Secretary Tom Vilsack Commencement Remarks to Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences
June 8, 2012
As Prepared for Delivery
Good afternoon and thank you for the invitation to join you today.
As you all know well, the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences is a unique institution with an innovative premise. It stands as a testament to the fact that agriculture is a critical element in the lives of every American - in our greatest cities as much as in our small towns and rural communities.
It's representative of the progress we can make when leaders come together from the education, government, and business communities to craft a unique experience for our young people.
It's a school that already has produced premier agriculture leaders, many of whom are here with us. And today we have another distinguished group of young people who are sure to be some of our great thinkers, innovators, and builders.
I was very excited when I was told I had the opportunity to give the commencement address here in Chicago. A number of people I know have had great experiences visiting this institution.
Our USDA Deputy Secretary, Kathleen Merrigan, greatly enjoyed her visit here. Education Secretary Duncan has been here during his years of distinguished service leading the Chicago Public Schools. He has mentioned the time a calf was born here - and then I came to find out that I just missed the new filly who was born here recently. How many high schools have fillies and calves walking around? I would guess relatively few.
At any rate, I'm excited to be here today. I am eager to give you a simple - but an important - reminder that I hope will cap off your experience here. But first I would like to briefly recognize some of the others here today.
First, to Principal Hook, to the administration, and to the teachers - thank you. A quality education is so important to the lives of young people. Today is a time to remember how many lives you've touched - and how many people you have helped.
Second, I want to recognize the parents, the grandparents, the aunts and uncles, and all of the other family members here today. The success of the graduates is a testament to your commitment as family - to supporting, loving, and caring for them. Today is your day, too.
Now, on to the graduates. I have a simple reminder for you all here today - that agriculture matters.
Agriculture matters. Agriculture is more relevant than ever to the challenges our country faces today. It is central to our values as Americans. No matter where you go, or what you do, it will only become more significant in your lives as you grow older.
When you pick up the paper or read the blogs today, this might not be immediately clear. Agriculture issues aren't clearly defined for folks. For the 98 percent of Americans who aren't living on the farm or ranch, agriculture isn't always the topic of conversation around the dinner table.
Of course, your experience was different. How many parents here in Chicago can ask their kids what they did at school, and be told, "I milked a cow today"? Probably not many.
But I'm afraid you're the exception in this regard. Many Americans don't understand the value of agriculture to their lives. They don't know that 1 in 12 American jobs are tied to the agriculture sector.
There are even some out there who think that you should be concerned with other endeavors, not with agriculture, if they want to do great things.
But when you pick up that paper or read the news today - it's true that you might not see a front page analysis of the latest corn seed research or a new, cutting edge horticulture technology. You probably won't see a profile on a farmer whose conservation work is revolutionizing watershed management, providing clean water for folks in cities like Chicago. Chances are you won't read about a startup anaerobic digester that's turning waste into an advanced form of energy.
But you do see stories, every day, that signal a complex, changing world. A globalizing marketplace. A growing world population. A changing climate. Challenges like obesity, hunger, and a lack of access to healthy foods. Complex political challenges in other nations. And our own continuing questions about what should define our nation and our American values.
Agriculture is highly relevant to each of these, and it will only become more relevant in your lifetimes. Let me give you three reasons why.
First is the obvious - we all need food. Today, we have more than 6 billion people on our planet and 925 million of those people are malnourished.
Now think about the world's population, which is expected to grow to 8 billion, or 9 billion, or 10 billion over the course of your lives. Just to meet the demand that's already there, we have to increase food productivity by 70 percent.
Meanwhile, we have fewer farmers. Today, about 2 percent of Americans are on the farm or ranch. The age of the average farmer today is right about my age. But the challenge of growing enough food to feed the world is no longer somehow just a rural challenge. We're all addressing it together.
I'm guessing that some of you didn't have a background in agriculture when you started here. You didn't grow up on a farm. But you saw opportunity in agriculture, and that's what brought you here.
This is a phenomenon that's taking hold around the nation: in rural areas, the suburbs, and even big cities like Chicago, young people are getting interested in agriculture. And this makes me tremendously hopeful.
Farmers today are on the outskirts of Chicago growing fresh fruits and vegetables to supply the city. I even think of people right here in Chicago who are farming urban lots to feed their community. Future Farmers of America now has chapters in 18 of America's 20 largest cities, including the chapter you all belong to here.
In agriculture, our strength is in our diversity -- farms of all different sizes, crops and business models. And that diversity means you can dream big. Maybe someday, you'll be the researcher who unlocks the genetics for a drought-resistant seed that can feed more people on the same ground. You might become a leader in animal nutrition, helping to find the right quantities and qualities for the best new feed. You could be the one who develops the supply chain that connects farmers and consumers - whether that's a global supply chain, or one to bring Illinois-grown products to Chicago.
Now, these challenges, and these opportunities, aren't ours alone. They're something we share with our partners around the world. Right now, America is the breadbasket of the world.
We're in the midst of the three best years of agricultural exports in our nation's history. And through some of the work we're doing in the government and with nonprofit and business folks, we're able to share the bounty of our own nation with folks who need it around the world.
When people have enough food, it doesn't just improve their lives or the lives of their families. It's good for the security of their nation and for ours. When people get food aid from the United States - when they see the flag of the United States of America on their food - they understand that we want to help. And particularly for people your age and younger - kids in school in the poorer parts of the world - they're going to grow up with an understanding that America is a country that wants to help them, not hurt them.
So you might be a nutritionist who's helping to find the right vitamins and minerals to help those young people grow. Or the conservationist who helps a developing nation protect its soil and increase its own yields. Maybe you'll work with foreign governments who need help and advice to feed their people.
It's very clear that our ability to feed people is going to have major implications on our future. And to get the job done, we're going to rely on a new breed of graduates who can bridge the gap between rural and urban America.
We certainly need you if you want to farm. But if you're about to go to college to study the sciences, if you want to go into business, if you want to learn how the markets work, if you want to go to law school someday - we still need you to help feed the world.
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With this in mind, agriculture doesn't just matter because we need to feed everyone. In fact, it's not just about food. Agriculture matters because it's the foundation of an entirely new economy.
You've probably heard the common saying over the years - that we get "food, fuel and fiber" from the land. I would dare to take that a step further - these days, it's not just limited to food, fuel and fiber.
It's about an entirely new round of bio-based products that will define a new global economy that's rooted more squarely in the land than ever before.
I've had the opportunity to travel around the country, visiting with researchers, many of whom are college students not much older than you, about the tremendous advances being made in producing the things we need from crops grown here at home.
We have companies like Coca-Cola rolling out cutting edge bio-based bottles. We have researchers who are designing new, green building materials from plant-based products. I've even met people who creating a form of asphalt out of pig manure.
The bio-based economy will also reduce our dependence even further on foreign oil - oil that's imported from countries who don't like us very much. Over the course of three years as Secretary, I've witnessed phenomenal progress in America's energy security. Just a few years ago, we were still importing more than 60 percent of our oil into the United States. But - thanks to a variety of steps, but certainly including the investments we have made into new biofuels - the United States is now importing less than half its oil.
At USDA we're making record investments in research and innovation. President Obama and I are calling on Congress to help by reauthorizing tax credits for innovators who want to create jobs here at home. We know how critical it will be for America to be energy secure in the coming decades. But we need your ideas, too.
We're going to need engineers to devise the next tools for refining biomass. We're going to need mechanics to build those machines. We're going to need people who know marketing, who can present the good work we're doing here in America and convince the world that they need to get on board too.
We're just starting to understand the potential of bio-based products and advanced biofuels. We're just starting to ask the next round of tough questions about our energy. Agriculture matters in answering those questions today. And you will be part of the answer, too.
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Finally, and equally as important, agriculture matters because it is the foundation of our value system as a nation.
150 years ago last month - on May 15, 1862 - President Lincoln sat down in the midst of a bloody, tragic civil war. And even as he was struggling to bring together a union, the president found it important to sign a piece of legislation creating the Department of Agriculture.
Things were different back then. Almost half of Americans lived on the farm. We were a nation built on the strength of our farmers and ranchers, by great leaders who were themselves farmers. We were an agrarian nation.
Maybe that's why, a couple of years later, Lincoln was giving his final address to Congress and noted that he considered USDA "the Peoples' Department." He didn't just say this because so many Americans were on the farm, although that was part of it.
President Lincoln understood that our values as a nation are rooted in agriculture - that the work ethic which defines our agriculture sector has always defined the spirit of our nation.
Over the past four years, you've gained a unique understanding for the tremendous power of the land. You've seen what our natural resources can do for us, if we treat them right. You've learned a value that so many generations of American farmers and ranchers have carried with them: We can't just take from the land. We have to give back.
The same is true for a nation. You can't take from a nation, without giving back. You can't take home for granted. You can't assume that someone else is going to step up.
Folks who work in agriculture know this. That's why our farmers and ranchers are the leading stewards of our natural resources. And maybe it's why we have more than 6 million American veterans - a disproportionate amount - living in rural areas where agriculture plays a prominent role.
Folks who are raised in agriculture or exposed to it in their education learn that you have to replenish the land that gives you your livelihood. You have to renourish it. And when you do, you learn that it's a bargain between people and the land.
It's a give-and-take. You can't be selfish, and you can't concentrate solely on what will benefit you in the short term. That's central to our value system as a country. It's something we can't forget.
And whatever field of work you go into, you're going to take the experiences from this school with you. Maybe you'll be in the next generation of agricultural educators, imparting this value system for the next generation. Maybe you'll even start your own agriculture science high school somewhere in America.
So while values aren't tangible things, and so often are left out of the discussion when it comes to agriculture, know that you haven't just learned how to grow crops. You haven't just learned how to show a calf. You haven't just learned about horticulture, about life sciences, about all of the ag-related technology that will carry you so far in your careers. You've learned where our values as a nation are rooted. Agriculture matters to those, too.
So today, I want you to remember that you have done something truly special. Four years ago, you came here to the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences for different reasons. And now, today, you'll walk away with a high school degree that says "agriculture" on it. That's certainly unique for a high school diploma. And it's going to set you apart. It matters deeply.
We need people to carry on this tradition of agricultural education, and make sure every American has an opportunity to pursue their dreams. President Obama is working to help, extending Pell Grants to 3 million more students, signing a tax credit worth up to $10,000 for middle class families for help with tuition, and calling on Congress to keep interest rates low on student loans.
Ultimately, we need you to carry the banner of agriculture forward. I want to leave you with a challenge. Know that you are the next generation of leaders in the agriculture sector - which will be one of the most critical in the decades to come.
You have an unprecedented chance to help Americans understand the value of the American agriculture sector. You have an exciting future where you not just can reshape agriculture, not just pioneer new scientific breakthroughs, not just start new businesses.
You have the capacity to reshape the economy, so that it's sustainable, environmentally friendly, creates jobs, and brings renewed faith and hope to rural parts of this country. You have that power. Use it. Understand that no matter what you do, you are an ambassador for American agriculture and for all the good that it stands for.
Folks, agriculture matters. You matter. You're going to do great things because you have some very special, very unique insights. You've been given experiences by the folks here that will serve you throughout your lives. Use them - we're counting on you. America is counting on you.