Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

The Crisis In Organic Farming

April 6, 2022

I’ve been writing lately on farming for The Progressive magazine. This story appeared in the December 2021/January 2022 issue. (Yep. I’m late in posting it.) It details how the organic industry is overpowering the organic movement, which I argue is bad news for duped consumers and hardpressed family farmers.

The irony is that core problem traces back to the creation of the National Organic Program (under the U.S. Ag department) in 1990. A 12-year battle ensued over what exact criteria had to be satisfied for a farm to be federally certified as organic.

I write:

“Those certification standards—barring the use of pesticides, antibiotics, and other synthetic inputs; requiring pasturing for farm animals; establishing a three-year protocol for converting conventional farmland to organic status; and a lot more—were nothing less than transformative.

“What had been a growing but idiosyncratic and fragmented movement—at least twenty-two states had their own rules for organic labeling—became a single national market with standardized rules. This led foreign farm operations to seek USDA certification so they could sell their goods stateside.

“Organic food sales exploded. By 2011, sales hit $25.1 billion, and by 2020, sales had more than doubled to $56.5 billion. In 2021, the USDA counted more than 28,000 certified organic businesses in the United States. Another 17,000 foreign operations were certified as USDA organic.

“But far from it being the glory days of the organic food movement, this is a time of maximum danger. A perfect storm of problems is challenging organic’s primacy in producing healthy food. And organic food, once a culty and idealistic passion for both farmers and consumers, is increasingly just another cog in the agribusiness behemoth.” 

To read more, please go here.


Nope, Not Like Microsoft

March 16, 2021

I found this interesting in researching the Epic story: That people get it wrong when they talk about Epic as Madison’s Microsoft in terms of its economic impact. As substantial as it is (think of all the upscale rental housing built downtown for well-paid Epic employees), Epic has come nowhere near to minting the number of local millionaires that Microsoft has in Seattle.

Why? Because Microsoft is publicly traded and Epic isn’t. Read this sidebar for the explanation

John Kinsman Remembered

January 22, 2014

John Kinsman,  Wisconsin farmer and social justice advocate, died  yesterday (Jan. 20, 2014), at the age of 87. In my life in journalism, he  ranks with Jim Graaskamp, the great UW-Madison  professor, as the person I’ve admired the most. John was a classic Wisconsin progressive. He battled for the rights of the weak and the dispossessed all his life, sometimes traveling to the far ends of the world. Somehow he also managed to raise ten kids with his wife Jean,  and  run a small farm near Lime Ridge in central Wisconsin.

Here’s what I wrote about John in a 2012 story in The Progressive Magazine:

On a winter afternoon, Kinsman is just another Wisconsin farmer as he walks his 150 acres. He and Jean bought the worn-out, rock-strewn farm in the early 1950s not far from where his parents farmed. An early run-in with chemical pesticides put Kinsman in the hospital and converted him to organic farming. He points to the results.

Here are the pastures on which he rotationally grazes his milking herd of thirty-six Holsteins, the forested hills where he’s planted, literally, tens of thousands of trees, and the stand of fruit trees and bushes he’s grown around his house. And that patch of cacti—the prickly pear—was no exotic transplant but a stubborn native remnant from a warmer geological age in Wisconsin. Sort of like Kinsman himself.

Kinsman is a fourth-generation Wisconsin family farmer. His grandmother Samantha, who died at the age of ninety-seven in 1944, saw General Ulysses S. Grant when he visited Sandusky, Wisconsin. His dad was a “dyed-in-the-wool Republican who would vote for a dog if he were a Republican,” he says with a laugh.

To read more, please go here.

You Must Remember This

December 6, 2013

In this story for Isthmus, I examine the Oct. 16, 2012, complaint issued by the federal Food and Drug Administration against the Madison manufacturer of a memory supplement  called Prevagen. The feds say that unverified claims have been made on behalf of the various Prevagen products, and  that makes them not supplements but “unapproved new drugs.”

The manufacturer, Quincy Biotechnology, has taken steps to deal with the FDA warning, but denies that its flagship product is being marketed as a drug. The FDA says that–14 months after the warning was issued–the case is still “open.” But Quincy President Mark Underwood reports that the regulators are satisfied that Quincy has resolved all problems.  No word from the FDA on that.

I write:

Today, Prevagen is available at more than 20,000 retail locations, including Walgreen’s and CVS drugstores, and it’s sold online as well. Inc. magazine says Quincy’s annual revenue has grown 234% from 2009 to 2012 — from $5.3 million to $17.8 million.

Graying baby boomers are driving the demand.

“People are desperate to believe in something, because they don’t want to get Alzheimer’s,” says Dr. Cynthia Carlsson, a UW-Madison Medical School geriatrician and memory researcher.

Underwood denies that Quincy is targeting Alzheimer’s patients. “There are five million Alzheimer’s patients, but there are 80 million baby boomers. As businesspersons, we’re much more interested in helping the 80 million baby boomers long before they have any diseases of dementia,” he says.

Alzheimer’s, however, is not a disease of age, according to Dr. Mark Sager, who is the principal investigator of the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention. This well-regarded longitudinal study of adult children of parents with Alzheimer’s is trying to detect the early markers of the disease.

“People think Alzheimer’s is a disease of aging,” he says. “But it’s a disease of a lifetime that only becomes evident in older adults.”

Sager says Alzheimer’s manifests itself for both genetic and environmental reasons, much as a person’s genetic propensity for heart disease can be exacerbated by smoking and lack of exercise.

“We find that diet, exercise and lifestyle — stress, for example — are all associated with Alzheimer’s,” says Sager. “If you’re overweight and don’t exercise in midlife, you have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s later on. ”

Sager, who runs the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute, says it does not recommend taking Prevagen “primarily because there’s no evidence it does any good.” He suggests people worried about Alzheimer’s would be better off adopting the Mediterranean diet, which he says has proven benefits.

To read more, please go here.

In Defense Of Civil Liberties

September 11, 2013

In 2011, I re-posted a ten-year-old column I wrote about my experiences in Washington  during 9/11.  Given the new revelations of government spying on the citizenry, my worries about civil liberties are unabated. Here is that re-posting from 2011.

I was touring the White House with my wife and youngest daughter on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists began crashing planes. I chronicled my experiences for Isthmus, where I was editor. Liberty was on my mind. I wrote:

For anyone who loves civil liberties, these are scary times. Our Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure has already been compromised by 30 years of deprecations from the War on Drugs and past terrorism scares. Check your civil liberties at the metal detector. The palpable horror of the Sept. 11 assault will only create a greater demand for the authorities to control and command our lives.

But absolute security and a free society are incompatible. Our liberty is threatened as much by a thousand pinpricks to our privacy and free movement as it is by a terrorist’s bomb.

You can read the column here. Readers hated it. You can read their imprecations here. I responded:

 One of the defining characteristics of Americans is an unabashed belief in personal liberty (the wildly radical “pursuit of happiness” proclaimed by Jefferson). Beginning with the oppressive Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, history shows that the most frontal assaults on liberty occur during times of national emergency. I offer no apology for sticking up for civil liberties.

Of course, the terrorism of Sept. 11 was a hellish, fiendish deed. A thousand writers have said it better than I ever could. My comments were deliberately confined to my firsthand observations, small and large, about security in Washington before and during the Pentagon bombing and how civil liberties may suffer in the aftermath. That’s it. I offered no profundities. My modest contribution is as a guy who’s already bothered by the excessive security measures of our age. My fear is that things will get worse — our privacy will shrink, our autonomy will be curtailed. All in the name of protecting us.


A Young Man Of The Times

April 26, 2013

Nate Lustig is the prototype of the successful  young entrepreneur. His generation of  risk-takers is building the new Madison economy. I explain in an Isthmus column:

Lustig followed the familiar template of tech innovators. Even as a kid, he challenged convention.

By his own admission, Lustig was “a terror” in school. Hated homework. Rushed through his assignments. Refused to keep a work notebook. His parents, both lawyers, cut him slack…as long as he stayed on track to get into UW-Madison.

Lustig found his groove refereeing soccer. He says he became an independent contractor at 12 — booking games at his own choosing, biking to parks and making $15 or $20 per outing. He learned a lesson his very first game when a coach started swearing at him.

“I was the one with the whistle,” he says, which pretty much defines his outlook on life. “I got used to making money and not having a boss. I was running my own show.”

At UW-Madison, Lustig became expert at scoring football tickets. He’d charge a small fee for his friends and a larger fee for strangers. That led him to buy a rudimentary ticket website from a graduating senior. He and partners turned it into a seven-campus ticket marketplace that they sold “for the high six figures.” Entrustet [a company that devises digital wills] became his next project.

School was a drag. Lustig wound up a political science major on the five-year plan because he hated — that’s his word — business school classes. They “offered nothing that helped me as an entrepreneur,” he says. They were geared, instead, to advancing students whose ambitions were to land high-paying jobs in corporate America.

“They were very cutthroat because they needed a high rank in their class,” he says. Lustig, on the other hand, wanted to launch his own business, and he had that IT instinct for collaboration and reaching out to colleagues.

He was, in short, a catalyst. A guy who makes things happen.

“What Nate says, he does,” notes Joe Boucher, his lawyer and mentor.

“He’s very resourceful in bringing people together,” says Forrest Woolworth, cofounder of the PerBlue mobile gaming operation.

But Lustig, who remains a Madison booster, has moved to Chile to work.

Here’s the money question: Will he return home to do business?

To read more, please go here.

The Cultural Plan’s Small Thinking

March 23, 2012

Nine years in the making, Madison’s new cultural plan left me decidedly unimpressed in this Isthmus column:

Unfortunately the cultural plan illustrates what Madison gets wrong with a lot of plans: It took an exceedingly long time to produce. It prizes process over content. It reinforces the status quo. It avoids difficult issues. It slights for-profit ventures. And it’s self-absorbed in that Madison Portlandia way.

I go on to say that the plan fails to address the historic town/gown split in the local arts world and is far too parochial. What we need, I argue, is a Dane County cultural plan and not a Madison plan. Chalk it off to another example of how regionalism is prized in theory but not in practice.

To read more, please go here.

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