Friday, January 30, 2015

Strong US dollar is not good for Niagara County

On the surface, the strengthening US dollar seems to be good news, maybe even great news. It’s an outcome of a growing economy, it increases business and consumer confidence that will lead to more growth, it allows consumers to buy more imported goods, and it’s one of the causes of declining oil prices.

But, if you look deeper into and at some of the domino effects (especially here on the Niagara Frontier), you begin to develop a contrarian view and see that a very strong dollar isn’t a good thing after all. It’s going to have a negative impact on local retailers, manufacturers, and dairy farmers – and, in turn, local residents.

Last week, the Canadian dollar dipped below 80 cents American for the first time in 6 years. It’s been a dramatic decline, too: In January of 2014 the loonie came in at a smidge over 94 cents American. It’s the common sentiment among Canadian policymakers and economists that their dollar will drop to 75 cents or less this year.

It now takes over $1.25 Canadian to buy a dollars-worth of product in the States. With such a negative exchange rate in place, there will be fewer Northerners crossing the border to fill the parking lot and shopping bags at retail destinations like the Fashion Outlets Mall (where Canadians account for 82% of their sales). Aiding that sea change, the relatively-new outlet mall on the Canadian side will keep them there as will Congress’s plan to have biometric testing at our border which will take crossing delays and headaches to a whole new level.

The results won’t be pretty. Less dollars spent by Canadian shoppers equals less sales tax revenue for Niagara County. Less sales tax revenue equals higher property taxes for Niagara County residents. If we’re in this for the long-term – which I believe we are (the global economy is none too healthy) – the County Legislature will have to get creative with its finances in a year or two.

Buffalo-Niagara manufacturers will take a hit, too. Most all of my company’s sales are domestically-based, our exports are such a small percentage they don’t even merit discussion. But, we’re a minority in that regard. Foreign trade is what drives local manufacturing. Western New York plants exported a whopping $4.3 billion in goods in 2013. Almost 1 out of every 10 jobs in the region is a result of exporting.

During and after the Great Recession, exporting really took off for American plants because the US dollar took such a beating and was undervalued versus the Euro and other currencies. From 2009 to 2013 US exports increased by an almost unfathomable 49.5%.

But, the tables are turning. It is now more attractive for foreign buyers to train their sights on Europe and Asia where they have better buying power.

Some economists believe that the decline in US exports will be so sharp in the next 12 to 18 months that we are due for a recession because of it thanks to the job cuts, loss of corporate income taxes and lack of capital investment that comes with a drop in manufacturing.    

Something more immediate, though, will be the strong dollar’s impact on dairy farms. 2013 and 2014 were some of the better years for dairy farmers in recent memory because of increased demand, prices and profits from the explosion in yogurt consumption and -- here we go again – exports.

In 2014, foreign shipments accounted for 17% of the US dairy economy. That led to prices of $24 per hundredweight of milk. But, as the American dollar has strengthened, the bottom has fallen in the dairy market. A hundredweight is now $18. The USDA and ag experts believe the price will tumble below $14 this spring and stay there for an extended period.

2015 will end up being one of the worst years of the last 30 for dairymen, maybe as bad as 2009 when many farms across the country lost as much as $200 per head. This year’s 40%-plus plummet in selling prices will kill some smaller farms and will cause even the biggest ones to suffer miserably. Who knows what 2016 will bring for them; probably more of the same.

So, while a strong American dollar may seem awesome and something to be prideful of at first, it’s not. A dollar that’s too strong creates short-term growth for the national economy, but, in the long term, it’s dangerous – and Niagara County might prove to be Ground Zero for that.  

Thursday, January 22, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The pileated woodpecker – the Paul Bunyan of the bird world

In quite a few columns last year I noted the expansion into Niagara County — or growth of existing populations — of animals that were, even just 20 years, considered rare sights on the Niagara Frontier.

As I noted, many of the smaller family farms of the area, which were a dime a dozen up until the 1960s, have either been bought up by larger farms or have reverted to their original state: the forest. It’s that latter scenario which has really changed the landscape in Niagara County and, in turn, the wildlife.

Among those creatures that have gone from rare to uncommon in Eastern Niagara County because of this change is the pileated woodpecker.

From my childhood right through my college years I saw the evidence of pileated woodpeckers just once in the area, a tree showing their tell-tale demolition work. But in the two decades since, I’ve seen them at an increasing rate and would consider them a regular find for any birdwatcher who doesn’t mind hoofing it to and through some of Niagara County’s bigger woodlots.

Pileateds are giants

Everyone is familiar with some of the common backyard woodpeckers like the downy woodpecker and its near-twin, the hairy woodpecker. They have what could be called “typical” size for a woodpecker.

Pileated woodpeckers, on the other hand, are anything but typical. If the other woodpeckers are lumberjacks, then I guess pileateds are the Paul Bunyans of the woodpecker world — giants.

While a downy woodpecker might be six inches long, pileated woodpeckers are 18 inches long – the size of a crow – with a 30 inch wingspan!

Identifying pileateds

The pileated woodpecker is the largest woodpecker on the 
Pileated woodpeckers are unique and can’t be confused with any other local bird. They are black like a crow, with white stripes on their neck and face and a large red crest. When they fly, which is done slowly and deliberately, you will see white wing linings.

Their voice, like their body, is big. Their calls are kind of like that of the common flicker (the brown and yellow “ground dwelling” woodpecker you might see in your yard in the summer). But, it’s louder. Much louder. The kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk call will echo through the forest and here on the lake plains I’ll hear them well over a half-mile away. That’s farther than you can hear a turkey gobble or a hawk scream.

Another audible giveaway is their Bunyan-like hammering. When wailing away on a tree trunk, pileated woodpeckers are just as loud and paced as a person using an ax to fell a tree. It’s a deep, powerful blow, nothing like the rapid fire, high-pitched pecking you hear from red bellied woodpeckers in the spring when they mark their territories by pecking at hollow limbs.

Where to find them

Pileated woodpeckers need large, dying trees, which is why they are recent additions to the local fauna. As our forests age, they create perfect food sources for the woodpeckers. Look for them in local woodlots that are off the beaten path and away from people, such as back in a farm field. These woodlots should be at least 5 acres in size and have plenty of trees in excess of 40 feet in height.

That’s not to say that they won’t frequent yards on occasion. My lawn has a lot of very large trees and is right next to dairy farm and a county road. Despite that hustle and bustle, I might see a pileated in my yard a few times a year. If they know there’s lots of food, they’ll be there.

But, if you hope to see one, the bigger the woods the better. Remember, everything about pileateds is big.

What do pileateds eat? 

Pileated woodpeckers don’t eat wood – they eat what eats wood. They love ants and beetle larvae and will hammer away at an infected tree for hours and days on end, chipping away the bark and trunk to get at the insects.

You can’t miss their handiwork. They will carve a channel into a trunk that might be three to five feet in length, four to six inches wide and just as deep. Below these rectangular carvings you will see large chips at the base of the tree, some larger than a man’s hand.

Some of these holes are so Buyan-esque that the trees will actually fall over.

You are familiar with pileated woodpeckers...sort of 

You’ve seen the pileated woodpecker, but probably never knew it.

The bird is forever immortalized in pop culture. It served as the inspiration for none other than the most famous woodpecker of all – Woody Woodpecker.

The dark body with white markings. The large red crest. The loud maniacal laugh-like call. The size. A unique character, inspired by a unique bird.

But, if you hope to see a real life Woody, know that pileateds aren’t as gregarious as their cartoon interpretations.

They are very shy and wary. They don’t like people.

So, when out in the woods, be stealthy. Bring binoculars and a telescopic lens for you camera because you won’t get close.

Hopefully you someday get a chance to see one of these giant lumberjacks. You won’t forget the first time that you do.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he wonders: If the pileated woodpecker is Paul Bunyan, who is Babe? Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 22 January 2015 East Niagara Post

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Go green and improve the environment with seedlings

Green is the buzzword of the 21st century. Businesses and governments everywhere endeavor to pursue green practices in an effort to preserve Earth’s fragile natural world and her limited resources.

A lot of people try to live green as well, but beyond recycling and buying sustainable products and packaging most either know not what to do or don’t care to, figuring they’ve done their part to save the environment.

Maybe that’s because we can’t see the forest through the trees. In all of the aforementioned cases, green is looked at as the other green (money) and it is nothing more than an economic transaction.

One’s efforts – or the cumulative efforts of a company or community - are traceable to inputs and outputs, revenues and expenses, savings and costs. Even most carbon footprint calculations are based in economic theory.

Rarely do we look past the dollar and focus on what being green is really all about: Mother Nature. If you truly want to have an effect on the environment, you don’t focus solely on what you can take from it. Instead, focus on giving back to it. It’s kind of like a modified version of the old JFK axiom: Ask not what your environment can do for you — ask what you can do for your environment.

It doesn’t have to be some life-changing event. You don’t have to become a real-life Tarzan, one with the jungle. You don’t have to abandon the comforts of human progress. No, it’s really quite simple and requires you only to get your hands dirty. There is no better and easier way to help the biosphere than by planting trees.

You can start with your own property. The Niagara Frontier is in a state of flux, its once predominantly agrarian landscape is changing before our eyes. Many long-time family farms have done one of three things over recent years: They’ve been consumed by larger farms, they’ve been allowed to revert to woodlands, or they’ve been transformed into an extension of Erie County’s northern suburbs.

In the last two scenarios, the arborist within you could make a significant impact on the health of the environment by aiding Mother Nature in her attempt to reclaim what was once hers and transform our region to a semblance of the great forest that it was before the white man arrived.

As the fields remain fallow, you could speed up the reclamation process, one that can take decades where the cover develops from weeds to shrubs to small short-lived trees to tall long-lived trees. To do so, you could plant saplings en masse and manage the area as a woodlot, even a small forest, focusing on trees of the deciduous and coniferous sort that thrive in the type of soil found on your spread, trees that will be of benefit to bird and beast.

In regard to growth of suburbia, the barren lawns can be appropriately transformed not through gardening and normal landscaping but rather via natural landscaping whereby trees and shrubs native to the region are introduced, much to the benefit of the wildlife and even the homeowner (it takes far less effort to grow a plant fit for this climate and soils). A wooded lawn is more attractive — and far more environmentally beneficial — than any flowered lawn.

The resources are there for you to do this and cheaply at that, thanks to the efforts of Niagara County.

The Niagara County Soil and Water District’s annual seedling sale is underway now through March 13th. Through this program you can buy bundles of seedlings (18” or less in height) of any one of almost three dozen species of trees and shrubs.

It’s an extremely popular program as quite often the County sells 60,000 seedlings per year. Why so popular? They are incredibly affordable ... most seedlings are available for under $1 each.

The seedlings will be available for pick-up at the Niagara County fairgrounds in late-April, allowing you to plant them at the best time of the year. You can download an order form at their website The form also features a detailed data sheet that can help you choose the trees that are best for the applications you desire while telling you how and where to plant them.

If you’d like to really save the environment – and not go through the motions - take the time to do it this spring. Planting trees and shrubs is a simple, completely natural way to be green. As your yard or forest grows you’ll be able to admire — and in some cases maybe even eat — the fruits of your labor for years to come.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport, where he has planted dozens of Niagara County’s seedlings over the years. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 15 January 2015 East Niagara Post

Saturday, January 10, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Arctic air brings light pillars to the Niagara Frontier

Light pillars are a natural phenomenon that only
occur when the temperature is cold enough.
The return of arctic air to the Niagara Frontier has been a mostly unwelcome experience. The painfully-cold temperatures and brutal wind chills make appreciating the outdoors impossible for most. Even if you do brave the elements, you won’t see much in the way of wildlife as they’ve hunkered down, too, and some have even gotten out of Dodge.

So, you end up appreciating Mother Nature in other ways. You take the beauty as it comes.

One of the more interesting sights appeared a few days back and might again in the next few days if the wind calms down – and that’s a big “if.”

That would be the visual phenomenon or optical illusion known as “light pillars.”

Some nights or early mornings while driving you might see what appear to be the lights from street lamps and parking lots stretching hundreds of feet into the sky as individual columns (or pillars). Even the headlights of oncoming vehicles might have light pillars going a few dozen feet into the night.

The sight is more pronounced as you drive from the rural areas into a city or village. If you are in the city limits you won’t get to appreciate them as much as the effect will be drowned out by so many lights being around you.

Light pillars are extremely beautiful, as they take on the color of the light source and a small commercial district can send dozens of these multi-hued spires skyward.

Light pillars are created by ice crystals being present in the atmosphere near ground level. Ice crystals are normal to the highest parts of the atmosphere and rarely make themselves known near the ground in the Lower 48. But, the coldest of air can make “diamond dust.” Diamond dust is actually a ground-level cloud that typically forms under clear or nearly clear skies, and some meteorologists call it “clear-sky precipitation.” It’s rare in Eastern Niagara County (1 to 4 days per year), but in Northern Canada, bouts of diamond dust may continue for a week at a time and are common for more than half the year.

As you get close to the North Pole, diamond dust can be found almost all year long.

That said, light pillars appear only in the most frigid of weather. I typically don’t see them until air temperatures get below 15 degrees. Anything higher than that is too close to 33 degrees — especially
when you consider the heat radiating from buildings and roadways — to create the environmental conditions necessary. There cannot be any wind, either, as it will displace the cloud and/or change the angle of the ice crystals within it.

Angle is critical. The plate-like ice crystals in diamond dust are actually falling and remain almost perfectly horizontal, which causes the lights below them to both reflect and refract across millions of crystals to make the pillars. What you see as the visual effect is not directly over the light source — the mirage, if you will, is actually between you and the light source.

It should be noted that while light pillars are rare on this side of the county, they are pretty common in the city of Niagara Falls. That’s because the mist from the falls becomes ground-level ice clouds on a regular basis. There pillars are so pronounced that UFO reports are extremely common in Niagara Falls because unknowing tourists don’t know what to make of the strange, colored lights in the sky.

So, while you struggle to find some sort of positive to come out of these bone-chilling temperatures, enjoy the sights they bring to us. Light pillars are unique, attractive, and, as some have shown, maybe even a little creepy.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where light pillars (and UFOs) aren’t very common. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

Friday, January 9, 2015

We can't let Niagara Falls be known as a laughingstock

In a conversation with actress Nicole Kidman about her New Year’s Eve in Niagara Falls, late night talk show host Jimmy Fallon said this about the Cataract City:

“Canada’s side is like lights and it’s almost like Vegas. It’s fun. The New York side looks like a Lemony Snicket book cover. It’s sad. There’s all these trees with no leaves on it. And you go, ‘What happened? Why is that side so much worse?’ Canada’s side, that’s the place to do it. It’s amazing.”

Of course, this got a lot of people in the county all fired up. They took to Facebook and Buffalo news stations to share their disapproval with his commentary.

I guess they haven’t looked out their window in a while.

Fallon was right. Niagara Falls USA is depressing.

It’s even a little terrifying.

One shouldn’t expect – or even want – the New York side to look like the Canadian side. We can do a lot for ourselves if we capitalize on the natural beauty and power that the Falls and Niagara River afford us and the outdoor pursuits, romance (it is the Honeymoon Capital of the world) and economic potential (consider the power project) that come from them.

But that’s tough to do when that world-class beauty is nestled amidst equally world-class squalor and depravity.  

Niagara Falls is in ruins. A once-proud city that exceeded a population of 100,000 now struggles to claim 50,000 and the federal designations that come with that. One quarter of Niagara Falls residents live below the poverty level. There seem to be more vacant properties than there are active homes and businesses. The unemployment rate is one of the highest in the state. The crime rate is the highest for any municipality in New York.

It doesn’t really sound like a vacation destination, does it?

That’s what Fallon sees. That’s what the rest of the world sees.

So, why do so few local residents see that?

Everyone might post their social media missives at Jimmy Fallon or yell at the TV, but that does nothing. That’s slacktivism. which Google defines as “actions performed via the Internet in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement”.

If you really want to change public perception about our diamond in the rough, get off your butt and do something to change Niagara Falls itself. Don’t put all your hopes on a casino or a few hotels. Don’t let it all fall on the mayor and few developers. Don’t let such a small number of volunteers change the community. Be a part of the solution.

The volunteerism rate in New York is dead last in the United States. That shows in a place like Niagara Falls that needs help and just isn’t getting it. There’s so much that every resident who gives even the slightest damn could do: help a youth organization to put tomorrow’s adults on the right path, volunteer at a housing non-profit and give the city a much-needed facelift, actively participate in a block club or community watch group, join a beautification committee. Niagara Falls’ wants and needs are endless.

I also challenge my fellow employers in the Niagara Region to step up to the plate. Hire, train and give a second chance at life to those who might have started off on the wrong foot in that fair city. Changing the people and helping them to prosper will change the city and help it to prosper, too.  

And don’t think that Niagara Falls’ problems are only Niagara Falls’ problems. They’re all of ours. Everything else that happens in Niagara County (taxes, economic development, housing, jobs) are tied in to what happens or doesn’t happen in the city. If the city was as dynamic as it once was – and could be again – it would be contagious and spread throughout our region. It’s called “Niagara” County for a reason.

You need to do something. I need to do something. We need to do something. If we don’t, the city will remain as fodder for the Jimmy Fallons of the world. Let’s not let Niagara Falls be a laughingstock. Let’s make sure it’s known as a classy destination and a place to work and live. It’s an unparalleled natural wonder and a gateway to our nation; let’s not let that go to waste. 

From the 12 January 2015 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Friday, January 2, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Finding Comet Lovejoy in Niagara’s skies

Comets have fascinated Man ever since he walked upright.

Ancient civilizations viewed them as messages from the Gods, especially angry ones if the comet had a long tail and, in turn, looked like a sword, ready to strike the Earth.

Even people of higher intelligence saw mysticism in them. Take Mark Twain, for example, who was born in 1835, the same year Halley’s Comet made an appearance. The comet was set to return in 1910, and in 1909 Twain said the following:

“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.”

Twain did die in 1910, one day after Halley’s Comet was its brightest on that return visit.

In recent history, we’ve been periodically graced with exceptional comets, including the beautiful Hale-Bopp, which was discovered in 1995. In 1997 the comet became naked-eye visible and remained so for 18 months, the most for any comet in recorded history.

Even so, comets that are accessible to the Average Joe, outfitted only with his eyes or a pair of binoculars, still remain rare and fleeting.

We will be lucky enough to have such a comet in our midst this month. What a great way to start off a new year!

Comet Lovejoy was discovered only this past August and is now making a transit across the skies of the Northern Hemisphere.

For two weeks now it has been naked eye visible in dark sky locations. But, as mentioned in a previous column, that does not mean Niagara County. Even though our rural residents think they have starry skies, they don’t. Light pollution from all our homes, the cities of Lockport, Niagara Falls, and Toronto corrupt our night time skies and we see only a fraction of what we should...a very small fraction. If we were to see Comet Lovejoy with the naked eye in New York State, we’d have to be in southern Allegany County or the Adirondacks.

But, that doesn’t mean we are out of luck. With even a simple pair of binoculars you will be able to see Lovejoy in the Niagara County skies. The best time to look is between 10:00 and midnight, and preferably on a day when the moon’s light has waned as it will make the sighting slightly difficult. We won’t have a New Moon (“no moon”) until the 20th of January.

To find the attractive comet -- which will appear as a bright green fuzz ball -- this week look in the sky between the constellations of Orion and Eridanus (see the accompanying star chart). Next week, look between Orion and Cetus. During the moon-free week around the 20th, look between Taurus and Aries. During the last week of January, it will be between Perseus and Pegasus.

While conditions won’t be perfect next week with the full moon, we have at least two weeks, maybe even as many as three, thereafter before the comet will disappear from the view of field glasses.

Take advantage of that and savor the sight. We “backyard astronomers” don’t often get a chance to see comets. We might not have another chance for years.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he will be outside freezing trying to see Comet Lovejoy later this month. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at