Monthly Archives: November 2011

The New Millionaires

Texan Farmer and his Cotton

The eccentric looking successful US investor, Jim Rogers thinks farming could be one of the most profitable industry if the future. He told me: “It’s going to be the farmers who are driving Lamborghinis. The smart MBAs and stock brokers will learn to drive tractors and they will learn to drive tractors for the farmers. We‘re going to have a dramatic shift, we‘re going to have serious food shortages. I‘m talking about real famine, the kind that you read about in the Bible and your history book. There are going to be dramatic food shortages coming up which is one of the reasons that farming is going to be such a major industry and exciting profession.”

That if course is a very dramatic and stark prediction of the future. If true it will mean huge hardship for millions and of course a fundamental change in the balance of economic power.

The US is arguable the most successful farming nation in the world and so I have come here to Texas to see what innovations farmers both big and small are coming up with to prepare them for the future.

The farmers are already facing huge environmental
problems. According to the UN, every year, between 20,000 – 50,000 sq km of arable land is lost due to soil degradation. While land is a major issue, so is water, Agriculture swallows up around 70% of our useable global water supply and it takes 3,000 litres of water to produce one persons daily food intake.

To see how they are coping with those challenges I’ve come to a huge farm, stretching as far as the eye can see. With me are five Texans each with their own monster pick-up truck. We are looking at how new irrigation techniques are helping the farmers control their crops and increase output.

Wandering around the farm looking for good filming spots,
I hear myself telling the producer, “Look there is a real cowboy” as I watch a man in a Stetson walk John Wayne like through fields of cotton. He’s not on a horse but he walks as if he just got off one. It’s a slow pondering wide legged gamble and I half expect him to spit some tobacco and shout howdi.

This is the middle of the bible belt and in keeping with that, there is no alcohol on sale for miles around. The farmers offer to get us lunch and I rather sheepishly explain that despite being in cattle country, I am a vegetarian butt they shouldn’t worry if they don’t have anything for me. They promise to have a look and drive off. Half an hour later they come back with a huge bags of burgers and a salad.

As I start eating I notice my salad has bacon in it. “That’s a Texan vegetarian meal” I’m told as that was the thing with the least amount of meat available.

These are some of the most hospitable friendly people I have met on any of my trips around the world. They are quiet hard working men who are clearly trying hard to make us welcome.

They are at the sharp end of a problem which is affecting many parts of the world. More land is being lost to urbanisation and soil degradation – at the same time water is becoming scarcer and climate change is making the seasons less predictable. So the pressure is on to produce more food from limited resources.

Texas is suffering its worst drought in nearly 100 years, and the underground lake is running dry.

Already this year, drought has cost the State $5.2 billion.

One way of tackling the problem is a more efficient method of irrigation. What at first glance looks like the simple job of watering crops, is becoming a fine applied science.

I’ve come to see how one company is trying to provide a water solution. Lindsay Irrigation has been working on the problem for over 50 years. Their Zimmatic irrigation pivot enables farmers to increase crop yields while using less water, energy, labor and chemicals.

Using a mobile phone to connect to the Internet, I send an instruction to a huge array of automatic watering arms that cover all the fields I can see to the Horizon. Slowly the arms respond to my instruction and careful and precise irrigation begins to happen.

Instead of spraying the crops the water is drip fed onto the plants, ensuring that as much water as possible reaches the roots and is not lost in evaporation or run-off. It’s a simple idea but the farmers claim it revolutionises their water usage and dramatically improves crop production. The company claims that more than 100,000 Lindsay Zimmatic automated irrigation systems are irrigating millions of hectares of cropland worldwide.

It’s hard standing in the fields with my new Texan friends, to think that this is the new growth industry. It’ a stretch to believe, as Jim Rogers does, that the farrmers I am standing with could be the new dot com style millionaires of the future. But if he is right, it will no doubt be the biggest shift in the world economy seen in a lifetime.

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In The Land of The Big Everything

I have arrived in the land of big meals, big skies and big welcomes. This is Texas, USA, where everyone calls you m’am or sir.

Texas was already one of the most important centres for the world’s oil industry but the state is busy recasting itself. It is also fast becoming a global centre for the wind industry.  I’ve come here to see the biggest wind farm in the world.

Ironically although this is a state where everything from hats to characters, come in different versions of big and very big, I find myself starting the journey in the smallest of places. Roscoe would have been the original one horse town, except even the horse has left. The main street is straight out of a Hollywood designer’s drawing. The one restaurant in town is a Mexican. A sparse inside is lightened by certificates claiming this has won the award for the best restaurant for a first date. It being the only restaurant in town, has not dimmed their pride in the award.

It’s a small town with big ideas. The German energy company E.ON has come to build its wind turbines on the town’s surrounding farmland. It’s brought new life to the community  which had otherwise been bypassed when they built a new highway which skirted the town and left it lone and largely unnoticed by the speeding cars, money and people which no longer made a stop in Roscoe.

Such is the novelty of a foreign visitor in town that within minutes of us arriving, the town manager, which I assume is a kind of Mayor, rapped on our car window.  He must have heard there were some English people in town and he offered to open the town museum for us in case we wanted somewhere to sit. Rather embarrassed by the hospitality we chose to stay in the car waiting for the interviewee to turn up but he said he would leave the museum open anyway as it was perfectly safe and no one would take anything.

This part of Texas is a windy place. For years the farmers have tried to protect their crops and homes from it. It’s not just the regular wind that they worry about, tornadoes sweep across the landscape and you can see large concrete boxes on the roadside being sold as storm shelters. The man from E-on explains to me that the local farming community has spent years worrying about the wind, now they bless it. E-on is paying them rent to put the turbines on their land. So they now  have two crops to harvest: cotton and wind.

The wind farms they build in this state, offer substantial help to the farmers. They now get rent from E.ON which can help make the difference between the farm making a profit or a loss. Clearly the wind farms also help the power companies which now have a new product to sell and they help the environment by producing clean energy. But despite all the good the wind farms create, there is a cost.

Wind energy is only viable because it receives a government subsidy. The bill for what is uneconomic power generation is landing on the doormat of taxpayers. Generating wind energy means covering vast areas of land with huge and hefty turbines and in itself wind energy can make only a minor contribution to our energy needs. It alone is not the answer to our energy crisis – but it does make an important contribution and one which is being taken increasingly seriously by governments and energy companies.

Roscoe hopes the wind industry will help revitalise its local economy. What happens there is yet to be seen. But if you are ever on a first date in Texas I can recommend an excellent Mexican restaurant close to some picturesque wind turbines.

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Stuck In The Amazon

Now Part of the Driving Test in Brazil

AN EXTRA NIGHT IN THE JUNGLE

We have been doing a series of 2 hour flights in a small Cesna plane to get further into the Amazon, landing on small mud and compacted earth strips cut like zippers out of the forest. Our local contact, a Texan called John, who lives out here, told us to make it back to our base we had to be finished and read to go at 4pm. At 3:50 we packed up and said “Let’s go.” “Of course this is far too late to leave” he said. “The pilot thinks it’s too dangerous to fly now and so you will have to stay at camp.”  This was no small problem as it meant missing my flight to Sao Paulo and then back to London. But the pilot left us and we were more or less stranded.

John drove us a little way out of the forest into a small village to sort some things out. On the way back, he stopped the car abruptly and jumped out shouting “rattle snake.” There was indeed a snake in the road. I was all for taking a photo and moving on.

John decided to jump on the snake and then tried to strangle it with his bare hands. He started shouting a us that this was a very dangerous snaked, not a rattler but something else entirely and he wanted to bring it back to camp so he could “show his people”. I haven’t killed it, just stunned it, he said.

At this point I rather let the side down by screaming at him that there was no way he was going to bring a snake into the car whilst I was in it. Things got a little heated as I then locked him out of his car, and leapt into the lap of the woman sitting next to me. She spoke no English and I didn’t really know who she was. She may now think it a quaint English greeting instead of shaking hands to sit on a strangers lap shouting obscenities at your host.

John quietly explained to me I was not going to stop him getting into his own car, and it was me or the snake and as far as he was concerned the snake won.

Back at base, although I couldn’t understand the language, it was clear they all found the story of the scared Englishman, highly amusing.  After showing everyone the snakes poisonous fangs. John killed it and said he would cook it later. In the end the camp dog managed to get hold of the snake and chomped on it. As a result John threw the remainder to the crocodile which was wallowing in the river 100 meters away. This is called the River of Death, John explained

John seemed a nice man, when he wasn’t killing snakes. But over dinner he told us remarkably off hand stories about wrestling an alligator once when he was drunk and getting bitten in the arm and fighting local bandits.

I am well and truely ready to come home and wrestle with the troubles of London Transport.

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