LANSING, Oct. 5, 2006 - A recent 10-day agricultural study tour to Europe gave a group of Michigan farmers a keen sense of how far U.S. agriculture has come and how far American agriculture has yet to go. The delegation of 21 Michigan Farm Bureau (MFB) members and staff visited farming communities in the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Poland, where they were exposed to the vast extremes between modernized and traditional agriculture in member countries of the European Union (EU). Ben LaCross, a fruit producer from Cedar, said he, like most Americans, had a preconceived image of European farms: "It's just little family farms kind of sustenance farming. They just get by, and they have one or two milk cows, a little bit of corn and this and that." Sure, there was a mozzarella cheese factory in Poland where cheese is still weighed and packaged by hand, but LaCross found just the opposite when the group made a stop early in the trip at a green pepper operation in the Netherlands that impressed everyone on the trip. Owned and operated by two business partners, the nursery raises nothing but green peppers in a greenhouse that spans 50 acres and is constructed completely from glass. Inside, nearly 10-foot tall pepper plants grow in tightly-packed rows to maximize space. The plants yield a whopping 15,000 bushels per acre and are inactive only six weeks out of the year. Inside the nursery's warehouse, stacked crates of peppers move along automated lines like robots. Calling it "mind boggling," LaCross was intrigued by the nursery's focus on a single commodity, a movement that has only recently surfaced in the United States. "I don't think any of us realized they (Western Europeans farmers) were doing it on such a broad scale in Europe," said LaCross. The visit to the nursery also dispelled a common belief that American agricultural advances far exceed those of European countries. "We consider ourselves the most efficient and technologically advanced agriculture in the world. However, once you see the greenhouse production of peppers in the Netherlands, you realize that at some point our technology plateaus, and we spread it over more acres. Europeans do not have that option, and they must continue to improve technology and production methods on the limited land area," said Jeff VanderWerff, an apple and wheat grower from Casnovia. Differences between land use in the United States and Europe were evident throughout the trip, particularly the high regard Europeans have for farmland. In the Netherlands, the government plays an active role in strategically siting farms. The green pepper nursery, for instance, was located in an area "zoned" as "greenhouse alley." In France, people cannot build new homes in agricultural areas unless they are legitimate farmers. LaCross recalled a stop at a grain operation in the French countryside where the group could see rolling hills and hundreds of acres of grain fields "as far as the eye can see." A Frenchman at the facility explained that the land had been a hardwood forest and was cleared about 10 years ago for use as farmland. "It's a whole different mindset than what we have over here," said LaCross. "I just don't think you could do that in the United States. Over there, (the Frenchman) mentioned it like it was common practice." Not everything is drastically different. The group found that European and American farmers share a lot of the same challenges, especially in the livestock sector. Many of the European farmers the group spent time with expressed fear of being "regulated out of business" and frustration over having to adhere to regulations that are based on emotion rather than science, said Ken Blight a beef and swine producer from Albion. Case in point, said Blight, is an EU mandate that takes effect in 2013 and, among other things, bans castrating animals, crating animals during their pregnancy, or feeding animals livestock feed containing genetically modified products. The mandate is expected to triple the cost of production for Polish pork producers, said Brian McKenzie, a swine producer from Marcellus. Unless the policy changes, McKenzie predicts pork production will cease in Poland.
In the latest round of World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations, the United States offered to reform its domestic farm policy if other nations agreed to do the same, but other countries didn't budge. It was Farm Bureau's hope that a new U.S. farm bill could be crafted based on reforms in the WTO negotiations. Overseas, MFB members developed a better sense of why the EU is resisting change. The group learned that 22 percent of all agriculture in the EU is produced in France, which maintains a "protectionist attitude." France's agricultural production makes the country very influential in EU negotiations, so French "protectionism" appears to have spilled over into WTO negotiations. The group also learned that agriculture in EU-member countries continues to be highly subsidized, sometimes three to five times higher than domestic supports for American farmers. McKenzie doubts the EU will ever be as "giving" as the United States in agricultural trade matters. "I don't think they could be competitive without subsidies ... It'd change the rural landscape ... The political pressure is too great there for change."
The group agreed the trip as a whole was an "eye-opening" experience that they look forward to sharing with fellow MFB members and drawing upon during MFB policy development discussions. Bobbi Garnant, a grain and field crop producer from Eaton Rapids, said the trip left her with this thought: "What decisions do we need to make from here on out to make agriculture in the United States as profitable as possible and as respected as it is in Europe." The tour was sponsored by MFB and took place Sept. 17-27.