In the Garden: That's the way the farms are in Texas

Klaus Laitenberger continues his journey as a Nuffield Scholar, making his way from Washington to the dry, hot south of North America while investigating food production methods.

In the Garden: That's the way the farms are in Texas

THE third week of our seven-week journey of scholars, we spend in Washington DC, visiting policymakers from Congress, the US Farmers Union and many other farming representatives to get a first-hand insight into farming in the US and the world.

The US is a net exporter of agricultural products and farmers and the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), are seriously worried about possible retaliatory tariffs from other nations.

A loss of free trade would be a disaster for them, they say, especially combined with the difficulty of getting agricultural workers. Andrew Warmsley from the American Farm Bureau mentioned that many crops are now lost due to a lack of a legal workforce and that agriculture in the US ‘outswings its size‘.

Agricultural policy and support in the US is very reactionary. A small amount only is spent on conservation and the rest is for disaster relief — to compensate for crop losses; price losses and for nutrition programmes — which is a nice word for food stamps.

I was shocked to hear that a large percentage of Americans cannot afford to buy food. The money for food banks comes from the agricultural budget and accounts for over 75% of it.

Matt Purdue from the NFUpointed out that the share of income is minimal compared to the retailer — a farmer gets $0.71 per pack of bacon, while the retailer gets $3.99. I suppose this is the same story all over the world.

I always wonder why there aren’t more farmers selling their own produce directly to the customers. One of the 2018 Nuffield scholars has a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) scheme is Canada and he produces and supplies organic vegetables, fruit, meat and eggs to 200 customers who pay a yearly subscription for a weekly box of produce.

Dana O’Brien from BIO (Biotechnology Innovation Organisation) believes that gene editing will provide many solutions for agriculture and that in the next 5-10 years a lot more genetic tools will be available to farmers. There will be also be much better use of data and also precision farming. Increased mechanisation with the use of drones to control farming operations will become commonplace, he says. My fellow traveller from Wales – Jonathon Gill – revelled in this statement as he has already created the `Hands-free hectare`. He works for Harper Adams University in the UK and was behind the first farmer-less agricultural crop - all the machinery was operated by Jonathon’s drone.

Another major shift in the agricultural field is the change in how people buy food. Amazon is the largest online food retailer and about 1 in 10 shoppers buy groceries online and this will only increase. Amazon has recently purchased ‘Wholefoods’, one of the largest organic supermarkets in the US and Canada. I would never have believed that people could ever shop for food on the internet, but it happens right now.

There is no financial support for organic farming in the US, but nevertheless, it’s booming and the growing demand can’t be met by production. With increasing food scares and more scientific proof that many pesticides and concoction are dangerous to human health and disastrous for the environment — there will be a worldwide increased demand for organic food.

Producers will find it hard to keep up with this consumer demand. The global organic food and beverage market was valued at USD 124.76 billion in 2017, with an expected growth rate of 14.5% annually between 2017 and 2024.. In simple terms — the sale of organic food will nearly triple within the next six years.

And so, for the rest of week 3 we moved to Texas. We first stayed in Fort Worth – also known as “Cow Town” and it’s still a real cowboy town with saloons, wide streets — the real Texas.

I’m in danger of giving out a little about my week’s stay because we had a wonderful week and met the most hospitable, warm people and real gentlemen, the kind who take their cowboy hats off when they meet a woman in the street.

Texas in early April is also absolutely stunning — fresh green grass and lots of trees to provide shelter for cows. You could nearly call it agro-forestry — I know it’s not always like that and in a couple of months it’ll be all brown and unbearably hot. It took me a couple of days to get used to their farming terminology. They call livestock farming “ranching” and cereal growing “farming” and vegetable farming seems to be restricted to watermelons!

And that prompts my gentle giving out: I saw no vegetables anywhere in the seven days I stayed there, apart from potatoes in the form of chips, and cabbage in the form of coleslaw. It was illuminating when I asked a Texan if they ever eat vegetables and his response was: “Well, we have chicken and pork – that’s vegetables.”


There was one vegetable though that I wouldn’t have expected and I was really excited because I have only ever read about it – it was Jicama (Pachyrhizus erosus). It’s also known as the Yam bean and grows in Central America, South Asia and apparently also in the Andes (but I didn’t find it there).

Our host sliced it finely and served it raw sprinkled with cinnamon. It had a delightful light crunchy texture and a surprisingly sweet, refreshing taste. It can also be cooked and Jicama is becoming popular because it’s a very low-calorie vegetable and is an excellent food for diabetics. It reminded me a little of Yacon – my study object.

Root Beer

The other thing to complain about is the lack of restaurants. For every 2 restaurants there must be 98 take-aways. We did find one excellent restaurant though in the small town we stayed in and I also had to most delicious barbecue at “Salt Lick Barbecue”.We also went to a few take-away places and one was highly recommended: What-a-Burger”. It was probably the worst meal I had during the entire trip but

I made another discovery there too — “Root beer”. Brian, my fellow traveller from Iowa ordered it and let me have a sip. It was so disgustingly sweet with an awful taste I quickly dismissed it, until he explained that it was made from Native Indian herbs – originally sassafras.

Straight away I googled it and was fascinated to learn that there is still real root beer out there and we found it a few days later and it was delicious. It’s a non-alcoholic drink and I find it difficult to describe the taste — not quite like ginger beer, but it’s kind of in that category. There is also an alcoholic version of root beer, but I didn’t get to taste that.

Sassafras comes from the bark of the native American tree Sassafras albidum, of the Laurel family and all parts were used for consumption — roots, leaves, bark and flowers. Native Americans used the leaves to treat fresh wounds, acne and urinary disorders. Sassafras branches were also used as toothbrushes.

However, Sassafras is now banned for human consumption and can no longer be used to flavour root beer. Researchers found that laboratory animals which consumed large amounts of sassafras oil and tea, developed liver diseases and cancer. Root beer is now flavoured with the bark extract of the Black Birch (Betula lenta), and the herbaceous plant Wintergreen, and is still delicious, if made properly.

Wheat and rice and commodifying food

In Texas, we visited wheat and rice processing plants, in particular, Ardent Mills Wheat Processors. Wheat has a long history and it the product of three varieties of grass which were bred about 12,000 years ago. The Egyptians were the first to use the improved grain. At present worldwide stocks of wheat are higher than ever and this has caused the collapse of wheat prices.

This trip has shown over and over again that everything that happens worldwide has a direct influence on agriculture — and all farmers are worried about their future.

Farming has become so globalised and so interlinked, that anything that happens in any part of the world has such a big influence everywhere else. The problem is that there is no way out for commercial enterprises dealing in commodities.

There are a few alternatives to this globalised way of farming where farm produce has become a mere commodity. The alternative is some form of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) scheme, or other forms of direct selling to the customer. Even our own Supervalu is doing a very good job of promoting local produce.

JD Hudgins — Brahmin Farm

This farm visit impressed me most in Texas — here is a young farmer, John, who really cares about his farm, his animals and his soil.

His main objective is to improve the fertility of his land and leave it more fertile for future generations. His great-grandfather, Joel Hudgins started the farm in 1869 in Hungerford, Texas which has the most challenging farming conditions in the state.

Joel bought his first Brahmin cow in one of the “Freak Shows” that were common in Texas at that time. The Brahmins are the holy Indian cattle with a large hump on their back. These cattle can survive the harshest and most challenging climate conditions. They have oily glands and instead of panting — they sweat.

In the 1920’s the Hudgins bought 150 cows and 30 bulls from Brazil for the same price as they could have bought 2,000 cows in Texas. They already knew how successful these cattle are in dry conditions and the real proof came in the years 2011 to 2014, when Texas had no rain at all.

The Texas government had to ban the use of water for agriculture and there was no wheat, rice, peanuts and other crops grown there for three years, with lots of cattle fatalities — except for the Brahmin herds. This obviously led to an increased interest in Brahmin cattle.

John practices Regenerative Grazing which is also known as Holistic Grassland Management or Mob Grazing. The system didn’t work too well at first, but as he adapted it to his own growing conditions, it has been a massive success in restoring soil fertility and increasing the organic matter content of his soil.

Simply put, organic matter is the carbon content of the soil, measuring everything that is, or was, alive. The remainder is inert rock particles. In every country I visited, a decline in organic matter content in soils was a serious problem. It is so serious that if it declines too much – a soil will turn into a desert.

This is how John works regenerative agriculture: He has 40 paddocks which can be further divided with an electric fence and he moves the whole herd of cattle at least 10 times per day onto a new paddock. They only eat the top third of the grass. John doesn’t believe in tight grazing.

This system has proven itself as a means of sustainable farming. The only challenge he has, is to improve his system of opening gates. They are already semi-automated, but following a few discussions with Jonathon (our fellow robotic engineer and Nuffield scholar), there may be a way to simplify the system even further.

John’s biggest thrill and proof that he was on the right track was when he noticed the first dung beetle in a manure pat — he knew that his yields would increase by 30% on that basis alone. After an excited phone call to his wife with the good news — he found she wasn’t quite prepared to share in his excitement.

Rice Belt Warehouse

A visit to the Rice Belt Warehouse and surrounding rice farms was very exciting. This warehouse processes about 25% of rice grown in Texas. Again during the drought years 2011 to 2014, there was no rice grown and once an international market is lost, it’s very difficult to get it back.

In 1685 rice production started in Texas and in the mid-1800’s it started to be mechanised. All American rice is irrigated. The Colorado River is the source and for the first time in history, agriculture was banned from using it during the drought years.

Prior to the drought, there were 22,000 acres grown and now only 8,800 acres or rice remain. Over 90% of rice is still grown in Asia — and on a relatively small scale.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Centre

As we approached the wildflower centre, outside of Austin Texas, I was shocked by the number of cars trying to find a car parking space — I didn’t anticipate such an interest in wildflowers in Texas.

I guess there were at least 5000 people in the centre which comprises 284 acres and was first opened in 1995 by Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of Lyndon B Johnson who became President of the US after John F Kennedy’s assassination.

Apparently, he was a champion of the environment and instrumental in over 200 pieces of environmental legislation. All of the water used on the land is from a rainwater collection system, which is quite incredible given that for every inch of rainfall, they collect 10,000 gallons of water. Environmental education is as important to the centre as the conservation of wildflowers.

Austin Food Bank

It shows my ignorance — I had no idea what a food bank was before we arrived at the Austin Food Bank. In total there are 21 Food Banks in Texas and they have a clear objective — to provide food for the one in seven people who can’t afford it in Texas

The Food Bank is run very professionally. The money comes from the Texas Department of Agriculture to run the system and food comes from donations, farms, processors and retailers.

Every day they have around 120 volunteers to grade and pack donated food. It was so impressive, but also quite depressing that there is a need, in such a wealthy country, for food banks.

Klaus Laitenberger is the author of three gardening books and works as an Organic Inspector for the Organic Trust Ltd and manages a number of private gardens. Together with his wife, Joanna, he runs a seed company specialising in vegetable varieties most suited to the Irish climate. He is contributor to a number of gardening magazines also works as an organic advisor and runs gardening courses throughout the country.

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