Industrial Harvest

Meanwhile, on the sidelines… by sarah kavage

If you follow commodities prices, you may have noticed that the they have dropped quite a bit since my last post – in fact, since I bought in the market has pretty much done little but go down.  Several days after I bought in, wheat prices started to falter, brought on by all that stuff going on in Europe with Greece needing to be bailed out, Germany balking and the Euro falling.  I sold as things began turning bearish, and am now sitting on the sidelines, waiting to jump back in the game at a point where I might recover what money I lost on the way down.  My losses didn’t add up to a lot, but they were apparently enough for me to start, as we urban planners like to say, “engaging in the process.”  I am now dilligently checking prices, trying to make some sense out of these daily market reports as they come in, and even got up a little bit early this morning so that I could call broker Jim before the trading floor opened. 

The market reports, however are full of advice like “we have no new passion for new positions” and “stay bearish.”  We seem to be in the midst of a rally in grain prices, which was why I was up out of bed before the opening bell, but when I spoke to Jim he’s convinced that the rally is unsustainable, prices are still up about 15 cents too high, and “as soon as Greece coughs, it’ll go back down.” 

This has all spurred me to think back to a conversation I had with another Jim – Jim Braun – back in Chicago in December.  For those of you who don’t know Jim, he’s an Iowa hog farmer turned advocate in favor of small farmers, local food and organic agriculture, and was one of the brains behind Illinois’ groundbreaking Food, Farms Jobs Act passed by the state legislature in 2007.  Jim pointed out to me that all these market reports continually make up reasons for why the market is moving up or down as if they know exactly what’s going on – it might be that the weather is bad, it might be that a certain country is deciding whether or not to import a bunch of grain from the US, it might be the larger economic conditions (which seems to be the consensus this week) or index fund movements driving prices – and usually all of these factors at once pushing and pulling the price around. 

Anyway, Jim’s point was that no one ever really knows what is causing the price to move, and while it could be any of these things it could also be something else entirely.  Because my day job involves social science research – trying to tease out the multiple factors that influence whether people walk, drive or take the bus – I know that people equate association with causation all the time.  Just because your statistical model says that two factors are associated, that doesn’t mean one factor is causing the other.  If carrying umbrellas is associated with traffic accidents, it doesn’t mean that umbrellas cause traffic accidents.  Rather, carrying umbrellas and traffic accidents are both associated with rain, and if you don’t pick up on this, you’re going to have a hard time getting that journal article accepted. 

The thing is that with the markets, you can do all the statistical modeling you want but ultimately it doesn’t really matter what the cause actually is, it only matters what people think the cause is, or what people think that others think the cause is (and so on, ad infinitum).  Talk about speculation!  Jim B. and I talked about the huge agricultural corporations that grow commodities on contract with farmers, own their own networks of grain elevators, trucks, barges and mills, get large payments from the government, export massive amounts of grain and also trade on the CBOT.  Surely, they wouldn’t ever take advantage of the knowledge and influence they have in order to make money as the rest of us stand on the sidelines, guessing…


Commodifying the Decommodification by sarah kavage
May 19, 2010, 8:00 pm
Filed under: project updates | Tags: , , , ,

The main purpose of this post is to announce the Kickstarter fundraising campaign for this project, which is here (trying to keep up with all the various social media / web / etc platforms is a chore, but one that must be done, so excuse any cross postings you may have received or other breaches of net-iquette).  So, YAY!  DONATE!  THANK YOU!  In case it is not obvious where the funding is coming from for this project, the answer is:  it’s coming from me.  And hopefully you too, because I can’t finance it all on my own and the costs that were just lines on a budget are now starting to become real ones.   

Here’s the backstory.  I could be spending my time writing grants to pay for this project.  That’s a tough business, not that I won’t and haven’t done it, but it’s uncertain and takes a long time, and I lack patience.  After about a year and a half establishing whether this project is even feasible logistically, to apply for grants would add another year, maybe two, maybe more to the project because you have to wait for the right point in the granting cycle to apply (most grants come around only once a year, or every other year), and then wait another few months for a decision.  Worst of all, the likelihood of actually getting money is even lower now, since so many foundations have cut back on giving due to financial losses over the past year or two.   

I know myself, and give me another year or two to apply for grant funding, and my own personal momentum and ambition will completely deadened and the project will be a chore rather than the interesting journey it’s supposed to be.  Or worse, the issue is no longer timely or as relevant. 

So, I have chosen the alternative of community funding.  It means having to get over the taboo (personal and societal, both of them strong ones) of asking for money, but for this project, I’d much rather make the case to individuals than institutions.  Ben, the IH research fellow, mentioned at some point the truism “many hands make light work” as kind of a guiding theme for the project.  Through countless  people taking just a little bit, this massive pile of wheat / flour will work its way back into the community.  The same goes for the funding. 

The forum I have chosen to raise said funds is Kickstarter, which is an awesome community funding platform for creative projects.  In my conversation with a friend this past weekend about Kickstarter, she called it “microgranting for hipsters” and yep, that seems to be about right.  But in a good way.  It’s been great that people who otherwise would not be able to be involved have a way to connect to, participate in and support the project.  I’ve enjoyed watching the donations trickle in (so far it has yet to become a flood). 

The funny thing about funding this project on Kickstarter is that this project is kinda perfect for it, because Kickstarter encourages giving “rewards” to your donors, and I’ve spent the past year or so working on creating this product – bags of flour!  So now, I’m commodifying the product of this project that is all about decommodification.  Once one begins to investigate the systems of commerce, there’s no end to the compromises one must make.   

Plus, now that I’m in the commodities market, am I ever about making that money.

My Futures by sarah kavage

Well, yesterday morning I became the proud owner of a July Chicago Board of Trade wheat futures contract (the 1000-bushel “mini” contract) – so perhaps it’s time to start telling the story of how all the pieces of this project will connect. 

A futures contract is, in essence, an agreement to buy a certain quantity (in my case, 1000 bushels) of a certain grain (wheat) by a certain date in the future (July).  Buying a futures contract is one thing, but actually following it through to delivery is pretty rare – out of the millions of bushels of wheat that are traded as futures contracts on the Board of Trade, only a very few end in the exchange of actual grain.  So, futures contract delivery is a specialized and complicated transaction, and most commodities brokers don’t deal with it very often, if ever (within the commodities brokerage world, there are folks that specialize in deliveries of futures contracts).   With help from Joanna, some of her co-workers, and a contact at the Board of Trade, I found out a few months ago that to actually deliver on a mini-wheat contract (1000 bushels), I’d need to have 5 mini contracts, or 5000 bushels.  That’s not only too rich for my blood, but 1000 bushels is going to be tough enough to deal with, thanks. 

So, we (they, really I can’t take any credit for this), devised an alternate approach.  Basically, I’m going to be using my futures contract to hedge, or manage risk – exactly the same way a baker or miller would use it.  The contract I bought today will basically lock in my price – any increase in price between now and then will make me money on the futures contract, offseting the higher price for the wheat on the “cash” market.  Instead of letting the contract expire and taking delivery, I’ll settle the contract shortly before its expiration date and then, in a separate transaction, go pick up the grain at an elevator.  I’ll be getting the wheat from the only grain elevator in Chicago that is certified for CBOT deliveries, a 12.3 million bushel behemoth on the Illinois River, now owned by Nidera.

My brokers Jim and Steven at Commercial Grain, Inc. (out of Arkansas, of all places) have been great to work with and super helpful and patient explaining how our relationship works and what my hedging strategy should be.  The lower I can get “in” to the market, the better covered I’ll be in the case of price increases between now and when I pick up the grain.  I was advised that $5.00 / bushel is probably a good point to jump in (and that’s basically what I’ve budgeted for), that although prices are on the upswing they aren’t expected to swing too wildly before we close out the contract, and that I should watch the weather reports and the upcoming USDA crop report to make sure (full disclosure, for those who might be inclined to nitpick my brokers’ advice:  my notes on this conversation are not that great, so it’s my translation, not the actual advice, that would be the issue – if there is an issue.  Do I sound like a lawyer yet?). 

So there were a few quiet days in which I filled out the requisite forms and pretended to understand the significance of the daily grain market reports these guys were sending me.  Then, there was that inexplicable insane swing in the markets last week, which I missed the day it happened.  The next day when I talked to Steven he was like “What?? You don’t know??” like there had been a nuclear explosion or something, although I’d probably miss that too because I’m apparently living under a rock out on the edge of the continent here… 

Anyway, we played it cool for another day or two, and then Monday morning, just as I was reading the grain market report saying prices seemed to be headed up and up above $5 for the foreseeable future, I got the call from Steven that the trigger had been pulled – he’d jumped on it first thing in the morning while prices were still low, and I was in at $4.99 3/4!

GMO wheat by sarah kavage

One of the questions I get asked about the most when I talk about this project is whether the wheat I’m about to buy (more on all of that very soon) will be GMO.  So far, I’ve been able to confidently say no – Monsanto was persuing GMO wheat a few years back, but stopped after widespread concern from farmers and others about the impacts of GMO crops.  Plus, the wheat gene is hexaploid, a more complex genetic structure than is found in corn or soy, which apparently makes developing a GMO wheat crop a little more complicated. 

So, I was a little startled and had a small moment of panic when my dad sent me this article this morning:
Bottom line is that GMO wheat is still a few years out, but Monsanto re-started their GMO wheat efforts last year and several other ag / chemical companies (Dow, Syngenta, DuPont, Limagrain) are researching it as well; its release is seen as “inevitable.”