Farmers had a good year in 2010, Merrigan says, “but many were still trying to get back on their feet after 2009, which was a tough year for farmers across the country.”

Everything is “looking good” for U.S. agriculture in 2011, she says, “but sometimes farmers need a couple of good years to make up for the bad years.”

The Census of Agriculture shows a loss of some 40,000 farming operations in recent years, she says. “In addition to folks leaving farming because they can’t make ends meet, many are approaching retirement without knowing to whom they will pass on the farm. The average age of the American farmer is 57 — who is coming along to fill their shoes?”

Farm Service Agency loans to finance the purchase of land and equipment needed to start a farm, or keep it running, are often overlooked, Merrigan says, “but these loans are incredibly important for farmers and ranchers, no matter which markets they’re selling to.”

More and more, she says, “the public is interested in knowing where their food came from and who made it possible,” and that has resulted in a tripling of farmers markets in the last 15 years.

“All over America, efforts to promote local foods and support local farmers are cropping up. Large corporations like Walmart, Whole Foods, and others have responded to consumer demand and have launched efforts to source foods locally.”

When the public sees media reports about farm subsidies, they don’t understand, Merrigan says, that a relatively small amount of that money, only about 7 percent is actually for agricultural supports, and that two-thirds goes for food assistance programs.

Urging her audience to “get involved” in food and farming, she said there are “strong job opportunities” in agriculture.

“Between 2005 and 2010, there were more than 52,000 job openings each year and only 49,000 qualified graduates available to fill those positions.”

Many opportunities will be opening up within the USDA itself in years ahead, Merrigan says.

“USDA is involved in over 300 programs worldwide, requiring a very cutting edge, highly skilled, and highly trained work force. By 2013, 50 percent of the current USDA employees will be eligible for retirement.”