When Jerry DeWitt gave the opening keynote address at a recent University of Kentucky College of Agriculture faculty convocation, he brought along a message people in the audience could get behind: "We should respect our past, honor it, learn from it and move forward together."
During the convocation, titled "The Farms and Food System of the Future," the entomologist and former director of Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture shared the experience he'd acquired as a nationally recognized proponent of sustainable systems for more than 20 years.
"I will be very clear," DeWitt said. "This is not a ‘we against them;' it's not conventional against sustainable."
DeWitt was referring to the debate that on occasion occurs among producers and even scientists about the benefits of what's known as conventional agriculture, a system that focuses on productivity that has been in place for the last 30 to 40 years, versus a system that not only strives for high yields, but includes awareness of impacts on the environment and society.
Scott Smith, dean of the UK College of Agriculture, welcomed guests to the symposium's opening event, which was open to the public.
"I feel fortunate that I've been dean during a period of time when there seems to be a convergence of rational thought about agricultural productivity and balancing food production issues and efficiency issues with environmental and sustainability concerns," he said.
Smith pointed out the college has developed the organic research farm, a community supported agriculture project and a sustainable agriculture undergraduate degree program, all while maintaining, and in many cases increasing, its long-standing support for commercial crop and livestock farmers.
"I agree with Jerry; let's stop using the term conventional. Successful farmers today have to be innovative, profitable and environmentally responsible, regardless of what production methods they use. Those are the key elements of sustainability," he said.
DeWitt mentioned many of the fast-growing trends he has noticed across the country, such as an interest in local foods, healthy foods, organic production, and farmers markets. He said one of the biggest trends he's seen in Iowa as well as in Kentucky, is what he called "a farmer with a face." The U.S. Department of Agriculture, recognizing this consumer-driven movement across the country, introduced their Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative in 2009, to strengthen rural communities, promote sustainable food systems and healthy eating and protect natural resources.
"This is big, and with the USDA's initiative, this whole arena is rapidly expanding and has so many research opportunities," DeWitt said. "I know at Kentucky, you're doing much in this arena."