Tuesday, July 31, 2007


For the record, I (and probably a number of other people) received an apology today from Denny Rehberg's office for their error. Thank you; admitting mistakes is classy, and I now know to chalk the matter up to mere incompetence rather than indifference.

We're still taking him out in 2008.

[update]: But it just occurred to me. This paragraph constitutes the main body of the letter:
Recently the House just voted on the 2007 Farm Bill. I noticed that you have all received outdated letters from my office regarding the Farm Bill. I apologize for this and want to promise you that you will be receiving an updated Farm Bill letter informing you of all the changes this year.
Does this mean that they haven't yet developed any material on this year's Farm Bill? It already passed the House! Were we not paying attention? What did your "yes" vote mean, then, Denny?

Monday, July 30, 2007

Writing My Congressman

Okay, so last week I wrote Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT) a brief email asking him to support the Ryan amendment to the 2007 Farm Bill. The amendment didn't end up being considered at all, so I can't complain about his vote. I can, however, complain about his office's response. Here are some excerpts from the email I received today (emphases mine).
"Dear [eviltwin],

Thank you for contacting me about the 2002 Farm Bill. I appreciate hearing from you on this important issue.

As you know, the new Farm Bill -- the "Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002" -- passed the House of Representatives on May 2, 2002 and was signed into law by the President on May 13, 2002. [snip]

Frankly, there are things in the bill that I would have done differently had I been the sole author, such as dramatically scaling back the Conservation Reserve Program. [way to win my heart, Denny.-- snip]

Finally, I should mention my severe disappointment that our $2.4 billion Ag disaster assistance package was dropped from the bill in the House/Senate conference. The Senate bill came in several billion dollars over budget and our disaster assistance package, unfortunately, was one of the provisions that did not make the final cut. Nevertheless, I want to assure you that as a fifth generation rancher I fully understand and appreciate the tremendous need for this assistance and will continue working with Senator Burns and Senator Baucus until Montana farmers and ranchers receive the financial compensation they need and deserve.

Once again, thanks for taking the time to write. If you should have any questions about Farm Bill implementation, I recommend the USDA website -- www.usda.gov -- or calling your local FSA office. For more information about current legislative issues or to sign up for my e-newsletter, please visit www.house.gov/rehberg. Keep in touch."
You know what, Denny? I'm not going to be looking to you for current legislative issues again soon. That was the 2007 Farm Bill, by the way. And, while I understand you may miss Senator Burns-- it's lonely being one of the last Republican politicians left in Montana-- it'll be Senator Tester I contact with my concerns about the 2007 Farm Bill next month.

Glad to hear you and your staff are keeping up with this important issue.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Confounded by the Cul-de-Sac Kids

Her father pulled out pictures of two Korean girls.

Carly stood on tiptoes to see the pictures. "Will they get homesick?"

"Our home will soon become their home," her father said. "We want to make things easy for them. You and Abby can help us." He hugged Carly.

"We'll help them learn our ways, Daddy," Abby said.

Carly nodded. "And God's ways. We promise."

My 6-year-old laughed at me in bewilderment as I punctuated this passage in our library book with disbelieving groans; I kept having to put the book down on my lap. "I can't read this," I said. "I hate this book. If you want to get any more of these out of the library, you'll have to read them yourself."

"Why?" she said; but she was still laughing. She could even tell, herself, that there was something strange about the book. We'd already noticed that the first page of each chapter was graced with a small American flag icon. This had worried me even before Abby and Carly launched unexpectedly into their first prayer session in the bedroom closet.

The girls did their hand-over-hand secret code. Then they prayed.

"Dear Lord," Abby began. "We're getting new sisters."

"They might not know about you," Carly added.

Abby finished the prayer. "Please help us show Your love to them. In Jesus' name, Amen."

They turned off the flashlights and crawled out of the closet.

If you had a 1990s kid, perhaps you're familiar with Beverly Lewis's Cul-de-Sac Kids series. Not me. I was caught completely off guard. We'll help them learn our ways??-- They might not know about you, Jesus. I must be dreadfully naive; I never imagined this old-fashioned missionary colonialism was still alive and well in children's literature. Not only alive, but present in my public library. I'm opposed to censorship, but I almost feel there ought to have been a warning label.

"It's, like, a Christian book, isn't it," my daughter said with surprising cultural savvy. She still likes it. That's fine.

But it's a struggle to explain to a six-year-old why this particular juxtaposition of religiosity with the American flags, suburban utopian environment (the cul-de-sac), and clear sense of cultural superiority gives me such heebie-jeebies that I can barely read.

Some customer reviews for the Cul-de-sac Kids: "My son loves these books! He has read them over and over and really enjoys the characters. It is a blessing to not have to worry about what he is reading."

"I enjoyed reading this to my 5 year old. The content is safe for the minds of young children."

That's what you say, people. What does it mean for a book to be “safe” for a child?

Beverly Lewis, by the way, comes from a Mennonite background. Doesn't the overt nationalism of the series conflict with Mennonite beliefs about the priority of faith over national loyalty?


So I got curious about this world that was heretofore unknown to me: contemporary Christian children’s literature, where “Christian” seems, at least sometimes, to apply in the God-and-country sense. Assuming many of my readers are equally unfamiliar, what is out there?

I love this: the Extreme Teen Bible. Is there any title that could better exemplify the cultural collisions of American youth society?

The Extreme Teen Bible is about discovering who God is, what He's doing in the world, and what He promises for your future. So take the plunge into all the great stuff we've packed into this Bible to make your Bible time more extreme than ever before. […] So go ahead: dive in and discover extreme Truth for yourself.

Right after you finish snowboarding and eating that stuff so laced with citric acid that you've barely got any tastebuds left. Oh, wait, someone has already analyzed this.

In the purity ball department: The Princess and the Kiss. Blurb:

A loving king and queen present their daughter with a gift from God--her first kiss--to keep or to give away. The wise girl waits for the man who is worthy of her precious gift. Where is he and how will she ever find him? The surprising answer in this marvelous parable will touch the heart of parent and child alike.

Says the author, Jennie Bishop, founder of PurityWorks: “I asked God how I could teach my young daughters the value of their purity, how I could begin in their early years to stress the importance and beauty of saving themselves for marriage. This is God’s poignant answer. (She adds, in the Christianbook.com interview: “It's really important that parents speak to those issues intentionally, so our kids know what we approve of, what God approves of, and how they can take steps to keep themselves clean … and why that’s so important.”)


One reader review for The Princess and the Kiss:

bought this book to read to our two daughters (aged 5 and 7) and they loved the story and sighed when it ended that first time we read it. But their eyes widened when I said, "Do you know that YOU have a kiss, too?" They were so excited and we explained that someday when each girl was ready, Daddy and Mommy would take her out for a special dinner and give her her own "kiss," which would probably be in the form of a necklace. "You can wear that necklace until you're married and then give it to your new husband on your wedding day," we told them

And then there's His Little Princess:

Cinderella is a great story, but after the last page is turned, little girls can't look forward to the tale coming true when they grow up. It's just "for pretend." Now girls ages four to nine can unveil the reality of their royal calling! His Little Princess shows them that they are not pretend princesses--God is for real! When a grown-up sits down to read out loud these touching love letters, girls will come to understand and embrace how much they are truly loved and adored by God, the King of kings! Recommended for ages 4 to 9.

Oy. And I was going to try to teach my daughter that there's more to be being a girl than princess-hood. Instead, let's encourage that role for life.

Some publishers are actually looking to reprints from the past (here, 19th century) to protect our children from the evils of the present-- like this “character-building” series from Grace and Truth Books, which “will be valued by any family who desire your children to be saturated in God's truth.

And then there’s these. Don’t freak out, people, it’s a joke site. I think.

Please understand that I’ve been selective in this post. There are plenty of Christian books, too, that focus on the wonder of bugs (incidentally, God made them), or the value of compassion, or the uniqueness of the individual child. And there are sensible parent reviewers who apply their critical skills to more than doctrinal orthodoxy. Many mainstream Christian sites recommend a familiar list of books that most parents, of any spiritual bent, will consider “safe” and high-quality. I object, not to invocations of God, per se (though, frankly, I often find that startling), but to the strains of jingoism, anti-feminism, and Christian exceptionalism that can be found in some of this literature.

So do we progressives take a page out of the Christian parents’ book and start screening for “safe” stories before we read them to our kids? That’s a key question. For myself, no matter how much The Cul-de-Sac Kids make me squirm, I’m unwilling to forbid them to my daughter. But I’m not going to hide my discomfort, either.

Anyhow, she thinks it’s funny when I screech and wave my hands around while reading.

Friday, July 27, 2007

And... House Ends Farm Bill Debate

Well, the 2007 Farm Bill passed the House today, 231-191. Only 19 Republicans voted for the bill (including my own rep, Denny Rehberg of Montana) and 14 Democrats voted against, meaning a presidential veto is a real threat. The final roll call vote is here. The House press release (you need a strong stomach to read these, I find) is here.

The bill as it stands includes 13 amendments that were passed last night en bloc. These amendments were:

4. Lucas (OK): makes livestock producers eligible for assistance programs whether or not they have Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance coverage.

8. Hastings (FL): authorizes research and conservation programs to address pollinator issues and Colony Collapse Disorder.

9. Arcuri (NY)/Welch (VT)/Gillibrand (NY): advises taking increased cost of production into account when adjusting milk prices.

10. Welch (VT): encourages schools to utilize locally-grown foods wherever possible.

14. Johnson (TX): suggests emphasizing research proposals that “examine the efficacy of current agriculture policies in promoting the health and welfare of economically disadvantaged populations.”

17. Latham (IA): “amends the Household Water Well System Program…to allow the use of in-kind contributions to meet the required federal funding match of 10%.

22. Wu (OR): makes universities working in alternative-energy fields eligible for the biofuels from biomass internship program.

23 (“as modified”-- not sure how it was modified). Clay (MO): offers grants for organic gardens and greenhouses in urban areas.

24. Israel (NY)/Doyle (PA): A couple of what I assume are intended as animal-rights protections: “eliminate the sale of random source animals for research and will prohibit the marketing of medical devices by using live animals in demonstrations to market such devices.”

26. Bordallo (GU): authorizes appropriations for land grant institutions in the territories, for agricultural and food sciences.

28. Emanuel (IL): directs USDA to investigate fraud in which the dead continue to collect farm payments.

30. Hodes (NH)/Arcuri (NY): “The amendment authorizes a grant program for state and local communities and governments known as the Community Wood Energy Program to use low-grade wood biomass in community wood energy systems for state and locally owned businesses such as schools, town halls, and courthouses.” Interested in any comment from the alternative-energy folks on this one.

31:Shuler (NC): allows non-industrial private forest lands to be eligible for restoration funds in the event of insect or disease outbreak.

Amendments that definitely did not make it into the bill:

1. Ron Kind's Farm 21 amendment.

3. Goodlatte (VA):streamlines and adopts one set of terms and conditions of easements” for several conservation programs.

5. Cardoza (CA): brings plant pest inspection duties back to the USDA from the Department of Homeland Security.

There are a number of other amendments whose fate I can't establish, as I don't have C-Span and today's Congressional Record is not yet posted. Possibly there will be updates on those later.

Yesterday’s Des Moines Register
discusses the fact that the bill cuts $4.8 billion from the Conservation Security Program, authored by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) in 2002, in order to fund other priorities. These cuts will prevent any additional farmers from signing up from the program, “designed to reward growers for farming practices that reduce erosion and improve wildlife habitat,” until 2012.

Blog for Rural America has a post up taking the House to task for its failure to genuinely and effectively address payment limits, despite a lot of rhetoric to the contrary.

The Senate is due to take up the Farm Bill in September.


More on the taxes-Boo! partisan dust-up of the past couple days...

The AP story reads:

Democrats rallied around the bill, however, after debate turned bitterly partisan over a tax measure included to partially finance an increase of some $4 billion for food stamp and other nutrition programs. The plan would impose new taxes on certain multinational companies with U.S. subsidiaries.

Democrats said they were closing a loophole and cracking down on foreign tax-dodgers, while Republicans called it a massive tax hike that would affect manufacturers that provide millions of jobs in their districts. The spat sapped the farm bill of much of its customary bulletproof regional appeal, turning many rural Republicans against the measure.

David Rogers, in today's Wall Street Journal (h/t FarmPolicy.com), explains what, specifically, is behind the rhetoric:

At issue are what rules determine withholding rates on earnings by the U.S. units of foreign corporations. In general, companies are subject to a gross basis U.S. tax at a 30% rate, but tax treaties often reduce or eliminate withholding taxes imposed by the U.S. The United Kingdom and many European partners have zero-percent rates, for example, while Japan has negotiated a 10% rate and India a 15% rate, according to Treasury.

“Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D., Texas), who helped craft the provision, said companies can exploit the treaty system by funneling their U.S. earnings through a financial unit in a treaty country, such as the U.K. or Netherlands, while the real headquarters is a Caribbean tax haven without a tax-treaty agreement with the U.S.
FarmPolicy.com gives us the Democratic retort to the "massive tax hike" accusations:
However, House Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minnesota) indicated earlier this week that, “Apparently, the Bush Administration and some in the Republican leadership care more about defending the ability of foreign companies to exploit a loophole in the U.S. tax system than they do about supporting the hardworking families and farmers in this country. I hope that they will reconsider their opposition and join us in supporting this Farm Bill that represents a new direction for agriculture policy."

OrangeClouds115 at Daily Kos uses a clever ploy to get the rank and file interested in the passage of the Farm Bill through the House. She also evinces her usual straightforward good sense:

Those who profit big off of America's ag policy RELY on everyone else thinking this stuff is boring and irrelevant. We've talked about getting involved in the farm bill debate for a year now, so now let's put our money where our mouths are. If we want to turn around half a century of pro-Big Ag, anti-American people farm policy, we've gotta pay attention.

Right on.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Update: House Begins Farm Bill Debate

As it turns out, the House did begin debate on the Farm Bill this evening. Blog for Rural America has covered the progress so far. Except for Rep. Kind’s Farm 21 amendment, which was allotted 40 minutes of debate and has now been defeated 309-117, each of the other 31 amendments to be considered will only be allowed 10 minutes for debate. The Ryan amendment mentioned yesterday is not to be considered.

The manager’s amendment (summary in Part A here) passed on a voice vote: it contains a whole slew of things probably worth investigating on their own, including mandatory funding for the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program, creation of incentives for more sustainable crop rotation techniques in peanut farming, and funding to assist claimants charging racial discrimination by the USDA… among many other items. Regarding country-of-origin labelling, this summary by the Rules Committee says, “Cool: Provides that for perishable agricultural commodities and peanuts, such products may only be labeled as having a country of origin if the commodity is exclusively produced in the . It’d be nice to know the rest of that sentence.

The other 31 amendments can be found in Part B at the same link.

A couple that interest me:

8. Hastings (FL):

The amendment adds a new section for "Pollinator Protection" that authorizes research funding to reduce North American pollinator decline and understand Colony Collapse Disorder. This amendment also adjusts USDA conservation programs to put a greater emphasis on increasing habitat and establishing cropping and integrated pest management practices to protect native and managed pollinators. (10 minutes)

10. Welch (VT):

The amendment encourages schools to submit plans for implementation to the Secretary that include locally grown foods, in areas where geographically available. (10 minutes)

15. Manzullo (IL):

The amendment exempts the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) from the $60,000 and $125,000 payment limitations, resetting it to the $450,000 limitation that is in the current law. (This is one I’d as soon not pass.)

Tomorrow, probably, the rest of this will get done—with 10 minutes debate, tops, per amendment, there clearly seems to be some premium on speed.

[Update]: 13 amendments were passed during this first evening of debate as an en bloc amendment. They included #8 and #10 mentioned above.


natasha, again, on this uproar over the taxation, oh noes! that was suggested in order to fund the nutrition title.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A Smart Read and an Action Item

natasha wrote yesterday at Daily Kos about all she sees wrong with Blumenauer and Kind's Farm 21. Some of her points are very convincing, others maybe less so-- but the fact remains that I find her one of the most persuasive, intelligent, and balanced voices covering this stuff. She also writes over at Pacific Views.
The thing is, I don't especially like farm subsidies. I don't really want to be put in the position of arguing for them. But there isn't a full range of choice here. There's electoral suicide and renewed waves of farm country bankruptcies, or there's the status quo with some moderate but perhaps effective improvements.
Some of these modest efforts she'd like to see championed instead: preventing Community Food Projects from relying merely on discretionary funds (making it essentially an optional program when money is distributed); a $40,000 direct payment cap for commodity programs; and full funding for the Conservation Security Program.


This would also be a good time to contact your Congressperson, right now today, if you are going to do it at all, and tell them to vote for the Ryan amendment, which will do a better job of limiting the size of farms that can receive subsidies than the Farm Bill as it currently stands. You can use this contact page, if you like. I did. Not that Denny Rehberg (R-MT) is going to listen to me... but hope springs eternal.

House (R)s to Oppose Agriculture Committee's Farm Bill?

From Blog for Rural America:

Just today, House of Representatives Republican Minority Leader John Boehner announced that the House Republican Leadership would oppose the 2007 Farm Bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee last Thursday. From the Republican Leader's e-alert:

"In a sneak attack on American working families, House Democratic leaders have revealed they will pay for new spending in the 2007 farm bill by imposing a new tax increase that threatens more than 5 million American jobs..."
Their commentary:
This is big, big news. The Democrats are facing a serious fight within their own party over the farm bill, and by no means will Democrats vote unanimously for the bill. The Democratic leadership will certainly require Republican votes to pass a farm bill, perhaps a fairly substantial number of them. If the Republican leadership actively tells its members not to vote for the Agriculture Committee's farm bill, it will be difficult for a farm bill to pass. The type of amendments offered and approved on the floor could easily affect those votes, and this development alters the politics of the floor process. In fact, there is already speculation that the floor process, scheduled for tomorrow, will be postponed to deal with this.
Meanwhile, the White House is threatening to veto it.

A large part of the problem, apparently, has to do with funding for nutrition programs, including the increase in minimum food stamp benefit I wrote about a few days ago. In order for the $4 billion worth of programs to be implemented, offsets had to be found; the Ways and Means Committee has been considering sources for that funding. When Committee member Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) proposed paying for nutrition programs by taxing overseas businesses with U.S. subsidiaries, that's apparently when all hell broke loose.

So now the whole Farm Bill is in danger. It's supposed to go to the floor tomorrow-- we'll see. This gets more and more interesting.

[Update]: Mulch is running frequent updates on today's Farm Bill blow-up over funding for nutrition programs. There are apparently a lot of international corporations who deeply object to Rep. Doggett's proposal.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Day(s?) of Rest

The author of this blog is now, like the rest of the nation, reading Harry Potter. A long pause ensues.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Saturday Reading List, 7/22/07

The House Agriculture Committee passed their version of the Farm Bill yesterday. Here’s their press release. The bill as it stands is available here, not that anyone is likely to add the whole thing to their Saturday night reading list.

Ken Cook at Mulch is irate about the bill that’s come out of the Committee, and its stubborn attachment to corn subsidies above all else. He fears that Nancy Pelosi’s party discipline makes the current version a done deal. The Farm Bill is coming to the floor already this Thursday, July 26, and proposed amendments must be turned in by 6 pm Tuesday. Not much time.


lineatus, who writes a weekly bird diary at Daily Kos, this week profiles Heron's Head Park, a reclaimed wetland in the heart of a San Francisco industrial area.


Devilstower at Daily Kos reviews the tenure of Julie MacDonald, disgraced ex-deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A few-- but only a few-- of her suspect involvements in endangered species rulings will be revisited due to "inappropriate influence."

Food Stamps: Forget $1/meal, try 18 cents

Earlier this spring, we saw many well-publicized efforts by Congresspeople and other public figures to eat, for one week, on average food stamp benefits. The average benefit is $21/week, or-- as many pointed out-- $1/meal. Some blogged their experience, and the results are definitely worth reading. Rep. Barbara Lee's (D-CA) and others' can be found here. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH)'s is here. More can be accessed via the first link in this post.

Nevertheless, for many individuals-- mostly elderly and disabled singles-- the benefit is much, much lower. Currently, $10 per month. That's been the minimum benefit since 1977, and about 10% of food stamp households receive it. $10 a month. That's about 11 cents per meal.

So, the people who receive such piddly benefits aren't really poor, right? Not according to this fact sheet from the Food Research and Action Center. In fact, the majority of households receiving the minimum benefit have incomes below the poverty level.

Furthermore, many eligible households don't bother even applying, given that the reward for all that bureaucratic hassle is so small. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says:

"Fewer than one-third of households with seniors who are eligible for food stamps receive them, according to USDA estimates. Groups that work with senior citizens report that many seniors believe they will receive only $10 a month and that the small benefit is not worth the hassle (often including trips to, and long waits at, food stamp offices) and paperwork of applying for and maintaining food stamp benefits."
30 years ago, $10 bought about three times as much, grocery-wise, as it does now. The value of the minimum benefit has plummeted, and most parties agreed it was time for an update. Enter the 2007 Farm Bill. High hopes.

Well, the marked-up bill that came out of the House Agriculture Committee yesterday did raise the minimum benefit. Hooray! Instead of 10 dollars, the minimum benefit is now 10 percent of the maximum benefit for a household of one... and the maximum benefit gets adjusted, over time, to inflation. Here’s a .pdf of the en bloc amendment containing the minimum benefit increase (the relevant bit is on page 9).

Good news, yes? Well, yes. Unfortunately, the new formula only yields a minimum benefit of, now, 16 dollars per month for 2008. Still only half, in real terms, of what it was in 1977. Still only 18 cents a meal. Is this good enough? I don't think so.

The Farm Bill goes to the House floor Thursday, and amendments have to be submitted by Tuesday evening. If anyone knows of a planned amendment that would further raise the minimum benefit, please post that information.

If I had to, I could probably figure out a way to eat for $1/meal. Not $0.18, though. Could you?

Friday, July 20, 2007

Friday Night Newsy Links-- 7/21/07

natasha at Pacific Views blogs yesterday’s vote by the House Agricultural Committee to continue to allow mandatory arbitration provisions in livestock contracts. Contracts between growers and processors that contain such provisions (as most do) prevent growers from taking their grievances to the courts, thereby solidifying the livestock company's control over smaller farmers.


Environmental Justice:
FEMA ignored hundreds of complaints and the results of its own testing in declaring its trailers safe to house hurricane victims despite high levels of formaldehyde fumes. The AP story notes:

The House committee unearthed documents in which one FEMA lawyer advised: "Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK. ... Once you get results ... the clock is running on our duty to respond to them."

FEMA tested one occupied trailer at a level of 1.2 ppm (parts per million); a concentration of .016 ppm, over extended periods, is considered an appropriate threshold for use of a respirator. For the math-impaired, the Mississippi trailer was at 75 times the “safe” level.

It’s worth noting, in passing, that this is the same problem plaguing the guards’ sleeping trailers at our new embassy in Iraq. Your government at work.


The BLM has agreed, as a consequence of pressure from state wildlife officials and environmental groups, to more closely review environmental impacts before issuing certain oil and gas leases in Montana. At particular issue is the well-being of the sage grouse, a species petitioned for ESA listing with significant populations close to many of the parcels. Says the AP piece:

“Grouse need vast swaths of undisturbed sage brush to thrive. In northeast and western Wyoming, southeast Montana, northern Utah and western Colorado, those swaths increasingly are crisscrossed by service roads leading to gas fields.”


This afternoon two sandhill cranes flew over me, calling to one another in their weird voices. You can listen to audio of their call here.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Oreo Problem

My daughter and I were eating Oreos in the park. It was the end of a picnic which had previously featured cheese-and-lettuce sandwiches, and water. A utilitarian sort of picnic.

"What is this, Mom?" my daughter asked, investigating her Oreo's inner substance. She had the two black halves pulled apart, and was scraping at the white center, as children, for some reason, do. I did too.

"Is it ice cream or frosting?"

This question required an uncomfortable pause for thought. It certainly wasn't ice cream. But, could you call it frosting, really? It was, you know, cream.

But not the kind of cream that comes from a cow. Oreo cream. Pressed to define this, I could only suppose it consisted largely of shortening (trans-fats!) and sweeteners (HFCS!). Fact is, I really didn't know what it was. My daughter seemed bemused by my hesitation.

Q: What is "Oreo cream" made of?

A: A mix of canola oil and palm oil-- not trans-fats since 2005 (see here for a long article on the history of Oreo filling fats!); sugar and/or high fructose corn syrup (both are somewhere in the Oreo); soy lecithin; vanillin. I think. This is a work of deduction. So, yes. Sweet shortening, though they've over time dumped both a) lard and b) hydrogenated oils. Not just out of the goodness of their hearts, to be sure.

If you would like to read a spirited defense, from the 2005 era, of the use of trans-fats in Oreo cookies-- in fact a threat to boycott if the company does not continue to use trans-fats-- you can read this freerepublic post. WTF. Moving on.

One more thing:
"Even lab rats had a ravenous taste for Oreos in a late 1980s experiment Levine ran at the University of Minnesota. They poked the cookies, sniffed them, ate them to excess. Many even tore apart the two dark wafers and licked away the creamy filling."
The real question, of course, remains: should I be sitting in the park eating something whose fundamental substance is a mystery to me, whose origin lies well beyond my conscious awareness? While I can think, with some effort, about what an Oreo might be made of, and research the matter further, it is so far from a recognizable product of nature that I am momentarily stumped by the natural curiosity of a child.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Farm Bill Gives Me a Headache

Here's the real truth: I only wish I genuinely understood all the dimensions of debate around the 2007 Farm Bill.

I wish this because I care very deeply about the future of small, ecologically-healthy, diverse, lively agricultural operations in this country. Unfortunately, having a set of worthy ideals does not always immediately produce an obvious set of specific policies that will attain those goals. Especially if a multitude of players are attempting to disguise or spin the meaning or effect of those policies; or (more charitably) if there is legitimate and well-intentioned disagreement about their potential consequences.

Boy, it's tough, isn't it, when issues don't break down neatly along party and/or ideological lines, and nobody is telling you exactly what to think (or different people you trust are telling you different things), and you are forced to think for yourself?? I'm not anywhere near done with that process yet. But I'm not willing to totally give it up, either, so-- in the interest of all of us thinking for ourselves-- I present you with some various viewpoints I've been considering today.

First off, let us recognize that yesterday marked the first day of the House Agricultural Committee's markup session on the Farm Bill. Natasha of Daily Kos was there and blogged the day's proceedings. Her synopses of each member’s comments help to identify key issues contained within the bill, and the positions of various constituencies. It is valuable to note that even some Republicans, such as Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (NE) seem seriously concerned about corporate concentration of agriculture. Yesterday's session was also covered here at FarmPolicy.com.

I've expressed some interest here in the Farm 21 plan espoused by Reps. Blumenauer and Kind (and, for that matter, Sen. Dick Lugar, R-IN). I've also noted that, despite Farm 21 being marketed by these Democratic reps as a progressive plan, there seemed to be a fair bit of progressive opposition to it. In the interests of fairness (as well as the interests of still-making-up-my-mind), here are some strongly expressed arguments against Farm 21's "reforms":

Farm Bill Girl, again at Daily Kos, has been fighting hard against what she sees as a misinformation campaign selling Farm 21 to progressive bloggers. She directed me to this analysis from the Blog for Rural America, entitled "Ron Kind's Farm 21-- Friend or Foe?" The post lists off its main points at the beginning:

· While FARM 21 would change the basic structure of farm programs, it does little in the way of making sure that farm program benefits flow to small and mid-size family farms;

· FARM 21 does not close the loopholes used to avoid farm program payment limits;

· FARM 21 shifts large amounts of money to conservation programs- a laudable goal- but invests most of that money into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which subsidizes enormous manure lagoons and the concentration of livestock production;

· FARM 21 places much-needed resources behind some rural economic development programs, but others receive inadequate amounts;

· FARM 21 does not include any crucial livestock market competition reforms;

· Despite our criticisms, every farm bill proposal should receive equal consideration.

Please see the post itself for expansions of the above points. I have seen this objection in several places: that the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), by providing funding that helps large livestock operations comply with environmental standards, is thereby subsidizing giant facilities when it should be assisting the small operator. While I agree that farm assistance should be targeted to small farmers in general, some of these large animal facilities are such environmental disasters that I can't help but be a little grateful for anything that might help clean up their act, though of course I'd prefer tough legislation requiring them to maintain environmental quality or get out of the business.

I also liked this discussion for its even-handedness. The post makes clear that any Farm Bill proposal would be just as diligently vetted.

All of this criticism should not be taken as a complete denunciation of Kind’s proposal and his concepts. We can and have subjected the legislation of many others to the same level of scrutiny, and we’re looking forward to the House Agriculture Committee’s final version of the farm bill with some amount of vicious glee. It is our goal to provide the fullest picture possible of various proposals, as the proponents of various proposals inevitably shade the truth about what their legislation would do, who it would benefit, and who it would hurt.
The same blog, today, has a post entitled "This is NOT Reform," regarding Committee Chairman Collin Peterson's payment limitation reform proposal, raised yesterday in the Agriculture Commitee.

The Ruminant defends Farm 21 (I think) with faint praise.

A couple of good round-ups:

FarmPolicy.com, from a week ago. This piece mentions that Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) "plans on writing a 6- to 7-year farm bill rather than the 5-year farm bill that has been discussed in the House and Senate. ...In a telephone conference call with reporters, Harkin said he was firm about writing a longer bill because he needs budget savings from the 2013 to 2017 period to write the kind of bill he wants.” Inadequate funding for all the provisions architects would like to include is a common refrain during this process, and Harkin apparently anticipates future sources that would make a more ambitious bill possible.

And a good update as of yesterday, from More Deliberate Every Day.

The same blog is also featuring an op-ed by Alice Waters on the Farm Bill from the Sacramento Bee (subscription only): here's the blog post. Waters is unfortunately rather vague, at least in the quoted bits, and returns us where we started with the worthy ideals, but she remains an icon for the foodie crowd.

There's one point I haven't got any confusion about. Country-of-origin labelling on our food is a good thing. The always alert OrangeClouds115 of DKos warned us yesterday about an amendment afoot from Rep. Goodlatte (R-VA) that would gut attempts to enforce mandatory country-of-origin labelling-- actually signed into law with the 2002 Farm Bill, but never fully implemented. The National Farmers Union action alert is here.

Advice, ideas, links, opinion more than welcome.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Dambuilders

You often hear it said that there are only two species which deliberately alter their environment by the damming and/or diversion of streams: one, of course, is the beaver.

The other is us. One estimate suggests that there are 800,000 manmade dams worldwide. Of these, perhaps 14% are in the U.S.; nearly half are in China. Most are small; but the mere 40,000 large ones manage to have profound impacts on nearly every river system on earth.

I spend a certain amount of time-- not a large proportion, but some-- thinking about dam removals. I work in fisheries biology, partly with salmonids, and it is hard not to maintain a consciousness of dams as a constraining force on fish populations. On the other hand, this is the West, where water is scarce and precious. The stockpiling of water is not an unreasonable impulse on its face, though its effects are often far more damaging than originally anticipated.

So, I've certainly considered dam-building as an enterprise which attempts to meet human water resource needs-- whether it is successful or not, worth the cost or a form of expensive, wanton destruction.

What I had not considered, until yesterday, was the possibility that the joy of water diversion was ingrained in us instinctually as a species, becoming a source of interest and pleasure beyond its utilitarian purposes.

Many sources claim that the sound of running water, itself, is the instinctive cue for beavers to build dams; for instance, such a recorded sound will cause a beaver to initiate damming behavior.

I began to think about this as I watched the children at my six-year-old daughter's birthday party, which was held at a city park with a tiny creek running through it. The creek is shallow, with irregular grassy banks, and narrow enough to jump in many places. While it has a muddy bottom, it also contains a number of large cobbles. The kids gravitated quickly towards this creek-- it was a hot day-- and throughout the party the streambed proved a more compelling location than any of the play equipment or the shaded picnic pavilion under which we occasionally convened to eat cake or open presents.

My own daughter, in fact, was the first to ask to "be excused" from cake-eating and return to standing ankle-deep in the water. Others quickly followed. And what were they doing in there? Building a dam, of course. A fortuitous spot had been chosen, where there already existed a (very) slight drop-off. Large cobbles had at first been lined up, to form a primitive and very porous stone wall. But the children were not satisfied with this. They worked on and off all afternoon, and stayed late to finish, filling in the gaps between the big rocks with small ones, packing the spaces with mud, adding sticks at angles for strength and stability. The water behind the dam got deeper; we had to be careful of the youngest attendees. People were bathing in the "pool." The stream widened, and there was visible downstream dewatering. The grownups began to gravitate towards the stream too.

The question is, why? These children did not need to impound water for residential use, agriculture, or power generation. They made a dam because making a dam was pleasurable. It was fun to make, and fun to watch. It was neat, the way the stream got deeper, the way the course of the water changed.

Wow, said the children and the adults. That's so cool. I felt guilty for damming the stream, but it was cool. And everybody was so happy.

The larger question, of course: what is it about our species that finds environmental manipulation intrinsically cool, whether or not any rationally-developed aim exists?

Before we left (but after most of the kids had gone home), one dad partially disassembled the dam, so the water could flow freely again. As I carried bags and coolers across the park to my car a mere five minutes later, I saw a new group of children in the stream, in close to the same spot, laughing and splashing about in their excitement.

They were carrying rocks.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

A Few Saturday Night Links

Corporate power is corporate power whatever the product: how big is too big in the organic market? Scandals erupt in the FTC’s suit to prevent Whole Foods from buying out Wild Oats on antitrust grounds.

The Washington Post writes about tensions among Democrats over farm subsidy reform.

A solar-powered electric car, albeit with so-far limited application.

Check out guerrillagardening.org. Says founder Richard, “This blog began as a place to record my acts of illicit cultivation around London. Now it’s a growing arsenal for anyone interested in the war against the neglect of public space.”

Sorry to Disturb You; Have a Nice Evening

I owe Maccabee at Daily Kos a hat tip for calling attention to this article, from The Nation's 7/30 issue.

I've had no intention whatsoever of trying to write about Iraq on this blog, and I won't write much now. But this incredible new long piece, synthesizing interviews with dozens of U.S. soldiers on the treatment of Iraqi civilians in our ongoing occupation, simply must be read by everyone who can possibly read it.

Read it when you have a little time, are sitting down, and maybe no one is looking and you have taken a few deep breaths.

One soldier describes the very common, routine raids made on Iraqi homes in insurgent-heavy neighborhoods:

"You want to catch them off guard," Sergeant Bruhns ­ex­plained. "You want to catch them in their sleep." About ten troops were involved in each raid, he said, with five stationed outside and the rest searching the home.

Once they were in front of the home, troops, some wearing Kevlar helmets and flak vests with grenade launchers mounted on their weapons, kicked the door in, according to Sergeant Bruhns, who dispassionately described the procedure:

"You run in. And if there's lights, you turn them on--if the lights are working. If not, you've got flashlights.... You leave one rifle team outside while one rifle team goes inside. Each rifle team leader has a headset on with an earpiece and a microphone where he can communicate with the other rifle team leader that's outside.

"You go up the stairs. You grab the man of the house. You rip him out of bed in front of his wife. You put him up against the wall. You have junior-level troops, PFCs [privates first class], specialists will run into the other rooms and grab the family, and you'll group them all together. Then you go into a room and you tear the room to shreds and you make sure there's no weapons or anything that they can use to attack us.

"You get the interpreter and you get the man of the home, and you have him at gunpoint, and you'll ask the interpreter to ask him: 'Do you have any weapons? Do you have any anti-US propaganda, anything at all--anything--anything in here that would lead us to believe that you are somehow involved in insurgent activity or anti-coalition forces activity?'

"Normally they'll say no, because that's normally the truth," Sergeant Bruhns said. "So what you'll do is you'll take his sofa cushions and you'll dump them. If he has a couch, you'll turn the couch upside down. You'll go into the fridge, if he has a fridge, and you'll throw everything on the floor, and you'll take his drawers and you'll dump them.... You'll open up his closet and you'll throw all the clothes on the floor and basically leave his house looking like a hurricane just hit it.

"And if you find something, then you'll detain him. If not, you'll say, 'Sorry to disturb you. Have a nice evening.' So you've just humiliated this man in front of his entire family and terrorized his entire family and you've destroyed his home. And then you go right next door and you do the same thing in a hundred homes."
Most of what is described in the article is far worse than this.

Please read it here.

Friday, July 13, 2007

My Lunch at Target

I find myself in the unfortunate position, today, of being in Target at lunchtime, hungry and with a half-hour to kill between morning and afternoon plans. I am with my young daughter. It is not the first time we have ever eaten at Target-- nor will it, I imagine, be the very last-- but nonetheless we do not frequently eat meals of that sort. We are still capable of feeling surprise when the "lemonade" is only offered in diet, the coffee is so pale it must be a mistake, and the hot dogs, which we plan to begin eating thirty seconds later, are individually swaddled in their foil wrappings.

I am still capable of feeling a numb horror when I look down at the table, littered with the inedible remains and packagings of a meal we took no pleasure in, and gather up a double handful of trash-- two hot dog foils, a coffee cup, a wasted lemonade cup with the half-inch of lemonade I poured before I read the label, the juice box I asked for in replacement, a paper ice cream dish, a plastic spoon, a potato chip bag, ketchup and mustard packets, two napkins-- and stuff it all in the garbage can, twenty minutes after we began eating.

Don DeLillo in White Noise:
"We wanted to eat, not look around at other people. We wanted to fill our stomachs and get it over with. We didn't need light and space. We certainly didn't need to face each other across a table as we ate, building a subtle and complex cross-network of signals and codes. We were content to eat facing in the same direction, looking only inches past our hands. There was a kind of rigor in this."
Actually consumed:
  • 2 small hot dogs, contents unknown, with buns, ketchup and mustard-- minus half of one dog (the meat only) that went uneaten.
  • One very small scoop of Dreyer's (= NestlĂ©) strawberry ice cream.
  • 1 portion Archer Farms (Target store brand) potato chips.
  • 12 oz. weak Colombian coffee, doctored with 1/2 oz. Coffeemate
  • 6 oz. fruit punch
My daughter asks me why "Thank You" is printed on the mouths of so many trash cans. I explain that they are thanking us for not simply leaving our filthy messes strewn about the tables for others to pick up. But in a sense, of course, we are.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Most Important Environmental Bill

"This is going to be the most important environmental bill of the entire year."

That's what Rep. Earl Blumenauer (OR) says about the 2007 Farm Bill in today's BlogTalk Radio program, in which he and Rep. Ron Kind (WI) detail their efforts to stimulate discussion of major farm policy reforms. Listen to the archived program here.

Topics included country-of-origin labelling; how to improve local food networks; redistribution of farm subsidies; strengthening of conservation programs and water quality protection; the problem of corporate consolidation in agriculture; increased aid for growers to convert to organic practices; and the congressmen's lack of enthusiasm for corn-based ethanol as a biofuel.

Even more interesting was talk about the nitty-gritty of congressional politicking in this area, and the difficulty of taking on special interests that are deeply invested in the status quo.

The Farm Bill may pass out of the Agriculture Committee (on which neither Blumenauer nor Kind sit) next week and so reach the House floor by the end of July.

Quite a bit of debate persists, even among progressives, about the usefulness of Blumenauer and Kind's approach, and I hope to return to that discussion in coming days. For now, however, if you like what you hear, please consider signing the Food & Farm Bill of Rights petition (also linked in sidebar), and/or contacting your congressperson to express what you'd like to see in this year's bill.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Footprint Calculator

In the sidebar there is a link to "Calculate your ecological footprint." This is a quiz, designed several years ago in honor of Earth Day, which asks you a fairly small number of simple questions about your lifestyle and activities, then gives a rough estimate of the planetary resources you are using, calculated in acreage.

Obviously only a rough estimate is possible, but doing the estimate is nevertheless a valuable heads-up, especially for Americans and others accustomed to a high median standard of living. For instance, my calculated footprint, 11 acres, is less than half the average footprint for my countrymen and women (24 acres). Hooray for me!

"If everyone lived like you," the calculator tells me, "we would need 2.6 planets."


Your results are also broken down into several categories, and the numbers can be instructive. For instance, I often agonize mentally over the decision to walk or drive across town; saving energy this way is also a matter I discuss with my child. The calculation, however, suggests that transportation is the least of our worries. Only half an acre out of the 11 represents mobility costs, and that includes one plane trip per year and a long cross-country drive or two. Much more significant are my housing and food impacts. I live in a small apartment (2 residents), eat little meat compared to most Americans, and approximately half (I guessed) of my food supply is locally-produced (local farm vegetables, local dairy products, local eggs, locally-baked bread made with locally-grown wheat, local beef and buffalo... but then there is the prepared stuff, the coffee, the juice, the cereal, the wine, the chips... I'm trying to be realistic).

So. Good so far, but not good enough. And I should worry less about my car, and more about turning down the heat in the winter, switching to compact fluorescent lighting, buying cheese made here instead of in Minnesota.

If you do a calculation like this every once in a while, you can also see how the numbers change. I did this same quiz a year or two ago. My footprint is larger now. What changed?-- my housing, I think. Dividing our former family into two residences simply requires more resources-- as is indeed obvious to anyone who's been through it. Food for thought: family size matters. While having fewer children in order to reduce population growth, for instance, is an admirable personal or national aspiration, smaller families will only prove an ecological boon if they do not simply appropriate the same amount of living space formerly occupied by larger families.

Some other calculators, if you enjoy playing with the details:

The Inconvenient Truth CO2 impact calculator. Note that "average" here means U.S. average.

The World Wildlife Fund Footprint Calculator. It's more detailed than the two above; on the other hand, it is difficult to use at first (it does not appear to register your choices-- be patient and trusting, it really is working) and is clearly designed for a British audience (if you need help with unit conversions, I recommend onlineconversions.com). There is also a strange moment in the middle where it appears to turn into a marketing survey.

The Lifecycle Climate Footprint Calculator, from the Berkeley Institute of the Environment. Also check out the U.S. average vs. world average bars at the bottom of the page. This one is very cool, once you get used to the click-and-drag interface-- the calculator provides the national average answers in the spaces provided, and then you drag the numbers upward or downward to represent your own lifestyle. Highly recommended. Interestingly, my results from this much more detailed calculator were generally similar to those from the simple Earth Day calculator: 2.3 times the world average greenhouse gas emissions (in this case), but less than half the U.S. average.

Enjoy. Or quake with guilt, or both.

[update] related link: A. Siegal, over at Daily Kos, gives us a list of resources for talking to children about global warming.

Reach Out Magazine

When I was eight or nine years old, a couple of friends and I started a magazine. It was called "Reach Out" and somebody's mother copied it on the school ditto machine. There might have been three issues. I can't remember distributing it beyond our own number.

Amazingly, I still have a copy of one issue. I just dug it up. It contains features such as "Did You Know?", "Puzzle-le-do," "Craft of the Month," drawings, and fake advertisements.

Did You Know?

That Americans eat so much ice cream and sherbert [sic] each year that it would fill the Grand Canyon.

That one dog gave birth to 23 puppies at once.

That there are 500 hairs in one eyebrow.

That a male silkworm can smell a female silkworm 5 miles away.

It also contains the following poem, by one of our six-year-old sisters:

I wish I had a dog
I wish I had a mouse
I wish I had a cup
I wish I had a thing I like
I wish I had a cat
I wish I had a cow
I wish I had you

Hello out there to my old co-editors. One I corresponded with briefly later: she'd become an attorney. The others, I don't know.

In many ways, having a blog is just like everybody's childhood dream. A publication of your very own, with total creative control, and no need to keep it afloat financially. Only this time I have to do my own typing.

Look for homemade crosswords in next month's issue.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Farm Blog Round-up

I've discovered that there are a number of really cool blogs out there by small farmers. Some are updated often; some not so much. I tried to stick here to a handful of blogs that were not only especially interesting, but seemed to be active in the past week. Here's a tiny taste of what's going out there in the small farm world:

tinyfarmblog.com has a remarkably gorgeous photograph.

My Tiny Plot, a British blog with beautiful photographs, shows us how to make blackcurrant juice.

Fruits & Votes, a funny mix of political posts (many recent ones discuss impeachment) and stone fruit celebrations, pursues a series of extended metaphors. Blogger "Professor Shugart" heads his comments section this way: "Readers propagate ideas here with their comments. The occasional weed may sprout here. The Head Orchardist will pull them when he can." Wait a second... impeachment. I get it. But it seems he is a genuine fruit grower as well. I'm coming back to this blog again.

I Heart Farms is not, I think, written by a farmer, but a farm enthusiast in California. Looks like a good blog in general, but here an unsolicited and very insidious advertisement inspires Tana Butler to go on a searing, complex rant against the fast food industry. Don't miss "warning sign #3."

What looks like a nice New Zealand blog, Farmlet.Co.NZ. In her July 9th post, Blogger Rebecca discusses the limits of machinery and the value of improvisation. I like the part where the goats eat sage and tarragon prunings with goaty happiness.

pocket farm looks like a great, active all-around farm blog from Maine, with pictures of a barn-framing, a vivid description of a very delicious-sounding quiche, and satifisfying gardening details. Recommended for lovers of the lifestyle.