When I first joined the staff of the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Agriculture nearly 25 ears ago, Rep. E (Kika) De La Garza of Texas was the Chairman. Chairman De La Garza would often tell the story of when he was a freshman member of Congress during the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, he requested and was ultimately invited to tour a nuclear submarine.
The Soviets could track our armies, our ships and our aircraft, but the submarine force remained invisible and was what many believed to be what saved us from a Soviet attack. So, Rep. De La Garza went aboard one of our subs and asked the commander how long he can keep this thing underwater.
The Commander says, ‘‘Oh, take a guess.’’ The Congressman said, ‘‘I don’t know, one year, two years, three years?’’ The Commander said, ‘‘No. You are in the Congress?’’ ‘‘Yes, of course.’’ ‘‘You are on the Agriculture Committee?’’ ‘‘Yes.’’ He said we can keep this submarine underwater as long as we have food for our crew.
That was the secret. Who saved us from all that happened in the Cold War Chairman De La Garza would ask? It was the farmers and ranchers of America.
The U.S. agricultural sector is a diverse, complex and highly integrated enterprise whose health and productivity are vital to the national economy. Agriculture in the U.S. is a nearly $1 trillion business. In 2013, agriculture and agricultural-related industries contributed $789B to the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) and in 2012, domestic animal agriculture (e.g., livestock and poultry production) produced approximately 1.8M jobs, $346B in total economic output, and $60B in household income.
Consumers benefit as well. Americans enjoy the safest, highest quality, most abundant and affordable supply of food and fiber in human history. In the U.S., consumers spend on average, approximately 6.4% of their annual expenditures on food. This percentage is extremely low when compared to other countries whose expenditures range from 11% (Switzerland) to 47% (Pakistan).
The success in our food production system has not only meant safe and nutritious food for consumers, we have done so while keeping food costs low. This does not happen by accident. The work of farming and ranching is a 365 day a year job. Animals need to be fed. Cows need to be milked. Crops need to be planted. Equipment needs to be maintained.
America’s farmers and ranchers struggle each day against significant challenges including:
- high cost of starting a farming operation
- pests and disease
- international trade policies
- tax and regulatory burdens
- lack of control over the cost of the commodities they sell
U.S. farmers and ranchers work hard to keep food prices low and are only able to accomplish this through increased efficiencies in production gained through technological advancements in food production.
According the USDA National Agriculture Statistics Service, average corn yield per acre in 1866 was 24.3 bushels and remained relatively flat until the 1940’s.
As synthetic pesticides and fertilizers became available in the 1940’s, production per acre began to increase. By 1979, average production was 109.5 bushels per acre.
The next big revolution in agriculture came with the introduction of genetic engineering in the 1990’s. Production of corn now stands at 176.6 bushels per acre in 2017.
America’s farmers and ranchers have excelled at meeting most challenges by embracing technologies to consistently improve the products they sell. Where farmers have been lacking is in their ability to tell their story to increasingly distant consumers.
In the 1860’s, nearly 60% of Americans lived on a farm. Today, that number is less than 3%. To most people, food magically appears on the shelves of their overstocked grocery stores. There is little comprehension of the challenges that farmers endure to provide the food we eat. This is a challenge of agricultural literacy.
Negative public perception and free-falling agricultural literacy are perhaps the biggest challenge farmers and ranchers will face. And they do so with few tools in their tool belts. This is a challenge an organization like Porter Novelli is uniquely positioned to tackle.
John J. Goldberg, PhD
Advisory to Porter Novelli’s Food & Farm Task Force
 USDA, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Ag in the Classroom. https://www.agclassroom.org/gan/timeline/farmers_land.htm
 USDA Economic Research Service. http://ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statisticscharting-the-essentials/ag-and-food-sectors-and-the-economy.aspx
 Economic benefits of the Livestock Industry. iGrow, South Dakota State University Extension. July 2014.
 3 USDA Economic Research Service. http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/foodexpenditures.aspx#.UuE9EHn0Ay5