Our nation’s prosperity depends on the strength of farmers, ranchers

In my first year and a half as the United States Secretary of Agriculture I’ve had the privilege to travel to nearly 40 states, visiting with Americans in communities of all types and sizes, from Ludowici, Georgia – population 1,500 – to large cities across the country.

In these travels, I have been consistently impressed by America’s farmers and ranchers, but I’ve concluded that most Americans do not fully appreciate the work and sacrifice of the hard working men and women who produce the food, feed, fuel and fiber upon which our nation relies. Nor do they understand the extent to which the prosperity of our nation as a whole depends on the strength and resilience of American agriculture. 

The American agriculture economy supports one in 12 jobs in America. And agriculture is one of the only industries where our nation enjoys a large trade surplus – more than $20 billion last year, and expected to rise to $28 billion for this year.

For decades, the willingness of America’s farmers and ranchers to embrace science has led to productivity gains that are nothing short of astonishing.  While in 1940, a farmer produced enough food to feed 19 of his neighbors, today they feed 155. American farmers are the most productive in the world — providing food, feed and fiber for our nation. This means an affordable food supply that allows Americans to spend 10 percent to 15 percent more of their income on a home, a vacation, or a college education for their children than folks in most other countries. 

American farmers and ranchers provide incredible benefits to the health of our environment.  A third of our nation’s water resources come from working lands. They preserve millions of acres of wildlife habitat.

Through recent efforts at soil conservation our farms have reduced the amount of soil erosion by more than 40 percent during the past 30 years. And the widespread embrace of no-till practices has make America’s farms and ranches a net carbon sink in our battle against global warming. 

Finally — our farms are making increasingly important contributions to our nation’s energy supply. Again farmers are embracing new technologies to produce feedstocks for advanced biofuels, installing windmills and solar panels, and looking at innovative technologies like methane capture and digesters to supply energy to their operations and communities. 

In any other field these accomplishments would be met with accolades. In June alone, we watch as top American hockey and basketball players are honored with the Stanley Cup and NBA championship trophy. By these standards, America’s farmers and ranchers surely deserve a medal or award, but rarely are they so honored. And when they are it is among their peers, rather than in a venue where all Americans can appreciate their good work.   

As the number of farmers decreases, this becomes a problem: The fewer of us there are who fully understand the benefits of American agriculture, the fewer folks of us there are who can advocate for farmers and ranchers to our friends and neighbors, our political representatives and to the American public.

President Barack Obama and the USDA care deeply about our farmers and ranchers. That is why, as we work to maintain a strong safety net to support farm operations of all sizes and keep farmers on the farm, we are also looking for new ways to strengthen the agricultural economy. 

In the past year, the USDA has provided assistance to struggling industries, worked to increase agricultural exports, and moved towards a new strategy for marketing agricultural products. We have focused our research efforts.  We are expanding income opportunities for farmers and ranchers through the production of renewable energy and by working to develop ecosystems markets that will compensate landowners for the environmental benefits they provide our nation. The USDA is helping the next generation get their start in farming or a career in agriculture. Finally, our “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative is creating new markets and economic opportunities for agricultural producers of all sizes by promoting local and regional food systems, and by encouraging a national conversation on what we eat and from where it comes. 

So this second element of our “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative — the conversation about American agriculture — is particularly critical. Because only as we truly engage the whole nation in a dialogue about where their food comes from will America’s farmers begin to be recognized for their hard work and contributions to our society.  In the long run, it may be the most important step we take to keep farmers on the farm, producing the safe, sufficient, affordable and nutritious food supply our nation relies on.

Vilsack is the Secretary of Agriculture.