Pseudo Bike Friendly

I am at FSI for the PAO course that I never took. I figure that there are basic things that I just didn’t know and I hope to learn about them.

At FSI, I was greeted with an “improvement” around the bike racks. Look at the picture.  I bet these things cost the government a lot, because we never get anything cheap. What good are they? They won’t protect the bikes from the rain. The probably actually make it hotter around the bikes, since they face into the south and into the sun.  Worst of all, they eliminate at least two bike parking spots (on each end) and make it a lot harder to get at the bikes in the middle.

This is the kind of thing that someone who doesn’t ride a bike much thinks is “bike friendly.”

I figure that somebody will get an award for putting those things up. They will look better on somebody’s personal report than they do in real life. Maybe that same person will earn another award when they take them down, create more space and “save” the upkeep.

Class got out early enough for me to head down to Washington, go to Gold’s Gym and take the Metro home.  It is easier for me to go down to Washington and take the Metro than to go up hill home, although both are about the same distance. Actually, it was a bit farther, since I went the long way through Shirlington and along the Potomac. They connected the bike trail all the way. Sweet. You used to have to get off the trail and cross the freeway on a footbridge.

Above and below are pictures of East Potomac Park. I have been stopping here at the end of the day to kind of settle back into that peaceful, easy feeling.  It is another thing that is a little out of the way, but worth going.  I went down there today for around a half hour, listened to my audio books and watched the water flow. It is a pleasant place to be. The breeze blows off the water in the late afternoon, keeping the mosquitoes confused.

Feeding the World

When I lived in Brazil twenty-five years ago, I was only vaguely aware that the Brazilian agricultural frontier was pushing west. I knew about a significant number of farmers from Rio Grande do Sul moving into western Parana, Mato Grosso do Sul, Mato Grosso & Goias. But Brazilian agriculture was not efficient and I heard the soils out west were acidic, poor and subject to rapid exhaustion. Lately, I have been watching Globo Rural (a Brazilian agricultural TV show) on Internet and have been impressed by what looks like efficient and forward looking agriculture. Today I read a really good briefing article on Brazil’s agricultural miracle. It is a good news story thirty years in the making and it sort of crept up on us such that we didn’t notice. But it is big, a game changing development.

The way I think of a place like the Brazilian states (such as Mato Grosso) story is to compare it to what it must have been like in Ohio in the early part of our Western expansion. Ohio entered the Union in 1803 and at that time was largely potential. Twenty-five years later, it was a settled and very productive part of the United States. The transformation was fast and so big that it was not properly noticed because by the time it was finished it seemed so inevitable. But it wasn’t. The same goes for Brazil.

I went down to the State of Parana last year to look at some Brazilian forestry operations. I was massively impressed. They were taking timber in a sustainable manner and were heavily into improving silvaculture. The Amazon, BTW, is up north and the deforestation is not related to the developments I am talking about. That is a serious problem, but a different one. In fact, good silvaculture and agriculture in the south and central west takes the pressure off the rain forests.

They used to joke that Brazil was the country of the future and always would be. Looks like the future might be now. I have to admit that I was not optimistic twenty-five years ago, but all that I read and see has changed my mind. It gives me lots of hope for turning around what is so far the world’s biggest failure – Africa. Maybe in twenty-five years we will be talking about the African miracle.

Let me excerpt from the story from the briefing from the “Economist” and we can talk about it. You can read the whole thing at the link above.

“In less than 30 years Brazil has turned itself from a food importer into one of the world’s great breadbaskets. Between 1996 and 2006 the total value of the country’s crops rose from 23 billion reais to 108 billion reais, or 365%.

“No less astonishingly, Brazil has done all this without much government subsidy. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), state support accounted for 5.7% of total farm income in Brazil during 2005-07. That compares with 12% in America, 26% for the OECD average and 29% in the European Union.

“Since the biggest single agricultural failure in the world during past decades has been tropical Africa, and anything that might help Africans grow more food would be especially valuable. In other words, you would describe Brazil.

“Since 1996 Brazilian farmers have increased the amount of land under cultivation by a third, mostly in the cerrado. And it has increased production by ten times that amount. But the availability of farmland is in fact only a secondary reason for the extraordinary growth in Brazilian agriculture. If you want the primary reason in three words, they are Embrapa, Embrapa, Embrapa.

“Embrapa is short for Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária, or the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation. It is a public company set up in 1973, in an unusual fit of farsightedness by the country’s then ruling generals. At the time the quadrupling of oil prices was making Brazil’s high levels of agricultural subsidy unaffordable.

“Embrapa received enough money to turn itself into the world’s leading tropical-research institution.

“When Embrapa started, the cerrado was regarded as unfit for farming. Norman Borlaug, an American plant scientist often called the father of the Green Revolution, told the New York Times that “nobody thought these soils were ever going to be productive.” They seemed too acidic and too poor in nutrients. Embrapa did four things to change that.
First, it poured industrial quantities of lime (pulverised limestone or chalk) onto the soil to reduce levels of acidity. Embrapa scientists also bred varieties of rhizobium, a bacterium that helps fix nitrogen in legumes and which works especially well in the soil of the cerrado, reducing the need for fertilisers.

“Second, Embrapa went to Africa and brought back a grass called brachiaria. Patient crossbreeding created a variety, called braquiarinha in Brazil, which produced 20-25 tonnes of grass feed per hectare, many times what the native cerrado grass produces and three times the yield in Africa. That meant parts of the cerrado could be turned into pasture, making possible the enormous expansion of Brazil’s beef herd.

“Embrapa has recently begun experiments with genetically modifying brachiaria to produce a larger-leafed variety called braquiarão which promises even bigger increases in forage.

“Third, and most important, Embrapa turned soyabeans into a tropical crop. Soyabeans are native to north-east Asia (Japan, the Korean peninsular and north-east China). They are a temperate-climate crop, sensitive to temperature changes and requiring four distinct seasons. Embrapa worked out how to make it also grow in a tropical climate, on the rolling plains of Mato Grosso state and in Goiás on the baking cerrado. More recently, Brazil has also been importing genetically modified soya seeds and is now the world’s second-largest user of GM after the United States. This year Embrapa won approval for its first GM seed.

“Such improvements are continuing. The variety of soya now being planted [in Brazil’s Northeast] did not exist five years ago.

“Lastly, Embrapa has pioneered and encouraged new operational farm techniques. Brazilian farmers pioneered “no-till” agriculture, in which the soil is not ploughed nor the crop harvested at ground level. Rather, it is cut high on the stalk and the remains of the plant are left to rot into a mat of organic material. Next year’s crop is then planted directly into the mat, retaining more nutrients in the soil. In 1990 Brazilian farmers used no-till farming for 2.6% of their grains; today it is over 50%.

“Embrapa’s latest trick is something called forest, agriculture and livestock integration: the fields are used alternately for crops and livestock but threads of trees are also planted in between the fields, where cattle can forage. This, it turns out, is the best means yet devised for rescuing degraded pasture lands.

“The fields of Mato Grosso are 2,000km from the main soyabean port at Paranaguá, which cannot take the largest, most modern ships. So Brazil transports a relatively low-value commodity using the most expensive means, lorries, which are then forced to wait for ages because the docks are clogged.

“Partly for that reason, Brazil is not the cheapest place in the world to grow soyabeans (Argentina is, followed by the American Midwest). But it is the cheapest place to plant the next acre.

Big is beautiful

“Like almost every large farming country, Brazil is divided between productive giant operations and inefficient hobby farms. According to Mauro and Ignez Lopes of the Fundacão Getulio Vargas, a university in Rio de Janeiro, half the country’s 5m farms earn less than 10,000 reais a year and produce just 7% of total farm output; 1.6m are large commercial operations which produce 76% of output. Not all family farms are a drain on the economy: much of the poultry production is concentrated among them and they mop up a lot of rural underemployment. But the large farms are vastly more productive.

“From the point of view of the rest of the world, however, these faults in Brazilian agriculture do not matter much. The bigger question for them is: can the miracle of the cerrado be exported, especially to Africa, where the good intentions of outsiders have so often shrivelled and died?

“There are several reasons to think it can. Brazilian land is like Africa’s: tropical and nutrient-poor. The big difference is that the cerrado gets a decent amount of rain and most of Africa’s savannah does not (the exception is the swathe of southern Africa between Angola and Mozambique).

“Brazil imported some of its raw material from other tropical countries in the first place. Brachiaria grass came from Africa. The zebu that formed the basis of Brazil’s nelore cattle herd came from India. In both cases Embrapa’s know-how improved them dramatically. Could they be taken back and improved again? Embrapa has started to do that, though it is early days and so far it is unclear whether the technology retransfer will work.

“A third reason for hope is that Embrapa has expertise which others in Africa simply do not have. It has research stations for cassava and sorghum, which are African staples. It also has experience not just in the cerrado but in more arid regions (called the sertão), in jungles and in the vast wetlands on the border with Paraguay and Bolivia. Africa also needs to make better use of similar lands.

“Still, a word of caution is in order. Brazil’s agricultural miracle did not happen through a simple technological fix. No magic bullet accounts for it—not even the tropical soyabean, which comes closest. Rather, Embrapa’s was a “system approach”, as its scientists call it: all the interventions worked together. Improving the soil and the new tropical soyabeans were both needed for farming the cerrado; the two together also made possible the changes in farm techniques which have boosted yields further.

“Systems are much harder to export than a simple fix. “We went to the US and brought back the whole package [of cutting-edge agriculture in the 1970s],” says Dr Crestana. “That didn’t work and it took us 30 years to create our own. Perhaps Africans will come to Brazil and take back the package from us. Africa is changing. Perhaps it won’t take them so long. We’ll see.” If we see anything like what happened in Brazil itself, feeding the world in 2050 will not look like the uphill struggle it appears to be now.”

Virginia Goats in Forestry

Boer goats were developed in South Africa.  They are bigger and more solidly built than most goat breeds, which makes them better as meat goats.  They are not as agile as other breeds, which is good since they are not as likely to climb onto structures and through fences.   They were really developed as land clearing machines.  They can climb steep hills and will eat almost everything in their paths, including thorny bushes and vines, such as multiflora rose, blueberries, kudzu and honeysuckle. That is why I am interested in them.

I want the goats to eat down all the brush that grows underneath my pine trees, especially after we do the thinning.  They would be well-adapted to that job, since they can and will eat all the common brush that vexes me.  In addition, they also fertilize as they go.   There is also a growing market for goat meat because of the growing immigrant populations from Central America and the Middle East.  It seems almost too good to be true.  They don’t need much care, but unfortunately, I don’t think I can give them that.

Since I was taking Alex back to school at JMU, I took the opportunity to visit the goat farm of Jeff and Loretta Whetzel in rural Rockingham County.   They are semi-retired.  Jeff joked that goats are his hobby and he is lucky to break even.   I enjoy the same situation with my forestry, so we understood each other.   The Whetzels started raising goats only a few years ago and are kind of easing into the business. 

The goat business is still mostly a small-farmer operation in Virginia.  Although goats have been resident on American farms since the first settlers landed in Virginia and founded Jamestown, they have never been a big business.   But the changing demographics might be creating business opportunities for goat farming.

Goats are fairly easy to take care of and do well in Virginia.  Goats are criticized as “desert makers” because of their voracious appetites and promiscuous eating habits.  But this is not a problem in Virginia, where we have enough rain and good soils to make the grass and brush grow.  Goats are browsers, not grazers.  That means they eat mostly leaves and brush, unlike cows that eat mostly grass, legumes and forbs.  (Of course, goats also eat grass and forbs; they just have a wider diet.)

Goats will eat pine needles and so you cannot put goats into a working pine forest until the trees are tall enough that goats cannot reach the tops or the vital branches of the crop trees. For practical purposes, this means the trees need to be about ten feet high (about five years old for a loblolly pine in Southern Virginia), since goats can reach up about five feet by standing on their hind legs. They will eat pine bark, but only if there is not other things to eat.  Presumably this would never become a problem if the goal was brush clearing. Jeff says that pine needles in the goat diet are beneficial, since something in the resin helps prevent worms.

The goats are very friendly. They are like dogs in that they follow you around. I can see the attraction of having them around.

But after talking to Jeff & Loretta, I realized that I cannot put goats on my lands unless and until I have to more time to devote. For one thing, I would need a lot of them to eat down 80 or 100 acres. I would also have to build electrified fences and dig some ponds or other water sources. My farms have flowing water, so that could be done. But you have to watch them. They require some grain supplements etc. And they need protection.

Coyotes are a problem.  Jeff and Loretta have a big dog called Yogi that chases them away. He is a Pyrenees sheep dog, very big and tougher than coyotes, developed by shepherds Spain to fight off the local predators.  He looks a lot like the podhale dog in Poland.  This is another reason why I cannot put the goats on our land and be there to watch.  The goats can be left more or less alone for a long time, but a dog cannot. We have coyotes, along with some bobcats and a few bears, in Southern Virginia too, so we need that protection.

Anyway, I have to put my goat plan on hold for at least the next couple of years when I am in Brazil.  We are thinning eighty-six acres this year. I plan to burn under those trees in 2012.  After that and after the brush grows in, maybe it will be time to deploy some Boer goats.

Links to some related posts are here and here.  

Country Roads

I used my new GPS to find the goat farm of Jeff & Loretta Whetzel (more on that in the next post).  I am a late adapter of the GPS for the car. I had one a long time ago that I used in my forestry, but it was not really good enough for precise measurement.  This one (see above) is nice and was much cheaper. It tells you when to turn etc.  I made it speak in Portuguese so that I can practice. Of course, vocabulary is limited. Also can play audio books.

Above you can see road work.  We had to wait around fifteen minutes while the cleared out the rocks.  They are widening the road.  The rock is shale, which is common in the Eastern Mountains.  It is very good for paving running trails as it breaks down into flattish chips and forms a springy surface. 

Below is kudzu growing along US 211 (also called Lee Highway, BTW, a continuation of the Lee Highway that runs near my house) and doing the one thing it is good at – holding a steep bank. The government encouraged Kudzu planting in the U.S. because of its extreme ability to grow. That was not an entirely wise idea. What makes it a great cover for everything also makes it a troubling invasive, since what grows over rocky hillsides also grows over trees and other plants, choking them off.

I drove the country way home from Harrisonburg, through Luray and over the mountains. I enjoy driving that more than the freeway. It is a bit shorter in miles, but takes about the same time since you have more curves and have to drive slower.  It is not a good idea to drive through the mountains during the winter or at night, but it is nice on a nice day like today.  

Most of the way after the mountains is the way home from Old Rag Mountain, so I have been driving this way for twenty-five years. The area up to Warrenton is very built up, and much of US 29 has become a big strip mall. This includes areas near the Manassas Battlefield. It kind of takes away from the historical feel.  But after Warrenton, it has not changed that much.  It is still very rural, green and pleasant. Fauquier and Rappahannock Counties are among the nicest in Virginia. It is a great pleasure to pass through them. 

Alex back to JMU

I took Alex back up to school at James Madison.  He is in a new dorm right in the center of the campus.  I think he will be better.  He can more easily walk to the places he needs to go and will have more contact with other students.  The room is smaller than the one he had before & has no air conditioning.  This will be okay most of the school year, but it still can get hot in September.  His room is part of a suite with six guys, who share a kind of living space in the middle.  Above is his building and below is his room as it looked when he moved in. The tree is a river birch, the southern cousin in the birch family. In Wisconsin we can grow the paper birch or the white birch. They are pretties than this kind of brownish one, but you have to adapt to local conditions.  I wanted to get a picture of Alex too, but he refused and kept on moving in and out of the shot.

The campus was full of new freshmen, you can see the gaggle of them below. They are much better groomed than back in the 1970s when I started, but otherwise look similar. Speaking of gaggles, the geese just stroll across the road and most cars stop.  I didn’t.  I went slow enough that they could move out of the way, but I am not going to yield to geese.  They squawked a little but they cleared a path.  Up at the farm, a turkey stood in front of my car and stared at me.  I actually had to get out and shoo it away. Turkeys are dumb enough to be run over by a car going 3MPH; geese are not.

A Cool Bike Ride

It was cool and overcast for my morning bike ride, but an easy trip because of the west wind.  I am glad that I don’t have to drive. Below you can see the cars backed up on Memorial Bridge.

Above is the stop light to cross near the Lincoln Memorial.  You have to push the button to get the walk light, at least you HAD to.  Somebody glued button down so that it just goes through the cycle continuously.  I think that is good.  I hate that idea that you have to push the button and always wait.  Of course, sometimes you can just nip through between the traffic.

Above & below are elm trees looking not good on Independence Avenue.  I have noticed that many of the elms around town are not looking good.  Some elm trees are resistant to Dutch elm disease, but none are completely immune.  I worry that something is going on with the trees.  It would be a shame if these big trees died.  I have been watching the media for reports re the elms.  So far I have found nothing.  I hope that my fears are unfounded.  It was a hot year. Maybe they are just stressed.

Fells Point in Baltimore

Chrissy and I went to visit Mariza in Baltimore. It really is a nice city, at least the parts we visit.  Espen and I once turned into a less nice area. It looked like the set for a cop drama; lots of people just hanging around, but these places are being renewed and redeveloped pretty well.

The pictures are from Fells Point, where we went to eat at a place called Kali’s Corner, a seafood restaurant. They had a special menu for restaurant week. I had sea bass; Chrissy got skate, evidently a sting ray & Mariza got the salmon. The Atmosphere was very good; food was okay.

Mariza is doing fine.  Business is picking up a little at Travelers.  Evidently they are at least hiring some new people this year. Above & below are pictures from the windows of Mariza’s new apartment.

Wind Bags

I found this about wind power. All the swells love wind power until it comes anywhere near them. They can often even get the local Indian tribes to claim it violates some sacred something or other to make the opposition more PC. Evidently it spoils the view from some burial grounds. I am not making this up. Who knew the dead were so sensitive?

Where to put it is a serious problem for any type of alternative energy. Oil and gas, for all their problems, have small & shrinking footprints on the land per unit of energy produced and it is less important for them to be near places where they are consumed. Wind, solar and biomass production are very land hungry AND because of transport & transmission challenges they are better situated near where they will be used, i.e. near people. And since some of these people will be rich & powerful, as with the Kennedys and the Cape Wind Farm, they can effectively kill many projects.

BTW – You can see from the chart nearby that the U.S. is now the world’s leader in wind energy, with more than 1/3 of the total world production. You might not guess that from all the caterwauling you hear about the U.S. falling behind in these things. Any guesses about which state is the leader?

Love of Sports

U.S. runners were much less competitive than they used to be.  This bothers the author of the linked article.  Paradoxically, more Americans are running.  In fact, the author thinks this might be contributing to the slowing down of America’s elite runners. Races are dumbed down to cater to the masses. So what if we don’t produce world class elite runners?

I don’t care. Beyond the health benefits, which you can get at a relatively low level or competitiveness, it matters not at all if athletes improve over time. Competitive sports are the epitome of the zero sum game.  I bet they thought up that term to describe sports.  

If we improve the general level of production in business, everybody gets more, at least potentially. If we raise the general level of yield in farming, we can grow more with fewer inputs.  But if the general level of athletic excellent increases, it does nothing to improve anything but the record books. There will always be only one gold, one silver and one bronze.  It doesn’t matter that a decent HS athlete can run/swim/jump/throw better than the guys who won Olympic gold in the 1920s.

Even an average NFL teams today could probably beat the Champion 1967 Green Bay Packers. Players and training methods have improved that much.  Big deal.  In fact, we were better off in the old days before all this scientific training. The game between the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys in the “ice bowl”  was as good as any game will ever be.  No progress is possible, no matter how much more bigger, stronger and technically proficient athletes become.  

It is always hard to know when enough is enough.  I was on the swim team in HS. I thought I was pretty good because I won most of the time. Technically, however, I was not very good compared with the really excellent athletes.  Did it matter?  It was against the rules for us to have practices before the season officially started in November. So before we had swim team, we had swim club. We all got together twice a week and worked out. When the season was over in March, we all did other things. There was no continuation of training until we showed up again in the fall.  We were good swimmers; we were never excellent swimmers.  But we were good enough.  It was better that the competition for swimming didn’t dominate our lives even more.

I don’t swim much anymore. It is hard for me to just have fun. Like Pavlov’s dog, I am conditioned. When I jump in the pool, I feel the need to swim back and forth as fast as I can. I still like to run and I make a special point of not competing nor even knowing exactly how fast I go.

Anyway, if America never again produces a native-born champion marathoner, it really doesn’t matter. If the average level of football, basketball or baseball languishes or even declines, it doesn’t change anything, nor does it matter if it improves.  It doesn’t create more winners.  It is much better if lots of Americans exercise even if none of them gets to be very good.   

Working on the Railroad

Which country has the  world’s best freight rail system,according to experts?   It is the United States, by a wide margin.  And it has gotten a lot better since 1981.  

Those of us who have traveled the comfortable and reliable passenger rail in Europe are surprised by this information.  But the key to our confusion is the word “passenger.”  American passenger rail doesn’t work as well.   And freight tends to be out of sight, so most people just don’t pay attention or even suspect what is going on in the vastness of our country and in those lonely places literally on the wrong side of the tracks.

If you look at the nearby chart, you see that rail productivity exploded and prices came down after 1980.  The Staggers Act was one of the few sustained successes that came out of the Administration of Jimmy Carter.  It rationalized regulation and eliminated some of the pricing schemes that had previously crippled the railroads.  It still working.  Some people thought that railroads were creatures of the past that couldn’t compete with trucks, but they were wrong.  

In fact, the fastest-growing part of rail freight is “intermodal” traffic: containers or truck trailers loaded on to flat railcars. The number of such shipments rose from 3m in 1980 to 12.3m in 2006.  This is something that affects all of us who drive on the highways, since one freight train can carry as much as 280 trucks. Now maybe we all appreciate freight rail a little more. Of course, success creates its own dangers.   Bigger container cargoes and an expected doubling of the capacity of the Panama Canal by 2014 will create need for capital improvements.   Government may pony up some of the cash, but government money comes with government management.  It would be horrible if we returned to the bad old days before 1980. 

(BTW – I  worked on railroad cars in the 1970s.  I remember that each train had to have a “fireman”.  What did the fireman do?  Nothing.   A generation before, the fireman’s job  had been to shove coal in the old steam engines.  When diesel replaced steam, union rules and regulations protected this now redundant and phony baloney job.  Some of the firemen would actually do a little useful work, but others would tell us, “I ain’t gotta help you f*ers and I ain’t gonna.”   And they were right.)The other threat to freight rail is passenger rail.   High speed passenger rail has its own tracks in a few places, but most of the time they share the tracks with freight.  Passenger trains pay only a fraction of the costs, but they tend to get right of way over freight.  Passengers complain a lot more than does a load of coal or timber, so when push comes to shove, freight is shoved aside.  This saps efficiency and greatly adds to costs. 

We have to be careful when we rush to copy Europe’s trains not to copy the downside with the good.  Freight rail is the most efficient form of terrestrial transportation and there is a good reason it so rapidly replaced canals and wagons.  It can continue to compete well in the age of trucks, as long as we don’t mess it up.