Friday, August 27, 2010

Hunting puts meat on the table

From the 30 August 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

In days gone by we were a more self-sufficient people, able to feed our families even in the face of adverse economic conditions. It’s common to hear stories from those who lived during the Great Depression that cite their having never gone hungry. Even the poorest families were able to eat, not like kings mind you, but well enough. Extended families worked together to tend farms and raise animals, every household that had the space sported a garden and practiced canning, and men hunted at length, filling their loved ones’ dinner plates with wild game like deer, rabbits, and waterfowl.

Our society has changed a great deal since. Our population has gone from being 90 percent self-sufficient to 10 percent, the result of a more industrialized and so-called “advanced” way of life and the abandonment of rural living for the confines of suburbia and the big city. Because of that, when an economic collapse of great magnitude like the current one does occur, we are hurt more than we were in past national crises. Many people do go hungry, or at least wanting, from a combination of escalating commodity prices and a lack of income opportunity (the current unemployment and underemployment rate is at 16 percent).

But, it doesn’t have to be that way. Most Americans are limited in their ability to independently feed their families from an agricultural standpoint due to the limitations of altered society. But, every American still has the potential to put meat – and lots of it – on the table. Hunting remains a viable option, even in today’s world.

It’s obvious some folks believe in that. Nationally, sales of sporting licenses rose by 3.5 percent in 2009, the greatest growth in 20 years. That was, with a doubt, due to the recession which began in earnest a year earlier. Many money-conscious families re-discovered the financial value and health rewards of feeding themselves naturally.

Hunting saves households considerable amounts of money. Beef is not cheap. It never really was and it’s becoming more expensive, just as pork, chicken and turkey are. All have and are seeing ongoing long-term price hikes mostly due to higher input costs (thanks to ethanol’s utilization of corn). If you have 4 mouths to feed an inordinate amount of your weekly income or subsidies are going towards meats. Hunted meat, on the other hand, is cheap. Beyond the initial investment of a gun and gear, there’s the annual cost of a license at about $50 (unless you wisely invest in a lifetime license) and, in the case of a deer, $50 for processing if you’re not handy with butchers’ tools. For that small investment you could take 3 maybe 4 deer a year which would more than provide for a family’s need for ground meat and steaks. Plus, you could harvest a few turkeys and an almost unlimited supply of geese.

If you haven’t had wild game you don’t know what you’re missing. I never buy beef. Venison provides all of my red meat needs. Usually 6 days a week I ingest deer in one form or another. It’s as versatile as beef and can be prepared in any way that you or your kids will eat it (tacos, meatballs, steaks, burgers, you name it).

It’s also a whole lot healthier than beef. Low in fat and high in protein and healthy Omega 3s, it’s just what the doctor ordered. Even though I eat meat like it’s going out of style, my cholesterol has ranged from 110 to 140 over the past decade, a testament to venison’s benefit. You’re guaranteed that it’s safe, too: You won’t be getting any recalls because the creature wasn’t raised on an industrial farm or slaughtered and processed in a disease-ridden plant.

If you’ve never hunted before and want to partake in the harvest, now is the time to do it. There are plenty of hunting courses being held across the state next month, just in time for the fall seasons. Visit to find a class near you.

If taking game isn’t your cup of tea, but you’d still like the benefits, ask a friend to fill your freezer. Many recreational hunters never fill their doe permits and would gladly do so for you as it gives them more time in the woods.

There’s not much more that you could ask for from hunting: It gives you the peace of mind that you can feed your family, do it affordably and do it healthily. Get out in the woods and enjoy!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Why do I stay in New York?

From the 23 August 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

Longtime readers probably wonder what keeps me in the Empire State. You can’t blame them for being quizzical, for a good many of my columns focus on what’s wrong with New York. Usually, it’s a government run amok that creates ever-growing taxes, prevents prosperity and sends long-time residents away.

Despite NY’s glaring weaknesses, there are numerous things that keep me and my company here. If I had to narrow it down to just a few we could call them the “Three Ps”. They are placement, patriotism, and people.

Western New York, like a good piece of real estate, benefits from location. There’s a big reason that some large companies have selected the region as a permanent place to manufacture or distribute from: The Niagara-Buffalo region is within 500 miles of 46 percent of the US population and 57 percent of the Canadian population. That’s a pretty significant customer base from which to choose. No other area on Earth can claim such nearness to important international trade routes and multi-faceted communities abounding with discretionary income, especially when you consider that among those within reach are two of the most-prosperous economic regions in the world: The Toronto-Hamilton Golden Horseshoe and the greater New York City area. Although upstate is tired and worn, it’s a real asset to have those two regions - and other powerful markets like Boston and Chicago - so close to home.

As important as placement is it requires that you make it a place where you want to be and where you would like your friends and family to be. That demands the second “P”, patriotism, the love of the community. Any businessman can leave the state for greener pastures or keep his mouth shut and just go with the flow. Both of those are the easy way out. But, if this really is your home, you must make it as much. I see the politically controlled economic climate as a business cost (and, just as importantly, a social cost) that we must - like all costs – aggressively control. The only way to do that is to educate others and get them engaged in reforming our wildly messed-up government. Some folks may find my brand of activism to be harsh and maybe a little arrogant. But, do you know why I do it? I demand that this country and this state – the same ones that you and I both claim as our own – be the very best they can be and give you, me, and our loved ones a chance at the good life and, ultimately, a better life for our descendants. Call us gluttons for punishment, but it’s rewarding to make a business work – and do what we can to help other’s businesses work – right here in NY…our home.

To do that it takes the most important part of Western New York’s attractiveness: The people. Every year Confer Plastics loses hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cost of doing business in New York. The only way to overcome that is by operating soundly and creatively and by surrounding yourself with good people, something that WNY is very much blessed with. Travel the US and you’ll find no better people than Upstaters…they possess a kindness and sense of selflessness and sacrifice you won’t find in most Americans and they have a work ethic that is unmatched in North America and maybe the world. You have an awesome labor pool to choose from (blue-collar and white-collar alike) and once you do chose them, they quickly become a part of your company’s tradition and culture, like a part of the family. At first glance it’s the machinery and facilities that separate WNY companies like mine and the local auto and defense manufacturers from out-of-state competitors, but a closer look will show that it’s the people that really make the difference. I’m proud to work with the people I do.

There are many more reasons why New York is a great place to do business despite its myriad flaws. Some reasons are entirely personal in nature, yet influence the desire to stay (like the unmatched natural splendor and amazing variety of activities found across the state), but, nonetheless, NY has that special something that keeps a lot of businesses and people here. Look around you and you might find your own reasons to stay.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The real unemployment rate

From the 16 August 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

by Bob Confer

The July jobs report recently issued by the Labor Department noted that total employment was down by 131,000 jobs for the month. Despite the significant drop in employment, the unemployment rate stayed at 9.5 percent.

That illogical statistical anomaly is attributed to the Labor Department’s current means of recordkeeping which discounts so-called discouraged workers. A discouraged worker is someone who has given up looking for work, at least for the time being, because of a lack of prospects. Despite those workers being willing and able to work, government economists do not account for them in the general unemployment statistic, making the dangerous assumption that they have dropped out of the workforce entirely. If they were taken into consideration they would add 1.2 million to the ranks of the unemployed.

The generally-accepted unemployment rate also excludes another group of what the Labor Department considers marginally-attached to the workforce. Currently, there are another 1.4 million able-bodied and un-retired Americans who had worked at one time yet have not looked for work for a variety of reasons that, according to the Labor Department, supposedly include scholastic and family responsibilities. Basically, the government considers them disinterested in the workforce.

Accounting for both sets of marginally attached workers there are 2.6 million people who are left out of economic concern. Were their numbers to be added to the general population of job seekers, as they should, total unemployment would rise to 17.2 million, pushing the rate to 11.1 percent.

The undercalculation does not end there. A good many non-government economists and those who take an active role in the analysis of private sector trends (financiers, entrepreneurs, business managers, and the like) believe that those who are underemployed should be accounted for. An underemployed individual is someone who, due to economic conditions, is working part-time at was once a full-time job or, in some cases, is working at a job that’s a considerable step down in terms of income and/or responsibilities than what was once had as a means to hold him or her over until a better job can be found. There were 8.8 million Americans who fit this bill in July.

Add the underemployed to the unemployed and the total workforce available or active that is not meeting its full potential is 26 million. The resultant underemployment/unemployment rate is a frightening 17 percent.

That number, although still likely underreported due to the Labor Department’s suspect methods of data collection, is closer to what businesses and families are feeling as they try to make ends meet. It’s painful enough having what the government says is “only” 9.5 percent of the workforce unable to actively participate in the marketplace through the production and delivery of goods and services, the exchange of wages and the application of those wages to the economy. But, it has seemed throughout the entire recession that the job losses and lack of job growth were even worse off than what was advertised. It has been, based upon the extended analysis of what should constitute labor statistics. Having 26 million Americans (and their families) either possessing very little discretionary income or none at all is a real downer on the further development of the private sector and, as some would argue, the public sector as well (through lower tax revenues).

The federal government knows that the job market’s health is more hazardous than it lets on. Yet, it openly manipulates the data in its message to the masses to paint a prettier picture. This deliberate act isn’t something new and is entirely political in nature, a means of saving face for, one, the unconstitutionally oversized and unaccountable executive branch and its myriad agencies and departments that infringe on the free markets and, two, the elected officials who choose to inappropriately meddle in economic affairs through the creation and application of legislation that inhibits capitalism. They know full well that everything they do constricts employment growth more than any private-sector issue ever could. They don’t want it known that this century’s gimmicks in federal and global governance (like altruistic real estate financing, Medicare expansion, two unconstitutional wars, bailouts, financial reform, the green movement and Obamacare, to name a few) have created - and will maintain - a double-digit unemployment rate.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The economics of wind farms

From the 09 August 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

Billionaire Tom Golisano made yet another wise business decision last month when he and his partners decided to terminate their company, Empire State Wind Energy LLC. ESWE had planned to erect numerous windmills throughout New York in locales like Alfred, Sodus and Somerset. Days earlier another electrical generation firm, Noble Environmental, made the announcement that they were canceling their plans to station nearly 70 turbines in Allegany County.

Both companies had devised their projects at a time when wind generation made economic sense. Those days are over.

In 2005 the wholesale cost of electricity averaged $93.83 per megawatt-hour. In 2008 that value peaked at $95.31/MWh. But, in 2009, the bottom fell out of the market and the average cost collapsed by 49 percent to $48.63/MWh, the lowest price ever in the 10-year history of New York’s marketplace for electricity. This year has been a little better than last ($69.21 at the writing of this column) but it’s still a far cry from the 2005-2008 four-year average of $86.47.

Market prices will remain low for the long haul thanks to two factors, demand and production costs. Prior to the recession electrical demand was expected to grow by 1 percent per year. The weakened economy - in conjunction with a greater emphasis on energy conservation programs –instead lowered consumption by nearly 4 percent in 2009, opening the door for less costly energy sources to be put to use. Among those is natural gas which in 2007 accounted for 20 percent of New York’s power generation. It has since taken a larger piece of the pie as gas reserves are being unleashed on a regular basis (Marcellus Shale, etc.) accounting for lower gas prices and, therefore, cheaper electricity. From 2005 to 2008, natural gas was available for an average cost of $9 per million BTUs. Last year it fell to $4.87 and at press time was only $4.77.

ESWE and Noble both cited the faltering wholesale market as the sole reason for their decisions to kill their respective projects; it had nothing to do with the usual complaints of permitting issues or NIMBYs. It just isn’t feasible to produce and sell wind energy when, at the start, it costs just under $50/MWh. And, that’s only for the short-term: According to the US Department of Energy, if you take away the federal government’s Production Tax Credit (which offers a 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour tax credit for the first 10 years of a project) the cost of wind-produced electricity escalates to $85/MWH. So, in either case, wind energy costs more than last year’s average price of electricity and the post-tax-credit cost far rivals even this year’s higher selling price.

One doesn’t have to be a businessman as savvy as Tom Golisano to see that investing in wind energy is a no-win situation, especially in the long-term. To any one of us it is obvious that it is virtually guaranteed that any new wind farm in New York will be losing money. It’s not like the economy – thus electrical demand - is going to grow in a hurry nor is it likely the newfound natural gas reserves will be tapped within the next few decades. The laws of supply and demand will ensure that fossil fuel energy remains inexpensive compared to wind.

So, if that’s the case, then why is the New York Power Authority so intent on putting 166 windmills in the waters of Lake Ontario or Lake Erie? Mind you, the ESWE and Noble projects – like all other US projects - were going to be built on land where the installation and transmission costs are so much more affordable than they would be 2.5 miles offshore as NYPA intends. How much more will that marine-based electricity cost over time versus standard wind projects which are already too costly? 30 percent more per MWh? 40 percent? The number is almost incalculable and unfathomable. According to published reports it will take $1 billion to build the wind farm. In comparison, the wind farm in Sheldon (about half the number of turbines) saw a bill that was one-fifth that amount.

Predictably, NYPA will cite environmentalism over economics, saying it’s worth it because it decreases our reliance on “dirty” fossil fuels. But, what’s so environmentally-friendly about setting dozens of 400-foot tall towers in which is – along with the Adirondacks - our state’s last vestige of natural wonder and beauty?

Altruism shouldn’t rule the day here. Reason must prevail. Wind energy – especially the maritime sort - is expensive, impractical and something that we’ll one day regret.