Twitter Former CFO Joins Farming Startup Plenty

Selina Wang reported recently at Bloomberg that, “Twitter Inc.’s former chief financial officer has joined Plenty Inc. in that role as the indoor farming startup prepares for international expansion and improvements to its vertical growing technology.

“Mike Gupta helped take Twitter public in 2013 and left for Docker Inc. two years later. Earlier, Gupta was treasurer at gaming company Zynga Inc., helping to lead its initial public offering, and had previously spent about eight years in various roles at Yahoo.

“‘It’s not new for me to be in hypergrowth companies that are entering unchartered territory,’ Gupta said in an interview. ‘This is a very capital intensive business so having someone who can think about how we raise and deploy capital in the long run will be very important.'”

The Bloomberg article explained that, “SoftBank Group Corp.-backed Plenty has made several high profile hires in recent years, including Tesla Inc.’s former battery directory Kurt Kelty and the electric carmaker’s former vice president of engineering, Nick Kalayjian.

Founded in 2014, Plenty boasts it can yield more produce in a given area than conventional farms, with only a fraction of the water. Its backers include funds that invest on behalf of Eric Schmidt, a director of Alphabet Inc., and Jeff Bezos, chief executive officer of Inc. Plenty is betting that with its technology and a previous $200 million investment from SoftBank, it will be able to scale its farms around the world.”

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A Shift Toward Buyers Bodes Well for Higher Home Sales Activity

Earlier this week, Wall Street Journal writer Laura Kusisto reported that, “The spring home-buying season is shaping up as the best in years, offering new opportunities after last year’s tough housing market drove away many would-be buyers.

A number of economic factors that slowed sales in 2018 have eased or even reversed in recent weeks. Mortgage rates have been falling, home inventory is rising in many once-tight markets and the pace of home-price growth is slowing.

“These more favorable conditions are already bringing price cuts and fewer of the bidding wars that left many buyers empty-handed, recent data show. The housing market had become so skewed toward sellers that many buyers were giving up, causing sales to drop.”

The Journal article noted that, “Now, a shift toward buyers bodes well for higher sales activity as the crucial spring selling season heats up. About 40% of the year’s sales take place from March through June, making these months pivotal for the housing market each year, according to the National Association of Realtors.”

Ms. Kusisto noted that, “Still, economists caution that even as activity picks up, a return to a period of booming home sales is unlikely. Nationally home prices have risen more than 50% since the bottom of the market in 2012, according to the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller National Home Price Index.

That has made affordability a challenge for many buyers. Home sales tumbled more than 7% in the fourth quarter compared with a year earlier, making 2018 the weakest year since 2015. While inventory is increasing in many markets, it isn’t necessarily because more people are putting homes on the market, economists said. Rather, homes are taking longer to sell.”

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The 4% Mortgage Is Back

Last week, Wall Street Journal writer Ben Eisen reported that, “Mortgage rates are fast approaching 4%, a rate low enough that economists and lenders believe it will help jump-start the housing market again.

“The average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage fell to 4.06% this week, its lowest since January 2018, according to data released Thursday by Freddie Mac , the mortgage-finance giant. The rate was down nearly a quarter point from a week earlier, its biggest drop in over a decade.

“In many cases rates are lower than 4%. Lenders advertising mortgages at sub-4% rates this week include Toronto-Dominion Bank,HSBC Holdings and Teachers Federal Credit Union, according to”

“The 4% Mortgage Is Back,” by Ben Eisen. The Wall Street Journal (March 28, 2019).

The Journal article noted that, “Just a few months ago, average rates were on the verge of hitting 5%, drying up refinancings and putting a damper on home price growth. While the housing market remains cooler than it had been at its peak, lower mortgage rates are again raising hopes for a rebound as the spring selling season gets under way.

“Mortgage rates have been declining along with the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note. The moves have been spurred by the Federal Reserve’s decision to pause its interest rate increases along with investor malaise about the expected pace of economic growth for the rest of the year.

“That has created an opening for prospective buyers left on the sidelines after rates jumped.”

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In Iowa, Environmental Groups File Lawsuit, and ask Court to Force Famers to cut Fertilizer Runoff

Donnelle Eller reported last week at The Des Moines Register Online that, “Two environmental groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday, asking a court to force farmers to cut fertilizer runoff they say is hurting the Raccoon River watershed and water Des Moines residents drink.

“Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch also want to stop producers from building or expanding pig, cattle and other livestock operations in the Raccoon River watershed until a mandatory nutrient reduction plan is in place.

“They’ve sued the state natural resources and agriculture departments, their leaders, and two state environmental boards and their members.”

The Register article noted that, “Kirk Leeds, CEO of the Iowa Soybean Association, said his group is disappointed ‘another potentially divisive lawsuit is being filed by those opposed to agriculture in Iowa.’

“‘Lawsuits do absolutely nothing to improve water quality in this state,’ Leeds said Wednesday. ‘All it does is divide rural and urban and causes everyone to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyer fees.'”

Ms. Eller added that, “The environmental groups said Wednesday the state has failed to protect the public’s use of the Raccoon River, as required under the Public Trust Doctrine, and abdicated ‘control to private interests.’

“The group says the state’s voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy doesn’t protect the Raccoon River for the ‘use and benefit of all Iowans.’

“The strategy seeks to cut urban and rural nitrogen and phosphorus levels by 45 percent the nutrients that contribute to the Gulf of Mexico dead zone each summer.”

Last week’s article reminded readers that, “The utility [Des Moines Water Works] filed a lawsuit in 2015 against drainage districts in three north Iowa counties, alleging underground drainage tiles funnel high levels of nitrogen into the Raccoon River, a source of drinking water for 500,000 central Iowa residents.

The utility sought to force drainage districts, and indirectly farmers, to meet federal clean-water standards, similar to those governing factories, cities and other ‘point-source‘ polluters.

“The lawsuit was dismissed in 2017.”

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Jury Awards Over $80 Million in Roundup Case

Wall Street Journal writers Ruth Bender and Sara Randazzo reported yesterday that, “A jury Wednesday awarded $80.3 million in damages to a California resident the jurors found contracted cancer from exposure to Bayer AG’s Roundup weedkillers.

“The San Francisco jury’s finding that Monsanto Co.—now owned by German chemicals and pharmaceuticals giant Bayer—acted negligently in failing to adequately warn about Roundup’s danger is the latest setback in Bayer’s efforts to clear its products of allegations that they trigger non-Hodgkin lymphoma and other cancers.

“Analysts had widely expected the jury to hold Bayer liable for Edwin Hardeman’s cancer in this two-phase federal court trial after the six-person jury in the first phase already reached the conclusion that Roundup was largely to blame for his illness.”

The Journal article noted that, “While the first phase focused on scientific evidence to determine whether a link exists between Roundup and Mr. Hardeman’s non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the jury in the second phase was to determine Monsanto’s liability.”

Bender and Randazzo explained that, “Of the total damages awarded by the jury, $75 million were punitive. That is less dramatic than the amount Bayer faced in the first Roundup case to go to trial. In a state-court trial also in San Francisco, a jury in August awarded $289.2 million to former groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson, who also blamed regular Roundup use for his non-Hodgkin lymphoma. A judge later reduced the award to $78.5 million, which Bayer is appealing.

“Bayer has pledged to defend itself resolutely as it now faces lawsuits from 11,200 farmers, gardeners and other Roundup users. The company says Roundup and its active ingredient glyphosate are safe and argues that over 800 scientific studies and decisions by regulators around the world confirm that view.”

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Bees: Minn. Legislature Considers Subsidies for Homeowners who Convert Lawns to Clover and Wildflowers

Greg Stanley reported recently at the Minneapolis Star Tribune Online that, “Homeowners who replace traditional lawns with wildflowers, clovers and native grasses in an effort to slow the collapse of state’s bee population could soon get assistance from the state of Minnesota.

“Under a bill introduced by Rep. Kelly Morrison, DFL-Deephaven, the state would set aside $2 million over the next three years to help pay for lawn conversions by interested homeowners, schools and cities. The plan could help replenish food sources for pollinators of all kinds but will specifically aim at saving the rusty patched bumblebee, a fat and fuzzy species on the brink of extinction that seems to be making its final stand in the cityscapes and suburban areas of the Twin Cities, Milwaukee and Chicago.

“The program would cover up to 75 percent of the cost of each project, and more for conversion in areas with a ‘high potential’ to support the struggling rusty patched bees.”

Mr. Stanley noted that, “The state has run similar programs for farmers in rural areas for years, but this would mark the first effort to bring the subsidies to individual homeowners and, importantly, to cities and suburbs where many types of bees are surviving.”

The Star Tribune article added that, “The lawn subsidy was one of the most widely supported recommendations to come out of a pollinator task force set up by former Gov. Mark Dayton, which was made up of environmental advocates, scientists, farmers, food processors and other stakeholders.

“‘I think we could all see there is a need to feed bees all across the state,’ said Erin Rupp, founder and executive director of Pollinate Minnesota.”

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USDA Assists Iowa Farmers, Ranchers, and Communities Affected by Recent Flooding

A news release yesterday from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) stated that, “To help Iowan residents, farmers, and ranchers affected by the devastation caused by recent flooding, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has directed [USDA] to aid people in their recovery efforts. USDA staff in the regional, state, and county offices are responding and providing a variety of program flexibilities and other assistance to residents, agricultural producers, and impacted communities at large.

“‘Recent flooding in the Midwest and along the Missouri and Mississippi River Valleys has caused devastating impacts across the region, and USDA has personnel and resources devoted to helping farmers and communities recover after this storm,’ Secretary Perdue said. ‘I encourage area farmers and ranchers to contact their local USDA Service Center so we can work with them to identify the resources and tools needed to reestablish their operations. While farmers and ranchers in the area are resilient, the pain is real. We will do everything in our power at USDA to be as helpful as we possibly can.’

“On Saturday, President Donald J. Trump declared that a major disaster exists in the Iowa counties of Fremont, Harrison, Mills, Monona and Woodbury.”

Yesterday’s update added that, “When major disasters strike, USDA has an emergency loan program that provides eligible farmers low-interest loans to help them recover from production and physical losses. USDA also offers additional programs tailored to the needs of specific agricultural sectors to help producers weather the financial impacts of major disasters and rebuild their operations.

Livestock owners and contract growers who experience above normal livestock deaths due to specific weather events, as well as to disease or animal attacks, may qualify for assistance under USDA’s Livestock Indemnity Program. Producers who suffer losses to or are prevented from planting agricultural commodities not covered by federal crop insurance may be eligible for assistance under USDA’s Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program if the losses were due to natural disasters.

“USDA’s Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees and Farm-Raised Fish Program provides payments to these producers to help compensate for losses due to disease (including cattle tick fever), and adverse weather or other conditions, such as blizzards and wildfires, that are not covered by certain other disaster programs.”

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Existing Home Sales Rose 11.8% in February from the Prior Month

Last week, Wall Street Journal writer Laura Kusisto reported that, “Sales of previously owned homes posted their largest monthly gain since 2015 in February, a sign that lower mortgage rates and more attractive prices are helping to lure buyers back to the market just in time for the critical spring selling season.

Existing home sales rose 11.8% in February from the prior month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.51 million, the National Association of Realtors said Friday. That was the second-strongest monthly gain in home sales ever.

“Nonetheless, sales volume was 1.8% below where it was one year ago, indicating the market is recovering but to a lower level than 2017 and early 2018. Other continued signs of softness include higher inventory levels and an increase in the days homes are spending on the market.”

The Journal article noted that, “Last year was the weakest for home sales since 2015. Buyers pulled back in the latter half of 2018, primarily due to the shock of rising mortgage rates after an era of ultracheap credit. Interest rates hit nearly 5% in the fall, but the average rate on a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage over the past week was down to 4.28%, according to data released Thursday by Freddie Mac.

“Still, mortgage rates weren’t the only factor holding buyers back, and many of the other headwinds remain. The housing-market recovery is threatened by high prices, a shortage of starter-home inventory, a volatile stock market, and anxiety about the national political situation, including trade disputes and the partial government shutdown that ended in January.

“Slowing price gains could be good news for home buyers. The national median sale price for a previously owned home last month was $249,500, up 3.6% from a year earlier. But growth has slowed significantly.”

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Dairy Producers Previously Enrolled in the Livestock Gross Margin Program Now Eligible for 2018 Margin Protection Program

A news release today from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Risk Management Agency (RMA) stated that, “[USDA] today announced that dairy producers who elected to participate in the Livestock Gross Margin for Dairy Cattle Program (LGM-Dairy) now have the opportunity to participate in the Margin Protection Program for  Dairy (MPP-Dairy) for 2018 coverage. Sign-up will take place March 25 through May 10, 2019.

“Producers enrolled in 2018 LGM-Dairy, administered by [RMA], previously were determined by the 2014 Farm Bill to be ineligible for coverage under MPP-Dairy, a safety net program available through USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA).

“‘The 2018 Farm Bill included substantial changes to USDA dairy programs,’ said FSA Administrator Richard Fordyce. ‘This includes the ability for producers with LGM coverage to retroactively enroll in MPP-Dairy for 2018. It also integrated recent improvements to the MPP-Dairy in the new Dairy Margin Coverage program, beginning with the 2019 calendar year.'”

The RMA update noted that, “The MPP-Dairy program offers protection to dairy producers when the difference between the national all-milk price and the national average feed cost — the margin — falls below a certain dollar amount selected by the producers in a dairy operation. LGM-Dairy is an insurance product that provides protection when feed costs rise or milk prices drop. The gross margin is the market value of milk minus feed costs.”

“Eligible producers can enroll during the sign-up period at their local USDA service center. To locate your office, visit”

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Farmers Markets Hitting Saturation in Some Areas

Earlier this week, Jodi Helmer reported at National Public Radio (NPR) Online that, “Nationwide, the number of farmers markets increased from 2,000 in 1994 to more than 8,600 in 2019, which led to a major problem: There are too few farmers to populate the market stalls and too few customers filling their canvas bags with fresh produce at each market. Reports of farmers markets closing have affected communities from Norco, Calif., to Reno, Nev., to Allouez, Wis.”

The NPR item explained that, “Markets in big cities are hurting too. The Copley Square Farmers Market in Boston reported a 50 percent drop in attendance in 2017. In Oregon, where 62 new markets opened but 32 closed, the researchers of one multiyear study concluded, ‘The increasing popularity of the markets is in direct contrast with their surprisingly high failure rate.’

“Diane Eggert, executive director of the Farmers Market Federation of NY, received numerous reports of closings; she believes the problem is one of pure mathematics.

“‘There are way too many markets,’ she says. ‘The markets have started cannibalizing both customers and farmers from other markets to keep going.'”

The NPR update added that, “Eggert also points to myriad other options that consumers have for accessing fresh foods, including community-supported agriculture and home delivery options from companies such as Amazon, Instacart or Blue Apron that might be more convenient than shopping at a Saturday morning market.”

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