Daily Egyptian

Agriculture Secretary Vilsack gives advice to future farmers

By Anna Spoerre, @annaspoerre

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said the future is bright for agriculture, but its success requires new ways of thinking.

Vilsack’s lecture on the future of farming, which occurred Wednesday at the Student Center, focused on security from national, energy, economic and environmental standpoints as well as the opportunities for farmers — who make up less than 1 percent of wage and salary workers in the nation. Vilsack, President Barack Obama’s longest-serving cabinet member, visited as part of the Morton-Kenney public affairs lecture series sponsored by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.

“Agriculture is helping to lead an effort to redefine, to recreate the American economy,” said Vilsack, who served two terms as the governor of Iowa.

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He said if young people want to make a difference, then agriculture is the place to be.  

“There is an absolutely bright, incredibly innovative, unbelievable future in agriculture,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has invested more than $47 billion during the past seven years in Illinois for everything from research to nutrition programs.

Vilsack said agriculture students should not be concerned about employment despite admitting the field is an unappreciated and under-used aspect of the economy.

“American agriculture supports one in every 10 jobs in this economy,” he said.

He said a predicted 60,000 jobs will be available in agriculture during the next three to six years. However, only about 30,000 students are being trained for these jobs.

Peter Dirks, the recruiter for the College of Agricultural Sciences, said college enrollment has been progressing, especially because of its student and faculty involvement with industry, technology and research in a state where agriculture is the top employer.   

People need to begin thinking innovatively, creatively and passionately about agriculture, said the secretary of agriculture. To do that, they must understand the role agriculture plays in the country and the world, said Vilsack, who arrived in Illinois after visiting Cuba. While on the island with Obama, he discussed ways to build a better relationship with the country and their farmers.

He went on to suggest farmers take a more proactive approach to sustainability and climate change because people are becoming increasingly concerned about where their food comes from.

“It’s not just about corn and beans, it’s about conservation as an income source,” Vilsack said. Agriculture must lead the transition from a fossil-fuel based to plant-based economy, he said.

He said it’s necessary to build a vibrant economy in rural America — one that supports and complements changes and improvements in agriculture.

Zachary Howard, a junior from Homer studying agriculture, said the lecture was uplifting and it left him hopeful for his future in agriculture.

Many people don’t think about who is going to feed their family because they consciously or unconsciously delegate that task to farmers, Vilsack said.

“I don’t know the last time we thanked an American farmer for that opportunity,” he said.

Anna Spoerre can be reached at [email protected] or 618-536-3325. 

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