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I had the opportunity to travel to New Zealand and Australia February 19 through March 4 as part of an Illinois Ag Leadership program. Twenty-seven people are involved in this two-year leadership program, which began in September and will conclude this August. All of the participants are involved in agribusiness and have a desire to further their education and knowledge in the field of agriculture.

Two- to three-day seminars take place each month during the winter and summer months, and a two-week national trip takes place the first year; a two-week international trip is scheduled the second year of the program. Our international trip took us to New Zealand and Australia for an opportunity to explore their farming practices, agribusinesses, and the government’s role in agriculture.

The first week of our trip was in New Zealand, home to 4 million people and the approximate size of Colorado. New Zealand is two islands: the north and south islands. Our group spent time in Christ Church on the South Island; in Wellington, the capitol; and Hamilton on the North Island.

Our purpose was to build bridges with foreign countries and their citizens and to give us a better understanding of global economies and agriculture’s role. The world continues to shrink, as technology has linked people across the globe and countries become more dependent on trade to keep their economies fueled.

In the mid-1980s, New Zealand’s government was on the edge of bankruptcy. As a result, agriculture subsidies were basically eliminated overnight. Some farmers did leave the industry; most of them had to adjust to the change by cutting expenses such as reducing fertilizer inputs and machinery purchases. The sheep industry slumped, and other more profitable industries developed such as dairy, deer farming, and viticulture.

One beef producer we visited created a niche market with a German restaurant. He sends the premium beef cuts to his German buyer for a premium price. Once a solid foundation was built, the market was expanded through viticulture, and now his vineyards are supplying wine to this same German business.

A few days after our Illinois Ag Leadership group left New Zealand, another group of 18 Illinois farmers entered the country as part of the Illinois Farm Bureau Market study tour. Why all of the interest in New Zealand agriculture? The 2002 Farm Bill is coming to an end in the United States, and a new Farm Bill is scheduled to take hold in 2007. With the large national deficit in our country, agriculture likely will be part of the budget cuts, and U.S. farmers are learning how Kiwi farmers in the southern hemisphere have adapted to minimal government subsidies.

The consumer’s purchasing power is different in the two countries, as food was more expensive in New Zealand than in the U.S. Although agriculture subsidies are part of our current farm program structure, they seem to be working; U.S. farmers supply the cheapest product to put on our nation’s grocery shelves. IBI

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