Opportunity Abounds

April 27, 2012 04:40 PM
Opportunity Abounds

Former USDA Secretaries’ advice to young farmers

At the 2008 Farm Journal Forum, seven former USDA Secretaries gathered for a conversation on agriculture and farm policy.

To celebrate its 150th anniversary, the agency again gathered these former officials—with the addition of Ed Schafer, who was Secretary during the 2008 event—at the annual Agricultural Outlook Forum in Arlington, Va. (Former Secretary Bob Bergland was hospitalized just before the event and was unable to participate.)

As at our 2008 roundtable, hosted with the Farm Foundation, the former USDA Secretaries shed their political party labels in favor of one: "agriculture." As this year’s session came to a close, current USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack asked the panel what they would tell a young farmer today. Here are a few of the responses:

A new era. "I think the biggest message in agriculture today is opportunity," said Schafer, USDA Secretary in 2008 and 2009 for President George W. Bush. "We have 400 career paths that go into agriculture today because of the technology increases and the global reach of agriculture. I am thrilled about how many young people are focusing on agriculture who didn’t before—they are finding ways to participate in the agriculture arena that weren’t traditionally involved."

Mike Johanns, Secretary from 2005 to 2008, said: "Farming today is really about risk management. These values are remarkable. If you started farming five years ago and bought land, you’re probably feeling like you’re doing very well, but those of us who have been around long enough know what goes up does come down."

The leader of USDA from 2001 to 2005, Ann Veneman, said she is struck by the "diversity of opportunity within this field, be it production agriculture; research around issues of the future; new and different crops; drought resistance; water-saving technologies; food safety—the issues go on and on."

Dan Glickman headed USDA from 1995 to 2001, a far different period for U.S. agriculture. Now, he said, "the industry of our time is agriculture. We are in a very bullish and exciting time to look at ag as a business opportunity."

USDA itself is an opportunity for young people seeking a start in agriculture, said Mike Espy, Secretary from 1993 to 1994. "There really is no higher calling in government than in an agency which has the primary responsibility of providing food, fuel and fiber to sustain a nation."

Clayton Yeutter, with USDA since the 1970s and Secretary from 1989 to 1991, offered three words: "Risk, education and technology. I’m an eternal optimist, but I also know that conventional wisdom is usually wrong." Education is key, he said, "and you better be able to handle sophisticated technology, because agriculture is infinitely more sophisticated than when Jack Block and I began farming."

Block, the senior member of the panel, led USDA from 1981 to 1986, a time of considerable upheaval.

Despite that, he’s optimistic: "There’s great opportunity because there are more people in the world—demand is strong. Frankly, we need to let the markets tell us what to do—grow corn, wheat, whatever. Let the markets work."

Block also shared his concerns about land prices, noting that he led USDA when "farmland prices dropped in half. Those times were not great. We worked our way through it. We’re well beyond that now, but you have to have sustainability. Just use your own good judgment. And then we can all take advantage of it."

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