Nine thousand miles is a long haul to buy a cotton picker. Tack on another 9,000 miles to get home and you have the makings of an epic journey or a geographical accident. Throw in a couple of Australians kicking up Delta dirt in Mississippi, and the story takes on a surreal quality — a cotton odyssey.

But behind the odd circumstances are two Australian farmers with a granite grasp of farming and a blunt recognition of the problems facing agriculture. Despite breaking ground on the other side of the globe, they share a worldview strikingly similar to American farmers.

It was rain that put producer Ian Hayllor, Dalby, Queensland, and his son Jimmy on the road to the United States in search of a cotton picker. Starting in December of 2010, Queensland (Australia’s second largest state and more than twice the size of Texas) was hit with its worst floods in 130 years. The scope of damage was massive, with three-quarters of the state declared a disaster zone. “We got more rain in the last two years than we’d got in the previous 10. We thought we had a flood-free farm. It was a shock. We said, ‘It’s not coming in the house; it’s not.’ But it started coming in, almost through the floorboards — a foot deep. When the water went down, we washed the silt out of the house. The flood then came back. We cleaned up again and got on with it,” remembers Ian.

With the Hayllor’s farmland under water and prospects grim for crop production, their focus was on surviving the season. The Australian growing season is generally the polar opposite from its American counterpart. Despite the floods hitting in December and January, fields were still full of maturing crops.

“You could drive a boat across the farm from one end to the other,” says Jimmy.

The flood’s time frame coincided with Australia’s John Deere purchase window on new pickers. With his farm swamped and facing far greater concerns than a new picker, Ian let the Deere deadline roll by, despite having wanted to buy a round baler. When the water receded, irrigation ditches needed rebuilding; fields were full of silt; and furrows had to be put in. Without hesitation, Ian describes it as “the busiest time of our lives.”

After he got the operation back in order, his farm was blessed with a good run of weather and Ian found himself preparing for harvest with fair expectations of a limited crop. He knew his yields would be poor: “Some of the crops just looked dead, but they came back. We actually only lost 300 total acres to dead crops. But the season was so wet that all our acreage, dryland or not, just didn’t yield well.”

Mississippi round baler

With the next planting season looming, Ian made his move for a new cotton picker. He could have waited until 2012 and purchased one in Australia, but the stress of the season had taken a toll.

“If it had been a perfect season, we probably wouldn’t be over here in the U.S. It would have been clockwork like always and we wouldn’t have worried,” admits Jimmy.

Instead, Ian seized the moment and purchased a picker directly from the U.S. An import agent located a used Deere round baler at Parker Tractor in Tunica, Miss., and Ian bought it while the Australian dollar was trading at an unreal rate against the U.S. dollar ($1.10 as compared with the normal rate of about 75 cents). Even with a $70,000 shipping charge, Ian was quite satisfied with his find.

Australian cotton is already moving toward round balers. “There are a lot of round balers going to Australia, and if we left it for another year, our second-hand equipment would get less and less valuable as we see more and more round balers. We’ve been able to sell our existing machines for quite a reasonable price, to help pay for the new one. We’re selling two 9976 pickers — four-row and six-row, and then buying the one round baler, which we hope will do the job,” says Ian.

Before buying the round baler, he’d been running three module builders and three boll buggies, with the requisite workers to run them. “We’re looking at cutting back on labor and making the farm more efficient. The boys are getting fed up with working 24 hours a day, for some reason. I’m trying to make life easier for everyone, and the baler picker is a one-man operation; so we go from having eight to 10 staff, back to two or three. That’s the attraction.”

Custom-harvesters were never an option for the Hayllors. “We’ve got 12 months of hard work in that crop, and we’re not going to risk it on a contractor that may not turn up,” says Ian.

“There are custom-harvesters, but we want to pick our own. Why let someone else have all the fun?” adds Jimmy.

Like an apostle of self-sufficiency, Ian clearly wants his machine in his shed, on his land, ready to pick his cotton. Back in the 1980s, he ran a major custom-harvesting operation, but wisely sold out just before harvesting outfits popped up everywhere. “We sold all our pickers to buy land. Land is a better asset than machinery — and we slowly built up our business.”

Mineral rights

It would be difficult to find a more articulate spokesman for agriculture than Ian Hayllor. He speaks with calm confidence and seems at equal ease discussing clogged irrigation pumps and tractors — or genetic science and the fine print of agricultural legislation. It’s no exaggeration to describe Ian as having a finger on the pulse of Australian agriculture. He serves on a host of Australian ag committees and boards: Surat Basin Engagement Group, NFF CSG Task Force, Arrow Surat Community Reference Group, Origin Technical Information Group, Healthy Head Waters Programme and is chair of the Environmental and Property Protection Assoc Inc (EPPA). But despite the lengthy resume — he’d rather talk boots-on-the-ground farming.

Throw Ian a question about farming — and expect a thorough answer. When asked about what challenges Australian farmers face, Ian pulls no punches: He doesn’t trust the mineral companies, has no patience with the environmental ‘greens’, and believes the government is a broken machine. It’s plain talk — and he backs it up with a litany of examples.

Australia is in the midst of a historic mining explosion and the repercussions have slammed against the agriculture industry. Coal mines and natural gas wells are sucking cash out of the Queensland ground. They’re also draining the Australian labor pool, paying up to $200,000 per year to anyone willing to drive a truck underground for a 12-hour shift or run a drill a mile underground. Ian said he had just lost a 21-year-old farmhand who bolted for a $120,000 start-up wage at the mines.

Such is life on the playing fields of Western capitalism. However, there is far more to the picture: the playing fields in Australia are by no means level. They are tilted toward the ‘company’ at a 90-degree angle. In Australia, anything that is underground belongs to the government and not the farmer. Period. Full-stop.

Regardless of what is below a farmer’s soil, the mineral rights belong to the suits-and-ties in government. The mineral rights are sold by the government to mining companies, and the landowners get ‘interference compensation’ at a rate of $5,000 to $10,000 per well each year. If a natural gas well (maybe in the middle of cotton field) generates $1 million annually and is projected to have a 15-year run — then the register rings at $15 million for the company/government and the landowner gets $75,000-$150,000 (minus 15 years of lost crop production).

“The government sells the companies the lease, giving them the legal right to come on your property. You can’t stop them … you can never stop them. The government is basically selling eminent domain to the gas company,” describes Ian.

The farming implications are immeasurable: “They’ll only take about 2 to 3 percent of our land, but if they put a road the wrong way across a field, it’s going to have a tremendous impact — drainage and machinery operation. They’re gas people and they don’t understand farming. Our government is broke. They cannot manage the finances of Australia, and so they rely on the energy sector — gas, coal, iron ore. Agriculture is not respected by government.”

Another of Ian’s concerns (paralleling U.S. farmers) is a shortage of water. Australian farmers are grinding it out with ‘greens’ and government over water restrictions and cuts in allocations.

Water wars, cotton yields

“The water issue is a big debate at present. We just had two of the wettest years on record, but they’re talking about taking back 60 percent of allocations. It’s massive, the biggest irrigation area in Australia and the green environmentalists want to take away 60 percent of our water,” Ian says.

He believes the water constraints have only just begun.

“I think you’re going to face cutback after cutback for the next fifty years. The greens, they’d like to shut down agriculture if they could. I’m not sure what we’d eat, but they don’t quite understand the real world. They buy their food in shops, so they don’t really need agriculture.”

For all his frustration with regulations and restrictions, Ian’s sheer enthusiasm for agriculture is undaunted. Born in England, (about as geographically removed from a cotton field as one could get) Ian took a vacation to Australia in 1980 — and never left, becoming a poster-child for self-sufficiency: “I went to Australia and loved the blue skies and open spaces. I was 23 years old. While in Australia, I was lucky enough to meet an English farmer who was looking to buy an Australian farm. We knew each other for a week — and bought a farm together. I stayed and he went back to England. I don’t have a cotton background — no cotton grown in England. I started off and built up the business over the last 30 years.”

When Ian talks cotton, his sentences are punctuated with expectation and he says 2012 could be a tremendous year for Australia. Ian grows Sicot 71 BRF and it’s been an incredibly good yielder. He estimates that his cotton fields have seen a 2.5 percent yield increase annually for the past 30 years — with half the increase attributed to improved variety and the other half from improved management. Over the last 20 years, Ian’s bales-per-acre average has been in the 3.5-3.75 range. “When I first started growing cotton, 3 bales was a very good crop. Now if you don’t hit 5 bales, you cry.”

Overall, Australian cotton yield numbers are outstanding. “This year they’re saying the very best crops brought 7 bales to the acre. That is hard to believe. You could walk on it and not fall through. But we’ve seen 5.5-bale cotton on our farm, and there are farms that average 6-bale cotton. We were jealous, because with the flood we only averaged 3 bales, our worst average in 20 years.”

Admittedly, Ian’s farm role is a balancing act — with his time divided between regulatory issues and government battles, while Jimmy is hands-on at the farm. With wife Deb, Jimmy and another son Dan, Ian farms approximately 9,000 acres. This coming season, he hopes to plant 3,500 acres of cotton (half of it irrigated); 2,500 acres of wheat; and the rest of the acreage in corn and sorghum. Beyond government red tape, water problems, and environmental legislation, day-to-day farm operation is what Ian thrives on.

Kangaroos and cockatoos

He’ll soon have a John Deere round baler stirring up kangaroos and cockatoos as it runs the rows of his Queensland farm. It seems odd, but kangaroos can be a serious crop pest. “They are not a real problem in cotton, but they sure are in wheat. If you’ve got an irrigated crop and everything else is dry, they all come to the crop and eat it. There are people who are professional kangaroo shooters — that’s what they do for a living. But some farmers, because there are so many of them, have to just go and shoot them.”

On Ian Hayllor’s farm, the wildlife is different and the geography is flipped, but his feel for the land is no different from any American farmer. “I love seeing things grow. There is nothing more rewarding — on the cropping side — than having a really good crop. Everybody is happy when you’re harvesting a good crop. You can work with family; it’s a family concern. The kids grow up, and they were farming as soon as they could walk. They used to love helping to irrigate — playing in the mud and water. It’s that family atmosphere.”

Australia’s 2012 cotton harvest will begin in April; Ian and his Mississippi Delta picker will be waiting. “We’ve been looking forward to ending this last cotton crop — it was difficult and disappointing. But we’re starting the new one already. It’s the next challenge and there’s something new around the corner,” says Ian.

“You drive around and see a good crop, then you can’t stop smiling.” In that regard, maybe 9,000 miles isn’t that far after all.