Big Beef and Big Almond

P1080861Here in California, there are a number of very large farming operations.  Today, we met with Harris Woolf California Almonds and Harris Ranch Beef Company.  We learned more about the benefits of scale and vertical integration in California agriculture.  Once again, we learned that access to irrigation water is key to farming in California.

Almonds are a huge industry in California, accounting for essentially all of the US production and about 80% of the global supply – 2 Billion pounds!  Their production is increasing through the planting of new trees and increasing production from existing orchards.  It takes 3-4 years from planting to first harvest, and once established, trees will produce for 24-30 years.  Yield are approximately 2500 lbs per acre and farm price is about $2.00 per pound, grossing around $5000 per acre. There is a lot of optimism in the industry for solid global demand and steady prices.  P1080704P1080698

P1080872The highlight of my day was a visit to the Harris Ranch Beef feedlot.  This family owned company has close to 100,000 cattle on feed in one feedlot.  Their beef is marketed under their own brand and is streamed to many different markets.  It takes a lot of coordination to run a feedlot of this scale.  They feed about 1400 tonnes of feed per day, have 40 cattle trailers on the road at all times, and process 900 head per day. I was really impressed by the quality of cattle and how healthy they looked. They are working with a number of cow calf ranchers to select genetics to match up to their markets.  I think this will be a key advantage to their company as it will drive out inefficiency and allow both the cow calf operator and the feedlot operator to capture the benefits of better genetics. P1080880feedlot

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Going to California

P1080730I’ve had this Led Zeppelin song stuck in my head for 2 days, and I’ve got an ‘aching in my heart’ – for home!  We arrived in Sacramento, California on March 13th after the better part of a week in Western Canada.  Brock Taylor, an agronomist from California specializing in irrigated cropping is our guide and chief source of knowledge for our 5 days in California.  It was raining and 15C in Sacramento upon our arrival – it’s been really dry so local farmers are happy to see this rain.

BeforeOur first day included a visit Superior Farms, the largest lamb company in the US.  A unique aspect of this company is that it is employee owned.  All employees earn shares and as a result, the company has a more engaged workforce, lower employee turnover, and higher quality work.  We saw the plant from start to finish, and it is a really efficient, clean outfit.  I used to do beef meat quality research, and it was nice to get back into a processing plant! AfterI’ve included a before and after photo.

I am particularly keen on research to move farming forward, and it was great to meet with researchers at the University of California – Davis to discuss the state of agricultural research in California.  UC Davis is a key agricultural research institution in California, with a 5300 acre campus and 31,000 students across all fields.  Their annual research budget is $678 million.  Despite the large overall budget, agricultural education, research, and extension is under financial pressure.  This is a common theme among Universities in the developed world.  I believe we are in an era where investment in agriculture and food research should be increasing, not decreasing.  I think the general public would agree.

I am learning that irrigation water is key to agriculture around the world.  In California, almost 10 million acres are under irrigation. San Luis Reservoir - irrigation water storage California is has the biggest agricultural farm gate value of any US state with a value of over $40 billion per year.  Without irrigation water, it would be a fraction of that.  In Ontario, we are sheltered from the global reliance on irrigation water because we are surrounded by the Great Lakes – the largest group of freshwater lakes on earth, with 21% of the world’s fresh surface water.P1080746

Into the Great Wide Open – Saskatchewan!

There is nothing like a drive through the prairies to gain an appreciation of the shear size of Canada. On March 10th, we loaded up our mini van for the 700km trip from Winnipeg, Manitoba  to Moose JawP1080670, Saskatchewan for the second leg of our Canadian Nuffield experience.  It was nice to slow the pace somewhat and experience some real Canadian culture.  We stopped for lunch in Portage le Prairie with Nuffield Scholar Brent Wright and a couple of keen young farmers.   Thanks to Brent for arranging tickets to the Brandon Wheat Kings vs. Saskatoon Blades hockey game – it was great fun explaining the rules to our Aussie friends.  Their typical sports of choice are cricket and Aussie Rules Football, or as they call it, ‘footie’.  After a night in Brandon, we finished the drive Sunday morning.

The second Canadian cultural experience was CURLING!  Thanks to Kelvin and Shelley Meadows, we had a great Sunday afternoon learning to curl.  We had a few crashes and a lot of laughs.

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Along our theme of innovation, the next two days were filled with meetings with farmers and agribusinesses involved in Saskatchewan agriculture.  We learned about carbon credit trading, crop insurance, financing agricultural expansion, improving perceptions of farming among the public, impact of trade, farm equipment manufacturing, and value added processing of prairie crops.

It was great to spend some driving time with our group to discuss the experiences we’ve had and our perspectives on what we’ve heard.

Facts about Canadian Agriculture:

  • 167 million acres are farmed by 229,373 farms
  • The vast majority is owned and operated by independent farmers with an average age of 52.
  • Land prices are increasing at a pace higher than any other time in history (7% in the last six months)
  • 50% of our agricultural exports go to the US.

Nuffield in the Great White North – March 7-9

After a couple of days in Washington, we boarded Air Canada for the Great White North – Winnipeg, Manitoba!  After almost 4 weeks away from Canada, it was great to be back in familiar territory.  I had been talking up the cold weather in Canada to my Aussie travelling companions and the weather didn’t disappoint.  It wasn’t cold by Canadian standards, but we were able to experience –15C with a solid wind chill.  Much different than the +45C some would be experiencing at home in Australia. IMG00143-20120309-0857After one cold day, it warmed up to a nice +5C.  My wife Carie sent Canadian scarves for everyone, which were much appreciated!

Thanks to Wally Doerksen, Nuffield Scholar and retired farmer from Steinbach, Manitoba, we had several meetings with farmers and P1080653organizations that showcased innovation in Manitoba agriculture.  There are major changes occurring that affect the structure of wheat marketing in Western Canada.  It was interesting to meet with a CWB official to learn about their plans for marketing wheat in the future.  The Australians went through a similar process that  deregulated their wheat marketing system a few years ago.  We had some lively discussion among our group. It was refreshing to talk with farmers that have first hand experience moving from a single desk to open marketing of wheat.  We can learn a lot from farmers in other countries about how they have dealt with change and survived marketing turmoil.  Do we do this enough?

While in Manitoba, we had our first real discussion about the beef industry.  Canadian beef farmers are finally seeing decent prices and optimism after almost 10 years of struggles as a result of BSE in Canada disrupting export markets.  I spent close to 10 years working in the beef industry before switching to grains.  Its nice to see the industry getting fair returns what I would consider the best food in the world – nothing beats a Triple A Canadian steak!

P1080650Through my travels, I am continually impressed by farmers from around the world. They all seem to possess similar traits – things like quiet optimism, modesty, acceptance, family values, and integrity. No wonder the general public ranks farmers among the most trusted professionals, ranking up with doctors and nurses!  It’s kind of like those stories you hear about twins that were separated at birth.  When they are reunited as adults they share incredible similarities.  In the case of farmers, it can’t be genetics that cause the similarities, so it must be their environment.   Perhaps it’s because farmers around the world face common challenges, such as weather dependency, volatile markets, independent, asset based business and often isolating work.

I heard this comment this week: Farming is like a poker game, once you put the seed in the ground, you are all in.  I can identify.

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Nuffield Arrives in Washington, DC

On March 4th we said goodbye to Europe and headed West to North America.P1080624 We hit the halfway mark in our Global Focus Program while in Washington, DC.  After a short night’s sleep, we started the morning on March 5th with a meeting at the Canadian Embassy.  It was interesting to have both a Canadian and Australian Trade Councillor in our meeting at the same time to discuss trading partnerships between our countries and the US.  I always knew that the US was Canada’s biggest trading partner, but hadn’t really contemplated the significance of trade to both countries.  Did you know that there are reports for each US state and Canadian province that outlines the Canada-US trade and the most significant products for each area?

While in DC, we learned a lot about the US Farm Bill and proposed changes for the next 5 year programP1080600, starting in 2013.  The amount of dollars in the US Farm Bill is staggering, but we learned that about 80% of it is directed toward domestic food aid and nutrition programs.

In Canada, we hear a lot about the US Farm Bill and its impact on Canadian agriculture.  I found it really valuable to see first hand where some of these discussions take place and speak with US government staff that are directly involved with developing the programs and negotiating budgets.  One of our meetings was held in the US Senate Committee on Agriculture room.  This was an impressive room with a balcony overlooking the US Capitol Building. P1080625 The decisions made in this room have shaped US Agriculture and the impacts of these decisions have had global reach.

We did a fair bit of walking around Washington to get from one meeting to another.  Some of my Aussie friends were fascinated by the squirrels running around the parks.  Apparently they don’t have squirrels in Australia!  Another first for 3 of our travellers was SNOW!!  It happened that we were standing outside the White House gate when the first flakes came down.  This photo was snapped within a minute of these guys seeing their first flakes.P1080642

Agriculture in the UK

I’ve just arrived in Washington, DC after spending the past four days in London, England at the second leg of the Nuffield Contemporary Scholars Conference.  We spent March 1st at New Zealand House – on the 18th floor with a panoramic view of the city of London.

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We had many thought provoking speakers that really highlighted issues facing UK farmers.  For example, there are a number of charitable organizations in England that get involved in agriculture that are not necessarily farmer driven.  A couple examples are the Soil Association http://www.soilassociation.org/ and GM Freeze http://www.gmfreeze.org/P1080594We heard from these organizations and learned about their goals for agriculture.  Although the views of these groups are often controversial and polarizing, they mostly want the same thing as everyone on the planet – a healthy, affordable food supply grown in a sustainable way.  The differences come in how the words healthy, affordable and sustainable are defined.   As farmers, we often are so caught up in our own business, we forget how those that aren’t farmers view our industry.  We should be ready and willing to talk about how we farm and the benefits that new technology brings to a more sustainable food supply.  I think a lot of issues around genetically modified crops and pesticides come up through the fear of the unknown.

On the evening of March 1st, the New Zealand High Commission hosted a reception for us that the Nuffield patron, HRH Duke of Gloucester attended.  He is the Queen’s first cousin.  I had a chat with him and upon learning I was a farmer from Canada, he was quite interested in the difference between genetically modified and non-genetically modified soybeans.  It appears that this issue is front and centre in the UK, even among royalty!P1080489

We had the good fortune on March 3rd to get into the English countryside and visit some farms.  We learned about the practical aspects of their farm subsidy programs.  UK farmers receive significant support from their government, but it comes with expectations.  Most of these expectations are around the preservation of a natural environment for wildlife and people.  For example, their programs include support for hedge restoration, land set aside for wildlife corridors, and winter feeding for birds.

P1080591A couple things I gleaned:

  • Lots of groups present VIEWS on issues, rather than FACTS.  It is important to understand the difference.
  • We’ve all heard of NIMBY (not in my backyard), but have you heard of BANANA’s ? Ban Anything Near Anyone Near Anywhere.
      One of the perks of being a Nuffield Scholar is that we become honorary members of the Farmers Club, located in the heart of London.  This members only club offers great dining and lodging in a historic building within walking distance of the British Parliament.  I was able to take full advantage of the privilege by having a breakfast meeting with a UK farm research manager and was able to learn about how their farmers are setting up research partnerships with government to advance their sector.

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The Netherlands–Nuffield Scholars Conference Update

Almost 36 hours after leaving New Zealand, we arrived in Amsterdam at 6:00 am February 25th.  We took a train to Rotterdam, then a bus to our hotel where we met up with all of the 2012 Nuffield Scholars.  Over the past 3 days, I’ve gotten to know farmers from the UK, Ireland, France, India, Australia, New Zealand, and of course, Canada.

P1080344We kicked off our activities with a bus trip into the country side.  In true Dutch tradition, we stopped in the coastal town of Volendam for tasting of smoked herring.  We then travelled to an innovative dairy farm where they milk 150 cows and have a biodigester and a wind turbine on the farm.  The biodigester is connected to a pipeline to the local town where the gas is used to generate electricity and the excess heat is reclaimed to heat neighbouring houses.

While travelling in this area, I noticed the a huge number of large wind turbines.  If anyone is P1080370interested in understanding the impact of wind turbines on communities and individuals, this has got be the place to find out.  Many of the turbines have been up and running for over 10 years and are often situated very close to houses.  It appears that some farmers chose to place the turbines on the edge of their farm yard to avoid having it in the middle of their fields.

The most fascinating part of our time in the Netherlands has been a trip the Flora Holland, the largest flower auction in the world.  P1080391Every year, over $4.1 BILLION EURO per year of flowers are sold through this grower owned cooperative.  They process 125,000 transactions per day and ship 12 billion flowers and 600 million potted plants per year. These numbers are hard to imagine.  The stat that really gets me is that they handle more than 20,000 varieties of flowers!

We’ve met with and heard from several Dutch agricultural leaders in the dairy, flower, and hog industry.  All of these leaders have contributed to their successful business by focussing on providing a product or service that is completely in tune with their customer.  Their business have successfully adapted to evolving markets and economic situations.P1080372In the words of one of our speakers: ‘ PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR CUSTOMER, THEY ARE THE ONLY ONE WHO PAYS’.  Another common trait I noticed is that the they leaders are confident optimists.  In the words of another speaker: ‘NEVER WATER ON THE SEED OF DOUBT’.

Tomorrow night we head to London, England for the second half of the 2012 Nuffield Contemporary Scholars Conference.