Kent County exporter travels worldwide arranging livestock deliveries for farmers Animal shipping service is 'growing phenomenon'

September 08, 1998|By Jamie Smith | Jamie Smith,SUN STAFF

Odds are that when George "Bud" Debnam gets on a plane, his seatmates are animals.

But then, that's what happens when you're a livestock exporter. "I rode to the Caribbean with a load of pigs one time," said the 56-year-old Kent County resident, who's done the job for more than 30 years.

When farmers around the world want high-quality breeding animals to upgrade their stock, Debnam takes the orders, finds the right animals, jumps through the hoops of financing, and arranges health tests and flights.

He prefers not to say how much he makes, but the state Department of Agriculture estimates that livestock exporting brought $1 million into Maryland last year.

"It's a growing phenomenon for the state," said Errol Small, the department's director of international marketing, who helps the handful of Maryland livestock exporters locate clients.

Nationwide, 1,917,433 livestock were exported last year and valued at more than $565,583,000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service. Animals sold ranged from sheep and lambs to goats and horses.

Debnam specializes in dairy cattle and primarily sells to farmers in South America and the Caribbean. He's gotten orders for as few as two animals to as many as 750.

In an average year, he sees 25 international clients. Debnam Sales and Exports has shipped livestock to more than 35 countries, including China, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

He also does business in this country, having won the sealed bid to broker the domestic sale of the Naval Academy's dairy herd in Gambrills.

Debnam, a self-described one-man band, is there for every step of the export journey, which typically takes two to three months from order to delivery -- and meanders the country through farms, banks, highways and an airport.

First, he calls farmers who might have the types of animals a customer has requested. Then he drives out to see the livestock, which might be as close as his home county or as far as Canada. He figures he travels at least 60,000 miles each year.

Once the animals are selected, they need to get vaccinations and pass a battery of health tests. Debnam, meanwhile, works with banks arranging the financial end of the deal.

Then he books a flight, generally out of Miami International Airport -- the hub of livestock transport to South and Central hTC America -- and has the animals brought there by truck. Debnam follows them in his pickup truck, herds them to federal inspectors, makes sure they're fed and watered, and puts them on the plane.

It can be an expensive trip -- a one-way flight to Ecuador for 100 heifers costs about $37,000, he said.

Usually, 70 to 75 heifers can fit in pens on a 727. Smaller animals, such as sheep, often ride in crates in the cargo area of a passenger plane. Debnam finds them to be surprisingly well-behaved passengers. "They're just standing there," he said.

But the export business isn't always as good as the livestock.

With rising air-transport fares, a sizable percentage of animals that don't pass their health tests and customers who back out of the deal at the last minute, business can be up and down -- and lately has been a "disaster," Debnam said.

A common problem: Clients finding that they suddenly can't afford the livestock because their country's money isn't worth as much as it was when they put in the orders.

"A lot of times, you do a lot of the work and the thing doesn't materialize," he said. "We have so many obstacles that are beyond our control. It's by no means a get-rich occupation. A lot of times I think I'm going to get out of this business because your nerves can't take it."

But in almost the same breath, he added, "I enjoy it."

What he likes is the challenge -- and the opportunity to work in a field that caught his interest when he was a 20-year-old living on his family's dairy farm in Upperco. "It had always fascinated me a little country boy imagining cows going on a plane," Debnam said.

"Thirty-five years ago," he said, "that was a real accomplishment, to have an animal here shipped halfway across the world."

Pub Date: 9/08/98

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