Crop progress report: The forecast calls for grain

The things we grew last summer - It's last-hurrah time for the corn and soybeans. In a couple weeks, everything will be entirely brown and ready for harvest.

The things we grew last summer - It's last-hurrah time for the corn and soybeans. In a couple weeks, everything will be entirely brown and ready for harvest.


There’s an old saying around the Chicago Board of Trade’s grain futures pits: Big crops get bigger.

Basically, that means that a crop that looks good in August probably will look even better come September, and that’s what’s happening this year in the Heartland.

A peek under the husks reveals kernels in the “dent” stage of development, indicating the corn is with a few weeks of full maturity.

A peek under the husks reveals kernels in the “dent” stage of development, indicating the corn is with a few weeks of full maturity.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture raised its projections for the country’s corn and soybean harvests. While many of us Chicagoans griped about often-crummy summer weather we had, crops across much of the Midwest flourished in the past two months amid mild temperatures and ample rainfall.

This brings to mind another favorite term from the grain trader’s lexicon: bin-buster.

American farmers will pull in an estimated 12.95 billion bushels of corn this year, a 2 percent increase from an August forecast and the second-largest crop on record next to the 13.05 billion-bushel harvest of 2007, according to the USDA’s crop production report. Corn yields will average a record 161.9 bushels an acre, a record.

The soybean crop, already expected to be the biggest ever, was bumped up 1 percent, to an estimated 3.25 billion bushels.

As we’ve written previously, abundant supplies of basic grains are good news for consumers, diminishing any threat of a food inflation surge. The recent slide in corn and soybean prices may not be welcome by farmers, but at least most of them will have plenty of crops to sell.

Inside these pods, beans await picking as the plants slowly die.

Inside these pods, beans await picking as the plants slowly die.

Up on CKOW’s roof, as in the rest of the Midwest, another growing season is winding down. If the corn and beans look like they’re dying, that’s because they are. But that’s what’s supposed to happen, and in October, everything will be completely brown and ready for picking.

The main challenge at this point is keeping the squirrels away from my ears – the little bastards stripped those suckers clean last year! If I’m successful doing that, you’ll be seeing my harvest results shortly.

Fun corn factoid #5: The term “combine,” referring to the giant contraptions used to harvest grain all over the world, originated because early versions of the machines “combined” three harvesting processes – typically cutting stalks, separating/cleaning grain and storing it in an on-board hopper – into one piece of equipment.

Unlike the verb form of the word, “combine,” in this case, is pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable: “COM-bine.” The same applies for the NFL Scouting Combine, held every February.

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Who needs two? Nobody, apparently. Fire sale days raging in Wrigleyville.

Welcome to Brokers' Row, a clutch of dingy storefront ticket outlets between the Addison CTA station and Sheffield Ave. Business isn't so hot these days.

Welcome to Brokers' Row, a clutch of dingy storefront ticket outlets between the Addison CTA station and Sheffield Ave. Business isn't so hot these days.


If there’s any upside to the Cubs’ disintegration this season, it might be this: Wrigleyville’s ticket brokers and scalpers are taking a bath.

I know what you’re thinking – it couldn’t be happening to a nicer group of guys.

Street-level Cubs ticket business usually drops off in September after the kids go back to school. It drops off even more when the home team sinks to the fringes of playoff contention before Labor Day.

So you get scenes like you see in these photos. It’s fire sale time in Wrigleyville, with lonely ticket brokers lining Addison and Clark Streets, wearing bored or resigned expressions and chatting idly with their cohorts as fans stroll by, uninterested, on their way to the park.

Another scene from Brokers' Row earlier this week. Insert chirping crickets audio here.

Another scene from Brokers' Row earlier this week. Insert chirping crickets audio here.

The brokers hold up wads of unsold tickets for that day’s game in one hand, fanned out like they’re in some kind of Wrigleyville Texas Hold ‘Em tournament. These days, nothing is moving, as they say in the business.

There are close to a dozen storefront ticket brokers within a couple blocks of Wrigley (though some of these places could only generously be described as storefronts). There are also dozens upon dozens more small-time hustlers who converge on the Friendly Confines every summer to scalp tickets, hawk tasteless t-shirts or bang on plastic buckets. It’s all part of life in Wrigleyville, though few of these people will be missed come October.

The brokers, like their counterparts at our local futures exchanges, make their livings trying to buy low and sell high. Free-market capitalism at its purest, right?

A Clark St. broker displaying his inventory for Monday night's Cubs-Brewers game, about a half-hour after the first pitch.

A Clark St. broker displaying his inventory for Monday night's Cubs-Brewers game, about a half-hour after the first pitch.

One twist is many of our friendly local brokers take advantage of peak-demand games over the summer by jacking up prices to obscenely-inflated levels, among other creative tactics.

For some prime games this summer, I recall seeing some brokers listing tickets on their websites for anywhere from three to six times face value, sometimes more, for just so-so seats. For 200-level, terrace reserved seats, for example, you were talking in the neighborhood of $180 to $200 for a $40 or $45 ticket.

With so many brokers asking similarly steep prices (and hordes of summer tourists unschooled in the local ticket scene), one suspects they have plenty of room to come down and still pocket a tidy profit. Hopefully, few people actually paid those kinds of prices.

I’ve seen ticket brokers quoted to the effect that they’re providing a valuable “service” for the public and are only charging what the market will bear. That may true to an extent. They certainly have every right to participate in the market as brokers licensed with the state of Illinois.

You fans also have the right to avoid dealing with them, and instead look for tickets on places like craigslist, where you can find a lot of regular season-ticket holders, like myself, trying to unload seats at much more reasonable prices.

Plenty of good seats still available, Cubs fans.

Plenty of good seats still available, Cubs fans.

But all markets go though up and down cycles, and Cubs fans, the tables have turned in your favor. Earlier this week, brokers were asking $5 to $10 below face for pretty decent seats (100-level field boxes, $55 to $65 face) for Cubs-Brewers games.

“We shouldn’t be selling tickets under face, but we are,” one Clark St. broker said Monday. “It just seems like nobody cares.”

Nobody should even pay that much. CKOW’s advice, if you want to go through a broker for tickets for the Cubs’ seven remaining home games, is to ask for something 100-level or better, start with a two-for-one bid, and negotiate down from there until they’re to the point of tears.

If they protest, show them the National League standings. Free markets, right?

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I say ‘hey, bartender’ – Another entrant bellies up to crowded Wrigleyville pub scene

So long Central. Say hello to Wrigleyville's newest bar.

So long Central. Say hello to Wrigleyville's newest bar.

CKOW would like to welcome a new business to the neighborhood (one of our favorite types of business, by the way): Rockwood Place.

Rockwood Place, which opened Aug. 25, occupies the spot at 3446 N. Clark St. formerly home to another bar/restaurant, the Central.

The new joint is still part of the same group, Eat Well. Drink Better. Management Co., that decided a makeover was needed to help stand out in the Wrigleyville masses (Eat Well. Drink Better., a private, locally-based firm, also runs four other, mostly North Side bars: English, the Grand Central, Angels & Mariachis, and LaSalle Power Co.).

So they redid the place in a lot of dark reds – from the lights to the wood-paneled walls to the felt surface of two new pool tables – upgraded the menu beyond usual sports-bar fare and inserted a small corner stage for live music.

“One problem with the Central was it was very ‘cold,’ ” Rockwood Place manager Ivan Torres said. “We wanted to give the venue a little more of a cozy feeling.”

Meet Jessica, a Rockwood Place host.

Meet Jessica, a Rockwood Place host.

With another long, cold Chicago winter nearing and the Cubs soon to be put out of their misery, that seems like a good idea.

Still, Rockwood Place enters an already-crowded roster. When it comes to taps per capita, Wrigleyville might only be rivaled by Bourbon Street in New Orleans. But there’s a fair amount of turnover – bars around here in recent years have changed the way Cubs manager Lou Piniella changes his lineups.

We count roughly 21 bars, including Rockwood Place, on the two-block stretch of Clark from Addison St. on the north to Newport Ave. on the south. All told, there are more than 40 bars within a 3-4 blocks of Wrigley. For 81 Cub game days of the year, the scene is hopping. But what about the other 284?

There’s no great secret to staying in the game, Torres said. “It goes back to the basics,” he said. “If you’ve got good food and good service, you can really distinguish yourself.”

The economy comes into play for any business, of course, and Torres said the notion that booze is recession-proof is a myth. In the past year, corporate events have been drastically scaled back, crimping a key revenue stream for local bars and restaurants.

Jessica takes her cue in Rockwood Place's back billiards room.

Jessica takes her cue in Rockwood Place's back billiards room.

“You depend on private parties,” Torres said. Corporate events “used to happen,” he said, but business during last year’s holidays was practically “non-existent.”

“We’re hanging in there, but we’ve definitely felt the effects” of the recession, Torres said.

As for the bar’s name, Torres said Rockwood Place signifies nothing in particular. “It’s just something we threw out there, and it really stuck,” he said.

CKOW wishes the folks at Rockwood Place well. In times like these, we can never have too many good places to go get a drink.

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Good luck with this “junk” bond of a Cubs team, Mr. Ricketts

Cubs fans, meet your new owner.

Cubs fans, meet your new owner.

CKOW congratulates Tom Ricketts & family on finally sealing their $800 million deal to buy a 95 percent interest in the Cubs (along with Wrigley Field and 25 percent of Comcast SportsNet Chicago).

By all reports, Tom Ricketts appears to be the kind of owner the Cubs need: a low-key, non-meddlesome type who wants a winner, likely will let the baseball people do their jobs and won’t be averse to spending money. A George Steinbrenner minus the bluster. And he represents an actual human face leading the team, as opposed to a monolithic corporation.

Ricketts’ long-running affinity for all things Wrigley has been well-documented: He’s a hard-core Cubs fan; He once lived in an apartment above the now-demolished Sports Corner bar across Sheffield Ave. from Wrigley; He met his wife in the Wrigley bleachers. Whether any of that will help get us a World Series here, who knows?

Ricketts’ family built a billion-dollar fortune in finance, founding broker TD Ameritrade. Tom Ricketts is CEO of Incapital LLC, a Chicago-based investment bank that’s hardly a Goldman Sachs when it comes to name recognition.

Incapital is credited with pioneering the underwriting of corporate bonds for retail investors. Ricketts’ isn’t exactly an attention-seeker when it comes to the media, but you can listen to him discuss the yield curve, bond ladders and credit spreads with CNBC’s Larry Kudlow here, in a June appearance on the network.

That kind of financial acumen could come in handy when it comes to fixing the Cubs, whose death march of a season (they’d lost 12 of 16 and were 8 games behind St. Louis in the NL Central going into Sunday) brings to mind some of the things that became household terms during Wall Street’s meltdown over the past year.

When it comes to the Cubs, you’ve got rough equivalents of subprime-mortgage securities in Alfonso Soriano and Milton Bradley (holding contracts signed at peak or ridiculously inflated values but who are now worth significantly less and are virtually untradable). You’ve got hitters “breaking the buck” (Aaron Miles and his shiny .181 batting average). Failed closer Kevin Gregg could only be described as “toxic.”

WrigleyMarquee

The team overall? CKOW is assigning it a “junk” rating, of course.

But Ricketts is an expert at finding value and yield, so we are hopeful he can apply those skills with the Cubs. For starters, he should probably do little. Give general manager Jim Hendry one more year to reverse his mistakes from the past off-season, and give manager Lou Piniella one more year to prove he can still produce a winner. As a goodwill gesture, freeze all ticket prices for 2010. Beyond that, there’s the thorny issue of a much-needed major renovation of the Friendly Confines that has to be tackled at some point during the next decade.

CKOW would like to extend an invitation to Ricketts to drop by the roof and discuss some ideas, and also check out the corn (speaking of yield).

Good luck, Mr. Ricketts. You’re going to need it. Cubs Nation welcomes you and anxiously awaits the results.

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Another crop progress report

Aug. 15 - The corn is topping out around 6 feet, 6 inches, and that's about as far as it's going to go vertically. That' fine, because from here on, it's all about the ears.

Aug. 15 - The corn is topping out around 6 feet, 6 inches, and that's about as far as it's going to go vertically. That' fine, because from here on, it's all about the ears.

After a few days off to recover from Lollapalooza, it’s time to get back to our crops.

On Aug. 12, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in its first estimates for this year’s harvests, projected American farmers will reap a corn crop of 12.76 billion bushels and a soybean crop of almost 3.2 billion bushels. As Chuck Abbott, one of my former Reuters colleagues, reported, this would be the biggest soybean harvest on record and the second-biggest corn crop.

All eyes on ears

All eyes on ears

That’s good news for everyone. Bountiful corn and soybean supplies help keep food prices in check. Any spike upward in corn or soybean prices eventually ripples into other crops, such as wheat, as well as into meat and other foods, eventually hitting you at the grocery checkout.

As for my stuff, everything’s moving right along. The corn looks to have completed the critical pollination stage. For the next month, the ears will be fattening up till the plant reaches maturity and it’s time to harvest. The soybeans are developing and filling pods, also heading toward maturity over the next month or so. If the corn looks a little ragged, that’s because it’s taken a beating the last few weeks from high winds and intense sunshine.

For you other aggies out there, I’ll be guest-writing for Dow Jones Newswires next week, covering the CME Group’s soybean futures market on a freelance basis. I covered that and other related subjects for Dow Jones back in 1995-97, so it’s very familiar turf. Check it out if you can.

Each of these pods will produce 3-4 soybeans.

Each of these pods will produce 3-4 soybeans.

Fun corn factoid #4: One bushel of corn weighs about 56 pounds, is the roughly the size of a large bag of dog food and contains about 27,000 kernels, or 33-34 ears.

Based on this year’s estimated 12.76 billion-bushel harvest, that’s 433.8 billion ears, or 1,400 ears for every man, woman and child in the U.S. Who said two ears is all you get?

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Chicago sports “fans” – this Bud’s NOT for you.

Phillies' centerfielder Shane Victorino (in a photo poached from Deadspin), gets a Bud shower, courtesy of a true Wrigley beach bum.

Phillies' centerfielder Shane Victorino (in a photo poached from Deadspin), gets a Bud shower Wednesday night, courtesy of a true Wrigley bleach bum.


CKOW took in last night’s Cubs-Phillies game courtesy of his brother-in-law, Roger, the Chicago cop. In Roger’s seats, tucked into Wrigley’s left-field corner against the chain-link fence, we had a perfect vantage point for the Cubs’ latest embarrassment, and I’m not talking about Alfonso Soriano’s defense.

In the latest case of Chicago sports fans making national news for the wrong reasons, Philadelphia centerfielder Shane Victorino was doused with beer while running back to catch a fly ball against the ivy during the fifth inning Wednesday night. This is, of course, inexcusable, but not at all surprising (See Deadspin for further dissection of the incident).

The Wrigley Field bleachers this time of year are filled with drunken tourists and college kids about to head back to school, and strange things seem to happen around here during the dog days of summer in general.

I'm with stupid - Wrigley security didn't get the right guy initially, but the perpetrator turned himself in (photo from Getty Images via Chicago Tribune).

I'm with stupid - Wrigley security didn't get the right guy initially, but the perpetrator turned himself in (from Getty Images).

Whatever the time of year, there are always a few idiots in the bleachers. Not all that many, but a few, and sometimes they do things that reinforce the bleachers’ rep as a glorified, open-air sports bar. There will be someone who runs out onto the field during a game before this season ends, I guarantee it.

As we discussed the beer-tossing episode, Roger, who knows a thing or two about the law, noted that, according to Illinois criminal code, throwing beer at someone is a form of battery – it’s considered similar to throwing a rock or a baseball. Sure enough, the Cubs and Victorino filed formal complaints with the Chicago Police Department, according to the Chicago Tribune.

When Sox fans attack - Royals coach Tom Gamboa gets rolled during a 2002 game at the Cell.

When Sox fans attack - Royals coach Tom Gamboa gets rolled during a 2002 game at the Cell.

We’re glad the beer-tosser turned himself in. He’s Johnny Macchione, 21, of suburban Bartlett, and he’s believed to the guy on the left in the photo above. Earlier tonight, after being cited for battery and illegal conduct within a sports facility, both misdemeanors, he issued an on-camera apology to Victorino and the Cubs in front of local TV news crews. Of course you’re sorry, Johnny. Nonetheless, you’re still a complete tool. We hope you’re banned from Wrigley for life.

Last night’s incident takes its place among other moments of infamy on Chicago’s fields of play: The guys who ran onto U.S. Cellular Field during a White Sox-Royals game in 2002 and tackled Kansas City coach Tom Gamboa; the guy who snatched the helmet from the head of Dodgers’ catcher Chad Kreuter during a 2000 game at Wrigley, inciting a melee; the guy who ran onto Wrigley and tried to take down Cubs reliever Randy Myers in 1995. The list goes on and on. What is it about certain “fans” here?

Beyond that, Wednesday night’s incident seems like a perfect metaphor for the big, spilled-beer-of-a-season the Cubs are having: So enticing and tasty-looking from a distance, but when you get close and try to grab it… whoops!

William Ligue Jr. of Alsip, Ill., is escorted away after attacking, with this then-15-year-old son, Royals coach Tom Gamboa in 2002.

William Ligue Jr. of Alsip, Ill., is escorted away after attacking, with this then-15-year-old son, Royals coach Tom Gamboa in 2002.

Many Cubs fans, myself included, were head-faked by the team’s hot streak after the All-Star break last month. But it’s one thing to feast on bottom-feeders such as the Nationals; it’s quite another to defeat good teams.

The troubling signs have been there for months: endless injuries, failure to consistently beat quality pitching, poor clutch hitting and sloppy, distracted play in general (do these guys really want to be here?). Hard to see anyone but St. Louis taking the NL Central at this point (Last night, Philly smoked the Cubs, 12-5, and won again today, 6-1, to complete a three-game sweep and send the Cubs to their fifth loss in a row).

Looking ahead, we can see at least one encouraging date on the calendar: Sept. 13, when the Bears open the NFL season in Green Bay. Here’s hoping Jay Cutler is as good as advertised. If not, we may be in for another long winter.

Lollapalooza ’09 recap – Perry has left the building

Jane's Addiction, led by head howler Perry Farrell, close out Lollapalooza '09

Jane's Addiction, led by head howler Perry Farrell, closes out Lollapalooza '09


CKOW completed a Lollapalooza tripleheader over the weekend, joining 75,000 or so friends in steamy Grant Park for the finale Sunday. I’ll share a few more thoughts, and then it’s time to move on and dry out.

We took in parts or all of nine acts, including Kaiser Chiefs (see my previous post on the performance interpreters who “sign” for live shows), the Raveonettes, Passion Pit and Neko Case. By and large, it was a pretty solid outing for most of what I saw, though there were a few head-scratching moments.

Waiting for the man - Lou Reed gets off to a slow start but finishes strong.

Waiting for the man - Lou Reed got off to a slow start but finished strong.

Take Lou Reed, for example. Having never seen the legendary, highly-influential New York rock musician and songwriter live, this personally was one of my most-anticipated shows the whole weekend.

Like most senior citizens, Reed (he turned 67 this year) moves at his own pace. He came out almost 15 minutes late for his north-end set, and then proceeded to shamble through a meandering and occasionally perplexing performance during his show’s first-half.

Dave Navarro's searing guitar licks during Jane's Addiction's headlining set must have echoed all the way to Indiana.

Dave Navarro's searing guitar licks during Jane's Addiction's headlining set must have echoed all the way to Indiana.

Reed appeared distracted at times, often fiddling with the computer monitors arrayed in front of him (did he forget the lyrics to his own songs?). Many of us were looking at (or texting) each other, “WTF?” He then treated the crowd to 10-plus minutes of ear-piercing, laptop-induced feedback, before finally launching into the Velvet Underground classic, “Waiting for the Man.”

Things bounced back during the show’s second half, with Reed closing with “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” to the crowd’s delight. Like I said, I’ve never seen Reed live before, so maybe that’s just how he operates. But we couldn’t help but feel that maybe he could have given us more than that.

Neko Case's enchanting country- and gospel-tinged vocals boomed throughout Grant Park's north end

Neko Case's enchanting country- and gospel-tinged vocals boomed throughout Grant Park's north end

Jane’s Addiction, another much-anticipated entry this year, closed the weekend with a north-end set highlighted by the scorching guitar work of Dave Navarro and, of course, the over-the-top theatrics and screaming-banshee vocals of flamboyant lead signer Perry Farrell.

Perry was being Perry, definitely giving the crowd what it came to see. But watching the set reminded me that it’s Navarro’s guitar wizardry, along with the rhythm section of drummer Stephen Perkins and bassist Eric Avery, that really makes this outfit go, and helped define the alternative-rock movement of the 1980s.

The Chicago Fire Department's giant mister, a $250,000 contraption that's also used to help put out fires, mitigated some of Sunday's 90-degree heat.

The Chicago Fire Department's giant mister, a $250,000 contraption that's also used to help put out fires, mitigated some of Sunday's 90-degree heat.

Farrell, also Lollapalooza’s founder and public point man, took us through some of the old Jane’s favorites, including Stop, “Mountain Song,” “Summertime Rolls” and “Been Caught Stealing.” For the encore, we got “Jane Says,” which included an inexplicable guest appearance by Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry.

However, the ending was marred by some sound problems with Farrell’s vocals and then devolved into near-farce, which included Farrell parading his two young sons at center stage and an on-stage marriage proposal by a friend of the band to his girlfriend (she accepted).

Grousing aside, we had a great time over the weekend and credit promoter C3 Presents for overall putting on a good show despite some difficult conditions (90-degree heat at the top of the list).

Yes, some things could be done better, as the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot and other local music critics have pointed out. Perry-bashing is always quite fashionable when Lolla rolls into town each year, with critics, I’m guessing, loathe to appear to be any sort of lap-dog or civic cheerleader for this kind of thing. Granted, some of the criticism is justified. Trimming the number of bands would be a good start, as Kot has said before. There were more than 170 in a sprawling, three-day lineup this year.

Lollapalooza drew 225,000 people over three days, according to the Chicago Tribune. Here's a few of them, looking west toward Michigan Ave.

Lollapalooza drew 225,000 people over three days, according to the Chicago Tribune. Here's a few of them, looking west toward Michigan Ave.

Still, $80 a ticket for a chance to choose among 40 to 50 bands a day strikes CKOW as a pretty good deal, and you get to do it while drinking beer outside in Chicago’s all-too-short summer. Disagree? Consider Bruce Springsteen is charging $98 for most tickets for a United Center show in September. Face value on many tickets to U2, playing two shows at Soldier Field next month, will set you back $95 or $250 (though some seats are listed at $30 and $55).

So long for another year, Perry & friends. We look forward to Lolla 2010 next August. I’ll need that time to recover.

See ya next year!

See ya next year!