International Farmers Get Taste of Pa. Agriculture

11/3/2012 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

BERNVILLE, Pa. — Back home in New Zealand, Sandra Faulkner is used to farming and agriculture being the big kid in the neighborhood.

After all, farming accounts for 60 percent of New Zealand’s annual gross domestic product.

But after touring several farms in Pennsylvania during a recent visit with the Nuffield Scholars program, she experienced a little culture shock, seeing farms so close to residential neighborhoods.

“You know, ag’s got to fit in with everything else. That’s been really fascinating,” she said.

It’s that experience of being out of her element that she’ll take back with her to the lamb and beef operation she runs on New Zealand’s North Island.

Faulkner was one of eight farmers from Australia and New Zealand who spent a week visiting farms in the Keystone State as part of a six-week tour of farms in India, Turkey, Ukraine, Qatar, France and the U.S.

It was organized through Nuffield International Farming Scholars, a yearlong educational program developed shortly after World War II that gives farmers the chance to travel, share ideas and learn from other farmers around the world.

Seven countries send scholars through the program each year.

The eight farmers arrived in Pennsylvania on Oct. 20 after spending time visiting sites in Washington, D.C.

They toured the Gettysburg battlefield, met with state Secretary of Agriculture George Greig, visited the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau in Camp Hill and took a trip to Penn State before arriving in Lebanon and Berks counties on Oct. 24.

The group visited an alpaca farm and trout hatchery before touring Way-Har Farm, a dairy operation in Bernville, Berks County.

Owner Wayne Lesher showed the group how he runs his dairy operation and how the family provides products for its farm store, which is known locally for its ice cream.

As part of the program, each of the scholars researches a topic and gives a presentation at the end of the year.

Jemma Sadler, who raises crops and runs sheep in Wongan Hills, Western Australia, is studying the co-existence of genetically modified and nonmodified crops.

It’s an issue that has created controversy here in the U.S. and something she feels will require a little give and take on both sides.

“It’s going to be very difficult and I think the American government is trying to sort it out at the moment,” Sadler said. “Both parties are going to have to give a little bit. It’s just going to be a work in progress. There is going to be issues along the way.”

Sadler said she’s envious of the crop insurance programs in place for U.S. farmers. In her home country, crop insurance isn’t available, she said, because of the fluctuating seasons.

She also said she was surprised by the diversity of operations in the state.

“We can’t believe the diversity, I guess. We’re pretty monoculturalistic. Four or five crops and that’s it. Around here, there are hundreds,” she said.

Robin Schaefer, who farms 23,000 acres with a partner in Loxton, South Australia, said he likes the CSA (community supported agriculture) model of vegetable farming, which he saw during a visit with leaders of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA).

Schaefer said he thinks it takes a little bit of the risk out of starting a new venture.

“There is some opportunities there, I think,” he said.

In many ways, Schaefer faces a lot of the same issues farmers in this region face — labor, feed costs, profitability. But he also faces issues with water that are not normally encountered in the Northeast, but something he said is the No. 1 issue for farmers in other countries he’s visited.

Schaefer said he needs 23,000 acres to grow his winter cereals, barley, wheat and canola because of the lack of rain where he farms. Only 3 inches fell during the past growing season.

“You really need a lot of scale because of that,” he said.

It also forces him to manage his crops carefully.

“Weed management is critical. We really need to be spot on with that because you don’t really need weeds to get out of control. They can use up moisture and nutrients,” he said.

Lela Reichart, who traveled with the group and is the ag marketing chief for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, said she hopes the visit will open up future opportunities for farmers in the program to visit the region.

“They’ve visited the policy side as well as they’ve been on farm sites,” Reichart said. “So our hope is it furthers exchange of ag information across the globe, and we look forward to having Nuffield Scholars come back.”

Getting a chance to speak with fellow farmers is something Sandra Faulkner thinks gets to the heart of what the Nuffield program is all about.

“There is a lot to be said about getting ag globally around the same table. That’s one of our big answers to a lot of our issues,” she said.

Sadler said farmers, regardless of where they come from or what they do, always have something to talk about.

“No matter where you are in the world, ag people connect,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what industry it is, but if it’s in ag, you always have something to talk about, something in common, same challenges.”

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