The Importance of Agricultural Literacy

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Beginning with the industrial revolutions, which brought about great change in commerce and trade, the agricultural industry has evolved over the years. Thousands of Americans have abandoned the farm in pursuit of other opportunities. Of the 2.2 million farms across the United States, about 97 percent are operated by families comprised of individuals, partnerships, and family corporations, which represents around two percent of the population. In 1900, 41 percent of the population was employed in agriculture. Over the years, that number has been significantly reduced to 15 percent. Much like other industries in America, agriculture has experienced its own surplus of technology that has reduced the demand in workforce. The reduction of farm employment has had a direct correlation to the high level of agricultural illiteracy and misconceptions. Unfortunately, with more than two generations removed from the farm, a huge disconnect has been created between citizens and agriculture as we know it.

I often wonder if the growing knowledge gap is creating the negative perceptions of agricultural production. Studies from the Journal of Agricultural Education revealed that the more educated the individual, the fewer negative stereotypes the individual developed about agriculture. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of sources for misinformation about agriculture available to the average person in the information age in which we live. As they say, “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”

So why the big issue? All citizens need to understand the economic, social, and environmental significance of agriculture. Food production is the basis of all civilization. We need a well-educated public to contribute to the success of a safe and affordable food system that will attempt to feed the expected nine billion people in this world by 2050. Though only a small percentage of our population is actively producing our food, we all have a responsibility as voters that affect agricultural policy related to trade, employment, and environmental issues. We also need policy makers who are agriculturally literate to create responsible regulation that supports such an important industry in our global economy.

U.S. agriculture also plays a major role in supporting other sectors of our economy. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, one in three U.S. farm acres is planted for export. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service, in 2014, each dollar of agricultural exports stimulated another $1.27 in business activity. That means the $150 billion of agricultural exports in the 2014 calendar year produced an additional $190.6 billion in economic activity for a total output of $340.6 billion. Agricultural exports required 1.13 million full-time civilian jobs, which included 808,000 jobs in the nonfarm sector the same year.

Society’s major challenge ahead is determining how to continue to feed a growing population on less land and with less resources. Maybe it’s time we focus more on agricultural education in our school systems to create a more literate public to meet this challenge. The National Academy of Science, Agricultural Education Committee, has stated that agriculture is too important a topic to be taught to only a relatively small percentage of students considering careers in agriculture and pursuing vocational agriculture studies. Some have suggested all high school graduates need to take at least one agricultural course to gain a basic understanding. I guess it all depends on how important we think agricultural literacy is to all mankind.

For more information, please contact Mac Malloy, Extension Field Crops Agent with North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Robeson County Center, at 671-3276, by E-mail at, or visit our website at North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University commit themselves to positive action to secure equal opportunity regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, religion, sex, age, veteran status, or disability. In addition, the two Universities welcome all persons without regard to sexual orientation.