Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack defended the farming industry, detailing why America needs strong agriculture Tuesday morning at McCain Auditorium. Vilsack was the 160th speaker in the Landon Lecture Series.
Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa, was also scheduled to give remarks at a Tuesday afternoon event commemorating the USDA’s 150th anniversary and the dedication of a new Agricultural Research (ARS) facility located at 1515 College Ave.
During his Tuesday morning address, Vilsack began by talking about “a yahoo from Yahoo!” who deemed agricultural the number one useless degree. “That is so far from the truth that it prompts me to talk about this issue today,” he said.
Vilsack said agriculture provides a great service for this country’s economy and food security, meaning there’s not a worry of not having enough food in America.
He praised the nation’s food producers, who represent one-tenth of one percent of the population. “Those folks have allowed agriculture to be the second most productive aspect of our economy,” he said.
Vilsack said America’s food security shouldn’t be taken for granted because it wasn’t always the case. He cited President Harry Truman, who once worried about not enough calories being consumed to produce healthy soldiers.
Vilsack said America’s food security allows the nation to be in the position to help others, which could make the world a safer palace. He said there is a lot of turmoil over people not being fed in other countries. “A country that’s well-fed is a country that’s at peace with itself,” he said.
Vilsack said there are 925 million malnourished people in the world, whose population might reach 10 billion in the lifetime of those in the auditorium. Food production would need to be increased by 70 percent to meet that demand, he said.
Vilsack called it the “challenge of a lifetime” with less land due to global urban expansion, greater threats to water sources and increased extreme weather as issues in the future. “We all are in this together if we’re going to meet this extraordinary challenge,” he said.
Despite the economy woes of late, agriculture has consistently been an area of surplus. Last year, $137 billion worth of agricultural products were shipped all over the world, a record that capped 50 consecutive years of trade surplus in agriculture.
Vilsack said this didn’t come without struggles, alluding to the “debt-ridden days of the 80s.” He said the agriculture industry kept going rather than quitting. “That’s not the way of rural America,” he said. “If you have a problem, you fix it. You solve it.”
Another area where agriculture helps, according to Vilsack, is the ongoing energy problem. He said the use of rural areas to produce different types of power has helped reduce foreign oil dependency. Over the last three years, America has reduced its imported oil from 62 percent of the total used to 45 percent, he said.
The use of biofuels also helps at the fuel pump. He said a recent Iowa State study shows that Americans would pay 8 cents to $1.30 more per gallon if the country had no biofuel industry.
“Thank an American farmer for the fact that you’re not doing that today,” he said. “The future holds an opportunity for us to be even further less reliant on foreign sources of oil.”
Vilsack said agriculture is responsible for one out of 12 jobs in America. He said about 35 percent of all vegetables and nearly 50 percent of all fruit are touched by hired labor.
Vilsack acknowledged that immigrants represent the majority of those workers, both legal and illegal. He said agriculture often serves as the entry point for immigrants, both now and in the past. “They are doing what your family did at some point in time,” he said.
Vilsack said they work to hopefully make a better future for their children and the other generations. He said the immigrants represent the American story. “Before you can dream, you have to struggle,” he said.
Vilsack said rural America contains “great people, great Americans.” He said rural America represents 16 percent of the nation, but nearly 40 percent of the military. He said this is because of being raised in a farm community.
“There’s not a farmer in this audience who could stay in business long if they didn’t give something back to the land that they farmed,” he said. Vilsack said the same goes for giving back to this country.
Vilsack told the students in the audience that the future of agriculture represents great opportunity to reintroduce the importance of agriculture with others. “You have this unbelievable opportunity to reacquaint people in this country with the extraordinary work of American farmers, ranchers and producers,” he said.
Vilsack said agriculture should be “appreciate and just cherish and nourish.” “Don’t tell me a degree in agriculture is useless,” he said. “Don’t tell me that we ought not to be appreciating and celebrating and acknowledging the extraordinary contribution of farm families around this country.”