Appreciating American Farmers

Today, March 17, is National Ag Day, a day dedicated to appreciating and learning about America’s producers of food and fibers. Begun in 1973, National Ag Day is 44 years old this year. It is sponsored by the Agriculture Council of America, which boasts among its directors representatives of industry giants Walmart, John Deere, American Farm Bureau Federation, FFA Foundation, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and others.

The purpose of Ag Day is to help Americans understand the production of food and fiber products, appreciate the role of agriculture in providing us with an abundance of safe and affordable products, sense the role that agriculture plays in our national economy, and possibly even consider becoming agriculturists ourselves. This year’s theme is “Agriculture: Food for Life.”

According to the USDA, less than 1 percent of Americans claim farming as an occupation, and only about 2 percent actually live on farms. Yet they produce the “food and fibers” needed by the entire nation and much of the world. We can truly be thankful for American farmers and their ability to produce so much.

But agriculture is facing problems. One is that the amount of land devoted to farming is declining, from 922 million acres to 915 million acres, but the average farm size is increasing, from an average of 418 to 434 acres. Much of that increase is attributable to the buyout of small family farms by large corporations. Seventy-five percent of all farms are small operations, bringing in less than $50,000 a year. Farming has always been hard and costly work.

My grandfather was a dairy farmer in East Tennessee, operating a small farm in partnership with my father. They grew some crops as well, but the main focus was milk. The farm was a Test Demonstration Farm for the Tennessee Valley Authority during the late Forties and early Fifties. My father and grandfather saw firsthand (and demonstrated to numerous international visitors, including Albert, the Prince of Belgium)how improvements in agricultural studies, chemical fertilizers, and technology could help farmers increase yield and quality. But they also saw how costly farming was becoming, and cost was a major factor in his retirement from farming, which forced my father into another line of work. The costs of farming continue to increase. (Just check out the price of tractors and other farm equipment some time if you doubt this fact.)

Several organizations and media productions are trying to focus Americans’ attention on the importance of farming. The American Farm Bureau and its state affiliates, of course, do a wonderful job at that. A national television program, America’s Heartland, is also waging a media campaign to tell the farmer’s story. Hosted by veteran newsman Paul Ryan, each episode features several different farmers and kinds of farm operations–from field to  oceans and everywhere in between–and how they are contributing to the efficient production of food for the world.

On a local level, such TV series as Flavor, NC, hosted by Lisa Prince, are doing the same thing regionally. Prince is called variously the “Mayor of Flavor, NC”; the “President of Produce”; and the “Queen of the Kitchen.” Each episode of the program begins by showing a particular farming operation and ends with Prince in the kitchen with a locally famous chef preparing the food that the featured operation has produced, whether that be a locally grown meat, vegetable, fruit, or fish. The program boasts that Flavor is “more than an address and more than a state of mind. [It’s] the crossroads where the best of homegrown . . . agricultural specialties meet up with the people and places who nurture that bounty.”

So on this special day, take a few moments to thank the Lord that we have farmers and that we live in a country that has the freedom and technological inventiveness to produce so much bounty, not just for our basic gastronomic needs but also for our dining pleasure. Then thank a farmer for his part in making it all possible.

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