Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Celebrate agriculture on March 15

For those of us involved in agriculture, March 15 will have special meaning this year. That day is National Agriculture Day, a day set aside to recognize and celebrate American agriculture.

In a perfect world, every American would understand
agriculture's history and could easily explain the economic, social and environmental significance of agriculture. But, most Americans live in urban areas and are three, four or five generations away from a family connection to a farm or a farmer. That is one of the reasons we need National Agriculture Day and other efforts to increase agriculture literacy. Even in Minnesota, not enough people realize the importance of agriculture. 

Agriculture is probably more important today than it was in the early 1970s when University of Minnesota graduate Don Neth started a day to honor farmers. Agriculture is a bright spot in this troubled economy. Even though many livestock farms are feeling the same pain as the troubled parts of the national economy, overall agriculture provides a much needed boost to our economy. Agricultural exports are at record levels. Employment experts emphasize the good jobs waiting for students majoring in agriculture. States with strong agricultural sectors like Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakotas have unemployment rates lower than the national average. Growing and processing food is the second largest part of Minnesota's economy and the strength of agriculture is a big reason why our state unemployment rate is lower than the national average. As we move forward, agriculture will be a key part of growing jobs in Minnesota.

That is just part of the picture. Agriculture is about more than jobs and the economy. As University of Minnesota graduate and Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug told us years ago, "You cannot build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery." The need for a peaceful world is perhaps even greater today than it was when Borlaug was alive. Agriculture helps fill stomachs in many ways. The cargo ships that carry $135.5 billion in U.S. agricultural exports to foreign shores are perhaps the most visible signs. The export of ideas that help fill stomachs is less visible. Developing countries send their best and brightest to learn agricultural science at U.S. land grant colleges. These scientists return to their own countries and make a tremendous impact on food production. Agriculture is global. Ideas for developing seeds resistant to new diseases, improving animal health or increasing the productivity of farms quickly move throughout the world. These ideas have a direct, positive impact on nutrition and world hunger.

There is no shortage of stomachs to fill on this planet. The Census Bureau estimates there are slightly less than seven billion people on the planet today. An estimated 925 million of those people are undernourished, according to the United Nations. Forty years ago the world population was less than 4 billion and 40 years from now it will be more than 9 billion. The growing demand for food will make agriculture even more important in the years to come.   

National Agriculture Day provides a good chance to communicate the importance of agriculture, but it is only one day. Increasing awareness of agriculture to food security, economic security and national security needs to be a year-round effort.

The University of Minnesota is committed to providing the research-based information farmers need to succeed – on National Agriculture Day as well as the other 364 days of the year. - 
Bev Durgan is the dean of University of Minnesota Extension and the director of Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station

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