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field of colorful pepper plants in yellow, orange, and red.

National Ag Week: A Q&A with UF/IFAS Faculty Jennifer Clark

By Teresa Suits, agricultural education and communication master’s student (BS ’17)

During 2019, National Ag Week occurs March 10-16. The week recognizes and celebrates the producers, associations, corporations, universities, governments agencies and others across the nation who contribute to the abundance provided by agriculture.

Jennifer Clark is a senior lecturer in the UF/IFAS Food and Resource Economics Department (FRE) at the University of Florida. With a 100% teaching appointment since 2007 in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Ms. Clark’s passion for Florida agriculture and industry experience is channeled into a teaching philosophy focused on developing her students’ critical thinking and decision-making skills. We interviewed Ms. Clark about her economic perspective on why agriculture is vital to our society. Enjoy our question and answer discussion below.

Q: Why is agriculture important and what does it mean to you?

A: Agriculture, in general, occupies a unique position in the economy.  First, the importance of agriculture is that it feeds the world. Food is one of the few needs that is common to every person on the planet. Having access to a healthy food supply is one issue that I think everyone on the planet can agree on. Now, the more difficult food-related economic issues are: “What” food should we produce? “How” should we produce it? “For whom” should the food be produced?

It’s these kinds of scarce-resource decisions that are associated with “economic thinking” and agricultural economists, like myself, use different types of decision tools in our economic toolbox to help inform decision-makers about the real costs and benefits of answering these questions.

Q: Why is it important to communicate about agriculture?

A: It’s important for us to communicate effectively about agriculture and science-based scarce-resource issues.  Uninformed communication based on erroneous information is problematic because this is where emotional misunderstandings, spread of misinformation and general distrust of agricultural systems evolves.

Communicating about agricultural benefits to society extends beyond the commercial economic value that agriculture provides. There are direct health benefits we receive from consuming fresh fruits and vegetables as well as other protein sources (including cattle, poultry, pork and eggs) as a product of agriculture activities.

There are also other indirect benefits of agriculture, like enjoying rural open-spaces in the country, participating in agri-tourism activities or u-pick farming operations, the environmental benefits of enjoying horticulture products that provide beauty and enjoyment in and around our home, as well as conservation resource easements that support wildlife diversity and watershed storage. The complex activities and benefits of agriculture must be communicated as a benefit to us all.

Q: How does the agricultural industry play a larger role in the economy?

A: In Florida, agriculture represents one of the largest contributions to our economy in terms of food-related agricultural products and services produced. Construction, tourism, and other research and service-related industries are also economic engines in the state, but agricultural products provide breakfast, lunch and dinner for them all!

However, while Florida’s agricultural products are consumed and enjoyed locally, this industry plays a much larger role in the economy as products produced here are distributed regionally, nationally and internationally.  The jobs created by the agricultural industry include opportunities for all levels of skilled and unskilled workers within the food-supply chain including in the fields and greenhouses, at packing houses, driving distribution routes, shipping and export logistics, wholesale and retail sales (for home consumption), and food service suppliers (for away from home consumption).

We could even speak about the multiplier effect on local community business that benefit from agricultural industry indirect spending due to jobs, support services and other small-business enterprises which thrive from the stable economic activity associated with food production.

Q: Why is conserving the environment important?

A: Conserving the environment is a complex question because our planet is defined within the laws of physics.  We can measure the size, shape and mass of our arable space. And many of the resources available for us to produce a healthy food supply for society are limited, non-renewable resources, such as fossil fuels used for energy, arable land for production, and available human capital to engage within the system to produce, distribute, and provide food products and services for consumption at and away from home.

If we don’t have a healthy environment to produce food, we won’t have healthy food to nourish our members of society. Physical, environmental and human resources are the inputs that drive an agricultural economy.  Farmers have a vested interest in preserving factors of production used to produce food that earns them a living.

I believe that farmers are the ultimate stewards of the environment; to believe otherwise, that farmers waste expensive scarce resources and don’t care about the environment doesn’t follow logical decision-making principles. While science-based  technological discoveries may identify new and better ways to conserve our agricultural lands and environment, I don’t believe you would find even one farmer who would disagree that conserving the environment is very important.

Q: Why should people who aren’t involved in the industry care about agriculture?

A: As I mentioned earlier, we all need to eat. Increasingly, consumers are demanding more transparency about where their food comes from. The terrific news is that Florida farmers are happy to tell their side of the story; where food comes from, how it is produced and shared concerns about the environment. All we need to do is ask them!

You can learn more about Ms. Clark and the classes she teaches on her faculty webpage.

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