The Emerging Issues Forum at North Carolina State University, an annual conference that draws key business leaders, educators and policy makers, was the occasion for the kickoff of a new College of Agriculture and Life Sciences initiative, "Food...For Thought!," to make the public more aware of food, farming, agriculture and agribusiness.
Such topics were in keeping with the focus of the forum, held Feb. 24-25 at McKimmon Center, as well as the key participants’ areas of interest. Speakers at this year’s Emerging Issues Forum, "Shaping Our Common Future," included U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman (USDA) and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, who is chairman of the state’s Rural Prosperity Task Force. Glickman gave the national perspective on rural prosperity, and Bowles gave the North Carolina perspective and reported on initiatives of the task force.
But before panel discussions featuring Bowles and Glickman began, Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. introduced the "Food...For Thought!" campaign. He directed conference participants to view a colorful exhibit and a brochure featuring photos and facts about the College’s contributions to improving food.
The forum kickoff was only the beginning of the "Food...For Thought!" initiative, according to Bob Cairns, director of college relations for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. From March through May, Ray Starling, a 1999 graduate of the College, visited civic clubs in seven North Carolina cities to tell urban residents about the importance of food, farming and agriculture.
"Rarely do people think about the connection between food and its origins: farms, agriculture and agribusiness," said Starling, the son of an Autryville farmer and a former national vice president of FFA.
"The key element of the ‘Food...For Thought!’ tour is the fact that we are taking this message about the 2 percent of the population who live on the farm to the 98 percent, the folks who don’t. It may be the first time that we’ve made a concentrated effort to reach out to those who are not involved in agriculture," said Dean Jim Oblinger of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Joining Starling in each location were students from the College, who represent area farms and have their sights set on careers in agribusiness. They presented information about commodities produced on their family farms and the value of those crops to the state’s economy.
Starling shared with his audiences the message that agriculture, which is critical to the state’s economy, is in trouble. Commodity prices are the lowest in years, and many family farms are disappearing. He told them about how the College’s research and education efforts in agricultural and life sciences are playing a key role in supporting agriculture and agribusiness in this state and beyond.
"We are out here to raise awareness and to ask folks to support agriculture and agribusiness and to encourage them to ask their legislators to do the same," Starling said.
Raising awareness was likewise the agenda of Glickman and Bowles, who discussed both national and state initiatives aimed at increased rural prosperity. Glickman told the crowd that in the current climate of low commodity prices, "the sink-or-swim" approach to agriculture outlined in the 1996 Farm Bill is not working. He outlined two new legislative initiatives sought by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The first is a farm support system in which payments to small and medium operations would go up when income drops and go down when income rises. Other ideas for the program include paying farmers for good land stewardship; teaching farmers to manage risk better; making crop insurance more affordable and more available; and developing alternative uses for crops.
The second major legislative initiative of USDA is to open Chinese markets to U.S. agriculture. Because one third of U.S. agricultural acreage is used for export, it is important to have access to markets of the world’s largest country, where one fifth of the world’s population lives.
Bowles said the N.C. Rural Prosperity Task Force has spent six months visiting and analyzing needs in rural North Carolina and discovered that the state was moving toward two economic strata — one prosperous and urban, the other poor and rural.
He attributed the current situation to the loss of 32,000 jobs in the state, mostly in rural areas; devastation by Hurricane Floyd and the winter’s heavy snows; low commodity prices; and reductions in tobacco quota that have led to a 50 percent income reduction for growers over the past three years.
Bowles outlined six recommendations to improve prosperity in rural North Carolina: provide affordable, high-speed Internet access to all of North Carolina to open opportunities for e-commerce; invest in educating children and retraining adults; create a rural redevelopment bank; establish an agricultural strategic commission to expand and develop new markets for products; develop strong communities; and provide money to build infrastructure such as water and sewer lines, highways and affordable housing.
After the panel discussions, audience members were invited to visit the "Food...For Thought!" exhibit to learn more about its statewide campaign.
To take the message to a broader audience, a video team followed several of the civic club events and record participants’ reactions to the information they learn from the "Food...For Thought!" program. That video will be made available to legislative audiences and to commodity groups.
Beginning in April, Barnes and Noble bookstores distributed 10,000 "Food...For Thought!" bookmarks in 15 North Carolina stores. The bookmarks include facts about innovative food products developed by College researchers. "Food...For Thought!" coloring books, designed and printed by the N.C. Farm Bureau Federation, will be distributed at all seven civic club events and to children across the state through Farm Bureau events in the next year.
"Food...For Thought!" brochures, videos and speeches also will become part of this year’s Farm-City Week celebrations in North Carolina.
And significantly, the National Agricultural Alumni and Development Association, made up of development and alumni organizations from land-grant universities, has adopted "Food...For Thought!" as the theme for its 2001 national conference, which will be held in North Carolina.