Deputy Secretary of Agriculture addresses U.S. agriculture needs during UF stop

Kathleen Merrigan

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Opportunities for jobs in agriculture abound, USDA Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan told University of Florida students and faculty Thursday.

“We actually have a gap between the number of qualified graduates and the kind of jobs that we need to fill in American agriculture,” Merrigan said. “And the need, from the projections I’ve seen, is only going to become greater.”

Merrigan’s speech was part of a Florida tour that includes promoting the USDA initiative Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, which seeks to reconnect agricultural producers and consumers.

She spoke to a crowd of 200, many of them students in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. CALS is a part of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Available jobs, Merrigan said, include openings for more young farmers.

“We know people are leaving the farm, and we need to repopulate it,” she said. “Farmers are aging … and they’re not sure who to pass the farm on to.”

“There are opportunities for all of you,” Merrigan added.

She also addressed the disconnect between consumers and food producers.

“Sometimes when I talk to people, they’re like ‘agriculture? That’s the farmers and the ranchers,’” she said. “And I say, ‘No. It’s everyone.’”

One way to reconnect producers and consumers, she said, is through a pilot project USDA participates in known as Farm to School that is being tested in Florida and Michigan. The project allows schools to buy local food for school meals.

With buying locally grown food a hot topic these days, Merrigan said she is optimistic about the future of the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative.

“There’s never been a time in my professional life when people were more interested in where their food comes from and how it was produced,” she said. “We have a renaissance of interest in American agriculture.”

Elaine Turner, an associate dean with CALS, said the federal initiative is one UF can support, and there may be ways UF can partner with USDA on its implementation.

“There’s a lot of interest in local food here in Gainesville,” Turner said. “But because we are statewide, we have the opportunity to help make this initiative even more visible.”

After the speech in Gainesville, which was held at UF’s Straughn Extension Professional Development Center, Merrigan continued her tour Friday with stops in Lake City and Jacksonville.

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Writer: Robert H. Wells, 352-273-3569; rhwells@ufl.edu

Contact: Charlotte Emerson, 352-392-1963, cemer@ufl.edu

Photo Caption:

USDA Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan discusses the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative at the Straughn Extension Professional Development Center on the University of Florida campus Thursday evening, January 26, 2012. UF/IFAS Photo by Dawn McKinstry.