Tracking the health care weekend

Almost completely off-topic, I’m a decent policy wonk and have tried to keep up with the high drama of the health-care debate. For what it’s worth, I find the upcoming weekend vote far more interesting than the concurrent basketball tournament.

So for those few lonely souls like me, and perhaps the larger number interested in both, I have to point out this nifty little web feature from the Washington Post, laying out every Representative’s past vote, current leaning, campaign contributions from the health industry, and % uninsured in their district. I’m sure far smarter people than I are pulling out all sorts of trends, so I won’t attempt the same. These are tenuous comparisons, as there are so many other factors in play. For example, our own congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer (MO-9) has one of the lowest amounts of health industry contributions, but I think that’s because he’s wealthy and largely self-financed. It’s fascinating stuff to examine, though.

The results of this vote, and the overall package, are of course important to us since we’re self-employed in a fairly dangerous business; even a minor injury can have serious repercussions during the growing season when every healthy minute counts. If this passes, it will be interesting to see what actually happens on the ground for us.

UPDATE: The Post’s web people need to learn a bit more about programming and data management. If you click on their headers to sort the data by column (say, highest-lowest contributions), it resorts by text value, not numerical value. Thus, you see all the contributions that start with 1 first (whether $1,000,000 or $100), then $2,000,000-$200, and so on. Stupid mistake, and even stupider that it hasn’t yet been fixed.

Making coherent policy

It’s easy to pick on the government, much like a sports fan who can see what’s wrong with the team but isn’t actually trying to coach. So I try not to overdo it.

However, one of the core frustrations we have with government, particularly at the Federal level, is the extent to which different agencies and chambers of government move in different or opposite directions so as to render the resulting policies nearly incoherent. This is thoroughly present in agriculture & food policy. For example, you have some branches of government promoting healthy living, proper food pyramids, and so on, while other branches actively subsidize the production of food-like substances which subvert the very meaning of the former branches’ attempts. For a neat mental trick, compare our Federal subsidies of various food products/ingredients to the daily recommended servings in the official Federal food pyramid. It’s a nicely inverse relationship.

It’s very difficult to write about this coherently, at least for someone like me who is prone to rambling. So I was thrilled to make my usual rounds of favorite online comics one day and find this gem from one of my top cartoons, Non Sequitur:

Thousand words and all that. Whether we want people to cross or not, we’d be better off with a government system that was capable of choosing one or the other, and pursuing that goal with a coherent and coordinated set of policies. This would also be far more practical in budgetary terms; as it is, we have multiple departments and programs spending money to counteract each others’ efforts. I see this all over the place in ag policy, and am sure it’s true elsewhere as well.

I don’t know how to fix it, or whether it can be, but the problem sure seems evident.

Food freedom in Wyoming

I’ve been doing a lot of complaining lately. Here’s a sign of something maybe actually being done.

I’ve written numerous times about the absurdity of laws restricting local farmers ability to sell things like meat, dairy, and more. In December 2009 I posted my ideal wording for a “Farm to Consumer Free Choice Act” that would give customers back the right to make their own food choices. It looks like Wyoming is considering something similar:

Wyoming House Bill 54, now under consideration:

The purpose of the Wyoming Food Freedom Act is to allow for traditional community social events involving the sale and consumption of home made foods and to encourage the expansion and accessibility of farmers’ markets, roadside stands, ranch, farm and home based sales and producer to end consumer agricultural sales…

(b) Any producer or processor who is selling his product only at farmers’ markets, roadside stands or by ranch, farm and home based sales
directly to the end consumer is exempt from licensing required by
W.S. 35-7-124(g).

(c) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, there shall be no licensure, certification or inspection by any state governmental agency or any agency of any political subdivision of the state provided there is only one (1)transaction between the producer, the processor, the producer’s agent or the processor’s agent and the end consumer when the food is for home consumption or the food is prepared for a traditional community social event.

Predictably, this has generated some rather hysterical backlashes, such as this sarcastic column from Bill Marler, an “foodborne illness attorney”. I fully understand any given person’s aversion to purchasing “uninspected” food (though I suggest they learn a little more about the existing inspection system). What I don’t understand is why they think others should be banned from the same decision. If my neighbors choose to buy goat meat from us, that transaction affects no one but us, and if something goes wrong, they’ll know where to turn. Such a law would not put uninspected food on grocery store shelves, it would only open up direct transactions between producer and consumer. Even the dubious argument that this might increase foodborne illness cases that would cost the health care system money doesn’t hold up in context; if that’s a true concern we’d be far better off banning fast food and sodas, which is just silly.

People like Marler might also reflect on the fact that it’s been USDA policy for years to allow farmers to butcher poultry on-farm with no inspection, if the sales are made direct to consumer. Somehow the massive waves of sick consumers from dirty small farms hasn’t managed to break through the biased media’s accounts of widespread food illness in the corporate food world.

So good for Wyoming so far, though the bill is far from law. Apparently it’s been introduced for several years, but this is the farthest it’s gotten. I’d love to see a state adopt this as a test case, allowing willing customers to be their own guinea pigs in a unique test of freedom, and see whether the sky really does start falling.

Overkill? One more food safety note

Joanna and I have been debating whether this blog is becoming too fixated on food safety issues. Comments & opinions welcome. But after a recent commenter noted that this was the first place they’d read some of these stories, I just have to share this one, from the Global Times, covering the latest Chinese food contamination issue:

From the end of January to the beginning of February, about 3.5 tons of cowpea from Hainan Province was found tainted with Isocarbophos, a highly poisonous pesticide, in Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province. Soon other provinces, too, reported consignments of toxic cowpeas from Hainan.

Actually, Wuhan has been slow on reporting this to the press. Wuhan has found and destroyed a large amount of tainted cowpeas from January 25 to February 5. Wuhan told Hainan to test their cowpeas on February 6 and, from that day, placed a three-month ban on cowpeas from Hainan. But until February 22 Wuhan did not notify the press what it had found and done.

Keep in mind, most of the coming food safety laws don’t apply to foreign countries. Already, we don’t have any meaningful safety controls on imported food, other than hoping the foreign officials hold their food to the same (dubious) standards we do. The US sure doesn’t test or inspect the vast majority of food arriving on our shores. So by cracking down even harder on American producers, we’re going to make it that much easier and cheaper for food imports to be competitive, especially when they come from countries with quality-control cultures that don’t exactly promote confidence (like China’s).
For more discussion of this dynamic, see this excellent analysis from the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund. It’s a bit dense at the beginning, but scroll down to “Increased Reliance on Food Imports”, in which the author lays out the absurd reality of the US government claiming it can equally enforce rigorous food safety standards in foreign countries. It’s just not going to happen. And thus we end up with the double blow of less-competitive domestic food, and less safe imported food.

Canadian faces $100,000 fine for slaughtering his own pig

Yes, you read that title right. From the Ottawa Citizen:

Mark Tijssen, a major in the Canadian Forces, is to appear in court next month to face charges of running an unlicensed slaughterhouse, failing to have an animal inspected both before and after slaughter, and distributing meat. If found guilty, Tijssen could face up to $100,000 in fines. The charges arose after a friend of Tijssen’s left his property on Nov. 11, 2009 with about 18 kilograms of pork. The two had jointly bought a pig and slaughtered it.

A group of people who jointly buy or raise an animal, slaughter it together on their own property, and take it home are now criminals? Words fail me. Hunters certainly ought to watch the precedent being set here very closely. Yes, this is Canada, but the US is rapidly moving in this direction with our food safety laws. Will last fall’s goat roast party become a criminal offense?

So THIS is why canned tomatoes taste nasty…

There’s really nothing more to say about this NYT article on corruption and bribery in the corporate food world:

He admitted his role in a bribery scheme that has laid bare a startling vein of corruption in the food industry. And because the scheme also involved millions of pounds of tomato products with high levels of mold or other defects, the case has raised serious questions about how well food manufacturers safeguard the quality of their ingredients. Over the last 14 months, Mr. Watson and three other purchasing managers, at Frito-Lay, Safeway and B&G Foods, have pleaded guilty to taking bribes. Five people connected to one of the nation’s largest tomato processors, SK Foods, have also admitted taking part in the scheme.

Remind me why we’re targeting small, direct-market producers with food safety laws?

Liability and insurance on a market farm

Liability is a major concern for us in running this kind of farm, for all sorts of reasons in our paranoid and litigious culture. There’s product liability, in the event someone feels our products made them sick. There’s worker liability, now that we’re planning on hiring help. There’s visitor liability, an especially frightening prospect with children touring a working farm. There is liability on the farm, liability while transporting farm products, liability while set up at a farmers market (let’s say someone trips over a tent pole; it happened last year).

Then there’s the related question of insurance, not just against liability issues, but hazards. Insurance for farm equipment and supplies, insurance for harvested products in storage, insurance for crops in the field, etc. In theory, and as we’re taught in this culture, we need insurance for every possible danger that could happen or that we could be sued for. Except that the more we interact with the insurance system, and ask questions, the more we’re convinced it’s at best flawed and unreliable, and at worst an outright scam. Let me elaborate:

First, insurance has to be the only business in which a consumer isn’t allowed to read or evaluate what they’re buying. Every insurance agent/company we’ve worked with refuses to let us read the actual wording of the policy they want to sell us, instead simply assuring us to take their word for it. Only by paying for a policy can you read a policy. The only exception was an agent who agreed to let us “borrow” a copy of the policy, if we promised to bring it back soon and not tell anyone or he’d get in trouble. It’s not like these are proprietary or customized; in most cases the policies are old boilerplate. In one case, the highly protected policy we paid to see was written in 1988 and not even by the company selling it.

Second, the wording is nearly impossible to understand even for graduate-educated scientists, and offers enough vaguely-worded phrases to allow any underwriter more than enough room to wiggle out if desired. So far, most agents we’ve worked with haven’t even read some of the policies, and just rely on calls to an underwriter to answer questions. They don’t even know what they’re selling, much less be able to offer a concrete promise that the policy will do what it says it does. Multiple times, we’ve received an assurance from an agent (or their underwriter) that a policy does or doesn’t do something, and then had to correct them with the text from their own policy.

For example, two farm policies we’ve reviewed include specific exemptions that they do not cover liability issues related to pollutants, which are defined as any potential irritant or waste product used or produced on a farm, even if necessary for the operation of a farm. This is meant to include things like diesel, but is written broadly enough to include manure. Does this mean our product liability won’t cover any potential accusation of illness from the use of manure as fertilizer, even if used in accordance with NOP standards? This is not a hypothetical case, given the current national hysteria over food safety. Why would we pay thousands of dollars for a policy written to give an underwriter more than enough room to dump us for “contaminating” our fields with manure six months before harvesting anything?

Then there are the outdated definitions of “farming”. We run a modern diversified farm, whose real and potential income streams include sales of produce, wood products, crafts, processed food products, agritourism educational offerings, and more. Of these, all of which are reliant on the overall existence and operation of our farm, only raw produce is described and defined as covered under farm insurance policies, which specifically say that any other “business” not defined as farming (in the sense of growing crops) is not covered in any way by the policy. So when visitors pay for a farm tour, or buy a cornhusk doll, or eat our cornmeal, we may have no liability coverage. So much for opening a farm up for customer inspection, if the tour isn’t covered by our insurance because it’s a separate “business”. Insurance companies still think “farming” means growing a single crop and taking it to the elevator.

From a liability perspective, we’re better off shutting the gates and never letting anyone in here, even though that’s completely against the rational model of direct-market farms being open for customer inspection. And let’s not forget the outdated sense of what constitutes “marketing”. If a farm policy even considers marketing as something other than taking grain to an elevator or cattle to a sale barn, it only describes it as “operating a farm stand on the premises“. No concept of farmers markets, CSAs, or other modern farming models. So again, even the farm policies available don’t actually cover the kind of business we run.

I could keep going, but this is long enough. The point is that we’re trapped. Either pay thousands of dollars of hard-earned money every year to an insurance company for a policy that may or may not actually protect us from anything, and is worded to allow the company to define terms any way they want and weasel out of an issue, or go it alone and do our best to remove chances of liability in the first place by being extra-careful in produce handling, holding tours, and so on. That last bit is sensible, of course, but leaves us wide open to frivolous or even potentially accurate suits. We debate this constantly among ourselves, as farming is not lucrative enough to make the costs of insurance remotely comfortable, yet it’s frightening to go alone in a society where even friends can be forced to sue one another by insurance companies seeking to avoid liability.

Finally, there are the companies that just don’t cover some things, period. A certain large insurance company, whose name implies they used to cover people like us, informs us that they (a) don’t cover any farm that engages in sales of poultry of any sort (eggs, meat, etc.), even if that’s a tiny portion of the overall business, and (b) don’t offer workers comp insurance to any type of farm. Lovely.

As I’ve said before, we’ve concluded that going into business on one’s own is one of the riskiest decisions anyone could make. It’s sad that a choice which carries so much econonic and social benefit is the choice most impaired by every aspect of our culture and politics. We’d be far safer sticking to being salaried employees in an office, with a nice garden at home. And until that changes, a lot of other factors in America will stay the same.

Food safety silliness in Chicago

Anyone still wondering why we’re so virulently opposed to the new crackdowns on food safety, especially as it applies to small farms and local foods, should read this piece from the Chicago Tribune. Even when someone follows all the rules and tries to be an honest businessperson, the government can just arbitrarily decide to wipe them out. Seriously, read the article, and keep in mind that the new food safety legislation specifically gives Federal agents the right to inspect any farm, any time, any where, and declare its products “adulterated” or otherwise problematic and order them destroyed with no right of appeal. Just wait until this starts happening to small farms.

Response from Belinda Harris

I recieved a very nice response from Missouri State Rep Belinda Harris to my recent letter about dairy issues. She gave me permission to reprint it here:

Thank you for your email. I like to know that there are people like you in Missouri. Last year my bill did include other dairy products but it was opposed by the Farm Bureau, State Milk Board, Dairy Farmers of America so I downsized it to raw milk and cream. See below the bill I filed in 2009.

I am still interested in allowing the small farmer to sell directly from the farm any product. I am exploring another bill that addresses all products off the farm and direct sell to consumers. I also know of a person that sells her own cheeses and she has a small operation, I will find out how she does what she does.

Rep. Belinda Harris

Here is the original wording she used, that was successfully stymied by the above-mentioned groups:

an individual may purchase and have delivered to [him for his] such individual for such individual’s own use [raw milk or cream] dairy products from a farm. Any person selling dairy products under this exception shall be exempt from the requirement to obtain a permit under sections 196.931 to 196.959, or any rules promulgated thereunder. Any rule or portion of a rule promulgated under the authority of section 196.939 or this chapter shall not be enforced in a manner inconsistent with the provisions of this section. For purposes of this section, “dairy products” include but are not limited to raw milk, skim milk, butter, cream, sour cream, cream cheese, cottage cheese, kefir, and yogurt.

The law as it stands just covers raw milk or cream. What an economic and entreprenurial boon the original wording would have been to start-up, part-time, small-scale dairies in Missouri! Alas, we’re too afraid of giving people the right to support their neighbors and make their own choices about food.

It is encouraging that she’s still interested in helping find ways to support direct-market farms. I sent her this piece, too, as a basic law that could help. Nothing may come of this, but we’re grateful to have an elected representative (even if she’s not ours) who thinks like this.

Shares!

I’ve been reading and enjoying Dickens’ “Our Mutual Friend”, described on the jacket as “a satiric masterpiece about the allure and peril of money”. I would certainly agree. This passage in particular struck me as being quite relevant to the roots of our current economic woes, and the disconnect between financial elites and the rest of the population:

As is well known to the wise in their generation, traffic in Shares is the one thing to have to do with in this world. Have no antecedents, no established character, no cultivation, no ideas, no manners; have Share. Have Shares enough to be on Boards of Directors in capital letters, oscillate on mysterious business between London and Paris, and be great. Where does he come from? Shares. Where is he going to? Shares. What are his tastes? Shares. Has he any principles? Shares. What squeezes him into Parliament? Shares. Perhaps he never of himself achieved success in anything, never originated anything, never produced anything! Sufficient answer to all; Shares. O might Shares! To set those blaring images so high, and to cause us smaller vermin, as under the influence of henbane or opium, to cry out night and day, “Relieve us of our money, scatter it for us, buy us and sell us, ruin us, only we beseech ye take rank among the powers of the earth, and fatten on us!”

I don’t take this as a literal rant against all investment. Indeed, many Americans are involved in investments in their more basic and useful forms, whether through retirement accounts, inheritances such as life insurance, or more. The passage above is an indictment of a culture in which money and influence are created from thin air, without the achievement of anything tangibly useful or productive. That, to me, is at the root of many of our current troubles. When work, value, and reward are no longer linked, we end up with a culture in which the most useful and valuable work has little return, while the most frothy and speculative endeavors carry rewards far beyond their actual value. We’re all trapped in this system, and few have the courage or ability to completely check out (hands up all those who don’t want a retirement account), but who knows how to keep the system rational and relevant to those who are irrevocably tied to it?

Off-topic for this blog, perhaps, but we can’t help notice that of all the things we could choose to do with our lives, gifts, and intelligence, farming is one of the least rewarding in terms of financial and legal stability. I suspect we’d be far better off, from a coldly rational point of view, spending our days studying business magazines and market reports, and making a killing on eTrade. And that fact reveals much about the nature of our system today.

Oh, and this cartoon from the Washington Post’s fantastic Tom Toles nails it, too: