In a morning filled with inquiry, laughter and wisdom, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue conversed with Purdue President Mitch Daniels about the importance of foreign trade, embracing technology and educating the public about U.S. agriculture.
His talk was part of the Ideas Festival celebrating Purdue’s 150th anniversary and coincides with Purdue’s Ag Week. Perdue met with student leaders of Hammer Down Hunger, for which students will pack 150,000 meals to be distributed in places of need.
A considerable number of alumni were present due to Purdue’s strong agricultural tradition, including Tom Robertson, a Purdue alumnus who has family involved in agriculture.
“I came because I have a curiosity (toward) agriculture and business in general,” Robertson said. “(I’m) certainly glad he could make a stop here and address northern Indiana.”
Since working on a family farm, Perdue has gained diverse experiences serving in the U.S. Air Force, practicing as a veterinarian, working in the Georgia Senate and leading Georgia as governor. All these experiences have benefited him in his work as the Secretary of Agriculture.
Perdue shared that wherever he visits in the U.S., the farmers have three main concerns: trade, labor and regulation. He highlighted the importance of trade agreements.
“Trade is important. You have a sector of your industry that’s so productive, that you actually have to depend on pushing that out across the world,” he said. “I do believe that the Canadian-Mexican agreement will be ratified. ... If you look at it line by line, it’s better for the United States than it was 25 years ago.”
Perdue was a bit more tentative on how a Chinese agreement may play out.
“The second ... person from China is going to be back in D.C. this week. Again, that indicates that they are serious about getting an agreement done. President Trump’s very serious about getting an agreement done,” Perdue said. “But really, the ball is in China’s court. Are they willing to reform their unfair trade practices on intellectual property theft?”
Perdue focused significantly on the positive impact of new innovations and technology on agriculture.
“I hope we do not need to get hungry again in order to accept those wonderful (technological) techniques,” Perdue said. “We have non-transgenic gene editing now, and all that does is expedite what could happen naturally in a breeding technique very, very quickly. And to do that there’s amazing, exponential type of productivity that we can harness to help us feed the 9 billion people in the world.”
Perdue thinks technology has the power to help agriculture contribute to a sustainable planet.
“I think soil health is the next big quantum leap that we’ll see,” Perdue said. “We’re literally talking about now, if you can increase the organic capacity of your soil by capturing carbon from 1% to 3% to 7%, which is doable ... you can actually be a carbon negative type of output and be a part of sustainability. People don’t think of agriculture that way.”
Another revolutionary change in the realm of agriculture would be broadband access across the country.
“It’s going to take broadband connectivity, not just in the farm houses, but in the fields,” Perdue said. “And that’s why 5G technology is one of the major transformation issues of our time. ... Very similar to what electrification did across the country in the 1930s.”
There is an ethical argument for rural broadband as well.
“I’m a firm believer that connectivity issues (lead to) disparity between rural and urban communities,” Perdue said. “There’s a barrier, a fence, leading to sociological issues. We’re talking about immorality here. Is it fair for a family to drive their kid to town to get WiFi in a parking lot to do their homework today?”
Perdue noted that having widespread internet access could lead to the digitization of agriculture, with more sophisticated and efficient equipment that utilizes sensors and data. In addition, it would bridge rural and urban communities by giving rural areas equal opportunities to services such as telemedicine and distance learning — and to video games.
“Think about the young kids who go visit their cousins in town, enjoy Fortnite, and go back and can’t get a connection,” Perdue said.
Perdue also emphasized that the agriculture sector has the power to shape people’s perceptions. It is important to educate the public using facts and data about the safety of their food and environmentally friendly practices, he said.
With the decline of family farms, veteran farmers often do not have heirs to their land. Perdue stressed the importance of young people in agriculture and suggested a program for veterans to teach young farmers.
“Let’s develop a mentor-mentee relationship there for older farmers,” Perdue said. “(Younger people) come out of great universities and think they know it all, but they can learn a lot from somebody who’s been on that ground for their career and understand really what works in that way. ... Those young people could come a potential buyer upon (mentor) retirement.”
Perdue also bestowed some words of wisdom to the students in the audience.
“Create an environment of lifelong learning,” Perdue said. “Ask the question. Don’t go with the herd, but be willing to stand alone and challenge different protocols that you think are probably not accurate. And that sure takes courage to swim against the stream.”
Andrew Holderbaum, a senior in the College of Agriculture, said he was happy he was able to attend the event.
“I learned a lot about (Perdue’s) views and issues we face today,” Holderbaum said. “Perdue is well-suited for the job and very knowledgeable. I like that he is open to a lot of solutions, including new technology and environmental stewardship.”
Overall, there is a proverb that guides Perdue’s actions.
“When man does not have enough to eat, he has one problem,” Perdue said. “When he has enough to eat, he has many problems.”