Sunday, April 09, 2017
Kiwis and Tabosa Grass
Lessons in Existence
Kiwis and Tabosa Grass
It was before daylight many years ago.
We spent the night in Kanab and were headed home on that long, lonely stretch of highway toward Flagstaff. The speedometer reminded me that Utah did have speed limits. The point was driven home when I looked in the mirror and a single car light appeared on the far horizon. I slowed but repeated glances told me the light was not just coming fast but was going to overtake us.
Could it be a state patrolman who had clocked us from a distance?
I was down to the peanut farmer’s monotonous double nickels when the car caught up and passed us going like a three legged rooster on fire. It was no state patrolman, but I immediately recognized the vehicle and the shadowy profile of the driver. It was our friend, Helicopter Tom, in his Blazer blitzing south at a high rate of speed. Why he was in southern Utah we never learned, but the vehicle was obvious. The two toned gold and white Blazer with no chrome was Tom’s. In fact, I knew when the chrome strips were ripped off which started when one of them was pulled loose in a four wheeling incident. Tom had proceeded to walk around the vehicle ripping the others off because he “never liked them anyway”.
For a while, we tried to catch up, but he left us in his wake. I wasn’t going to go any faster.
Lessons in Existence
Tom was a fellow Grant County native, but I didn’t know him until college. He was older and had spent time in the world when he decided to return to school. When we did meet, he and Hilde were a pair. She was from New Zealand’s south island, an “All Black” fan, and a kick in the pants. They had met when Tom was flying a helicopter on contract with the New Zealand government shooting game animals from the air. He was filling the roll of predator absent from the man made environment of the island nation.
Tom related how they had become an item and had informed her she should show up at daylight the next morning to fly out to catch a plane home if she was going with him. He was warming the Hiller up and about to pull the collective when he spotted her.
“Through the predawn, I saw her wagging a suitcase up the road,” he remembered.
The rest was “Tom” history, and, today, I have absolutely no idea where either of them is or if they are even alive. I suspect, however, their lives were quite zesty.
We learned from them a lot about New Zealand. The fact that nation was a world leader in pastoral sciences was always intriguing. It was even more so when the fact that grasslands in the country are largely man made. The introduced game and fish of the nation and its combined contribution to the national economy was also a managed wonder.
The inclination to make comparisons to New Mexico has never stopped. For example, the island nation’s demonstration of engineering natural complexities from around the world into the fabric of their society was not an environmental disaster. On the contrary, it promoted not just economic benefits, but created management practices that preserved the marriage of original and introduced fauna and flora. Ask anybody who has visited and they will say it is a place of wonder.
In terms of further comparison, New Mexico should take a chapter out of the New Zealand big game success, and conclude, without remorse, that this state should become the poor man’s Africa for imported game. The success of Barbary sheep, gemsbok, and ibex in the southern end of the state should be heralded not shrouded in guarded, environmental conscience. Real opportunity and growth of expanded tourism should be structured by expansion of the opportunity and variety of game (and fish) available.
Likewise, the relative advantages of agriculture in this state must be recognized and encouraged for expansion rather than the management of retreat and dissolution. A most incredible example of this is the world’s export share of New Zealand’s dairy exports. Their producers contribute an astounding 30%. When the distance and expense of transportation of those products is considered, that metric only becomes more significant.
How do they do it?
There was a recent conference held by the New Zealand Grasslands Association that drew not just producers from that country but a group of 22 Americans. I don’t know who the New Mexican was in that crew, but it is reported there was one along. The Hay&Forage Grower article reporting the event referenced the trip as transformative and set forth five lessons that were learned.
The first was to learn from your neighbors and your competition. New Zealanders have become expert in matters of global trade as a condition of existence. They tend to travel, but they also convene in groups among themselves and critique and debate their own practices.
The second lesson relates to being involved rather than being the tail that wags. Producers are sitting on regulatory panels and commissions. As one farmer was quoted, “I feel I have to have a seat at the table. Otherwise, I may be on the menu.”
The next lesson relates to “hiring it done”. That reminds me of my old friend, Jupe, when he used to tell me “Let the cat skinners be cat skinners, and the well drillers be well drillers, and the welders be welders.” The point is New Zealand producers tend not to be burdened with excessive capital investments outside of their core pursuits. They more likely hire their hay to be baled, livestock hauled, and silage harvested. Any new paint on equipment was very limited.
Next was to know your numbers. The suggestion was that operators there could relate their production costs “to the nearest penny”. They were also very knowledgeable in metrics relating to energy costs, production per land units, milk solids per cow weights and matters relating to market trends.
The final factor was producers no longer have safety nets. All government supports were removed years ago and producers became independent. In response, they turned inwardly and sponsored referendums for research and market development. They also started investing in their own cooperatives that process and sell their products. Government is not their shear pin for protection. They have assumed that role themselves.
I consider my experience in California agriculture as seminal.
As the farm manager of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company properties in the San Joaquin Valley, we were closely watched by Met to limit any involvement with government. In their case, they not only didn’t want federal assistance they went to great lengths to avoid any suggestion of dipping into federal treasury funds. Their public image was too important to be compromised with a headline even remotely suggesting they were seeking tax payers’ hard earned money.
So, we endured the yearly interrogations to avoid any improprieties. When we acknowledged we had signed the federal mandate to comply with highly erodible land tillage practices, Leo about terminated us! We finally convinced him it was a required agreement that we signed not a bridge to a handout.
What we became, though, was an American counterpart to the New Zealanders who controlled our own destination without becoming entrenched in any form or matter of agricultural welfare programs. I liked it without even knowing the full consequences. We expanded our product line and became higher level innovators. Similarly, the deeper we invested in integration the better farmers we became and the more profitable our operations became.
That model, however, is not the model I find myself in on the tabosa grass flats of federal lands ranching. This model is not an expanding, robust platform of ingenuity and adaptation. Rather, it is the antithesis of self reliance and it is seen in the stepwise elimination of our numbers. You have heard me harp on this matter repeatedly over the past several weeks, but it real and it must be changed. If it isn’t, our current glide path will see elimination of our industry segment by mid century.
There are many forces trying to make that happen, but it cannot and must not be done through federal oversight. Something has to give and the New Zealand approach is a worthy model for adoption. It is also an acceptable approach to counter the environmental bias in the management of western lands.
The presence of man is not just natural. It is proper, and the end results will be worthy of worldwide acceptance.
Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “When we told Leo Rasmussen one of us might have to go to jail if we didn’t comply with the highly erodible regulatory demand, he called for a volunteer! He would have been a highly effective Secretary of Interior or Agriculture.”