‘An amazing asset’: State secretary addresses future, obstacles of agriculture

State secretary addresses future, obstacles of agriculture

PAT CROSSLEY/Sun-Gazette Correspondent State Secretary of Agriculture Russell C. Redding, left, talks with Ben Hepburn, adviser of the Montoursville FFA.

MUNCY — Urging members of the agriculture community to become storytellers, Russell C. Redding, the 26th state secretary of agriculture, said that is one way to answer the current trend of consumers wanting to know where their food comes from.

“We have to add to the agriculture job description, the storyteller,” he said. “We’ve got to be amazing storytellers. Because it resonates with the consumer and the only way they’ll know is to meet you. Step into the conversation of what you produce and how you produce it. I think that’s the relationship in the long term that will make the difference for this state and this industry.”

Speaking last week at the annual awards banquet of the Lycoming County Conservation District and Penn State Extension, Redding said there’s been a shift in agriculture in recent years.

“We know that the agriculture landscape is shifting. It’s shifting politically, it’s shifting economically and culturally and how do we respond to all of that shifting that is occurring,” he asked.

“One thing I’ve come to recognize in the last couple of years is that people want to know who’s feeding them. They want to know where this food comes from. I think that’s one of the great developments of our time. When people stop to think, agriculture wins,” he added.

Redding also spoke about the future of agriculture and the challenges that come with it.

“The challenges we have, have grown and will continue to grow. There are challenges that are domestic here, but we also have Congress and our federal government, which contemplate trade issues,” he said.

“As we look around, the one thing we have built is the capacity to supply around the world,” he continued. “There’s an amazing infrastructure in the port of Philadelphia and other places. We have got to keep an eye on that. It’s one piece I’m worried about because 25 to 32 percent of our total food production in the state has to find a home somewhere around the world.”

“Ninety-five percent of the available stomachs are somewhere other than in the United States and being in the food business as we are, you’ve got to be careful what we do, how we do it and how we approach it,” he cautioned.

Redding said the three largest markets for American products are Canada, Mexico and China. He said Mexico is the No. 1 market for dairy products, both here in the state and across the country.

The largest export from the state is hardwoods. The North American Free Trade Agreement, also known as NAFTA, which affects trade with Canada and Mexico, has come under scrutiny recently by the Trump administration in Washington, D.C.

Redding offered an illustration of the importance of trade on the state’s agriculture.

“Every third row of soybeans and every third row of corn is destined for somewhere other than Lycoming County or the United States,” he said.

“We have these immediate issues that are absolutely critical to the economics of agriculture but we also know that when we extend food around the world, we are also extending our relationship as a country. Food is the foundation of a civil society,” the secretary said.

“It’s often said that if you have food, you have multiple problems, but if you don’t have food you have one problem,” he added.

Several members of local FFA (Future Farmers of America) clubs attended the banquet. Redding expressed his pleasure at seeing the groups represented.

“Anytime I’m with FFA members, it brings a smile just because you look around (and) you wonder sometimes how we solve some of these amazingly complex issues but you also know that the folks who wear the blue and gold jackets that are here tonight are in a special class of people who not only are good academically but they are also folks who are in training,” he said. “Having been in the FFA and having worn the jacket, I always called it a training jacket because it trained me to really think about issues beyond me.

“The real power of the jacket,” he continued, ” is when you take it off. You realize years (later) what you were actually doing was learning an incredible amount about yourself but you also look at the world differently because you realize that it needed what you had and what you have to offer.”

He encouraged the FFA members to look to the future.

“It is reassuring to see you not only for what you stand for, but long term we know that we need you to solve these problems of agriculture. How do you feed a nation and how do you feed a planet in the course of your professional lifetime,” he asked.

“In 40 years, we will add 2 billion people to the planet,” he said. “Every time I say it, I stop because we are at 7.2 billion today and in the course of 40 years we will add 2 billion more people. That’s the equivalent of two Indias. We’re not making any more land. We add 2 billion more people that have the same expectation that you and I have to eat three meals a day. How do you do that?”

The secretary expressed hope in FFA members coming to the forefront to help to find solutions.

“That is an amazing task and it’s one that I am sure glad that there are folks that want to step into that challenge,” he said. “That’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of science and a lot of effort to see that be realized, so I’m very pleased to have you here and I thank you for that.”

Following his presentation, the secretary took questions from the audience ranging from the repeal of the country of origin labeling regulations to the dredging of the Delaware River in order to accomodate large ships that have come to the port of Philadelphia through the Panama Canal.

Redding said he thinks it was a good idea to require labeling on foods, particularly red meats.

“It’s not that it’s bad that it comes from somewhere else, it’s that you should know where it comes from and you should also know that you have choices,” he said.

Speaking about the possibilities offered by the increase in the size of the ships coming into Philadelphia, Redding said that “we rarely talk about the port of Philadelphia as an agricultural asset.”

“When we talk about the reach in Pa. and the opportunity to grow, that is an amazing asset for us,” he said.