Farmers and ranchers are seeing a growing disconnect from consumers, with those who enjoy steaks, fresh fruits and vegetables and bread seemingly knowing less about where their products come from.
But the public generally holds people who work the fields and pastures in high regard, and the women and men of agriculture should use that place of honor to talk-up the industry, said Dan Hale, a professor and meat specialist with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.
Hale spoke to about 300 farmers, ranchers and agriculture advocates Tuesday at the Blackland Income Growth Conference at the Waco Convention Center. His topic, “Path to the Plate,” addressed challenges facing agriculture in a world where the population will exceed 9 billion by 2050, India will overtake China as the most populous nation, and food demand will have doubled.
Growth in demand comes as the world loses farmland equal in size to London every seven weeks, in part because of urban sprawl, Hale said.
The United States remains the envy of the world, with one farmer feeding 155 people, he said. The average U.S. resident spends 7 percent of gross income on food, compared to 28 percent for the average Russian, he said.
Technology and advancements in animal science mean the U.S. produces 19 percent of the world’s beef with 8 percent of its cattle. What could be done with four cows in 1944 can be done with one cow today, Hale said.
GPS devices can monitor livestock movements, even track the frequency of cow belches. Robotic devices programmed to carry out “search-and-destroy” missions can lay waste to weeds and assist with chemical application. Artificial insemination has become a mainstay of the dairy industry.
But much remains to be done. The world wastes 1.3 billion pounds of edible food annually because of spoilage before or after processing, Hale said.
Fortunately, even if consumers know little of the story behind that steak, baked potato or green salad, the public buys what farmers are selling, Hale said.
“Surveys show that ‘shared values’ are three-to-five-times more important than competence in the eyes of the consumer,” he said. “The worldview holds that farmers are stewards of the land. They believe we exist to produce healthy and safe food, that our values are their values when it comes to the important things in life. We have a platform. We should talk with people, tell them about what we believe in, our legacy and passing on that legacy. … Tell them what you do and why you do it. Whatever the occasion, at a party, don’t just remain quiet. Talk about your shared values.”
The 57th annual Blackland Income Growth Conference will continue Wednesday, with recertification classes throughout the day.
Clint Riddle, 50, a third-generation farmer who raises cotton and wheat on land near Italy in Ellis County, said he tries to make the BIG conference every year. “If you don’t keep up with new technologies, new chemicals and processes, you can fall behind very quickly,” Riddle said.
But technology and efficiency has become a mixed blessing, Riddle said. He said he and his fellow farmers “produce too much,” contributing to a bottoming out of commodity prices as supply outstrips demand.
“In the late 1970s, my dad was making $6 a bushel on corn,” he said. “Last year, I made $3.10 a bushel. Sure, farmers can produce more per acre today, but inputs, including fertilizer, sometimes a lot of it, diesel fuel, seed and labor, are getting more expensive. There is no way to offset all those.”
The marketplace would suggest farmers would be better served by cutting back on production, but their pride and dedication to producing the best crop possible override market dictates, Riddle said.
McLennan County Extension Agent Shane McLellan said local farmers are sweating the weather, hoping fields will dry and soil temperatures will rise to 50 degrees by the start of corn planting Feb. 5.
Farmers stay abreast of worldwide events, including the breakout of conflict, threatening weather, tariffs and trade, McLellan said.
“They get a little nervous sometimes looking at the big picture,” he said. “But they know there is much they can do nothing about.”