Travelling for research

Tobacco plant, Kentucky

Experience. Six countries, seven weeks and 21 flights later, Matthew Gunningham returns to Circular Head with newfound knowledge and insight into the world of agriculture. The Mawbanna dairy farmer was one of 23 young primary producers and managers across the country to be presented with the Nuffield Scholarship, which sees them undertake research into agriculture and fisheries across the globe using the $30,000 bursary for a 16-week program of group and individual travel. Matthew shares his experience with Chronicle readers.

Washington DC, United States of America

We arrived in Washington DC on Sunday March 26 and caught back up with the two other Nuffield Global Focus Program groups who had been travelling separately to us. Our meetings started first thing next morning. We received a detailed introduction to US agriculture and farm policy from Ed Kee, who was the former Delaware Secretary of Agriculture. Our four days in Washington were spent meeting legislators, farm and commodity representative bodies and the US Department of Agriculture.

Highlights in Washington were meetings held inside the Capitol Building, where we met two congressmen and a US senator – they gave us a close up look at the state of politics in their country. 

I was surprised to learn that farm subsidies in the US are framed as a way to provide cheaper food to economically disadvantaged people, as opposed to handouts to farmers. And that the Farm Bill that determines the level and scope of US government support for agriculture takes roughly five years to negotiate and almost the day it gets signed into law, work begins on the next one! 

We also visited the New Zealand Embassy, where we had a Q and A with the trade representatives of Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and The Netherlands. We quizzed them on the new Trump administration’s agricultural and trade policies. Their message was that foreign trade is so important to the US that even though Donald Trump had walked away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) there would be another deal to replace it.

On Thursday March 30 our Nuffield group of 10 flew on to Kentucky where we spent the next seven days. 

On the agenda for us were visits to Keeneland thoroughbred sales centre and racecourse; the sales centre sold $534M last year alone! We visited one of the Godolphin international horse breeding stables. We also visited Churchill Downs Racetrack, home of the Kentucky Derby. The horse industry is an important contributor to the local economy. 

We also visited dairy farms, a beef backgrounding operation with its own feed mill, cropping operations, a milling business, an ethanol plant, a large scale farm machinery dealership and even two Kentucky bourbon distilleries. As bourbon has become an increasingly popular drink, the industry has really grown and now hosts huge numbers of tourists following the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. 

A highlight was visiting several tobacco growers, both for cigarettes and chewing ‘smokeless’ tobacco – this was all new to me. Tobacco is a very labour intensive crop to grow but still reasonably profitable. 

Interestingly, Kentucky has benefited hugely from the federal tobacco program which has been funded to the tune of US$7 billion by the tobacco companies to assist agriculture in Kentucky with the transition away from tobacco growing, through buying out growers’ tobacco quota as part of the legal settlement reached with the companies several years ago.

My biggest take-home from Kentucky was how farmers had organised themselves to get involved with everything that had some effect on them, from rules and regulations to opportunities to attract other businesses or industries to their area.

We flew out of Lexington, Kentucky on Thursday April 6, our plane was delayed due to bad weather (tornadoes in the area!) as we headed for Canada via New York.

This is Part III of Matthew’s story. Read more in an upcoming edition of the Chronicle.

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