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    US stories through Eisenhower Fellowship

    The writer used to study in the US but now came back for a 2-month research as one of the first Vietnamese receiving the Eisenhower Fellowship 60 years after this program was established (since October 14th 1953). Follows are some stories shared by the writer beyond his research program.

     Agricultural Productivity:

    Together with other delegates to the Global Farmers Roundtable taking place as part of the World Food Prize program in Des Moines, Iowa, I visited Bill Couser, the owner of Couser Cattle Company in Nevada, Iowa. Bill, his wife, his son, and 5 workers, a total of 8 persons, manage 5,000 acres (2,000 hectares) of farm land growing corn and soybean, and raising 3,500 beef cattle every year.

    At current prices of corn and beef, Bill family has the following annual revenue:

    5,000 acres x 160 bushel x US$ 4.2/bushel = US$ 3,360,000

    3,500 beef cattle x US$ 1,040/cattle (800 pound each on average) = US$ 3,640,000

    Total: US$ 7,000,000, or US$ 875,000 per person.

    Bill's family owns just about 50% of the acreage. The remaining area is leased from other landlords who have left agriculture for other industries but still keep their land ownership. It took Bill's family a few generations to accumulate the area they have now. The average acreage managed by a US farm family has increased from a few hectares hundreds of years ago to a few dozens some decades ago and to hundreds today. Though accounting for only 1.2% of the population, US farmers are capable of feeding the whole US while still having huge surplus to export to other countries, including Vietnam, at very competitive prices. US corn and soybean production cost is 30-40% lower than that of Vietnam. This explains why though these commodities have to cross thousands of kilometers on land and then on the ocean, they are still saleable in Asia, as well as all over the world.

    How could Bill's family do such a great amount of work? The tripartite combination of mechanical engineering, information technology and biology technology has created incredible productivity for US farmers. It's normal for huge combines worth hundreds of thousands of US dollars each to plant or harvest dozens of hectares in an 8-hour shift. These machines, furthermore, can run by themselves. They record planting itineraries so when the time of harvest comes they receive satellite signals to adjust themselves and to follow those same itineraries. While harvesting the machines also record yield data on each 10m2 cell of land to report to Bill. With all that information Bill can program his next season on where to add more fertilizers, where to add more seeds, where to tile the land against waterlogging, etc. For both corn and soybean the machines perform the same harvest routine: They would collect the corn (or bean), clean them and store them in a tank. The remaining stalks would be cut into pieces and scatter on the field at the same time as fertilizer for the next season. The corn (or bean) collected in the tank can be pumped directly onto trucks to go to ethanol plants, traders or to be stored in bigger silos. 

    Harvesting corn by machines (illustrative picture)

    Bill can choose to use either traditional natural seeds at about US$ 7/bushel or GM ones at about US$ 250/bushel. With GM seeds Bill’s work becomes more simple and more profitable as these seeds are resistant to drought, insects, pests, fungi and other diseases.

    Bill and his workers can operate various types of machines, including welding machines, lathes, cutting machines, drilling machines, etc to repair most of the farming equipment themselves. Bill of course uses with ease various computer softwares to compare and consider seeds, weather data, land analysis data, etc as an agronomist and to decide when to sell, or even sell in advance (futures) as a professional trader.

    A farm like Bill’s needs lots of capital for equipment, I guess it is worth at least a few millions of US$. Where did Bill get the money to invest? “I mortgaged the land I own to get loans for equipment purchases. I can pay off those loans now but I am using them as working capital to store my crops. If interest rate gets over 5% I will pay off all these loans to avoid risks.”

    Is Bill supported by the US government? “Besides agricultural insurance (by which farmers will be compensated for if their output falls under 75% of the average) I need no other support.” Bill said. Does Bill pay taxes? Of course.

     Numbers about the nail industry

    Most Vietnamese having relatives in the US are often told that their relatives, who used to be engineers, teachers, accountants, etc in Vietnam, now work as nail workers in the US. They wonder why their relatives do this.

    After a few short courses to comply with US standard requirements, any Vietnamese can join this industry. Thanks to their skillful hands, diligence and attentive services, Vietnamese have gradually become the greatest force in this industry, a phenomenon in American lives, and are loved by Americans. They can easily get jobs and have pretty stable income of about US$ 3,000 per person per month. Except for a few too-distant places you can find Vietnamese nail salons everywhere in the US. 

     Vietnamese are the biggest force in the nail industry in America (illustrative picture)

    Let's see what numbers this supposedly low class job brings about?

    Currently more than 45% of nail licenses in the US are held by Vietnamese, in California this number is more than 80%. The whole nail industry in the US generates a total revenue of roughly US$ 7.5 billion. An estimate says 60% of this number, or more than US$ 4 billion, belongs to Vietnamese. And up to ¼ of this number (or more than US$ 1 billion per year) finds its way back to Vietnam to help relatives. I hope that from now on you will look at our Vietnamese in this industry not only with respect but also with gratitude. 

     What do retired Americans do?

    I have a PhD friend who used to hold a New York government job similar to that of Director of Planning and Investment Department in Vietnam. She is now 73 years old and has worked for 8 years as a volunteer guide for… the Library of New York City. Looking at how she talks, shares and answers questions of guests from all over the world, you can see how much she loves this volunteer job and her city. Her husband, a nearly-80-year-old architect, used to organize demonstrations against the Vietnam war while working in Italy. He still goes to work full time and she still walks to the library every working day, rain or shine.


    Retired people in America are doing very significant jobs to the community (illustrative picture)

    At a museum in Philadelphia I met another 76-year-old tour guide who used to be a US army colonel with battle experience in Korea. He helped me understand clearly the history of the museum and famous works inside for nearly 3 consecutive hours with such passion and enthusiasm that I so much admired. “With my pension I make two charity trips to Africa every year. Then I am here on other days to serve you.” He said.

    In Sedona, a small but very beautiful tourist city in the state of Arizona, I met a very interesting taxi driver. He is now 71 years old. He used to have 2 little hotels in this city but when he was 60 years old he sold them and decided to stay at home playing golf for his retirement. The savings were enough for him not to have to work any more. But after 3 years he decided to use the very Mercedes he was driving as a taxi. Every trip you make with him in this city will cost you US$ 15. He wholeheartedly provided me with all the information I needed and explained about every attraction I saw in the city just like a professional tour guide. Why did he do so? “To have the chance to look at all the beautiful things of this city every day, to have the chance to meet and tell people from around the world about them, and to get paid - though only enough for my petty expenses, is a great pleasure. I did not think I could have such a fantastic job at this age. I will continue to drive like this until I become too old to do so.”

     What will you do?

    Mai Huu Tin