As global cotton reserves peak, future prices reach 5-year low

cotton nc

With cotton prices dropping to a five-year low late last month, it’s expected farmers around the globe will cut planting in the coming season, according to the International Cotton Advisory Committee.

The effect of lower prices is already being realized in crop planning in the Southern Hemisphere, the executive director of the committee said during an industry conference in India last week.

With the US government estimating that global production will outstrip production for a fifth straight growing season and inventories at an all-time high, New York cotton futures recently tumbled to their lowest level since September 2009.

Slowing demand from China, the world’s biggest consumer, will shrink exports from the U.S. and India, the world’s largest shippers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates, according to AgWeb.

“Everybody is trying to sell and prices are going to go down because supply is higher,” Terry Townsend, a former executive director of the committee, told the conference. “That process of declining prices, farmers losing money, and some farmers going out of business, reducing cotton production is inevitable.”

Cotton futures have slipped below 60 cents a pound, with March 2015 futures closing at 59.18 cents a pound, down more than 70 percent from an all-time high of $2.197 reached in 2011, according to Cotton Market News.

Global reserves are expected to reach an all-time high of 107.36 million bales, each weighing 480 pounds, according to USDA data.

Don’t look for prices on cotton products to reflect the downturn in futures prices, however. There is often a disconnect between the return farmers get for their efforts and what consumers pay for finished products.

Investigating the rich history of Lowcountry rice farming

rice barge

When one thinks of antebellum agriculture, one typically thinks of cotton. Indeed, by 1860 Southern farms and plantations supplied 75 percent of the world’s cotton, and Gossypium hirsutum was the dominant agricultural crop from the Carolinas to Texas.

Cotton was such an important part of the pre-war South that the Confederacy believed it would be the ultimate instrument of its independence.

Much less well known today is the princely standing held by another Deep South crop during the days before the War Between the States – that of rice.

Rice was introduced to the United States in the 17th century and is reported to have been cultivated in Virginia almost as soon as the first settlers landed at Jamestown, but it was in the marshy, humid regions of Lowcountry South Carolina and Georgia that the crop flourished.

Rice planters couldn’t have succeeded without the forced labor of slaves, particularly those from the Senegambia area of West Africa and coastal Sierra Leone.

At the port of Charleston, slaves with knowledge of rice culture brought the highest price and were put to use on rice plantations around Charleston, Georgetown, S.C., and Savannah, Ga.

A new book by Richard Dwight Porcher Jr. and William Robert Judd detailing the once-great Lowcountry rice industry states that nowhere else was an agricultural crop so intimately tied to status and its associated wealth and influence as rice was to the Lowcountry.

The Market Preparation of Carolina Rice: An Illustrated History of Innovations in the Lowcountry Rice Kingdom is an extensive account of the rice industry in Lowcountry South Carolina and Georgia.

market preparation“… the real strength of this book is the author’s documentation based on extensive field research of fifty rice plantations, mill sites, museum and archival collections and travels to investigate foreign connections to the Lowcountry rice industry,” according to a review by the Charleston Post and Courier.

The work, published by University of South Carolina Press, which contains “meticulously rendered line drawings depicting the mechanical devices of the rice industry, lend a startling clarity to the written explanations of how they actually functioned and what part each played in the crop’s journey from the field to the consumer,” the publication adds.

The Market Preparation of Carolina Rice identifies the inventiveness of Deep South planters, recognizing that the U.S. Patent Office granted substantial numbers of antebellum patents to South Carolinians for inventions or improvement for rice harvesting and milling equipment alone.

It also recognizes the contributions of slaves “whose blood and sweat transformed inland swamps and riverine marshes into the remarkably dynamic hydraulic systems that composed the sweeping rice fields of the Lowcountry,” according to the Post and Courier.

The book doesn’t gloss over the fact that slaves worked in brutal conditions, explaining “that tidal river marshes were an extremely harsh environment just to exist in, let alone to work in. As it proved, an enslaved work force was the essential element in the survival of the Rice Kingdom, for without them the days of glory were over.”

(Top: Image showing the unloading of rice barges on a 19th century South Carolina rice plantation.)

California sunflowers take root in Carolina

sunflowers 010

The staple crop of the family ranch in California has long been canning tomatoes but to keep the soil from being depleted, other crops are rotated in on a regular basis, including wheat, lima beans, alfalfa and sunflowers.

The above example of Helianthus annuus was grown from seeds raised at the family ranch, but planted by yours truly in South Carolina.

It’s only about half the size of the sunflowers raised at the California reach, partly because I didn’t plant it until early July, and partly because the soil at my home has too much clay and isn’t nearly as good as that found in the Sacramento Valley.

Still, I figured I had a pretty good chance of getting plants to come up no matter the quality of the soil given that the sunflowers raised in California are grown for seed, to be sold and planted in Europe.

Note the bumblebee on the lower part of the flower. I’ve seen hundreds of sunflowers up close and most all, at least before they darken and die, will have a bumblebee or three on or around them. I can’t remember ever seeing a honeybee on or near a sunflower, however.

Amid ruins of Soviet dystopia, an avant-garde gem shines

There’s not a whole lot going for Karakalpakstan, the sparsely populated autonomous republic that occupies the whole northwestern end of Uzbekistan.

Once home to the Soviet Red Army’s research labs and testing sites for chemical and biological warfare, it’s a Grade A ecological disaster area.

In addition, the region suffers from extensive drought, largely due to exploitation of the Amu and Syr Darya rivers in the eastern part of Uzbekistan. As a result, the Aral Sea has all but dried up and crop failures in Karakalpakstan have deprived tens of thousands of their livelihood. If that weren’t enough, shortages of potable water have created a surge of infectious diseases

While the name Karakalpakstan may not ring a bell, you likely have seen the desolate pictures of the dry Aral Sea, which features grounded rusty Soviet-era ships, desert-like conditions and overall desolation.

To get an idea of how much damage the Soviets wreaked on the region, consider this description from the blog The Travel Lust:

The Aral Sea, situated in the Karakalpakstan State of Uzbekistan, was once the world’s fourth-largest in-land sea, it has since shrunk by 90 percent, the rivers that feed it were largely diverted in a failed Soviet cotton production project. The disaster had ruined the once-robust fishing economy around Moynaq town and left fishing trawlers stranded, … impoverishing the whole area. The whole area lost so much water that the whole area has turned into a salty sandy wasteland.

Added the website Strange Maps, “The former lakebed is the birth chamber of countless toxic sandstorms plaguing the region, keeping local life expectancy in check.”

Strange Maps adds, perhaps unnecessarily, that the capital of Nukus doesn’t exactly rank high on the list of the discerning tourist – or any tourist, for that matter:

Calum Macleod and Bradley Mayhew, authors of The Golden Road to Samarkand, one of the best introductions to Uzbekistan, describe Nukus as ‘a grim, spiritless city of bitter pleasures whose gridded avenues of socialism support a centerless town, only to peter out around fading fringes into an endless wasteland of cotton fields punctuated by the random, surreal exotica of wild camels loitering in neglected apartment blocks.’ Even those trying to talk up the tourist potential of Karakalpakstan ruefully admit that the Tashkent Hotel in Nukus is ‘abysmal … certainly a prime candidate for the worst hotel in the world.’

Apparently, the area does have one thing going for it: It’s home to the Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art, the world’s second-largest collection of Russian avant-garde art, after the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg.

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Hot Pockets: Now even worse for you

Pity the poor folk whose job it is to market Hot Pockets, those ubiquitous microwaveable turnovers filled with one or more types of cheese, meat, or vegetables.

For years, Hot Pockets were a staple of comedian Jim Gaffigan’s standup routine (see above), in which he effectively ensured that a generation of consumers would associate the food item with indigestion, diarrhea and a variety of other ailments.

There’s likely no amount of money or promotional effort that Nestle, which produces Hot Pockets, could ever come up with to overcome the effectiveness of Gaffigan’s biting ridicule, and now the company is facing another PR nightmare.

Nestle is voluntarily recalling an unspecified number of “Philly Steak” and “Croissant Crust Philly Steak and Cheese” Hot Pockets because they could contain meat that is unfit for human consumption, according to the USDA.

Gaffigan’s gag, of course, is that they were never fit for human consumption in the first place.

Anyhoo, nearly 9 million pounds of beef products were recalled last week by Rancho Feeding Corp. after regulators said it processed diseased and unsound animals without a full inspection, according to the Associated Press.

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Turning a sharp eye on the ‘good-old days’

child's grave

David Boaz of the Cato Institute pulls excerpts from three books to demonstrate how different – and difficult – life was not too many generations ago.

The first is from a Washington Post review of Flyover Lives, a family memoir by Diane Johnson, and describes, among other things, the once all-too-common reality of infant mortality:

It must be just about impossible for a denizen of middle-class 21st-century America to imagine the toil and suffering that Catharine Martin [born 1800] and her counterparts underwent every day: living in crude houses – mere huts when they first settled in Illinois and elsewhere – slaving at open fires to prepare food for their families, and worst of all watching children fall ill and having nothing in their powers to help them: ‘Within a year of her marriage, with the fated fertility of women then, Catharine had her first baby, and named her Catharine Anne, after herself. They called her Sissie. This baby was followed by Charlotte Augusta in 1830 and Martha Olivia in 1831. When they were one, three, and five years old, all three little girls died in the space of a week or two.’ Catharine herself was ill but survived to write many years later: ‘When I got up, my house was empty, three little prattlers all gone, not one left.’

Having walked through many an older cemetery and seen family plots with several infant gravestones – sometimes a half-dozen or more – next to those of their parents, I can only wonder at the grief previous generations often had to endure, and their ability to do so.

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Irish Famine: Tragedy 150 years in the making

irish potato famineFew dispute that the Irish Potato Famine stacks up as one of modern history’s great calamities.

Beginning in 1845, potato blight destroyed a significant proportion of Ireland potato crop, ultimately leading to the deaths of more than 1 million individuals and the emigration of another 1-million plus.

Many today place blame for the tragedy on the British government of the 1840s, namely its adherence to a combination of laissez-faire relief efforts, trade laws that curtailed importation of grains that would have helped offset dwindling potato stocks and a general indifference to the fate of poor Catholic Irish by ruling Protestant British.

But, as Stephen Davies of the Foundation for Economic Education points out, the underpinnings of the Irish Potato Famine began at least 150 years before Phytophthora infestans first began attacking Irish potato crops.

Following the defeat of England’s last Catholic king, James II, by Protestant forces led by William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution in the late 17th century, a series of “penal laws” were passed by the Irish Parliament, which was dominated by the Protestant minority who had supported William.

The first law, passed in 1695, took away the right of Catholics to bear arms, while another forbade Catholics to leave the island for education and prohibited them from teaching or running schools within Ireland.

“The most important, however, was the Act to Prevent the Further Growth of Popery (1704),” according to Davies. “This prevented Catholics from buying land or inheriting it from Protestants, or from leasing land for more than 31 years. At about this time the potato was introduced as a major crop. The combination of the legislation and the new crop was ultimately disastrous.”

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