At Sante Fe High School in Alma, Director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture, Dr. Jon Hagler spoke to a room full of farm families and FFA members at the Santa Fe Agri-Leaders kickoff meeting. Having just eaten a meal catered by the local FFA chapter, he was not donning his signature cowboy hat, but brought his humor.
The slogan for Alma, a town of just over 400, is "The Cleanest Town in America." Hagler says this could be true. Why? "It's the people, and it's the school," he says. "The fact that this many people showed up when you've got a ball game, a rival game down the road." This kind of commitment is something he says more organizations could use. "They're committed to this school. They're committed to agriculture," he says. "You don't see that in every organization."
Hagler recalls visits to other countries, like China and Russia. "The one thing when you travel to those countries, the relationships we have here in the U.S., you start to appreciate more," he says. "The one thing they wanted to ask was how does that system work?"
He is referring to not only the commitment the community has, but also land grant university research combined with extension, which can't be found in other countries. "If somebody wants to get into agriculture, they're on their own. There are Universities doing plenty of things, but they're not tied to the farmer," he notes. "It's that network you really start to appreciate."
Partnerships with other countries are another benefit of visits. "Forging those business relationships really makes a difference," Hagler says. "If you're not selling as much here, you need to sell more abroad." He notes the recession over the last several years. "Agriculture was the only sector of the economy that continues to do well," he says. "We saw exports expanding and growing. We saw farmers investing in technology."
This will be more important in years to come. "By 2050, we're going to have to feed a population of 9 billion people," Hagler notes. "If we didn't lose one single square inch of farm ground, we'd have to double our production. That's a heck of a challenge." Over time, agriculture has embraced change. "We went from a mule and a plow to satellite-guided precision farming," he says. "Precision in machinery is getting faster and faster. It's getting more precise." To feed the world, farmers need to continue this, he says. "If you don't ride the wave of change, you'll soon find yourself underneath it."
Look to agriculture's youth
Young leaders are aware of this. "In 2009, I got invited to speak at the state FFA convention. That thing is cool. It's like a rock concert." Here, Hagler noticed technology's importance in FFA. "I forgot my speech. So I said, I think I'll talk about technology," he says. He knew after listening to speeches all day, FFA members wouldn't be able to pay attention. "I said, 'Since you're not going to listen, pull out your phones.' They pulled them out, and it just lit up."
Phones are one way technology can benefit agriculture. "Young people going to be able to do things with their phone we never thought about doing," Hagler says. "They're going to be able to check the moisture content of their soil. They're going to be able to check if their cows are out."
This is important with a rising urban population, and fewer people in agriculture. "We are 1.5% of the nation. That means the other 98.5% are making policy decisions for you," Hagler says. "Those are your consumers. You've got to connect to that broader audience."
Making the connection can be as simple as addressing hunger. Hagler recalls a discussion with the head of the Missouri Department of Conservation. "He said, 'Did you know one out of every four Missourians hunts or fishes? I said, 'Did you know four out of four eat?'" Hagler says. "Are you hungry? Then we've got something in common."
High school and college students in agriculture understand this, he says, noting the high school in his home, St. James. He asked students there where beef comes from. "You can look out from the school and see cattle," he says. "Country Mart is the first thing they think of, because they think like consumers." This is where youth have leadership potential, he says. "They're not just our future farmers, they're our current ambassadors."
It's important for everyone to step up, Hagler says. "To take time to go and represent your state and represent your industry, that's important." He recalls Congressman Emmanuel Cleaver's speech at the Governor's Conference in Kansas City, addressing his own background in agriculture. "That meant something to the people that showed up that Congressman Cleaver understands agriculture."
In one of his staple jokes, Hagler notes a farmer in 1952 who took his children and neighbors' children, 16 total, to the state fair. "Finally he sees a tent. It says there inside is a 3,000 pound bull," Hagler says. "He says, 'I've been farming my whole life I've never seen a 3,000 pound bull.'" At 25 cents apiece, the farmer couldn't afford the fee. But the bull's owner overheard, and decided to let them in. "He said, 'Son let them right in,'" Hagler says. "He said, 'I don't want him to see the bull, I want the bull to see him.'"
Hagler says farmers need to show the bull. "I want you to be agriculture evangelists," he says. "When people talk about agriculture, stand up for agriculture." He notes agriculture's role in supporting Missouri and the U.S. "When an American farmer does well, America does well," he says. "There's more money in the church plate on Sunday, local schools do better, local businesses do better." He notes the recent rough patch agriculture went through. "I know it's been a rough couple of years, but I believe the future of agriculture has never been brighter."