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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


2013 will be a banner year for farm profits, according to analysis that ignores the drought

2012 was a brutal year for American farmers. The massive drought meant that the Department of Agriculture paid out $15 billion in crop insurance; prices of staple crops skyrocketed as yields plummeted.

It appears, however, that this was the darkness before the dawn. A new estimate from the USDA suggests that 2013 will be the most profitable year for farmers in four decades. From The Wall Street Journal:

The Department of Agriculture projected in a report Monday that net farm income in the U.S. will reach $128.2 billion in 2013—the highest since 1973 when adjusted for inflation and the highest on record on a non-adjusted basis.

The rosier outlook is driven by expectations farmers will grow more corn and soybeans after last year's drought. Analysts predict increases in production will more than offset any price declines and rising costs, with the agency seeing corn stockpiles rising by more than 2 billion bushels.

The forecast also reflects a continued boom in the farm belt initially fueled by rising global demand for grains and increased mandates for corn-based ethanol.

And the first thing those farmers will do is repay the USDA for its crop insurance outlays in 2012, I assume. After all, it was God who made a farmer, not the USDA.

farm city
Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


Minnesota mayor doesn’t see why he can’t also run a sand-mining advocacy group

An auditorium in Red Wing, Minnesota
An auditorium in Red Wing, Minn.

Congratulations, Dennis Egan, on your new job as executive director of the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council, an organization that advocates for the industrial use of sand, particularly in fracking. But, while we have your ear, maybe we should talk about your other job as mayor of Red Wing, Minn.

From the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

At an intense City Council meeting attended by about 50 people who applauded the harshest rebukes of the mayor, two City Council members directly asked Egan to resign as mayor or step down as executive director of the Minnesota Industrial Sand Council. He steadfastly refused either option, saying he has no conflict of interest that can't be managed on a case-by-case basis by recusing himself from city action on sand-mining issues.

"I deeply care about Red Wing,'' said Egan, who was elected in November to a four-year term before he went to work for the sand council.

In an AP article, the honorable mayor notes that he signed a ban on frack sand mining in the city before he took the second job with the advocacy group. Interestingly, the prospect of sand mining in Red Wing is not the only point of concern for the city council. Again from the Star-Tribune:

Council President Lisa Bayley said Egan's post with an industry that has encountered public opposition in its plans to expand sand-mining operations in Minnesota has taken a negative toll on the city and could hurt economic development.


Shell retreats from the Arctic, sending its battered vessels to Asia for repair

You know how in movies there's sometimes a moment after some cataclysm in which the protagonist sits up in bed or steps out of a doorway, rubs his eyes, and the sun is shining? All around him are crumbled buildings and cars missing doors, but he looks up and the air is still and the sun is out and you, the audience, understand that something has changed. The terror is behind us.

Well, sit up in bed and rub your eyes. From the Times:

In another blow to its Alaskan Arctic drilling program, Royal Dutch Shell said on Monday that it had decided to tow its two drill vessels there to Asian ports for major repairs, jeopardizing its plans to begin drilling for oil in the icy northern seas next summer.

The new potential delay in drilling does not necessarily doom Shell’s seven-year, $4.5 billion quest to open a new oil frontier in the far north, but it may strengthen the position of environmentalists who have repeatedly sued to stop or postpone exploration that they claim carries the risks of a spill nearly impossible to clean up. ...

For drilling to proceed, two vessels are needed, one to stand by to drill relief wells in case of a blowout. It would be difficult to find other suitable ships for drilling in the Arctic.

The Kulluk during happier times.

The two vessels Shell is sending out for repair are the Kulluk -- which ran aground in December, damaging its hull -- and the Noble Discoverer -- which escaped its moorings and almost ran aground, but needs fixes to its propulsion systems.


Here’s one more thing you can share: Kids

We've written a lot over the past month about the sharing economy -- how people are using apps and technology that make it easy to share cars, bikes, homes, couches, offices, tools, pets. More sharing = less resource use = all-around goodness.

two parents and one kid
Kid-sharing: so much better than kid-hoarding.

And now the latest addition to the list of shareable items: kids. Yes, people are using websites and Facebook pages to find like-minded people with whom to share children. From The New York Times:

[A] new breed of online daters [is] looking not for love but rather a partner with whom to build a decidedly non-nuclear family. And several social networks, including,,, and, as well as Modamily, have sprung up over the past few years to help them.

“While some people have chosen to be a single parent, many more people look at scheduling and the financial pressures and the lack of an emotional partner and decide that single parenting is too daunting and wouldn’t be good for them or the child,” said Darren Spedale, 38, the founder of Family by Design, a free parenting partnership site officially introduced in early January. “If you can share the support and the ups and downs with someone, it makes it a much more interesting parenting option.”

The sites present what can seem like a compelling alternative to surrogacy, adoption or simple sperm donation.


It’s fast-food fish season — and no, it’s not sustainable

Marine Stewardship Council

McDonald's Filet-O-Fish sandwich was originally introduced in 1962 to appeal particularly to Catholic customers who eschew meat every Friday during Lent, which lasts for about 40 days. This year, McDonald's will have new Fish McBites on hand, too. But it's not just Lent, which begins this Wednesday, that's been a boon for fast-food fish. From Time:

In recent months, fast food establishments have demonstrated a taste for chicken. Poultry has reached a new level of popularity among fast food restaurants and diners alike because it’s a cheaper and healthier alternative to beef (or at least it’s perceived to be so). Chicken is also easily prepared in bite-size portions (nuggets, dippers, McBites, etc.), making it a perfect fit for the rising culture of on-the-go snacking.

If one affordable, quick, and healthy (or at least healthier) snack proves to be a hit with customers, fast food restaurants are sure to see if similar offerings can succeed as well. That’s why we’re seeing a big push for fish lately.

And it's not just McDonald's.


Celebrities to Obama: Fix the climate! Obama to celebrities: Sure, you got it

Can Evangeline Lilly, Ian Somerhalder, Malin Akerman, and Phillipe Cousteau succeed where others have failed? I don't know. I don't know who those people are. I'm guessing the last is Jacques' son, and Lilly is an actress, I'm pretty sure, but I'm not going to Google her.

These are some of the 24 (!!!) celebrities who have signed a letter to the president initiated by the Sierra Club. It quotes Obama's inaugural speech and then reads:

The letter in ad form. Click to see bigger version.
An ad featuring the letter. Click to see big PDF version.

Your legacy as 44th president of the United States rests firmly on your leadership on climate disruption. Only the president has the power to lead an effort on the scale and with the urgency we need to phase out fossil fuels and lead America, and the world, in a clean energy revolution.


Emphasis and capitalization in the original because pay attention, Obama.


Germany’s conservative environment minister kiboshes fracking

I do not understand German politics. Are they always the complete opposite of America? Is that how it works?

In Germany, for example, a conservative politician, the country's environment minister, suggested that he opposed fracking. From The Guardian:

Pending rules for the drilling techniques would likely be tightened, said Peter Altmaier, a conservative politician in chancellor Angela Merkel's government.

"The message is we want to limit fracking, we don't want to facilitate it," he told Deutschlandfunk radio. "And anyway I don't see in the foreseeable future that fracking will be employed anywhere within Germany." …

Altmaier said he would recommend that interested parties refrain from applying for exploration licences.

Those "interested parties" include BASF and ExxonMobil.

This is somewhere in Germany, for what it's worth.
This is somewhere in Germany, for what it's worth.

Bizarroland, right? It gets weirder.


Are green jobs meant to help the economy or the jobless?

Image (1) green_jobs_economy.jpg for post 31361

Over the weekend, two very different media outlets ran two very different takes on green jobs.

David Leonhardt, writing for The New York Times, begins with a common critique: Green jobs produce more expensive energy, so they're a net loss for the economy.

Green jobs have long had a whiff of exaggeration to them. The alternative-energy sector may ultimately employ millions of people. But raising the cost of the energy that households and businesses use every day -- a necessary effect of helping the climate -- is not exactly a recipe for an economic boom.

Not when framed like that, certainly. Leonhardt doesn't address the built-in economic advantages fossil fuels enjoy, nor the recent examples of price parity between fossils and solar, for example. He's trying to make a broader point: The climate should be fixed for its own sake, because the economic cost of climate change over the long run will be enormous. The goal is preventing disaster, not worrying about jobs.

This is an easy argument for the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times to make. Contrast Leonhardt with Aaron Alton, as profiled in a thoughtful piece by Brentlin Mock at Gawker.

After an intense six-week training program, the only thing that stands between Aaron Alton and a $90,000 fracking job is a commercial driver's license. It's August of 2012. The job, at a natural gas drilling company, is Aaron's ticket out of Harrisburg, PA.


Can we blame climate change for the Northeast’s massive blizzard?

The great blizzard of 2013 (which shall remain nameless) has come and gone. At least 15 people were killed, and 700,000 lost power. A nuclear power plant in Massachusetts was knocked offline. Storm surge in the state flooded several communities. In many parts of the Northeast, new one-day snowfall records were set. It was a massive storm -- one whose damage could have been much worse.

Christopher Burt at the Weather Underground puts the storm in perspective:

The storm was certainly among the top five to affect Southern New England and Maine and for some localities, the worst winter storm on record (going back 300 years since European inhabitants began keeping track of such things). …

It can probably be said that winter storm Nemo was the 2nd most intense winter storm event for Long Island, Connecticut, eastern Massachusetts, and perhaps Rhode Island. For Long Island and Connecticut the Blizzard of 1888 remains unparalleled whereas for Rhode Island and eastern Massachusetts the Blizzard of 1978 remains the top event. For southeastern Maine it would appear that Nemo has been the most extreme snowstorm on record. …

I might add that it is a bit unsettling that two of the most significant storms in the past 300 years to strike the northeastern quadrant of the U.S. have occurred within just four months from one another.

Emphasis added, because it's worth emphasizing.

nemo blizzard nasa
Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


The budget turmoil may mean no meat inspectors — and no meat

In every respect, the sequester is dumb. If you're only vaguely familiar with the term as it's being used this month: God bless you. But a little background is in order. The recently ended 112th Congress wasn't mature enough to come up with a plan to reduce the deficit (even though it had declared that the deficit was a big priority), so it decided to build a time bomb. "If you don't come up with a budget plan in the spring," it said, "this thing's gonna blow, slicing over a trillion dollars from the budget over the next decade." The 112th Congress then laughed maniacally and did nothing for the rest of the year. Now the 113th Congress is standing around holding this big bomb, sweating nervously, mad at the previous Congress (which was almost entirely the same people).

Oh, you don't care? Good, slash government, you say? Cool attitude. But also: Say goodbye to all of the meat you eat. From Reuters:

The Obama administration warned on Friday that across-the-board spending cuts set to take effect in March may result in furloughing every U.S. meat and poultry inspector for two weeks, causing the meat industry to shut down.

By law, meatpackers and processors are not allowed to ship beef, pork, lamb and poultry meat without the Agriculture Department's inspection seal.

Remember before when you were like, "Who cares about budget cuts?" Now, you do. Ha ha.

Can you even imagine going a day without delicacies like this?
Read more: Food, Politics