Agriculture Secretary says story of agriculture needs to be shared

June 01, 2012

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Even though one out of every 12 jobs in the U.S. is related to agriculture, there is still a disconnect between producers and consumers that needs to be bridged by sharing agriculture's story, according to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

Vilsack's comments came as he participated in a roundtable discussion during his recent visit to Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences. The panel consisted of Penn State faculty members, agricultural industry representatives, Penn State agriculture students, state 4-H council members and state FFA officers.

In recognition of the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Vilsack said that when the agency first was founded, 90 percent of the population had connections to agriculture. Now, less than one percent produces 85 percent of food and fiber, he said, and agriculture production needs to increase by 70 percent in the next 40 years to feed the growing world population.

This disconnect from agriculture can mean a lack of communication and understanding between producers and consumers.

"When the processors and production agriculture take for granted that everyone knows where their food comes from, it creates a vacuum," Vilsack said. "You have to continually remind people of the safety and convenience and the pricing opportunities that [agriculture] presents."

American consumers use less than 10 percent of their disposable income to purchase food, Vilsack explained. "Very little is done in this country to remind people that we have more of our disposable income left after we leave the grocery store than virtually anybody else in the world."

"From the farmer to the processor to the grocer, it is a system that enables us to get food to market less expensively and therefore ask the consumer to pay less."

Bruce McPheron, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences, facilitated the discussion, which was open to any agriculture-related topic. He noted that the wide variety of opinions among members of the agriculture community can make it difficult to educate the public.

"One of the difficulties of telling our story is that we all feel we have our own version of the story," McPheron said. "It makes it difficult to speak with a unified voice."

Vilsack emphasized that there's more to agriculture's story than safety, convenience and low prices.

"There's an emotional connection to some of what we produce," he said. "We connect it to happy times, we connect it to good experiences, and that needs to be better utilized, so that there's a level of trust and connection. Agriculture is losing the emotional battle."

Vilsack also pointed out that the agriculture community needs to improve its marketing to attract young people into the field.

"It's an amazing story," he said. "It's drama and intrigue and competitiveness and discovery. We just have to figure out a format that will appeal to young people so they'll say, 'that's kind of cool, I need to learn more about that.'"

Janette Blank, who grew up on a dairy farm and now serves as president of Penn State Collegiate 4-H, concurred.

"I have visited children in the city who had no idea where their food came from," she said. "I was shocked because I've been around agriculture my whole life."

Spring 2012 Penn State graduate Dustin Dreyfuss, a member of the Ag Advocates -- a group of students who serve as ambassadors for the College of Agricultural Sciences -- focused on the need to apply agricultural research in the field for the benefit of the public and students.

"We need to preserve that symbiotic relationship between the students, the faculty and staff, and the research," he said. "Not only do we see tangible results from the research itself, but we see students who are sitting here at this table who have been molded and changed by the opportunities to participate in that research."

The secretary agreed, saying that it is essential to maintain agricultural research because productivity is tied to investment in research. However, if the country does not sustain its research capacity or maintain productivity, he said, consumers will pay higher food prices.

The United States also would need to import more food, which could lead to food-safety issues. Employment also would be endangered.

"If one out of every 12 jobs is connected to agriculture in this country, and agriculture goes in the tank, what does that do to employment? What does that do to your company?" Vilsack asked a representative from an agricultural equipment manufacturer who participated in the discussion.

"You won't be making tractors for our people, you'll be going overseas and making tractors for somebody else and allowing us to import from them," he warned. "We lose national security, energy security, economic security, health care -- it's all at stake here.

"That's why it's extremely important for us to get agriculture elevated in this country," Vilsack concluded. "I'm doing the best I can, but we all need to be singing."

  • U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack enjoyed a lighter moment during the panel discussion sponsored by Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated June 12, 2012