By Gary Truitt
There is an old adage that goes, “a hungry man has one problem, and a well-fed man has many.” This is true in our American culture. Consumers walk into a grocery store and can choose from 50 different breakfast cereals, 30 different laundry detergents, and an entire row salty snacks. The produce department is filled with a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, no matter what the season of the year. The milk and meat cases are always full. Yet most people do not understand how this food gets delivered to their store and what it takes to produce it. Thus, when there are headlines announcing billions of tax dollars going to farmers for disaster aid, crop insurance, or Market Facilitation Payments, they see agriculture as takers and not as givers.
However, recent research from the USDA reveals a different story. According to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, the average American spends 5% of their disposable income on food. Compare this to France where the average French person spends 13% of their disposable income on food. According to Perdue, when you multiply this by the population of the U.S., farmers give consumers $840 billion. These are dollars that, if it were not for our food and fiber production system, they would have to spend on food.
Looking at it this way, the $40 billion spent on a wide variety of farm support programs looks like a pretty good deal. Yet that is not how it gets spun by the uninformed mainstream media or activist groups. The result is farmers are viewed as takers of handouts rather than the significant contributors they are.
This is only one aspect of the contribution agriculture makes. There also are the economic activity generated on the local and state levels, and the exports that are one of the few areas in which the U.S. has a positive balance of trade. Let’s face it, however, most people outside of agriculture just don’t care.
Perdue, speaking to over 4000 farmers at Commodity Classic last week in San Antonio, made an impassioned plea for farmers to start speaking up. In his well-cultivated, good ole boy Georgia accent, he challenged those in attendance to start talking about the many positive contributions farmers make every day. He indicated this would be a major talking point and focus of USDA in 2020.
It has been a while since we have seen this kind of focus from the USDA — not since the days of John Block and Earl Butz. Yes, other Ag Secretaries have been advocates for agriculture, but not to this extent. However, Perdue pointed out, he is just one voice. While his megaphone is larger than most of us have, each of us still has an obligation to speak up and to paint a positive picture of our industry. Let’s face it, most of the messages people hear about agriculture are negative, not positive.
While issues like GMOs and Antibiotics get a lot of attention, the root issue is food safety for most consumers. If they know their food is safe, how it is produced is not a top of mind issue compared to grocery store receipt. Food security and abundance are also not issues for most, though not all, consumers. People expect their food retailers to always have full shelves, except the night before a forecast winter storm. Telling consumers how all this is made possible by a profitable and free-market agriculture sector will help them understand that farmers are givers and not takers.