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Economist urges farmers to preach

Published on November 25, 2010 3:01AM

Last changed on December 23, 2010 9:22AM

Jay Lehr

Lehr Jay Lehr

Jay Lehr: 'Every day is Earth Day on the farm'


Capital Press

AIRWAY HEIGHTS, Wash. -- Jay Lehr wears a farm-related tie everywhere he goes.

Doing that gets the attention of strangers who approach Lehr, an economist and the science director of the Chicago-based Heartland Institute. It's an opportunity he uses to talk with them about farming.

Lehr delivered the keynote speech Nov. 18 at the annual Washington Association of Wheat Growers annual convention. He kicked off his presentation off by showing a video of him talking with people while in San Francisco.

In the video, Lehr peppered people with questions about farming, often with humorous results.

Lehr said they needed to do similar outreach for the nonfarming public, even if only for 15 to 30 minutes a week. Nonfarmers have no idea about the realities of farming, he said, noting that 2 million farmers represent only a small portion of the overall population.

"If 2 million people engaged in production agriculture spent 15 or 20 minutes a week talking about it to the public, we would go a long way toward solving the problem," he said.

The problem is that not many people understand farming, he said.

Farmers have to fight the portrayal of the industry, invented by "environmental zealots," as polluters and factory farmers, Lehr said. He called it a "battle of good versus evil."

"We've got to explain to people that what we do is healthy and safe," he said. "We cannot feed the world without high production agriculture."

Lehr presented five messages to convey, under the acronym Farm RULE:

Farm: Farm inputs like fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and insecticides are vital natural substances, which equate to growing healthy crops and protecting food from pest. They are the equivalent of medicines.

Recycle: Farmers are recycling potassium and nitrogen phosphate back into the land, and no one overuses it because of the high cost.

Use: If farmers don't use the inputs, people will starve. Inputs increase yields by close to 50 percent.

Land: "We are the best land conservationists on this planet," Lehr said. "Our grain crop land is less today than it was 40 years ago, and we're growing three times as much."

Environment: Farmers are devoted to environmental stewardship, a message Lehr said needs to be shared.

"I've told you nothing you do not know, but I know you do not share it," he said.

That's because farmers either think the American public doesn't care or already knows, he said.

Earth Day is celebrated April 22 each year, Lehr said, but not for farmers.

"Every day is Earth Day on the farm," he said. "It's the simplest message in the world to give to them."

Many farmers wish they don't have to fight misconceptions and expect their associations to take on the job of advocacy while they tend to their farms, Lehr said.

"I'm here to tell you (that) you can't do that any more," he said. "Your trade group cannot do the job. We all have to be part of the re-education of the American public about agriculture."


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