Wave a Flag, Sing Ag’s Praises

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, while addressing attendees recently at the 2012 Farm Journal Forum, asked: “How are you going to encourage young people to want to be involved in rural America or farming if you don’t have a proactive message?”

Touché!  Here are three proactive messages to communicate:

  • Rural America has never been more relevant.
  • Educated people of all ages are moving to rural areas.
  • Farmers are bridging the communications gap.

Rural America is Relevant

Thanks to highly productive farmers and a strong market for agricultural products, Farm Belt states haven’t been hit as hard by our nation’s financial woes.  The export of agricultural products is truly one of the brightest spots in the overall trade picture for our nation.

Although rural America doesn’t have as many representatives as it once did in Congress, that alone doesn’t reflect its relevance to the world today.  You might even make the case that agriculture is more important than ever.  After all, the world population is growing and somehow – somewhere – more food must be grown.

The decreasing number of farm acres due to urban sprawl and development means that farm productivity must increase; some experts say yields of major crops must even double to meet world food demand in 2050.

Young People Are Returning to Rural America

The ag landscape is changing. People who want jobs move to areas where there is opportunity, and today there is virtually limitless opportunity in agriculture.

“Agriculture is a far different industry than it was 50, 30, or even 10 years ago…” writes Allen S. Levine, Dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota, in a rebuttal printed Jan. 20, 2012, by the Huffington Post.  “To make assumptions based on outdated stereotypes about agriculture unfairly misleads young people.”

There are many more majors under the umbrella of “agriculture” today including microbiology, horticulture, culinary science and global resource systems.  Indeed, agriculture is one of the most useful college majors.  Recruiting Trends show that no other sector appears stronger than agriculture/food processing with an increase in hires.

That trend is evident on campus at Iowa State University where the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (ISU CALS) has the highest placement rate of over 98%.  ISU CALS hosts the country’s largest career fair.  The 2012 Ag Career Day, held Oct. 16, was the largest on record with 200 companies exhibiting.

There is unprecedented demand for college grads, and they’re commanding top starting salaries.  Corporate America is not alone in recognizing the value of a degree in agriculture.  As more farmers understand how business management relates to production management, more farm men – and women – are earning business degrees and even MBAs before returning to their family farms.

Known as the Rural Brain Gain, highly skilled and highly educated people are returning to their roots.  They bring with them high skill sets and have a career path with outside connections.  One in four of these newcomers own a small business, and those who own businesses are heavily invested in their communities.

Farmers are Bridging the Communications Gap

Farmers are heavily invested in their communities, as well.  Farmers often hold leadership positions, from county supervisor and city mayor to school board president and church council.  While most of them are too modest to speak of their own actions, they’re getting more comfortable about telling others about their businesses.

Farmers site a lack of public understanding about how food is produced as one of their greatest concerns, so they’re making “consumer awareness” a top priority.  Here are a few shining examples of how farmers are working to bridge the communications gap with consumers: 

  • Iowa Food and Family Project – Its mission is to “inspire positive relationships between farmers and consumers through personal engagement and advocacy to the benefit of human vitality, environmental quality and economic prosperity.”
  • Operation Main Street – Provides a means for pork producers to connect with consumers, so they know farmers are committed to producing good, safe food, and to caring for their animals and our environment.
  • AgChat Foundation – Its mission is to “empower farmers and ranchers to connect communities through social media platforms.”

These groups have their work cut out for them!  According to a U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance survey, 72% of consumers reported knowing nothing or very little about farming or ranching.

Ag literacy and public perception are ag’s top challenges.  How could the USDA work with U.S. farmers and consumers together to promote a better understanding of agriculture today?

“We need well-informed, practical decision-makers,” stated Larkin Martin of Martin Farm, during a panel discussion as part of Top Producers Executive Women in Agriculture event in Chicago.

Ag literacy among American politicians is a grave concern.  In an article published March 2012 by the Council of State Governments, Dean Levine says, “Government invests in health care research because they know about illness, but few in America’s politics know about hunger.  If you were hungry, you would invest in food and understand the importance of agriculture.”