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.
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
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?
Have you ever wondered why the inspection sticker on your
gas pump references this agency, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer
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.
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
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,
This column is meant
to provoke thought, so we welcome reader comments. Send e-mail to:
firstname.lastname@example.org (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.