"I've had two goals in the tour," said Congressman Blunt. "First, to get community leaders like chamber of commerce directors and school superintendents who don't think about agriculture on a daily basis to see how important ag is to the community and the economy. Secondly, the tour has given the media a chance to talk about ag in a positive way for a few days."
This year's tour offered a wide range of examples illustrating both traditional farming practices and unexpected innovations.
"All the jobs related to agriculture don't create an immediate contact with the farm," Blunt said. "There are thousands of jobs in southwest Missouri that are directly connected to agriculture."
One of the less likely innovations showed up on the first day of tour stops with a visit to the Koi fish farm in Neosho run by Jerry McBride and his family. Blunt observed the McBrides have taken several Japanese breeds of the fish and bred them in 27 ponds over 40 acres. The family gets the fish from all over the world and over a dozen years has developed a business selling them throughout the United States. A single fish can be valued at several hundred dollars.
Other tour stops
The Kingsley brothers operate a 2,000-acre crop farm in the Miller area. Kiman and Kaleb grow wheat, soybeans and corn on land that has been in the family for four generations. Crop rotation has continued to be a key to maintaining high yields.
The family business expanded in 2003 when the brothers bought their first airplane with spraying capacity. Plane Cents Aviation was founded and has since expanded to five planes, mostly Piper Pawnees with a recently added turbine-engine Grumman aircraft.
Kiman told the group the planes service customers west to Lamar in Barton County and into Kansas as far as Fort Scott and Pittsburg. Others fly south to Barry County and other southwest Missouri towns. Planes can drop high energy blend trace minerals to fertilize traditional row crops or help Pecan orchards in Kansas.
Planes can carry enough fuel to reach customers 70 miles away. Kiman said the planes can spray 100 acres an hour. In addition to brothers Kaland and Kevin, who work primarily with the aviation end of the operation, the Kingsley brothers employ eight people.
At the nearby Shining Cross Farms, run by Jim and Mary Lou McCann, tour participants heard about contrasts in farming styles between southwest Missouri and western states. Jim McCann grew up in the livestock business in Texas and the couple moved to Missouri from Arizona.
"There's a graphic difference in the industry in the West and here," McCann said. "I was wise enough when I came here to recognize I didn't known anything about what to do with livestock here. I availed myself of grazing schools from the Extension Service.
"At one class the instructor said a cow should not need to walk 800 feet to drink water," McCann recalled. "I said where I came from, a cow had to walk 800 feet between blades of grass and five miles to find water. Livestock here are much more pampered than in the West. We put steers on a mountain out there at the end of May and may not see them again till October. I see them here daily."
McCann said drier weather keeps down flies in the West, and cattle kept farther apart have less problems with bacteria and disease.
"Livestock is pampered here out of necessity," McCann said.
The McCanns have more than 150 beef cattle on their farm of 140 acres. They use rotational grazing and have switched to big blue stem grass and alfalfa to get away from the toxicity that comes from the fescue endophyte.
In an effort to diversify, the McCanns now use embryo implants and work with seed stock operators. A large part of their business is finishing cattle. Presently, the farm has 300 head of cattle being raised to 900 pounds each. The cattle were sold at auction by video in January and will be ready for delivery next week.
The McCanns also operate a freezer business, selling the cattle privately to individuals who process the beef to use for themselves. Animals are slaughtered by Lockwood Meat Packaging. The McCanns are paid for the hanging carcass and the customer pays for the processing. The McCanns have run the freezer business for three years, and volume has doubled each year.
On the second day of the tour, the first stop was the Earl Dotson dairy farm north of Marionville. The Dotsons have a traditional dairy operation of 80 Holsteins on a farm that extends for more than 500 acres.
Earl Dodson explained that previous acquisition of land has been key to the farm's success. The farm produces around 140 acres of hay and forage, plus more than 100 acres of corn. At one point Dodson was growing 200 acres of alfalfa. All the feed needed for the animals is grown on the farm. A large quantity is put into storage and the rest is sold.
The dairy herd is limited to 80 head out of convenience, Dodson said. The operation produces all of its own replacement heifers. Bulls used to be kept but are now sold as babies.
"I believe a small dairy still has a place in the big picture," Dodson said. "I think we can keep cows in production longer. We have one cow for 10 years, thanks to hands-on personal care."
Dodson said his operation has also benefitted from past purchases and buying equipment from farmers who were retiring. He has the biggest combine John Deere made 30 years ago still in use.
The last Lawrence County stop was at the 10-acre Nancy Halcomb farm north of McKinley on the Christian County line. Skip Mourglia, a forester with the Unite States Department of Agriculture's Conservation Service, explained Halcomb has a problem quite common after the 2007 ice storm.
The forest canopy was broken by the ice storm, allowing much more sunlight to reach the forest floor. The light stimulated growth of a variety of invasive species, particularly Japanese honeysuckle. Subsequent growth of the honeysuckle has made the forest practically impenetrable and choked out other plants.
Under the Natural Resources Conservation Service's Environmental Quality Improvement Program (EQIP), a cost-share is available for clearing the forest floor. Mourglia had a program staffer on hand to run a forestry grinder machine made by the Fecon company. This was a tractor mounted "brush hog on steroids" that ground up everything, from trees to rocks, leaving a mulch-like covering of woody debris on the forest floor. The machine cleared an acre and a half in five hours.
Mourglia said participation in EQIP requires having a forest management plan. The plants will resprout because of their root system. The honeysuckle can be brought under control with timely spraying in November and March when other plant varieties are dormant.
As a result, Mourglia said Halcomb would be able to re-establish paths and be able to enjoy her forest again.
The 2010 Agriculture Tour was planned as the last Blunt would host as he leaves the post of Seventh District Congressman. All families who had participated in past tours were invited to participate in a luncheon in Springfield on the second day.