Ag Today Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Ag Today

Tuesday, December 1, 2015


San Francisco Chronicle

California Christmas tree farmer: ’90 percent of what I planted died’

By Amy Graf

Christmas trees are the latest casualties of California’s devastating drought.

Northern California tree farmers are reporting that this year’s crop is suffering due to the water shortage.

“Ninety percent of the seedlings we planted last year died,” says Jim Beck, who owns Patchen California Christmas Tree Farms in the Santa Cruz Mountains. “We simply couldn’t get water to them in time.”

Beck closely monitors the mature Douglas Firs on his Los Gatos farm where people come to cut down their own trees. He inspects and measures their needles to determine signs of stress.

In a typical year, the needles grow an inch and a quarter to an inch and a half.

“This year we saw about three-quarters-of-an-inch growth,” said Beck, who has owned the farm with his wife, Marina, for 46 years.

What’s more, Beck said his trees only grew a little over a foot this year while in past seasons they’ve usually gained about two and a half feet.

Beck decided to not raise his prices this year and a six-to-seven-foot tree is selling for $60 as it did in 2014. But he says the trees’ stunted growth is impacting him financially and he’s counting on El Niño as his trees’ sole water supply is rain.

“I hope these weather reports are right,” he said, “But I’m not holding my breath.”

California is in the midst of a four-year drought, the worst in 106 years. Low water supplies are wreaking havoc on agriculture and Christmas trees are the latest victims to make news headlines. Some varieties of established adult trees are growing more slowly while seedlings that require more water are dying all together.

Consumers cutting down trees at those boutique farms known for serving hot chocolate and offering tractor rides will find a smaller selection. Those shopping at city lots and big retailers such as Whole Foods and Home Depot will encounter higher prices due to a shortage of trees.

Many California lots and farms purchase trees wholesale from Oregon, the nation’s largest supplier, but like California, the state to the north is in the midst of a drought that’s exacerbating the situation.

“Trees are indeed more expensive this year due to the drought,” Whole Foods Regional Produce Coordinator Taryn Wolf said. “Fewer trees were planted and the wholesale cost rose significantly.”

Ginger and Jim Armstrong grow prized silver tips for wholesale on wild land outside Auburn. This year they’re not even selling these trees. “We just weren’t sure how much water these trees received and we were worried about needle retention,” Ginger said. A tree that’s starved for water is dry and brittle, she said, and after being cut, they can drop their needles within days.

The Armstrongs also own Snowy Peaks Tree Farm and this part of their business is open. They monitor the trees on the you-cut farm closely and Ginger said the fall rain provided the crop with a boost of growth. “We still noticed some trees that were stunted though,” Ginger said. “We usually see some of these because of soil issues but this year there were more and we’re certain it’s a water issue.”

At Reindeer Ridge in Sebastopol, Debbie Garavalia and her husband Paul are doing everything possible to keep their trees alive.

They typically water their trees in the summer as they get less rain than the Sierra foothills and Santa Cruz Mountains. But this year, they rented water trucks and used hoses to hand water seedlings. They also set up a drip irrigation system and supplied water through spring, summer and fall. Most of the crop is thriving, she says, but the tall trees are clearly stunted.

“I’ve never have seen anything like this,” said Garavalia, who has owned the lot since 1985. “I’ve never gone through such a long extended time without water.

“When we drive around the trees on the tractor, dust is blowing because the ground is so dry. It’s crazy.

“We event brought in shavings to keep the dust down and try to keep the moisture in, if there’s any moisture to be kept in.”



Fresno Bee

Valley citrus growers welcome weekend freeze

By Paul Schlesinger

Citrus growers have welcomed the freezing overnight lows that have affected the Valley in the past week.

Temperatures in Fresno hovered around the freezing mark, said Kevin Durfee, meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Hanford. The coldest outlying areas, such as Lemoore, had lows between 27 to 28 degrees.

But those chilly temperatures did not last too long, so no damage was done to the citrus trees or fruit.

California Citrus Mutual, a nonprofit trade association of growers, said that the conditions have been ideal early in the navel orange season because the chill improves fruit color and flavor.

The Valley’s mandarin crop, which is traditionally less cold-weather tolerant, appears to be unscathed by the recent drop in overnight temperatures. Mandarin growers reported operating wind machines over the weekend to push temperatures up in the groves. A strong inversion layer in some areas also helped to keep temperatures manageable.

For the week ahead, the lows in Fresno are expected to dip to 38 degrees Tuesday morning and then rise steadily to 44 degrees by Friday.

The next storm system will reach the Valley around Thursday evening and will be much warmer than the last storm, which originated from the Gulf of Alaska. Rainfall amounts will be less than a quarter-inch in the Valley.

The snow level in the Sierra initially will range between 7,000 to 8,000 feet and will drop to 5,000 feet Thursday night, the weather service said.



Wall Street Journal

Ethanol Companies Get Boost From U.S. Quotas

By Amy Harder and Jesse Newman

U.S. regulators cut annual requirements for how much ethanol must be mixed into the nation’s fuel supply. But the reductions were smaller than originally proposed, softening the blow to ethanol companies and their Farm Belt supporters.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday said fuel companies will have to blend 18.11 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol and other biofuels into gasoline next year, up from the 17.4 billion it proposed in May, but well below targets laid out in a 2007 law. The EPA also eased rules retroactively for 2014 and 2015.

Ethanol-company shares jumped Monday because the EPA’s reductions were less severe than investors had feared. Shares of Green Plains Inc., one of the biggest U.S. ethanol processors, rose 5%, while shares of smaller Pacific Ethanol Inc. surged 21%. Stock in Archer Daniels Midland Co., the biggest U.S. ethanol producer by capacity, edged up 0.1%, shedding earlier losses after the EPA numbers were released.

The agency moved to ease the annual biofuels-blending requirements because of market constraints and other challenges that it said have kept it from meeting the goals of a federal law first passed a decade ago.

The renewable-fuel standard, first established by Congress as part of a 2005 energy law and significantly expanded in 2007, was designed to help reduce carbon emissions and wean the U.S. off foreign oil.

But today the U.S. imports much less oil than it did in the mid-2000s, thanks to a domestic oil-production boom and higher fuel-economy standards. Americans also are consuming less gasoline than the 2005 and 2007 laws envisioned. Energy-industry groups have been harshly critical of the law and the government’s implementation of it, saying the standard burdens companies and raises fuel prices for consumers.

The law includes a “waiver” provision, which the EPA used to issue lower amounts than what the law requires, based on multiple factors, including what the agency described as a lack of infrastructure to blend biofuels into gasoline.

The EPA on Monday retroactively set the total amount of ethanol to be blended in 2014 at 16.28 billion gallons, roughly what was actually produced. For 2015, EPA set the total level at 16.93 billion gallons, close to the estimated production for this year.

Reaction in the U.S. Farm Belt was mixed. Some leaders in the ethanol and corn industries applauded the upward revisions to the EPA’s earlier proposal, but expressed disappointment that the requirements are below those laid out in 2007. For 2016, for example, the statute level was 22.25 billion gallons.

“The EPA volumes announced today are a move in the right direction,” said Jeff Broin, chief executive of South Dakota-based Poet LLC, a large ethanol producer. “However, these numbers fall well short of our capability to provide clean, domestic ethanol to America’s drivers.”

Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, a trade group for farmers, said it was disappointed to see the EPA “move forward with a decision that will stall growth and progress in renewable fuels.”

The Illinois Corn Growers Association, which represents farmers in the nation’s No. 2 corn-producing state after Iowa, said the EPA’s move amounted to a victory for the oil industry and a blow to farmers. The agency’s action comes at a time when net farm income in the state already is expected to decline 68% from its high in 2013, because of depressed crop prices.

The American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, an industry group that represents refiners, applauded the EPA for reducing blending requirements. But it accused the EPA of bowing to pressure from the biofuels lobby in making its final decision and said it believes the RFS program is dysfunctional and should be repealed.

“Today’s rule is further proof that the RFS program is irreparably broken and that the only solution is for Congress to repeal it outright,” said AFPM President Chet Thompson. “The simple truth is that 10 years after promulgation of the program, the advanced biofuels industry still has not delivered on its promise of commercially viable fuels, and only the corn ethanol and biodiesel industries benefit from the RFS.”

Biofuels have represented about 10% of total gasoline consumption in the U.S. since 2011, with nearly all of that coming from corn-based ethanol.

The EPA faced a court-ordered deadline to issue the 2014 and 2015 levels by Monday.

The overall quotas for 2016 go slightly beyond what the oil industry has coined the “blend wall”—when the amount of ethanol mandated by EPA exceeds the amount that can be realistically blended into the gasoline supply.

That limit is pegged by the industry at about 10%. It stems from factors such as resistance from refineries that would rather blend their own product of crude oil and car makers’ reluctance to issue warranties for cars that can take more than 10% ethanol blended into gasoline because of concerns about damage to engines.

“Over time more and more renewable fuels are available to consumers and that means more available than what people refer to as the blend wall,” said Janet McCabe, the acting assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, on a conference call with reporters.

—Alison Sider contributed to this article.

Write to Amy Harder at and Jesse Newman at



National Public Radio

As Big Food Feels Threat Of Climate Change, Companies Speak Up

By Dan Charles

Chances are, you’ve picked up some chatter about the new global talks on climate change. If you can’t quite see how it matters to you, personally, you might want to take a peek inside your pantry. Or your candy jar. Because it might just affect your access to everything from cheese to chocolate.

“It’s very clear now that a changing climate will have a profound effect on agriculture,” says Molly Brown, a geographer at the University of Maryland.

Take one simple example, she says: Vermont.

Farmers in this state used to count on being able to plant corn in May, she says. But weather patterns are shifting. The month of May is now typically cold and wet, “so they’re really not able to plant their corn until the middle of June. That delays its harvest. And then we might have an early frost.”

The result is less corn for Vermont’s cows, and less local milk for the state’s dairies. “It really changes the economic structure of how dairy products are produced in Vermont,” Brown says.

This kind of thing is happening all over the world, sometimes with life-changing consequences.

In Ethiopia, Brown says, the country’s traditional center of farming now isn’t getting enough rain for its crops. Meanwhile, rain is falling in another region, in the northern part of Ethiopia, where few people live because it used to be really dry. “So the question is, do people move up north? Can they simply move the way they farm to that new region?”

Most farmers can’t really see the big global patterns of climate change, and certainly can’t change what’s happening.

But big multinational companies can see it, because they buy shiploads of farm products from all over the world.

Take, for example, Mars Inc., maker of Mars bars, M&M’s, Snickers, Skittles and more.

“[Climate change is] absolutely a threat,” says Barry Parkin, the company’s chief sustainability officer. “And that’s why we’re doing all that we’re doing today.”

A key ingredient in the company’s most tempting products, of course, is chocolate. This comes from cocoa trees, most of them in West Africa, where the climate is hot and humid. But Parkin says it may not stay that way. “Most of the models will say that it’s going to get drier in West Africa, and that’s not good for cocoa,” he says. And cocoa is just one of the 100 or so agricultural commodities that Mars needs for its food and pet food products.

Parkin is confident that his company will be able to get those ingredients somewhere. “I’m less worried about that,” he says. “We will find most of the crops we need to find. Maybe in different places. I’m more concerned about the farmers,” such as those who depend on the cocoa harvest.

According to Parkin, Mars is looking for ways to help those farmers get through this. The strategy, he says, is to help those farmers become more productive. Mars is providing better cocoa trees, fertilizer and training. It puts money in the farmers’ pockets, “and that gives them a level of resiliency. No longer does one bad harvest cripple them,” he says.

That’s the part of the company’s strategy that’s aimed at getting ready for a changing climate, and adapting to it.

But because Mars is so aware that this is costly and painful, it’s also trying to keep the situation from getting worse.

That starts with reducing the company’s own greenhouse gas emissions. “We set our first goals in 2009, for what we needed to do as a company to reduce our impact on the planet,” Parkin says.

According to Parkin, Mars has cut its emissions of climate warming gases by 25 percent compared with eight years ago. It’s planning to be carbon neutral — not contributing to the warming of the climate at all — by 2040.

And last month, Mars joined with nine other global food companies, including General Mills, Unilever and Nestle, who released a letter calling climate change a threat to the world’s food supply. The food giants endorsed steps that would limit the planet’s temperature increase to no more than 2 degrees Celsius. (Since then, the total number of companies who’ve signed on has grown to 14.)

According to Anne Kelly, a senior program director at Ceres, the letter has drawn together a wide range of companies.

“Some of these are major companies in Republican states, and they’re standing up and saying we need a strong deal,” Kelly says. “This has never happened before.”

She also points to the logo Ceres created for the letter, which shows fossil fuels underground and windmills on the surface.

Parkin of Mars says the food industry will be instrumental in fighting climate change. “What those companies are doing is coming together to encourage governments, basically saying to government, ‘We need you to make similar commitments,’ ” he says.

Mars will also have representatives at the global talks in Paris, lobbying for an agreement to put the brakes on a warming climate. It’s an effort to protect their own supplies of raw materials — and the lives of small cocoa farmers in West Africa.

Jonathan Mudd, a spokesman for Mars, says the company plans to share its experience cutting carbon emissions in Paris, and try to “drive for some meaningful change, a meaningful outcome to the conference.”



Washington Post

Holy cow! A farmer tries to make a better calf through genomic analysis.

By Luke Yoquinto

In July 2013, Adam Austin placed a bet on a red-and-white heifer.

Austin and his father run Lincoln Hill Farm, a dairy operation on the border of New York and Vermont. Lincoln Hill earns most if its revenue by selling its milk at Stewart’s Shops, a locally ubiquitous convenience-store chain, but milk isn’t the Austins’ only cash cow.

Cheap, powerful genomic analysis technologies have revolutionized the way that dairy cattle are bred. With a little genomic know-how and a lot of luck, it’s possible for even small-scale farmers to produce some of the world’s most robust, fertile and productive dairy cattle — and then sell them at a profit. And that’s what Austin set out to do.

Austin’s plans centered on that red-and-white heifer, named Delicacy, whom he first saw at an auction not far from his farm. He had gone to the auction to sell a cow, not to buy one, but Delicacy immediately caught the eye of his wife, Meggi, and Austin ended up purchasing the 15-month-old heifer for $10,000, one of the higher prices fetched that day.

Delicacy’s promise lay in her genes. A handful of companies do for cattle what the genetic testing company 23andMe became famous for offering humans: the identification of tiny portions of DNA that correspond to important traits.

The data set connecting the genomes and physical attributes of dairy cattle is enormous, says Alison Van Eenennaam, a cattle genomicist at University of California at Davis.

As a result, within a small margin of error, breeders can tell from a DNA sample taken from a young cow — or even an embryo — what it will be like as an adult. This portrait includes whether it will grow horns, the fat and protein composition of its milk, and the size and shape of its udder — an important consideration, because standardized milking machines require standard-size teats.

Once these and other values are known, it’s possible to assign an animal an overall score. The main scoring index for Holstein cattle, the breed that accounts for 90 percent of milk cows in the United States, is the Genomic Total Performance Index, or GTPI.

Austin knew that Delicacy had a fairly high GTPI number, and he hoped that with careful breeding she would give rise to an even higher-scoring calf. But her overall score belied a troubling weakness: Though she stood out in some characteristics, such as those for overall health, fertility and production longevity, her projected annual milk production was below average.

So Austin went shopping for bull semen with something specific in mind.

With deep-enough pockets, it’s possible to order semen from the best bull in the world. Currently that title is held by a black-and-white bull named Jedi, said Charles Will, the Holstein sire program manager at Select Sires, the largest bull semen provider in North America.

The cost of high-grade bull semen is usually capped at $100 per unit, but, as with scalped concert tickets, prices can rise dramatically on the secondary market — up to $1,000, in this case.

On a tight budget, Austin ordered the best he could justify buying: 10 units at $25 apiece. He prioritized the genetic characteristics that, he hoped, would complement Delicacy’s. “I wanted to increase milk [production]” in her offspring, he said.

But in every mating of two animals, even where the full genome of both parents is known, there is always an element of chance, due to what Van Eenennaam calls the “roulette wheel of meiosis” — meiosis being the type of cell division involved in sexual reproduction. For the same reason that human siblings tend to look different from each other, calf siblings are almost always born with different GTPI scores.

Austin undertook the mating the old-fashioned way: He injected the mail-order bull semen into Delicacy himself; seven days later, he had a veterinarian transfer the three resulting embryos from Delicacy into three different surrogates, a common process used to maximize the number of offspring a mother can have. Only one embryo survived the procedure.

Larger-scale breeding operations are more likely to use in vitro techniques: inseminating many egg cells from a given cow in a Petri dish, creating dozens of embryos instead of a handful. Some breeders then test the DNA of each embryo, bringing only the most desirable ones to term. The effect is rapid genetic changes in cattle populations that once would have taken decades.

“There are all sorts of things like that that people are working on — sort of newer, novel traits that we haven’t been able to do in the past,” says Kent Weigel, chair of dairy science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “The big one that we’re looking at is feed efficiency,” the amount of milk a cow produces per pound of food consumed. Others include decreased methane production — cow burps are a significant source of this greenhouse gas — and increased resistance to postpartum health disorders.

Between Delicacy’s good traits and the DNA in the bull semen, Austin expected decent GTPI results for her calf, which he decided to name Dreamer. When Dreamer was born in June 2015, Austin sent a hair sample from her tail to a cattle genomics firm. The results came back via e-mail.

Compared with other red-and-white hornless Holsteins, Dreamer had the highest GTPI in the world. Her genes foretold a long, healthy life of impressive milk production.

“For whatever reason, that mating worked out just right,” he said. Dreamer’s score of 180 points was significantly higher than the average of her parents. “She did that on her own.”

This fall, hoping that this genetic triumph would pay off, Austin and his wife traveled to Madison to auction off Dreamer at the World Dairy Expo, the largest annual gathering of dairy farmers in North America. (This year’s theme: “Dairy in Our DNA.”) Because Dreamer was the top animal in her category, the Austins were told to expect a windfall far beyond the value of an everyday high-production milk cow.

Compared with an average cow, Adam Austin said, “a high-producing cow is going to make you five or six hundred bucks more per lactation.” (That is a cow’s annual period for milk production, roughly 305 days.) A young, otherwise unremarkable high-production cow might sell for $2,500. The Austins were told to expect at least 10 times that much for Dreamer.

She was worth so much, in theory, because in addition to being strong, fertile and a rapid producer of milk, she was the top animal in her niche category of red, hornless cattle — which actually means very little in terms of utility on a farm. Hornlessness saves a farmer only the moderately annoying task of horn removal, and the difference between red and black cows is “like a yellow Lab versus a black Lab,” Weigel said.

Nevertheless, owning the top animal in any category can bring a degree of cachet to a farm. More important, the possibility of using that cow to breed and sell the next generation of top bovines adds an element of speculative fervor to the market. Consequently, buyers often pay top dollar for cows and bulls with notable genes. The University of Missouri College of Agriculture discovered this year that a cow in its campus herd was the country’s second-highest-scoring individual in its category: carriers of the gene for red-and-white hair. It sold for $25,000.

The World Dairy Expo’s auctions took place in a 10,000-seat coliseum, filled with bidders and their proxies from around the world. Attendants led cattle around on a raised enclosure, announcers read out the genomic strengths and pedigree of each animal, and a fast-talking auctioneer coaxed bids from the audience. To the Austins’ dismay, the bidding for Dreamer stopped soon after it started, stalling at $8,700. It was a high price for a prepubescent calf, but still less than expected. After subtracting transportation costs and the auctioneer’s commission, Austin said he probably made $5,000.

What the caprices of genetics had provided, those of economics had taken away. It was hard to pinpoint exactly why. Hornlessness “was really hot a couple years ago,” but perhaps demand for it had waned, the owner of the auction company said. And although Dreamer’s milk production metrics were above average, the loftiness of her overall GTPI scores was mainly due to other traits, such as overall robustness and fertility.

The Austins weren’t entirely disappointed. They had made money and they still own Delicacy. Austin intends to go through the same process to breed her again. And in nine months, he said, “who knows — maybe I’ll make another number-one calf.”

Yoquinto is a research associate at the MIT AgeLab and a freelance science writer.




New York Times

Tell Consumers What They Are Eating

In approving genetically engineered salmon as safe to eat and safe for the environment, the Food and Drug Administration rejected petitions from environmental and food safety groups asking that companies selling this salmon be required to label it as genetically engineered. Congress should overturn that decision. Consumers deserve to know what they are eating.

The salmon, made by AquaBounty Technologies of Maynard, Mass., has genes inserted that allow it to grow to market size twice as fast as wild salmon. The F.D.A.’s approval permits the engineered salmon to be raised only in land-based hatchery tanks in two facilities — one in Canada, where genes are injected into the eggs of Atlantic salmon, and a facility in Panama, where the fish are grown to market size. Each site has physical barriers to prevent the escape of eggs and fish.

The salmon will be made sterile so that should they escape, they will be unable to breed with other salmon or establish populations in the open sea. Still, such safeguards may not be 100 percent foolproof. The F.D.A. and the Canadian and Panamanian governments will conduct inspections to make sure the safeguards are working. A major concern is what might happen if the technology spreads to larger-scale commercial operations around the world that might have weaker confinement barriers. At least one consumer group has announced plans to sue the F.D.A. to overturn its approval of the engineered salmon.

It will take about two years for these salmon to reach market size, and the Panama facility can produce about 100 tons of fish a year, a tiny amount compared with more than 200,000 tons of Atlantic salmon imported each year. Some leading grocery chains, responding to consumer concerns, have said they won’t sell the genetically engineered salmon.

The F.D.A. said there is no reason to mandate labeling because there is no material difference between engineered and natural fish on qualities like nutritional content. But the value of that information should be left to consumers to decide.

Vermont enacted a law last year that will require labeling of genetically engineered foods starting next July unless a suit filed in June 2014 by four industry trade groups derails it. Other states with strong consumer movements may try to follow.

The House passed a bill on July 23, 2015, that would pre-empt states from requiring such labeling, and industry groups are pressing the Senate to attach similar language as a rider to an omnibus spending bill. The Senate should rebuff that tactic and allow states to adopt mandatory labeling laws if they wish.

A version of this editorial appears in print on December 1, 2015, on page A26 of the New York edition with the headline: Tell Consumers What They Are Eating.