Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The egg market is ready to crack

The drop in gasoline prices could not come at a more opportune time for American families. It puts a little more cash in hand that can be used to pay for other necessities which haven’t been so kind to personal finances.

Food inflation has been running roughshod through consumers’ pocketbooks, achieving unprecedented heights over the past twelve months. Retail beef and bacon prices are up 14%. Spiral-cut hams, which have become a holiday tradition, cost 17% more this Christmas than last. 

Outcomes of regional droughts in steer country and an international piglet illness, these prices may correct themselves, but it won’t be anytime soon. It will take years to get the animal populations back to levels that can truly satisfy consumer demand.

While this is all occurring, the egg market is taking on a startling and permanent transformation.

California, our nation’s most populous -- and most influential -- state, has a new law requiring all eggs sold within the Golden State’s borders to be produced by hens raised in cages 73% larger than previous standards. Prior to the launch of the law, a cage could be 67 inches square. Now, they have to be 116 square inches.

This is the result of a proposition that the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) somehow influenced 63% of California’s voters into approving under the claims that battery cages (as they are known) are cruel to chickens and increase the prevalence of salmonella poisoning.  

This has led to a 23% drop in California’s egg production in the past two years as many farmers have opted to not make the investments in equipment, buildings, and real estate to accommodate the new rules. Those who have stayed in business have made those necessary expenditures while at the same time cutting back on the size of their flocks.

What does this mean to Californians? Some say it will mirror what happened in the European Union when a similar law went into effect in 2012. Prices there rose 41%. As I write this column, it’s not yet 2015 and prices are already up 35% in California, with some consumers in food deserts seeing an unconscionable 70% increase in retail costs.

What does this mean to other Americans? As California’s population grows and the demand for eggs follows, egg producers throughout the US will undoubtedly meet the demand if the price is right for them to justify the pricey changes in the procedures. Californians already eat 4 billion eggs imported from other states and they represent 12% of the US population, so what they need and want really drives what happens throughout the country. That means more farms with larger cages, less chickens and higher costs nationally, not just at the epicenter of the new standards.

To that end, wholesale prices are up 34% nationally. And, we’re just at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the transformation of the egg industry. It wouldn’t be a stretch to see the federal government mandate the larger cages; after all, it has always used the regulations of bureaucratic entities like the California Air Resources Board, for example, to set the laws for the rest of the land. On top of that, the Humane Society isn’t fully satisfied with what it wrought and is now trumpeting 216-inch cages or the complete lack thereof with a focus on free range.

This anthropomorphic over-attention for a food animal’s comfort doesn’t hurt the “evil” egg companies as much as it hurts the average family. Eggs are a staple of the breakfast table, a formerly inexpensive healthy high-quality protein. Eggs are also found in virtually everything we buy at the store, from breads to sweets to noodles. Because of all of the above, the per capita consumption of eggs is a whopping 259 per year.

Food inflation, whether caused by natural or governmental factors, is about the worst thing that could happen to a working-class family. Everyone needs to eat. It’s not something one can skimp on. There’s a reason that more than 400 local families line up for boxes of free food every other Saturday in Medina…it’s a tough world out there. Laws like this, no matter how well-meaning they may be, only make things tougher.

From the 05 January 2015 Lockport Union Sun and Journal   

Make that holiday spirit last all year

The holiday season is far too brief. I don’t say this out of gluttonous desire for more parties, gifts, or days off. I say this because humanity as a whole is so refreshing in December. Throughout the month most people are jovial, good-natured, and – best of all – giving. This is the one month out of the year when everyone goes out of their way to make life better for other people. Be it gifts, kindly cards, family get-togethers, or donations to community organizations, people give of themselves and find great delight in doing so.

This selflessness shows that there is hope for a society that is routinely blasted for showing signs of decay. Modern culture is constantly reviled for the lessening of family values, the dumbing-down of character, and the decreased emphasis on the well-being of others. Were these to be fully accurate we would never catch this pleasant holiday glimpse that proves that people are still essentially good.

But, alas, this is a glimpse nonetheless. Why should humanity prove the ill-toned stereotypes wrong only during the holidays? Why can’t we be this good during the rest of the year?

As many rediscover at Christmas time, it feels great to give and make people happy. In a perfect world it would be hoped that people would want to replicate this "high" throughout the year and everyday of their lives. That, in its most basic essence, is the reason for the season. We are celebrating the birth of someone who throughout his life spread teachings of selflessness and love for your fellow man. So intent was his cause that he ultimately gave the most sacred gift of all…his very life.

With a new year coming up people should reinvent themselves and dedicate their lives to a similar path, a path that leads to good deeds not only during the holidays, but day in and day out.

As Christian as the holidays may be at their core, this path of righteousness that should be the outcome of the celebration is not necessarily the case. Anyone can and should serve their fellow man. Be you a Jew, Muslim, or Atheist, the betterment of those around you – and therefore yourself – should be paramount. Your life is measured not by what you do for yourself but what you do for others.

The act of giving is not done through money or donations as many believe it is. It can be, but it should never be your most pronounced effort. To fully give of one’s self requires your time, your efforts, and, of all things, your heart.

Make it a point to help others at work, at home, on the streets. Set aside time to volunteer. Join a community organization. Assist a youth group. Help that little old lady across the street. Helping someone with even the most menial of tasks or going out of your way to make one’s day (if not one’s life) brighter is what makes selflessness so personal and so rewarding. There should be joy in giving and joy in watching others receive it.
No doubt you have been experiencing such joys in recent weeks.

It feels good, eh? Now it’s time to make it a lifestyle. These are feelings that you should experience daily. So, make it a point to celebrate the meaning of Christmas as it was intended and live this wonderful holiday mood 24/7/365. It’s easy. It’s rewarding. It’s the right thing to do.

From the 29 December 2014 Lockport Union Sun and Journal

Friday, December 26, 2014

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER – Screech owls: The ghost of Niagara’s nights

One early morning last week I was serenaded by a screech owl. It reminded me of how much I appreciate their call, something that borders on the eerie and could easily give goose bumps to the uninitiated.

Their call

Most people assume that all owls make a “hoot” call. While local owls such as the barred owl and great horned owl do that, two others don’t — the barn owl (a topic of a future article) and the screech owl.

Their calls are not hoots at all, and are actually a little frightening. Their calls can scare young children and will do the same to many a grown adult.

The screech owl, despite its name, does not screech. Instead, it has a descending, mournful call that some folks describe as “whinny.” It sounds just like one would think a ghost might, or even perhaps a banshee, the mythical she-creature that foretells the death of a family member.

A brief recording of the call can be heard online:

That sound is easy for a person to imitate with some whistling, and doing so can bring the bird that’s been calling — and other curious ones — near you, maybe even within feet of your face. It’s a pretty neat trick that also works quite well — maybe even more so — with barred owls.

Sometimes, the quivering call ends with a sharp trill. Other times, you might hear that trill all by itself.

The owls use that to define their territory.

Their appearance

Screech owls aren't big — only seven to 10
inches long as adults. (PHOTO COURTESY
When one thinks of an owl, they think of large birds like the great horned owl and snowy owl. Screech owls are anything but large.

An adult screech owl is only seven to 10 inches long. To put that into perspective, the common mourning dove is 12 inches long from tip of the beak to end of the tail.

It looks like a third of the screech owl’s body is the head, which sports the traditional large owl eyes. Atop their head are 2 ear tufts, sort of like devil horns. They have a mottled appearance and there are two color phases of the same species: One is grey, while the other is a reddish chestnut, almost bright.

Where to find them

In Niagara County, screech owls can be found almost anywhere there are large trees to be found near open areas ... woodlots, orchards, farms, yards, and even in the Lockport city limits. They feed exclusively on rodents — mice and voles — so, areas where they are present in numbers, like a dairy farm, can be havens for screech owls.

Large, older trees give them their homes, as they build their nests in cavities, not out on the branches or in a crotch of a tree as the great horned owl does.

If you don’t have any trees with large hollows in them, you can still bring screech owls to your lawn. A wood duck nest box is a perfect home and you will see many people put up one of these structures in the lawn just to attract screech owls. My parents have had some success doing this, and there’s not much cuter than an inquisitive little screech owl peering out of nest box to watch you.

You can sometimes find these critters during the day with help from some of your avian friends. If you see a mixed flock of songbirds like chickadees and blue jays being quite noisy, even scolding, about something in a tree, look closely. A screech owl may be close to the trunk, in a crotch, or hiding in spruce boughs. You will have to look carefully, as the little owls remain motionless and erect so as to not be seen. The grey phase especially can be hard to see because its cryptic colors make it almost camouflaged with bark.

If you hear one of these beautiful creatures at night don’t be afraid. Get out of bed, grab a flashlight, and see if you can exchange calls with him to bring him in for a close look. It’s an adorable sight that doesn’t match their spooky calls at all.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where some folks say his house is haunted. He prefers to blame the screech owls. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 25 December 2014 East Niagara Post

Monday, December 22, 2014

Board of Regents unwisely eyes cutting back on social studies

The National Council for the Social Studies defines social studies as the "integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence." In common practice in our public school systems social studies encompass a wide range of classes from US and world history to global studies.

These courses have long been extremely important aspects of education as their mastery helps children to develop critical thinking, understand their community, prepare for the civic responsibilities of adulthood, and foster a global understanding necessary in our ever-shrinking world. 

Despite all of those needs and, no pun intended, the history of their value, social studies are again on the chopping block in New York State.

The Board of Regents is the ultimate governing body of public education in New York State, supervising all educational activities within the State while presiding over SUNY and the New York State Education Department (you know them from the infamous Regents Exams). Following their October meeting the Board released a detailed educational plan that aims to, as they put it, “help provide the skills necessary to succeed in postsecondary education and a variety of demanding, high-skill career paths.”

In doing so, they’ve alluded to a perceived unimportance of history or global studies. Under their plan, called “4 + 1”, students would have the option of not taking one of the social studies exams (US history or Global) currently required for a State Regents diploma. They could, instead, replace it with another exam in career technical, STEM, humanities, foreign language or art. Even then, the exam in global history/geography would be watered-down, covering only what was learned in the second year of the two-year course. You can download the proposal here:

If one has ever looked at the course loads, or lack thereof, put on modern American students -- a system in which many students have one or more regularly-scheduled study halls (which, as I remember, were nothing more than social hours) -- it begs the questions: Why can’t they have it all? Why do they need to select one of the above at the expense of understanding the dynamics of our world? If career-preparedness is the goal, why skimp on social studies?

Some would say that history has no worth in the workplace, as what kids learned in school was only rote material, memorized and forgotten. That’s not the case. Proper understanding of history requires the use of critical and abstract thinking (tools all workers need) to determine why things happened as they did and how their outcomes and domino effects influence the day-to-day of our lives. That skill set works equally well when applied to any number of work tasks, whether it’s understanding financials or developing a job task, work unit, or corporate strategy.

Likewise, global studies are absolutely critical for today’s workforce. It’s a global economy, one in which America will soon no longer hold the top spot. We’d better understand our place in the world and all the myriad partners and nations we have to work with. It’s the only way our businesses, economy, and nation can compete.   

There’s no need to stop at the workplace, either. We aren’t just preparing kids for their careers, we’re preparing them for life.

If we de-emphasize our history classes and in turn our past, present and future, citizens won’t be engaged in their community and nation. Not enough people volunteer or vote now – how will future generations behave?     
If we minimize teens’ analysis of our world, how will they as adults understand that which needs fixing around the globe – the threats of terror and where they come from and why, oppression that still runs rampant in this world, our next war and so much more? Not enough adults give a hoot now about anything beyond our borders – how will future generations see the world?   

The full Board of Regents will be meeting on January 12th and 13th when it is anticipated that the regulations will be presented for permanent adoption. It is expected that the board will unanimously approve the measures as they did in October.

But, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to sway them.

If you see value in social studies and would like to see their importance preserved, submit your comments in support to the address below:

Merryl Tisch, Chancellor, Board of Regents
New York State Education Department
89 Washington Avenue
Board of Regents, Room 110 EB
Albany, New York 12234

From the 22 December 2014 Greater Niagara Newspapers

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Ermine – the white weasel of the Niagara winter

Last winter on a morning commute a strange ghostly creature ran across the road before me near the Lockport Nature Trail.

I was startled by — and appreciative of — that sighting.

For most people, it probably wouldn’t be anything to write home about because it was a wee mammal, no bigger than a squirrel. It was a short-tailed weasel, more commonly known as the ermine.

It was an exciting experience for me as it was my first encounter with an ermine in its winter coat. I had seen them before in the summer, when they look like an entirely different, maybe even average, animal.

In the winter, though, they are something special.

The ermine's fur in winter is ghost-white and highly coveted. (PHOTOS 

Many locals have had the good fortune of seeing a mink in their lifetime. The ermine is closely related to it, but smaller and sleeker. One might say they look like a squirrel but with a long neck.

They are 8 to 12 inches long with 2 1⁄2 to 4 inches of that being the tail.

In the summer they are varying shades of brown above – ranging from a chestnut hue to a coffee brown – with white below. Come winter, that coat changes to all white except the tip of its tail which becomes black.

That transition allows it to hide from predators like hawks and foxes.

Where to find ermine

Short-tailed weasels are not overly abundant in Niagara County nor are they especially uncommon, either. They are just rarely seen because they are mostly nocturnal, though you will encounter them during the day, too, especially if you are an early riser and like to take nature hikes when the sun comes up.

Eastern Niagara County offers a perfect environment for them. They like the brushy areas — like hedgerows — around farms, and open woodlots, especially if there is a small stream nearby. They live in those hedges and venture out to the fields in search of their prey.

Their homes are burrows found under logs, stumps and rocks, and most of their burrows are stuffed full of mouse fur.

Weasels are “bloodthirsty” 

In the summer, the short-tailed weasel a 
brown top and a white underbelly.
Ermine might end up being one of the more hyperactive animals you’ll ever encounter. It seems like they are always moving, even running, rarely stopping for a leisurely stroll. With that sort of relentless nervousness comes a crazy metabolism. It seems like they are always hunting and always eating, despite their thin appearance.

Ermine are carnivores, and may be the best mousers of the animal kingdom, even better than cats, foxes or owls. To that end, they are considered beneficial to dairy farms (where mice abound in the feed lots) and alfalfa fields (where voles can be quite a problem).

They will attack small rodents and other animals with lightning-like speed and incredible precision. They always go for the base of the skull, usually succeeding with just one bite – they clamp on and don’t release till the fighting stops. It’s not that they are strangling the critters – they are actually crushing or piercing parts of their skull.

They have been known to attack larger animals, too, like baby rabbits, and will use the same means of attack, even ridiculously riding the larger animal like it’s a rodeo or something.

The ermine’s cousin, the long-tailed weasel, is a little larger and has been known to be the bane of hen houses (anyone who has watched older cartoons from the 1940s or 1950s will be familiar with that recurring theme). The ermine, though, won’t do that. They have a hunger for mammal blood.

One ermine can kill a dozen mice in one day. It won’t eat them all at once and will stash them and come back and eat them when their hunting efforts have proven fruitless.

Weasels are fearless

Being small, ermines have a lot of predators. Being mouse-eaters, they have a lot of competition, too.

They are game for both. Despite their size, weasels are expert fighters, and will tangle with animals much larger, including dogs, always putting up a good fight.

They also have a defense mechanism. Like skunks they release a really nasty musk when attacked (they just can’t spray it like skunks can).

Man is the ermine’s worst enemy

The poor ermine is victim of Mankind’s vanity.

Their white winter fur is attractive and extremely soft. Women, especially Europeans, value that fur as coats and accessories. An ermine coat can be incredibly expensive, something only the ultra-rich can afford.

It’s probably because a lot of work – and animal lives – go into an ermine coat.

This isn’t a beaver or a fox we’re talking about, where it doesn’t take too many animals to make a big fur. We’re talking about an animal the size of a red squirrel. Think of how many squirrels it would take to make a coat. Some estimates have it pegged at 180 to 200 short-tailed weasels being needed to make one coat.

That sort of harvest can really decimate the population in a given area.

The populations of most animals trapped for their pelts aren’t so adversely affected by the fur trade. A good case can be made for some animals that trapping actually creates a better, healthier population.

Not with the ermine, which is sad.

Hopefully you get a chance to see one of these interesting creatures this winter, but not in someone’s coat. Hopefully its alive and giving you quite the display as it masks itself in the snow in hot pursuit of its next meal.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he, too, gets whiter in the winter months. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 18 December 2014 East Niagara Post

Monday, December 15, 2014

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Beavers making a comeback in Niagara County

When I was a kid, and even well into my adulthood for that matter, beavers were virtually unheard of in Niagara County. Stragglers were occasionally seen in Lake Ontario or in the quiet waters of Red Creek, but their sightings were few and far between.

That all changed approximately 10 years ago. Since then, beavers have substantially increased their population in the county. Although they could still be considered quite uncommon, they are no longer rare, and an active outdoorsperson has a fair chance of seeing one of these giant rodents and a very good chance of seeing their handiwork.

Why there are more beavers

Beaver numbers are up in Niagara County for three reasons:

One, beavers aren’t trapped for their furs like they once were. The number of trappers has declined significantly in New York State since the 1970s. There are less young people taking to trapping and the society’s missives against the fur trade have really lessened the demand for quality furs. Beavers have especially lagged; the demand is not there for their pelts. Almost inflation-proof, today’s beaver prices aren’t too far off from where they in the early-1990s. Beavers weren’t really trapped in Niagara County anyway, but as their harvests declined in other parts of Western New York, their already-healthy populations grew and their range expanded (to us).

Two, there are less family farms. As the number of family farms has dwindled dramatically over the past 50 years in Niagara County, that has changed the landscape. Any of those properties that weren’t sold to larger farms have reverted or have begun to revert to forests. There are far more trees in Niagara County now than there were 100 years ago. That means more food, protection and building supplies for the beavers as huge sections of our streams are now tree-lined.

Three, ponds are now the “in” thing. More and more property owners are building ponds, either for landscaping, wildlife management, or fishing. They now dot the landscape and afford beavers new homes or stepping stones as they travel from water body to water body in search of a permanent home.

Why there will never be a lot of beavers 

Despite the growth in numbers, there will never be a lot of beavers in Eastern Niagara County because of our poor drainage -- an outcome of our relatively flat topography.

In other areas of Western New York, like the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, water moves out in a hurry after winter thaws or big rain storms. In places like those, beavers can build their dams and lodges with no real threat of them being destroyed by floods.

Not here. As anyone who lives near Red Creek and Eighteenmile Creek or any one of their feeder streams can attest to, our creeks can get REALLY high and fast for long periods of time. It’s not uncommon for them to be well over their banks and into floodplains that are many acres in size.

That makes it impossible for beavers to make a home with any real future in our area. Their dams could be washed away once or twice a year.

How to identify a beaver

Some folks may think they have beavers in their ponds or creeks, but they are probably muskrats, which are incredibly abundant. Muskrats look like miniature beavers and have a rat-like tail (hence the name) instead of the beaver’s tell-tale flat tail.

After taking into consideration their size, beavers can’t be confused with muskrats. Muskrats are wee
little things, their bodies about 10 to 12 inches long. Beavers, on the other hand, can be 30 inches long (not counting the tail.)

Where a fat muskrat might weigh in at 3 or 4 pounds, a typical adult beaver will weigh in excess of 30 pounds. Real porkers topping the scales at over 50 pounds are fairly common elsewhere.

Muskrats make lodges but they are nothing like beaver lodges. Muskrats make theirs out of the leaves and stalks of cattails and reeds. Beavers, as you know, make their lodges out of trees.

Where to find them

You might see a beaver in the Erie Canal, but he’s just a wanderer trying to get someplace else. Instead, look for them in natural bodies of flowing water.

Red Creek and Eighteenmile Creek have fair numbers of beavers throughout. It should be noted, though, that there are few or no beavers below the Burt Dam due to the amount of boat traffic.

TwelveMile Creek has some beavers in its waters. A few years back one of the poor souls tried to cross Route 104 next to that creek and was struck and killed by a car.

I cannot claim to know how many exist on Johnson’s Creek, but the conditions should allow it.

Golden Hill Creek has a few. If you really want to see at least the evidence of a beaver, head to the end of that creek.

The Golden Hill State Park boat launch area has free access (unlike the main portion of the park) and if you hike some of the trails there you can see the damage done to trees along that creek by a resident If you take the easternmost trails there, those that head along the lakeshore to the eastern border of the park, you will see many trees atop that bluff that were girdled or taken down by the beaver (or beavers).

If you are there on a quiet day with few boats heading in and out of the launch, there’s a chance you might see a beaver in the creek or out in the open waters of the lake.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he welcomes beavers to the neighborhood, even if it means a few trees coming down. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 11 December 2014 East Niagara Post

The tax cap is too weak

In 2011, the tax cap was instituted by the state legislature at the behest of Governor Cuomo as a means to curtail the ongoing decline of New York State by limiting the growth of property taxes which were already 79 percent higher than the national average.

Although it’s anything but perfect – after just 5 years of 2 percent hikes your taxes will be more than 10 percent higher – it was advertised by Cuomo as being better than the alternative: It had not been uncommon for municipalities and school districts to drive up their levies by more than 5 percent per year. Among the worst in recent memory was a 3-year period ending in 2007 in which my total property taxes (local, county, and school) grew by a combined 17 percent.

In 2013, 2 years into the law, my combined tax burden grew by 3 percent – well above the cap.  That’s nothing compared to what City of Lockport taxpayers will soon experience (my heart goes out to them).

Taxpayers like us who are pained by these growing levies have found out since the cap’s dawning days that there’s a huge difference between the original intent of the law and the reality of what it became. The tax cap is really nothing of the sort, a law saddled with loopholes that permit tax growth far in excess of the mandated 2 percent mark or the rate of inflation if lower, which it is (1.56 percent).  

First and foremost among these flaws is the ability of governing bodies (such as town and village boards) to create a local law applicable to the budget year that would allow them to exceed the cap. To do so, they need only hold a public hearing followed by approval of 60 percent of the board. School districts, too, can pass higher budgets given that, unlike the towns, their residents elect to do so with a vote of at least 60 percent.

The cap’s weaknesses further confound local taxpayers with an exclusion for pensions; their growth is allowed to exceed 2 percent. Unlike private retirement investments such as IRAs or 401(k)s most public pensions have guaranteed outcomes in New York. So, when the economy falters, taxpayers have to make retirees whole by picking up the slack for the low or negative rates of returns on the investments that back state pension funds. As we saw during the Great Recession when Wall Street faltered, a lot was put on New York’s taxpayers. Only now are we finally seeing a decrease in the pension cost to local governments.

The greatest problem with the tax cap, though, doesn’t occur in our neighborhoods. Albany is the root of all evil in this state. The state legislature and executive branch can’t force unconscionable mandates upon taxing jurisdictions and expect them to stay within budget, especially when the state has done little to nothing to reform the requirements of said mandates. If Cuomo and Friends were serious about stemming the loss of New York’s economic lifeblood they would introduce any of hundreds of suggested reforms to these programs, the worst being Medicaid, for which the counties are on the hook for nearly $10 billion annually.

Albany, too, should cap its spending because what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. This year’s state budget is 3.6 percent higher than last year’s. The state shouldn’t preach -- no, demand -- thrift, if they can’t practice it themselves. 

Every government entity - our towns, schools, agencies and capitols - should cap (preferably decrease) their spending…just like we have to in our businesses and families if we expect to stay in business or not lose our homes to foreclosure.

On a side note, I have to do my first revision in ten years of writing this column. In a recent installment about racial profiling I included a report about one of my coworkers having been profiled while in Tonawanda. It was not Tonawanda, it was another community. My coworker was confused; not being from the area he did not know the local boundaries. My apologies to the Tonawanda Police (who took the time to look into the matter) and the reader.   

From the 15 December 2014 Greater Niagara Newspapers