A first-hand view of leadership, agriculture in South America
January 29, 2015
I traveled with 16 South Dakota State University agricultural students on a 12-day international study trip to Argentina and Uruguay Dec. 29 – Jan. 10, 2015,. During the fall semester, we prepared for the trip by learning about: agriculture systems, culture, family life, ag policy etc., to traveling internationally, which was a first for two-thirds of the class.
Overall it was a great learning experience. We witnessed Argentina's coldest New Year's Eve on record (~40 degrees), before the 90 -100 degree humid days moved in. A special note to the readers, the last time they had snow in Argentina was 1977; they had 5 inches. Our group was there during the country's summer and they were just wrapping up planting of crops. Our focus was to take what we had studied in the classroom and see it first hand on farms, ranches and agricultural businesses. It was an opportunity to learn about leaders and leadership of the countries, agriculture and the producers.
Argentina, once a powerhouse in South America has struggled in the past 20 years, losing their prominence in world markets. The agricultural producers were very open in telling us how worried they are about the future of agricultural due to the lack of leadership and foresight coming from their current political leaders/party. This party has been in control for nearly two decades and does not appear to be supportive of the productivity of agriculture in the country. Producers are faced with a retainer fee that goes to the government on agricultural products they sell, followed with taxes (federal and state) and the government controls the markets of ag products. In the minds of the Argentina producers, their leaders are not leading their country to prosperity. This rang home loudly with the SDSU students. They were amazed how much control the government had over the agricultural markets and producers. In fact we were often told that a producer could go to bed one night with one type of policy for marketing/growing crops and the next morning wake up to an entirely different policy. The government makes all the changes and there is no comment period or feedback time like we have here in the U.S. with some policy changes. As one student said, "These producers sure have tenacity, to hold on. It's amazing."
We clearly witnessed this fortitude in the families we came to know well. One effort a family is making to try and hold on is to join a group called CREA, which is best described here in the U.S., as a mix of a commodity group, a policy organization and a farm business management group. Some farmers join this to help each other out through the challenges times, to learn from each other, and pull together in times of need. Some farms relied heavily on specialists such as crop consultants, etc., and the smaller family farms bonded together using their own labor to save costs.
Their uncertainty of the future was evident in their farm setups. Their farming equipment was 30-40 years old, they had little to no infrastructure (bins, barns, etc.,) and their cattle handling systems were made completely of wood run on old cable systems. Our cattle handling systems would look like a "Rolls Royce" compared to theirs. However, what was obvious was the leadership in the producers realizing they cannot afford to invest in infrastructure with so much uncertainty in the air. They are highly motivated, — hard-working, aiming to produce the best crop and cattle they can — because they must to support their families.
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Our trip to Uruguay, just an hour ferry ride from Buenos Aires, was like travelling to a whole new world. Immediately driving through the countryside we noticed updated farm sites, barns, sheds and what was most amazing was the equipment. Instead of small old broken down equipment, we saw brand new John Deere, auto-steer equipment, identical to what you may find on many farms in South Dakota. Uruguay, a small country, the size of Iowa, is rich in farmland, forestry and cattle, but what makes it most prominent is the government support for agricultural products and policy. Uruguay has open export markets to nearly every country in the world and is seen as the breadbasket of South America for its quality of products produced. Our visit to Uruguay was short, but it was obvious how the leaders of their country have made it a more opportune location for producers to thrive with open exports and imports. Equipment is still expensive and commodity prices can still vary, but taxes are much lower, and for the producers, they can be leaders in what they do because they see a future in agriculture.
The sixteen SDSU students had a first-hand view of agriculture and many open discussions with producers. This trip definitely opened their eyes to agricultural globally and made them better leaders as a result. A special visit with USDA's staff at the United States Embassy in Buenos Aires brought it all together and the students have become better spokespersons of U.S. agriculture. Each of the students will be sharing their learning experience with farm co-ops, FFA organizations, community groups, etc., in the next couple of months or writing articles for their local and regional papers. This is just one of six International Study Programs offered by the College of Agriculture and Biological Systems at SDSU.
B. Lynn Gordon is an SDSU Extension Ag Leadership Specialist.