In Visits With Elected Leaders, USDA Secretary Perdue Defines Sustainable Agriculture

Photo by Craig Chandler, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
September 4, 2020 - 5:08pm

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue visited with Nebraska elected officials today, with stops at the state capitol, UNL, and a local beef processor. In panels with producers and state leaders, the theme of sustainability in farming took a front seat.


The day began in the Governor's hearing room at the state capitol, where Perdue, Gov. Pete Ricketts and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (NE-01) signed a shared stewardship agreement. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green also spoke at the signing. The deal promotes collaboration between the USDA and Nebraska agencies on conservation of forests and natural resources.

Taking the podium, Perdue praised the "federalism" of Nebraska's relationship with agencies like the USDA, joking that Gov. Pete Ricketts talks to President Trump more than he does. "Disease, fire, they know no boundaries. It can ravage the landscape," he said. He referenced a recent wildfire in western Nebraska. "If you're in that 4,000 acres, it matters."

The group then moved to the UNL Innovation Campus for a panel on innovation in agriculture and a tour of the campus' facilities. The room was packed (by 2020's standards), with spaced chairs and jugs of hand sanitizer produced on campus.

A bottle of UNL brand hand sanitizer. (Photo by Christina Stella)

Moderated by Mike Boehm, NU vice president and Harlan Vice Chancellor for the university’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Perdue touted the USDA's 'Agriculture Innovation Agenda', which aims to reduce U.S. agriculture's environmental footprint 40 percent by 2050. He praised UNL as a leader in developing research into sustainable practices, saying farmers want to be stewards of the land.

"Farmers look at the research, they look at your extension bulletins on an ongoing basis, and they adopt those very quickly," he said, citing his own definition of sustainable farming. "They want to be economically sustainable, as well as the other two types of social and environmentally sustainable."

Alongside well-established conservation practices such as no-till and cover crop farming, Perdue said precision agriculture will help farmers achieve the USDA's goal. Using data to monitor crops will allow producers to calculate the exact amount of resources they need while maximizing yield.

Gov. Pete Ricketts said he's also a fan of precision technologies, referencing some machines that are currently in development at UNL, and emphasized they must be practical innovation will lead the way to preserving natural resources.

"It's not good enough just to have something academically theoretical, and maybe I can duplicate it in a lab, but then it's actually gonna apply itself out into the field," he commented. 

But without statewide broadband internet, Rep. Fortenberry added these innovations are useless on many of Nebraska's farms. "Rural broadband, hopefully is a really big leap, and an alignment between Republicans, Democrats and the administration," he said. "Because it is about advancing precision agriculture just for the agriculture sector, but all kinds of other benefits that are accruing."

Giving this year's spike in telehealth, remote education, and working from home, Fortenberry feels wider broadband access would would also be an investment in the social sustainability of rural communities.

A panel of producers at the Piedmontese Beef building. (Photo by Christina Stella, NET News)

Later, after a tour of the Piedmontese Beef company, economic sustainability took a wider focus. The panel, organized by Rep. Fortenberry's office, featured farmers from a wide array of Nebraska's agricultural industries.

Speakers included a fourth generation dairy producer, a farmer fresh out of college who raises chickens for Costco, a vegetable producer who mainly sells at farmers markets, a pair of twin brothers who raise livestock and make whiskey, and a backyard farmer who manages a block "victory garden" with his neighbors. Fortenberry and Perdue emphasized their belief that local, direct-to-consumer food economies need bolstering. 

"We want to have the family connected to the farmer, the urban to the rural, developing local and regional food ... economic systems that are all tied toward not only producing healthy local nutritious food for the purposes of health and well being, but advancing agricultural and economic opportunity," he said. A bipartisan group of legislatures including Fortenberry recently introduced the RAMP UP act in the House of Representatives, which would provide grants to small processing facilities and allow interstate trading of agricultural products.

"Consumers want to know where their food is coming from," Perdue said. "And what we've seen today merges with that perfectly ... the innovation at the University of Nebraska, as well as the private sector."

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