of state employees around the country....

Claims are evaluated by state employees, but the federal government reimburses states for the salaries of those employees and pays the full cost of benefits for people found to be disabled.

“We pay the full freight,” Mr. Astrue said. “States do not save any money when they furlough or lay off these employees. They only delay payments to disabled citizens who rely on the monthly benefits.”
The point being, if you have to depend on people who don't report to you, your power is limited.

Friday, April 17, 2009

FSA and Stimulus Dollars II

FSA still has no plans or reports up on the USDA website. I guess they're still waiting for some political leadership to be appointed. The USDA spreadsheet does show some data for FSA programs.. It's interesting that, if you come to the USDA site from, you get a different page than you do if you click on the "Agency Plans and Reports" link from the USDA home site.

A note: the site seems to be beating the government bureaucrats to display data on the stimulus package.

Did Cinderella Live Happily in Glass Slippers?

The obligatory post on Susan Boyle.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

USDA Garden?

Obama Foodorama posts on the planting of an organic garden outside the ivory tower, I mean the Administration building of USDA. Mostly photos, with a promise of text later. I note they're following the example of the Obama garden and using lots of seedlings. I don't find any publicity for it on the USDA site, although I do note a bunch of appointments (14) mostly of former campaign workers to confidential assistant type posts.

To provide a touch of reality to the hype about the Obama and USDA gardens, the Post's garden editor had a column today, recounting all the hazards beginning gardeners have to negotiate.

Early Days in Colorado

The New Yorker has a nice piece about two women from Auburn, NY who went to rural Colorado (Elkhead) in the early 20th century as an adventure to teach school. [Registration required to read the whole piece.] But there's an audio slide show here which is open to all (though you don't get the love story).
I like it, a bit of romance, a glimpse of the past, some upsetting of stereotypes about who the settlers were.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Just filed my tax returns. :-) Obviously I can't complain, since my retirement pay is from the taxpayers.

One thought, however, if you could move to any other place in the United States, with the same compensation you have now, would you do it? (I'd have to see some cash on the barrelhead before moving, but not much for some places.)

How about moving to any other country in the world, with the same compensation you have now, would you do it? If not, how much more money would it require for you to move?

How Does Your Garden Grow?

See this picture from Obama Foodorama of the White House garden. I observe they've sort of cheated by going with seedlings, rather than seeds.

What I really want to know is what are those white stones? pellets? scattered around. I can't think of anything that looks like that.

I'd also say, someone really likes their dill.

Right and Left Extremes

The right is blogging about a report from DHS, analyzing the likelihood of greater terrorism from the extreme right.

But through Steve Benen at Washington Monthly and then Greg Sargent, here's the URL for DHS analysis of some threats from the extreme left. Of note from the summary:
"It focuses on the more prominent leftwing groups within
the animal rights, environmental, and anarchist extremist movements that promote or
have conducted criminal or terrorist activities...."
It's interesting, sometimes the extreme libertarian view on the right meets the extreme anarchist view on the left. Our image of a linear continuum is an easy assumption, but often misleading.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Being Unfair to the Right

Rep. Brad Miller has the audacity and poor taste to quote Cato and Stephen Moore from back when--on the Community Reinvestment Act and subprime loans.:

The conservative Cato Institute published an article in the fall of 2000 that said CRA should stand for Community Redundancy Act. The article argued that “progress predicated on technology, financial innovation and competition — not CRA — has broadened the U.S. financial marketplace,” including lending in neighborhoods that had once been redlined. If a lender discriminated against a low-income neighborhood, “the profit motive would lead another lender to move in and fill the void.”

Proof that increased lending in low-­income neighborhoods was not the result of requirements of the CRA, the Cato article said, was that much of the lending was by “institutions outside CRA’s jurisdiction.”

I appeared with Stephen Moore on CNBC on Oct. 25, 2007. Moore is a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board and founded the Club for Growth. Moore said that legislation I introduced to protect homeowners from predatory mortgage lending would have a “negative effect on homeownership.” “Ultimately,” Moore said, “for all the talk of how evil the subprime lenders are, let’s not forget, you know, 94 percent of these subprime loans are paid on time. And subprime lenders have actually increased the rate of homeownership in America.”
I wonder--the Internet makes it easier to catch people of all stripes in inconsistencies and flip-flops over time. Will that eventually make us more careful in forming and voicing opinions?

No, I didn't think so.

Monday, April 13, 2009

New Technology

The Times blog has a post about a new cellphone/credit card system--the phone has a chip that communicates to a credit card reader. I believe recently I've also read of a cellphone/ID system, with user ids and passwords securely stored in the phone. So soon all of one's identity can be stored securely in one small device.

The only thing lacking will be a mental link--i.e. for us geezers who have senior moments, we need a device smart enough to sense when we're panicking about being unable to find it.

Newspapers and Legal Notices

So, if the newspapers go under, what will be the requirement for legal notices? (For the past year, I think notices of foreclosures have been the mainstay of the Washington Post.)

Seems to me we could do a lot better with such notices, just as we could with the Federal Register, by using current technology.

Gardening Boom?

Secretary Vilsack says here (interview while helping plant) the Obama garden may have spurred seed sales and others have speculated that the recession will cause people to save money gardening.

This may be so, but I can't see it at my community garden. The rules call for visible activity by the first week of May and usually there's only a couple plots idle by then. Right now there's a number idle. It may be the spring has been cool. Or maybe just a statistical anomaly. Or maybe Obama has all my fellow gardeners working overtime so they're too tired to dig.

Schafer on FSA Computers

According to this long interview post-Jan 20 with the former Secretary of Agriculture, FSA computers are his top concern. "An ongoing effort to get funding FSA computer revamping is just one of the issues of unfinished business when Schafer cleaned out his office Jan. 16. Security for the inauguration was using USDA offices because they’re directly on the National Mall."

I think the article errs on one point--last I knew the Secret Service doesn't protect cabinet secretaries. Which isn't to say they don't have security personnel, they do and Newt Gingrich fussed about it 15 years ago.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


The National Association of State and County Employees (NASCOE) is the employee organization for FSA. The President has a report of her meeting with Vilsack and various DC (temporary) bigshots. Most of it (all of it, actually) is inside baseball stuff, the general status of various programs and improvements, issues on the proper classification of different positions, etc.

One item of interest to me: " Plans for future of IT include a central application server which a county office user will access using a thin client. This will make the system easier to manage and upgrade. Data will be stored on a central database. " I guess, assuming broadband in all counties, the location of data has become irrelevant. Even today, we can move graphic information (GIS images) around the web fast enough to service people. Of course, by 2013 FSA ought to be getting its acreage data by download from the planters and combines which are guided by GPS.

Another thing I noted: absolutely no mention of any need to work with NRCS on computer implementation. (So much for Secretary Madigan's Info Share initiative, I guess. (That's geezer inside baseball.))

Change Is Hard for the Post

The Washington Post recently changed their weekend format, doing away with their separate Book World, moving some reviews into their weekend opinion Outlook, etc. This weekend they had a glitch, which I failed to notice yesterday, but which was evident today. Briefly put, they printed their Sunday editorials, letters to the editor, and op-eds on Saturday, and then again today. I assume both sets of pages were in the computer and the wrong one got included in the press run. Such is the nature of change and computers.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Our Inefficient Government

Nextgov has a post which shows the inefficiency of the Federal government:
The Obama administration directed agencies in February to solicit input from employees on improving government transparency, but some didn't receive the message until after the comment period ended in March, according to several workers and consultants who provided feedback.
What happens, is each department and most agencies within each department, has it's own communication system. So a message from Obama to the lowliest Federal worker has to work its way through several message chains. (In the old days, the Civil Service Commission would issue its regulations in the Federal Personnel Manual, USDA's Office of Personnel would issue its regulations, then ASCS would issue its regulations.)

So there's no way Obama can directly contact bureaucrats in the agencies. That makes for inefficiency, but it also makes for a peculiarly American safeguard of liberties. By making government confused and fractionated, we soothe our fears of some great tyranny; at least, most of us soothe those fears, but there's still the people whose fears are live (we mostly consider those as the wingnuts of left and right).

Friday, April 10, 2009

Social Security and Foodies

I've one caution for those foodies who seek the simple life for its rewards. I surely agree one could be happy with a patch of land, a simple house, some animals, and some organics, at least as long as there's a good library nearby and broadband Internet connection.

But, and it's a big but, emulating the Amish or reverting to the diverse farms of 100 years ago is not simple. One of the hidden prerequisites of such a way of life is a large family, or at least a close-extended family. In other words--when there's no social security, when you become a geezer you become dependent on your children for your support. That's true for the Amish, it was true in 1910 farm life. Large families seem uncommon these days. To the extent single women have taken up farming, they are particularly vulnerable.

Yes, we have social security these days. (Social security coverage was extended to farmers in the mid 1950's.) But the size of your benefit is somewhat proportional to the amount of income you report and the amount of FICA tax you pay. If a quest for simplicity leads you to minimal income, or minimize your income on the 1040, or to skip paying the full 14-15 percent FICA tax for self-employed people, then you're vulnerable in your old age. (Unless, of course, you spent years toiling at the keyboard and establishing your 40 quarters. Then you will benefit from the structure of the system, getting higher benefits.)

Carbon Offsets from a Bureaucrat's Viewpoint

Okay, I was a bureaucrat so when there's talk of paying farmers for carbon offsets, I immediately think of how it might be handled by USDA/FSA. And, because I'm stuck in a rut, I'm likely to think of structures FSA has used in the past.

Back in the 1970's there was something which strikes me as a parallel. Under the program then, ASCS (FSA's predecessor) established a "conserving base" for each farm. This was the acreage in "conserving uses" (think of it as hay fields, pastures, grassland). Under the program,as a condition of receiving benefits farmers might be required to increase the acreage in conserving uses for the year (and not break out any new cropland). That seems to me to be a valid model for any future payments for carbon offsets. FSA/NRCS looks at the farming operation, documents what's being done already which impacts carbon sequestration. Call it a "carbon offset base". Then you could pay taxpayer dollars for changes to the operation which increases sequestration. But you'd also have to assess charges if and when a farmer changes her operation and reduces the carbon offset base. Or, assess the operation yearly and make yearly payments.

No doubt I'll have more to say as the subject continues to heat up.

Maybe Dairy Isn't the Only Real Farming

I've always thought dairying was the only real farming, up at 4 am for first milking, do second milking at 4 pm, 365 days a year, plus all the chores. Hens are almost as bad, but you could feed and collect eggs starting at 8 am and finishing at 4 pm. I know that's parochial, but humans are.

But this piece on doing flood irrigation gives me a sense of some of the work other farmers do.

Establishing Yields

I haven't kept track of what's needed for ACRE so I'm not sure about this, from Farm Policy:
DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton reported on this development yesterday and noted that,
USDA has not posted a handbook on ACRE on its website or sent handbooks to county offices yet. Handbooks provide details on how USDA will interpret rules in certain instances. Nor has USDA released details on how it will establish production history for farmers who do not have five years of certified history from which to figure an Olympic average. Farmers who have learned about the program’s requirements have expressed concern about what FSA will accept as verifiable yield records.”
However, I'd note FSA does have a notice out on establishing yields for pulse crops. Skimming it, it looks to be very similar to the rules FSA used back in 1981 (?) to establish oat yields, when oats was added to the feed grain program, and the rules used in subsequent years every time a new/changed program required establishing yields for a crop.

FSA doesn't have a great record in putting handbooks out timely--back in the 1960's county employees were complaining bitterly about having to operate from a bunch of notices, rather than one handbook. So I'd advise Mr. Clayton to keep watch on the notices on the FSA website.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Heritage Agrees: Bush Site Is Poor

I've made some adverse comments in the past about the site the Bush administration touted as part of their e-government initiative. Heritage agrees it's not good:
Davis said the official Web site for submitting comments electronically,, is hard to navigate. "If you go to, that Web site is inherently confusing. It's a travesty, really," she said. "We have set up a system where [citizens] don't have to worry about remembering the docket number."
Of course, regardless of how good a process to submit comments you have, the $64,000 question is whether the comments have any value and whether they are used by the agency in any worthwhile manner.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

FSA's Friend, Prof. Barnaby

Art Barnaby said:

“Barnaby also reminded producers to have patience with the FSA and USDA staff when it comes time for the sign-up. Barnaby reiterated that the ACRE and SURE programs are very complicated and that important details have been slow to be defined or left to the USDA Secretary to define.”

NRCS Ahead of FSA

NRCS has had its new head designated for 10 days now, but not FSA.

Life's Worse for the Poor

Here's an example of the title one (i.e., one who is white, middle class, and suburban) would never think of--a map showing locations of commuter-child accidents in downtown Detroit.

Prof. Pollan Again

Here's a YouTube interview with Prof. Pollan--where he pushes his views, with his usual mixture of skill and misinformation, helped along by his interviewer.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Boswell, Big Farmer, Corporate Farmer?

The LATimes has an article on the death of James G. Boswell, the California cotton farmer. I remember Boswell from the 1970's, when he was the bulletin board star of the people who attacked big subsidies. He owned 150,000 or 200,000 acres of San Joaquin valley land, growing cotton.
"But even during this period of growth and success for the enterprise, which included diversification into tomatoes and other crops, real estate development and farming in distant Australia, Boswell remained an intensely private man at the head of an intensely private family business."
So, if it's a "family business" it must be a "family farm", no? (His son takes over.) Was Wal-mart a family business, or Mars candy? Was IBM a family business when young Tom Watson replaced his father? Was "Bonanza" a family farm, or at least a family ranch? I don't think so, but it's an interesting continuum.

A Puff Piece for NRCS and FSA

This piece in the Huntingdon, IN paper puffs the NRCS and FSA conservation programs.

George Bush, Life Saver

A piece in the NYTimes today, showing the AIDS program GW got through Congress saved a million lives. (Didn't do well on prevention of HIV, but scored in getting treatments to the infected.) A credit to be kept in mind when trying to strike a balance sheet on our ex-President. And a reminder government can make a difference.

Dan McGlynn Makes the Headlines, or Foodies Don't Read

Obama Foodorama tears USDA up, mentioning poor Dan by name (disclosure: a former co-worker). Seems Monday was the last day for comments on the interim payment limitation regulations, Dan's name was on the document to receive comments (he's acting division chief until the Dems get their people in place), he was on vacation Thursday and Friday, and his mailbox got full.

The anger was understandable (at least, if one assumes the comments would be important in any decisions. That's not an assumption I would make, however.)

The Foodorama outburst is interesting as just another instance of the old IT rule: "When in doubt, read the [manual] instructions." The posting of the interim rule says: "You may submit comments by any of the following methods: E-mail: Fax: (202) 690-2130. Mail: Dan McGlynn, Acting Director, Production, Emergencies and Compliance Division, FSA, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Stop 0517, Room 4754, 1400 Independence Ave., SW., Washington, DC 20250-0517. Hand Delivery or Courier: Deliver comments to the above address. Federal eRulemaking Portal: Go to http:// Follow the online instructions for submitting comments [emphasis added].

So it was possible for people to submit their comments, even though FSA's IT people didn't anticipate the volume of comments coming to Dan's inbox. I retain my dark suspicions of the website and process--I suspect it was a Bush admin add-on which never got integrated into the regulations process in the agencies, as in FSA. (Just as the Obama admin will have some ideas which get added on and not integrated into the bureaucratic process.)

Monday, April 06, 2009

American Farmers More Regimented than Brits?

By now I expect most counties have implemented their 911 program, including the assigning of street names and house numbers to farm residences. But in Britain, apparently, they resist the numbering. At least, that's my inference from this BBC story:

A new campaign is urging people in rural Denbighshire to display the names and numbers of their homes properly in order to help the emergency services. When responding to 999 calls officers and paramedics say they are often hampered because many farms and houses do not have names or numbers on them.

Just Another Transition in the Bureaucracy

Politics and bureaucracy combine as the state directors of FSA and RD, some at least, transition, as here in MN. I'd say this is fairly typical--civilized changeover, people with some political connection and connection to the bureaucracy. (Though I do remember one political appointee in DC who got drunk, maybe at the Christmas party after the election which his party lost, and hurled his furniture out the window.)

Sugar, a Program Reformers Can't Stand

One of the farm programs which gets lots of criticism is the sugar program. It protects domestic sugarcane and sugar beet growers by supporting the price of sugar and limiting the allowable imports. The program dates way back, and has survived attempts to reform it. Today FSA published the final regulations for the program through 2012.

Highway Safety

From MSNBC, a report highway deaths are the lowest since 1961 (when population was probably 170,000,000 and I suspect we drove less per person:
The recession and $4 per gallon gas meant people drove less to save more. Experts also cited record high seat belt use, tighter enforcement of drunken driving laws and the work of advocacy groups that encourage safer driving habits.
Safety is the interplay of many factors, most of which are ignored in the piece. As an ex-bureaucrat, I'd point to the fact government bureaucrats contributed to the following:
safer roads (I've only to mention NY rte 369 as an example)
safer cars (particularly seat belts and air bags)
safer drivers (better licensing rules)
The biggest contribution may have been simply educational, collecting statistics and doing crash tests. It's a long time since Robert McNamara's Ford Motors tried and failed to sell safety to the consumer.

Of course, I don't want to go overboard on crediting bureaucrats; the fact remains that at least 85 percent of American drivers are above average.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Once upon a time:

From Charles Reich's memories of his 1950's law work:

[What] I remember best was proofreading. Stock and bond certificates had to be perfect. Much of their text was printed in tiny type. Often the printing was on a tight schedule and had to be completed at Ad Press late at night.

The proofreader's job was a serious responsibility. No one was too high up for this task. Mr. Swatland seemed to relish doing this himself before any document left the office, no matter how many other lawyers had already given their approval. For the associates, proofreading was a two-person job, with one reading aloud every syllable, capital letter and punctuation mark, so that the reading sounded like a special language: "This Debenture, two initial caps, com," and so forth.

I remember this as well. When you don't have word processing equipment that channels your writing into patterns and formats, when you have to deal with carbon paper for copies and white out for corrections, when you don't have a spellchecker, and when you have to retype each version from scratch, proofing becomes a priority.

Government Stimulus Works

A NYTimes piece on Gov. Bobby Jindal's Louisiana, Jindal being a spokesman for the idea that government stimulus spending is ineffective, in today's papers. It notes the unemployment rate in LA is below the national average. A tribute to Jindal's economic philosophy? No, a reflection of the Federal dollars flowing to LA post-Katrina.

$200 for a Bat?

We're not in the 20th century anymore. (That was a price I noted for a softball bat in a advertising circular--I assume the bat's aluminum, not the wood of my childhood.)

Saturday, April 04, 2009

FSA and Texting

Those forward-looking people at FSA are looking at Web 2.0. From a Nextgov post.

Jeff Kerby, Web manager for the Agriculture Department's Farm Service Agency, which provides loans and subsidy payments to farmers, said the agency recently has begun testing how social networking could be used. He and other technology managers at FSA are analyzing how the agency could text the latest crop prices to farmers every morning so they don't have to come into the county office to look up the information. "They're receptive," Kerby said. "It's a matter of getting them used to it."

Whoopsie, USDA Press Screwup

Or maybe it's the Rural Information Center's error. Anyhow, they posted links to the transcript of Michelle Obama's visit to USDA (yes, that was 6 weeks ago) and to President Bush's acceptance of Secretary Johann's resignation. The latter was dated 1/21/09 by USDA, but my memory is he resigned last summer to run for (and win) a Senatorial seat, so it's likely 6 months old.

News From Front Street

The shooting in Binghamton, NY brings some sociological observations:
The NY Times reports Binghamton is a city of 48,000. It was about 80,000 when I grew up 12 miles outside. The shoe factories of EJ were the biggest employers, being responsible for the presence of lots of eastern European immigrants. EJ shod the Army during WWI and II, but is now not a factor.

The Daily News reports: More than 7,100 immigrants have settled in Binghamton since 2005, 71% from Asian countries, according to city statistics. If true, it's likely because the housing is cheap. Utica, another rust belt city in NY, has also seen lots of immigrants for similar reasons. [Revised--this seems too high to me.]

Binghamton University achieved a little infamy because its basketball team made NCAA (and Tony Kornhauser is an alumnus, though I think it was called "Harpur College" then) and its graduation rate of its players was abysmal.

An Administration Failure on Pay Limits

The NYTimes has a front page story on the failure of the Obama administration to get support for its ill-conceived changes to payment limitation. It shows the problems in hitting the ground running for a new administration. To the city slickers, even including OMB director Orzag, it sounded good. But I'm sure they didn't check with the remaining division directors and branch chiefs in FSA for a reality check. And apparently, John Berge, who's supposed to be the White House liaison to USDA and a former FSA state director, wasn't consulted. I doubt the White House checked with any of the "reformers" in agriculture, those who want to reduce payments. If they did, I'm not confident people like EWG would have spotted the problem. That's why you need bureaucrats, to give a reasonably objective appraisal of the pluses and minuses of a policy proposal.

The problem is that reputation is almost all you have in DC--if you're known as someone who knows her business and keeps her promises, you have clout. Screw up, and that becomes your reputation and your clout dwindles.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Who's Tending the Garden?

While Michelle is hugging the Queen and otherwise stunning the Brits (see here). Who's getting the kids out into the garden and planting those seeds? Time is slipping fast; a day lost now is forever gone.

By way of comparison, our (i.e., wife's) peas, lettuce, onion sets, radishes, etc. have sprouted and we're probably 10 days behind the White House. If their peas aren't planted and showing by now, it's going to be tough on them--our weather gets hot. Or maybe the Obamas are like so many in our community plots--an early burst of enthusiasm followed by distractions. Like the Queen.

IPhone a Model for Feds

Technology Review carries a piece suggesting that an electronic health record system, sponsored by the government, should be modeled on the IPhone:
Their approach is modeled on successful IT products outside of health care, including the iPhone and Facebook, which rely on innovative applications from third-party programmers. Mandl and Kohane propose what they call a platform approach, in which EHR vendors sell a flexible, basic platform that is designed to work with components from other vendors, much as the iPhone works with applications made by a myriad of third-party developers.
I'm really out of my depth here, but it seems just a little facile. I'm not clear that either Apple or Facebook started out with the idea they were doing a "platform"--they did something, they made it open, and the snowball started rolling. It's possible a software package that established identity, privacy, and security, sponsored by the government could work. Indeed, in systems terms we already have a government sponsored system for identity (i.e. birth certificates, drivers licenses, death certificates, green cards, etc.) which is the basis for most of commerce.

Plain English--Been There, Done That

Government Executive reports on a "plain English" bill-requiring gov documents to be written in such.

I recall Jimmy Carter had the same thought. As a matter of fact, if I had the energy I suspect I could find there's still a requirement that regulations, to be published in the Federal Register, must be accompanied by a certification that they are in plain English. (That was back in the day when part of my area of supervision was the processing of documents to the Register.)

Offloading FSA Data into Your PC?

Here's a post on a test of allowing Medicare patients to offload their claim records into Google Health. So why not allow farmers to offload data from FSA to their PC?

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Genealogy and History

I do some genealogy and am a failed historian. So this series by Errol Morris at NYTimes looks promising. It's a 5-part series on how a picture of 3 children found on the Gettysburg battlefield was used to identify a dead soldier.

The Office of Circumlocution

Watched Little Dorrit (Masterpiece Theater) on Sunday. As a bureaucrat, I particularly enjoyed Robert Hardy's bit as head of the Office of Circumlocution. (Reminded me of John Cleese and the Ministry of Silly Walks.)