Friday, June 16, 2017

Uber Drivers and Long Hours: Did NPR Miss the Bigger Story?

Uber drivers can spend up to 14, or even 20, hours a day on the road. A recent NPR story highlighted the safety risks of the long hours. The story blamed Uber’s variable pricing and pay, which make it hard for drivers to know how much they’ll make in a shift.

As alarming as NPR’s report was, the financial reality for Uber drivers might be even worse than described. The figures presented suggest Uber drivers could make more asking McDonalds’ diners if they want fries with their burger.

NPR followed a Muncie, Indiana Uber driver on a Friday night. Driver Kyle Reninger prefers working weekend nights, when surge fares are most likely. These “nuggets of the Uber gold rush,” as the story called them, are the higher prices, and higher pay, that kick in when demand is high and supply low.

The story mentioned only the number and level of surge fares as sources of variability in Uber drivers’ earnings. The story overlooked variations in wait time between fares, distance to pick up fares, the value of each fare, and the size of tips. These are largely random. Drivers can't control where their next customer will be or where they'll want to go.

Random events hold the possibility of unexpected rewards. The uncertainty of a random reward is more addictive than the certainty of a known payment. Maybe the next customer will be just a block away, maybe they’ll want a ride to the next state, and maybe they’ll tip with a fistful of $100 bills. It could happen!

At the end of his shift Reninger had been in his car, either delivering a customer, waiting for a customer, or driving around looking for one, for 14 hours and 9 minutes. He drove 401.2 miles and made $165.30 from Uber. With tips, he “nearly hit his goal of $200.” That was “nearly” $200 before expenses.

The story noted the figures didn’t include the cost of gas, but it also overlooked other vehicle expenses. Every mile a car is driven moves it closer to maintenance, repair, and replacement costs. The IRS calculates that operating a vehicle costs 53.5 cents/mile. This means that Reninger's 401.2 miles cost him $214.64—more than he earned.

Uber drivers should be able to deduct business mileage expenses. Reninger and his wife make and sell vegan baked goods; perhaps his Uber driving losses offset bakery earnings. But is the hefty time investment worth it?

Did NPR wait for an unlucky driver on an unusually slow day? I can’t tell. If NPR's figures are correct, Uber drivers make appallingly little. Why do people choose to drive when they could make more at a minimum wage job? Reninger said, “If you don't enjoy doing it, then what's the point, really?” Does he drive for Uber as a hobby? To get out of the house and meet people?

I wonder the hope that the next customer will be the big one, the meter-busting fare with the outlandish tip, keeps Uber drivers in their cars hour after hour. The company seems to have plugged into our love of uncertainty and dream of hitting it rich. It’s the same dream that keeps poor people buying more lottery tickets than the affluent. But the fact is, buying lottery tickets keeps poor people poor.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The oldest profession?

Rancher Glenn Elzinga says herding might be the oldest profession. I wonder if he also knows shepherds have a long record of improving human culture. Shepherds brought civilization to people in the 4,000 year-old Epic of Gilgamesh. A couple thousand years later, shepherds starred in many Greek myths. One story traced the roots of cowboy poetry to the shepherd Daphnis, who composed the first pastoral poem on the island of Sicily.

Today, the profession doesn’t maintain the workforce it did in ancient times and it provides fewer cultural innovations, but shepherd still watch flocks of sheep in the U.S west. Herders live 24/7 with bands of a thousand animals. With the help of herding dogs, the shepherd guides the flock to browse a variety of plants and avoid poisonous fare. The animals are watched at all times and can be kept away from areas protected for other uses. The herder sleeps nearby to help the guard dogs protect the sheep from predators and theft.

For years, I wondered why herding sheep made so much sense, but herding cattle was, well, unheard of. I wondered until I heard Glenn Elzinga’s keynote address at the 2015 Idaho Sustainable Ag Conference. He's developing a "new" approach to ranching: he's herding his cattle.

After lunch, I lurked with intent and buttonholed Glenn as we walked back to the afternoon session. I followed up with an email. Later, I asked if I could write about him. He and his wife Caryl agreed. My story on Alderspring Grassfed (and herded) Beef was in the Fall 2016 issue of Edible Idaho.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Local land trust helps Swift River Farm grow in Salmon, Idaho

Local food used to be the only food in rural central Idaho. People living in isolated mountain valleys grew and shared most of what they ate. When paved roads and trucks arrived to stock grocery store shelves, residents shopped more and farmed less.

Jessica McAllese and Jeremey Shreve are (re)creating local food networks in Salmon, Idaho. The couple settled in the Lemhi County town in 2013 with a border collie named Nora, a tractor named Fergie, and years of experience farming in Pocatello.

Salmon has been fertile ground for Shreve and McAllese’s Swift River Farm. Other small farmers, a local foods group, and a farmers market are reviving small scale production and distribution systems.


Ranchers started the Lemhi Regional Land Trust to protect local landscapes and rural lifestyles. The trust found a way to help McAllese and Shreve buy land to expand their farm and build a home together.

I told the Swift River Farm story in the Summer issue of Edible Idaho.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Vineyard is a-LIVE

Vineyards are evocative, pastoral landscapes that invite visitors to linger and relax with a glass of wine. These agricultural fields can be more or less environmentally friendly, depending on how they are managed. Bitner Vineyards is the first and, so far, only Low Input Viticulture and Enology (LIVE) certified vineyard in Idaho.

Ron and Mary Bitner use science-based practices to protect water, soil, and pollinators. The couple provide habitat for pollinators and use cover crops, integrated pest management (IPM) techniques, and biological control methods to reduce their use of pesticides. Embracing science comes naturally for Ron Bitner--his first career took him around the world as an expert on leafcutter bees for pollinating alfalfa.

I wrote about the Bitner’s LIVE vineyard in the Spring issue of Edible Idaho.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Hop Harvest

The hop yards of southwestern Idaho are growing quiet and empty. The walls of hops are falling as workers cut and gather the lanky plants. Unpaved roads wave dust plumes behind the trucks that carry the plants to the hop-pickers and -driers that rattle and hum day and night in the farm fields around Wilder, ID.

Wrangling the tall plants takes special equipment. This short video shows how the Obendorf Hop Farm first clips the bottoms of the plants and then pulls them down and gathers them into a truck.
My story in last fall’s Edible Idaho describes the action at the picker/drier and shows how the hop fields of Wilder have changed with the popularity of hoppy craft beers. An earlier blog post shows how workers install twine for the young hop plants to climb in spring.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Do Sagebrush Steppe Grasses Need to Be Grazed?

A rancher in southwestern Idaho and I have been having the same conversation for years. We both enjoy it and we always have something to talk about. My friend, the rancher/cow whisperer, thinks our native perennial grasses are better off when they’re grazed. By better off, he means greener and more vigorous, without old, dead leaves.

Rancher/Cow Whisperer told me about perennial grasses growing in a steep canyon, where his cattle can’t reach them. The grasses are choked with dead leaves and their centers have died. Grazing would have kept the grasses trim, green, and vigorous.

I haven’t scrambled into the canyon to see the ungrazed grasses, but I’ve kept my eye on some non-native landscaping plants in Boise. These grasses haven’t been grazed and the inside of each plant has died. I got a photo of the dead centers after the grasses’ annual hair cut in late spring. The plants' outside leaves will soon be tall enough to hide the dead centers.
I tell Rancher/Cow Whisperer that I also prefer green plants to dormant or dead ones. I’d rather see lush green lawns, pastures, and alfalfa fields than dry, brown ones. When I see big, thick summer grasses bucking and waving in the wind of the Dakotas or the Great Plains, I want to roll in them.

But, are sagebrush steppe grasses embarrassed by their old leaves? Do they worry about their dead centers?

I remembered my on-going conversation with Rancher/Cow Whisperer when I saw a piece by a writing rancher. Rancher/Writer had visited one of my favorite places on the Sagebrush Sea, where management includes restrictions on grazing. She wondered if there wasn’t too much bare ground and if appropriate grazing could help fill in between the plants. As a plant ecologist, I see bare ground and I’m reminded of the admirable tenacity of our native perennial grasses.

Bare ground reminds me that sagebrush steppe grasses grow in clumps so they can use the water and nutrients in the space around them. The plants have to do all their growing in the limited time between the “too cold” of winter and “too dry” of summer. They have to grab all the water and nutrients they can, as fast as they can, from as large an area as they can.

Our native bunchgrasses aren't altruistic. They won't cut consumption so other plants can grow around them. If they left water and nutrients for others, the other might be cheatgrass, which would increase the chance of fire. Cheatgrass is fuel for fires; bare ground is a firebreak that helps protect bunchgrasses.

Rancher/Writer noticed dead grass leaves and wondered if appropriate grazing could rejuvenate the plants. I see dead leaves and dead grass centers and I’m reminded of how well the plants are protecting the soil.

Dead leaves remind me that the material will decay and release nutrients into the soil for the plant to use. When the center of a bunchgrass dies, the dead material goes on protecting the soil, its water, its nutrients. The plant cries, “It’s just a flesh wound!” and keeps growing out around its edges--finding more water and nutrients.

Do our native sagebrush steppe grasses need to be grazed? If we look at it from the plants’ and the soil’s point of view, I don’t think so.

I’ll slow down to enjoy the sight of green irrigated pastures and breathe in the fragrance of a just-cut alfalfa field. Someday, I might stop to roll in the lush summer grasses on the plains. I'll also be amazed by our native perennial grasses. These bunchgrasses grow in challenging country and can do an exemplar job protecting our soil and keeping cheatgrass out of the Sagebrush Sea.

Instead of focusing on their unkempt appearance, let's thank our sagebrush steppe grasses for all the work they do.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Who Should Monitor Federal Rangelands?

“The fox guarding the henhouse.” That's what Linda Price expects some to say about a new rangeland monitoring program. I quoted the manager of the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Field Office in Salmon, Idaho, in a recent article.

The Idaho State Department of Agriculture (ISDA) saw the need for more information on the condition of BLM rangelands in the state and came up with a solution. Brooke Jacobson, ISDA’s coordinator for the project, helps ranchers get start collecting vegetation data on land they lease for livestock grazing. Meanwhile, the BLM’s vegetation specialists are stuck at their desks doing paperwork. A steady stream of time-sucking lawsuits provides job security, but keeps agency employees away from their monitoring duties.
Brooke shows ranchers how to take annual photos at BLM monitoring sites and send their data to the agency. Ranchers can also attend one of the University of Idaho’s monitoring workshops. In this pilot program, ranchers will monitor only upland rangelands, not sensitive riparian areas. They won’t be measuring, or even counting, vegetation; they’ll be collecting photographic data.

Even with training and help from Brooke, some people might not think ranchers are up to the task. The skeptics must never have worked on a veg crew.

When I hired crews to collect vegetation data at the U.S. Geological Survey, I didn’t ask if applicants knew how to count plants. I asked the hard question: “Can you handle a summer living out on the Sagebrush Sea?” Anyone who can tolerate boring, repetitive tasks can learn to collect data; only a few hardy souls can sleep in a tent, haul water, and build a toilet with a shovel all summer. Data collection ain’t rocket surgery.
Nonscientists collecting data is nothing new. Amateur and professional scientists work together on the North American Breeding Bird Survey. They receive the same training and their data go into the same valuable dataset on bird numbers and distribution. Citizen scientists also record the seasonal changes in plants and animals for the National Phenology Network. This information helps scientists identify patterns of global climate change, which helps planners address the social and economic stresses that result.

You could argue that ranchers might fudge the data when monitoring their grazing lands. If you did, I’d point out that anyone could be tempted to blink at the wrong time while reading data. Every BLM employee has an opinion on livestock. Researchers have their favorite hypotheses. Even universities listen to their supporters, legislators, and alumni, all of whom have biases.

Software developers are making data collection easier and more accurate for both citizen and career scientists. Before Amazon ever heard of drones, Terry Booth, at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Cheyenne, WY, was photographing rangelands from light aircraft. The photos were clear enough to count plants and measure bare ground. In other words, they were detailed enough to monitor rangelands.

It’s been years since I saw a rancher with a flip phone (four months since I gave up mine). Smart phone cameras take excellent pictures and a University of Nebraska app makes photographing the same spot every year...a snap.

Ranchers and BLM employees look through the same viewfinder, but they see different things. Most agency workers move several times during their career. Most ranchers stay put for decades; their families often stay rooted for generations. Ranchers experience many El Niño and La Niña years on the same land. They see swings in precipitation and note the effects on plants and livestock. Ranchers are on the land 24/7/365 and they see things.
When my friends Jake Weltzin and Steve Archer investigated why mesquite trees were invading Texas grasslands, they asked the local ranchers. Guy and G. D. London told my friends that mesquite moved in after they killed the prairie dogs. Jake and Steve tested the ranchers' hypothesis and found that prairie dogs keep mesquite out of grasslands by clearing away seedpods and stripping bark from seedlings.
Rumor has it that ranchers remember three years: this year, last year, the best year. Researchers know memories fade and insist on written data. In the words of Adam Savage, one of Discovery channel’s MythBusters,“The only difference between screwing around and science, is writing it down.”

Ranchers will go one better when they monitor their rangeland: they’ll take pictures. Then they're write down when and where they took them.