Why Do Milk Prices Spike And Crash? Because It's Like Oil

Hungarian dairy farmers protest in front of Budapest’s parliament in May. The banner reads: “Drink Hungarian Milk!” Tamas Kovacs/AP hide caption

toggle caption Tamas Kovacs/AP

Milk prices are in the tank. You may not have noticed this, since prices in the supermarket have fallen only slightly. But on the farm, it’s dramatic. Dairy farmers are getting about 20 percent less for their milk than they did last year; 40 percent less than when milk prices hit an all-time peak two years ago.

“We’re losing money,” says Dave Drennan, executive director of the Missouri Dairyman’s Association. In Europe and Australia, dairy farmers have taken to the streets to protest their plight.

Big swings in milk prices aren’t new. Prices were even lower in 2006 and 2009. It’s remarkable, in fact, just how volatile the dairy business is.

But why? The number of cows and the amount of milk they produce don’t change so quickly. These aren’t wheat fields, which bad weather can destroy. And the amount of milk that people drink changes only gradually. So what makes milk prices soar and crash?

One reason: Milk is not, for the most part, something that people drink anymore. In the United States, only about a quarter of milk production now is sold as milk or cream. The rest is refined into a variety of other products. Cheese and yogurt are the best-known, but there also are a variety of dry products like milk powder, whey concentrate and special high-value proteins that are valuable byproducts of cheese-making.

Milk, in fact, is like crude oil. It goes into refineries and emerges in the form of products that are traded around the globe. The prices for these commodities can boom or crash because of political and economic storms on faraway continents.

Over the past few years, there have been storms a-plenty. Jerry Cessna, the milk expert at the USDA’s Economic Research Service, ticks off some of them.

Two years ago, China was gobbling up milk powder, driving prices to all-time highs. Then the economy slowed, and Chinese buyers disappeared.

Russia used to buy a lot of European cheese. But after Western countries punished Russia with economic sanctions in 2014, it struck back with a ban on Western cheese. That left millions of pounds of dairy products looking for new buyers.

To protest against the falling prices of dairy and meat, farmers pour liters of milk in front of a prefecture in northwestern France in January.

To protest against the falling prices of dairy and meat, farmers pour liters of milk in front of a prefecture in northwestern France in January. Jean-Francois Monier/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Jean-Francois Monier/AFP/Getty Images

Meanwhile, the European Union decided to abolish a quota system that once regulated the amount of milk its dairy farmers could produce. The result was that farmers raced to produce more milk, especially in Ireland and the Netherlands, and the global glut of milk got even worse.

“It’s a global phenomenon,” Cessna says. All over the world, dairy farmers are suffering. Some are going out of business or asking governments to rescue them.

Last week, 60 members of Congress, mainly from big dairy states, asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to step in. Their letter didn’t say exactly what form that help should take; Drennan said that the USDA could buy more milk products to ease the oversupply and support prices.

The crisis doesn’t affect all milk producers in the same way, however. Some may give up, but that leaves the survivors in a stronger position when prices recover. Historically, this process has driven the consolidation of farming into fewer and ever-larger operations.

Jed Stockton, a spokesman for one of the largest dairy operations in the country, Fair Oaks Farms of Indiana, wrote in an email to The Salt that “we have changed very little” as a result of low milk prices. “We are low-cost producers and by continuing our efficiencies we are able to weather the storm.”

According to Cessna, there are, in fact, signs that the crisis may be easing. New Zealand, one of the world’s biggest exporter of milk products, has cut its production. And just in the past few weeks, the milk price did move up slightly.

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X-Rays Reveal Hidden Portrait Under Painting By Edgar Degas

(Left) This photo provided by Australian Synchrotron and the National Gallery of Victoria, shows an image discovered with X-ray fluorescence microscopy, beneath Edgar Degas' Portrait of a Woman. (Right) Degas' painting Portrait of a Woman.

(Left) This photo provided by Australian Synchrotron and the National Gallery of Victoria, shows an image discovered with X-ray fluorescence microscopy, beneath Edgar Degas’ Portrait of a Woman. (Right) Degas’ painting Portrait of a Woman. Australian Synchrotron and the National Gallery of Victoria via AP hide caption

toggle caption Australian Synchrotron and the National Gallery of Victoria via AP

Using specialized X-ray imaging, a team of researchers in Australia has revealed a striking painting of a woman’s face hidden under French Impressionist Edgar Degas’ Portrait of a Woman.

The researchers believe the auburn-haired woman in the hidden work — which they also attribute to Degas — is Emma Dobigny, who was reportedly one of Degas’ favorite subjects and modeled for him in 1869 and 1870.

It’s long been known that another painting lay beneath the image of an unknown woman in a black dress and bonnet, housed in the collection at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia. Since at least 1922, the research team explains in Scientific Reports, another form has slowly become visible, discoloring the bonneted woman’s face.

“Degas painted directly on the underlying portrait with no intermediate ground paint layer using exceptionally thin paint layers, thus little pigment is present to provide hiding power,” the researchers wrote. “The hiding power of paint layers often decreases as oil paintings age.”

Even as the traces of a ghostly form emerged over the course of decades, conventional imaging technology could only provide hints of what the hidden portrait looked like.

Now, an enhanced process known as X-ray fluorescence elemental mapping gives a far better picture. The technique allowed the researchers to scan for the individual elements — such as iron, zinc and copper — found in different colors of paint. This chart shows maps of elements the researchers tested:

(Left) Eleven elemental maps providing an overview of the construction of the painting. (Right) Detail of zinc map.

(Left) Eleven elemental maps providing an overview of the construction of the painting. (Right) Detail of zinc map. Scientific Reports hide caption

toggle caption Scientific Reports

The team said the maps “can be used to deduce pigment use based on the elements observed within the context of the painting.” For example, “Fe and Mn are co-located in the hidden sitter’s hair … strongly suggesting the use of the brown pigment umber.” The researchers detected cobalt in the face, and deduced that it is “probably present as a blue pigment, which is useful in defining flesh tones.”

By layering the elemental maps together, the researchers were able to create this representation of the hidden work:

False color reconstruction of Degas' hidden portrait (detail). The image was created from the X-ray fluorescence elemental maps.

False color reconstruction of Degas’ hidden portrait (detail). The image was created from the X-ray fluorescence elemental maps. Scientific Reports hide caption

toggle caption Scientific Reports

It didn’t take long for them to identify Dobigny as the painting’s likely subject, study co-author Daryl Howard told the BBC: “Once the image had come through, basically what I did was to look up Degas’s catalogue of works. And I would say in under five minutes, it seemed that we had a good match. … I think the likeness is quote amazing.”

The researchers think at least seven years passed between the two portraits. The earlier work uses lighter and cooler tones, while the later painting is warmer and darker. This was helpful to the imaging process — as the researchers explained, “his change in palette provides exceptional elemental contrast.”

The X-ray fluorescence technique was previously used on Vincent Van Gogh’s Patch of Grass to reveal a portrait of a peasant woman, as NPR reported in 2008.

The team in Australia said the technology has advanced since then — it’s faster and can measure “spatial resolutions on the order of the size of a paint bristle.”

This technique, researchers concluded, “will significantly impact the ways cultural heritage is studied for authentication.”

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David Huddleston, Who Played The Real Mr. Lebowski, Dies

Actor David Huddleston, pictured with his wife, Sarah Koeppe, was nominated for an Emmy in 1990 for his role as the grandfather on The Wonder Years.

Actor David Huddleston, pictured with his wife, Sarah Koeppe, was nominated for an Emmy in 1990 for his role as the grandfather on The Wonder Years. Sarah C. Koeppe/AP hide caption

toggle caption Sarah C. Koeppe/AP

The Big Lebowski is gone.

No confusion here, The Dude (Jeff Bridges) still abides. But the Emmy-nominated actor who played the film’s real Mr. Lebowski, David Huddleston, has died. He was 85.

Huddleston had a long career in movies, TV and theater, in such classics as The Big Lebowski and Blazing Saddles. He was a character actor whose roles tended to stick with you. In The Big Lebowski, he played a cranky millionaire (kind of) who, because of a shared last name, got mixed up with The Dude:

YouTube

Huddleston was also the blustery mayor of Stars Hollow on Gilmore Girls:

YouTube

In Mel Brooks’ Western spoof, Blazing Saddles, he gave this memorable speech:

YouTube

Huddleston was born in Virginia in 1930. He served as a mechanic in the Air Force and later moved to New York City to study acting on the GI Bill. His career spanned more than 50 years — from his first TV role in 1960 to Bewitched in 1970 to Santa Claus: The Movie in 1985 and The West Wing in 2000, where he played a Republican senator willing to work with President Bartlett to reform campaign finance laws. Toward the end of his career, Huddleston appeared on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, playing an old business partner of Danny DeVito’s.

He was nominated for an Emmy in 1990 for his role as the grandfather on The Wonder Years ­— specifically for an episode in which he presents his delighted grandson with a surprise puppy.

Huddleston will be remembered as an actor who for decades delighted audiences, as well.

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The Eminence Of J.J. Johnson, And His Partnership With Kai Winding

August 5, 20161:22 PM ET

The trombone virtuoso J.J. Johnson was among the first to adapt the challenge laid down by bebop saxophonists and trumpeters to his more ungainly instrument. Among the recordings he left as evidence was a series of albums partnering with fellow trombonist Kai Winding. In a concert at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra trombonist Vincent Gardner recently took on that “Jay and Kai” repertoire, joined by sectionmate Elliot Mason, other members of the JLCO and special guests.

Jazz Night in America hears the music of J.J. Johnson, as heard through Vincent Gardner, and pulls back the curtain on the trombone pioneer with biographer Joshua Berrett and widow Carolyn Johnson.

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A purrfect rescue: Italian coast guard saves drowning kitten

A tiny kitten that went for an ill-advised swim in the Sicilian sea has hung on to eight of its nine lives, thanks to a rescue mission by Italy’s coast guard.

When a group of children at the port town of Marsala spotted the one-month-old cat floating in the sea, having apparently breathed his last, a patrolling officer dived in to save him.

Massaging the kitten’s chest, murmuring encouragement and using mouth-to-mouth resuscitation just as they would on a human, officers managed to coax signs of life and eventually a weak miaow from the soaking animal.

Port authorities were so touched they decided to adopt the kitten, naming him “Charlie”.

(Reporting by Isla Binnie; editing by John Stonestreet)

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