Editor's note: The following article was originally featured in a recent update of the Miner Institute Farm Report.
During a recent flight to Wisconsin the woman seated next to me asked where I was going. She wasn’t satisfied with my polite and concise answer of “Green Bay”; she wanted more detail. She was a talker. I told her I was going to talk with people that design recipes for dairy cows about some of the latest research findings that help cows stay healthy while producing milk for us to consume. She had a quizzical look on her face. It was clear that although she was going to America’s Dairyland she had never thought much about cows and even less about the importance of agricultural research. I proceeded to tell “my story” on how I became involved in research and why it is important.
Agricultural research has been an important part of my life ever since I can remember. While growing up on a dairy farm I learned the value of hard work, the need to care for animals in a kind and respectful way, and the importance of implementing management practices based on sound scientific principles. One of my first paying jobs in high school was assisting with corn hybrid evaluation at the local DeKalb Research Farm. This is where I first learned that the research method can be tedious at times as I spent a lot of my time counting to 39 to ensure the corn plots had the proper number of corn plants and later in the season de-tasseled acres and acres of corn. During summer and winter breaks in college I worked at the New York State Experiment Station in an entomology lab focused on preventing insect damage to vegetable crops. It was amazing to see the devastation that insects can cause in a cabbage field within a very short time period. After losing several of my insects (aka experimental units) one summer to the building’s ventilation system, I decided that it was time to work with animals again. My senior research project focused on the selenium requirements of growing pigs. This is when I realized that research was important for providing data to make policy decisions as the FDA at the time was considering lowering the legal limit for selenium supplementation. During my study I constantly smelled like a pig…even after a shower. One day, my boyfriend (now husband) told me he drove past a pig farm and the smell reminded him of me. Needless to say that was the end of swine research for me. However, I was hooked on research, so went to graduate school to study dairy nutrition and management. Today at Miner Institute I feel fortunate to be able to continue conducting research to help the dairy industry. There is nothing more fun than being able to ask “why”, “how”, and “what if” questions and getting to design and conduct studies to answer them.
One of the challenges of convincing people that agricultural research is important is that the value of agriculture in general is not obvious to many people. Agriculture plays a central role in U.S. social and economic activities. Agriculture provides food, fiber, and fuel: It drives the economy. For example, agriculture provides for 1 in 12 U.S. jobs and generates a trade surplus ($37 billion in 2011). Agricultural research has helped make the U.S. farmer among the most efficient in the world … and American consumers have the greatest food security. There was a major focus over the last several decades on increasing yields of crops and livestock. On a global scale, agricultural growth before the 1990s came primarily by bringing new resources into production (i.e. new land and input intensification per acre or animal). However, in the last two decades, agricultural growth has occurred by getting more output from existing resources though the use of new technology and changes in management by farmers around the world. The world’s population is projected to peak at over 9 billion people by 2050. Thus, global agricultural output will have to double by then in order to meet the expected demand for food, feed, fiber, and fuel. This creates a great opportunity for those of us involved in agriculture! Along with the population growth, urbanization is accelerating which is resulting in people making more money and desiring more diverse diets, especially for protein from animal sources.
Unfortunately, global agricultural productivity is not accelerating fast enough to meet the expected agricultural demand in 2050. In response to this concern, in 2012 the U.S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology reported on agricultural preparedness and the agricultural research enterprise. They stated that meeting the challenges of the 21st century requires a renewed commitment to research, innovation, and technology development in agriculture. Currently, private industry supports the majority of funding related to agricultural research and development. However, the Advisors indicated that many of the developments necessary to meet the 21st century challenges are public goods and not easily monetized. Therefore, the challenges require a strong public commitment to agricultural research. Some people may criticize the use of additional tax dollars for agriculture research. Nevertheless, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has stated that “We know that investing in agricultural research helps the economy and strengthens agriculture. Every dollar invested in this research generates $20 in economic benefits for our nation, while giving our farmers and ranchers new tools to mitigate risk and increase production.”
I became a talker during that flight. However, I hope I made my point. We need agricultural research to continue making the food you eat, the clothes your wear, and the energy you use while making the world around you a better, more sustainable place.