By Marshall Matz

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In the run up to the next Farm Bill, Agri-Pulse has invited my thoughts and comments, along with those of several colleagues, as part of a modern day chat room on agriculture.  We will address a range of topics and from different points of views.  The next farm bill will have to confront some very difficult issues including the size of the deficit, direct payments and even whether food stamps should be limited, in some way, to only nutritious foods.

The farm bill will also present an opportunity for all of us to unite behind some basic agriculture education messages.  American agriculture has been enormously successful in its primary mission:  The country has a safe and ubiquitous food supply and at a very reasonable price. The down side of this success story is that so few Americans currently farm, the consumer no longer appreciates farming. The public, press, Congress, public officials and even economic “experts” simply don’t understand what it takes to produce the bounty we all enjoy and to bring it from the farm gate to the kitchen table. 

Our blackberries, flat screen televisions and other creature comforts are made possible in part because of agriculture’s success.  But we…those who read Agri-Pulse…are not effectively telling agriculture’s story to the public, the customer.  Beyond any sentimentality, there are practical, consequences to this lack of understanding. 

• The President, Department of State, USDA and AID have all embraced “Feed the Future” but there is no general public understanding of what it takes to achieve the goal.  
• Coexistence no longer refers to the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union but between organic and commercial agriculture.
• Michael Pollan tells the public to “reject the advice of science” and his book “In Defense of Food” becomes assigned reading at the University of Wisconsin.
• Farm programs are blamed for obesity.
• Our National Forests are dying because only ten percent of the annual growth is being harvested.

We are a part of the problem, all of us, the experts in the field of agriculture and forestry, who have allowed this to happen by our inaction and by focusing on our differences rather than the larger picture.  Each commodity has its own marketing order and promotion focus.

Therefore, let’s use the upcoming farm bill discussion as an opportunity to educate the public and change the environment in which public officials from both political parties will make decisions that impact our lives and our industry.  No matter what issue you are testifying on, no matter what agriculture topic you are addressing or who you are talking to, let’s all use a consistent opening introduction.   Here are some of my suggestions:

• American consumers spend only 10% of their disposable income on food, the lowest of any country, which helps drive our national economy.
• While only one percent of the population farms, total food expenditures now tops $1.1 trillion.
• The United States exports approximately $100 billion in agriculture products and had a balance of payments surplus in agriculture of $29 billion in FY 2010. 
• If we are going to become energy independent… and we must… agriculture has an important role to play.  
• Cutting timber in the national forests improves the environment and is critical to proper forest management, energy independence and rural jobs. 
• In order to feed the world, we need all of agriculture, including commercial and organic, and our regulatory system must be based on sound science.

The recent U.S. Census report was instructive.  Our country continues to move from rural to urban areas and from colder cities to warmer areas in the South.  The urban-rural divide in America will continue to grow wider and there will be even less understanding of farming and the agricultural section. 

In short, it’s time to unite and tell agriculture’s story.  It’s a great story! 

Fair minded people in the center of the political spectrum will listen if we tell them the facts about the foods and products they enjoy and what the farm and forestry communities need to do to produce them. The farm bill can be an educational opportunity if we just take it.  

About the author: Marshall Matz, a partner at OFW Law in Washington, is a Democratic advisor on food, agriculture and rural policy. 

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