Perspective
'Without Agriculture, We'd All Starve'

 

by Matthew J. Lohr, Commissioner, Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services


Matt Lohr

My name is Matt Lohr and since May 1, 2010, I have been serving as the Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Cooperative Living magazine has a long and proud tradition of great coverage and promotion of the industry of agriculture, and I am honored to be part of that.

I want to write about the importance of agriculture to all of us. Not exactly a surprising topic for the Commissioner of Agriculture. I hope I can challenge you to think beyond corn and tomatoes and gain a greater appreciation of the industry and its vital importance to each of us.

Of course the main importance of agriculture is that it feeds, clothes and shelters us. But it also provides green spaces, recreational opportunities, medical advances, and the hub around which much of our industry and commerce occurs. I like to quote a middle school student from an inner city school who visited a farm for the first time and proclaimed, “Without agriculture, we’d all starve.”

That child was exactly right: without agriculture, we’d all starve. But our lives also would be diminished in so many other ways. It’s some of those other ways I’d like to talk about here.

Medicine

Did you know that many of the diseases that affect humans were first discovered in plants or animals? For example, the very first virus ever isolated was the tobacco mosaic virus, and the study of that particular virus advanced medical knowledge about human disease exponentially.

In Virginia we are very proud of Genie the Pig, the Virginia Tech hog that was genetically engineered to produce human clotting factor C in her milk. I can see the day coming in my lifetime when tobacco, the plant that can cause some forms of cancer, can cure the disease through genetic engineering of its leaves to produce pharmaceuticals. Won’t that be a glorious day, and yet another triumph of agriculture?

Commerce

Have you ever wondered why the inspection sticker on your gas pump references this agency, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services?

In Virginia, as well as many other states, the Office of Weights and Measures is housed in the Department of Agriculture because the first items ever traded by weight or measure were agricultural commodities. In Virginia, it was tobacco. Some of the oldest laws on the books are weights and measures laws, designed to ensure that both buyer and seller received and gave good measure.

In so many ways, the hubs of commerce were designed for and around agriculture. Many of the great inventions of modern society — roads, markets, meeting places — were designed to get agricultural products from farmer to consumer. And many agricultural products formed the earliest kinds of currency. Speaking of currency, did you realize that agriculture is Virginia’s largest industry? Tourism, manufacturing, technology, government — all are important to Virginia’s bottom line. But agriculture is the largest industry by far, contributing more than $55 billion annually to the state’s economy along with more than 350,000 jobs.

Entrepreneurship

I have long maintained that good agriculture is good business. A well-run farm is also a well-run business, but it goes deeper than that. Much of the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation that is the hallmark of the American way of life began on a farm or a ranch. We joke that a farmer with a hitch of binder twine or baling wire can make or fix anything, but that’s not just a joke. It’s part of the everyday reality of life on a farm.

Today many farmers are keeping more of their production dollar by selling directly to the public, whether at a farmer’s market, roadside stand, on-farm business or through a relatively new enterprise called agri-tourism. I love agri-tourism because it speaks so eloquently of the enduring spirit, innovative mind and quirky sense of humor of the American farmer.

I don’t know who invented agri-tourism, but I’m pretty sure it was some man or woman who got up one morning and saw that heavy rain or an early frost left a bunch of rotten pumpkins in its wake. This enterprising person thought about it and said, “Hmmm, I can sell a perfect pumpkin for $4, but I’ll bet I could sell a rotten one for $5 if I let people fire it through a pumpkin cannon.” Rounding up some spare PVC pipe and some of that binder twine, soon this enterprising person had people lining up to buy pumpkins and fire them across the field. Soon there were Punkin’ Chunkin’ tournaments, with folks clamoring to buy not only the less-than-perfect pumpkins, but the cannons, as well. The farmer was on to something: don’t just sell a pumpkin; sell an experience. And agri-tourism was born.

Farmers face tremendous challenges continuously: environmental regulations, animal-welfare issues, loss of prime farmland to development, not to mention the vagaries of wind, rain and weather. But they have an enduring spirit and it is in the best interests of us all to keep our farms productive. So won’t you consider doing one small thing each day to support farming in your area? Visit a farmers’ market. Cut your own Christmas tree at a choose-and-cut farm. Look for the Virginia Grown banner or Virginia’s Finest trademark where you shop. And visit a farm, where you’ll get much more than a quart of berries or a bushel of tomatoes: you’ll get a day on the farm in all its richness. By the way, you can find these places at our website.

To learn more about how you can support Virginia agriculture, including where to buy locally grown products in your area, visit www.virginiagrown.com.

What's Your View?

This column is meant to provoke thought, so we welcome reader comments. Send e-mail to: bsherrod@odec.com (please enter “Perspective” in subject line), or send written responses to Cooperative Living, Perspective, Attn. Bill Sherrod, P.O. Box 2340, Glen Allen, VA 23058-2340. 

 

 

 

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