Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Inflation gone wild

The Covid crisis, and the government’s handling thereof, has led to a tale of two economies.


While the service and hospitality economies have tanked, there is a booming economy for manufacturers and distributors who are making and delivering products to consumers since vast amounts of discretionary income has been diverted from experiences (like vacations and concerts) to the purchase of things. 


That has up-ended industry and distribution, both here in the United States and abroad at competing nations like China. Demand is strong and supply is low, not only for manufactured items, but also for their inputs. This has driven many costs to unprecedented, if not unconscionable, heights.


In response to those market conditions, which will be ongoing for the foreseeable future because of the pandemic and, then, perchance, the bettering of the economy as a whole, I told Confer Plastics’ customers last week that we will be instituting pricing hikes. Letters like ours are going out all throughout the food chain in multiple industries.


You have been and will be seeing the impacts.


Take for example, what has happened with lumber. There’s an explosion in demand because the stuck-at-home handyman wants to take on home improvement projects while sequestered, e-commerce retailers need more pallets to store and ship goods, and housing starts show no signs of letting up even in a strange economy because people are leaving cities. In April of last year, lumber was $350 per thousand board feet. Last week, the futures market had it pegged at just over $1,000.


Or consider plastic, which is in everything you buy and use – not only durable goods, but also the packaging in which you get your foods and beverages and the bottles that hold your Covid cleaning solutions. Those who produce material are being overwhelmed by domestic demand while at the same time they are being courted by foreign entities to provide its building blocks like ethylene. Because of that explosive growth in needs, high density polyethylene (the most common of materials) has doubled in price since last April and it could top out at two-and-three-quarters times the prices of last March in the coming weeks.


As ubiquitous as plastics are, the same can be said for corrugated. The boxes in which businesses ship or sell products, individually or in bulk, have seen relentless price increases in recent months totaling 25%. There’s an economic war underway for cardboard and the paper used to make it because of the incredible growth in e-commerce as an outcome of the pandemic. Disinterested in venturing into public and stuck at home with money to spend, consumers are having retailers like Amazon and Wal-Mart ship the world to them. Some believe that this will become the new norm, especially as the pandemic has sped up the demise of malls and brick-and-mortar stores.


Then, add the costs of getting goods from Point A to Point B. In this column I’ve often addressed America’s trucking crisis. For most of this century there have been too few drivers and trucks on the road. That situation has been compounded by e-commerce – there are many more shipments, large and small, to make. Bringing in resources and shipping goods are now at the mercy of intense bidding and lower availability. And, it’s at the mercy of diesel prices at the pump. You’ve seen it personally when filling your car with gasoline (diesel’s cousin): The national average of $2.64 per gallon is up 40 cents, or 18%, since Christmas, with experts anticipating $3 by summer.


Add to the mix labor costs which, unlike the others, are independent of Covid’s impacts. You are well aware of the ongoing fight to make the federal minimum wage $15 an hour. That’s old hat here in New York, where legislation was passed in 2016 with the goal of reaching $15 in various parts of the state in the early-2020s. It’s also old hat to many corporations that made a quantum leap in starting wages over the past couple years to create a $15 wage without government edict.


All these increases are leading to unsettling inflation for things that you want, but what about the things you need? 


We may not need the latest and greatest toys and creature comforts, but we all need food. US consumers paid, on average, 3.7% more for food in January of this year than they did in the first month of 2020. Year-over-year increases in grocery costs have surpassed 3.5% every month since last April, the longest stretch of such heights in a decade. Kraft Heinz and Conagra are the latest food producers to warn that even more increases are coming.


All of these factors are contributing to what could be an absolutely frightening 2021 for consumers, producers and policymakers. Just when you think that there might be some normalcy on the way with vaccines and immunity, the reality of the dollar can really dampen the day. Those lucky enough to have jobs will see discretionary income cut, while the jobless will have to pinch even more pennies.


This out-of-control inflation gives me the “feels” of 2007 and early-2008. Those were the dawning days of the Great Recession. Let’s hope I’m wrong. We don’t need an economic collapse making the dark days of 2020-2021 even darker.  


From the 22 February 2021 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News


Monday, February 22, 2021

Winter kill: Coming to a pond near you


The winter of 2010-2011 was not kind to local landowners who have bass ponds on their property. Most ponds in the area froze over on Thanksgiving and didn’t thaw until Easter. We weren’t blessed with the periodic thaws and rains that keep smaller local waters ice-free or a little open on occasion in the winter months.

That ice cap resulted in significant winterkill and many disappointed anglers that spring as carcasses of fish, large and small, washed up on shore. The ponds on our farm were hard hit – our walleye population was completely decimated and trophy-sized bass in excess of 5 pounds littered the shoreline.

It was really heartbreaking. You do everything you can to manage a decent recreational fishery for your family and then Mother Nature has her own plans.

In the decade since, ponds faced with that adversity had recovered. It takes a while to grow trophy bass in this area as our “growing seasons” are too short. But, we were finally getting back to the glory days (the only setback being a far less potent winterkill in 2014-2015).

But, as close as landowners were to revitalizing their fisheries, this winter happened.

This hasn’t been a drawn-out freeze (most local ponds didn’t glaze until Christmas), but the severity of the cold, the depth of the ice and the amount of snow cover atop the ice all mean that a winterkill is in the cards, and one that will likely rival 2015’s and maybe put it in the same league as 2011.

How does winterkill happen?


Fish, like all animals, need oxygen. The oxygen they breathe in the water comes from two sources: The byproduct of photosynthesis of algae and weeds growing in that pond and the oxygen that enters the water from the air. Winterkill occurs when ice and snow together cover a pond and prevent both of those from occurring.

Ice cover will, of course, prevent oxygen from entering the water from the air and wind agitation. And, looking at the long term forecast and trends, we’ll have ice on small local ponds non-stop for two-and-a-half to three months.

But that’s not the primary cause of winterkill. If it was, most area ponds would have significant die-offs every year.

It’s the snow that’s the killer. Unlike a normal winter (whatever “normal” may be), we’ve been besieged with a lasting snowpack. Depending on where you are in Western New York, most ponds have been under snow for 4 to 6 weeks now. A good melt – especially in the lake snow belts -- might not happen until March.

That snow prevents sunlight from entering the pond. Sunlight is necessary for photosynthesis which still occurs even in the coldest months. So, when the plants can’t get what they need, they don’t grow (and create oxygen) and then they die. Plant decomposition then consumes the oxygen that was needed by the fish. Smaller, shallower ponds without deep holes or underwater springs and with a high density of plants and bass and panfish will be especially hard-hit.

The fish die a miserably slow death. Basically, they suffocate.


It’s likely that you already have dead fish in your pond. You won’t know it until two or three weeks after ice out. Their corpses are somewhat preserved by the cold water now, but as the water warms and oxygen is introduced to the water, decomposition will speed up, the fish will become buoyant and they will end up on shore. Their bodies will be white, maybe even fuzzy, which is a fungus created by rotting.

Winterkill can be prevented, allegedly, with small commercially-available windmills. But, they don’t work well in frigid winters like this as their wheels freeze over with ease. Some folks also suggest that you periodically run a small outboard motor for a few hours at a time every few days. With the likelihood of freeze over on a daily basis, that’s also an impractical option.

Good long-term pond management can also cut down on winterkill rates by ensuring there is not too much plant life in your pond which consumes a lot of oxygen when it dies. To do that, you would have to use a weed rake in the summer and/or introduce grass carp to the pond. But, you can’t remove all plant life, because you still need those oxygen producers to do their thing in the winter.


Regardless, for most of us, it’s too little, too late to save this winter.

If you are a fisherman it will be yet another depressing event from a winter that’s been made depressing enough by Covid and government’s response to it. This spring and summer, fishing on your pond might not be the cure for cabin fever that you had hoped it would be.


From the 15 February 2021 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Kids need summer camp more than ever

Growing up, Camp Dittmer was special to me.


For seven summers in a row as a scout, I attended a week of summer camp at that gem that is located in the Finger Lakes. I followed that up with two full summers as the Nature Director there.


As expected, those weeks and months were full of fun – fishing, boating, shooting, sports, science and so much more. I had a great time and made a lot of friends and memories.


Little did I know at the time, that experience was also laying down a considerable foundation for me. The things I saw and did at Camp Dittmer augmented the intellectual and life lessons provided me by school and family. Summer camp gave me skills that I still use to this day – leadership, public speaking, teaching. I always tell people that I wouldn’t be who I am today without Scouting (Camp Dittmer being a significant part of that).   


After graduating from college, my passion never waned for camp. As scoutmaster in my 20s, I took my scouts there every summer. In my 30s and now 40s, I’ve volunteered with the scout council which owns and oversees Dittmer and another camp, Sam Wood.


My goal as a volunteer has always been to ensure children and teens have the same life-changing adventures that I did. That seemed to payoff, as the kids I’ve led or provided services for were having lots of fun and, through the years, I’ve watched many of them grow to become exceptional men. I always think Scouting and camp had a huge part in that.


Those positive vibes and outcomes aren’t unique to Camp Dittmer. You’ll hear others say the same about their beloved summers, whether they attended the Girl Scouts’ Camp Timbercrest, 4-H’s Camp Wyomoco, the church’s Lake Chautauqua Lutheran Center, or many more magical places across the Empire State.


Those places have meant a lot to us. They’ll mean a lot to future generations.


This generation, though? Summer camp might be more meaningful than it ever has been and ever will be. The intertwined world of Covid and government hasn’t been kind kids. They need camp.  


The home confinements of last spring, remote learning to close out the last school year, the hybrid and remote learning models of this year, the prolonged absence of sports and clubs, the inability to hug, hang with or even see grandma or grandpa, and the fearmongering of the press and elected officials have all conspired to tear apart the mental and physical well-beings of even the most fortunate of children.


It’s even worse for those not lucky enough live in a loving and positive home. No doubt you’ve heard of the explosive growth in societal ills because of the pandemic’s stressors. Domestic violence, substance abuse and violent crime all rose dramatically last year. Kids were sequestered with those who may not be the best people for them. Maybe they were abused physically and mentally, perhaps they saw dad beat mom, they could have witnessed their mother go down a deep path of drug use. The people those poor souls see outside their homes – teachers, coaches, scout leaders, camp counselors – may be the only positive, respectful and loving adults in their lives. Real heroes, important heroes, to them.     


Just like everything else, summer camps were canceled and/or not allowed last year. In the brevity of childhood, a summer lost is a considerable lost opportunity. They’ll never get it back and they can never make it up. That’s lost growth for all kids and lost positivity for those who really need it. For the latter (kids from troubled homes) summer camp might be the only happy, carefree week of their whole year.


All that said, we who run summer camps, parents who put their kids into them, and the children who dream of them need action by the Governor and other state officials.


We need a stamp of approval, and a vision for what camp would look like…now. In the whole scheme of things, summer really isn’t too far away. Camp directors need to plan programs, hire personnel, purchase resources and design Covid protocols. Families need to set aside funds. Clubs and troops need to hold fundraisers. Kids everywhere need something to dream of to get through the pandemic’s miseries.


First and foremost should be the State’s acknowledgement that camp can be done safely.


Schools around the world have shown that environments chock full of children haven’t been a measurable source of spread. Also, the population has become accustomed to the rules and practices of Covid mitigation – this isn’t the strange, new world that it may have been last June; it’s now old hat.   


Then, the state must provide the game plan to open.


The rules are there in many sectors; they just need revision and application to the world of resident camps. In an important development, the State has already approved a testing model for weddings (getting tested for Covid beforehand) that would, if equally applied to camps, allay any fears parents and staff might have of community spread at or from the campground.


The science, experience and resources are available to open camps. More importantly, the need is there, too. Kids need camp in their lives, badly. Let’s not deny them a chance at a better summer. Let’s not deny them a chance at a better life.


We can do it.


Albany just has to let us do it.  


From the 08 February 2021 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News