Whether public attention to food is positive or negative, it's an opportunity to teach people about agriculture, MU Vice Chancellor for Extension and Engagement Marshall Stewart said.

The general public doesn’t understand agriculture, but as people think more about health, they think more about what goes into producing their food, said Marshall Stewart, MU vice chancellor for extension and engagement.

Public interest, whether it’s positive or negative, is an opportunity to teach people about agriculture, he said at a panel on agricultural policy held at MU on Thursday evening. The panel also featured state Rep. Tracy McCreery, D-St. Louis, the ranking Democrat on the House agriculture committee, and Lynn Fahrmeier, who owns and operates a farm in Lafayette County. The panel was hosted by the American Enterprise Institute at MU, the MU Collegiate Farm Bureau, the MU College Republicans and Democrats, and the MU chapter of Alpha Gamma Rho.

The general public has an overwhelming lack of understanding of agriculture, and it’s concerning when people don’t understand where food comes from and how cheap and affordable it is in the U.S. compared to the rest of the world, Stewart said. The general public is more interested in agriculture today than they have been in the past, and that’s an opportunity to teach, Stewart said. That’s not a problem for lawmakers to solve, he said. People involved in agriculture have to spread the word.

“They want to know where that watermelon came from or where that squash was grown, and we need to use that,” Stewart said.

While Stewart spoke of individual responsibility to act, the panel discussion also focused on policy affecting agriculture, like the Chinese tariffs on soybeans that have contributed to low soybean prices for U.S. producers.

McCreery said she’s glad for the market facilitation program, a direct payment from the USDA to producers hurt by falling prices caused by international trade disputes, especially between the U.S. and China. While that program will diminish the tariffs’ negative impacts on producers, the payments aren’t taxable, so the State of Missouri is still losing money, McCreery said.

The main issue with soybean prices isn’t tariffs, Fahrmeier said, it’s that there are too many soybeans. Unless something like a drought somewhere reduces the supply of soybeans, or we find more uses for soybeans, prices are going to be a problem, he said.

A lot of the day-to-day changes in soybean prices are from people changing their outlook on a resolution to the U.S.-China trade dispute, Dr. Patrick Westhoff director of the MU Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute said in a January webinar, which Fahrmeier referenced. Losing a significant market for soybeans had a big impact on price, and Westhoff said increased soybean production also caused prices to drop. U.S. soybean producers harvested a record a record 4.54 billion bushels, and the USDA price estimate dropped to its lowest point since 2006-2007.

The spread in soybean prices between the U.S. and other countries show the tariffs definitely had some effect, but the spread has come back toward normal levels, Fahrmeier said.

“The world has never had this many soybeans, and so supply and demand dictate that price,” he said.

Agriculture is being used as a pawn in a dispute over intellectual property, Fahrmeier said. That shows how important agriculture is, Stewart said, and it could be an opportunity to raise public awareness about agriculture.

“Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on where you sit, I think much of the world looks at soybeans or anything else like any other business,” Stewart said.

Weather and policy are two major factors in agriculture. Weather you can’t do anything about, but you can change policy if you get involved, Stewart said.

“Those of us who sit on the edge of making policy have an opportunity to tell our friends and neighbors what’s important,” he said.

A future in agriculture

The limited amount of pathways for young people to get into agriculture is a major issue facing agriculture in Missouri and the U.S., Stewart said. That’s especially true for young people who don’t come from the farm, but want to get in, he said.

Fewer children are raised on farms as U.S. farmers produce more with fewer employees.

“I think there has to be ways of making that happen,” Stewart said. “Especially when you look at the generation of people who are retiring, what will happen to that land?”

Every panelist mentioned manufacturing as one area Missouri can grow its agricultural economy.

Missouri grows a lot, then sends it to other states to be processed, Stewart said. Missouri is missing out by shipping raw goods outside the state, because there is a lot of value in processing.

Bringing manufacturing into the state could make agriculture a $71 billion industry in Missouri by 2027, $25 billion more than current projections, according to a recent report commissioned by the Missouri Agricultural Foundation, in partnership with MU, the State of Missouri and several industry groups.

St. Louis County, home to corporate campuses and sprawling suburbs, isn’t generally known for agriculture. But manufacturing makes it one of the most productive counties for agriculture in the state, McCreery said. There’s a lot of money being made in things like brewing and pet food manufacturing in the county, McCreery said.

Technology is another major avenue for people to get involved in agriculture, Fahrmeier said. He showed off an app on his iPad that tracks detailed yield history for his farm. Production agriculture is getting more efficient, and technology is the driving force behind that.

“It’s a team effort, there’s no way I’m smart enough to do everything by myself,” Fahrmeier said.

Stewart, a native of eastern North Carolina, used the research triangle of NC State, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Duke University as examples of how Missouri could expand in agricultural technology. Stewart sees potential there for an Interstate 70 agricultural technology corridor between St. Louis, a leader in plant science, and Kansas City, forerunner in animal health.

Fahrmeier referenced the work of the MU Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute several times throughout the panel discussion. MU research on soil health is like science fiction, Fahrmeier said. Soil research could have great applications for Missouri farmers, but it takes money to fund that research, he said. For Missouri farmers to keep benefiting from MU research, the state needs to support it, he said.

“I really like when Lynn talks about supporting the University of Missouri,” Stewart said.