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Commentary: To America, farmers represent freedom, Vilsack says

Issue Date: January 22, 2014
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks to the American Farm Bureau Federation Annual Convention in San Antonio.
Photo/Dave Kranz
The latest in agricultural equipment will be on display Feb. 4-6 at the 49th annual Colusa Farm Show.

(Editor’s note: In his speech last week to the American Farm Bureau Federation Annual Convention, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack discussed the vital importance of farmers and ranchers to the American economy and society. This commentary is adapted from his remarks.)

My guess is if I took a poll of the folks here today, you might feel that agriculture is not as appreciated as you believe it ought to be, and I would share that feeling. The reality is so many Americans are far removed from where their food comes from; they may be three, four generations removed. So I think it’s important for us in agriculture to continue to be dedicated to educating our friends who live in suburbs and in urban centers, and even in small towns near our farms and ranches. We need to continue to educate them on exactly what farming is and what it does.

We need to remind them that they are fortunate to have this extraordinary diversity, and that unlike many, many people in the world, they don’t have to worry about where their food comes from, that they actually have the capacity within their own borders to produce what they need to eat and feed their family. I think we need to remind them of the fact that they’ve got a little extra flexibility with their paycheck that people around the world don’t have.

I think we have to be open to diversity, and by diversity, I mean diversity of operations. We really shouldn’t have a discussion within agriculture of whether you should be big, middle-sized or large. We should be celebrating all forms and all types of agriculture, because there is a common bond of those who grow and produce, a common understanding of the connection to the earth, a common appreciation and respect for that enormous capacity to grow, and a common wonder every year about how Mother Nature helps or hurts production.

We need to embrace diversity within our operations. If somebody wants to be an organic producer, God bless them. If somebody wants to be a conventional producer, they should be able to be. If somebody needs and feels the desire to use GMO to increase productivity, to reduce pesticides and chemicals, because they see it as better for the environment and as a way of helping meet this enormous challenge of feeding the world, they should be allowed to do that as well. We should be working to make sure everyone has the capacity and the opportunity to choose the operation that’s best for them and their family, and not be judgmental about any of them.

We ought to be embracing diversity in terms of location. Not every farm necessarily has to be in a rural area. Maybe it might be helpful if there were some opportunities in urban centers, so that people would understand the risks that are associated with farming and how challenging that work actually is.

Some of you may know that I’m an orphan, and so I don’t really know much about my background. As a result, I’m sort of overly interested in my adopted family’s history, and it wasn’t until just a few months ago that I found out that my great-grandfather on my father’s side was a farmer. So that means I’m three generations removed from the farm.

That farmer, Jacob Vilsack, was successful enough that he was able to have children, and those children had options. One of those children decided not to farm but to go into the brewing business, and established a very successful brewery in Pittsburgh. That brewery business enabled him to have 12 children, and to expand his operation beyond the brewing business to include banking, real estate and several other business opportunities that he then made available to his children. My father went into the real estate business. Because of his work and sacrifice, he enabled me to have the best education in the world, and that gave me the option to choose to be a lawyer. I became a country-seat lawyer. Tragedy occurred in my small town. It opened up an opportunity for me to get involved in politics—mayor, state senator, governor and now secretary of agriculture. But it all started with agriculture.

The reality is that not long ago, virtually everybody in this country did not have the options that my family had. The only option was to stay on the farm, because staying on the farm meant survival for you and your family. There wasn’t any thought about moving off the farm, because there simply wasn’t the opportunity or the option. But then along came generations of farmers like yourselves, who said, "You know, we can do better. We can expand production. We can develop machinery that will allow us to do more work." Ninety percent of the population lived in rural America and farmed when USDA was founded, and that 90 percent slowly reduced, so today, it’s 15 percent who live in rural America and less than 1 percent who farm.

What do the other 99 percent do? What options do they have available to them because they don’t have to worry about where their food comes from? They are not required to stay on the farm because there is less than 1 percent of America that’s handling it, that’s producing so much that we can feed ourselves and feed the world. Every person in this country today has that option to live someplace else and to be someone else, to be a lawyer, to be a teacher, to be a doctor, to be an engineer, to be a construction worker, to be a business owner, to live anywhere in this country. Why? Because we have farmers who are so good that we don’t have to worry, and we get to do what we want to do.

Freedom: That’s what you mean to this country. It’s more than food security. It’s more than paycheck flexibility. It’s the extraordinary opportunity in this country that you can be whatever you want to be, not just simply by dreaming big dreams, but because you’ve got somebody in some rural community on some farm or ranch, in some orchard, producing enough so that you’ve got the nutrition to be whatever you want to be, and that ought to be celebrated. The country ought to be reminded of it, and every farmer in this country should be valued, appreciated and thanked, because we in this country have been extraordinarily blessed by you. God bless you all.

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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