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California farm expo benefits from a bumper crop of prosperity

Rising commodity prices may be stoking inflation worries abroad and starting to pinch U.S. consumers at the grocery store, but for farmers strolling the grounds of the world’s largest farm equipment show the good times are rolling.

People good-naturedly jostled to be the first to test drive John Deere’s new skid loader at the World Ag Expo, a 60-acre stretch of dusty earth and buffed machinery. They smiled as they flocked to place orders for new combines, cotton balers and top-of-the-line tractors.

They crowded around Case IH’s bright red Steiger Quadtrac tractor, its “luxury package” decked out with heated leather seats, a cellphone charging station and a place to plug in an iPod. As they flagged down dealers, farmers barely seemed to blink at the price tag: $575,000.

“When times are good, you have to invest in your operation,” said Harlan Reese, 52, a wheat and corn farmer from Illinois. “It’s expensive to farm right now. But times are still good.”

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Indeed, agriculture has been touted by both the White House and Congress as one of the economy’s few bright spots. Commodity prices are soaring to historic highs and farm exports are booming.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has forecast that agricultural exports are expected to reach a record $126.5 billion in fiscal 2011, up $13.5 billion from forecasts made last summer and an increase of $17.8 billion over 2010’s tallies.

That’s good for California’s farm sector. The state’s nut, citrus, alfalfa and other crops are an enormous industry, generating $34 billion a year from more than 25 million acres of farmland.

Not that there haven’t been challenges for the Golden State, particularly here in Central California. The dairy industry is slowly recovering from a collapse of milk prices. Access to water has long been a problem for farmers here, particularly in recent years.

But a diverse crop mix has helped many of the state’s farmers fight off the effects of the recession. A healthy snowpack bodes well for water supplies, and foreign demand is strong for California rice, grains, strawberries, citrus and nuts.

According to data from the state Department of Food and Agriculture, California is the nation’s biggest producer of tree nuts. Though 2009 sales declined in some of the state’s top export markets — Canada, the European Union and Japan — nut sales were strong in Mexico and surged in other Asian countries, where government trade envoys and the state’s nut associations have been doing some aggressive marketing.

In China, imports of U.S.-grown pistachios jumped 56% in 2009 from a year earlier, almond sales grew 70% and walnut sales exploded a whopping 2,165%. Similar booms were seen in U.S. almond, pistachio and walnut exports to South Korea, Taiwan and India. Industry experts predict that 2010 figures will show similar results, with continued growth this year.

When the farm industry is healthy, so too is the World Ag Expo, which is a cross between a state fair and a sports car showroom.

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“Business is better than last year,” said Steven Knudsen, a spokesman for the event. “When people are smiling, you know that things are good.”

Father Rob Eaton sees the signs. For the past decade, the priest of St. John Episcopal Church in Tulare and volunteers from his parish have set up a plywood booth at this event, selling snacks and offering to pray with those in need. In years past, the prayer request book lying on a nearby card table was stuffed full with pleas for divine aid to save businesses and marriages.

This year, there are plenty of blank pages in the book.

The three-day expo, which ends Thursday, on the grounds of the International Agri-Center attracts an estimated 100,000 visitors, who munch on tri-tip sandwiches and kick tractor tires that are more than 6 feet tall. Some farmers flew in from overseas, hungry to cut deals with local producers to buy their crops, discuss orders for commercial equipment or check out the latest technologies.

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The crowd admired machines designed to sanitize dairy barns. Farmers clustered around computers loaded with software to control the amount of seed and water used on fields. They clamored inside tractors designed to emit a fraction of the pollutants of older machines.

At the Case IH booth, Indiana grain farmers Dennis Norland and his wife, Tiffany, squeezed between a crew of Asian rice farmers and a cluster of coffee growers from Brazil, and climbed into the cab of the enormous Steiger Quadtrac tractor. It was as if they were Lilliputians exploring Gulliver’s garage.

“Oh, this seat is really comfortable,” Tiffany said. Her husband sighed. They want to upgrade their farm equipment to meet new federal rules requiring lower pollutant emissions.

“It’s a lot,” Dennis said of the half-million-plus price tag.

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He glanced down at a nearby sign. It advertised financing: 0% interest for the first two years.

Tempting, but they kept shopping.

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com


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