Tony Frank: 鶹National Agriculture Day

Earlier this week, March 19, we marked the March equinox – one of two days each year when day and night are briefly in balance the world over – and the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere. 鶹a cosmic scale, earth’s 23.5-degree polar tilt is a trifle, and yet it produces these two days split between light and dark, and also our seasons, the cycling in most places outside the tropics between dormancy and growth, cold and warmth, scarcity and abundance.

The day’s significance extends to all creatures as they adapt or prepare for winter, and for more than 50 years in the United States we’ve marked its special meaning for farmers, ranchers, and other growers with designation as National Agriculture Day. It’s one of those “holidays” that most people don’t realize exists, which is why I want to draw some attention to it and why it matters. Recent years have seen challenges across the food sector, from the pandemic’s supply chain disruptions and lingering inflationary pressures at the supermarket to periodic shortages of eggs, baby formula, and other staples because of avian flu, labor shortages, and other disruptive forces. And there are too many places in our country and across the world where people don’t have reliable access to either the quantity or quality of food they need.

And yet, the success of our agriculture and food systems over the past two centuries is on such a grand scale that it’s easily overlooked or forgotten. A series of innovations and refinements in agricultural technologies and techniques have steadily boosted crop yields as the global population climbed from about 1 billion in 1800 to more than 8 billion today.

Now, with the population poised to reach close to 10 billion in the next five or six decades, we are exploring how precision techniques enabled by artificial intelligence and human ingenuity can sustainably meet nutritional needs in a warming world beset by new disease threats, changing weather patterns, and the loss and degradation of agricultural lands.

Meeting the global need for food and nutrition is an uncontroversial goal, even if it is dauntingly complex. We can’t know in advance the direction innovation will take, or the specific approaches that will be most fruitful.

What we do know is that partnerships, processes, and institutions established more than a century ago under President Abraham Lincoln continue serving us to this day. In a period of less than two months in 1862, Lincoln signed legislation creating the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which he later called “the people’s department,” and he signed the first Morrill Land-Grant Act. This law provided the vision for a national network of land-grant colleges and universities emphasizing educational access and bringing a problem-solving approach to agriculture, engineering, and related fields.

In a related side note, the first letter written by a constituent to Colorado’s new State Board of Agriculture (which oversaw what was then Colorado Agricultural College, now CSU) came as a request for agricultural science. A homesteader to eastern Colorado, relocating from the Midwest, asked the Board to please send him “information on anything that will grow here.” Turns out dry-land cropping was a challenge then as well…

More than 160 years later, the USDA continues advancing science-based policies to boost production while sustaining the communities and natural resources on which all of us depend. The USDA is also a strong partner to colleges and universities, and especially to the nation’s land-grant institutions, which remain focused on producing future agriculture leaders and meaningful research, and which also maintain the cooperative extension services in each state to make information and expertise available to producers and growers at all levels.

When the USDA was created, about half of Americans lived on farms; now, less than 2% do. Despite this transformation of our society, President Lincoln’s vision of agriculture as being for the people is no less true today. We just need new ways of seeing, grasping, and relating to the fundamental processes of nurturing, growing, cultivating, and connecting.

While agriculture is different than it was in 1776 or in 1881, it is still central to our culture and critical to our well-being as individuals and members of society. We all need and benefit from adaptable and resilient food systems. This year, let’s make it a priority to recognize all that we have in common and to celebrate the energy and creativity of the new generations that will lead us forward.

– tony

Tony Frank, Chancellor
CSU System

This message was included in Chancellor Frank’s March newsletter. to subscribe to the Chancellor’s monthly letter.