The Problems and Promise of Agriculture

Even is you didn’t watch the Super Bowl, I’d encourage you watch the two-minute tribute to the farmer sponsored by Dodge Ram Trucks. What it says, and what it doesn’t, strikes to the core of agriculture’s problems and promise worldwide.

Now, I’d heard Paul Harvey’s remarks.  He made them at the 1978 FFA Convention in Kansas City.  I was among a throng of agriculture undergraduates who filled the nation’s land grant universities in that era, and his well-publicized tribute has made the rounds of rural America for decades.  The integrity of Paul Harvey’s farmer is a promise I’ve experienced.  But have you read the commentary since the Super Bowl made these old words viral? What is the rest of the story?

For sure, there are problems.  For one, while my rural Midwest, mechanized commodity agriculture looks like the commercial, anywhere manual labor is necessary (such packing plants or vegetable and fruit production) the American agricultural backbone is one of immigrants.  But I don’t think this is just agriculture’s problem – America has been in what’s called the ‘big sort’ now for decades.

Agriculture also has more than its fair share of environmental problems.  Ken Burns helped remind us of our 1930’s soil erosion disaster in the Dust Bowl.  Since, we’ve flirted with overdoing it with pesticides, and now genetic engineering.   I’ve spent much of my life in the dance between humans and nature called farming, and I’ve always been willing to do it with my eyes open.  But then, I had mentors like that depicted in the commercial.

The real, undepicted story for me is how few people we now have involved in agriculture.  When I first drove down I-70 heading to Kansas State as an undergraduate agriculture student, I’m quite certain the billboard said ‘It Takes One American Farmer to Feed 47 Of The Rest of Us’.  By the time I finished school, I recall it repainted to about 1:80.  Today, while it is estimated our entire food/agricultural system (production, processing, marketing, distribution) employs 15% of the nation’s workforce – that same billboard would have to read at least 1:1,200+.

The technology, scale, and capital required by production agriculture have represented huge barriers to entry for even the most ambitious of wanna-be farmers during my career – until now.

Call me romantic, but I sense a real global shift toward acknowledging the importance of agriculture, of food, and their health as foundational to the land, people and economy.  The barriers are coming down, and many of the newest technologies are actually enabling local and regional foodsheds to reestablish themselves right alongside the global system.  This is the focus of the food and agriculture certificate at BGI – redesigning existing business, or creating wholly new ones for this exciting new agriculture.

Count me as one that always liked Paul Harvey’s ode to the farmer.  Consider it reminder of what agriculture can, and should be.



  1. Mike Rehder Sat, Feb 23, 2013 at 11:43 am · Reply

    I have the Agriculture gene buried in my DNA. It must be recessive in my case.

    Your post reminds me of so many conversations with cousins, aunts and uncles. Hard working folks that would never hesitate to offer what little they owned and what time they really didn’t have. They face real hardships and never expect a thing from anyone. How is it that our politics have grown so far apart?

    It really doesn’t make sense. We rely on this segment of our population for our very existence. This is the proverbial, “hand that feeds us”, and we treat it poorly at best. These are folks that are essentially entrusted with our food system, our land management and water stewardship. They understand the effect of changing weather patterns from a very different perspective and the demands of a growing planet. They know the plant world and animal world better than many of us ever will. They have a unique viewpoint when it comes to environmental issues because it is much closer to them, living and working close to the land. They enjoy a finely develop sense of community not possible in more urban settings. They rely on each other in a manner that respects their very self-sufficient lifestyle yet keeps them connected and a way rarely observed in our cities. They might understand triple bottom line thinking better than most and they many not even know what it is!

    There are plenty of things wrong with the way the food system works currently (subsidies, GMO’s, monocultures,..) and it is essential that we fix aspects of that industry. But can’t we find a way to work together to make the changes rather than keeping each other at arm’s length as we maintain this extraordinary relationship of mutual dependence?

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