In an era of new Ford Blue Oval electric vehicle plants and Tennessee Titans’ stadium expansion plans, it might be difficult for Tennesseans – and other Mid-Southerners – to remember that agriculture remains the No. 1 economic powerhouse in the state and the region.
“When our state was founded in 1796, agriculture and commerce were the predominant industries,” said Andy Holt, who was recently appointed director of business development for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.
“Now, in 2022, they’re still the two predominant industries in the state of Tennessee. There are some things that don’t change even with time. And that has been one of the bedrocks for those of us in agriculture in Tennessee. That’s the reason why those two things were put on our state seal.”
When he spoke at the Memphis, Tenn., Agricenter’s Ag Day event, Holt asked how many members of the audience of 150 or more had ever lived on a farm? Most of the attendees, who included participants in the Agricenter’s Ag Day Student Art Contest & Exhibition, had not. (Students received cash prizes in the contest, which has become a fixture at the Ag Day event.)
The Ford Motor Company’s announcement that it is building a $5-billion plant to manufacture electric-powered trucks near Mason, Tenn., has attracted a lot of attention.
“When we look at agriculture, it is the No. 1 industry in the state of Tennessee, undisputed,” said Holt, who operates a farm near Dresden, Tenn., with his wife, Ellie. “But, you say, we have Ford coming in right down the road here, and that’s going to really change things,
“What’s not going to change is that agriculture will continue to be our No. 1 purveyor of jobs in the state’s economy. As we mentioned earlier, agriculture generates $81 billion in income for our state. You will not find a county or any municipality in Tennessee that is not impacted directly and indirectly by agricultural production.”
Taken for granted
Despite that, agriculture is something that many in Tennessee and other parts of the country take for granted.
Holt said that he, too, came from a non-agricultural background, having chosen agriculture as a profession in the third grade. “Unlike John (Butler, Agricenter president), I’m not a fifth-generation farmer, but I am a first-generation farmer, and I can tell you there is so much opportunity in agriculture.”
He said he wanted to leave the audience with three points – the first being that times are changing in agriculture in a huge way, and that people in agriculture have to be more flexible and proactive to adopting change.
“We also need to be more intent on educating people about agriculture,” he noted. “Here’s the thing – folks who consume the food in the United States take it for granted. It’s the cheapest food, it’s the safest food and it’s also the most abundant food supply in the world. When something is safe, cheap and abundant, you take it for granted.”
When he was in the third grade, his parents hosted a family from Kazakhstan who were missionaries that spoke at his church. They picked the family up at the airport in Knoxville where they lived at the time.
“As we were driving home, we stopped at a grocery store because my Mom needed to pick up a few items,” he said. “I was walking with the daughters of the family when they suddenly turned and ran back to their mother who was doubled over in one of the aisles of the store.
“I thought she might have had a heart attack, but what had happened was that she had never seen that much food in one place in her life, and she was overwhelmed to the point of crying. She thought this had to be the grocery store for our entire region because there was no way there could be that much food for a local community.”
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