Across the pond

22 Jan 2013

Northern Regional Agronomist Patrick Stephenson guest blogs from the US

Patrick StephensonLast week I was in the company of Blaine Viator at the Association of Independent Crop Consultants (AICC) annual conference. Blaine is an independent crop consultant from Louisiana specialising in sugar cane and is the current president of the National Alliance of Independent Crop Consultants (NAICC) in the USA. This week it was my turn to fly to the States to their national meeting. Leaving behind 25 cm of snow and flying to 20°C in Jacksonville Florida was, I must admit, appealing.

I now know a good number of their members so it’s really nice to get back up to speed with farming events in the US. Firstly we dealt with the drought, which in the mid-west was very bad for the second year in a row; however many growers had crop insurance.

On quizzing them about crop insurance I was given an hour long lecture on how this worked which, in short, is private and subsidised central government insurance based on achieving historic yields. Most growers take this out and as a consequence did reasonably well.  America, being huge, had a huge variation in weather last year; Louisiana has an annual average rainfall of 2,470mm (100 inches) but this year that figure was passed by September! Add to this - last week 430mm (17 inches) fell and you start to grasp the variations within the country.

Cotton and sugar have taken big price drops which is bad news for us in the UK as growers are turning to wheat as an alternative crop. The south eastern states below Virginia can grow winter wheat and soya in one year. Winter wheat, which is seen as a cheap crop to grow, is drilled in October harvested in June and then soya is planted for harvest in October. Although yields seldom exceed 5t/ha prices exceeding £200/tonne mean that double cropping with soya bring greater and easier returns than cotton and maize.

US agriculture

Genetically modified (GM) crops cannot be avoided as a topic; largely as I look with envy at the thought of glyphosate-tolerant wheat for black-grass control. Unfortunately that horse has bolted in the States and widespread resistance is common. Multi-stacking genes is the next approach combining 2,4-D resistance with glyphosate resistance. This does have a high cost and many growers believe pre-emergence sprays are a more cost effective option. Sugar cane growers turned down the opportunity to use GM to ensure that European markets remained open. Blaine believes this was certainly the best thing they have done.

Potato production is dominated by McCain, Frito Ley and a huge Canadian starch producing company. They have blocked all GM development due to public perception. This is all well and good, but the Bt Colorado beetle resistant crops required no insecticide in a season compared to weekly sprays in the non-Bt crops. Are the public aware of this? I think not! Blight resistance is a much more difficult beast and although genes are available the consensus is that these will only have a brief shelf life as resistance will develop very quickly.

Sorry but it is back to the conference our American cousins love 7.00 am starts.