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Articles from 2008 In December


Obama less left than originally feared

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During the campaign trail, Barack Obama seemed to pile on leftist rhetoric to appeal to the left and lived up to his claim as the most liberal senator in Congress. But in the days leading up to his official inauguration many of his key personnel appointments are "going right down the middle."

Barry Flinchbaugh, KansasState agricultural economist, said he has been pleasantly surprised with many of Obama's appointments this far. He stated many of his left wing friends are already starting to complain and obviously the right wing isn't happy, but most Americans are moderate and Obama has embraced that fact.

"What we heard was a lot of rhetoric to appeal to the left base. Now that he's president-elect he's facing an unbelievable set of problems. He now seems to have decided to be more realistic and go down the middle," Flichbaugh said.

The majority of his major cabinet appointments were made prior to Christmas. Many of the nominees are considered friendly to agriculture, important for Obama who heads to the White House with very little agriculture interaction prior to this point.

Obama seems to be pulling many of his former running mates into top cabinet positions.

Agriculture

One of the first names mentioned for the agriculture secretary position was former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. Despite originally being a supporter of Hillary Clinton after dropping out of the presidential race himself, Obama picked Vilsack to lead the USDA.

Obama could feel he owes the state of Iowa after getting his momentum building caucus win at the start of the primary season.

Vilsack won the Iowa governor position in 1998, the first Democratic governor in 32 years.

He is a strong supporter of renewable fuels and supported the Farm Bureau on many of their requests during his time in office.

Trade

During the campaign Obama's position on trade troubled many in agriculture, indicating a strong protectionist point of view. He stated he would revisit the North America Free Trade Agreement and also did not push for a vote on the Colombia FTA.

Another former running mate, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has been tapped to lead the Commerce Department. Flichbaugh recognized Richardson as a strong supporter of NAFTA.

Former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk is nominated as the next ambassador for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Kirk is pro-trade and was welcomed by many agriculture organizations.

Energy

Dr. Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate with considerable experience and interest in climate science and clean energy technology.

Monte Shaw, president of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, said Vilsack's appointment for USDA head is good news for the biofuels industry. "He knows which end of the cow the distillers' grain goes in. Some of the other Obama appointments so far, in particular the new Secretary of Energy-designee Steven Chu, have caused us some concern. So this may balance things for ethanol."

Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., is nominated to lead the U.S. Department of the Interior. As interior secretary he will play a vital role in fully developing our nation's renewable energy potential.

National Farmers Union President Tom Buis, said Salazar has "been a champion for America's family farmers, ranchers and their rural communities while serving in the U.S. Senate and I have no doubt he will continue these efforts as interior secretary. Salazar has also recognized the role America's farmers can play in reversing the damaging effects of climate change; and has supported conservation programs that will preserve the land for the next generation of producers."

Joe O’Neill: cotton’s man in Manhattan

They didn’t grow much cotton where Joe O’Neill was raised. But there have likely been hundreds of thousands of yards of cotton fabric flow through the New York City garment district only a short distance from where he grew up and still calls home.

And as long-time senior official with the former New York Cotton Exchange, and later the New York Board of Trade, this city slicker has always woven a close relationship with those who grow his favorite commodity.

O’Neill began working at the cotton exchange in 1970 after attending Manhattan College. He knew the cotton futures contract inside and out and served as president and CEO of the exchange from 1984 through 1998.

In 1998 the exchange merged with NYBOT, where he served as senior vice president before retiring in 2007. He was responsible for all aspects of cotton and other products traded, including trade relations, marketing, research and development, making sure contracts kept pace with changing industry products and the development of new products.

Retirement didn’t get him too far from the trading floor in New York’s financial district.

When NYBOT merged with ICE in 2007, he became chairman of the ICE cotton committee which oversees the cotton futures contract. He replaced Don Conlin, a long-time friend of O’Neill and the industry who died in 2007.

“The committee discusses how the contract is performing and recommends changes that the committee thinks will help the contract perform better,” says O’Neill. “We also deal with situations as they arise, such as how to deal with the warehouses and the cotton that was damaged by Hurricane Ike.”

O’Neill has seen the futures contract switch from 100 percent cotton pit open outcry trading to nearly all electronic trading.

“About the only thing that has stayed the same since I joined the exchange and now is that the farmers produce the cotton,” he says.

“Trading is now electronic. And a major, if not the most important tool for the industry for hedging, is now options, which did not exist when I started.

“The industry itself is very different. While we still have co-ops and merchants, their look has changed. Co-ops and merchants have had to adjust their marketing. When I started, the United States sold to the U.S. mills. Now the U.S. mills share of the market has decreased dramatically.

“We were a supplier of last resort to the rest of the world. Now, they are by far our primary market.”

Low prices lead to higher prices and the reverse? That’s a theory O’Neill has always taken to heart. But has that changed in today’s highly volatile market?

“While I still think this is true, I think this refers mostly to supply,” he says. “High prices cause an increase in production and low prices cause a reduction in supply. I think cotton’s low prices will result in a reduction in supply, especially since a lot of its competing crops now look like they provide a greater return.

“With that said, you would expect higher prices next crop year, but the only adjustment to the timetable might be the demand. If the current economic downturn lasts longer than I hope, the timetable of ‘low prices cause high prices’ might take longer than usual.”

What about a marketing strategy with cotton prices at below loan? In the past, prices at that level often saw O’Neill recommend that growers sell their cotton at harvest and buy call options.

“At these price levels and the high volatility, it probably is a good time to be on the sidelines,” he suggests. But he will have new marketing strategies in mind as the planting season arrives.

Remembering 9/11, O’Neill has seen the best of times and worst of times at the exchange offices. When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, the NYBOT lost seven exchange members as they were preparing for the day’s trading session.

“It was a terrible day for everyone here and across America,” says O’Neill, who was on a cotton trade mission in India when the Twin Towers fell.

Even though NYBOT’s main World Trade Center facilities were destroyed, it had auxiliary facilities in place and began trading the Monday following the 9/11 catastrophe.

Like the rebound seen after the attacks and the years to follow, O’Neill sees agriculture and the cotton industry getting over the recent slump that followed dynamic prices all in the same year.

“The cotton industry is a very resilient industry and will recover and successfully adapt during these trying times,” he says.

Past Soybean Leaders Disagree with Alleged Charges

The American Soybean Association's recent request to USDA for an Office of Inspector General audit of the national checkoff program has spurred some past United Soybean Board chairmen to speak out.

"In talking with my fellow past USB chairmen, we strongly defend the past and current work of the soybean checkoff and the integrity of the volunteer farmers who lead the organization,"said Eric Niemann, a soybean farmer from Nortonville, Kansas. "We completely disagree with the actions and criticisms of the American Soybean Association."

All past chairmen acknowledged a sometimes strained working relationship between USB and ASA, but recognized the many efforts put forth by USB to improve that relationship. The group strongly concurred that in no way has the integrity or work of the national soybean checkoff been compromised. Niemann pointed out that current U.S. farmer approval of the soybean checkoff stands at well over 70% as it has for several years running.

"As a past chairman of USB I understand the challenges the current directors are facing," Niemann said. "Their communications must all be approved by USDA. To be attacked so publicly puts them in a tough position to defend themselves."

Smaller Swine Herd Than Expected

The US Quarterly Hogs and Pigs report shows a smaller US hog herd than traders expected but the "kept for breeding" number was somewhat higher than had been predicted by analysts.

The report shows that the all hogs and pigs number is 98% of a year ago at 66.708 million head. Traders predicted a 1% drop in the hog herd from a year ago.

The breeding herd also showed a drop of 2% from a year ago at 6.081 million head while traders were expecting a bigger drop in this number of 3-4% under a year ago.

Market hogs also dropped about 2% to a total of 60.627 million head, which was also a bigger drop than what the traders had as their pre report guesses.

Former USB Chairmen Speak Out

The American Soybean Association's recent request to USDA for an Office of Inspector General audit of the national checkoff program has spurred some past United Soybean Board chairmen to speak out.

"In talking with my fellow past USB chairmen, we strongly defend the past and current work of the soybean checkoff and the integrity of the volunteer farmers who lead the organization,"said Eric Niemann, a soybean farmer from Nortonville, Kansas. "We completely disagree with the actions and criticisms of the American Soybean Association."

All past chairmen acknowledged a sometimes strained working relationship between USB and ASA, but recognized the many efforts put forth by USB to improve that relationship. The group strongly concurred that in no way has the integrity or work of the national soybean checkoff been compromised. Niemann pointed out that current U.S. farmer approval of the soybean checkoff stands at well over 70% as it has for several years running.

"As a past chairman of USB I understand the challenges the current directors are facing," Niemann said. "Their communications must all be approved by USDA. To be attacked so publicly puts them in a tough position to defend themselves."

Hog and Pig Inventory Down

The US Quarterly Hogs and Pigs report shows a smaller US hog herd than traders expected but the "kept for breeding" number was somewhat higher than had been predicted by analysts.

The report shows that the all hogs and pigs number is 98% of a year ago at 66.708 million head. Traders predicted a 1% drop in the hog herd from a year ago.

The breeding herd also showed a drop of 2% from a year ago at 6.081 million head while traders were expecting a bigger drop in this number of 3-4% under a year ago.

Market hogs also dropped about 2% to a total of 60.627 million head, which was also a bigger drop than what the traders had as their pre report guesses.

Pioneer Makes Acquisition to Enhance Information Solutions for Growers

Pioneer Hi-Bred has acquired a controlling interest in MapShots Inc., a privately owned agricultural data management company that produces crop management software.

"MapShots enhances the services available from Pioneer that help customers get the right product on the right acre and maximize their profitability," said Sue Hoover, marketing director, Pioneer North America. "This demonstrates our continuing commitment to provide Pioneer customers with exceptional service."

Through this new relationship, Pioneer will be able to expand its FIT mapping service that is available to Pioneer customers through its GrowingPoint Web site record keeping services.

"MapShots will continue to sell, support and enhance our EASi Suite line of desktop software for growers and professional service providers," said Ted Macy, MapShots owner and founder. "MapShots will also continue to license core precision ag components to other companies for inclusion in their products and services. Together with Pioneer, MapShots will continue its commitment to open data standards that allow data sharing and compatibility across different brands of field equipment and software."

Mandarins grow in appeal to consumers

A popular holiday treat, mandarin oranges are only getting better.

In the UC Riverside citrus breeding laboratory of Plant Geneticist Mikeal Roose, scientists spend 75 percent of their time on mandarins, aiming to develop new varieties with rich sweet flavor, bright color, few or no seeds, easy peeling and a maturity date that will extend the fruit's season beyond the winter holidays in California.

Mandarins have a lot of appeal. Many on the market today are sweet, easily peeled and they split into even segments without squirting juice. A serving has just 42 calories, but provides 50 percent of the U.S. recommended dietary allowance of vitamin C.

The number of acres planted to mandarins in California is on the rise. According to the U.S. National Agricultural Statistics Service, in 2005 there were 24,038 acres planted to mandarins in California, with 11,834 of those non-bearing. In other words, three years ago nearly half of all mandarins were newly planted. In 2008, 31,392 acres were planted to mandarins; 5,707 non-bearing.

During the same period, there was a nearly 5,000-acre reduction in the area planted to Valencia oranges, dipping from 49,163 in 2005 to 44,471 in 2008.

The director of the UC Lindcove Research and Extension Center, Beth Grafton-Cardwell, attributes the drop in Valencia acres to greater availability of imported navel oranges in the summer and the availability of newer late maturing navel varieties. Traditionally, California navels -- which are favored for their lack of seeds and thick, easy-to-remove rind -- reached maturity in the wintertime. Now navels imported from Australia and late-season California navels are meeting the demand for oranges in the northern hemisphere‚s summer, when Valencia oranges from California typically come on the market.

Market opportunities and pleasing fruit quality, however, aren't the only reasons Roose and his staff focus their efforts on the tasty, diminutive mandarin. Though mandarins look like oranges, from the genetic perspective, they are somewhat different. In fact, the mandarin preceded the orange.

The orange is a hybrid of ancient origin, Roose said.

"Nobody has ever been able to breed oranges," Roose said. "If you cross two oranges, all the hybrid trees produce fruit that are very unlike oranges. Because oranges are hybrids between two ancestral species, the characteristics derived from each of these ancestors produce novel combinations in the offspring of oranges."

The origin of oranges as hybrids involving pummelos and mandarins was proposed long ago, and has been confirmed by DNA evidence developed in several labs.

"The chloroplast genome in oranges, inherited from a female, came from pummelo. We can also find other genes in oranges that match pummelos and lots of others that match mandarins," Roose said. "But we still don't know which pieces of the orange genome came from mandarins and which from pummelos. That's what we're trying to figure out right now."

A better understanding of oranges' ancestry, he said, may eventually allow scientists to breed them.

The very popular Washington navel orange derived from a single natural mutation in an orchard of sweet oranges at a Brazilian monastery in 1820. The genetic mutation causes navel oranges to form an undeveloped group of small segments at the base of the fruit, and, because of the mutation, the fruit is seedless.

The most common way to propagate true-to-type edible varieties of oranges, lemons, limes and many other citrus is to graft cuttings -- called budwood -- onto rootstock trees. In effect, they are propagated by cloning.

Mandarins' history is quite different. They are thought to have originated in Southeast Asia and have spread all over the world. They can be bred, offering scientists the ability to cross varieties that have good characteristics to produce fruit that is clearly recognizable as mandarins. The scientists can then make selections of trees that produce fruit with the best characteristics. Recently released varieties include "Gold Nugget" and "Yosemite GoldTM" mandarin hybrids.

The UC Riverside Citrus Variety Collection, overseen by UC Riverside botanist Tracy Kahn, maintains and evaluates field plantings of more than 1,000 types of citrus and closely related trees in two UC facilities -- one at UC Riverside and the other in the small Tulare County community of Lindcove. Citrus varieties with the best characteristics are provided to farmers as budwood from source trees tested free of known citrus pathogens by the UC Citrus Clonal Protection Program, directed by UC Riverside plant pathologist Georgios Vidalakis.

At a recent Lindcove field day, Kahn commented about the mandarin's sometimes confusing nickname "tangerine."

At one time, mandarins were shipped to the United States from the Moroccan port city of Tangier.

"They were given the nickname tangerines, and the name stuck," Kahn said. "In the United States, we use the terms mandarin and tangerine interchangeably. However, mandarin is the botanical term that's used throughout the world."

Fresno State’s WET Center gets international attention

The Claude Laval Water and Energy Technology Center (WET Center) at California State University, Fresno is a well-known generator of regional water and energy-related businesses. Now, it’s also a partner with an incubator in Israel doing much the same thing and recently was presented as a model program at an international symposium in France.

The WET Center was established in 2006 on the Fresno State campus as part of a partnership between the university’s International Center for Water Technology (ICWT) and the Central Valley Business Incubator. The goal is to provide space for up to five new businesses at a time to develop in the energy and water fields.

Water and energy were identified as vital needs in the central San Joaquin Valley, but also as potential sources of new, well-paid jobs in the region with worldwide marketing potential. To help underscore that global connection, the ICWT in 2007 hosted an international water technology symposium at Fresno State and already is planning another for May 2010.

“Through many years of university-industry partnerships, we have been able to cultivate an international reputation for innovation and resourcefulness in our water technology research,” said Dr. David Zoldoske.

He is director of the ICWT and the Center for Irrigation Technology at Fresno State and recently was appointed as the California State University system’s top water-policy adviser.

“The WET Center is just one more way our campus turns our regional needs into opportunities to help at home and far away, too,” Zoldoske said.

Most recently, the WET Center in Fresno and the Kinrot Incubator near the Sea of Galilee, signed a cooperative agreement.

Kinrot CEO Assaf Barnea was enthusiastic about the partnership’s proposal for joint research and development based on innovative technology. But he said a key component is marketing water technology.

Barnea said, “The American incubator is like an industrial park, and the firms in our portfolio that want to meet other firms will find partners willing to listen there.

“We'll join in meeting potential investors,” Barnea added. “The water technology market is very conservative, and you have to form close ties in order to make sales."

Kinrot has another agreement that allows Israeli start-up companies to try out pilot projects using Los Angeles Department of Water & Power facilities.

In early December, Central Valley Business Incubator CEO Craig Scharton made a presentation about the WET Center at the Water4health® symposium in Lyon, France. The gathering’s goal was promoting partnerships throughout the water sector by bringing them together to learn about a range of innovative solutions to some of the world’s water challenges.

“Water requires conscientious supervision, management and care," said Scharton. "One of many critical resources, water is now beginning to attract the attention its importance deserves.”