By Jonathan Shell
The forgotten farmer has moved to the forefront of the American economy.
For as long as I can remember, the role of the American farmer has taken a back seat to many industries in our modern economy. In fact, two weeks ago, many Americans would probably admit that they gave little thought to the men and women that ensured grocery store shelves remain stocked with food.
One of the many outcomes of coronavirus pandemic is a rediscovered appreciation for the value of our farmers.
Whether it was noticed or not, for the American farmer, this role has been a constant. From the days of mule driven plows and minimal mechanization, the industry has blazed new paths in innovation and sustainability. In Kentucky, this has developed into one of the most diverse agriculture economies in the world, from tobacco to livestock and hemp to chia. Kentucky farmers have learned to adapt to markets and produce some of the world’s most excellent products. The Bluegrass State has long been the largest cattle producing state east of the Mississippi, producing 1.1 million head of cattle annually. The commonwealth has equally led the way on innovations that are valuable in pandemics like this one. Most notably, the Kentucky BioProcessing facility in Owensboro mass-produced the Ebola vaccine during the 2015 outbreak and will likely be producing the COVID-19 vaccine when one is available.
From medicine to your kitchen table, our country has been uniquely blessed because of our robust agriculture industry. The American family only spends 11 percent of its household income on food, the lowest in world. Most other countries are around 33 percent or higher.
So why is it that even during a global pandemic that politicians and public health officials have been able to confidently inform the public that our supply chain is stable?
Kentucky agriculture is an almost $6 billion industry out of a $373 billion industry in the nation as a whole. American farmers produce 15 billion bushels of corn annually, with Kentucky ranking 14th in corn production. We export nearly 14.3% of our output to 73 different countries around the world. The United States dedicates approximately 89 million acres to soybean production, yielding 4.54 billion bushels of soybeans and allowing us to export nearly 2 billion bushels. Our country is first in the world in soybean production. We produce 32 million head of beef cattle, an area where Kentucky shines, ranking 8th in the nation. That allows us to provide 27.15 billion pounds of beef and export 3.02 billion pounds of beef annually.
A study commissioned by 21 agriculture and food groups across the nation, and published by Feeding the Economy, found that the food and agriculture sectors employe nearly 47 million people, contribute wages above $2.2 trillion and that the total impact of the food and agriculture sector is above $7.6 trillion. In total, the United States exports $139 billion worth of our produced agriculture products, Kentucky exports over $2 billion.
As the world grapples with an unprecedented pandemic, we are all equally dependent on the work of the American farmer.
In recent months, celebrities like Joaquin Phoenix and politicians like Michael Bloomberg have gained attention for their negative comments about farmers. It is increasingly evident how out of touch both of them were. We know that our farmers are stewards of the land and the animals they raise. We know that they are passionate about conservation and have led the way in sustainable practices. All of these things should give us confidence in this time of trial.
This tumultuous time allows us to reflect. We can reflect on the importance of our relationships with family and friends. We can step back and think about the men and women who silently ensure that the necessities of life continue, from the truck driver to the trash collector.
It is a time to rediscover our appreciation for the American farmer. Before this crisis, we may have stopped thinking about them, but they never stopped working for us.
Jonathan Shell is a former Kentucky House Majority Leader, a farmer, and business owner in Central Kentucky. He is the director of state initiatives for Pegasus Institute a public policy think tank based in Louisville and the owner of State Solutions LLC a consulting business that provides strategic and public policy advising for various organizations, including the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.