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On The Right Track At The Nevada State Fair

Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan discusses how her visit to the Nevada State Fair validates that we’re on the right track and the Farm Financial Forecasts for 2010.

Ed. Note: Building on the President’s commitment to address issues important to rural Americans, Administration officials are visiting State Fairs around the country, see a map of where we've been so far.

When you grow up in rural America, as I did, there is nothing more exciting than the state or county fair.  Showing livestock, competing in baking and quilting contests, eyeing the latest farm equipment, and dipping the season’s first apples in caramel are perennial favorites among America’s rural youth.  So when I visited the Nevada State Fair last week, I made a quick beeline to the 4H and FFA exhibits to see if things were the same as ‘when I was a kid.’

One thing that has changed is that there are fewer young people involved in agriculture.  With the average age of farmers and ranchers in this country now at 58 years, Secretary Vilsack and I worry that too few young people see a future for themselves on our working lands and in rural communities.  Undoubtedly this is because times have been tough out there in the countryside, with many family farmers unable to make ends meet and with rural communities unable to sustain population thresholds necessary to maintain vital community services. 

Yet the young people I met in Nevada were excited by their work – and proud of what they do to produce America’s food and fiber.  They wanted to know what USDA is doing to help them succeed and prosper.  One of the things we discussed was the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative, an effort undertaken by this Administration to bolster local food systems and facilitate a national conversation about where our food comes from.  At the U.S. Department of Agriculture we are working to help farmers diversify their operations, gain access to local slaughter facilities, and build organizations such as cooperatives and farm-to-school programs that grow domestic markets and provide people with farm-fresh food.  All these efforts help attract young people into agriculture. 

I was delighted to learn that the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative has taken hold in Nevada.  It was the theme of the Nevada Farm Bureau exhibit and a focus of discussion when I met with Farm Bureau President Hank Combs and producers from across the state joining me for a roundtable discussion on agricultural needs in Nevada.  They even gave me a framed photo of the fall 2010 Lattin Farms corn maze (shown below), inspired by the USDA Know Your Farmer effort! 

2010 Lattin Farms corn maze

Fall 2010 Lattin Farms corn maze inspired by the USDA Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative.

The Nevada State Fair visit validated that we’re on the right track.  Further validation came days later, when I was briefed on the Farm Financial Forecasts for 2010 which, at long last, provides some good news for rural America and evidence that the Recovery Act and our efforts to revitalize rural America are working. Here are the headlines, as presented by the USDA Economic Research Service: after declining in excess of 20% in 2009, key measures of farm sector earnings all point upward in 2010; farm asset values are likely to increase, and debt will be lower; and after falling the previous two years, farm household income is expected to increase. 

When I said goodbye to the Nevada fairgrounds, I noted that some things never change, farmer ingenuity for one.  Just about every fair has a pumpkin growing contest….this year the 1,725 pound pumpkin at the Ohio fair stole the world record from my home state of Massachusetts.  If you haven’t had a chance yet to go to an agricultural fair, take the time this fall.  You’ll have a blast.