Ag Today Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Ag Today

Tuesday, February 2, 2016


San Francisco Chronicle

Northern California salmon run devastated, again, by drought

By Kurtis Alexander

One of California’s last great salmon runs tallied a perilously low number of surviving offspring in 2015, scientists said Monday, marking a second year of drought-driven problems for the Sacramento River chinook, which loom on the verge of extinction.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service reported that just 3 percent of the run’s juvenile salmon survived their historic migration to sea, again dying in large numbers because the river was simply too shallow and too warm to tolerate.

State and federal officials, after witnessing a grim 5 percent survival rate in 2014, took steps to boost river levels for the fish last year, most notably introducing a controversial strategy of withholding irrigation water from Central Valley farmers. But that was to little avail.

“We just didn’t have enough cold water to work with,” said Maria Rea, West Coast assistant regional administrator for the Fisheries Service. “Despite everybody’s best efforts, the plan wasn’t effective in preventing really significant mortality.”

This week’s dire figures may portend even greater water restrictions for agriculture in the future, as well as further limits on commercial and recreational fishing.

The coming year is crucial for the chinook salmon. The fish have a three-year spawning cycle, meaning the next class will be the only one that hasn’t suffered a debilitating blow and represents the last chance of spurring a rebound for the federally listed endangered species.

Fish in the run, one of three distinct populations on the Sacramento River, are born in the far reaches of Northern California and typically make their way south through the Golden Gate to the Pacific Ocean, before returning to their freshwater birthplace three years later.

All of the runs have suffered over recent decades as river water has been diverted for farming, and as valuable habitat in the flood plain has been lost. But the winter population has fared worst.

Last year, water releases were limited at Shasta Dam on the Sacramento River in the spring so there would be more water — and colder water — for salmon in the dry, warm summer months.

Nevertheless, too little water collected behind the dam because of meager mountain snowmelt during the drought. As a result, temperatures in the river rose from an ideal high of 55 degrees to 58 degrees at times, proving a death knell for the young fish.

Farmers criticized the restoration plan as another that prioritizes fish over farming. Many had planted their fields in anticipation of getting irrigation water in the spring, only to see crops die of thirst after releases at Shasta were curtailed.

Environmental groups and fishermen, however, said too little was still being done to protect the fish. On Monday, the Golden Gate Salmon Association was among the first to call for more restrictions on water releases.

“Salmon fishermen and their families will pay a price for water allocation decisions made by others that decimated winter-run salmon in the Sacramento River the last two years,” said John McManus, the association’s executive director.

The Fisheries Service manages a salmon hatchery that it expects to help stop the chinook’s downward spiral, but Rea said a new plan to ensure adequate cold water is vital.

Federal officials are recommending that a high of 55 degrees is maintained on the river, an effort that Rea says hinges on the weather.

“Whether or not they can meet that is going to depend on hydrology and whether it keeps raining and how much snow we get,” she said.

Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: Twitter: @kurtisalexander


San Francisco Chronicle

Drought’s harm to forests more severe than feared, study finds

By Peter Fimrite

Worsening drought conditions may be doing more damage to forests in California and throughout the West than their ecosystems can handle, causing a spiral of death that could have a devastating impact, a U.S. Forest Service study concluded Monday.

The 300-page report, “Effects of Drought on Forests and Rangelands in the United States,” outlines how hotter, drier and more extreme weather will spark massive insect outbreaks, tree and plant die-offs, bigger and more costly wildfires, and economic impacts to timber and rangeland habitat.

“There are growing concerns that extreme precipitation events, droughts and warmer temperatures will accelerate tree and shrub death,” said report co-author Toral Patel-Weynand, the Forest Service’s director of sustainable forest research. “In addition to that, we obviously have impacts on timber, seed production, water and recreational activities.”

The study — by 77 scientists from the Forest Service, universities, non-governmental organizations and national labs — seeks to bring together years of peer-reviewed research and provide the best science to forest and rangeland managers as they grapple with the effects of climate change on the 193 million acres of national forest. There are 21 million acres in California’s 18 national forests.

“Our forests and rangelands are national treasures, and because they are threatened, we are threatened,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “Every region of the country is impacted by the direct and indirect effects of drought conditions and volatile weather patterns.”

Although drought has caused some problems in the Southeast, the brunt of the damage has occurred in the West, according to the report. Among the problems are larger, more volatile wildfires, vast stretches of dead and dying trees ravaged by insects, and increases in invasive plants.

A study released in December by the Carnegie Institution for Science counted as many as 58 million trees from the redwood forests of the North Coast to the pine forests of the southern Sierra suffering from severe water loss — far more than previously thought.

An earlier study showing that 12 million trees had been killed by drought prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency in the fall. He called it the state’s “worst epidemic of tree mortality in modern history.” Many of the weakened trees are being attacked by bark beetles, which have been multiplying in the warm weather.

Even native ferns, normally well adapted to dry summers and periodic droughts, have been affected, according to a study published Monday in the journal New Phytologist.

The UC Santa Cruz study found that the drought hampered the ability of ferns, which form the lush understory of California’s redwood forests, to photosynthesize and store energy. It could mean fewer new leaves in the spring and a higher vulnerability to insects and disease, according to the study.

“These understory species … serve as indicators of how climate change may affect our redwood forests,” said Jarmila Pittermann, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz. “Considering that these plants are adapted to persist through a typical summer dry season, the die-back emphasizes just how unprecedented this drought has been over the past three years.”

James Vose, a Forest Service research ecologist, said droughts have always shaped Western forests and rangelands, but contended, “There is something quite large-scale that is happening in North America and across the globe.”

He said California, Arizona, Texas and Canada, among other places, have all been profoundly impacted by severe drought.

“These large-scale mortality events indicate that the forest’s capacity to tolerate is being exceeded,” Vose said. “Often it’s called a tipping point, where large-scale changes occur from these external stresses.”

California wildfires were decidedly larger and more widespread last summer, fed by exceptionally dry brush and chaparral.

Blazes in Lake County burned so hot that the flames generated their own wind, exacerbating dangerous conditions for residents and firefighters. Smoke plumes rose 35,000 feet into the atmosphere, and when they collapsed they blew out embers as if from a cannon, fire officials said.

Winters are shorter and fire season now averages 78 days longer than in the 1970s, Forest Service officials said. Since 2000, at least 10 states have experienced their biggest fires on record.

These drought-driven events could cause rivers and lakes that are naturally cleaned by forest ecosystems to become degraded. That would mean less carbon dioxide soaked up by trees, exacerbating global warming, according to the research.

The report may help the Forest Service as well as timber companies and other landowners find ways to improve ecosystem health, be it through reducing tree densities, planting drought-tolerant vegetation, or adding shade trees and plants near creeks and rivers.

“It’s really incredibly critical,” Vose said. “This is and will continue to be a major challenge for forest and rangeland managers — certainly if the current drought continues or gets worse.”

Vilsack said 60 million Americans rely on drinking water that originates in national forest and grasslands. These areas, he said, support 200,000 jobs and contribute over $13 billion to local economies every year.

Peter Fimrite is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: Twitter: @pfimrite


Associated Press

Partnership formed to increase controlled fires in Calif.

By Olga R. Rodriguez

Environmental groups and federal and state agencies have formed a partnership to increase the use of prescribed fires to improve the health of California’s forests and watersheds and minimize the effects of increasingly devastating wildfires.

The agreement signed by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the U.S. Forest Service and other federal and state agencies and several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy, will enable the sharing of resources and expertise among the signatories, who will hold their first working meeting Tuesday.

“This allows us to bring key parties together and have a more organized approach to addressing some of the impediments that we face on using fire to restore our natural landscapes,” said Jim Branham, Executive Officer for the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, one of the state agencies that endorsed the memorandum of understanding.

Prescribed fires are not without controversy because of the air pollution they create but the groups and agencies involved agreed to find ways to better manage smoke during controlled burns. They also agreed to train personnel in agencies that don’t have the staff for prescribed burn because of strained resources.

The agreement comes after several massive wildfires largely fueled by extremely dry vegetation scorched hundreds of square miles of forests and destroyed hundreds of homes in drought-parched California.

In Lake County last year, a wildfire burned so hot that the flames generated their own wind and blew out embers that started spot fires ahead of the blaze.

Supporters say controlled burns are one way to prevent wildfires that quickly explode in size and intensity.

“The last couple of years have been kind of a wakeup call that we need to figure out how to put (prescribed fires) back on the landscape in a more sophisticated way than we’ve done in the past,” Braham said.



National Public Radio

Farm Subsidies Persist and Grow, Despite Talk Of Reform

By Dan Charles

Farm subsidies don’t lack for critics. Free-market conservatives and welfare state-defending liberals alike have called for deep cuts in these payments to farmers. After all, farmers, as a group, are wealthier than the average American. Why should they get tens of billions of dollars each year in federal aid?

Two years ago, when the most recent Farm Bill emerged from Congress, the measure’s authors proudly announced what sounded like bold cuts in these controversial programs. The Senate Agriculture Committee noted in a press release that the new law would eliminate one big subsidy altogether and save taxpayers a total of $23.3 billion over the following 10 years.

Those projected savings, it turns out, were a mirage. According new estimates for Farm Bill spending over the next few years released by the Congressional Budget Office, total government aid to farmers will swell to $23.9 billion in 2017.

“What happened to the savings taxpayers were promised?” says Colin O’Neil, from the Environmental Working Group, a long-time opponent of farm subsidies.

Actually, many opponents of government subsidies saw this coming. “Cynics like me fully expected this to work out the way it has,” says Bruce Babcock, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University. “Farm policy isn’t really about policy. It’s about farmers getting their money. And the agriculture committees in Congress are there to make sure that farmers get their money.”

Over the decades, Congress has periodically changed the way these programs work. This latest Farm Bill ditched a politically unpopular subsidy program that wrote checks to farmers simply based on the number of acres they owned. In its place, the law set up new programs that pay farmers when commodity prices fall. And indeed they have been falling since the last Farm Bill.

Many observers, in fact, expected corn and soybean prices to fall, because they had been extraordinarily high in recent years.

“Farmers made a gamble,” says David Orden, an agricultural economist at the International Food Policy Research Institute. “They were gambling that if prices came down, they’d get more money this way.” That gamble, it seems, paid off.

If prices stay low, or rebound, spending under some of these new programs should decline, but only gradually — and within a few years Congress will once again revise the Farm Bill.

Orden does believe that over the long term, there has been progress in abolishing some of the most wasteful farm subsidies. “We used to do all sorts of things to maintain high market prices for farmers,” he says.

For example, the government used to buy up large amounts of agricultural commodities and either store them or export them at much lower prices. It also paid farmers to take vast amounts of land out of production. Those programs, Orden says, were probably more damaging to the overall economy than the payments and crop insurance payouts that farmers get today.



New York Times

Economists Sharply Split Over Trade Deal Effects

By Jackie Calmes

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers and presidential candidates are having their say about the 12-nation Pacific Rim trade accord that is President Obama’s top economic priority in his final year in office. But lately the liveliest debate over the deal is among blue-ribbon economists.

On Monday, it was the critics’ turn: Economists from Tufts University unveiled their study concluding that the pact, called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, would cause some job losses and exacerbate income inequality in each of the dozen participating nations, but especially in the largest — the United States.

Supporting the authors at the National Press Club was Jared Bernstein, who was the top economic adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. during Mr. Obama’s first term.

The conclusions of the Tufts economists contradict recent positive findings from the Peterson Institute for International Economics and the World Bank about the trade pact, which would be the largest regional accord in history and would bind nations including Canada, Chile, Australia and Japan.

Each side in the economists’ debate has criticized the economic model that the other used to reach its results, while opponents and supporters of the trade accord have quickly seized upon whichever analysis buttressed their own views.

Michael B. Froman, Mr. Obama’s trade representative, plans to join other trade ministers in Auckland, New Zealand, on Thursday for the formal signing of the trade deal, which they finished in October after years of negotiations.

The future of the deal, however, depends on the approval of a sharply divided Congress. The administration is believed to lack enough support for passage, though votes are not expected until after the November election. Some other nations are delaying their own ratification processes pending American action.

Election-year pressures are not helping the president’s cause, as leading candidates in both parties are opposing the trade agreement.

Donald J. Trump, the leading Republican candidate, told the conservative website Breitbart News over the weekend that as president he would stop what he called “Hillary’s Obamatrade.”

Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic contender, has criticized the final agreement after praising it while it was being negotiated. She continues to be assailed by her main rival for the nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, for her early support.

Against this backdrop, the economists from prestigious universities and research institutions have been providing their takes and debating their differences just as intensely, though with more scholarly reserve.

The analysis from the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts was titled “Trading Down: Unemployment, Inequality and Other Risks of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement,” and was written by the economists Jeronim Capaldo and Alex Izurieta, with Jomo Kwame Sundaram, a former United Nations economic development official.

The authors wrote that they used “a more realistic model” for their analysis, and that previous reports that projected economic benefits from the trade accord were “based on unrealistic assumptions such as full employment” and unchanging income distribution.

The Tufts report projected that incomes in the United States would decline by a half-percentage point compared with the change expected without the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The Peterson Institute’s report, by economists from Brandeis and Johns Hopkins universities, projected that incomes would rise by half a percentage point.

The Tufts paper also projected that the overall economies of the United States and Japan would contract slightly. Employment in the United States would decline by 448,000 jobs; total job losses in the dozen nations would be 771,000 — a small share of the nations’ total work forces, yet hardly a selling point for leaders seeking to ratify the trade agreement.

The Obama administration has acknowledged that some jobs would be lost, especially in manufacturing and in industries that employ workers with lower skills, but it has said that those losses would be offset by new jobs created in export-reliant industries that pay more on average. The Peterson Institute report offered evidence for that argument, while concluding that there would be no net change in overall employment in the United States.

The other parties to the pact are Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore and Brunei.

“Economic gains would be negligible for other participating countries — less than one percent over 10 years for developed countries, and less than three percent for developing countries,” the Tufts report said.

It also had bad news for countries, including China, that are not parties to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, whose participants account for nearly 40 percent of the world economy.

“We project negative effects on growth and employment in non-T.P.P. countries,” the report said. “This increases the risk of global instability and a race to the bottom, in which labor incomes will be under increasing pressure.”

The authors’ explicit criticism of models and data used by other economists provoked swift counter-criticism. Robert Z. Lawrence, a professor of international trade and investment at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and a senior fellow of the Peterson Institute, wrote a blog piece on Monday expounding on why the institute’s analysis was “superior on all counts” and better suited to specifically gauging the impact of megatrade agreements.

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A version of this article appears in print on February 2, 2016, on page B3 of the New York edition with the headline: Economists Sharply Split Over Trade Deal Effects.



Wall Street Journal

Why Carb Counters Are Running for the Cauliflower

By Robin Sidel

Just weeks into her New Year’s diet, Amy Elliott sprinted through her local Sam’s Club in Metarie, La., making a beeline for the produce aisle. Her target: cauliflower, which was on sale for $2.99 a head.

“I literally ran to put four heads in my basket,” she said, describing herself as “a kid in a candy store” during the shopping trip.

Like many people who cut carbohydrates in an effort to shed weight, Ms. Elliott is crazy for cauliflower, which has blossomed as a popular substitute for starchy foods.

But cold weather in the growing regions of California and Arizona has caused a supply shortage in some places. Prices have soared. Many shoppers can’t find the vegetable at all, as they fruitlessly dig into supermarket bins.

The result is a food frenzy that is more often associated with delicacies like truffles than the white, bland vegetable Mark Twain once described as “nothing but a cabbage with a college education.”

Cauliflower is low in calories and packed with vitamin C, but those are not its prized attributes among carb-counters: A medium-size head of cauliflower, which can serve several people, has fewer carbohydrates than a single potato, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But the intersection of low supply with booming demand is causing a cauliflower bubble. According to the USDA, average retail prices recently have been up 30% from last year. Some shoppers say they have seen stores charge as much as $8 per head in recent weeks.

Cauliflower, part of a cruciferous veggie family that includes Brussels sprouts, broccoli and turnips, is not known for its robust flavor. But low-carb dieters turn that blandness to their advantage, smashing cauliflower to create a side dish reminiscent of mashed potatoes or grating it in a food processor to resemble rice. More adventurous cooks steam it and press it into a pizza pan as a crust, fold it to create a facsimile of flour tortilla, or break it into small florets as a base for “mac and cheese” without the “mac.”

The timing of the cauliflower crunch couldn’t be worse for Ms. Elliott and others whose low-carb diet is part of a New Year’s resolution to shed a few extra pounds.

The shortage “is just terrible,” said Kalyn Denny, a low-carb food blogger and recipe developer who lives just outside Salt Lake City. She said that her dishes featuring the vegetable are among the most popular among readers, including twice-baked cauliflower and one that calls for it to be puréed and mixed with garlic, Parmesan and goat cheese.

Kellie Deming follows a low-carb diet, but she is steering clear of cauliflower until the price comes down. She recently whipped up a soup made from roasted sweet potatoes, zucchini, onion, red peppers and carrots, serving it to her family with homemade flaxseed bread on the side.

“I would have loved to have included cauliflower, but I’m just not going to do it,” she said. Ms. Deming lives in Ontario, Canada, where she has seen prices as high as C$7.99 (US$5.65) for a head. She was tempted to cave when she saw one for C$3.99 (US$2.80), but “it was the size of a baseball so I would have had to buy two anyway.”

On low-carb message boards, the cauliflower conundrum is reaching a fever pitch. “Wish me luck for this weekend because I’m on a mission to get some,” wrote one fan in an online message-board last month.

Fueling the frenzy among foodies, they say, is that prices are often erratic. In a recent sampling, Whole Foods was charging $2.99 a head in Manhattan, while the price jumped to $4.49 in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Debbie Podolsky “coughed up” $4.99 for a head of cauliflower at her local grocery store last month, but is having a hard time finding her favorite version: bagged bits of the vegetable called “cauliflower rice” that is sold in the frozen-food section.

“You apparently have to get there first thing in the morning on delivery day to get a bag,” said the pharmaceutical account executive who lives in Maplewood, N.J. She used the head she bought to make cheese cauliflower “breadsticks.”

Some cauliflower fans argue that higher prices are a reasonable price to pay for the long-term benefits of healthier fare.

“I remind people that it might be a little more at the grocery store, but you will feel better in the long-run,” said Kirstie Brote, a personal trainer in Durham, N.H.

Mellissa Sevigny of Greenwood Lake, N.Y., is less forgiving. After spotting “the tiniest, most anemic head of cauliflower I had ever seen” for $6.99, she recently wrote a “breakup” letter to the vegetable on her low-carb food blog.

“You have turned into a real diva lately,” she wrote. “Someone needs to tell you to get over yourself and I love you enough to be that person.”

Since then, Ms. Sevigny has taken her revenge like any bitter former lover: last week she posted a recipe for winter citrus broccoli salad.

Write to Robin Sidel at