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The politics of agriculture

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PERHAM - A farmer's life these days isn't confined to a small tract of land or maybe a trip to larger cities in search of a market for goods or to buy equipment.

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Perham farmer Douglas Huebsch wanted a new perspective on farming -- and that's what he received through the Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership program, sponsored through Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall.

The MARL program, according to its Web site, is designed to promote the development of farming skills needed for today and tomorrow's world.

Included in the program are several in-state trips and a national study trip. It culminated with an international study trip that took Huebsch and the other MARL participants to South Africa and Zimbabwe for two weeks in late February.

"It was two-fold," Huebsch said of the trip. "They are very progressive farmers, so we can learn from them and they can learn for us.

"And secondly, it's more of an ambassadorial thing to find out what we can do as Americans to be better like them. Finally, it increases trade and awareness of America, and especially Minnesota."

Huebsch isn't a stranger to foreign trade. He went to China as part of a trade group led by Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2006.

What Huebsch learned there is that the Chinese are strong in agriculture as well manufacturing.

"They have twice the wheat production of the United States," he said.

And, he added, 50 percent of the world's pigs are found there.

As for this trip, there were plenty of things to learn about African farming that can help bridge the gap between two disparate cultures.

"They are fortunate to have a lot of labor. We have more technology," he said. "They have more access to labor."

One part of the trip that illustrated that was a farm using a bucket brigade instead of an auger.

Plus, most livestock being raised are grass-fed, so building and feed costs aren't an issue.

The grass-fed cattle also give the farmers in South Africa and Zimbabwe a market in Europe that prefers that type of beef. Cheese gets shipped to European markets as well.

The hunger problem also came up in discussions with various farmers.

Instead of food being sent directly to the needy, Huebsch said that African farmers questioned why the Americans aren't helping farmers do more with what they have.

"Quit dumping your stuff," Huebsch said, recounting what he heard. "Why do you dump all your food in Africa?"

That usually defies the normal rationale that Africans need our shipments.

"They don't want to farm because they say, 'Why should we farm if everyone is giving our people food and not buying from us,'" Huebsch said.

He said that African farmers need the skills in order to produce for themselves.

Redistribution of land is hurting food production at the moment as well. Land is forcibly being taken from white farmers in Zimbabwe and bought from white in South Africa.

"What we noticed a lot in South Africa was that they were taking a lot of land from white farmers and giving it to black farmers in post-apartheid South Africa," Huebsch said.

"Which is good and probably the right thing to do, because they are paying good prices to the farmers. They're not complaining about the price.

"What's happening is a lot of the black farmers don't have the education or the skills yet to run the farms.

"So what ends up happening is production is less on those farms, less products hitting the marketplaces and then higher inflation."

Despite the challenges, Huebsch likes to see the opportunities that globalization brings.

"If you're an entrepreneur, you look at the challenges and the opportunities," he said.

He added that Africa could be a powerhouse in the future if the political and economic situation stabilizes.

"When they get their act together politically and unite together as one people, they will be a real tough competitor," Huebsch said.

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