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Latest News / Simon Cook’s Nuffield Thoughts: Part 5

Simon Cook’s Nuffield Thoughts: Part 5

Our GFP in the US was broken into two segments, the first was a 2 day visit to Washington DC to give us some context on politics in the US. The second was a visit to the state of Alabama were we would travel for 8 days getting to know the local people and their agricultural activities.

Washington DC

The first day in DC was spent meeting with representatives from the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA). NASDA’s role is to try and provide a link to maintain consensus between the federal body of United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the individual Departments of Agriculture from each state.

Whilst the Senators are working on preparing the Farm Bill in the Senate, in isolation the Congressmen are working on their own Farm Bill in the House of Representatives. When both are complete a conference committee is formed to compare the 2 bills and ensure that they are aligned. Any disagreement requires negotiation and any changes are taken back to the respective house for approval. This whole system provides the checks and balance that are the heart of US politics. When both houses are in agreement the bill is then sent to the President to be signed.

There is a fair amount of urgency to pass the bill in time as failure to do so would result in continuing as per the last bill, it would revert back to the original 1933 bill and throw the whole system into chaos. An attempt was made to change the legislation to allow the bill to revert to the most recent version but this was rejected as it would remove the pressure to ensure the new one is signed in time.

Our second day we ventured up onto Capital Hill where we were lucky enough to meet with Senator Thomas R. Carper and Senator Christopher Coons, both from Delaware. Both Senators gave us an outline on what was happening in political circles and where they were at with the Farm Bill. Both of the Senators are Democrats so we got a very one sided view of the current Trump administration, it would have been nice to also meet with a Republican Senator to get a bit more balance. The key issue discussed however is the current tariff wars and what the impact will be on farmers. Both felt the effect of the tariffs would not hit farmers for a little while as most crops had already been forward sold, so it would be another 6 months before the effects would truly be felt. In response to this Trump has just recently announced that he will look at subsidies to try and protect the farmers until they can renegotiate trade agreements that will hopefully be more favourable. Unfortunately for local farmers they are being used as pawns in a high stakes game of chess between China and the US in the meantime.

After meeting with the Senators we got to meet with some of the Senate Agricultural Committee staff. The staff all work for one of the 21 Senators who is currently serving on the Agricultural Committee and they are responsible for doing the hard work behind preparing the Food Bill. They had been working on the current bill for the last 2-3 years going through any amendments raised directly by the Senator they work for or any requests from the State they represent. Agreement in the Senate to the Farm Bill is generally bi-partisan with differences being driven more by state agricultural differences than political differences.

Our final meeting in DC was with Paul Minehart head of corporate communications for Syngenta. Paul talked about the work they do trying to promote farming in general and educate urban residents on the importance of agriculture. In the US there are 430 Congressional districts and over half of those are in areas that are over 85% urban. In the US only 2% of the population are involved in the agricultural workforce. Maintaining the right to farm is a key focus and through concerted education programs with the general public they have managed to maintain the support of the urban public. They are not seeing the pressure to change farming practices that we are seeing in Europe and to an increasing extent in New Zealand. The conversations here have been based on scientific evidence and not emotion.

We were met at the airport by our host Dennis Evans and his Wife Carol. We loaded ourselves into a van and headed for our accomodation for the night at St Bernards Abby in Cullman County. Alabama is in the middle of the southern Bible Belt so it was fitting our accomodation for the first few nights was at an Abby. The Abby is part of a school run by a small group of Benedictine monks.

Our first visit in Alabama was to the farm of Jeremy and Julie Calvert who sold most of his produce locally through a store they owned. I think the photo will give you some idea of our first impression and yes, the accent perfectly matched the outfits. He was rotation cropping with all kinds of different vegetable crops from pumpkins to corn to tomatoes. He was working on a rotation period of 6 years between the same crop being planted in the same soil. Before starting a new rotation last year he would grow a crop of sun hemp to help fix nitrogen. The returns for growing vegetables were poor and without selling direct through his store he felt he would struggle to be in business. Like a lot of farmers, his two biggest issues were the availability of water and labour. The answer to labour is a scheme that sounds very similar to our RSE scheme called the H2A scheme, which focuses on bringing Mexican labour under strict conditions into the US for work. Like our RSE scheme there is a lot of compliance and paperwork to ensure H2A workers are genuine and being looked after correctly.

Our second stop was at Stan and Suzanne Wood’s Riverwood Farm. The farm forestry operation that they also run as a hunting reserve. It was apt that our second visit involved forestry as 70% of Alabama is covered in forest. This forestry block was privately owned and run however a large portion of the active farmland in Alabama is leased. This is the result of farmers passing away and their families no longer being able or wanting to continue farming, however they are unwilling to sell due to an emotional attachment to the land. Just about every farmer we talked to in Alabama owned less than half the land they were working with some of that land being originally leased by their parents over 50 years ago. The land here is not particularly expensive, around 2-3000 per acre – its just impossible to find someone willing to sell. There is a significant amount of good fertile land that could be used for farming that is instead planted in pines.

After enjoying a fantastic lunch of some local delicacies we headed out to the Debtor Hereford Farm to meet the three generations still operating the farm. Patriarch Glynn, his son Perry and his son John Ross are all active on the farm with John Ross’s kids next in line to run the farm. The automatic assumption was John Ross’s son would run the farm, ignoring his older sister. As the father of 3 girls myself I couldn’t help feeling disappointed for the daughter who was being overlooked. They have only been breeding Herefords for around 50 years but the family history on that land dates back over 100 years. The farm was now run over 1,000 acres only some of which were owned. Unlike a number of other farms we visited, the Debtors had not diversified and instead had chosen to concentrate on being the best at what they did. They had even setup an auction room and stand onsite to handle their own animal sales.

Our final visit for the first day was to the Jimmy Miller Farm, where Jimmy and his nephew Lance grow peanuts and cotton. Jimmy was recently awarded the 2018 Farm Press Peanut Efficiency award for lower Southeast States. One of the keys to winning the award was the willingness to adopt new technology and to adapt existing technology when new ideas came along. They run a rotation of 2 cotton crops and then a peanut crop. In order to diversify, Lance and his wife Stephanie also jointly own 4 chicken sheds that are contracted to Tyson. Tyson supply the chicks and all the feed with strict controls over feed timings and quantities etc. The Millers basically have no say in how the operation is run and just have to comply with Tyson’s procedures. They are then simply payed on a flat per square foot rate taking out any incentive to change or improve the process. It’s an interesting contractual arrangement that seemed to be common across the whole industry in the US.

Our second day in Cullman County started with a visit to a mixed sweet potato and chicken operation run by Casey Smith and his son Cody. The farm had traditionally focused on sweet potatoes, but with labour becoming harder to find and costs increasing, they were forced to diversify into poultry as well. As the poultry business increased they had wound back the sweet potato business which was now only a fraction of what it once was. They were fortunate that they had a large Hispanic family that had provided all their labour needs since the 70’s so they were not forced to continually look for staff. As with the Millers operation, the Smiths had no say in the running of the sheds and were simply paid on a square foot basis.

Our next stop was the Haynes family farm where Darrell and his two sons ,Ben and Bart, ran a mix of dry stock and cropping, primarily corn and cotton. Ben and Bart are 5th generation farmers on their original land. However 60% of the total area they now farm has to be leased with some of those leases being in excess of 50 years. The country they farm is too hilly to allow for irrigation so they are heavily reliant on good rainfall. They had been lucky to receive a good downpour 3 weeks before we arrived that had saved this years crop from being a write-off. It wasn’t going to be a great year but they would still make some money off the corn. Whilst they don’t have any of their own chicken houses they do buy in chicken litter for use as fertiliser.

After lunch we paid a quick visit to a broiler operation that was setup to trial capturing rainwater instead of pumping from a stream. Due to the interference of the broiler company the setup was heavily over-specked for what they were trying to achieve. The use of army style bladders to store water was novel as they needed to keep the water as pure as possible before it was used back in the chicken shed. A substantial volume of water is required to cool the sheds in summer and the military grade bladder was the cheapest way to provide that storage. A substantial leak at the time of our visit, thought to be the result of a lightening strike, was not a great selling point on the system though.

Our last stop for the day was also water related, with a trip to the Duck River Dam Water Project that had only recently been filled. The dam was built as a fresh water reservoir for the neighbouring towns and farms. Given the complexity of carrying out a project such as this, it is thought that it may well be the last dam of its kind built in the US. We left the dam and then drove to Huntsville in Madison County for the night.

Our first visit in Madison County was to the Henderson Farm where we were hosted by Mike, his son Chad and his nephew Stuart. The Henderson’s primary focus was on cropping corn, wheat and barley, and with the assistance of irrigation and the help of new technology were pushing the boundaries in terms of yield in the district. One new technology they were investing in is the use of drones to map the blocks with high resolution photos to identify areas that needed additional input such as fertiliser.

Our second visit of the day was to the Tate Farm who had taken diversification to a whole different level. The family had arrived in 1907 and like everyone else in the lower Tennessee River Valley, they grew cotton. The area ended up becoming basically a mono-culture of cotton as the climate and soil were perfectly matched to cotton production. In the 50’s mechanisation suddenly allowed farmers to increase productivity and farm larger areas. While a farm traditionally was around 20-30 acres, the Tates now farm 5,600 acres of which they own 2,000. They have also diversified away from cotton to now be a third soya-bean and a third wheat. The Tates were the first family in the area to invest in pivot irrigation after one of the family had seen it in action on an agricultural tour, not unlike the Nuffield ethos of travelling to find best practice and bring it home. What really set the Tate farm apart was the agricultural theme park that they had setup. During a 6 week period in summer they have 65-70,000 urban visitors come through the gates wanting a farming based experience. Many of the locals have been coming for generations bringing their kids and now have a feeling of ownership towards the farm. The relationship has helped immensely with educating urban residents about common farm practices and has been a major step to ensuring the Tates ability to continue to farm on their land despite the encroachment of urban spread.

In the afternoon we meet with the Madison County Chamber of Commerce. They presented on a leadership program they were running and also ran through what was happening in terms of development in Huntsville. Huntsville is the location of a major NASA rocket research base and now is a thriving city growing rapidly on the back of a technology boom. It has one of the highest engineers per capita ratios in the US. There was a great deal of discussion around their plans to expand the city and how they were going to achieve it, there were no plans, and no thought had been given to the local farmland that was rapidly being consumed. There is more value and jobs generated by a new car plant than farming.

The next day we headed across the state line into Tennessee to visit the Jack Daniels Factory. We joined a tour through the factory that took us right through the production of whiskey at the plant. It was an entertaining mix of the history behind Jack Daniels and a beginners guide to making whiskey. The tour ended with a sampling selection of a number of different blends. It was interesting to compare the techniques used in producing great wines like those we had seen in France, to similar techniques being used in the selection and blending of whiskey.

That evening instead of going back to the hotel we were billeted out with a local farming family and got to spend the following day with them. My host Tyler Sandlin works for Auburn University as an extension specialist focused on cropping. As an extension specialist he helps with research then takes that research out and trains the farmers. He also takes feedback from farmers and helps organise any research they need. I know we all enjoyed the opportunity to spend one on one time with a local and get to know them better. I hope at some stage to repay the favour and host Tyler in New Zealand. After spending the day with our hosts we got back in the van and headed back to Birmingham for the night.

Once back in Birmingham we headed out to a local driving range for a bit of R&R before making our way into town to celebrate our last night together as a GFP. It ended up as a double celebration as it was also Stu’s (one of our Australians) birthday. We were given a saying back at the CSC in the Netherlands from one of the Chair of Nuffield International that “nothing good ever happens after 2am”. Well after 6 weeks of travelling we didn’t make it to 2am but we did get close.

Our final morning was spent visiting Birminghams Civil Rights Institute learning about the fight against discrimination that had been centred there. It certainly was a thought provoking visit and caused me to reflect on where New Zealand as a nation is in terms of race relations. That afternoon we said our farewells, a couple were heading home and the rest of us were continuing our individual study travels in other parts of the US. Whilst it was sad saying goodbye to a group you have lived with and been through so much with over the last 6 weeks, I know I have 5 new friends for life who I will be seeing again.