Four former U.S. secretaries of agriculture, including two from Nebraska, came together in Lincoln on Friday to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, creator of land-grant universities, and to look ahead to the challenges of feeding a hungry world.
John Block, Clayton Yeutter, Dan Glickman and Mike Johanns appeared before an audience of perhaps 1,500 at the Lied Center.
Ronnie Green, vice chancellor of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, called it “a once-in-a-lifetime event,” and he and co-moderator Jeff Raikes -- another Nebraska native, former Microsoft executive and chief executive with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- peppered their panelists with questions.
It was noted more than once that the portion of Americans living on farms has fallen to less than 2 percent even as the world’s population is growing rapidly.
When Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862, about half of the population of about 30 million was on farms.
“We’re looking at maybe 2 billion more people by 2050,” said Block, who served in the Reagan administration in the 1980s. “They’ve got to be fed.”
He called for more emphasis on research to ramp up productivity.
But former Kansas Rep. Glickman, part of the Clinton Administration in the 1990s, said that challenge must be approached carefully. “How do we feed another 2 billion people and not rip up the earth in the process?”
Shortages of water in China and elsewhere complicate that problem, he said.
Nebraska Sen. Johanns, ag secretary from 2005-07 to George W. Bush, joined Glickman in advocating for more American efforts overseas -- in India, for example – to boost what countries can do for themselves.
According to Johanns, “nothing will buy you more good will than if you’re there making a difference” in a needy country.
Meanwhile, Eustis native Yeutter, ag secretary from 1989-91 to the first President Bush, said it’s important for farmers to keep their influence in shaping federal policy at a time “when they’re a minority group that’s really a minority group.”
But the four panelists also sounded off about a bright future for agriculture in Nebraska.
Pointing to the vast water resource of the Ogallala Aquifer, for example, Johanns said, “We’re in a very unique position here in Nebraska to capitalize on what the good Lord has given us.”
Earlier Friday, Green talked about how developing the skills associated with food production has been paying off on East Campus in Lincoln.
He cited nine consecutive years of growth in agricultural and natural resources enrollment, including a 3.7 percent increase in the current school year.
Among 28 choices of study, animal science, agronomy, agricultural economics and agricultural business have been some of the most popular majors recently, he said.
“The core area disciplines in agriculture is where we’re seeing the enrollment go up,” he said.
Prosperity in agriculture in the Midwest, although tempered by the 2012 drought, has been one factor, he said. But demand for graduates from agricultural backgrounds is up nationally and ranging far ahead of supply.
“I think the last figure I saw was 54,000,” he said of the number of unfilled positions.
Also earlier Friday, Johanns, Block and Yeutter talked with the media about the uncertain status of the farm bill, the increasing share of the agricultural budget devoted to food stamps, budget disarray and other matters.
Glickman, the lone Democrat, did not make it to Lincoln in time for the 2:30 p.m. event.
Responding to a question about the looming “fiscal cliff” -- the combination of income tax hikes and budget cuts that Congress must either accept or alter by Jan. 1 -- Johanns voiced concern that failure to agree on a course of action could lead to another downgrade in the country’s credit rating.
If that happens, he said, it won’t have anything to do with inability to pay bills.
“The signal we’ll be sending to the marketplace is that people can’t trust at the national level that we can get anything done. To me, that’s just devastating.”
On the subject of food stamps, Johanns noted that the portion of the agriculture budget devoted to that category has increased from 60 percent to 80 percent since he stepped down as agriculture secretary in 2007.
How much to curtail food stamp spending has been a major sticking point in House action on a new farm bill.
Yeutter questioned how needy some food stamp recipients might be.
“We can’t afford to have programs continue to grow for people who can’t legitimately qualify,” he said.