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Monday, October 18, 2010

Fair Showcases Alternative Fuel, Electric Vehicles

The Desert Sun

Turn on Nissan's new all-electric Leaf and here's what you hear — nothing.

“There's no rev,” said Greg Tabak, director of Business Sales for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, which is set to introduce the electric car into its rental fleet in 2011.

“There's no transmission (noise). When you hit the accelerator, it just goes,” he said.

Tabak and the Leaf were in Palm Springs Friday for the city's first Electric and Alternative Fuel Vehicle Fair, which brought a small fleet of electric, hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles — and more than 150 residents and visitors — to the Palm Springs Convention Center.

“I think it's the nicest,” said Mark Thomas, 46, of Cathedral City, who was checking out the Leaf. “It seems the back seat has a lot of space. The only problem is it's all electric so the range is going to be short.”

Tabak said the car has about a 100-mile range, a little more depending on how you drive.

Electric vehicles such as the Leaf and the supercharged Tesla roadster, which goes 0 to 60 mph in less than 4 seconds, can travel as fast as 245 mph and comes with a six-figure price tag, were the stars of the event.

“It's fantastic. I've never run out of juice,” said Tesla owner Gary Warner, 64, of Indio. “The only thing that makes noise is the battery for the air conditioning.”

But beyond the flash, the purpose of the event was to focus valley officials and businesses on getting ready for the range of electric and hybrid vehicles coming to the market in 2011.

Enterprise plans to add the Leaf to its rental fleets in San Diego and Los Angeles locations — where Nissan is introducing the car — before gauging the market in the Coachella Valley, Tabak said. The roll-out to smaller markets could be in 12 to 18 months, he said.

Hertz will also be offering the Leaf and Mitsubishi's i MiEV beginning the end of the year, but again in larger, metropolitan markets to start, said Annette Zackey, a sales representative for the company.

With more and more car companies introducing electric models, Michele Mician, sustainability manager for Palm Springs, says the valley needs a network of charging stations for visitors and residents.

“We have to have infrastructure,” she said. “You have to be able to run errands, to move around the valley and plug in.”

Valley residents ready to take the leap will be able to install chargers in their homes, sold by local businesses such as the Green Bay Group in Palm Desert.

The company has a 240-volt home charger that can recharge a car in six to eight hours, said Jeffrey P. Bay, company president. Installing the device is similar to installing a dryer hookup, he said.

And Dick Cromie of Southern California Edison, said electric models such as the Leaf would cost about $1,100 to $1,300 a year less to operate than comparable gas cars.

Assemblyman V. Manuel PĂ©rez said electric vehicles can only add to the valley's profile as a renewable energy powerhouse, with wind, solar and geothermal resources.

“We have a window of opportunity that has never existed in the past,” he said. “Let's incorporate electric vehicles; let's incorporate infrastructure. We can create good-paying jobs; we can recover as a state and a nation, while reducing our greenhouse gas and carbon emissions.”

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Corn Prices Soar amid Supply Worries

Associated Press

Corn prices extended their rally Monday amid heightened concerns about tight supplies even as demand remains strong from ethanol producers, livestock owners and overseas buyers.

Corn rose 27.5 cents, or 5.2 percent, to settle at $5.5575 a bushel. It was the third straight gain for corn, which is at its highest price since the recession intensified in the fall of 2008.

Much of the trading action was driven by a U.S. Agriculture Department report issued Friday that lowered this year's production estimate to 12.7 billion bushels from last year's record of 13.1 billion bushels. Yields were forecast at 155.8 bushels per acre, compared with 164.7 bushels per acre a year ago.

Meanwhile, more overseas buyers are turning to U.S. corn to help feed their livestock after a drought ravaged Russia's wheat crop, including grains used to feed cattle and hogs. In addition, there is strong demand among ethanol producers and domestic livestock owners.

Barclays Capital analysts said in a report issued Monday that U.S. corn production is on track for the third-highest level on record. At the same time, high consumption levels and demand for corn exports is taking U.S. corn supplies to their lowest levels in 14 years.

"The global corn market ... suddenly finds itself on thin ice," the report concluded.

The impact of higher corn prices eventually may result in higher prices for bread and other products, but manufacturers and wholesalers also factor in other costs, such as labor and delivery, said Greg Grow, an Archer Financial Services broker who specializes in grains and livestock.

"The raw commodity price can be absorbed by wholesalers and manufacturers to a degree, but it will undoubtedly place upward momentum on wholesale and then retail prices for foods," he said.

In other grains contracts, November soybeans rose 17.5 cents to settle at $11.5250 a bushel while December wheat lost 10 cents to $7.0925 a bushel.

In December metals contracts, gold for December delivery rose $9.10 to settle at another record high of $1,354.40 an ounce; silver gained 24.4 cents to settle at $23.349 an ounce; copper added 1.5 cents to settle at $3.7895 a pound and palladium gained $1.15 to $588.75 an ounce.

Platinum for January delivery lost $17.90 to settle at $1,690.80 a pound.

Oil prices slipped Monday as the dollar strengthened and traders hunkered down ahead of some important economic news, due out later this week. Since crude and other commodities are priced in dollars, a stronger dollar makes crude, priced in dollars, less attractive to investors who buy it with other currencies.

Benchmark crude for November delivery dropped 45 cents to settle at $82.21 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Wheat Futures Drop Most in a Week in Chicago as U.S. Supply Concerns Ease

Bloomberg / BusinessWeek

Wheat prices fell the most in a week as U.S. supply concerns eased after futures soared the most allowed by the Chicago Board of Trade in the previous session.

The U.S. may produce 2.224 billion bushels in the year ending May 31, up 0.3 percent from last year, the government said Oct. 8. Futures surged 9.1 percent on that date after the Department of Agriculture slashed its estimate for U.S. corn production and said global wheat inventories were shrinking.

The USDA report “for wheat wasn’t nearly as bullish as it was for corn,” said William Bayer, a partner at PTI Securities in Chicago. Among corn, soybeans and wheat, the “fundamentals are probably the weakest” for wheat, he said.

Wheat futures for December delivery dropped 10 cents, or 1.4 percent, to settle at $7.0925 a bushel at 1:15 p.m. on the CBOT. That marked the biggest drop since Oct. 1. The most-active contract has soared 48 percent since the end of June after drought hurt crops in Russia and Eastern Europe.

On Oct. 8, wheat futures jumped 60 cents, then the exchange limit, after the USDA said global stockpiles will total 174.66 million metric tons on May 31, down 1.8 percent from the agency’s forecast last month. The department said the U.S. corn crop may be 3.4 percent smaller than last year.

Rain in the Plains

Rain in some winter-wheat growing areas in the U.S. Great Plains may boost soil moisture for crops being planted.

“Southwest Nebraska had very good rain over the weekend,” said Louise Gartner, the owner of Spectrum Commodities in Beavercreek, Ohio. Hard-red winter-wheat areas of Kansas and Oklahoma still need rain, along with soft-red regions in Ohio and Indiana, she said.

Parts of Oklahoma and Kansas, the largest winter-wheat producing state, got as much as 0.4 inch (1 centimeter) of rain in the past week, “not enough to end dry conditions,” Mike Tannura, the president of T-Storm Weather LLC in Chicago, said in a report. As much as 30 percent of the U.S. winter-wheat belt is experiencing “abnormally dry conditions,” he said.

Soft-red winter wheat is used to make cookies and cakes. Hard red-winter varieties are used in bread.

Wheat is the fourth-biggest U.S. crop, valued at $10.6 billion in 2009, behind corn, soybeans and hay, government data show.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Move Over, Bedbugs: Stink Bugs Have Landed

NY Times

When they retreated from the Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate troops passed by the area that is now Richard Masser’s orchards. If only the latest enemy — the brown marmorated stink bug — would follow suit.

Damage to fruit and vegetable crops from stink bugs in Middle Atlantic states has reached critical levels, according to a government report. That is in addition to the headaches the bugs are giving homeowners who cannot keep them out of their living rooms — especially the people who unwittingly step on them. When stink bugs are crushed or become irritated, they emit a pungent odor that is sometimes described as skunklike.

Suddenly, the bedbug has competition for pest of the year.

Farmers in Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and other states are battling a pest whose appetite has left dry boreholes in everything from apples and grapes to tomatoes and soybeans. Stink bugs have made their mark on 20 percent of the apple crop at Mr. Masser’s Scenic View Orchards here. Other farmers report far worse damage.

“They’re taking money out of your pocket, just like a thief,” said Mr. Masser, flicking stink bugs off his shirt and baseball cap as he overlooked his 325 acres, a few miles south of the Pennsylvania border. “We need to stop them.”

No one seems to know how. Government and university researchers say they need more time to study the bug, which has been in the United States since about 1998. Native to Asia, it was first found in Allentown, Pa., and has no natural enemies here.

Some people noticed an increase in the stink bug population last year, but all agreed that this year’s swarm was out of control. Researchers say the bugs reproduced at a faster rate this year, but they are unsure why.

“These are the hot spots right now, but they’re spreading everywhere,” Mr. Masser said. “They even found them out in Oregon.”

Populations of the brown marmorated stink bug — different from the green stink bugs that are kept in check by natural predators here — have been found in 15 states, and specimens in 14 other states, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

The bug travels well, especially as it seeks warm homes before the onset of cold weather.

“It’s an incredible hitchhiker,” said Tracy Leskey, an entomologist with the Agriculture Department’s Appalachian Fruit Research Station in Kearneysville, W.Va. “The adults are moving and looking for places to spend the winter.”

The research station is among three laboratories looking for a solution. Government and university researchers also formed a working group this summer. But Kevin Hackett, national program leader for invasive insects for the Agriculture Department’s research arm, said no immediate solution was in sight.

“We need to do considerable more research to solve the problem,” he said. “We don’t even have a way to monitor the pests. I’m confident that we have excellent researchers. I’m not confident we’re going to find a solution immediately.”

The department is spending $800,000 this fiscal year on stink bug research, double last year’s budget, Mr. Hackett said. But he estimated that seven more full-time researchers were needed, at a cost of about $3.5 million a year for salaries and research expenses.

In Asia, a parasitic wasp helps control stink bug populations by attacking their eggs. Unleashing those wasps here, however, is at least several years away because they would first need to be quarantined and studied.

There has been limited success using black pyramid traps in orchards, Ms. Leskey said. The traps contain scents that trigger sexual arousal. The nymphs, or young bugs, respond seasonlong, Ms. Leskey wrote in a recent report, but adults respond only late in the season, in late August.

Representative Roscoe G. Bartlett, Republican of Maryland, convened a meeting last week of officials from the Agriculture Department and the Environmental Protection Agency. He is pushing to have the stink bug reclassified, which would allow farmers to use stronger pesticides, and is advocating that the Agriculture Department reallocate $3 million of its budget for research.

A problem that can arise when more pesticides are used, experts and farmers say, is that many years’ worth of effective “integrated pest management” can be ruined in the process. Farmers kill some pests but allow others to live because they prey on yet other pests. Wasps, for example, eat worms that otherwise would kill crops.

“It is a way to use nature’s own defenses against pests in orchards,” said Steve Jacobs, an urban entomologist at Pennsylvania State University. “That’s been finely tuned and works well. This brown marmorated stink bug blows all that out the window. You kill them today, new ones come tomorrow. So this is a serious problem.”

Meanwhile, homeowners in the region are coping with this latest nuisance.

Vicky Angell of Thurmont, Md., said she first noticed the stink bugs last year, but “not in flocks” like this summer. She kills about six a day and suspects that they get inside her home when she leaves the door open to let the dog out.

Ms. Angell said she flushes them down the toilet after catching them in a napkin. Other people use their vacuum. And many have turned to exterminators.

Stink bugs, whose backs resemble knights’ shields, do not bite humans and pose no known health hazards — even the fruit they have gotten to is edible, once the hardened parts are cut out. They leave small craters on the surface of an apple or pear, and the inside can get brown and corklike. Females can grow to nearly the size of a quarter. “Marmorated” refers to their marbled or streaked appearance.

Still, sometimes they are just too close for comfort. Ms. Angell said she got a surprise when she put on her pants Friday morning, having washed them and left them to dry in her laundry room.

She felt something in the right rear pocket.

“I thought I left a piece of paper in them when I washed them,” she said.

But it was not paper.

“Pulled it out. He was alive. Stink bug. Flushed him down the toilet,” she said. “I thought, I’m glad I didn’t sit on that.”

Kelli Wilson of Burkittsville, Md., said her home had been overrun by the bugs, especially in the past week. In the afternoon sun, the north-facing exterior of the house “is black with stink bugs,” she said. “It looks like the wall is crawling.”

Mrs. Wilson’s husband, Raymond, skipped services on Sunday at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Burkittsville to remove stink bugs from the house. Mrs. Wilson discovered a little hitchhiker as she and her children arrived at the church. “I just pulled into the parking lot and there’s one on my purse,” she said. “They travel with me now.”

Mr. Jacobs, the urban entomologist, said the response to stink bugs so far is not an overreaction. “I’m standing here in my living room watching some of them crawl up my walls,” he said. “The best thing to do is make your house as tight as possible. Use masking tape to seal around sliding glass doors, air-conditioners.”

Mr. Masser, the Sabillasville farmer, said that he had not yet raised his prices to offset losses, but added that it was a possibility next year if a solution to the stink bug invasion was not found.

“Stink bugs are going to destroy a lot of food — it’s just starting,” he said. “When Joe Blow starts hollering because he can’t find the food he wants, they’ll respond then.”