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.