Voices 15/11/2014

I am a believer in the greatness of agriculture

The average age of farmers is 58. It means that we have to do a better job of continuing to attract and retain people into this extraordinary calling. We are a strong and powerful nation. In large part because we have the most productive farmers and the best farmers in the world. And it's going to be important and necessary for the next generation to take up that challenge. To continue to grow, to continue to expand access to foods all over the United States and throughout the world.

It's up to you, the FFA members, the over 600,000 members of this organization to ensure that there is a next generation of farmers prepared. And it's going to be important and necessary for FFA to lead the effort in farming organizations across the United States to make sure that it's not just simply male farmers. We have young women who want to be farmers, as well. Half of your leadership are women. We want young women to be engaged in agriculture and FFA must lead that effort, if we're to make sure that we continue to have the American experience in agriculture.

So first and foremost challenge: Help us, by making sure that we continue to promote programs that provide access to credit, that provide risk management tools, the kind of things that will help you, as young farmers get in the business, stay in the business, and prosper in the business.

The second challenge is the challenge of a changing climate—the weather variability that we all see today. Longer droughts, more severe storms, more frequent flooding—have created challenges not just in the United States, but all over the world. And this generation of Americans, this generation of those related to agriculture, connected to agriculture, have a unique opportunity to help figure out how we better manage climate, how we adapt and mitigate to the consequences of climate change. You all embrace science. You all understand the significance of science. You're excited about science. You need to continue that and we at USDA want to help you. We've established recently, a series of climate change hubs, which is really designed to look at the vulnerabilities of agriculture, in terms of climate in the United States, helping to identify technologies and techniques necessary to allow us to adapt and mitigate, as you continue your education. Whether it's in high school or in college or beyond. It's going to be important and necessary that you embrace this challenge. The world is depending on the United States and the United States is depending upon you to help us figure out how we're going to continue to meet the needs of a growing world population, under this most difficult set of circumstances.

And finally, the challenge of making sure that we do indeed feed the world. FFA has been a tremendous job of working with us at USDA to deal with the issue of hunger in the United States. We've expanded summer feeding, we've encouraged more access to our school nutrition programs, we've encouraged school breakfast, we've really made an effort collaboratively and in partnership, to feed the hungry in this country. But there are 825 million people in the world today. Over 300 million of them are children. And they too are hungry. They too are looking for someone to help them. And the United States of America, which is the most generous and caring nation, is depending on you to make sure that we embrace science. That we continue to make agriculture productive. That we continue to figure out ways to do better trade and more trade and more food assistance programs—all over the world, so that we meet this challenge. Because if we don't, the world will be less safe for you, for your children, and your children's children.

FFA, you're the future of agriculture. FFA you are the folks who can embrace these challenges. You're not fearful of these challenges. You're excited to meet them. That's why I wanted to be here today. I know of no other organization of young people in this country today that is more significant and more serious about grappling with the fundamental challenges that we face. It's not just about agriculture. It's about the economy of the country. It's about the compassionate nature of America. It's about the ability of America to send a message to the world that we are the most caring and compassionate nation. And you're at the center of it.

So my challenge to you today is to continue your work. Continue with enthusiasm and energy. Continue to support agriculture. Continue to celebrate it. And when you talk to your friends and neighbors, who may not understand farming, who may not understand agriculture, make sure that they understand three simple points: One, that each one of us has the ability to do with our lives what we choose to do. Because most of us have delegated the responsibility of feeding our families to the American farmer. It's created this great freedom for us to choose occupations and jobs beyond agriculture. But we can't do that without extraordinary productive farmers. And we need to appreciate those who farm, those who support our families.

Secondly, when we leave the grocery stores in this great country of ours, we leave with more money in our pocket than anybody else in the world because we spend less for our food, as a percentage of our paychecks, then anyone else in the world. Which means that we have freedom to go out and buy additional items. To stimulate the economy. Again central to this great economy is American agriculture.

And finally I suspect, in this audience, there are moms and dads and proud grandparents. And I suspect that some in this audience have a son or daughter, a niece or nephew, or grandson or granddaughter, who have served admirably in our military. Many of you, but not all of you, come from rural areas. And I think there's an understanding in the rural parts of this country that to whom much is given, much is expected.

There's an understanding and appreciation, as farmers understand, that you can't keep taking from the land. You have to give something back or it will stop producing. That value system is alive and well in rural areas because of a strong agricultural history and heritage.

So whether it's freedom of opportunity, more money in our pockets, or brave young men and women willing to serve us and protect us, it all starts with American agriculture. And it all must continue with you—the future of American agriculture. God Bless you all.

di Tom Vilsack