'Futurist' Urges Farmers to Change Their Tune

8/3/2013 7:00 AM
By Ann Wilmer Maryland Correspondent

QUEENSTOWN, Md. — Jay Lehr thinks most people outside Maryland think farms are the mainsource of Chesapeake Bay pollution. But he’s on a misson to recruit members of the farming community to get a different message across.

“Agriculture in Maryland is the best thing that ever happened to the bay,” Lehr told a group of farmers gathered for the Maryland Commodity Classic July 25, here.

Lehr has been actively involved in agricultural economics, agronomy, environmental science and agribusiness for more than 50 years. Sometimes called a “futurist,” he said he makes observations and tries to predict what is likely to happen. He told the audience that while he doesn’t have a crystal ball, he is most often right.

“The Chesapeake Bay watershed is the most famous watershed in the USA. Farmers in other states are waiting to see how this will play out,” he said.

Lehr challenged farmers to commit to doing something for two hours each month — 24 hours a year — to change the public’s perception about the bay’s pollution problems.

Paying dues to the various agricultural organizations is important, your time even more so, Lehr said. He even encouraged sponsoring groups of the Maryland Commodity Classic to come up with a bumper sticker that proclaims: “Maryland Farmers Protect the Bay, Every Day!”

When time allows, Lehr said he loves to indulge in man-on-the-street interviews because he gets responses that are “so wrong,” and it gives him an opportunity to correct misimpressions. He said he recently did this in San Francisco, where he wasn’t worried that stopping total strangers on the street would get him in trouble.

He said farmers tend to stay away from politics because they are afraid of attracting negative attention. Rather than respond to criticism, Lehr urged farmers to be proactive.

“Twenty years ago, we grew 7 billion bushels of corn. Today, we grow 13 billion on less land with half the fertilizer. Farmers are doing something right,” he said.

Lehr called this time a “golden age of agriculture,” because the average family makes more income than they did a decade ago and they spend a lot of that money on food.

People worldwide eat 50 percent more protein than they did 10 years ago. He said the result has been higher grain prices, which he believes will remain high.

But even with his optimism, Lehr laments the loss of many of the last generation of farmers that became discouraged and looked for work elsewhere.

“Farming is the riskiest business there is, except for every other business,” he said, adding that those who remain need to talk to anyone who will listen about biotechnology.

“Make sure people know that no one has ever been killed by approved, genetically-modified food,” he said. “Maryland might lead the country in reduced tillage and no tillage,” practices that increase soil moisture, eliminate soil erosion and reduce dust released into the air.

Looking toward the future, Lehr said precision agriculture should help keep kids on the farm, as most young farmers are using computer mapping to guide planting, fertilizing, irrigation and harvest.

Organic farming, he said, is not going to feed the world.

When it comes to the Environmental Protection Agency, Lehr thinks EPA has outlived its usefulness and it’s time to get rid of it and that he has a plan which will be detailed in the September issue of “Environmental & Climate News.”

While his goal is to increase individual freedom, Lehr said he had good things to say about state environmental agencies like Maryland’s Department of the Environment and said other similar state agencies could collectively do the job EPA does and eliminate 80 percent of the taxpayer money used to fund EPA.

He also would like to move the headquarters of this collection of state agencies to Topeka, Kansas, smack dab in the middle of the country and far away from Washington.

Aside from environmental issues, Lehr also talked about the economy and cited several indicators that the nation’s economy is turning around: personal and corporate debt has declined; the U.S. has emerged from the international recession in better shape than any other country; the boom in natural gas and oil, predicting that President Barack Obama would eventually approve the controversial Keystone Pipeline; and the fact that the federal deficit is going in the right direction.

He also said health care inflation has been cut in half.

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