The 4R’s and the Fertilizer Supply Chain

The stewardship of land and water is becoming a driving force in farming and the fertilizer retailer is taking up the challenge to help implement these changes.  The 4R’s are universal and adaptive to many different forms of farming.  They will affect both large and small, organic and nonorganic farmers as well as those who market themselves as being somewhere in between.

The 4R’s is nondiscriminatory as the concept can be applied in any farming environment.  Technology does not have to be complex to use the 4R’s as farmers in various parts of the world can attest. However, in technology driven markets such as Canada, Europe, and the United States, technology will play a key role in helping to make more precise prescriptions as well as in the application methods used.  Technology is driving a more precise version of 4R Stewardship.  Take our broadcast spreaders, for example.  At one time these stalwarts of productivity were designed to apply one rate across a set spreader width.  Today, these units are able to not only adjust spread rate but also pattern width and pattern position with the interconnected movement of spinner fan frame side to side and front to aft, to the rate of product coming out of the product.  The inclusion of a multiproduct bin makes for a limitless amount of pattern combinations and rates.  With the choice of power units available today, we have a vast range of equipment options to choose from.  No one would argue that the equipment we have today can perform more than ever before.

What products will you apply?  Will its physical properties and crop response patterns be on par to the equipment demands to do an accurate job?

It does not take a whole lot of imagination to see the opportunities for those who are looking to excel in quality, consistency, and compatibility to meet regional demands.  If you have been around a few truck loads and rail cars of various products, you realize that there are differences from time to time and load to load.  As we strive for higher efficiencies in our fertilizer programs, we will find ourselves pushing the envelope on application accuracy and placement.  Will things like SGN size, fines, and increased ease of storage and mixing be driven by the Right Rate at the Right Place of our products?  One would think this would be the case.

As we enter this new realm, products less known may find themselves being a good fit in certain markets.  How will the supply chain adapt?  Will we need a few more smaller bins or tanks for more precise windows of application?  How will it be sourced?  Will we need more regional terminals for less than rail car shipments?  How will new products effectively enter a grain market that is during a very tough multiyear economic cycle?

The Last Mile in Retail Services

Retailing, regardless of type, is undergoing a dynamic change in how products and services are delivered.  Retailers like Lowe’s, Home Depot, and others are advancing their customer value proposition with the delivery of heavy products to the customer while maximizing inventory turns and minimizing the cost of money by developing Last Mile Delivery Services.  Kind of sounds like the fertilizer business, doesn’t it?   Delivery services are being leveraged to build value to the customer as well as reducing excess inventory which minimizes carrying costs and asset value erosion.  The phrase “Last Mile Delivery” is coined to describe the entire process.  Granted, we in the ag supply industry haven’t been driven by e-commerce or purchase of kitchen appliances.  We may call it, “keeping in product”, “keeping up with the planter” or “beating the rain”.  The 4R process will revolutionize the way in which we manage inventory and its timely delivery, based on crop stage and environmental conditions.  All the while we will be factoring in various business constraints and market opportunities on the local and regional.  Might we see a supply chain that is even more driven by local and regional crop needs?

The days coming are very exciting ones.  Those who are nimble and adaptable, always keeping their suppliers well informed, will stand to offer the best in 4R services.

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The Customer Experience Relay Race

 

In ag retailing, we can get it all right. We can have the best product; we can have the best social media campaign; we can have the best in class customer service policy. It’s our drivers and delivery staff that are the final, and most important leg, on what I will call the “Customer Experience Relay Race”. All other members, or processes, can execute flawlessly, but the race is won or lost in the final leg.

The spring rush can leave all of us a little frayed. Let’s try to be the driver’s advocate as we consider our daily and weekly schedules. Demands of weather and customers can push us hard and ours is an industry that is given an exemption from many of the hours of service rules that others must follow. However, we are all still human. A fatigued driver can be a danger to themselves, others, equipment, and the customers they service. Driver fatigue is something that needs to be recognized and prevented.

Another key to helping them do their job is having safe equipment. Not only do safe trucks help keep our DOT CSA scores low, they help to keep drivers focused on what matters most- the delivery of products safely and effectively in a courteous and timely manner. Our maintenance programs can’t afford to take a break in the heat of the season. Meanwhile, labeling of things like fuel and hydraulic tanks and what direction to turn a valve can appear to be over-kill but is a great reminder to the driver who is in the thick of a planting or spray season that broke hard and fast. Often these folks wind up going to a delivery site that can be ambiguous. A good preseason plan could include addressing some of these delivery point issues so that the customer, driver, and the company they serve all make it safe and sound to the end of the relay race.

Have a safe and successful season!

Point or Nonpoint Water Issues?

The discharge end of a drain tile

The water issues in Lake Erie were mainly about water quality and the general reasons for the massive harmful algal blooms[i].  Des Moines, IA, escalated from “merely” being about safe drinking water being to specifically about nitrates and who was going to pay to remove them[ii],[iii].  For decades, this topic has been gaining the attention of government entities.  For example, states around the Chesapeake Bay were the first to develop very comprehensive nutrient

A roll of drain tile to drain water from the field into the drainage ditch and onto the creek or river.

management regulations for even the smallest of farms[iv].  Terms like Point Source and Nonpoint Source were developed to help those involved in water quality management to categorize what actions, corrective and punitive, to take when situations are to be addressed.  The process has been long but is now coming to some very real conclusions at the local, state[v] and federal levels[vi].

That was then.  What about tomorrow?

Tomorrow and its demands are just a day away.  Municipal water quality and WOTUS

Runoff water  bound a local stream

issues have come into the spotlight and will now always be discussed.  They may not take center stage, but they will be issues none the less.  Technology will be our aid in helping us mitigate existing issues and help show us causes and effects so we can develop more sustainable corrective action plans.  Let’s not think that a Des Moines situation won’t happen again.  It can and we need to act as if it will.  In other words, how can we reduce nitrate levels in yet to be determined Point Source areas?  It is a real goal that deserves our attention.  They are measurable, and technology will soon make it easier to monitor the actual Thanks to technology, Nonpoint becomes Point Source quickly.  We must make it a priority to prevent another Des Moines from occurring.

The challenge has been laid down for thoughtful nutrient management decision making.  By utilizing time-proven stewardship wisdom and utilizing technologies that help us better understand our environment so we can plan now to prevent the problems of tomorrow.  Find out where your water comes from by going to this Nature Conservancy site.

[i] http://www.croplife.com/management/stewardship/ohio-water-at-the-tipping-point/

[ii] http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/crime-and-courts/2017/01/27/water-works-ruling-what-you-need-know/97138256/

[iii] https://www.calt.iastate.edu/article/des-moines-water-works-litigation-resources

[iv] http://mda.maryland.gov/resource_conservation/Pages/farmer_information.aspx

[v] http://mn.gov/gov-stat/pdf/2017_01_24_FINAL_Clean_Water_Fact_Sheet.pdf

[vi] http://www.environmentalintegrity.org/news_reports/documents/EIP-TheCWAandtheChesapeakeDec20122_000.pdf

Fully Separate but Fully United(hopefully)

When politics steps into the arena of farming and food, things can become tense.  Politics CanadaUSAis built on negotiations.  We are in the season of nationalism on a world level.  Farmers deal in a world that moves with the seasons of nature, not political elections and national sentiment. The natural resources of land, timber, and mineral deposits were formed long before any nation staked a claim to it.  The local and regional soil types and climates allow for a native diversity of animals and crops adapted to the area.

I know I am making what seems to be a complicated issue simple, perhaps too simple. But, I do know this:  farmers and some of those who supply them deal in cycles and systems that are still as old as life itself.  They deal in the planting of trees, crops, sunshine, rain, hailstorms, and floods.  They deal in the birth of calves, pigs, lambs, and a host of other animals. They are fisherman and oysterman, people who work with the tides and streams; waters that were put in motion long ago.  These are systems that will outlive them and their children’s’ children.  Yet, their actions today will have post humus effects for generations to come.

A Hundred Year Management Plan

The same principles apply for those who deal in minerals and forestry.  A potash mine can’t simply up and move when trade policies would make it beneficial to do so.  Farmers around the world need access to potassium sources for increasing and maintaining crop yields.  Foresters deal in management plans that take a century to play out.  These forest assets produce some of the cleanest water are inseparably linked to and fisheries.  When was the last time your company did a 100-year asset management plan?  Supplier consolidation is driven in part because of the economic uncertainty that exists as governments work on agendas that have abbreviated timelines or engage strong diplomacy as we are currently involved in.  Suppliers consolidate and thereby spread their risk across national boundaries, farmers rarely have such an option.   However, in the process of national and international wrangling, long horizon assets like farming, minerals, and forestry can become swept up and forced into difficult positions.  It is in no continents best interests to see such assets distorted as it directly affects the farmers that each nation tries to protect.

The situation at hand is that the fertilizer industry and the farmers of the United States find themselves in the same dilemma.  For the farmers of America, we want to see our biggest export customers remain open to us.  Canadian fertilizer producers surely desire the exact same thing in return as the United States is their largest customer.  In 2013, Canadian manufacturers supplied America with 85% of its potash needs.  It would be a sorry state of affairs for neighbors to disrupt such a delicate system.   Meanwhile, the countries of Brazil and Argentina are seeing to it that they become a competitive supplier of corn and soybeans around the world, including to our neighbor to the south, Mexico.  These world class competitors push already revenue reduced crops into an even more tricky situation.  Without in injection of different crop rotations to spread out revenue risk, farm numbers will continue to decrease at a national level.

The Starvation of Farming

The farmers of the United States are looking for value.  In terms of 2009

farms, farming, USA

While 40% of the world population is involved in farming, less than 1% farm in the USA.

dollars, current estimates on net farm income are on par with incomes of 1939, 1980, and 2000.  Even with strong exports, profit will be thin to non-existent for corn and soybean growers.  Federal program payments in the form of Direct Farm Program Payments are forecasted to make up 19% of net farm income for 2016.  The upcoming potential resetting of the farm economy in the United States will garner a lot of attention from a citizenry that chose to walk away from farming as a way of life long ago.  However, we still expect cheap food.  Hence, a Free Market style of farming has evolved as compared to the Supply Management System for Canadian farming.

According to Progressive Dairyman, the United States has lost 33,000 family dairy farms (44.5%) in the past 15 years alone while the average herd size has increased by 181%. Today, United States dairy farmers milk 9.3 million cows.  In 2002, with almost twice as many herds, they milked 9.1 million cows.  Meanwhile, our harvests rely more and more on the efforts of migrant workers with over 1 million of these hard working people being undocumented according to a recently published report from Johns Hopkins University.  Meanwhile, Canada has a larger ag employee base than the United States while having seven times less farm land.  We can cry “unfair” regarding Canada’s policies on milk, eggs, and poultry, but in the process, they do protect their farming heritage so that consolidation perhaps does not progress at such a rapid pace.  It’s a delicate balancing act.  Short term results or long term stability?

Given that food and farming are mostly global, very powerful forces like the currency exchange and weather events can quickly alter the supply and demand for wheat, corn, meat, and dairy products.  These are issues that rise far above the issues between neighbors that are otherwise very good to each other.  Farmers would share with neighboring farmers when disaster hit.  Who knows, one day one country’s excess wheat could help the neighbors next door.  Candidly, the farmers and those who support them have seen such things coming for a while.  We just keep quiet and do our jobs.  We tend to be a quiet, driven bunch of folks.

The Consolidation Response of an Industry

The fertilizer industry and the retailers who supply the farmer have seen consolidation as rapid as the farmers they serve.  Driven largely by the commoditization of a world market and the desire of nations for food stability, the value is often found not in the eye of the buyer but in the increase in volumes by consolidating while driving down costs of production to be more competitive.  In this philosophy, there is not a better way.  We just continue doing what we currently do even better, even cheaper.  This assumes one very crucial thing.  It assumes we know all there is to know about farming and how land, crops, and animals interact.  There is no more truth to be found about this complex system and how we can better manage it.  However, this is far from the truth.  In reality, we still have much to learn in how such a large, powerful and yet delicate living system interacts.  Those discoveries continue to be made every month.

So, What?

You may say, “What does this have to do with trade policy?” It has much to do with trade policy.  There comes a point when old policies cannot continue to be supported in a long-term manner.  Monocropping, soil degradation, loss of organic matter, and increased water pollution are all parts of a business stress that farmers can not economically afford to carry.  Des Moines, Lake Erie, and others are just the initial water quality collision points between potable water for large population centers and farming.  It’s the ecosystem’s way of saying we cannot support this for much longer.  Maybe I will be dead before the full effects are felt.  But like I said, what farmers do today have post humus effects that last long past their children’s children lives.

In today’s world political climate and high tensions, I would think that we who live on this continent should do our best to work together to reduce the demands to and allow those who are feeding us to figure out how to best interact with the land, make a decent living, build diversity and feed us in the process, all during good times and bad. The process is slow, it is thoughtful, it is painful.  Sure, we will always need to compete for exports.  Let’s just not fight ourselves in the process.  While a zero-sum gain for North America, it is a non-zero-sum gain that our stewards of natural resources cannot afford to pay.

Nourishment and Comradery

The fertilizer and lime application season is here and planters will roll soon.  Many larger customers will pull out the first 24-row planter and get going and once the ground gets fit the second one will start rolling.  Your fertilizer bins are full and equipment is in good repair.  Let’s not forget to keep our staff and ourselves in good repair.

Tender Truck Treasure

A warm sandwich and a 30-minute break for the field crew

 

The key to any team consistently winning is being able to repeat the winning tasks play after play, game after game.  They don’t do it with fatigued team members.  Good sleep and a solid diet go a long way to promoting safety and satisfied customers!

I know we all know that but I also know we in the industry can get slammed with weather events and situations beyond our control and just like winning teams we will learn to try and overcome with our best plans on how to adapt.  Just make sure it includes you and your teammates being able to get the sleep and nourishment needed to be safe and productive.

A small grill with the tender truck?  Sound too extravagant?  Perhaps, or perhaps not.  If your tender unit sits for an hour at a time waiting to feed the applicator, maybe it’s not such a far-fetched idea.  If your’s is more of fast drop and go style, what about a grill at

Nourishment and Comradery

Centralize your warm sandwich cooking at the facility

the facility cooking food served on a stiff fiber plate wrapped in heavy tin foil to go out with the next truck?  I know it’s an “all hands on deck” time of year.  As one who has been there, I know it’s important to execute, and I also know it can’t be done week after week without taking care of the business of taking care of our bodies.

 

See if you can’t budget the money for some food, supplies, and someone to cook on the grill from 10:30 to 1:30.  Sound like a waste of payroll?  Perhaps it is for your business.  I just know that in my experience, showing your concern and promoting time to eat, (and offering it none the less), can go a long way to helping keep morale high and stomachs full when the long weeks start adding up.

Have a safe spring season!

The Best Investment You Can Make

The rush of the planting season is quickly upon us.  Some of us will ship up to 70% of our fertilizer tons during these 8 to 10 weeks.   Once the planting season is over, the post-spray period and side dress season will soon follow.  Once again, many fields will be serviced and work performed.

How does all get done?

By pick up, ten-wheeler, tractor trailer, nurse wagons, and field machines.  All used one day at a time.  Yesterday’s stellar pre-trip inspection will not make skipping today’s an option.

Make sure to check your equipment before you go over the road.  It will be the best 15

My favorite Dealer's Rep

minutes you will spend all day.  Not only is it a federal law, but in those minutes, you may very well notice the soft tire or the cracked rim.  You may see the dripping coolant leak or spot the faulty left-hand turn signal light.  That one detail could mean the difference between being stranded in a field or alongside a road,  Worse still, failing to catch and correct such things could cause the death of someone who didn’t think you were turning across traffic because they did not see your signal light because it was out.

A solid preventative maintenance program including and a certified mechanic on staff or a very good relationship with a local certified mechanic will go a long way to eliminate these surprises and keep your equipment legal in the eyes of the law before you even get to crunch time.  However, breakdowns in will still occur.  Do your part to prevent a breakdown from turning into an accident.  Being a professional is as much about taking care of things before putting the rig in “drive” as it is while you drive.

Have a safe spring rush!

https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/sites/fmcsa.dot.gov/files/docs/Final%20Rule_DVIR_2_0_09-12-14.pdf

https://www.jjkeller.com/shop/Product/Detailed-Drivers-Vehicle-Inspection-Report-2-Ply-Carbonless-w-Blue-Ink-Stock

https://www.slideshare.net/CliffLove1/dvir-example

Making the Right Choice

4R Pillars

Figure 1. The 4R’s Process (Right Source at the Right Rate at the Right Time at the Right Place) helps to protect the climate, air, and water.   Courtesy of Fertilizer Canada and eLearning.

What if I were to tell you that all the vegetables that were ever eaten, all the milk that was ever drunk, all the meat that was ever consumed and all the cereal, pizza, and bread was ever eaten was grown on something that relatively speaking is as thick as the skin of an apple.  Good farm ground will have three or more feet of this alive and active thing most of us call “dirt.”  It is what grows the stuff that comes out of your cereal box and supplies the nutrients for most of the food you eat, organic or not.  The soil is the dinner plate, holding the food that makes plants grow.  After a few years of use, soils begin to run low on nutrients and fertilizer is needed to continue to replenish these precious chemical compounds taken out by multiple years of use.  Before synthetic fertilizer was developed, many subsistence societies solved this problem by frequently moving in search of more fertile ground after intense soil use and nutrient depletion[i]. Additionally, our ancestors noticed that plants grew better near animal manure piles and so began to use manure as a natural fertilizer.  Frankly, this “dirt” has been doing such a good job that very few of us recognize its importance.  That is where our story begins.

A Farmer’s Dilemma – a hungry world’s demands

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our planet is thin skinned.  Photo by writer

The issue of food and environment has drawn much attention in recent years. Furthermore, balancing the needs of farmers, the environment, and society is not simple.  Many of us have never set foot on a farm, and just as many have never met a farmer.  All of us eat and ultimately put our trust in these “strangers” to provide the food sitting on our dining room table.

You and I have seen a lot of changes.   Technology has allowed us to do things at a much faster rate.  Advancements have made our lives easier and more efficient.  We have great flexibility which was non-existent just 30 years ago. While advanced technology has even become a mainstay in the agricultural industry, some basic biological and ecological principles remain unchanged.

tfi-jobs-facts_42k_retail_jobs

Figure 2.  42,000 people directly help farmers in the USA with fertilizer needs.  Courtesy of TFI.org

A corn plant which produces the kernels that constitute your cornflakes or feeds the cow that produces the milk in your yogurt still basically grows at the same rate that it did when your grandparents were young.   In other words, if the speed of a corn plant’s growth was compared to the speed of our lives today, it would be like watching a turtle race a car.  Consequently, these fundamental principles make farming in today’s circumstances a bit more challenging.

Consumer desires, political changes like Brexit, and falling profits all create added demands.  Farmers earn a relatively small proportion of your food dollar, and they operate businesses that require a lot of equipment and land.  Many work with the idea of selling their farms and equipment in order to pay for retirement.  Few new farmers are entering the market[ii].  Instead, other existing farmers acquire the business and expand.  Indeed, over 50% of American farmland and assets will probably change hands within the next ten years.  The ripple effect is felt all the way through to their suppliers, with less than 96,000 professionals in North America responsible for supplying the fertilizer required for food production[iii],[iv].  This is something our ancestors didn’t have to consider.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The cycles of crop life are still the same as centuries ago.  Photo by the writer.

With fewer farmers managing larger farms, the attention has become more focused on managing a business rather than conserving the most basic element of farming, the soil.  In other words, our methods were becoming a little out of synch with our principles.  A change was needed.  We needed to get back to some basics.

By all appearances, the nature and main purpose of the entire universe is to support life, especially human life, on this tiny speck of a planet”.  Celebrating the Wonder of Soil, Discovery Series of RBC Ministries[v]

 

The 4R’s of fertilizer and multi-vitamins 

 

 

Multi vitamin

Figure 3. Just like vitamins, not all fertilizers are the same

As farm sizes grew substantially larger and farm labor shrunk, decisions on how to use fertilizer were made with limited information for the stewardly use of fields, fertilizer, and the environment[vi].   However, over the past few years, technologies have allowed us to break down the decision-making process and not have a “one size fits all approach” to making good decisions.  Think of it this way:  If you are someone who is looking for a general dietary supplement, you may consider taking a multi-vitamin.  We know that some specific problems can’t be corrected by general supplementation, because you may need a more specific vitamin or mineral.  The same is true about fields.  Fields are made up of unique soils, and what works in one field may not work in another.  Furthermore, what works in one corner of a field may not work in the other corner.  Farmers needed a way to precisely determine what nutrients were lacking in very specific parts of their fields, and the result was a process called site-specific soil sampling.   Now, how many samples are taken on farm fields?  Take a guess…….Remember how I mentioned the whole technology thing?  In 2001 just over 2 million soil samples were taken from farmers’ fields in North America.  Today, we have in excess of 7.5 MILLION soil samples taken each year for farmers of the United States and Canada[vii].  This is only possible because of technological advances too numerous to explain.  A result is a tool which the farmer and the agricultural professional can use to make fertilizer decisions for every single acre they farm if such accuracy is desired.  However, fertilizer is just one part of a much more complicated decision-making process.  To help organize that process the agricultural community developed The 4R Concept of the Right Source at the Right Rate for the Right Time at the Right Place [viii].

 

The interactiPEI 4R Trainingon between farmer, crops, and soil is very delicate, and we have started to see what happens when it gets out of whack[ix],[x].  Food production has been pushed to its limits because consumers want more food as cheaply as possible.  Something has to pay for our pushiness, and in the process, the soil becomes eroded and pollutes our aquatic resources[xi].  In order to prevent these issues, the agricultural community has adapted its decision-making process and called it the 4Rs for Nutrient Stewardship.  The Province of Prince Edward Island was the first province to subscribe to the 4R Principles in 2012[xii].  It seems only fitting that “The Island of Food” for Canada was first to recognize the importance of 4R[xiii].  Having taken this course, I can say it is very well written and does an excellent job in explaining the 4R Principles.  https://elearning.fertilizercanada.ca/en/4r-nutrient-stewardship-training

The Right Rate of the Right Fertilizer applied at the Right Time at the Right Place on the field.

When decisions are made in this context, we begin to see opportunities for changes in how we farm.  A more holistic approach is considered and in the process, we bring back into focus the more long term issues that are important to be able to sustain life[xiv]. There are advantages to this decision-making tool for all of us.

4R-IPNI_OVAL_logo_New_art_final_med

Figure 5.  The 4R Nutrient Stewardship concept defines the Right Source, Rate, Time and Place for fertilizer applications as those producing the economic, environmental, and social outcomes desired by the stakeholders of the planet’s ecosystem.  Courtesy of IPNI.net

First, the process is very ADAPTABLE.  We recognize that the right ways vary from farm to farm, and field to field.  Think of fields like people: we can categorize the soils into some basic types, but every field has certain unique qualities.  Consequently, the 4R principles can be successfully applied to farms all around the world.  Perhaps more importantly, the process will adapt to the needs of today as well as tomorrow.

Secondly, it is NONDISCRIMINATORY.  It allows all methods of farming to benefit from its use.  It draws no assumptions as to what type of farm or how resources are used.  When considering the 4R methods, one word comes into focus: “transparency”.  All farmers regardless of size or type of farming need to be stewardly.  Size doesn’t matter to effectively use the 4R concept[xv].

size doesn't matter

Size of farm doesn’t matter in the use of the 4R’s

Thirdly, it is BALANCED.  It is a tool to aid in increasing environmental quality while improving food production and reducing expenses by applying current knowledge and practices.  Additionally, farmers with either advanced or limited resources can both benefit from the use of 4R Practices.  Beet and tomato farmer Mark Richards of Dresden, Ontario, looks forward to competing with his fellow farmers in a friendly competition using the 4R’s by having higher yields AND better fruit quality.  In the process, he is making good environmental decisions on his farm.

Finally, it is HOLISTIC.  The decision process of 4R will consider all aspects of food and farming.  This holistic approach allows stakeholders from all areas of the food chain….farmer, supplier, food processor, and grocery store to get involved.  It identifies Garth Whytethe best management practices across the entire farm operation.  As Garth Whyte, President & CEO of Fertilizer Canada said, “the 4R’s bridge the environment, the world, and farmers legacy”[xvi].  Perhaps Lynn Warriner of Blenheim, Ontario, described it best when she said that 4R allows her to be a “profitable business that maintains and improves assets of soil and environment around their farm”. Thirdly, it is BALANCED.  It is a tool to aid in increasing environmental quality while improving food production and reducing expenses by applying current knowledge and practices.  Additionally, farmers with either advanced or limited resources can both benefit from the use of 4R Practices.  Beet and tomato farmer Mark Richards of Dresden, Ontario, looks forward to competing with his fellow farmers in a friendly competition using the 4R’s by having higher yields AND better fruit quality.  In the process, he is making good environmental decisions on his farm.

 

Lynn Warriner

Figure 7.  Lynn Warriner says that 4R enables their farm to be “profitable business that maintains and improves assets of soil and environment around our farm”  (Courtesy of Fertilizer Canada)

Food knows no borders.  National boundaries may influence trade, but they do not change the interaction of farmers and the land.  It reminds me what a gentleman from an equipment dealership in Lethbridge, Alberta, once told me.  He said, “You know the only thing that separates the plains of Montana from Alberta is a line in the sand.”  That speaks volumes to how “international” farming really is.  Who is behind all of this?  There are many, too many to list.  With the help of organizations, farmers, farm suppliers, universities, government agencies, private foundations, and food manufacturers, a network of sustainable agricultural professionals is growing.  It sounds to me like that old saying, “Many hands make light work.”

 

Washington Quote

Figure 8.  Slide is taken from Prof. David R. Montgomery presentation on societies and soil erosion.

 

 

Footnotes:

Writers note:  I want to say “thank you” to all those whom I have cited in this article.  Unfortunately, much more can be considered and there are many more resources that could be explored if you want to delve deeper.  I am truly thankful to be able to write about the subject of food, farming, and environmental security.  Thank you!

[i] http://www.jareddiamond.org/Jared_Diamond/Collapse.html

[ii] https://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Online_Resources/Highlights/Farm_Demographics/#fewer_new

[iii] https://www.tfi.org/policy-center/economic-impact

[iv] https://cdn6.fertilizercanada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/fc-leavebehind-doc2016_vf2_en-web.pdf

[v] http://discoveryseries.org/discovery-series/celebrating-the-wonder-of-soil/

[vi] http://www.conferenceboard.ca/press/newsrelease/16-12-01/agriculture_sector_s_reliance_on_temporary_foreign_workers_to_fill_labour_shortages_is_growing.aspx

[vii] https://youtu.be/Tx74lM5mUAg

[viii] https://youtu.be/wKG1iMALM1s

[ix] http://www.croplife.com/management/stewardship/ohio-water-at-the-tipping-point/

[x] https://www.ars.usda.gov/news-events/news/research-news/2015/probing-phosphorus-losses-from-midwestern-crop-fields/

[xi] http://www.conservationwebinars.net/webinars/soil-erosion-a-historical-perspective

[xii] https://youtu.be/8MT7IbVQeJQ

[xiii] https://www.tourismpei.com/pei-food

[xiv] http://www.ipni.net/article/IPNI-3255

[xv] https://profitablegrowthservices.wordpress.com/2016/03/26/size-doesnt-matter/

[xvi] https://youtu.be/d3NYy88ga5c

 

Nothing Cures Low Prices Like…..Crop Rotations??

It is certainly not glamorous and it surely isn’t very sexy, but it just may be what could be the safest and permanent cure to low crop prices and help to spread out the environmental risks associated with heavy dependency on just a few crops for farm revenue and a subsidy program that by design concentrates farming businesses.

For those readers who are intimately aware of farming issues, I realize that stretching out crop rotations to four or more years can be difficult for certain types of farms.  Dairy, poultry, and hog operations come to mind.  Farms with higher animal populations tend to have capital budgeted toward animals, equipment, and buildings and they cannot afford to have the land base that allows longer cropping rotations.   Furthermore, transportation of manure can become another issue when transport can be upwards of 20 miles one way.

What about grain farms?

The grain farmer tends to not have as many revenue options.  Some farms have been a corn only type of business.  Others will be a corn and soybean program with maybe wheat or some other grain in between.   Just two generations ago, it was not uncommon for a typical farm[1] to have a four-year rotation that consisted of corn, oats, and some sort of hay crop.  Soybeans came into the mix as our markets became more global and soybean breeding improved.  What was a four or even five-year crop rotation became three years.  Today, that has shrunk to two years or no crop rotation.  Every year or every other year the grain farmer relies on the price of one item to make or break an entire farming operation that possibly affects up to several thousand acres.  We don’t even have a basket to put all of our eggs in when we rely on one crop to survive.

Farming is Messy.

Farming is a messy business.  It deals with so many variables that we can’t begin to predict how it will end this year let alone next year.  Because of that farmers do need some sort of protection from the rest of us.  Sure, farm programs cost money…. a lot of it.  However, relatively speaking, it is not that much when you consider what we get in return.  Have you looked at your food bill lately[2]?  It’s cheap when compared to every other nation on the planet[3].  However, that does not mean we can afford to keep doing it the way we have been doing it for the past 60 years.  Like I said, farming is messy.

Farming deals in living systems.

Farmers and those who supply them are a lot like doctors in that they deal with living organisms.  Calves are born, sows give birth, and a grain farmer earnestly studies the weather, soil, and forecasts to determine the optimum planting time for that living organism we call a seed to be put into that hostile environment called “soil”.  They hope that it can sprout and grow a crop that can provide feed or income for another year.  Do you work in a profession that makes its living from the successful interaction with living creatures every day?  Sadly, we have lost touch with that special bond that occurs when you help deliver a calf or reach down into the soil, dig it up and smell it to see how healthy it is.  Farming and those who supply them, cannot afford to work in a business environment that is constantly changing.  Consistency is key for slow, thoughtful change.  However, as we have seen, our living systems are not doing so well at adjusting to our current methods of farming.  Nutrient runoff, soil erosion, and certain species shifts in pests as well as beneficial species on land and water, are showing signs of prolonged stress and inability to adapt.

It’s time to rotate.

Candidly, farming as it is currently structured in the United States today, is juxtaposed to what other parts of our economy need.  We have a farming economy built around a small basket of products.  The United States and Brazil account for 80% of all soybean exports in the world and our second largest product we sell to China.[4],[5]  Is it time to rotate away from some of that?  Rotations spread out risk.  They spread out risk to environment and risk to adverse economic environments.  We must find ways to incentivize longer rotations with suitable alternative crops and the investments that will be needed.    Crop rotations are a slow process, that builds stability for the farm economy and for the soil[6].   The investments will be substantial and take several years to begin to see results.  The farming community is caught in an economic pinch with 2017 being a key year to see if we are indeed headed into a farm recession[7],[8],[9].  Perhaps we can forgo any new programs and simply emphasize ones that are already in place.  In fact, I know we can for there have been programs in place to encourage alternative crops for years.  Furthermore, monies not used due to less commodity subsidization can be diverted to help support longer field rotation programs.  With the 4R initiative and the renaissance that is emerging about soil health, maybe it’s time to begin to structure some of our short rotation corn and soybean acres to include regionally focused crop rotation partners that will spur local and regional based markets.

Rotations help to bring vitality back into a local farming community.

Indeed, many of these communities are in a negative growth situation.  While tax revenues increase in other areas, the smaller, rural towns are experiencing a trend of negative tax revenues[10].  Who will pay to keep the lights on in city hall?  It is a way of investing money into new equipment and new methods with the local shops and homes of farm laborers.  It also can be a great support to the local banks that according to the University of Nebraska, are evaporating away[11].  Meanwhile, it helps to insulate farmers and farm income from frequent and strong year over year currency swings which they have absolutely no control over and their crop income becomes collateral damage in some greater currency imbalance.

Perhaps the most troubling challenge of all is the derivative effect that currency valuations have on crop prices.  Candidly, this leaves many farmers, and our nations’ food security, in a precarious situation.  Currency markets have a strong impact on the export market.  Work out of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City shows that land values increased by as much as 30% due to strong export and ethanol markets that simultaneously impacted the grain markets and therefore caused the land to become more valuable[12].  Such rapid variances are very hard to manage.   Dean Heffta of Water Street Solutions, in his BASF Grow Smart University webinar entitled, “Monetary Policy and Currency Impact on Agriculture”, the Federal Reserve is basically charged with two primary tasks.  First, manage inflation at a level of around 2% and, secondly, to promote job creation.[13]  This means that we will need to perhaps our currency at a value like what we see today to keep money flowing into our economy from other nations.  For point of reference, the currency values we see today are like what we had back in the early 2000’s, those were times when ag exports suffered from a strong dollar[14].  Divergent monetary policies spark currency reactions from other nations and those currency reactions also strongly affect the fertilizer markets and less so pesticides and seed.

Where is agriculture going to be in the years to come?  Look around and you will see, mergers and acquisitions point to a desire to be prepared in a defensive posture for uncertainty and instability that more likely than not is going to come.  The traditional subsidy programs we are used to are mostly geared toward a stable currency environment when the U.S. dollar was more prominent.  Those days have changed and those subsidies many not be as appropriate considering current events and the biological impact that short rotations have[15].  A farmer can begin to spread out risk and stabilize farm income by having multiple crops to take to market.  The sort cropping rotations, consumer demands, world currency markets, and a nation in flux all point to a need for farming to place safeguards into place that are intrinsically based on the crops produced.  Now is the time to spread out rotations.

[1] https://medium.com/@AgEverything/holistic-farming-for-resource-management-78397c822770#.kgcz9zckc

[2] http://public.tableau.com/views/TrendsinUSfoodexpenditures/U_S_SpendingTrendsStory?:embed=y&:display_count=yes&:showTabs=y&:showVizHome=no

[3] http://wsm.wsu.edu/researcher/wsmaug11_billions.pdf

[4] https://www.kansascityfed.org/research/agriculture/agoutlook/articles/headwinds-ag-outlook-remain-despite-strength-in-exports

[5] https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2017/cb17-tps08.html

[6] https://dl.sciencesocieties.org/publications/cns/articles/0/0/cs2017.50.0108/?_cldee=cHJvZml0YWJsZWdyb3d0aHNlcnZpY2VzQGdtYWlsLmNvbQ%3D%3D&recipientid=contact-f4efca208d33db1197e1001279d6310b-27d7be9e2de64ce6b6186b30d6d8087d&esid=77df8ef1-1eea-e611-946c-0050568a4377

[7] https://www.kansascityfed.org/research/indicatorsdata/agcreditsurvey/articles/2016/11-10-2016/financial%20stress%20in%20farm%20sector%20shows%20slow%20but%20steady%20increase

[8] https://www.kansascityfed.org/research/indicatorsdata/agfinancedatabook/articles/2017/01-20-2017/ag-finance-dbk-01-20-2017

[9] http://www.progressivecattle.com/news/market-reports/7690-could-this-be-the-80s-farm-crisis-all-over-again

[10] http://agecon.unl.edu/cornhusker-economics/2016/how-have-retail-sales-changed-across-nebraska-counties-since-1990

[11] http://agecon.unl.edu/cornhusker-economics/2017/small-community-bank-changes

[12] https://www.kansascityfed.org/~/media/files/publicat/econrev/econrevarchive/2016/4q16cowley.pdf

[13] https://basflms.publicishawkeye.com/my/

[14] http://www.macrotrends.net/1329/us-dollar-index-historical-chart

[15] https://youtu.be/eGxjcxVMbsg

Show Me Your’s and I’ll Show You Mine

“But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.”  James 2:18

I write to bring into focus some events that are around us, right now.  As I write it forces me to reflect on my own choices and views.  I am not taking a cheap shot at any one person or viewpoint.  For those of us who would claim to be in the “family of Christ” do we consider what is happening?  What will you do once you know more?  Ignorance is bliss, so they say.  But if you choose to remain ignorant of the issues, then how will you be salt and light to those who desperately need to see a Christian who “works through their faith with fear and trembling”?

If you have followed me at all, you will come to see I view things from a food and farming perspective.  It is a humbling profession because you learn that you have little control over the things that greatly affect your job, family, and career.  Farmers, and those who supply them, interact with an entire ecosystem that is increasingly being shown to be powerful, awesome and yet finely balanced to the point that what is done hundreds of miles away can have a very powerful, and sometimes negative, impact on others…. especially when the ecosystem can’t buffer the problem due to overuse.

So, it is with this view, that I ask myself and fellow believers in Christ, “show me your deeds”.

Considering our impact on God’s Creation, what are you doing to demonstrate your stewardship, as the one put above the rest of creation?  Do we abdicate our responsibility willingly or without thought?  We have a food and farm system that is growing more and more condensed with the need for more and more migrant workers to do field work.  Undocumented workers have become a major social issue in some farming communities here in the United States.  Everyone is quick to point out the threat to the “homeland” about potential bad people being in these groups.  Along with this, how about the fact that these folks are not on the grid as far as safety and health is concerned?  I am not saying that farmers who hire such workers are bad people.  Yes, if they knowingly do it then they are breaking the law.  The undocumented worker harvests a surprising amount of the produce you buy in the grocery store.  Do you do your homework to see how these immigration issues can be resolved or do you simply cry, “Ship them all back.”  If you do the latter, will you be willing to support a farming system that insists on more domestic labor with you paying a little more for your food?

We see and read more and more about water quality and environmental issues and how they possibly relate to things we do.  Do you consider and study these items through?  As a follower of Christ do you consider how the society you live in and your own opinions and actions impact these Creation related items?

Typically, Christians tend to look sideways at those who would be called “naturalists” or more deridingly “tree huggers”.  Sadly, when it comes to James 2:18 and how Christians are to prove themselves through their actions, we fail when it comes to having and behaving in an informed and stewardly manner when it comes to issues such as food, farming, forestry, waterways, and conservation.  If it comes to acting and building awareness about creation, our “naturalist” friends are more creation aware than many Christians today.  We will speak out on government issues and cry for freedom, but what about starting to consider issues of Creation, society, and stewardship for the next few months or years or your life?  As you begin to consider these things you will soon begin to see that all is not as it should be.  We don’t necessarily need more laws and we shouldn’t have undocumented workers.  As members of Christ’s body, we had then better start considering ways in which we can become the salt and light of a broken world when it comes to proper stewardship of resources and fellow man.  Ask yourself, “How do I vote with my wallet?”  Do you always shop for price or do you consider how your food was grown and try to consider supporting more ethical methods of production?  We certainly can’t complain that we pay too much for food already when compared to other nations.  I am NOT discounting the hardships of those who truly are too poor to buy healthy food.  I am stating that as far as a nation goes, we are the wealthiest and we pay the least for our food of any nation on this planet.  Per work done at Washington State University, we spend on average 6.8% of our annual household income on food.  The next closest nation is Canada as 9.1%

It’s a topic few in Christian circles talk about.  We in America rarely hear anything about the Bible and farming or Creation and conservation.  I think that is a sad testimony to our lack of understanding of just how powerful and creative our God truly is.  When it comes to acting in consideration of Creation, our naturalist friends are far more respectful than we are.  Their actions speak for their cause.  Unfortunately, many of them worship the creation.  Sadly, we claim to worship the Creator while we ignore the creation.

If this has stirred you in some fashion, consider these few resources below for further consideration and contemplation.  When you begin to eat your next meal, take the time to consider the scope of this.  You will soon find yourself digging deeper into God’s word for further study, and that is a good thing.

http://discoveryseries.org/discovery-series/celebrating-the-wonder-of-soil/

http://discoveryseries.org/discovery-series/celebrating-the-wonder-of-water/

https://discoveryseries.org/discovery-series/celebrating-the-wonder-of-a-tree/

https://discoveryseries.org/discovery-series/celebrating-the-wonder-of-creation/

https://discoveryseries.org/discovery-series/celebrating-the-wonder-of-the-wilderness/

http://www.disciplenations.org/media/Agriculture-and-the-Kingdom-of-God.pdf

http://articles.extension.org/pages/9960/migrant-farm-workers:-our-nations-invisible-population#.VdTSMrJViko

https://www.nass.usda.gov/Charts_and_Maps/Farm_Labor/fl_frmwk.php

https://www.bls.gov/ooh/farming-fishing-and-forestry/agricultural-workers.htm

http://www.capitalpress.com/Research/20160425/study-fewer-farmworkers-migrate-aggravating-labor-shortage

http://www.iatp.org/blog/201612/undocumented-farmworkers-and-the-us-agribusiness-economic-model?utm_source=IATP+Full+List&utm_campaign=9189a448bc-IATP_News_January1_22_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_3f024f9ff8-9189a448bc-74959133&ct=t(IATP_News_September_2016)

http://public.tableau.com/views/TrendsinUSfoodexpenditures/U_S_SpendingTrendsStory?:embed=y&:display_count=yes&:showTabs=y&:showVizHome=no

http://wsm.wsu.edu/researcher/wsmaug11_billions.pdf

https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jan/29/sonny-perdue-agriculture-secretary-farming-american-agribusiness

 

 

 

 

Social(ism) of Food?

Socialism of food (the gift of breaking bread)

An interesting trend that I have come to notice is that in areas with a great abundance of wealth and natural assets, a cultural shift takes place.  In the land “flowing with milk and honey” we tend to forget about what it is we have and, instead, focus on what it is we don’t have.

If you read many of my blogs you know that I am food and farming focused.  In my view of things, we all need to eat and that means food must be pretty important.  So, why not consider those things that are most important to us and make sure we focus on that first before we reach for so many other things that are not as important?

It is no surprise to anyone who follows farming and agriculture here in the United States that we are on a rather dire path that few talk about.  The rapid decline of the farming population and consequently the consolidation of land, and production methods to not only maintain but increase productivity is causing the system to undergo some rather long-term strains in the realm of the environment and the overall farm social scene.

Amplification Effect

Before I go any farther, I want to first say that this blog is NOT a IMG_0712 criticism or judgment against anyone or any one group.  I have spent 30 years in the business of helping farmers and suppliers raise crops and my own actions have probably supplied hundreds of thousands of people, and animals spread across a continent.  That is the amplification effect that anyone one has who is in the business of supplying farmers.  The person operating the drag line in this picture must affect the productivity of millions of acres during their career as a drag line operator digging the ore to produce phosphorous fertilizer.  That is truly an Amplification Effect!  I invite you to revisit my blog on the challenges involved.  This is not meant to be a criticism to these folks and their employers.  Rather, this is simply my experience and observations.

It is simple economics that tells us that as more is available, the value will seek a lower level.  Hillsdale College offers a great course on the basics of economics, and best of all, it’s high quality and free.  (Thanks, Hillsdale!)  So, for those of us blessed with the abundance of farmland, we have found ourselves slowly losing sight of those things that we are blessed with…food.  Less perceived value drives the market to a cheaper price and so it goes.  In the process, we lose our farming population, farms get bigger, production increases and more is produced with fewer people producing it.  In the process, average household incomes for the farms that are larger scale is consistently higher than the average American family income.  These numbers, while accurate, can so be somewhat misleading.  A 2016 report from Canada shows that while the average Canadian farm family has an annual income in excess of $110,000 the farm only provides about $20,000 and the rest comes from

farmer, farming, agriculture, food, garden

Who Will Hear Farming’s Call in the United States?

businesses that are not of the farm.  Here in America, this kind of information can be problematic when the consumers and taxpayers hear about subsidies for farming.  Especially as our government slowly changes from a Republic to a full blown democracy and the minority loses the protection of their individual rights.  Hence, another side of socialism may present itself in the realm of food in the United States in years to come.  Will we be ready with sound policies in the ways of food and farming?

Crossing a line

Like it or not, we have crossed a line.  And the consumer has noticed it.  In the land of milk and honey, we have somehow crossed over an imaginary line in the mind of the consumer.  The realm of social media is a powerful outlet for those companies that supply the consumer with the foods they want. And those suppliers are listening.  And, we as an industry sometimes bristle at the infringement on our ability to do our job.  We work like dogs to supply the food to a buyer who is starting to balk at what it is we offer.  And, as government officials read the reports, and listen to the constituents who far outnumber the farming community, some very powerful tools that are already in place could be used against an ever shrinking segment of society.  One that is most troubling is the FBI now heading up animal cruelty investigations.  I am NOT for the mistreatment of animals.  Quite the contrary, I strongly support the calling of Man by God in Genesis to be the steward of Creation.  However, I must also point out that the term “humane treatment” means being treated like a human.  And this is not in line with my view of creation relative to man.  God called Man to be higher than the rest of creation, not its equal.

The industry of food has also entered the realm of food production and is backing it up with money to boot.  General Mills, Dannon Yogurt, Kellogg, Walton FoundationUnilever,  Campbell’s along with others are all stepping into the realm of food production.  Remember the social media link I shared earlier?  That powerful tool is what is connecting all of us and making food a social event.  The issues of farm employees and farm labor is also becoming more of a social issue that we have not seen since the days of the milk riots by dairy farmers over 80 years ago.  The farm industry starves for labor and is the only industry that has an expedited labor immigration program.  However, the awkward truth is that the farm sector is still one of the ones with a high level of illegal immigrants.  It is reported that up to 52% of these workers are illegal immigrants With the current farm wage being at levels that are 20 years behind the current average wage, the industry finds itself becoming the target of some rather awkward social reforms relative to the formation of organized labor.  Will we as a society be ready for the amplified consequences?  Think about this:  if 52% of those harvesting your food were told to get out of our nation immediately, who will take the place of those million or so workers?  Do any of you reading this article want to take their place?

We in the United States are used to spending the least amount of money on food of anyone in the world and yet are the most affluent.  How willing will we be to spend more of our own money so that the farmer can pay these employees more so that they can become legalized workers?  With farming having a relatively low number of non-family employees relative to other industries, the politicians could find that it is easier to go along with the sentiment to allow collective bargaining for farm employees at the expense of the farmers especially when the laws are written in states with a very small farmer population.  Will we be ready for the ripple effect?  It may mean not going to as many sporting events or forgoing a few other enjoyments.

The Breaking of Bread

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe breaking of bread and sharing of intimate moments around food is a very powerful experience.  It signifies friendship, common interests, mutual understanding, or a desire to learn more.  In many parts of the world, it is the wife or woman of the family unit that is in charge of farming and food production.  That is foreign to us in the United States.  Except for those who are delving into the realm of CSA’s, and localized micro farms.  Over half a billion woman are involved in agriculture in the world.  In Asia and South Africa, 50% or more of the female population is involved in farming.  I believe this speaks volumes as to the strong bond between woman and child in the family.  In areas that are not as rich with goods, services, and wealth, women are vital to food production.  They seek the help of each other and develop strong and often successful networks to help them succeed as reported in the study of 63 such support groups in Kenya, Africa.  I believe it is no small coincidence that the one who brings new life into the world finds such a close attachment to the nurturing of crops and animals.

A Timeless Lesson

This trend is even carrying over to regions like New Brunswick, Canada.  It is reported that 55% of all new farmers are females.  Here in the United States, less than 300,000 women are now principal owners of a farm.   While the American woman may not be farming, she has a curiosity about it.  According to this report, ethics is what is driving the consumer, not necessarily the farmer being able to be profitable and provide what they want.  I believe it is no small coincidence that female consumers while not necessarily farming themselves, is becoming much more aware of the ways of farming by starting small part-time farms that provide a way of education for children and food for family and local customers…from Kenya to France to New Brunswick to North Carolina and anywhere a mother feeds a family.  They chose how to invest their money in the food they buy.  Herein lies the rub for American farmers.  They find themselves with a market that is changing all around and new neighbors with new views on what is important.  Caught between a mix of government policies, consumer demands, labor and economic challenges, they do not find much stability in today’s farming world.

What will become of all of this?

What are we to make of this?  This is going to have an effect of every one of us.  The wishes of the consumer drive the food supplier and the consumer and lobbyists drive the politician.  Meanwhile, the men and women of the agronomy retail industry find themselves adapting and changing.  The breaking of bread has become something we in America have taken for granted and a system of farming and suppliers has kept us fed for a very low price.  But can we continue to do so at such a cheap price?  Winds of change are blowing in from various directions.  Some winds that are not always magnanimous but rather self-serving.  That is what concerns me.  I read a lot and pay attention to trends.  The trends I see in motion are not all so rosy.  Technology is a definite tool with massive power capable of helping all farmers make complicated decisions.  With such a tool comes an equal level of responsibility.  There will be special interest groups that seek to create chaos that will not always be the best for a stable food system.  Food is the common ring that binds all men together and those who look to exert their own selfish desire on others know that.  Nations and tribes have gone to war over such things.  Will those in positions of responsibility and power be able to sort through the tares and wheat to find what is true and best for a hungry nation while preserving the environment?  What will we do to support those who feed us?  Will we as a nation be willing to put our money where our mouth is and pay a little more to have food that allows the farmer to pay a little more for farm labor and sustainable farming practices?  It will require some attitudinal changes, and quickly, I fear.

The stakes are life changing.  The fate of regions and nations hangs in such things.

Thanks for reading!