Why We Should Stand Together as One in Agriculture

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In agriculture, we’re making a conscious effort to learn more about consumer perceptions, as we strive to strengthen consumer trust and identify what consumers are looking for in the marketplace.

We appear to be living in an era where issues are increasingly more divisive and polarizing, regardless of whether you’re referring to politics, food or the way we raise animals and crops. Myths and misinformation are surfacing everywhere we turn, including on social media, in the news media and even sometimes in our own families.

As farmers who produce safe and affordable food here in the Northeast, we need to rise above this divisiveness and bridge the gaps between urban and rural, consumer and farmer, and even occasionally farmer and farmer, to identify common ties that bind us all.

In agriculture, we’re making a conscious effort to learn more about consumer perceptions, as we strive to strengthen consumer trust and identify what consumers are looking for in the marketplace. Sometimes it can be challenging to make changes that satisfy all of society’s rapidly changing needs, but it can also present us with opportunities as well.

For example, many consumers tell us they want locally grown food. They say they like knowing where their food comes from and purchasing food from a trustworthy farmer. I know many local and trustworthy farmers who are growing and producing a variety of tasty, safe and fresh agricultural products. Meanwhile, it is also important to note that many of those trustworthy farmers also raise and grow high quality food that is sold in your supermarket, as opposed to a roadside stand.

Many buzzwords are associated with food production, including terms like conventional, local, sustainable and environmentally-friendly.These words can cause confusion with the public, and even occasional friction within our industry.

Pennsylvania Farm Bureau believes there is room for everyone in agriculture. If there are farmers out there willing and able to meet specific consumer needs, it’s a win for consumers and all of agriculture. At the same time, it can help farmers prosper and ensure opportunities for future generations.

As we move forward, the agriculture community needs to stick together. With farmers comprising less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, it is not in our best interest to disparage the production practices of another. We’re all farmers, and we’re all in this challenging industry together. Yes, we are passionate about what we do, including growing and producing food for our friends, our community, our state, our nation and even the world. We can have our own niches, but we must hold tight to the common tie of agriculture. At the end of the day, we’ll be a stronger industry if we can stand together as one.

As we do that, we need to remember to be inclusive of the next generation of agriculturalists, such as FFA and 4-H members, Collegiate Farm Bureau students, members of Young Farmer and Rancher groups, and our own sons and daughters. They are all our future.

Although it hasn’t always been easy, one of my greatest joys is having my sons work right beside me on the farm. They often challenge me to think a differently, look at new avenues for potential revenue and give me a fresh perspective. We are all better because of it.

We have to do more than just make room for these new farmers – we need to engage them and help them rise. Just because some of our new generation and even some of our seasoned folks, don’t necessarily fit the “traditional” or “conventional” mold of agriculture, it doesn’t mean we should leave them out.

As farmers, we expect change and often embrace it. So, instead of focusing on how we may have different approaches to growing and marketing food, we should recognize that we are all interested in producing high quality products that meet and exceed the expectations of consumers. When we stand together and are one with agriculture, there should be plenty of opportunities for all of us to thrive.

Cultivating Relationships on Pennsylvania Avenue

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Regardless of your political persuasion, I think we in agriculture can agree that the pendulum of federal regulations has swung too far.

If you were watching some of the post-inauguration festivities on television or social media, you might have seen a strange sight on Pennsylvania Avenue.

After Donald Trump was inaugurated as the nation’s 45th president, the celebration kicked off with an inaugural parade. A tractor brigade participated in the parade, making its way through the streets of our nation’s capital – including past the White House.

Our own American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall was behind the wheel of one of those tractors. And even closer to home, two members of the Pennsylvania FFA State Officer Team were marching in the parade – holding a sign announcing the tractor brigade.

It was a welcome sight for farmers.

And I hope it’s a sign that times are changing in Washington.

Regardless of your political persuasion, I think we in agriculture can agree that the pendulum of federal regulations has swung too far.

We point back to the misguided “waters of the U.S.” rule, commonly referred to as WOTUS, as the standard bearer for overregulation – for good reason.

Although the intentions of protecting water quality and preventing pollution are goals on which farmers and bureaucrats agree, government officials often fail to comprehend the unintended consequences of their plans to meet those goals.

Under the previous administration, the Environmental Protection Agency broadened the agency’s regulatory reach under the Clean Water Act. We believe they worked to skirt the law while extending their jurisdiction far beyond “navigable waters” (think Susquehanna River or the Ohio River) to distant tributaries, seasonal streams and ditches.

While that philosophically may seem like a good idea, the practical on-the-ground reality is far from ideal. Under WOTUS, farmers would need a federal permit to perform even routine tasks, such as treating crops. In addition, farmers could be stuck in limbo waiting for EPA to decide if their land is subject to additional regulations under the rule. An entire growing season could come and go before we receive an answer from EPA, jeopardizing our ability to harvest those fields.

More importantly, farmers do not make land use decisions that result in the loss of our productive soil or contamination of the water that sustains our crops and animals. That would be a poor business decision and fly in the face of the conservation ethic that is ingrained in farm families.

But we in agriculture had a tough time getting anyone in the EPA to understand those practical realities.

That’s why we at Farm Bureau are strongly supporting Scott Pruitt as the next EPA administrator. The attorney general from Oklahoma played a major role in leading the legal fight against the WOTUS rule. We are hopeful that he gets the opportunity to “ditch the rule” as EPA chief and formulate a new water protection rule that works for agriculture.

We are also heartened by the choice of Sonny Perdue to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Farm Bureau was fortunate to have a good working relationship with former agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack and we have every expectation that will continue with Sonny Perdue.

Perdue comes from a farm background and is trained as a veterinarian. As a two-term governor of Georgia, he has the experience and prudence to lead a diverse and complex federal agency that is crucial to the success of farm families.

Under Perdue’s leadership, the agency will implement a new Farm Bill that we hope will come to fruition in 2018. Farm Bureau has already started the policy development process around a new Farm Bill – including getting help for our beleaguered dairy farmers – and we will continue to play a large role as the legislation is shaped.

We fully expect Perdue to utilize the skills he developed working on a farm in conjunction with his political experience to lead USDA through these crucial times in agriculture.

As the Trump administration settles in, we are hopeful that the promises of rolling back unneeded regulations, creating a level playing field for businesses and implementing a fairer tax code indeed play out in the months ahead. At the same time, we will work with the administration to ensure our voice is heard on trade and immigration.

Rural America played a crucial role in the last presidential election. Our hope is that rural America stays engaged over the next four years – and that Washington, D.C., listens to voices from the heartland.

Photo: Pattie Calfy/istock

National FFA Convention: Farming’s Future Is in Good Hands

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It was an amazing experience to see so many young people interested – and involved – in agriculture assembled in one location.

How about 65,000 blue jackets?

It was an amazing experience to see so many young people interested – and involved – in agriculture assembled in one location.

In October, I had the chance to attend my first National FFA Convention since I was in high school. Witnessing a sea of blue corduroy jackets was breathtaking and inspiring.

My only regret is that it took me this long to find my way back to the FFA national convention.

As a kid, 40 years ago, I was active in FFA and 4-H. I was the Derry FFA chapter president and received my state degree. My children were active in both of these outstanding youth organizations. And I look forward to seeing my grandchildren begin their ag education journey, if they choose.

What struck me most about my experience in Indianapolis for the FFA convention was the optimism and enthusiasm these young folks have for the future of food and farming.

It’s no secret that farm checkbooks have seen better days. As a dairyman, 2015 and 2016 milk prices have given me much to worry about and many new gray hairs.

It’s only natural for folks like me to become jaded. We wake up every morning to farm, only to find new regulations, more constraints, misinformed media campaigns and low commodity prices.

I’m not saying that I’ve grown sour on agriculture’s prospects, but in the daily bump and grind of farming, it is sometimes difficult to see the forest through the trees.

Thankfully, I received notification in late summer that the Pennsylvania FFA state officer team had nominated me to receive an honorary American degree, and I was invited to Indianapolis to receive the award with 134 others. As you know, October is a difficult time for a dairyman – or any farmer – to leave the field and take a road trip.

But I’m grateful for the reason to make the trip.

As anyone who’s been honored to receive an honorary American (or state) degree would agree, I don’t think I’ve given back to FFA as much as I’ve gotten out of the organization.

I didn’t realize it then, but the experiences afforded to me and my peers through the FFA have made such a lasting impact on my life and on my farm.

I was honored to receive the honorary degree plaque, but did so with humility and a greater commitment to the young men and women who will take over the responsibility of growing, transporting, processing and marketing food for the planet’s rapidly growing population.

To be part of an event where the future of farming was so energetic, so lively, so motivating, it helped me again see the larger picture.

Growing food and feeding communities is less about the present, and more about the future. These kids (young adults) are keenly aware of today’s global commodity prices. They understand, firsthand, the unfair criticisms often aimed at today’s farm families.

But they’re excited and prepared to shoulder the responsibility of growing more food on less land than we did.

They’re going to embrace technologies and practices not yet developed to leave a smaller environmental footprint than today.

Having served as a local 4-H leader for decades, and getting to know state FFA and 4-H officer teams over the years, I’ve witnessed this enthusiasm firsthand.

But to see 65,000 young people sharing that energy and passion is a game changer.

I am confident that our vocation is in good hands, and I am excited to see the innovation they will bring to food and farming.

I hope that you’ll join me and the Farm Bureau in supporting our young people in agriculture and the organizations that are committed to helping them grow into tomorrow’s leaders.

Read more: FFA Provides Training Ground for Agriculture and Leadership


STEM Education Should Include Agriculture

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Farming should be part of STEM education because much of agriculture touches on science, technology, engineering and math.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education is taught to students around the world. The STEM approach is designed to build student interest in these subjects at an early age to help increase interest in young people to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math to combat a projected shortage in those fields. Farming should be part of the conversation, because much of agriculture touches on science, technology, engineering and math. Plus, agriculture is facing a shortage of skilled workers throughout the food chain.

Farmers do more than just provide an opportunity for people to eat three meals a day. They also grow crops used for making other products, including clothes, toothpaste and even pharmaceuticals. Yet there is a gap in consumer understanding of food production. Farmers can proactively close that gap by talking to consumers about the agriculture industry to gain a better understanding of what farmers do on a daily basis to produce healthy food. Farmers are hopeful that a better informed public will help secure a better future for the next generation on the farm.

Meanwhile, farmers have to prioritize agriculture education as a critical element in working to meet the demands of a changing world. It has been projected that by 2050 the global population will balloon to 9.6 billion – a lot of people to feed. Farmers will need to become even more efficient, as they strive to grow more food on existing land. Biotechnology has allowed us to be more efficient in producing crops, but confusion among consumers about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is presenting obstacles to advancing its use. The farming community needs to inform consumers about the many benefits of GMOs and their unprecedented safety record.

Pennsylvania Farm Bureau has long recognized the need to connect the general public with agriculture. In fact, it was 30 years ago that PFB formed the Pennsylvania Friends of Agriculture Foundation (PFAF), with a focus on promoting sound science and agriculture education. PFAF teaches the public about farming, nutrition, the environment and other related subjects, while funding scholarships, promoting career opportunities, training teachers and creating new educational programs.

One of Farm Bureau’s strongest programs administered through the nonprofit foundation is the Mobile Agriculture Education Science Lab program. The program offers a classroom on wheels that brings agriculture-based science lessons to public and private schools across Pennsylvania. The lab visits are having a measurable impact. This fall, the Ag Lab program will celebrate its millionth student visitor! The labs are geared for students in kindergarten through eighth grade to gain hands-on experience with various science experiments. They are focused on numerous initiatives including: Pennsylvania’s primary farm commodities, the environment, biotechnology, food and fiber and agriculture-related careers. Even if students do not become farmers or work in the industry, they will gain knowledge to make informed decisions about agriculture. The six Ag Labs have been educating students from rural, suburban and urban areas.

In addition, the foundation hosts an Educator’s Ag Institute each summer. Pre-K to 12th grade teachers acquire a week’s worth of knowledge through classroom sessions and farm tours. Some topics include food science, watersheds, research and sustainability. Every institute includes a tour of agriculture facilities at Penn State University, along with tours on various local farms. Regardless of an educator’s familiarity with agriculture, they participate in the conference to learn about the entire food chain and how to pass relevant information onto students.

PFAF not only engages instructors during Ag Institute and students during Ag Lab sessions, but also informs consumers about farming practices and farm-to-table concepts at public events, such as the Pennsylvania Farm Show and at county fairs.

With a growing public interest in learning how farmers produce food, treat animals and care about the environment, it is more important than ever for farmers to directly engage in conversations with those who buy food, fuel and fiber products. But the responsibility of informing and educating the public should not fall solely on the shoulders of farm families.

If we truly want to earn an “A” for Agriculture, people from all aspects of food production, research, education, distribution, marketing and sales need to become more involved in telling the story of our country’s amazing food system.


Inserting Agriculture into ‘Horse Race’ Politics

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It’s going to be a long road to November.

In a few short weeks, presidential politics will really start with political party conventions in Philadelphia and Cleveland. I’m sure that by Election Day, we’ll grow tired of the commercials, negative campaigns and endless news cycle (if we aren’t sick of it already).

But that doesn’t mean that rural America can skip this or any other election.

It’s been four years since we last elected a president, and in this cycle we will get a new slate. We will usher in a new commander in chief and with him or her a different administration with its own views and outlook for the future of the country.

That vision for the future does trickle down to your farm and mine.

The man or woman who will lead this country for the next four (or more) years can shape a future that has a direct impact on the way you and I do business.

Each representative in Congress and one-third of the seats in the U.S. Senate are up for election this year. As we look to the issues facing our nation, we know it’s critical to have effective leaders in Congress who understand the needs of rural America and grasp how crucial agriculture is to the nation’s economy.

In my own state, all seats in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and half of the state Senate seats are up for election. We only need to look at Pennsylvania’s budget impasse that dragged on for nine grueling months, nearly crippling Penn State’s Extension service, to know how crucial local representation is to our issues.

I know as well as anyone that there will be noise when it comes to our federal and state elections this year.

But I encourage all of you to filter out the attack ads and study the candidates. Visit their websites and read their stance on the issues.

When you have measured the candidates, show them your support by voting.

This is not the year to sit the election out. The stakes are too great. In 2016, we need the voice of rural America to be heard loud and clear.

As I look at the men and women of agriculture, the words that continue to come to mind are “common sense.” Farmers, I believe, have a measure of practicality. In years when commodity prices dip, or our costs rise too high, we make adjustments to our budgets, postpone purchases and tighten our belts. And I think many of us ask the question: “Why doesn’t our government operate the same way?”

I’m encouraged, again and again, to see the men and women of agriculture bring their “common sense” attitude to local government. I can think of no better way for farmers to have their voices heard than to actually serve on a school board or a local township board of supervisors.

But it doesn’t have to stop there.

We need the voice of farmers in the halls of our state legislatures and in Washington, D.C.

Whether it’s through your vote and your support for a candidate, or by actually running for office, let’s make sure agriculture is heard loud and clear.