“Agriculture, resource management, and what we do with our working lands constitute your generation’s most pressing challenges,” Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan told students at Mississippi State University on her recent visit to the state.

Merrigan also met with university officials and leaders of state agricultural organizations as part of her national “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” tour that aims to increase awareness of the interconnection between food and fiber producers, processors/retailers, and consumers.

“Secretary Merrigan has been a friend of agriculture,” said Chip Morgan, executive vice president of the Delta Council at Stoneville, Miss. “She has always been ready to listen to our problems and needs, and we’re pleased she is visiting our state to learn firsthand about our issues.

“Mississippi agriculture’s working relationship with USDA has always been very close and that has facilitated much of the progress of our region, where agriculture is a major economic component,” he said.

Randy Knight, president of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, commended Merrigan for the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” effort and noted that that the “Farm Families of Mississippi” media campaign, sponsored by Mississippi Farm Bureau and other organizations and agribusinesses, has been successful in creating awareness by the consumer public of the important role of agriculture in the state.

He said, too, that the 2008 farm bill “has worked well for us” and “while we realize agriculture has to share” in efforts to reduce federal spending, “we want to be sure that reductions are applied fairly to all sectors, not just agriculture.”

Also participating in the sessions at Mississippi State and Alcorn State University, as well as at a conference for small farmers at Hattiesburg, Miss., was Karis Gutter, deputy administrator for field operations for the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, Washington.

A native Mississippian, Gutter is responsible for oversight and guidance for 2,250 county FSA offices in 50 states and Puerto Rico.

Speaking to a standing room only crowd, Merrigan said today’s college generation “faces enormous challenges on a wide range of fronts — population growth, widespread global poverty, urban decay, climate change, national security, and many others.”

With a world population forecast to increase from today’s 6.9 billion to 9 billion by 2050, she says, “At the same time, we face declining availability of fresh water, arable land, and other resources. To keep producing enough food without destroying our life-supporting resources, we must reduce our impacts, conserve the resources we have, and strengthen self-sufficiency around the globe.”

Reliable food supply is key

A reliable food supply is “integral to peace and liberty,” Merrigan says, “and it is important that your generation understand how complex our food system actually is.”

While only 2 percent of Americans are farmers, she notes, “they provide enough food, fiber, and fuel for the other 98 percent of us.”

But when there is not a steady, affordable food supply, civil unrest often follows, as has occurred in North Africa and other areas, she says.

Because the U.S. has such an abundance of productive land — about 70 percent, or 1.4 billion acres, of the 48 contiguous states is privately owned — “how we protect and conserve these lands will determine the fate of our natural resources for successive generations.

“Sustainability isn’t just about managing our natural resources; it’s about insuring that those resources can support our society through food production and economic benefits.

Noting that many of the younger generation are “captivated by the question of sustainability,” Merrigan says, “Our natural resources undergird an entire system that moves food from the farm to your fork. There are many players involved in these steps and their interaction is complex — but this system is at the heart of environmentalism, security, and development. You need to understand their relationship and figure out where you can make your contribution.”

In 1955, she says, one American farmer farmer produced enough food and fiber for about 25 people; today, it’s 155.

“With so few farmers and so many consumers, you might think all of our farmers are doing pretty well. But our Economic Research Service calculates that for every dollar you spend on food, the farmer sees only about 19 cents on average.

“An enormous amount of money goes into processing, aggregation, packaging, distribution, interest, inputs, labor, middle men, and other costs.”

And, Merrigan says, large up-front capital investments “mean that there are tough barriers to entering agriculture. The average farmer has nearly $1 million invested in lands, building, and equipment — and there’s no guarantee those capital investments will pay off.

“It’s because of these enormous risks that most policymakers believe farmers need a strong safety net. Most folks who hear about government support for farmers don’t realize that certain types of support — crop insurance, for example — are integral to insuring a reliable food supply.”

A growing movement in U.S. agriculture, Merrigan says, is buying locally-produced farm goods. “It has become the biggest trend to hit the food industry, and these systems can often bring more of that food dollar to the farmer. And more of that money remains in the local community.

“It’s not just about having good farm income; it’s also about insuring that money flows to small businesses so there’s a thriving Main Street and a vibrant rural economy.”

Good years to make up for bad

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.”