First, there were the inventions wowing visitors at the 2015 World Ag Expo, like a robotic milker for dairy cattle and a portable wind machine called the “Tow and Blow.”
Then came a U.S. trade official who had good news for the throngs of farmers and ranchers: Their products are in high demand worldwide and the Obama administration is hoping to complete new trade deals with European and Asian countries.
The expo opened its three-day run Tuesday with good weather and few snafus. It is the largest show of its kind in the world, featuring the latest in farm equipment and technology and drawing people from at least 48 states and more than 40 foreign countries. More than 1,500 exhibitors are spread out over 2.6 million square feet of the International Agri-Center on Laspina Road, just east of Highway 99 in Tulare.
In all, about 100,000 people will visit the expo this week. Temperatures were expected to reach the mid-60s Wednesday and climb into the 70s by Thursday.
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The expo annually attracts veterans and newcomers alike. Among the first-timers this year is New Zealander Kim McAuley, an inventor and entrepreneur who is showing off his portable wind machine called the Tow and Blow.
Unlike conventional wind machines that are permanent structures, McAuley’s can be moved to where it is needed the most. The towering fan oscillates for better efficiency, is quieter and uses less fuel than fixed machines.
“We really think that growers in America can benefit from a machine like this,” McAuley said. “And it isn’t just fruit and nut growers — even dairy operators have used it.”
The machine has misters that can cool down temperatures in dairy barns.
Del Vanderoff, a cherry grower from Wenatchee, Washington, and a distributor for Tow and Blow, has used the machine to protect his crop from frost damage and to dry off cherries after rain.
“It is a lot less expensive than hiring a helicopter to fly over your fields, and we used to do that,” Vanderhoff said.
The equipment caught the attention of farmers including Michael Ohki of Livingston, who grows almonds and kiwi, a frost-sensitive crop. He said he was seriously considering Tow and Blow, which sells for $33,000.
“When you invest so much in your crop, you try and do everything you can to protect it,” Ohki said. “And this is quite a machine.”
Let a robot do the milking
With the cost of labor expected to remain high, dairy farmers were drawn to an automatic milking parlor from GEA Farm Technologies in Naperville, Illinois. The company’s equipment replaces the work of three to four workers. The machine’s robotic arms will clean, sanitize and milk cows without the help of human hands. The cows are placed in a stall and the equipment moves underneath each animal.
New breed of dairy cow at World Ag Expo 2015. http://t.co/HQtlRbnQLD— Bob Rodriguez (@FresnoBeeBob) February 10, 2015
Steven R. Pretz, GEA’s vice president of large projects, said the German-made equipment is relatively new and has been installed at three dairies in Germany, with seven more planned this year.
Europe has been quick to adapt the mechanized milker in large part because of the high costs of labor. Pretz said the average cost of labor for German dairy workers is $30 an hour. That is more than double the number of workers in America.
“And like Europe, U.S. dairy farmers are also having issues of labor,” Pretz said. “Not only is labor getting harder to find, the costs are not going to go down.”
Although the price of the system is about three to four times that of a conventional milk parlor, Pretz said the investment could pay for itself in six to 10 years.
Talking about foreign trade
Along with viewing towering tractors and other farm equipment, the World Ag Expo’s seminars give visitors a close look at some of agriculture’s vital issues.
Tuesday afternoon, a top federal official laid out the potential benefits of two proposed trade agreements with countries in Europe and Asia. The two agreements, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, are being negotiated.
Phil Karsting, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agriculture Service, said the agreements have the potential to add to an already bullish export market.
“Our country is experiencing a boom period for ag exports,” Karsting said.
Ag exports have risen to $152 billion, up 8% over the previous year. Since 2010, agriculture exports have jumped 41%, Karsting said.
Crops that have seen double-digit increases in exports include soybeans, tree nuts, dairy and beef. Karsting said while driving through the San Joaquin Valley he saw ample evidence that the region is a leader in tree nut production.
Karsting acknowledged that while federal officials would like to ratify both agreements this year, talks are progressing more smoothly with members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The participating countries include Japan, Vietnam, New Zealand and Singapore.
As part of the agreements, tariffs and non-tariffs that have restricted U.S. imports would come down.
“It is important to get this done right, and locked in place,” Karsting said.