Regardless of the continued globalisation of agriculture, it is increasingly important to understand the driving forces for production in other parts of the world. There are always things we can learn from others but these are more likely to be learned from experience than from a quick visit.
This was one of the main reasons why the Irish Tillage and Land Use Society initiated a farm internship with the Rosenbohm Family in Missouri, US. The aim was to have a person experience crop production there firsthand by spending a growing season in the US.
The experience of working on and seeing the administration of an excellent US crop farm can bring huge benefits to both the individual and to this country.
Last year was the first year of this internship, which was awarded to Denis Dunne from Rathangan, Co Kildare. Denis was a third-year student of agricultural science at UCD and his immediate dilemma was whether or not to postpone a year in college if he was to remain for the maize and soya bean harvest in the US Midwest. This he did and is delighted with that decision.
Denis’s arrival in the US was delayed beyond the planting season because the visa process took longer than expected. He went in August and got a quick introduction to the type of work needed on a large US farm to prepare for harvest. He returned home in early December with a different perspective of US farming and indeed an altered attitude to life.
I caught up with Denis recently and asked him about his US experience. With the internship now open for applications for 2017, others may be interested in gaining similar experiences. Many of you may have kept tabs on what Denis was doing while abroad through his occasional reports in the Irish Farmers Journal, but the benefit was much broader than just the work experience.
I asked Denis why he actually applied to go. He said that he saw the notification come in with an ITLUS correspondence and that started the interest. He did want to travel and reckoned that this might be less likely after he had finished in college.
He saw the internship as a real opportunity, not just to travel but also to work and learn. He had not travelled much in the past and so the idea of being located with a family added a sense of security. His family pushed him to apply and between all of them the application was filled up and submitted
While the visa process took more time than anticipated, Denis was still excited about the option to travel and work. He said he had no idea what to expect when he landed in Kansas City airport in the US but the first thing that hit him was the heat. Temperature and humidity made physical work tough.
The local community where he lived was a little town called Graham in Missouri. It is a small town with around 170 inhabitants. But it’s a place where people look after one another and there is a strong community spirit. In most ways it was a simpler place with a simpler lifestyle.
The farm itself took a bit of getting used to. It took him quite a while to get his bearings on such a big farm. But while everything is bigger than at home, it is also possibly simpler. There are fewer machines in total and fewer different jobs to be done.
The Rosenbohm family is closely knit, friendly and open and they run a well-integrated business. Like most other families, they work and socialise together and that included Denis. He came home with a far greater understanding of the American way of life and its culture.
The time spent immersed in US farming has significantly changed Denis’s perspective on life. It has taught him to look outside the box, to think differently and to think bigger in terms of opportunities.
Denis said that one of the things that struck him most was the difference in the structure of agribusiness there versus here. They have total specialisation in the supply chain so that any one supplier generally only sold one product. Perhaps farmer scale and the size of the market help in this regard.
The American farmers had difficulty understanding the basis for the highly integrated structure of Irish agribusiness. The fact that one company was involved in fertiliser, chemicals, seed, feed, hardware, etc, was alien to them. In the US it is unlikely that the same person would supply both maize and soya bean seeds.
All markets are quite specialised and organised. Denis told me that seed can cost up to 15% less if purchased up to four months ahead of planting. This provides an incentive for the grower and it also helps the industry to be organised. In this regard, he told me that the Rosenbohms had all their seeds for 2017 purchased since the end of October.
Farm decisions are very structured. It is run as a business and decisions must make sense. Individuals are given their own responsibilities and they are the main labour unit for that job. Planting decisions are hinged on the futures markets and this can offer guidance up to six years out. Denis said that some grain is sold forward prior to harvest but the majority is sold following harvest for a position somewhere into the future.
Sales are mainly targeted for delivery in the May to July period. In general, maize is sold when the prices rise above $4/bushel or when soya beans pass $10/bu. This always results in a structured and organised sale of stocks over time.
As a general comment, Denis said that farmers in the US work hard and then play hard. Busy times will require 12-hour days and seven days a week. Shift work is not considered but sometimes the working days can be longer, if necessary. There is always work to be done in the busy seasons but they are also organised enough to take good breaks away from the farm. “This internship was a big adventure for me,” Denis said. “It was both memorable and enjoyable and it was very difficult to say goodbye at the end. Indeed, leaving Missouri was much harder than leaving home initially.”
Denis has many new friends from his time in the US and not just his host family. He would very much like to go back there and sees many opportunities for others to follow. His time in the US has set the bar higher for him for the future. He has come to realise that there are more opportunities in life than those that we see from home.
He was taught to bypass problems in favour of the opportunities that lay behind them. This is a significant attitude change which will stand to him for the future. The challenge now is to see how every situation can be improved.
His time in the US has led to considerable personal development. He was involved in a range of community initiatives and made presentations to many different organisations. He was introduced to and made useful contacts among stockbrokers, FAPRI, the Farm Bureau, academics and local businesses. Having the opportunity to mix with this calibre of people will always change one’s perspective on life and for that Denis said that this internship provided him a wonderful experience in life.