A man who grew up in dryland North Otago was lured by irrigation to the other side of the world. Oamaru Mail reporter Sally Brooker caught up with John McLeod and his wife, Meredith, during their recent return to Oamaru.
John McLeod has ended up diagonally across the Pacific Ocean from where he started.
After being raised on a hill country sheep and beef farm in North Otago, Mr McLeod now grows vast crops of potatoes in a drought climate in eastern Washington State. He took the scenic route to get there.
Mr McLeod and his five sisters lived on a farm at Enfield. During his third year of agricultural science at Lincoln University in 1976, an extension trip took him to Oregon State University and an irrigated farm in eastern Oregon.
“I fell in love with that,” he said.
The Enfield farm was too steep to be irrigated.
While studying for a Master’s degree in South Dakota, Mr McLeod met his future wife, Meredith, a microbiology student.
After graduating, Mr McLeod returned briefly to New Zealand, then headed to Libya for three months. When he moved to Saudi Arabia, Mrs McLeod was able to join him.
For three years he worked for a Saudi prince, producing grain. The prince feared his country would be the victim of grain embargoes enforced by the rest of the world in retaliation for the Saudi oil embargoes.
The McLeods formed close friendships with neighbours in their “compound”, including a Syrian couple who milked goats by hand to make feta cheese. They also knew Egyptians who had hundreds of nesting pigeons in adobe houses about 20m tall, from which droppings were gathered as fertiliser.
When Mrs McLeod learned she was pregnant, the couple planned to go to the United States. However, upon finding they were having twins, they chose New Zealand to avoid paying high costs for the second baby.
Their sons spent their first two years on the Enfield farm.
The family then had a year in Tasmania, where Mr McLeod worked on a turf farm.
“They grew interesting things there,” Mr McLeod said – poppies for the pharmaceutical industry and fennel as a liqueur flavouring.
A job Mr McLeod had teed up back in Saudi Arabia eventually “fell over”. Mrs McLeod and the boys were living with her parents in South Dakota, but Mr McLeod had previously surrendered the “green card” that gave him United States residency. He was not allowed in.
To avoid a long-term separation, they all lived in New Zealand for six months while they sorted out the situation.
In 1990 they returned to Oregon.
“I always wanted to go back to the irrigation area,” Mr McLeod said.
He worked for a South Korean company that owned a large corporate farm. He was in charge of growing sweetcorn and wheat before being recruited by a man who specialised in growing potatoes in eastern Washington – just over the border.
Mr McLeod held a management position on that family’s farm for 16 years.
“That got us our start. We did sweetcorn contracting on our own, then potato contracting.”
Centre pivot irrigation originated there, although Nebraska became the manufacturing hub.
The Pasco area where they live has only 152mm of rainfall a year. The McLeods are dependent on irrigation water from the Colombia River, to which they add fertiliser and inject fungicides, herbicides, and some insecticides.
“It’s pretty insane. Some are a matter of ounces per acre.”
Mr McLeod is a licensed chemical applicator. He has flow metres on all irrigator circles and proportioning pumps to account for varying inputs.
He uses only overhead irrigation.
“The standards are improving all the time.”
The McLeods do not own any land; they grow potato crops under contract to French fries processors.
Potatoes cannot be grown for at least three years on land where they have been harvested. Fumigation technology is used to ensure the soil is free of pathogens.
Mr McLeod grows the Umatilla or Clearwater varieties in 40ha to 60ha paddocks that are harvested mechanically.
A team of staff has to pull out any foreign material quickly as 60 to 100 tons of potatoes an hour go past on an “eliminator”. There are hefty fines if the crop arrives with rocks in it.
They are carted on 18-wheeled semi trucks. In a 12-hour shift, the workers fill an average of 30 trucks and up to 38. The processors want deliveries 24 hours a day.
The McLeods employ a crew of Mexicans for the harvest. The same ones, or relatives of the original crew, come back each year.
“They like working for us. We look after them,” Mrs McLeod said.
That included making cold water and soda freely available during the extremely hot, long days.
One year the harvest was halted by a bizarre find – hundreds of World War 2 mortars in a 10ha field that had never been dug for potatoes. Fighter pilots had used the area for target practice with dummy bombs.
Mr McLeod said he will continue growing potatoes until he retires, despite the industry being “at a low point in terms of grower returns”.
The processors control prices by creating “a managed over-supply”.
The 2018 contracts have not yet been sorted, whereas the McLeods have already spent half a million dollars on them.
Mr McLeod is chairman of the Washington potato growers’ association, a bargaining agent that negotiates with processors.
“There are steadily declining numbers of growers because of consolidation.”
The French fry manufacturers were making record returns, but they were focusing on their shareholders, not their suppliers, he said.
There is no subsidy for potatoes in the United States.
Meanwhile, back at Enfield, the McLeods’ farm has been sold out of the family and converted to dairying.
“It’s a tough piece of land to making a living off of,” Mr McLeod said.
“The last time I made a cycle trip through there, it looked great.”
He and his wife visit his parents and sisters in Oamaru in the summer, while snow lies in eastern Washington.
Through their own contacts and a cousin who is a crop adviser in Timaru, they host New Zealand potato-growers in the States and have plenty of offers of accommodation when they’re here.