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Paynesville Press - March 24, 2004

Farmer studies methods in Mexico, Costa Rica

By Bonnie Jo Hanson

While studying agriculture methods in Mexico and Costa Rica for two weeks in February, local farmer John Mages learned that each country practices agriculture differently, yet similarly, to Minnesota.

Mages, who farms northwest of Lake Henry, took a trip to Mexico and Costa Rica with Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership, a two-year leadership program for farmers and other people interested in agriculture. During a week in Mexico and another in Costa Rica, the group of 28, mostly farmers, had an opportunity to study agricultural practices in both countries.

John in field Mages, who had traveled abroad only for vacations previously - began his trip with a severe case of culture shock in Mexico City, the Mexican capital with a population of over 27 million. He was amazed by the size of the city and by the large number of street people.

John Mages studies crops in a research field in Mexico during a recent two-week educational trip to Mexico and Costa Rica with the Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership program.

While in the city, the farmers visited an 800-acre wholesale market through which over 30 percent of Mexico's food passes each day. To the American farmers' dismay, the market had no refrigeration, and butchers cut each piece of meat - primarily beef - as it was ordered.

In Queretaro, each class member stayed with a host family, and Mages began to see some of the differences and similarities between Mexican and Minnesotan farms. Mexican farmers raise a lot of beef cattle and grow a lot corn and grains, like Minnesotans, but they also grow winter vegetables and have very few dairy farms, making it necessary for Mexico to import milk products.

Farms in Mexico also differ from Minnesotans farms in size. Mexican farms are either very large commercial farms, or very small - less than 10 acres - family farms, according to Mages. On small farms, Mexicans grow food just to support themselves and their families.

There weren't many farms in between, said Mages, adding that there didn't seem to be much of a middle class in any of the the areas he visited, including a factory town where some New Holland tractors are made.

The only large farm the group visited was owned by the Mexican government and grew food for the military. Even large farms in Mexico are not as a technologically advanced as farms in Minnesota. Large equipment is scarce in Mexico, because finding financing for large equipment is difficult, said Mages. Because of this, much of the work on Mexican farms, even large ones, is done by hand.

One of the highlights of his week in Mexico was a visit to a large crop research facility. Mages learned that the facility was located less than 35 miles from the place where corn was first cultivated by the Aztec Indians. The goal of the research center is to develop better crops for Third World countries.

Weighing Bananas The class spent the second week of their trip in Costa Rica. Here they saw farms that were more similar in size and technology to the ones they left in Minnesota, but the crops that dominate fields in Costa Rica were very different from Minnesota.

Bananas and pineapples are the primary crops grown in Costa Rica. Here, a farm worker weighs bananas before shipping them. The two-week trip to Mexico and Costa Rica was just on part of the two-year course that taught Mages how to be a better leader.

Costa Rica is a large producer of pineapples and bananas. With land values rising in Hawaii, Costa Rica has become one of the largest pineapple producers in the world. Pineapple production is lucrative, with one acre of pineapples netting about $12,000 per year, said Mages.

The country also produces enough beef, pork, and dairy to support itself; produces sugar cane to export; and coffee to export, too, though this commodity faces stiff competition from other coffee-growing countries, said Mages.

Farming methods in Costa Rica were very similar to Minnesota. The dairy farms Mages visited were modern facilities with automatic milking systems and bulk tanks, much like the ones his neighbors use. One thing that surprised Mages was that cows in Costa Rica eat pineapples and bananas, as neither corn nor soybeans are grown in the Central American nation.

Another difference to Minnesota is that most farmers and farm workers in Costa Rica live in villages and either drive or walk to work on the country's farms.

Mages assumed that Costa Rica would be environmentally sensitive because of its rain forests, and he was right. However, he was surprised to see that conservation practices were not applied in all situations. Manure handling was much less restricted than in Minnesota, and Mages saw other areas that could use some improvement, including a sawmill that sent its waste down a hill into a stream.

The trip wasn't all work. While most of the days were filled with visits to ag facilities and meetings with agricultural leaders from both countries, the group also had the opportunity to do some touring. Mages enjoyed his visits to churches in Mexico and to a large waterfall in Costa Rica.

Mages has spent a year and a half in his leadership-training classes. Every month participants took part in three-day classes in a different Minnesota city. The class will continue through the summer, when the group graduates from the course.

To Mages's surprise, one of the first class activities was to visit a large department store where they were taught to dress like leaders. Other activities included a visit to the state capital (where the group met their local legislators and discussed agricultural policies with state leaders), a visit to taconite mines and lumber operations near Bemidji, a trip to the Moorhead area to learn about sugar beet production, and a visit to Washington D.C. to meet with local representatives and discuss farm issues.

Mages, a cash grain farmer, entered the program because he wanted to develop leadership skills. He believes he made some valuable contacts from all over the state and he gained leadership skills he can apply to his position on the state board of the Minnesota Corn Grower's Association, to his job as a religious education teacher at St. Margaret's Church in Lake Henry, and to his career as a farmer.

Mages also learned that Minnesota farmers need leaders that aren't afraid to speak out and let state and national leaders know what farmers need. "I learned that you've got to speak up for rural America, because nobody else will do it for you," said Mages.

Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership will soon be forming its third class. To be eligible, applicants must complete a written application and an essay. Of those accepted, two-thirds will be agricultural producers, and one-third will be involved in agri-business or other areas of agricultural leadership.

Participants also need to provide letters of reference and - because of the time commitment involved with the program - letters from their employers (if not self-employed) and from their spouses indicating their approval. Applications are available at, or by calling 507-537-6280. The application deadline is Wednesday, March 31.

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