Of fertile young minds and farming’s future

One of the sometimes benefits and all too often hardships of being somewhat in the public’s eye is the ease in which people can Google you. Being Googled isn’t always a bad thing, but it does bring out the crazies from time to time.

A few weeks back I received an e-mail that started out — Dear Mr. Roberson I Googled you and…… That’s usually where I hit delete, but this time I didn’t. I read the e-mail and I’m so glad I did.

The letter was from a 12 year old student, Annina, in northern Virginia. In a very well thought out, very mature — and concise — e-mail she asked if I could provide her the name of a Virginia cotton farmer from whom she hoped to get some information for a school project.

Again, I don’t often give out contact information to people I don’t know, but something in her letter ringed of sincerity and honesty. I forwarded her e-mail to Mike Griffin in Suffolk, Va. Mike is a cotton grower — an outstanding one and one of the finest people I’ve ever met. If the name sounds familiar, Mike is the 2010 High Cotton Award winner for the Southeast.

I forwarded the e-mail, noting I knew rainy weather had delayed cotton harvest and that he had his hands full trying to get his crops harvested and that I fully understood, if he didn’t have the time to respond.

I really didn’t think much about it until I recently received an e-mail from Mike. Thanks to the cut and paste option on my computer, I can share it with you:

I spent the day yesterday with Annina and her father. (As you may recall, the little girl doing the history project on the cotton gin and cotton production) I set up a tour of the gin here in Suffolk for her and we did a walk through yesterday. The gin is shut down until we finish picking all this cotton around here, then they will restart. Annina and her parents will come back for a fully operational tour when this happens.

After our gin tour, we went to the field and I let her ride in a cotton picker, let her drive and actually pick some cotton and we set up a slow motion demonstration so she could actually see the cotton going through the spindles, doffers and into the basket. She had a very good time and I tried to get her the most information and experience that I could pack into one day. I'm not sure who enjoyed the day more, Annina or me.

What Mike didn’t say is that Annina and her father drove three hours from northern Virginia to visit. Neither did he mention that the visit occurred in late December when cotton in Virginia is supposed to be long-since picked and ginned.

He also didn’t mention that during their cotton picking experience Mike sunk a tractor up to the axle, along with a fully loaded cotton module. Sending Annina and her father home early was not an option for Mike, though Annina’s father, an engineer, recognized the mechanical challenge Mike faced and offered to come back another time.

I don’t have a crystal ball, and I can’t predict where life will take Annina the 12 year old Virginia student, but I can guarantee you she will never forget her first trip to a farm, her first tractor drive and the indomitable spirit of the farmer who made that happen.

Chances are good in that she comes from a good home in which education and achievement are highly valued, Annina will be successful in whatever she does in life. Regardless of what that life is, she will forever likely be a strong advocate for American agriculture, in general, and cotton farming in particular.

Again chances are her influence in adult life won’t go beyond pulling the lever to vote for politicians who support agriculture. What if, however, that little girl from northern Virginia with the fertile mind and intuitive curiosity becomes a state senator or member of the U.S. House of Representatives, or maybe even the first female president of the United States — somebody’s going to do it one of these days. No matter how big her life gets she will never forget her first impression of farming and farmers.

Most successful farmers these days list educating the general public at or near the top of what is needed to keep the industry alive and growing in the future. Freedom to operate is already a big challenge in some parts of the country and bound to become a bigger one as society expands and agricultural land shrinks.

How we as an industry respond to opportunities to influence fertile, young minds will be a considerable part of the puzzle that is the future of farming. How we as individuals look at opportunities to influence the non-farm public will provide the mechanism needed to keep farming in a partnership role with society and not in an adversarial one.

Mike Griffin is an exceptional person and an outstanding farmer, but there are thousands and thousands of good farm folks just like him all over this country — people who regularly open their farms and ranches to the public and work tirelessly to promote agriculture. Shame on all of us who don’t!

If you want to get a better idea of the critical nature of what North Carolina Ag Commissioner Steve Troxler calls urbanizing agriculture, try this little experiment. It’s a little more technically challenging than the cut and paste option on my computer, but easily doable.

Get a map of your state and do a simple overlay with the percent that was agriculture, the percent that was urban and the percent that was industry, military or otherwise unusable as farm land back in 1950. Do the same thing for 2000. Then, get the best data you can and project these changes for 2050.

If green represents agriculture, Red represents urban and blue represents industry, the 1950 map will be very green — the 2050 map won’t.

Large agricultural states in the Southeast, particularly North Carolina, Virginia and Florida already face major challenges to cope with loss of farmland. How we are able to blend agriculture with social and economic growth will be a critical issue on the survival, much less growth of agriculture in the Southeast over the next 50 years.

Critical to survival of our industry are the individual efforts, small in the overall scope of things as they may be, by farmers like Mike Griffin who are willing to take their time to promote their industry to the future leaders of our country.

e-mail: [email protected]

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