In a brief address at the 2014 National FFA Convention and Expo on Thursday, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack presented FFA members with three challenges: continue to diversify and recruit young people for the industry, participate in ventures that advance science and conservation, and affect change on hunger and access to food.
The Iowa native, speaking to the crowd during an early morning session, first thanked the students for assisting in the advancement of the 2014 Farm Bill and quickly moved on to the first of his three challenges.
"The average age of farmers is 58," Vilsack said. "It means we have to do a better job of continuing to attract and retain young people into this extraordinary calling."
Vilsack said American ag productivity is reliant on youth to take on the challenge of farming, all the while working to diversify the occupation.
"We have young women who want to be farmers as well," Vilsack told the students. "Half of your leadership are women, we want young women to be engaged in agriculture and FFA must lead that effort."
Vilsack briefly mentioned USDA programs to support young farmers, such as credit programs that help beginning and young farmers get started farming. He said FFA members are instrumental in continuing to promote those programs.
On his second challenge, Vilsack urged participation in science studies to improve understanding of climate adaption and climate change mitigation. He said students are excited about science and technology, which will help them tackle the issues and improve ag's response.
In a like vein, Vilsack went on to note that that understanding will be essential in expanding food production to meet the needs of a growing population and eradicate hunger.
"You are the folks that can embrace these challenges – you're not fearful of these challenges," Vilsack said. "I know of no other organization of young people in this country today that is more significant and more serious about grappling with the fundamental challenges we face."
The National FFA Organization, which serves more than 610,000 members, must also advocate for the benefits the industry provides to others, Vilsack concluded.
He said agriculture allows everyone to choose their own career path without concern about procuring food; provides abundant food supplies on little cost to consumers when compared with other countries; and fosters an appreciation for service.
"Whether it's freedom of opportunity, more money in our pockets, or brave young men and women willing to serve us and protect us, it all starts with American agriculture," Vilsack said. "And it all must continue with you."