An appreciation for agriculture

We are blessed with fertile farm lands. And the area of which I am most familiar, is our Chautauqua-Cattaraugus-Erie county area. Many of our neighbors and friends are directly involved in agriculture. What a contribution they are making to the local economy and to the health and well being of an expanding population.

Agriculture is a powerful engine that helps to generate a surge of energy into the American economy. Farming, and all the industry associated with it, has been a triumph of American agricultural economics. Truly, it speaks to the dynamism of the work of the American farmer.

Every day, America’s farm families rise to meet the challenge of feeding and clothing much of the world’s population. America sends her bounty all over the world, and it all starts on America’s farm lands and, with the men and women who are our America’s farmers. To these men and women, the land is more than a livelihood — it is their pride, and it is their legacy.

Parenthetically, I wish to digress personally for just a moment. Tracing my family tree, and that of my wife’s, as far back as was possible with our limited resources, we discovered that our past six generations were farmers. Basically, we were vegetable and dairy farmers. I spent my first twenty-four years on our family farm. It was not easy, but it was a good life and I am most appreciative for that experience. Besides, I would never have been able to secure a higher education, were it not for the efforts on the farm. The same scenario is true of my wife. In short, we have much for which to be grateful.

And now, to continue with this column …The American farm is an integral part of our national economy. Agriculture employs 16% of the U.S. workforce, or about 21 million people. It employs more than six times as many workers, as does the U.S. automotive industry. Also, it is one of the few U.S. business sectors to boast a trade surplus, exporting $133 billion in fabrics and foods in 2018. According to a 2008 USDA study, agricultural exports generated, 920,000 full-time jobs here, including 608,000 in the non-farm sector. Further, Americans spend 10.5% of their income on food. And, U.S. farms sold $372 billion in goods in 2015, that’s bigger than the GDP’s of nearly 200 countries.

Every day, America’s farm families rise to meet the challenge of feeding and clothing much of the world’s population. Satisfying world demand is exactly what they do. America sends her bounty all over the world, and it all starts on our family farms.

Today, the average U.S. farmer feeds 156 people. In 1960, a farmer fed just 26 people. Today’s farmer grows twice as much food as did his parents using less land, energy, water and fewer emissions. American farmers ship more than $105 billion of their crops and products to many of the nations. U.S. farmers produce about 40% of the world’s corn. And, farmers are a direct lifeline to more than 23.5 million U.S. jobs in all kinds of industries.

In the past five years, U.S. farm operators have become more demographically diverse. The 2007 census counted nearly 30 percent more women as principal farm operators. The count of Hispanic operators grew by 10%, and the counts of Native Americans, Asian and African-American farm operators increased appreciatively as well.

Farming is a way of life. Farmers, ranchers, and family forest landowners produce more than food and fiber. They also produce clean water, clean air, and a bountiful wildlife habitat. Agricultural land provides habitat for 75% of our wildlife.

According to recent statistics provided by the American Farm Bureau, 98% of American farms are family farms — 2% are owned by non-family corporations. 200 years ago, 90% of the population farmed; today, it is less than 2%. Most of the country depends on those 2% for food, fiber and paper products.

There are just over 2 million farms in the United States today with just more than 900 million acres under cultivation. Through efficiency, farmers continue to increase food production to help feed the world as population. Over 24 million people or 17% of the U.S. work force is employed in agriculture industries, getting food from the farm to the table.

Agriculture is America’s number one export, generating more than $105 billion annually while providing jobs for nearly 1 million workers. About 25% of agriculture products produced are exported. What an impact on our local and our national economy! That is indeed American Exceptionalism at its best … men and women contributing to the life and vitality of the totality of a vibrant people

To the American farmer, the land is more than a livelihood; it is their home, pride and legacy. It’s a resource to be cared for, preserved, improved upon and passed to the next generation. In many ways, these men and women are the caretakers of our farm lands. They provide for each of us with the results of their labor. And thus, in many ways, each of us are better off because of the virtues of agriculture. The value of the American farmer is felt both here and abroad; humanity is benefited in health, substance and quality of life. Thanks to the American farm family and, thanks too, to all the ancillary support personnel of the agricultural industry. Is American agriculture exceptional? You bet it is!

Dr. Robert L. Heichberger is a resident of Gowanda and Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at SUNY Fredonia.

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