It was a farm show of contrasts. This year's World Ag Expo in Tulare, Calif., formerly known at the California Farm Equipment Show, was not very worldly for Kings County, Calif., farmer Roger Flood.

For others, their world looks pretty bright for selling into alfalfa and premium wine grape industries.

As a walnut and cling peach producer, Flood has seen the “world” take his markets away through what he considers unfair competition. “We cannot compete in the world against countries like China, which is taking our walnut business away, and Greece, which is killing us in the cling peach market,” he said.

Flood and his brother Andy also operate a cattle operation in Oroville, Calif.

Flood was working the Wizard Manufacturing Co. booth for owner Don Buckman. Wizard builds walnut processing equipment, but Buckman said garlic imports from China are hurting farmers and his business as well. Whenever a crop is taken out of a farmer's rotation options, it has a trickle down effect on all producers.

“They ought to sink those boats carrying all that garlic into the U.S. that is killing our markets here in California,” said Buckman.

Porterville, Calif., walnut and alfalfa producer A.G. Boland agrees.

“We have to deal with all these regulations in California — pesticide use and applications and now dust — while China and our world competition does not. There is no free trade in the world, and it makes it hard for us to survive,” said Boland.

On the other hand, Paul Burkner, vice president of AIM Inc. in Lodi, Calif., said 2001 was a “great year.” AIM manufactures and distributes mechanical grape harvester/over the row vineyard tractors; mechanical pruners and gondolas for the wine grape industry.

“We are looking to have a good 2002 — not great, but a good steady year,” despite a proclaimed state oversupply, said Burkner. Wine grape growers with winery contracts should weather the downturn in wine grape prices.

Contract needed

“If you don't have a contract or your contract expires this year, it may be tough,” said Burkner, who has been exhibiting at Tulare for 20 years.

The Lodi-Woodbridge grape growing area in the northern end of the San Joaquin Valley is booming. New wineries are going in as the area's reputation for quality wine grapes continues to grow.

“We are being recognized for quality, and new wineries are coming in all the time,” said Buckner.

“It is an exciting time in Lodi,” said AIM sales rep Sandy Hutchens.

While AIM caters to the high-end premium wine grape growers, he said the Tulare farm show in the heart of the central valley where many growers used bulldozers to harvest low demand, generic wine grapes last fall, is a gathering place for AIM's customers from outside of California.

“We see a lot of our customers and potential customers from Oregon, Michigan, New York and even Hawaii at Tulare,” he said.

“Even here in the central valley where wine grape prices were not good, growers are looking to cut costs and one way to do that is to mechanize,” said Buckner.

With Tulare now the economic epicenter of America's dairy industry, forage and alfalfa products and services are growing each year at the farm show.

Richard Kirby, product manager for MacDon Industries, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, knew alfalfa acreage would be up sharply in Tulare County and the San Joaquin Valley this coming season. Last season's prices were too good to expect otherwise.

“Nevertheless, I am surprised to hear how much has gone in,” said Kirby. MacDon manufactures alfalfa harvesting and handling equipment.

Kirby said alfalfa is increasing everywhere — in the Midwest, Colorado — as the dairy industry in the Midwest expands into larger, more commercial dairies which demand more alfalfa from commercial sources.

Corn silage

“It is a relatively easy crop to grow and can be profitable as a commercial crop,” said Kirby.

Corn silage is another crop that has expanded acreage along with the dairies, but last year's major outbreak corn stunt worries Hanford, Calif., farmer/dairyman/custom forage harvester Dan Danell going into this spring planting season.

“It hurt our business three ways last year: lost income for the farm; less quality corn silage for the dairy and the chopping business was hurt because some growers lost entire crops,” he said.

The disease is vectored by a marauding leafhopper. “We really don't have any idea how to control it. About the only thing we can do or tell people to do is not irrigate right before harvest. It seems to be better to short the crop on water a little bit than risk major corn stunt infestation,” he said.

Danell is optimistic that one of the coldest winters in five or six years reduced overwintering leafhopper populations. However, he is not counting on it. “They told us four years ago they did not expect the problem to grow, but it has grown ever since until last year it became a disaster,” he said.

Yield drop problem

Dairymen feed 35 to 50 pounds of silage to milk cows per day vs. six to seven pounds of alfalfa.

“When you talk about average yield dropping 20 to 30 percent because of corn stunt, you are talking serious problems for dairymen,” said Danell.

There was plenty of uncertainty at the farm because of low commodity prices. Delta and Pine Land Co. regional marketing director Glenn Powell's cell phone was constantly ringing.

“I have never seen cotton orders so late in coming in as this year,” he said. “People are waiting to the last minute. I am sure they'll plant cotton, but uncertainty of the federal farm bill and the low prices has everyone sitting.”

The biggest event of the 35th annual farm show was a visit by the one of California's most politically opportunist governors yet, Gov. Gray Davis, who stopped off in Tulare to herald his administration's $79 million agriculture aid package. A good chunk of that came from the $5.5 billion federal Emergency Agricultural Assistance Act of 2001 earmarked to help California specialty crops.

His secretary of agriculture Bill Lyons worked hard to get that federal money and Davis was there to take credit for his administration.

Davis' visit to the show was the first by a California governor since his former boss, Jerry Brown, stopped by more than 20 years ago. Davis is probably only slightly more popular with Tulare County farmers than Brown was.

“The best part of this day will be when we see the taillights of the governor's car leaving the show grounds,” said one prominent Tulare farmer and longtime leader at the farm show.

Why invite him and give him a political platform among few supporters?

“We have to respect the office, even if we don't respect the man,” he answered.

“I have not met a Democrat governor I did not like,” said Earl Williams, in his best Will Rogersesque. Williams, president and CEO of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association shared the farm commodity-laden platform with Davis and a growing throng of political pragmatists who convinced Davis last fall to sign the biggest tax cut ($150 million) in California agricultural history.

Campaigning hard

With the Republican primary not even over and the general election months away, Davis is running hard for re-election and is more than willing to trade his tie for a blue plaid shirt and a pair of cowboy boots to campaign in Republican country.

Ever the consummate campaigner, Davis is an expert in turning lemons into lemonade. Not long after he released his budget, the agriculture community ferreted from it a proposal to eliminate vocational agriculture and therefore Future Farmers of America from state high schools.

Just as a grassroots campaign was being mounted to strike the proposal from the state budget, Davis beat his opponents to the punch and removed it himself. He took all the credit for correcting the error of his administration's ways.

Two dozen blue and gold-jacketed FFA members gave the governor a standing ovation when Davis pledged to keep FFA and high school vocational agriculture in his budget.

Weather for the show's opening was near perfect and the show grounds and parking lots were packed by mid-morning. However, two hours before the show closed for the day, parking lots were half empty and exiting traffic was light.

It was a stark contrast to farm show organizers' claim that the show is so big, farmers cannot take it all in even in three days. Apparently many needed only a half-day.

There are bright spots in California's agricultural economy, but they are few. It doesn't take long to visit what is billed as the largest farm show in the world and shop when there is little money in the bank, and the biggest draw of the day is the former chief of staff of a governor still referred to by many as Gov. Moonbeam.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com