Reporter’s weblog From Nebraska, USA

After writing my Global Assignment report from Nebraska, USA, (FW Features, March 16) about how growing maize for ethanol production is changing farmers’ fortunes on both sides of the Atlantic, I recorded my thoughts about the people and places I encountered. Here is my personal perspective on the visit to Grand Island, Nebraska courtesy of CaseIH to mark the 30th anniversary of its Axial Flow combines.

Sunday noon:

Lower myself nervously into an economy class seat of a 747 Jumbo jet at Heathrow airport soon (I hope) to take off for Chicago O’Hare, USA. Nervously for two reasons: First, I know enough about small aircraft to imagine what can go wrong with big ones. When given the choice, I always prefer to sit at the tail of an aircraft based on the assumption that they seldom reverse into the ground or mountains.

My second reason for apprehension is the potential proximity of wailing children. It’s not simply the terror of spending the next seven hours next to a tearful child. We have two children under five at home and I’m beginning to miss them already. Fortunately, no-one next to me is under 40. I’m surrounded by CaseIH personnel from the UK, Germany, France and Italy shepherding journalists from all four countries. This is to prove, at times, more difficult than herding cats.

Sunday evening:

Arrive Chicago O’Hare airport and queue to pass through immigration. Looking forward to this because days before departure I acquired (after spending four hours at the US Embassy in London) an I-visa required by all working journalists visiting the US. It’s too much for the immigration official who seems never to have seen one before.  He asks me to complete another form, crestfallen I comply and am admitted stateside.

Later on Sunday evening:

Learn our flight from O’Hare to Omaha, Nebraska has been delayed. Grab noodles with the CaseIH team and other journalists and a quick beer before our flight is called. Intrigued to learn that the bar we have chosen promotes responsible drinking – who doesn’t? One person is allowed only one drink and that is only handed over after the barman has seen your passport. Smile at quirky licensing laws before trudging wearily to the gate for boarding.

Even later on Sunday evening:

Smile vanishes on learning that our flight has been delayed for another two hours. Why? Troop back to bar with two diehard British journalists for more beer.

Very early Monday morning:

Dog tired, stagger onto small jet for local flight to Omaha, Nebraska still wondering why the delay? Intrigued to see ground crew struggling with a large box they are trying to shepherd into the hold. Notice a woman wearing a military uniform watching on. Then I notice the words on the box: “Human Remains” picked out in red on a white background. It’s not a box but a coffin.

The woman, dressed in military uniform salutes as the coffin moves into the hold then become visibly distressed. I feel overwhelmed by a mixture of emotions. So that’s why the flight was delayed – to await the coffin.

Early Monday morning:

Arrive in Omaha. Full six person military escort meets the coffin and someone drapes the US flag Old Glory over it as it descends the escalator. I’d no way of knowing whether the coffin contained someone who died in Iraq or Afghanistan or in the States. But, in one sense, it did not matter. The cortège underlined the tragedy of a human life cut short.

Stupefied by tiredness, collapse into coach seat for two hour drive to motel near Grand Island. Arrive hotel – collapse into bed for blessed sleep.

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Later Monday morning:

10am start – thank goodness. Breakfast and then bus to Grand Island, Nebraska for the Axial-Flow 30th Anniversary Celebration. During the half hour bus journey I see little but fields of maize – much destined for ethanol production. Pass a tourist attraction which features one solitary buffalo. I think of the millions that made the Mid West their home before the Europeans arrived.

At the company’s Grand Island plant we are treated to a razzmatazz roadshow to celebrate the contributions of Axial-Flow technology hosted by ring-master Gerry Salzman, senior director CaseIH global harvesting.

It rapidly becomes clear what an innovation Axial-Flow combines were and the corporate courage required by International Harvesters to develop the design. It’s a long corporate history which stretches back to Cyrus McCormick, who invented the mechanical reaper in 1834, and Jerome Increase Case who started selling threshers in 1842.

There’s a folksy feel to the day, as farmers from across the Mid West and Canada sit on straw bales and talk about how Axial-Flow combines have helped their business. Yes, it’s stage-managed but I’m impressed with the farmers’ sincerity – they really do value the contribution Axial-Flow combines have made to their farming and contracting businesses.

After lunch, which consists of half a side of beef per person, we tour the combine manufacturing plant with Brian Blakenship whose passion is combines. Our two-hour tour takes in every aspect of combine construction as Brian waxes lyrical about the 300 tests each combine has to pass.

There’s chance too to talk to Rick Tolman, chief executive officer of the National Corn Growers Association who is upbeat about the prospects for ethanol production in the US and its contribution to the economy.

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Tuesday Morning:

Husker Harvest Days Show, Grand Island. Like farm shows everywhere, groups of farmers tour the machinery exhibits, the seed and fertiliser merchants – but on an epic scale. The show is housed on the site of a Second World War armaments base so there’s lots of space.

I meet Randy Klein, director of the Nebraska Corn Development Board. It’s a good time to be a corn farmer in Nebraska, he tells me – and if demand for maize to produce ethanol increases at the rate experts predict – times will become even better. I view the new Puma Series tractor on CaseIH’s stand.

Evening: Arrive at Lincoln Airport, Nebraska; the field where Charles Lindbergh learned to fly in a Curtiss Jenny biplane in the 1920s. There’s a three-hour delay to our return flight to Chicago which is fine for me, a man who likes planes, but not my colleagues. I buy a beer and watch the aircraft  come and go – it’s a gorgeous sun-lit evening as corporate jets and family light aircraft land and take off. One wag who knows I hold both a US and UK private pilot’s licence, asks: Why don’t I charter a plane and fly us to Chicago? I point out I’m strictly a fair-weather pilot.

Bad weather in the Chicago area is backing up flights across the Mid West. Finally we board a small jet for the short flight to Chicago. There’s almost a holiday atmosphere aboard as our sassy, sparky female flight attendant delivers the usual safety information but with the voice of a young Lauren Baccall. “This is a no smoking flight,” she purrs. “So, boys, no messing with the smoke alarms in the bathrooms like at high school.”

While waiting for taxiing clearance she learns that there’s a party of agricultural journalists aboard and confides that her father grows 6,000 acres of potatoes in Idaho. Next she phones him on the family farm in Idaho to find out what type of potato harvester he uses. We taxi out to the runway and then we taxi back – the flight cancelled. As we file out of the aircraft, I shamelessly give her a free Farmers Weekly pen to give to her father. I think she is impressed.

Later that evening: Tension mounts as the passengers become hungry about an hour after the airport’s only restaurant closes. One enterprising woman passenger organises a collection and orders multiple pizzas from a local pizza store. Predictably five minutes before the pizza is due to arrive, we are asked to board another plane with another crew.

The situation threatens to turn ugly as famished passengers reluctantly trudge on board. Seconds before we push back from the terminal, a state trooper, who our pizza leader had befriended, walks on the plane loaded with take away pizza. Bless. The ham and pineapple was particularly good.

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Visit CaseIH’s Burr Ridge Plant just outside the city. I’m particularly impressed by the virtual reality technology that allows one to walk into the guts of a tractor to inspect the engine’s innards.

Travel with my colleagues back to Chicago airport for their return to Heathrow. I’m staying an extra night in order to do a telephone interview with US agriculture secretary Mike Johanns the following day.

Thursday morning:

Thank God, no early start. No bus. No schedule. Saunter down to breakfast at a leisurely 9am. Intrigued by breakfast special of omelette chilli con carne. Opt for more traditional waffle, maple syrup and bacon.

Panic at the sudden thought that the  United States Department of Agriculture office might call at any time. My interview with the agriculture secretary is scheduled for 12.45pm Eastern Standard Time. Remind front desk for the third time I’m expecting a call from Washington.

Thursday lunchtime:

Phone rings, Mike Johanns’ PA asks me to hold and I wait nervously before Mike speaks. He seems genuinely friendly and appears to answer my questions with a candour and directness that was seldom seen at DEFRA during the tenure of Margaret Beckett. Scribble furiously his replies as I curse myself (yet again) for not learning shorthand. Surprised when he lists, by implication, CaseIH Axial-Flow combines in a long list of US agricultural innovations. It is enough to swell the heart of any Case executive. 

After a twenty minute conversation – five more minutes than I was promised – Mike suddenly says: “You have a good day now.” I mumble thanks and collapse exhausted after 20 minutes sustained conversation and note taking.

Since the sun is over the yard arm I repair to the hotel bar to regroup. The interview is to form the basis of an In the Hot Seat feature for Farmers Weekly’s News Section. So, armed with a Red Stripe beer, I edit his answers to my questions.

Thursday afternoon:

Feeling smugly self satisfied I travel by taxi to O’Hare. Hours early for my 8.15pm flight and nonchalantly join the queue. Smile indulgently as latecomers for the 5.30pm flight to Heathrow are efficiently invited to queue jump.

My turn to check in:  Horror. I’ve arrived 24hours too early. Dumpkopf, Confidence shattered I’m relegated to the standby queue for the 5.30pm flight.

Thursday late afternoon:

Abjectly queue. My mild relief at being first in the queue sours when a host of latecomers means there’s little chance of catching any flight tonight. I’m asked to return to the standby queue by 7.45pm. Fortified by two beers I return 30 minutes early to be told there’s a good chance of finding a flight.

5 minutes later:

Hopes dashed by more late arrivals – further reducing my chances of flying out tonight. Sit on the floor and contemplate the Diamond Sutra: All life is suffering.

Seconds later the woman in charge calls: Passenger Stones. I leap up as if propelled by an ejector seat. A previous boarding pass is pressed into my hand and I bound off with minutes to spare before the gate closes.

I really do want to make this flight. Overtake a wheelchair bound traveller, throw my hand luggage into the electronic scanner and prepare to leap through the security arch – only to be told to step back and remove my shoes. Horror. De-shoed I return to the security point seconds too late to beat a young man with special needs who is laboriously being helped to extricate himself from a wheelchair before passing through before me. It took him three tries to pass the arch, while I fumed with impatience.

The officer in charge apologises to me for my delay. Reality kicks in. I feel inch high to a maggot as I grab my gear and spring for Gate 11. Gasping for breath as I reach the gate only to be told the flight has been delayed for an hour. “Take it easy sir – you need a rest.”

Now, that was some of the best advice I received during my visit stateside.

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