October 31, 2008 – Snakes on the Table

This week was the elementary school science fair.  Martin wanted to do a poster on “Iowa Snakes” and so he did.

He found photos of the 27 kinds of snakes native to Iowa, from the common garter snake, to the venemous kinds – Prairie Rattlesnake, Timber Rattlesnake, Massasauga Rattlesnake, and Copperheads.  I was surprised to learn that so many kinds of venomous snakes lived in the state, but many of them are restricted to the far southern corners of the state.  He also brought along his toy snakes and a live snake from the biology lab.

one year ago…”Presidential Parade”.

October 29, 2008 – Tractor Repair

The last few times I’ve used the 2510, there has been a smell of coolant – I was able to see that it was a relatively small leak, so I let it go until a later time.  That time was today.

I hadn’t yet dug into the tractor, so I had to figure out how to get the hood off as I could remove one clamp off with the hood on, but not the other.  I was happy for the manual to show me how to remove the hood.

Here’s the offending hose with the clamp loosened.

The new hose clamped firmly in place.

one year ago…”City Smoke, Country Smoke”.

October 28, 2008 – Soap Cutting

It was another round of soap-making this week-end.  I thought it would be a good time to show the final stages of soap making.

About 12 hours after pouring into the mold, this batch was ready to cut.  You can tell when it is ready when the soap barely indents to a strong touch.

The soap mold has fold-away hinges and here’s what the mold looks like after the mold is collapsed.

After the plastic film is removed, the soap goes back in the mold and is cut into bars.

The soap must “cure” for 4-6 weeks before the chemical reaction is complete.  We’ve noticed our soap is like a fine wine – the longer it sits, the better it gets – we found some year-old stuff and it was even better than the new stuff.

one year ago…”Rare Breed Chickens – Silver Campine”.

October 27, 2008 – Lucinda Williams

This week Linda and I snuck out to see Lucinda Williams play a grand old theatre in Des Moines. Lu is one of those artists that’s hard to put in a category, so she’s never on commercial radio. She plays rock, country (Cline, Willie, and Waylon type country, not Garth, and other hat acts), and blues all with her own sound. We got fifth row seats, so had a good view.

Lots of her fans are worried now that she’s happy. Don’t worry, she can write happy songs as well as songs that walk on the unpleasant side of life.

one year ago…”Garlic Planting”.

October 22, 2008 – Growing Season Over

The last of the garden gleaning is almost done (well almost, there’s still swiss chard and some brussell sprouts and lettuce out there). But the main summer crops are all frozen out.

This bell pepper had some more to give, but it’s over now. We’ve never canned and frozen as much as we have this year – in a few days I’ll snap a picture of the pantry to see the big picture.

one year ago…”Adolescent Cooper’s Hawk?”.

October 21, 2008 – Mortgage Meltdown and More…

I’ve restrained myself from commenting on the mortgage mess for some time now, but today is the day, so if you come here to read about the farm, skip this entry and hook back up with us tomorrow.

I work for a large mortgage company 30 hours week in addition to the farm and have some thoughts on the meltdown.

Does anybody really believe that prices of commodity products have any real link to the supply and demand of those products? I look at the cost of a barrel of oil and cost of a bushel of corn over the past few months and shake my head in disbelief.

On the corn side, Chicago corn futures rose to an all-time high on Monday June 9th, 2008. The new-crop July 2009 corn contract scaled an all-time peak of $7.20 per bushel. This week when I went to the local co-op to pick up some turkey feed, the price was $3.50 bushel.

Earlier this summer, crude oil prices topped out at $145 per barrel and last week dropped to $61 per barrel.

So what’s the real price of these items, and what/who is really controlling the market price? Supply and demand have not swung a factor of 100% less for corn and oil in the last few months, but yet the price for each is less than half of what it was in June.  So supply and demand are no longer the leading factor in determining a good’s price?

The stock market is a similar story – in some ways the prices are all just make-believe, not cemented in any concrete factors other than what people believe will happen. As an employee of one of the nation’s largest mortgage companies and banks, I’ve had a front row seat to the housing and mortgage crisis. This isn’t a crisis that is unforeseen as Alan Greenspan tried to explain. Maybe my simple co-workers and I aren’t sophisticated enough to understand what has happened.

But I clearly remember 2-3 years ago sitting around the office with my co-workers and for months marveling at the make-believe in the mortgage industry. Our company was a leading mortgage provider and as other companies passed us up in the rankings, we skipped further and further down the charts and saw profits climb not nearly as fast as our competitors who were offering loans that defied common sense and historical measures – for example loans valued at 125% of the appraised value and loans granted on “stated income” where a maid at a motel 6 could say she earned $250,000 a year and the mortgage company would not require verification of income.

Our company faced a near revolt among the loan officers when a number of years ago the company changed the way appraisals were ordered from a system where the loan agent ordered an appraisal from a buddy, to a “blind” appraisal where appraisers were not assigned by a loan officer, but by a “blind” central assignment system so loan agents couldn’t get cozy with appraisers and inflate values. The loan reps saw their competitors doing this and they were losing market share. We knew that these exotic loans were building a house of cards that would only last as long as house values rapidly appreciated.

The simple-minded people in our cube farm knew that it was not possible for housing prices to increase 20% a year (sometimes a month in some markets) forever and when something happened that reversed house prices increases, the whole house of cards would tumble down.

What we didn’t anticipate in the housing melt-down was the impacts it would have on the rest of the economy. So far, the crash has been relatively good for our company – the two companies that practiced these exotic loans (Countrywide and Washington Mutual) are now both essentially gone, so in the long run, the conservative lending practices will reward my employer. I’m a little disappointed that the so-called free-market politicians did not let the prices of financial companies drop to their real bottom, so well-run and managed companies could be rewarded for their discipline and buy the failed companies, but instead the government has come in and “rescued” these failed companies – thus preventing the prudent companies from being rewarded for their approach by buying ex-competitors on the cheap who gambled, won big, then failed.

One of the most amusing stories I’ve heard is people who appear at foreclosure hearings and ask one simple question: “Show me that you have custody of the mortgage note that is the legal document that shows I owe you the money. Otherwise I won’t pay, because any bank could come in and say they own the loan – you must produce the note that you have when you purchased my mortgage note from the loan origination company.” The loans have been sold so many times, some up to 7-8 times, sometimes split into 3-4 different mortgage pools or securities and the original note was lost in the rush to securitize and repackage the loans. Many judges have thrown the foreclosures out of court, because the legal status of the foreclosing entity could not be proven.

At some point, we will once again need to make things or provide services that have a tangible value – trading imaginary prices of goods to other people who think they can make a living based on the value of the imaginary price of a good doesn’t really provide a service any more.  When futures traders try to justify their service – it is to provide a guide and guarantee of a price of good for some time in the future that helps those producing it today plan and invest – but when it comes to the wild prices swinging 100% in a few short months, it has the opposite effect and injects great uncertainty into the system.  So my thought is we need an economy based on real goods and services – much of the making of real goods has been moved off of US soil.  So with every time of change comes opportunity – we have the choice of scaling up entire new industries or chasing the same old jobs.  It is a great time to be an innovator once again, as we look for new pathways to work that produces something of value.

one year ago…”1,000 Blog Entries”.

October 20, 2008 – Garlic Planting

Today was a “must plant” garlic day.  The weather is forecast for a turn to the very wet and cold and I’m not sure it would dry out before November.  The last few weekend’s “free time” has been spent scraping and painting the house.

This year we are working with another farmer who sells garlic to Wheatsfield Co-op in Ames and he anticipates a much larger demand for garlic after the co-op moves into a much larger building next year.  We bought some of the garlic that he markets and we will grow it and he will market it.  It’s a tiny conenction in a local food network as a number of other farmers are participating in this informal arrangement.

The first job is to remove all the cloves from the garlic.

The second job is to recruit some help to plant the garlic.

The tractor is priceless in making the trenches to plant the garlic – digging the trenches used to be backbreaking work before. Here the kids get down to planting.  I’ll mulch the rows sometime in the next few weeks.

one year ago…”Final Thoughts on Mexican Immersion”.

October 19, 2008 – Post Tomato Harvest Work

Now comes the unglamorous part of the gardening season (OK, some of you may argue that weeding isn’t particularly glamorous, but at least the garden is optimistic or colorful during the weeding season).

Here, we’re in the middle of the clean-up.  Most of the tomato cages and some of the posts and left-over vines remain.  I think it is important to get the tomato vines up and piled up to burn later in a different location to reduce overwintering of tomato disease in the soil.  This spring we didn’t have time to get mulch down so we cheated and just used weed barrier fabric and hog panels to weigh them down because they were handy.

one year ago…”Visit to the Village of Nocutzepo”.