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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Bees’ value to agriculture underestimated

bee strawberries

The economic importance of bees is significantly undervalued, according to a European study released this week.

Strawberries pollinated by bees were of far higher commercial value than fruit that was self-pollinated or pollinated by the wind, researchers in Germany reported Wednesday.

Bee pollination strongly increased the commercial value of strawberries by producing well-shaped fruit of increased weight, according to the study.

In addition, it increased shelf life, enhanced coloring and lowered sugar-acid ratios of most varieties of strawberries.

The study, by a team at the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Göttingen in Germany, comes on the heels of a 2011 report by the UN Environment Program that showed that pollination by bees and other insects contributed about a little more than $204 billion, or 9.5 percent, of the total global value of food production.

But the most recent analysis offers evidence that the 2011 estimate could have substantially devalued the agricultural impact of the bees.

The Germany team conducted its study by planting nine commercial strawberry varieties in an experimental field. Plants were either covered with special gauze bags to allow pollination by the wind or other parts of the plant, or were left open for visiting by bees.

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Southern cotton, hit by rains, late to mature

cotton clarendon county 003

A recent drive through rural South Carolina shows evidence of a healthy cotton crop, albeit one that was late to mature.

Cotton pickers and module builders are just now ramping up in the Carolinas, Georgia and many other parts of the Deep South, the result of a growing season slowed by unusually large amounts of rain this year.

Much of South Carolina, for example, has received 50 or more inches of rain in 2013, anywhere from 8 to 18 inches above average precipitation levels. The same appears to be the case across the region.

In years past, lack of rain has been an issue for cotton farmers, particularly in Texas, a major cotton-growing area, so why is excessive rain an issue?

It’s a factor for several reasons, according to Mark Crosby, Emanuel County (Ga.) extension coordinator:

Heavy rainfall caused excessive erosion on sloping fields and in places in fields where the water puddled, the cotton plants stood in water. The worst fields had areas where the cotton drowned, but, in much of the cotton land, the plants stood in soggy, wet soil for weeks and weeks.

Examination of the crop roots showed very little tap root development and shallow feeder roots. Shallow feeder and tap roots limited the plants ability to take up fertilizer because of a lack of oxygen in the soil.

As soils become more and more saturated and eventually became waterlogged, the effects on cotton plants included yellowing, reduced shoot growth, reduced nutrient uptake, altered hormone levels, and other problems. Some fields of cotton had symptoms of reddening leaves and stems being too wet, as well as typical nitrogen deficiency symptoms.

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Mauritania: A good time was had by none

Mauritania desert

If one does any bit of traveling it becomes apparent that most any region of the world has its positives and negatives. Your perspective often, but not always, depends on your financial wherewithal.

It’s usually the case that the more money you have at your disposal, the more you’re able to enjoy that which a foreign country has to offer.

However, there ain’t enough lipstick in the world to pretty up some pigs. Case in point is Mauritania, which seems like an utterly miserable locale.

Among other selling points, the West Africa nation has the world’s highest proportion of people in slavery.

An estimated 140,000 to 160,000 of the nation’s 3.8 million people live in slavery, according to the Walk Free Foundation.

Many of the enslaved inherited that status from their ancestors, according to the charity’s Global Slavery Index.

Other estimates are higher: Up to as much as 20 percent of the nation’s population, or nearly 700,000 people, are enslaved, according to CNN.

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China receives first US bulk sorghum shipment

sorghum field

The burgeoning US-China agriculture-trade relationship was evident late last week when the first-ever bulk shipment of American grain sorghum reached the Asian nation.

The 2.36 million bushel shipment, the first of several scheduled for China this year, reached the port city of Guangzhou, the south China city historically known as Canton, on Oct. 18.

The cargo is designated for animal feed and demonstrates the continued modernization of China’s feed industry, according to Bryan Lohmar, US Grains Council director in China.

“The Council believes US sorghum has significant potential to become a regular feed ingredient in China,” he said. “Sorghum imports from the United States can help keep food prices low and improve China’s overall food security.”

Sorghum, a grain, is among the most efficient crops in conversion of solar energy and use of water. It is known as a high-energy, drought tolerant crop, according to the National Sorghum Producers.

Sorghum was planted on approximately 6.2 million US acres in 2012, with Kansas, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and South Dakota the top five-Sorghum producing states.

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Dumas’s ‘Black Tulip’ a brilliant gem

black tulip

French author Alexandre Dumas is best known for “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Three Musketeers,” but he turned out dozens of works of fiction, non-fiction and drama during a lengthy career.

Dumas’s father, Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, was a French nobleman and his mother a black slave. Thomas-Alexandre joined the French army, served with distinction in the French Revolutionary Wars and was promoted to general by age 31.

However, he, like many, he fell out of favor and by 1800 sought a return to France. During his voyage back, Thomas-Alexandre’s ship put in at Taranto, in the Kingdom of Naples, and he and others were held as prisoners of war under trying circumstances, a situation that would continue for two years.

By the time Alexandre was born, his father’s health was broken and he was impoverished. Thomas-Alexandre died in 1806 when his son was just 4 years old.

His widowed mother could not provide her son with much of an education, but the young Dumas read everything he could and taught himself Spanish.

In addition, stories of his father’s bravery during the campaigns of the Revolutionary Wars inspired the boy’s imagination. Although poor, the family had their father’s distinguished reputation and aristocratic rank.

In 1822, after the restoration of the French monarchy, the 20-year old Alexandre moved to Paris and was able to obtain a position at the Palais Royal in the office of Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orléans.

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Japan’s fixation with perfect, expensive fruit

square watermelons

Among the benefits of living in an agriculture-rich area is the ability during much of the year to drive along most any stretch of back road for no more than a few miles without coming upon someone selling produce from the bed of a pickup.

Not only are the fruit and vegetables invariably fresh, but the price is almost always less than what comparable items sell for in a supermarket.

Nice ripe watermelons, for example, tend to go for $3 or $4 each, while a basket of peaches can be had for between $5 and $7.

One imagines there aren’t a lot of roadside vendors in Japan. The country, in fact, appears to have a fixation with perfectly formed fruit, to the point musk melons can sell for as much $18,000 and cantaloupes for $16,000.

And this past July, a single bunch of “Ruby Roman” grapes reportedly sold for $4,000, meaning each individual grape was worth $110.

While the above are unusual cases, top-grade fruit is a valuable commodity in the Japanese world of business and as a seasonal gift. It is used to indicate how much importance the giver attaches to a relationship, according to an Agence France-Presse report.

The boutique fruit industry has remained strong in the face of Japan’s sluggish economy, according to the wire service.

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Wet weather hurting nation’s pecan crop

pecan-orchard1

It appears pecan lovers can expect to pay more for their treasured treat.

Record soggy weather in many parts of the Southeastern US has left pecan orchards vulnerable to Cladosporium caryigenum, more commonly known as scab, a fungal disease that scars the husks of pecans, cuts yield and hurts quality.

“We’ve had some wet years before, but not like it has been this summer where it has rained all summer long,” Tom Stevenson, a south Georgia-based pecan orchard manager, told Southeast Farm Press.

The heavy rains which have only abated in the past couple of weeks, hit Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas – among the nation’s main pecan-growing states – particularly hard.

Georgia, the top producer of pecans nationwide, has half of its approximately 150,000 acres of commercial orchards planted in pecan varieties that are susceptible to scab, according to Lenny Wells, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension pecan specialist.

To try to reduce the risk of scab, farmers such as Stevenson have increased spraying of fungicide, according to Southeast Farm Press.

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