David Vincent, Director of Public Relations, Rooster Strategic Solutions
As Thanksgiving rolls around each year ag columnists and social media professionals publish well-meaning reminders to “Thank a Farmer” for his or her role in providing the bounty we all overeat before napping or heading out for holiday shopping. And this is good. It’s important to reflect on the farmer’s role in creating the incredibly safe and inexpensive food supply we often take for granted, not just on national holidays, but every day. Yet most of the farmers I know, while grateful for a nation’s thanks, aren’t actually looking for a “thank you.” They would instead be content with a simple acknowledgement of the unique challenges inherent to farming, the risks being taken, and the occasionally ruthless toll that farming can take on a person.
America spends less on food than any other country, approximately 6.9 percent of its income compared to 80 percent or higher in many third world countries. And consumers in the U.S. spend considerably less time searching for their next meal. Key to this is a prodigious and continuous increase in U.S. crop production. A farmer today will produce 262% more food with fewer inputs than his father did in 1950 – and more than 500% more than his grandfather did in 1930 – on fewer acres. Since the world population is expected to jump from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050, farmers will need to double production yet again just to keep pace with the additional 2 billion people to feed.
Agriculture is a significant component of the U.S. economy. In 2017 agriculture added more than $1 trillion to the U.S. gross domestic product, which would make it the 16th largest economy in the world if it were treated as a country. As an employer, U.S. Ag is equally important, counting more than 24 million Americans in its ranks – that’s 17% of the U.S. workforce. What’s more, The United States is the largest exporter of food products worldwide, sending massive amounts of plant and animal products around the globe. Despite recent trade disputes the U.S. is still expected to export more than $130 billion of products in 2019.
The mental toll of farming often outweighs the physical demands. Farmers have always worked long and hard days in the fields, and that won’t change. But today’s successful farm managers spend as much time in the office as they do the shop, fighting the same fires that any other CEO faces, including logistics, supply chains, human resources challenges and accounting. As information technology continues to evolve and revolutionize the industry, successful managers are far more likely to spend the afternoon chasing down software errors than they are repairing equipment. Factor in the intangibles that are unique to farming – namely the weather and unpredictable crop prices – and it’s no wonder that farming is a mentally taxing business. In a recent poll by the American Farm Bureau 91% of farmers and farm workers cited financial issues and fear of losing the farm as a serious mental strain, and instances of depression and suicide are significantly higher among farmers compared to the national average. Farming, simply put, has always been a dangerous profession – both physically and mentally.
Farmers aren’t just environmentalists, they’re first responders. Climate change poses a major risk to farmers who must deal with rising temperatures, unpredictable rain patterns, and water scarcity as they struggle to eke out higher yields to support a rising world population. Advancements in the use of inputs (seed, fertilizer, crop-protection products, fuel, and irrigation) allow farmers to be more efficient, safer, and environmentally friendly than at any time in history. These tools will continue to improve – but it’s up to the individual farmer to discover the best tools and applications for his or her unique location, growing conditions, crops, and agronomic systems. Most farmers I know seemingly factor in the environmental impact of their decisions unconsciously, choosing actions that minimize any negative impact on the land and water around them. And it should come as no surprise that they are typically flabbergasted when environmental activists accuse farmers of being on the wrong side of Mother Earth. These activists need to be reminded that farmers have lived on this land for generations, that they drink the water, and involve their children in the operations. A farmer’s commitment to the environment isn’t a blanket form of lip service or a slogan on a poster. It’s a personal and calculated form of survival.
So by all means, when you raise a glass at your Thanksgiving gathering, as you survey the mountains of safe food piled on your table, for which you paid a fraction of the price it would cost anywhere else in the world, make sure to thank farmers for their efforts. But more important than your thanks is your acknowledgment that farming is a serious business run by a specialized group of talented and hard-working professionals who are the best in the world at what they do.
David Vincent has spent 45 years working with blue-chip agricultural companies and agencies in Memphis, New York City, Connecticut, Milwaukee and St. Louis, among other locations. He is currently based in Nashville, Tenn.