By Sandy K. Johnson
Polly Ruhland knows agriculture from the livestock and row crop vantage point, as CEO of United Soybean Board and past CEO of the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board. Both are “checkoff” programs: farmers donate a small amount of money to a board whose mission is to education consumers about ag commodities under the supervision of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There are more than 20 checkoff boards.
In a Q&A session with National Press Foundation fellows, Ruhland was asked about factory farms – a concept she pushed back on. “All the farms I’ve ever been on have no element of a factory,” Ruhland said. “They (animals) go to a factory for three hours for slaughter. The rest of the time they live on a farm. … That gray space between consumer ignorance and reality is something we have to somehow fill with the truth.”
(Fact check: There are confinement farms, such as for swine and poultry, where thousands of animals are grown in close proximity in giant barns – hence the term “factory farms.”)
Ruhland said she is trying to turn agriculture education on its head by taking inner city kids out to farms and utilizing STEM principles to explain agriculture. There is a specific program at the University of Tennessee that takes disadvantaged urban kids from Memphis to a university farm to learn where food comes from.
Ruhland said they used the example of a simple cotton T-shirt to educate students about picking the cotton, calculating how much is needed for one T-shirt, and then extrapolating those numbers across the U.S. and the world. She hopes the program can be expanded to additional university farms.
She also described innovations on the farm driven by technology, which farmers embrace as early adapters.
“Farming in the future is a technology job,” Ruhland said. She used tractors as an example. The average farm tractor used to be a “dumb” machine completely managed by the farmer. Today’s tractor is a digital marvel: It can be auto-driven by GPS, and its internal computer decides how much seed to plant and how much fertilizer and herbicide to apply. It gathers a huge volume of data that the farmer can analyze to continually tailor his or her decisions for efficient and maximum yield.