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United States

15 Aug - 6 Sep 2010

Nothing LAX about US farming

Getting through security at Los Angeles International airport - or LAX for the sophisticated study tourist – is always a challenge. Queues that stretch out of the terminal and 200 metres down the block are not what one wants to see after 13 hours in the air. But that’s LAX.

With Las Vegas you know exactly what you are going to get - tacky upon tacky but in the glitziest possible way. The hotel check-in is always smooth but strangely enough, you have to walk through 5 kilometres of poker machines, crap tables and roulette wheels to reach the front desk.

There have been a few changes since I last visited – for one I didn’t realise Vegas is now a preferred family destination for children stricken with insomnia. This is judging by the number of babies and toddlers in RV sized push-chairs making their way around the casinos at all hours of the night.

Sitting in the middle of a desert as Vegas does, you can understand the city’s fascination with water. All the casinos seem to feature vast amounts of it with pirate ships going down and water jets going up. Thousands gather on the half hour to watch water blasting high into the sky in sync with the patriotically rousing chords and lyrics of a country and western song – you had to be there

The Grand Canyon is another place you have to have been – mind you they do have a serious erosion problem.

I, like my fellow travellers, enjoyed the contrast between the America that is Las Vegas, Nevada and the America that is Amarillo, Texas. Amarillo - on Route 66 for those with a long TV memory – home of the big steak at the Big Texan restaurant to which we were driven by a big man in a big white hat in a big white limo with big white horns – the car had the big horns, possible a roo bar variation?

Wonderful entertainment but the hard work had started in earnest. We visited the USDA Dryland Research Station at Bushland and then on to Nufarm’s Richardson Seeds facility at Vega.

Here we were duly impressed by the forage sorghum preferential grazing trials – metre strips of various forage varieties are planted side by side and then cattle are released into the plots. The cattle are free to graze across all the varieties. It seems that when cattle get onto what they deem a good thing they stick to it. Particular lines will be grazed down to the ground along the entire row whilst other adjacent lines are left virtually untouched. And we were again duly impressed with taste of the slow cooked brisket that Larry Richardson and his crew provided for lunch. Those cows had been on sweet feed!

We headed to Hereford – not for more cows but for the latest in corn and sorghum fuelled ethanol plants then onto Lubbock.

I love taking Australian farmers to Lubbock. I see Lubbock as the US equivalent of Narrabri or Dalby. And like these rural centres of ours it has a rich agricultural heritage including lots of cotton. Unlike these rural centres of ours Lubbock has 200,000 people and an International airport. It’s a sharp reminder that the US is staggeringly rich in just about every resource. 

Lubbock was the home of Buddy Holly and now is home to the Bayer Bioscience facility. We met with a number of Australian cotton industry expats working on some new, soon to be released Bayer GM cotton lines. These promise to deliver some new tools in the battle with glyphosate weed resistance management – and there are other traits on the way. 

We flew to Dallas and in the centre of town we saw where the big horns on the big limos came from. And then it was on to College Station. Many in the Australian cotton industry have enjoyed the hospitality of the Nemecs. A highlight of our first study tour in 1992 was the visit to College Station and the very memorable fajita cook out hosted by Stan and his family. This time it was our turn to be hosts. With help from Rachel Brimblecomb/Nemec in Australia we were able to catch up with her brother Marc and family and her sister Lori. 

Mark, swinging precariously down the rows on crutches, took us to see a “typical” Texan farming enterprise – this featured amongst other things, seedless water melons planted around an oil well happily and lucratively pumping away. After another fajitas feast with the Nemecs and a few of the local farmers and their families we headed south to King Ranch. 

King Ranch is a big ranch in a state - and country for that matter - that boasts lots of big ranches. There was lots of cotton.

New Orleans has always been a favourite study tourist destination. This was our first time back since Hurricane Katrina and, in a word, it was grim. The French Quarter where we stay was the first area settled centuries ago and the early traders weren’t silly – they built on the only high ground. You have to see where 20,000 homes used to be on the low lying areas to appreciate the enormity of the destruction.  

In Mississippi we travelled upriver into the heartland of southern hospitality. Localised flooding called for a change of plans and we paid what was essentially a surprise visit on a family of peanut growers. They welcomed us in and we learnt much about another commodity option. 

A southern antebellum (pre-civil war) mansion is the only way to go when staying in Vicksburg. Cedar Grove featured some mighty fine furnishings and a big ball in the wall – cannon ball that is.

Mike Lamensdorf, owner of the US Cotton Farming magazine and a cotton grower in his own right took us to see both new and old varieties. The new varieties were cotton lines from Deltapine. The old varieties were thousands of dolls collected by the mother of a neighbouring farmer. 

Onto Memphis which isn’t travelling well – Beale Street seems to be more the home of the “boobs” bars rather than the “blues”. Even Graceland is feeling the pinch – there were thousands there to visit with Elvis when we arrived but guides insisted that overall attendances were way down. Mind you the ducks are still going strong at the Peabody Hotel.

We went for a hay ride at the research centre in Milan Tennessee to see minimum till trials; examine switchgrass as a biofuel feed stock and to learn about dozens of Glyphosate Resistant weeds – and the count is rapidly growing. Palmer Amaranth (pig weed) and Horseweed (mare’s tail) are become major problems in many areas where RoundUp Ready corn, soybeans and cotton are grown. 

The “Grand Ole Opry” in Nashville was a must do – and it was surprisingly good if at times surprisingly loud. Our agricultural hankerings were well met with lots of bluegrass and a considerable amount of corn in the jokes. 

Then for something completely different – it was on to Washington DC in summer with not one but two major downtown rallies happening. Getting around amidst 100,000 additional visitors was challenging.

We were soon back to traditional farming reality as we travelled to Intercourse, Pennsylvania and a visit with an Amish dairy farmer. This was particularly interesting as our man Jacob was more than happy to discuss not only his farming enterprise but also the challenges of reconciling aspects of his faith with his need to be an efficient farmer in a modern competitive world. His haulage and tillage were reliant on mules and his “ute” was literally one horse power. Mind you the only animal element of his skid steer bobcat was the name. 

Philadelphia to New York was one extended metropolis with – courtesy of our exposure to American media - lots of seemingly familiar scenes. But Sheridan Wyoming was as topical as we could manage with the opportunity to explore the concept of a mutually beneficial co-existence of farmers and Coal Seam Gas extractors. All the indicators are that in Wyoming – with their rules, and with these players - it can work. It didn’t happen overnight but it did happen.

In Yellowstone National Park snow happened over night. Yellowstone was like an Australian post election purgatory. Lots of hot air that was definitely on the nose, mud being thrown in every direction, and even the “Old Faithful” finding it difficult to rise to the occasion.

There were elk in the street which ignored the zebra crossing and “byzon” (our guide’s pronunciation of bison which as we all know is really a buffalo by another name). “Byzon” were everywhere but no bears. 

All in all, with New Orleans post Katrina, Memphis post prosperity and New York post 9/11 – there was a certain sombre seriousness in the air that was not there before. But USA is still a power house and they like us, which is good, and we like them too - which makes it a great place to visit! Our combined thanks to all those who helped make it so.



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