Monday, 29 December 2014

Not all dairy farmers

Some lines of work are inherently distasteful even while those doing them are generally respected. Slaughtering animals is an example. Many of us eat meat and prefer not to think about the killing part, but we would not naturally regard a slaughterman with suspicion or distrust.

In other cases, there is no real reason why a job should evoke negative feelings, but for one reason or another it has fallen into disrepute. It may be hard to believe now, but politics was once regarded as a virtuous pursuit.

Regardless of how or why a job falls from grace, there are usually still some well-motivated people involved. They don't quite fit in - insiders can tell they're being deviant, but everyone else naturally assumes they're as bad as the rest.

Alison Barrett has recently reminded us that not all obstetricians are hateful misogynists. Following that example I want to talk a bit about farming, from the perspective of a newbie (6 years in).

I think of farming as a virtue - there is a clear purpose but a plethora of choices, so learning is part of the game and you can always do better. I love that lack of endpoint.

We count ourselves really lucky to have the chance to look after this land, and we're old and stroppy enough to insist on doing it our own way. The bank insisted we have a farm advisor in our first season (09/10) so we started out doing things by the book. But we also joined the association of biological farmers and read lots of agronomy. The fertiliser company reps were sacked fairly quickly and started off by concocting our own mixes of ground-spread fertiliser based on the Kinsey-Albrect principles of mineral balancing.

Having charted a course for the physical and chemical balance of our soils, we're now tackling the biological activity. This is an under-researched topic in agronomy, because there's no money in it for anyone except farmers. Pretty much all agricultural research is directed by people who sell stuff to farmers. Even the government funding, which should really be directed at public good investments is usually required to have co-funding from industry. If there isn't a prospect of selling something to farmers, and you don't win the Marsden Fund lottery then it's probably not going to happen.

There is huge potential value to farmers, the environment and climate change from enhancing soil biology, but the dominant business model still involves selling poison and bagged nitrogen. These are very profitable industries, against whose lobbying and marketing power a broad public interest research agenda stands little chance. So we rely on our own investigations and information shared with like-minded farmers of whom there are quite a few.

We reckon there are two basic ways to deal with weeds, pests and disease: kill them directly, or change the environment so they don't thrive. The first approach is constantly being sold to farmers. It's easy because the killing just needs poison and it seems efficient because we can't easily see the longer-term collateral damage from the poison. Even glyphosate resistance just makes the industry double down with ever more toxic brews.

We prefer to feed and encourage natural environments that our enemies hate. We've had no need for weedkiller or pesticide for years, which may be unusual. But most farmers would readily see the potential benefits of swapping buttercup for clover by adding lime, mulching hillside gorse only when we're ready to manage the resulting N boost properly (i.e. make sure the grass beats the gorse regrowth), and even mob-stocking.

At the moment, our main focus is to wake up our soil fungi. Soil-food web tests suggest there is plenty of fungi down there, but the lazy buggers are mostly asleep. We're aiming our next foliar (liquid) fertilise brew at kicking them into life, and the natural nitrogen cycle along with it. The plan is that the fungi will eat the N-storing bacteria, making the N and other things more available to the plants. This hope is based on wide reading and discussion. It does rely on a fairly complicated analysis and theory though, involving soils, soil critters and plants. So lots could still go wrong, but we're up for a multi-year process.

Meantime, we're getting on with all the compliance upgrades. Our place is at the head of a valley and the farm is cut up by several decent streams/rivers. If our cows routinely shat in the river, we couldn't drink the water and wouldn't want to swim in the river. We'd also be compromising the superb Pelorus Bridge swimming holes. The same goes for nitrogen leaching and phosphorus contamination, which in our case would end up flowing into the Pelorus Sound at Havelock - yuk.

I'm sure we share with many other farmers a sense of public duty to minimise our environmental footprint while farming sustainably. That includes making a profit which is still on our "not achieved" list, along with making our soils hum with energy, growing huge volumes of high brix fodder without big fertiliser bills, and breeding a superbly healthy and productive herd of cows.

I'm pretty sure that many dairy farmers will be interested to see how this works out, even if they wouldn't do it themselves. We're an enterprising lot. And we're not all the same.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Drunk & lamp-post - education edition

Amid the flurry of interest in the OECD research on inequality & growth, this RNZH editorial is surely a beacon, picking out the sadly obscured deeper message that what we really need is more charter schools. Thank goodness they could see through all the fluff and waffle and distill for us the real lesson </sarc>.

Let us ignore the fact that Eric Crampton and Tim Hazledine (not natural pals I'd suggest) agree that the report is not a strong piece of research. RNZH doesn't care, it just wants to spin a story from it. The final passage is where their true agenda shows up, with my comments in [red]:
The lesson of the OECD report is that education has to do better for those from households where parental expectations are low. [OK] They are increasingly being left behind in low-decile schools deserted by "white flight". [If only the white kids stayed, those poor schools wouldn't do such a bad job! Who wrote this?] The Government's incentive for other schools to help them might not go far enough. Equality for pupils might require less equality for teachers and schools, higher rewards for performance and leadership, mergers and takeovers, so that the benefits of reputable "brands" may be available to more children.
Competition has a way of closing the gap.
My day job is working as an economist on competition and regulatory issues. From that viewpoint, here are a few initial gripes with this argument.

  1. Competition from charter schools can only exist if it is first engineered by bureaucrats, who allocate fat payments/student to charter schools, much larger than other schools receive to serve similar populations. The charter school policy is a very costly intervention. It'd be nice if there was a cost-benefit analysis of it.
  2. The proponents of competitive education use market analogies, especially the weeding out effect of capital markets. For example, this paper finds that the performance of charter schools improves over time as shitty ones fail and are supplanted by better ones (my critique is here). That's fine if all you care about are investors, but what about the kids who are the fodder for the experiments. How can you ethically set up such experiments, knowing and expecting and relying on the fact that shitty schools will pop up and then fail? And how does that human cost to those kids get factored into the cost-benefit analysis for the whole program?
  3. What alternatives were considered if any? Is it beyond our wit to work within the existing systems and try to improve them? 
On the last point, it appears likely that existence/power of teacher unions are a factor in the decision to build a parallel charter school system. A pointer to an alternative approach is a current project underway at AirNZ.

It's new CEO (Christopher Luxton) started by inquiring into "stakeholder" views of the company and found a huge disconnect between the public view (largely positive) and the employees' view (largely negative). The obvious response was to collaborate more closely with employees - right? To listen and hear their views and give them a stake in decision making. So that's what is happening, for competitive reasons.

I recently met with a union delegate co-opted into this project who told me that, while initially very sceptical he is now fully on-board and so are his (engineering) shop-floor mates.

Feel free to discuss the similarities and differences between AirNZ and education in the comments section below, or not.