Thursday, January 14, 2016

Get Involved, Our Government Needs You!



This past week I have been watching the events in Oregon and reading all I can about the parties involved in this very complex situation. Actually there are two events that are sort of tied together. First you have the Hammonds, a father and son ranching together convicted on terrorism charges for setting prescribed burns and backfires on their ranch and the federal lands adjoining them. Then as an off shoot of that situation you have the standoff involving armed militia who has taken over a federal building on a wildlife preserve.
Before I go any further I would encourage each of you to do what I have done and read several articles on the situations. I also would encourage you to read them from different sources and different angles so you get all the sides. It is a fairly complex saga that goes back many years. Personally, I found the story to be quite disturbing as a rancher, citizen and land manager. To put it as simply as possible, the Hammonds first started a prescribed burn on their land that escaped and burned about 140 acres of federal land. Then in a separate event they set a back fire on federal land to protect their winter pasture from a wildfire started by lightening. The backfire saved their land and even succeeded in stopping the wildfire.
The Hammond’s ranch is surrounded by a federal wildlife preserve and they are one of the last private landowners in the area. The government officials in charge of the preserve would very much like to have the Hammond’s ranch. The Hammond’s have had their grazing rights on the federal lands around them taken away and even had their water rights challenged. Most of the adjoining landowners have given up and sold to the federal government and the private industry in the area has taken a huge hit because of the restrictions on mining and logging.
The Hammonds were tried on laws meant to deal with terrorists and they were convicted. However, the federal judge reduced their sentences from the mandatory five years to 12 months for the son and 3 months for the father. After they had served their sentences their case was appealed to another federal judge who reinstated the mandatory five year sentences. This past week the Hammonds reported to federal prison for the rest of their sentence.
Their story is one that worries me greatly. We rely on prescribed burns in Kansas and this might have an impact on them. But more importantly I think it highlights a disregard for private property rights. Now let’s be very clear and understand that not all federal employees or land managers are like those in Oregon. However, it does show what someone with an agenda can do. Again I encourage you to read the entire story and form your own opinion, but I found it very troubling.
Protests were organized in support of the Hammonds and from that an armed group of self-appointed militia seized control of an isolated federal building. Leading the militia are two Bundy brothers. The Bundy family gained attention a couple of years ago in a showdown with the BLM over grazing rights. I also encourage you to read that story and form your own opinions. It must be noted that the Hammond family has made a statement that the armed militia group does not represent them in any form.
There are the facts but the opinions around this entire are where things start to get murky. While I worry about government overstepping their bounds and the loss of personal freedoms and private property rights, I agree with the Oregon Farm Bureau and the Oregon Livestock Association in supporting the Hammonds and calling for a review of the case and the eventual release of the father and son from prison. I also agree that the taking of federal property through the armed occupation is not the right way to handle the situation.
All of the issues at stake are fundamental to our nation and the constitution. This great nation was founded on personal freedoms, liberty, justice and private property rights and we must insure they are protected. However, armed aggression is not the path that should be taken. I pray that the outcome of all of this is peaceful and calmer, cooler heads prevail.
This does highlight the need for each of us to become more involved in our government. Too long, too many have been satisfied to sit back and let a few make the rules and laws and ultimately carry out those rules and laws. We need to quit lamenting about what has happened and get involved peacefully in the process. Our government only works when an informed, active citizenry is involved. I still believe in this great nation, but it is time that we all work together to make sure it stays great.

2016 Here I Come!



Here we are standing right on the starting line of a new year. I don’t know about you but I feel like one of those skiers at the gate of the giant slalom. It is that moment when nothing has happened yet but in a flash the flags (or months) will be flying by. Then all of the sudden, just as quickly as it started, you are standing at the bottom looking back at another year.
What will 2016 bring? I have no idea. If I knew what was going to happen I would be buying contracts on the commodity markets, buying shares on Wall Street and heading to Las Vegas to place bets on the winners of the World Series and Super Bowl. Then the farm could be a tax write off. Well, maybe not, because I would know what to plant, when to plant it and how to market it.
In any case, 2016 is a mystery to all of us. There are long range  predictions on the weather. I have not picked up a copy of the Farmer’s Almanac but I intend too at some point. I find their predictions just as insightful and accurate as any. It always puzzles me why we put so much into long range forecasts when our weathermen can’t even get it right 24 hours out. I am glad they whiffed on winter storm Goliath especially when they were so sure we would get lots of snow. I guess I better keep that in mind when they miss the other way on the next storm.
Weather is such a mystery and always the unknown factor or risk to those of us in agriculture. We start into each year with the hope that the weather will be favorable and we deal with what we get. I am not sure at all what to expect other than here in Kansas we often live with the extremes and our average weather is only the spot in between those extremes. As my wise old father says, “you can’t do anything about the weather, so why worry about it.”
I used to think the weather was the most unpredictable thing we dealt with in agriculture and it used to be. However, I am now convinced that the commodity markets are the most unpredictable thing we deal with. My bachelor’s degree is in agricultural economics and I have a lot course work with commodity markets. I was sure that I would bring home what I learned in college and teach Dad a thing or two. Instead I learned that experience is far more important than anything you learn out of a textbook.
Youthful exuberance led me to believe that all markets ran in cycles and therefore could be explained. I am not sure that was ever true but I am absolutely sure that is not true in this day and age. Weather patterns maybe extreme but they pale in comparison with the commodity markets. Maybe the best evidence of this is that weather is a part of what goes into the prices of grains and livestock.
So now I have told you everything that you already know, weather and markets are unpredictable and we have no idea what they will bring in 2016. At this rate I will qualify to be a weatherman or a market analyst. The weather will have periods of cold, mostly in the winter, and periods of heat, mostly in the summer. Precipitation will be heavy at times and sparse at other times. We will have snow and it will be less than average or more than average or somewhere in between.
The markets will be favorable for some and not so much for others. Prices will rise and fall and we will have no idea why. No matter how high the prices get they will not be good enough for some sellers and not matter how much they drop they will never be cheap enough for some buyers. I don’t know what to expect but I do know that if you are consistent with your predictions, you will eventually be right.
No I have no idea what 2016 will bring for me or my farm and I think that is a good thing. Life is unpredictable and we can both deal with that unpredictability and adapt to it or we can worry and be miserable.  I think the biggest key for all of us is to take each day as it comes and be grateful that we are here to see it. Now let’s push away from the gate and watch the months whiz by, see you in December.


2015 In the Review Mirror



This is the last column of 2015. It is hard to believe that once again I am here with another whole year in the rear view mirror. I would really like to pull over into the right lane or even the shoulder for a while and get out of the passing lane. Time seems like it keeps building up speed and passing faster and faster all the time. Needless to say, 2015 was a blur.
On a personal level it sure was a momentous year. My family survived a knee surgery and recovery. Basketball season has gone a lot better at my house so far this year (that knocking on wood sound you hear is me). We have also experienced half of a senior year complete with the last football game and the successful completion of a senior exit project. Oh and there was that whole college acceptance letter thing too. I have a feeling that the last semester of the senior year is an even bigger roller coaster.
As far as the whole world of agriculture goes, 2015 will not go down as a banner year. We all knew this type of a year was coming but I can’t imagine any of us were ready for it. The market analysts thought it was a few months to a year away. 2015 became what 2016 was supposed to be. The two most unpredictable things I know are weather and crop markets and both of them lived up to the billing.
I know I am only speaking for my little part of the Flint Hills but this year was marked with extreme swings in precipitation. I heard this morning that 2015 will go down as one of the five wettest and maybe even the second wettest years on record. Those of us living here know that the rain was not spread out over the entire twelve months but came in basically two months; the rest of the year was pretty dry.
I am not complaining, I generally don’t complain about moisture, we did have enough and at the right time. Crop yields were really good for the corn and passable for the beans and we had plenty of grass and hay. Sure we were a month late getting the beans planted and the hay baled, but it is easier to figure out what to do with too much rather than too little rain. This summer was an odd year and one that presented many challenges,
Thank goodness we did raise decent crops because it would have been really bad if we had not. I am sure we are all painfully aware of what happened to nearly all of our commodity markets this past year. We may have raised a good crop but the bottom line was pretty thin. The cattle market wasn’t much better and we finally seem to be seeing the downturn that has been expected for a long time now,
To be honest, things don’t look too rosy for 2016 either. This past fall and early winter I have visited with many farmers, ranchers, economists and Ag business people and all are feeling the pinch and no one sees much relief in the coming year. I think the only hope most of us have is the knowledge that the markets are unpredictable and there is a good chance the long-term forecasts could be wrong.
I know, I am not very uplifting and it almost seems like being on the edge of the thunderstorm. The western sky is dark and menacing, the wind is picking up and the first big drops are starting to hit the ground. Things don’t look good. However, I have not met anyone who is ready to give up. We all cuss and discuss this past year and we start to speculate about next year and that is when it happens.
The conversation about the current year usually wraps up with someone saying something like, “I guess it could have been worse.” Then the discussion about the upcoming year usually turns to a determination to not let the situation get us down and suddenly optimism breaks out. I am not saying anyone is giddy with anticipation for the next year but most of us still have hope for it.
That is why I like being around my fellow farmers and ranchers, no matter how dark the horizon might be there is hope. We know that, of all the professions in this world, we can least afford to give up. With a hungry world we must plow on and plant the next year’s crop. The idea of giving up is not anywhere in our heads. Yes, there may be storm clouds on the horizon but with the storm comes the rain and rain is a good thing. So bring on 2016 and its weather and crop markets, I am ready.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Mom's Nativity



I am a sentimental sap; I admit it, especially this time of the year. I find it amazing the things that trigger those sentimental moments, and the trip down memory lane that follows. Such was the case last week when my friend Mary posted a picture of a nativity set that my mother had made for her.
My mother was an artist, and a really good one (proving that artistic ability is not genetic). She made clay sculptures, often people would send her pictures of special memories, pets and people and she would custom make a sculpture based off of the picture. I have heard from many people over the years about how they cherish those sculptures, but what Mom was most known for was her nativity sets.
She gave nativity sets out for graduation and wedding presents and often I enter the home of friends and those very sets greet me. Mom gave Jennifer and me one when we got married. It is a white glazed set just like the original set that goes up in Dad’s living room each year. Mom even included Jennifer’s dog Cisco in our set, because who better to guard Baby Jesus than the best dog ever. My nativity set is one of my most cherished possessions.
Mary posted the picture of her set on Facebook and that picture and the comments by others sent me down memory lane. Mom has been gone for over ten years now so any excuse to pause for a moment and remember her is very much welcome and is a great blessing. I miss Mom everyday but Christmas is one of those times I realize just how much.
Mom made Christmas special. She didn’t make it special by lavishing us with lots of presents or rushing from this event to the next. No, she made Christmas special by reminding us of what was important and making sure we kept our priorities in the right place. Sure there were special things about the season but they never overshadowed the reason for Christmas.
Mom lived a simple, orderly life and she celebrated Christmas the same way. Our tree was a simple cedar tree that we, as a family, would go out and cut down from the pasture. Mom and Dad would have a couple of trees picked out from frequent trips to check cows. The decorations were simple and few in number, most were handmade by my sister and I. Most importantly, I got to put the elf on the tree each year, no exceptions.
Christmas cookies were another one of Mom’s traditions. To this day I can still smell the sugar cookies, date rolls, chocolate peanut butter chip and jello cookies baking. A few presents would be under the tree but Andrea and I knew the big present was hidden in the house somewhere and we dared not go look for it. We also knew that we would get one big (in a relative sense) present and some years, based on the farm, would be bigger than others. We learned the importance of being thankful for what we received.
The biggest moment of the Christmas Season was Christmas Eve. The day would be spent preparing to spend Christmas Day with family. Chores had to be done and extra needed to be done in anticipation. We also knew that sometime before noon, Dad would leave for town for his annual Christmas shopping for Mom. We would eat supper before Christmas Eve service and it would usually be oyster casserole (it would have been fried oysters like my great-grandparents but frying oysters was a mystery Mom would never unlock) and then we would go to Christmas Eve service. We always had to wait on Mom in the car when we left. Why she took so much time that one night of the year was a mystery.
To this day Christmas Eve service is the highpoint and the most important part of Christmas to me. I am pretty sure that was what Mom would have said too and that is why I feel that way. No Christmas is complete without singing “Silent Night” in candlelight. We would return from Christmas Eve service to find Santa had come while we were gone. Mom always explained that Santa always came to the dairy farms on Christmas Eve.
Often during Christmas Season I will spend a few moments looking at my nativity set and reflecting on my memories of Mom and Christmas. I worry that as time goes on my memories of my mother will dim, and I work to keep her in the forefront of my thoughts. I cannot thank friends like Mary enough for jogging my reflections and sending me down memory lane. I hope each of you will take a moment to remember cherished memories and celebrate the important things this Christmas Season.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

I am Dreaming of a Warm, Dry Christmas



We are into one of my favorite times of the year, the Christmas Season. Often I think I like the anticipation of Christmas the best. Too many times it seems that we can’t wait for Christmas to get here and then in a flash it is gone and we are left waiting another whole year. I want the season to last longer so I can savor each moment, but somehow each year I manage to pack more and more onto my calendar.
This year is no different. I had plans to clear my calendar and spend time in preparation for Christmas. Enjoying the sights and sounds of the season, but just yesterday I looked at my calendar and I have something on every day until the 21st. To make matters worse, I did it to myself. Well at least I can enjoy Christmas music as I drive to the various events, parties and basketball games.
I enjoy Christmas music about as much as anything during this season. My family will tell you that I enjoy singing along but I am the only one who enjoys my singing along. Eleven months out of the year my radio is firmly tuned to AM but from Thanksgiving to Christmas I leave the dial on the all Christmas music station.
Such was the case yesterday. Tatum and I were driving into town, listening to Christmas music and I was holding myself back from singing along. Somewhere on the road to town “I am Dreaming of a White Christmas” came on. I turned the radio up and we were both enjoying Bing Crosby.
After the song was done, Tatum mentioned that she hoped we had a white Christmas and asked if I agreed. I didn’t hesitate. “No,” I said, “I am hoping for a dry, brown Christmas.” The look she gave me indicated that I had once again lost my bid for Dad of the Year and she viewed me as the Grinch and Scrooge all rolled into one. I might as well go ahead and told her the truth about Santa Claus and that Frosty the Snowman had melted. I knew what she was thinking, “the guy who can’t get enough Christmas doesn’t like white Christmas, how can that happen?”
Maybe my answer was a little jaded, after all we had just come off of an icy Thanksgiving and a white Christmas didn’t  really sound like a good idea. Between the stress of worrying about Dad doing chores by himself while I was out of town and the treacherous drive home, I just wasn’t very crazy about the thought of any more precipitation right now. Especially precipitation of the frozen variety.
It could have been because I was still in my knee boots and I could smell the odor of muddy lots and see the grime of slop on my coveralls. I am sure that the reality of feeding cattle and sheep in the snow didn’t help my attitude either. A snow looks really pretty until you have to go out in it and feed hay. Of course wet chore clothes and gloves didn’t help my outlook either.
OK, before I get labeled as a curmudgeon and a fun hater, let me explain. Some of this was definitely tongue in cheek. At times I do enjoy a white Christmas. When it is the kind that could be made into a Norman Rockwell painting of a white Christmas. There is nothing that gets me in the Christmas spirit more than watching snow come down and seeing the new blanket of white on the ground. I love looking out my picture window, sipping hot chocolate and listening to Christmas music. I like it as long as there is no wind, I don’t have to drive in it and it doesn’t get too deep. If we meet those criteria, I am all for a white Christmas.
I am also aware that I am whining a little bit and we all know that Santa doesn’t like whiners. So I guess what I am asking for is a little time to dry up after this last storm and time to prepare for the next one. Then maybe I will be ready to whole heartedly wish for some snow toward the end of December (as long as it lays right, doesn’t last too long and behaves itself while it is here).  After all the chorus of “I am dreaming of a warm, dry Christmas” just isn’t as catchy.