Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Our Times

I don't know whether others have noticed the big shift that is going on in the world right now.  I've been waiting for this to happen for years, more with dread than anticipation.  Our generation -- at least those of us who made a decision to try to keep up with technological change -- has experienced an incredible revolution since the Seventies.  From vacuum tubes to microchips, from typewriters to word processors, and then to PC's.  Finally, the Internet developed.  I can still remember my first online ventures here in Germany with BTX (Bildschirmtext), a cousin of France's Minitel.   Those were frustrating times as well: slow connections, limited access to websites, frequent crashes and blue screens.  I will never forget the lost work day in 1997 that I spent with my Microsoft-certified computer guy, fortunately a friend who didn't charge me for his time, trying to install a mouse on my new computer.  A mouse!  Companies were rushing to get their hardware and software out on the market to avoid being crushed by the competition.  Staring in the mid-Nineties, however, the wonderful possibilities of the Internet opened up.  What an incredible empowerment of the individual.  From my desktop perch, I could access information from around the world, chat with strangers who shared my interests, bridge continents in real time -- and, getting to the topic of this post, for the most part the information was free.  All you had to do was pay the monthly telecom fees.  At first, the telecom fees were hefty, but soon flat rates took over.  We had entered the land of milk and honey.    

For me, 2013 marks the year that a critical mass of information providers has begun trying to charge for access to their content.  They are still taking baby steps.  With just a bit of sophistication, a reader can delete the meter cookies, if one is so inclined.  The business model of free access paid for by advertizing clicks has not worked for businesses that employ people to provide content.  I'm already starting to calculate how much I am willing to pay each year to perform my morning surf.  My routine morning surf established itself after over a decade of refinement (and God knows how many lost days following one link to another to another until I became addicted).  I need to visit about  15 to 20 sites a day to feel like I am on top of things.  Many of those sites would like to charge me between $ 35 and $ 200 a year to access content.  That is not going to happen.  I am willing to consider $ 10 to $ 20 a site for annual access.  I doubt that is going to suffice, but let's wait and see.  I will look at alternative free sites before agreeing to pay significant amounts for front-line journalism that often parrots other sources.  And, of course, there is Wikipedia.  Just so you don't think I'm a cheapskate, I donated about $ 25 to Wikipedia last year.

My business idea for the day is to set up an online publisher's clearinghouse to offer discount packaged subscriptions to multiple sites.  E.g., for $ 100 a year you can access five to ten of your favorite sites.  Someone will have to do a lot of legwork to get content providers to agree to bundle their product, but I bet it would make economic sense if the clearinghouse can help increase the subscription base.  Note to anyone who makes a fortune off this idea:  send me an e-mail for bank wiring instructions for my commission.  My children will be grateful.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Biodynamic Agriculture

On my Saturday stroll back home from town, I stopped in at a new organic supermarket that opened right in the middle of the banking district.  As there are not many grocery stores in our neighborhood, I wanted to check out the selection.  The bread selection looked interesting, and I decided to try an organic milk that was not available in other stores and an organic yoghurt from "Andechs".  For numerous reasons, we are not an organic family.  We do, however, buy organic milk when available  -- and ususally there is a store brand organic milk available at the big-chain store around the corner from where we live.  Several of us at Bloggerboy headquarters like milk, and I worry about all the additives that go into modern industrial cows that might make their way into my bloodstream.  (At my age, I'm fighting hard enough not to grow breasts without the additives!)  What I'm trying to say is that I have no idea about the different types and degrees of organic production.  The fresh whole milk that I bought really was some of the best I have tasted.  By comparison, we just got back from a week in Tirol where   we stayed in a family-run pension in an alpine town at 1,500 meters.  The pension also was a family-run organic farm, and there were cows in a stall right next to the pension and fresh milk and butter from those cows each morning at breakfast.  The milk from the store tasted just as good as the milk at our pension, which was excellent.  It had at least 3.8% fat, and there even were a few small clots of cream in the pasteurized milk (i.e. it was not homogenised).  Why buy anything else?  Think of milk that lingers on your palate like a good wine.  I had to suppress a snicker, however, when I read the label. 

"This fresh alpine milk comes exclusively from biodynamic farms.  Demeter Farmers sow, plow and harvest in harmony with the rythm of the stars -- thus using the natural powers of the cosmos."

What had I stumbled into?  I don't have time to go into great detail, but Demeter farming in Germany is closely related to the anthroposophic movement, and there are plenty of anthroposophists in Germany.  More from Wikipedia.

"The development of biodynamic agriculture began in 1924 with a series of eight lectures on agriculture given by philosopher Rudolf Steiner at Schloss Koberwitz in SilesiaGermany, (now Kobierzyce in Poland east of Wrocław). The lectures, the first known to have been given on organic agriculture, were held in response to a request by farmers who noticed degraded soil conditions and a deterioration in the health and quality of crops and livestock resulting from the use of chemical fertilizers. The one hundred and eleven attendees, less than half of whom were farmers, came from six countries, primarily Germany and Poland. The lectures were published in November 1924; the first English translation appeared in 1928 as The Agriculture Course.

The origin of Demeter is a Cooperative for the processing of products of the biodynamic agriculture created in Berlin, Germany, in 1927. The trademark Demeter was registered in 1928. Demeter was administered by the German agronomist Erhard Bartsch who also directed the Experimental Circle of anthroposophical(biodynamic) farmers, and who had chosen the name Demeter, jointly with the German chemist Franz Dreidax. Dreidax was responsible for the development of the Demeter criteria and the quality control. Demeter ceased temporarily to exist in 1941 when the Nazi Government dissolved the Union for biodynamic agriculture. It was reestablished in Germany after the Second World War. In 1997 19 independent Demeter organisations came together to establisch Demeter International.

The certification is the oldest traditional organic certification in Europe and is regarded as the highest grade of organic farming in the world. Certification is difficult to come by and must be renewed annually. Demeter’s “biodynamic” certification requires biodiversity and ecosystem preservation, soil husbandry, livestock integration, prohibition of genetically engineered organisms and viewing the farm as a living “holistic organism”. The certification verifies the fulfillment of the standards on behalf of the farmers, which in turn guarantees high quality food products to the consumers. This is rewarded by receiving a higher price for food certified with the “Demeter” label, ranging from 10-30% on average."

On the more scientific side, the dairy advertizes the high quality of the milk's Omega-3 fatty acids and CLA (conjugated linoleic acids).  Furthermore, the dairy, a cooperative, engages in fair trade practices.  So, with all this in mind, I am going to return my brown glass milk bottle to the store to see how much I paid for it and hope that I can add this milk to my regular diet.

Follow-Up.  I went back to the organic store today and bought two liter bottles of milk.  The price was EUR 1.29 per liter, including sales tax (VAT).  That comes out to about USD 6.86 a US gallon.  I did a bit of surfing, and, although you can find store brand organic milk for lower prices in the US, I saw offers of other types of organic milk from smaller producers in urban areas for prices in the range between USD 5.00 and 7.00 a gallon without sales tax.  What do you think, dear readers?  Frau Bloggerboy got a big clump of cream in her glass this afternoon.  She remarked that the taste reminded her of "cows" and "hay".  Not sure that is a compliment, but if she doesn't like it, there's more left for me.