Jeff Semler: We have to preserve vocational agriculture

June 25, 2012|By JEFF SEMLER |
  • Jeff Semler
Jeff Semler

Agricultural literacy is a large concern of mine, and sort of a cause, if you will.

My concern was heightened when I read about a survey conducted by a British charity called LEAF, which revealed that only 40 percent of young adults associated cows with milk. Furthermore, only 33 percent and 36 percent, respectively, were unaware eggs came from chickens and bacon comes from pigs.

So what is agriculture? 

Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines it this way: The science or art of cultivating the soil, producing a crop and raising livestock. 

A synonym given is farming, and is probably what most people think of as agriculture. 

At best, agriculture is part of people’s nostalgia, Farmer Brown or Grandpa’s Farm. Others’ views are echoed in two quotes, the first from former President Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re 1,000 miles from a cornfield.” The second from journalist and humorist Kin Hubbard has a similar sentiment: “Farming is something that looks nice — from a car window.”

Agriculture, a once- revered occupation, has been marginalized in today’s society. 

Our founding fathers recognized the importance of farming. Ben Franklin said, “Farming is a kind of continual miracle wrought by the hand of God.” 

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Agriculture is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals and happiness.”

And Daniel Webster remarked, “Let us never forget that the cultivation of the earth is the most important labor of man.”

This phenomenon of marginalization is even occurring in education today.

 Can you imagine state universities created by congress with land grants to fund schools of agriculture and mechanics are downsizing their colleges of agriculture or trivializing them by change their name or merging them with other colleges? 

It is happening.

 Remember our definition —  a science or art. No other sector of the sciences or the arts has enjoyed such disdain.

Maybe it is because society at large doesn’t know the contribution the agricultural sciences have made to them aside from providing food, fiber and recreation. 

Wait a minute, you say. I know about the food. and OK, wool, linen and cotton are fiber, but where is this recreation?  Well, the obvious is the horse.  Whether you are riding it betting on it or admiring it grazing at a distance, the horse industry is a great contributor to the Maryland economy.

Next is what is known as the “green industry” of nurseries, greenhouses, florists, lawns and golf courses. Each one is part of agriculture. What has been learned on the farm and field has been applied to lawns and fairways — not to neglect the tree farmer and orchardist, who provide fruits and nuts and lumber and Christmas trees.

Now you’re saying, oh yeah, that makes sense, I never thought of it that way. Well surprise, agriculture has made significant contributions to human medicine. 

We read all the time about the miracles being performed in the areas of human fertility. We guess what most of those practices and procedures were developed on cows. That is right; bossy was the first to have hormone therapy and multiple embryos. We have been performing artificial insemination in cattle since the 1950s.  Many of the genetic tests and early genetics were learned in the barn and field. Gregor Mendel, a monk and a founding father of genetics, made his early discoveries in peas.

Now that I have shown you just the tip of the iceberg that is agriculture, I hope you will have a greater appreciation. I hope you will look around at an agrarian county like the ones here and say we need to preserve vocational agriculture in our schools, we need to make responsible land-use decisions and we need to keep our ag colleges strong. 

I trust you will begin to share the sentiments of Webster, “Never forget that the cultivation of the earth is the most important labor of man. When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of civilization.” 

Please join me and help keep our foundation strong.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by email at

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