We’re shaping northeastern agriculture’s future (Off the Secretary’s Desk)
(Editor’s note: Douglas Fisher is the New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture.)
Just a few weeks ago, in mid-June, I attended the Northeastern Association of State Departments of Agriculture conference in Hershey, Pa., where the secretaries, commissioners and directors of 10 northeastern states, from Maine south to Delaware, gathered to discuss issues facing our industry.
It was so great to be together in person with folks that I admire and who are dedicated to the world of agriculture in all its forms — from timber in the forests, seafood at our shorelines, livestock in the meadows, to the fields of green and plenty.
This assemblage is truly important and meaningful and allows us the chance to share successes and difficulties regarding so many subjects of interest.
While each state has its unique balance of agricultural offerings, and thus particular and unique challenges, the overarching discussions centered around universally applied subjects.
How is farming going to look in the future and how do we not end up lamenting what once was dominant but is now on the wane? From a similar perspective, what is on the horizon and galloping to the front and launching new agricultural opportunities?
Just like everywhere else, throughout all industries and walks of life, change is coming, and we will either be part of it or be rolled over and reimagined by others who pay attention to what they perceive should take place to satisfy new tastes and demands.
While most farmers are dealing with the current strains on their businesses, such as securing labor, keeping up with regulations, adjusting to exponentially rising costs for inputs and fuel, and securing profitable markets, there are so many thought leaders and influencers reeling off topics like climate change, global warming, food democracy, and diversity and inclusion that are now added to a list of challenges that must and should be met in the United States and around the world.
But how do we get to these seismic and colossal changes without upsetting the apple cart (which is the farm)? It’s a huge question that must figure in the conversations that happen in our state capitals and the halls of Congress.
At the convention, we state agricultural department heads talked about the thousands of bills in the legislatures that are almost clogging the work of our farms with added burdens and not much relief in figuring the costs of these additional mandates.
First, we must collectively realize the fact that agriculture has been thriving in this nation and has provided us a very stable existence that is often taken for granted.
President Abraham Lincoln, who established the USDA as, in his words, “the people’s department,” talked about the importance of the endeavor when he said, “… no other human occupation opens so wide a field for the profitable and agreeable combination of labor with cultivated thought, as agriculture.”
Lincoln also realized that the future of agriculture would always be tied to finding the most efficient use of the precious resources that sustain it when he said, “putting the soil to the top of its capacity — producing the largest crop possible from a given quantity of ground” was the key to a farmer’s success.
I would stress that, if we are not careful, we no longer guarantee there will be the plenty that has always been our American way of life, especially if we do not change with the times.
When people open their cupboards and refrigerators and they are a bit barren, it will be too late to change.
The fact that we have always been able to feed ourselves and much of the world cannot just be assumed. Perhaps big agriculture will always prosper here in the USA, as they have the capital to make necessary adjustments to the never-ending stream of new mandates, but the family farms in our neighborhoods, lacking those financial resources, might not.
If the small and midsize family farm does not exist, it would most likely point to the same situation that occurred in manufacturing — mainly offshoring, and ultimately being at the mercy of massive corporations, both domestic and foreign.
So, exactly what issues did we tackle at the NEASDA conference? A sampling includes regenerative agriculture; finding productive and profitable uses for hemp crops; equity for dairy farmers in a complicated and in part antiquated distribution system; PFAS chemicals in water, air, fish, and soil; food insecurity; and the need for more support for fruit and vegetable crops that are so important to a healthy diet.
However, with all this discussion, the bottom line still comes back to, well, the bottom line. Farming must be profitable to be a sustained enterprise.
The next federal Farm Bill is key to this goal, and I implore each farmer to pay attention and help by using your voice in your congressional districts with your elected officials.
It is incredibly important for people who have actually worked their farms to provide practical and meaningful solutions to lawmakers who most likely have not.
Don’t be in the shadows, but instead offer your help in crafting solutions.
Complaining and decrying after the fact the directions being taken for a different future than what you might want to hold onto is never as effective as diving in and helping to shape the agenda while it’s being formed.
There are solutions that can serve us all in a better agricultural system that is fairer, more inclusive, and with greater social purpose. However, they won’t become part of the federal agenda unless you help speak them into existence.