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School’s Closed in Wisconsin. Forever.

School’s Closed in Wisconsin. Forever. →

The New York Times provides an apocalyptic headline for this article by Julie Bosman. In reality, this is a story about one specific, rural school closing, with some notes about other tiny, rural schools that have also closed.

Lola was among the last students to attend Arena Community Elementary. After classes let out last Monday, the school was shuttered permanently by the River Valley School District, whose administrators say that unforgiving budgets, a dearth of students and an aging population have made it impossible to keep the school open. For the first time since the 1800s, the village of Arena has no school.

Arena Elementary is the second small rural elementary school in two years to close in the district, nearly 300 square miles of rolling pastures and dairy farms in southwestern Wisconsin. The one in the neighboring village of Lone Rock closed last spring. The district now has just one open public elementary school, in Spring Green, nine miles away.

Administrators say they hardly had any choice.

The numbers are there for anyone to see: The River Valley School District graduated 105 seniors this year, and expects only 66 kindergartners to start school in the fall.

Residents worry about what will happen to Arena, population 834, without the school. There isn’t much else on this two-lane stretch of Highway 14: a gas station, a cheese outlet, a cafe called Grandma Mary’s, beloved for its Friday fish fry and beef stroganoff.

But the reality of rural life in the Midwest, school officials say, is that younger people are fleeing. They want Starbucks and Thai restaurants, plentiful jobs and high-speed internet, and when they start families, they want schools with amenities and big, thriving athletic programs.

“In any small community, anywhere in this country, our kids grow up and move away,” said Mark Strozinsky, a River Valley school board member. “They go to college and get a job, but it’s not here, because the opportunity is not here. So who’s left here? Grandma and Grandpa.”

Two schools in the Portage school district in central Wisconsin closed several years ago after enrollment declined sharply, the district administrator, Charles Poches, said.

“You can’t have four teachers for 40 kids,” he said.

As the public face of the district, Mr. Poches said that he bore the brunt of residents’ fury at public hearings.

“It was hell,” he said. “We’d have 50 people, some who didn’t even have kids there but had gone to school there. They felt it was part of their community. It was very traumatic.”

Melissa Schmid, whose 10-year-old stepson, Evan, completed fourth grade this year, said she wished she had fought harder to keep the Arena school open. When the time comes for her 1-year-old daughter, she and her husband have decided to send her to school in a different district to spare her a long bus ride.

She worries about the value of their house. New people aren’t moving to Arena much anyway. But they definitely won’t now.

“We basically have a bank and a cheese factory,” Ms. Schmid said. “It’s not going to be a growing community.”

Communities are born, grow, mature, decline, and, eventually, die. This article tugs at the heartstrings, but it's not clear to me why we should try to stop what's happening, to make rural America great again. I understand how the existing residents feel. But the hard truth is that people increasingly prefer suburban and urban lifestyles to rural life. No amount of nostalgia or outside financial support is going to cause this rural district to grow again.

An Honest Accounting of the Benefits of Genetically Modified Crops

An Honest Accounting of the Benefits of Genetically Modified Crops →

Take it away, Matt Ridley.

Generally, technologies are judged on their net benefits, not on the claim that they are harmless: The good effects of, say, the automobile and aspirin outweigh their dangers. Today, arguably, adopting certain new technologies is harder not just because of a policy of precaution but because of a bias in much of the media against reporting the benefits.

So to redress the balance, I thought I'd look up the estimated benefits of genetically modified crops. After 15 years of GM planting, there's ample opportunity—with 17 million farmers on almost 400 million acres in 29 countries on six continents—to count the gains from genetic modification of crop plants. A recent comprehensive report by Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot for a British firm, PG Economics, gives some rough numbers. (The study was funded by Monsanto, which has major operations in biotech, but the authors say the research was independent of the company and published in two peer-reviewed journals.)

The most obvious benefit is yield increase. In 2010, the report estimates, the world's corn crop was 31 million tons larger and the soybean crop 14 million tons larger than it would have been without the use of biotech crops. The direct effect on farm incomes was an increase of $14 billion, more than half of which went to farmers in developing countries (especially those growing insect-resistant cotton).

In addition, a range of non-pecuniary benefits have been recorded, from savings in fuel, time and machinery to a better health and safety record on the farm (since less pesticide is needed), shorter growing cycles and better quality of product. In India—where the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications says 88% of cotton is now genetically modified to resist pests and insecticide use has halved—bee keepers are losing fewer bees.

As this illustrates, the most striking benefits are environmental. The report calculates that a cumulative total of 965 million pounds of pesticide have not been used because of the adoption of GM crops. The biggest impacts are from insect-resistant cotton and herbicide-tolerant maize, both of which need fewer sprayings than their conventional equivalents.

The use of less fuel in farming GM crops results in less carbon-dioxide emission. In addition, herbicide-tolerant GM crops can often be grown with little or no plowing in stubble fields that are sprayed with herbicides. The result is to allow more carbon to remain in the soil, since plowing releases carbon as microbial exhalation. Taken together, Messrs. Brookes and Barfoot estimate, this means that the GM crops grown in 2010 had an effect on carbon-dioxide emissions equivalent to taking 8.6 million cars off the road.

There is a rich irony here. The rapidly growing use of shale gas in the U.S. has also driven down carbon-dioxide emissions by replacing coal in the generation of electricity. U.S. carbon emissions are falling so fast they are now back to levels last seen in the 1990s. So the two technologies most reliably and stridently opposed by the environmental movement—genetic modification and fracking—have been the two technologies that most reliably cut carbon emissions.

A Reminder of How Bad the Farm Bill Is

A Reminder of How Bad the Farm Bill Is →

Veronique de Rugy sheds some light on the farm bill. Here's a small taste.

here is a little reminder of what is in the farm bill, how big it is, and other details relevant to this discussion:

The farm bill is massive; it would spend almost $1 trillion over the next decade.

For the most part, farmers are doing very well. As Drew White at Heritage reminds us, in spite of and partially thanks to this year’s drought, net farm income is estimated to set a new record of $122.2 billion in 2012.

How to Do Real Social Justice and Feed Africa's Millions

For the last couple of years, I've been unhappy with the "short term missions" model that many churches use. It seems to involve a lot of good feelings about going somewhere else to experience "true poverty", working there for 1-3 weeks, coming home, showing lots of pictures of really poor people, and talking about the great need for Christian generosity. Now, I am a fairly generous individual. And I don't like seeing poor people suffer in poverty any more than you do. Despite the vast concern for social justice that's put into most trips, I don't think poverty will ever be reduced by them.

Poverty will be eliminated in the 3rd world the same way it was eliminated in the 1st world: growth. And that growth often involves taking the best scientific know-how we have, training people to understand how and why it works, and then letting them get on with the business of making themselves richer. (Growth often involves a strong rule of law and a government that doesn't steal from its own people, but I'll leave that topic for another post.)

I quoted from an article, just a few minutes ago, about the need for appreciating the "modern, science-intensive, and highly capitalized agricultural system" that we have her in America. But what about Africa? Will that really work over there?

Yes (from later in the same article).

Africa faces a food crisis, but it's not because the continent's population is growing faster than its potential to produce food, as vintage Malthusians such as environmental advocate Lester Brown and advocacy organizations such as Population Action International would have it. Food production in Africa is vastly less than the region's known potential, and that is why so many millions are going hungry there. African farmers still use almost no fertilizer; only 4 percent of cropland has been improved with irrigation; and most of the continent's cropped area is not planted with seeds improved through scientific plant breeding, so cereal yields are only a fraction of what they could be. Africa is failing to keep up with population growth not because it has exhausted its potential, but instead because too little has been invested in reaching that potential.

One reason for this failure has been sharply diminished assistance from international donors. When agricultural modernization went out of fashion among elites in the developed world beginning in the 1980s, development assistance to farming in poor countries collapsed. Per capita food production in Africa was declining during the 1980s and 1990s and the number of hungry people on the continent was doubling, but the U.S. response was to withdraw development assistance and simply ship more food aid to Africa. Food aid doesn't help farmers become more productive -- and it can create long-term dependency. But in recent years, the dollar value of U.S. food aid to Africa has reached 20 times the dollar value of agricultural development assistance.

The alternative is right in front of us. Foreign assistance to support agricultural improvements has a strong record of success, when undertaken with purpose. In the 1960s, international assistance from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and donor governments led by the United States made Asia's original Green Revolution possible. U.S. assistance to India provided critical help in improving agricultural education, launching a successful agricultural extension service, and funding advanced degrees for Indian agricultural specialists at universities in the United States. The U.S. Agency for International Development, with the World Bank, helped finance fertilizer plants and infrastructure projects, including rural roads and irrigation. India could not have done this on its own -- the country was on the brink of famine at the time and dangerously dependent on food aid. But instead of suffering a famine in 1975, as some naysayers had predicted, India that year celebrated a final and permanent end to its need for food aid.

What if the American church committed to getting over the West's passion for antiquated farming methods and decided instead to take up the mantle that the U.S. government dropped 35 years ago? We might find that we're far more likely to be of some use that way than we currently are. Instead of sending people over to marvel at poverty why don't we fund the same kinds of projects that enabled India to be self-sufficient?

Capitalism Will Feed the World's Poor

I talked earlier this week about capitalism and its blessings, in regard to cleanliness. Consider this, about the blessings of capitalism in regard to food.

What's so tragic about this is that we know from experience how to fix the problem. Wherever the rural poor have gained access to improved roads, modern seeds, less expensive fertilizer, electrical power, and better schools and clinics, their productivity and their income have increased. But recent efforts to deliver such essentials have been undercut by deeply misguided (if sometimes well-meaning) advocacy against agricultural modernization and foreign aid.

In Europe and the United States, a new line of thinking has emerged in elite circles that opposes bringing improved seeds and fertilizers to traditional farmers and opposes linking those farmers more closely to international markets. Influential food writers, advocates, and celebrity restaurant owners are repeating the mantra that "sustainable food" in the future must be organic, local, and slow. But guess what: Rural Africa already has such a system, and it doesn't work. Few smallholder farmers in Africa use any synthetic chemicals, so their food is de facto organic. High transportation costs force them to purchase and sell almost all of their food locally. And food preparation is painfully slow. The result is nothing to celebrate: average income levels of only $1 a day and a one-in-three chance of being malnourished.

If we are going to get serious about solving global hunger, we need to de-romanticize our view of preindustrial food and farming. And that means learning to appreciate the modern, science-intensive, and highly capitalized agricultural system we've developed in the West. Without it, our food would be more expensive and less safe. In other words, a lot like the hunger-plagued rest of the world.

(Hat tip to Wilson Mixon, at Division of Labour.)

Is Farming Work?

'Homesteaders' try to produce all their own food - WSJ

Jodi and Brian Bubenzer describe themselves as "homesteaders" who try to produce all their own food, even though nothing in their suburban childhoods prepared them for this existence. They knew nothing about farming until five years ago, when they bought a farm outside New Glarus. And while adapting to their new Green Acres lifestyle, they've both maintained jobs in Madison and home-schooled their four sons.

My main exposure to farming is the "Little House" series of books. Technology has a come a long way since then and farming doesn't require quite as much manual labor as it used to. But, still, isn't it a full time job?

How does one home school, farm, and work two "regular" jobs? That sounds like working four full time jobs.