To the high school and college seniors in the class of 2020, I say congratulations.

You might not get to hear those words in an in-person graduation ceremony this year.

You may not get to put on a cap and gown and take your place on the football field with your friends and classmates, your family watching from the stands.

You may have to settle for a virtual commencement as our country starts to reopen and tries to beat back this pandemic.

But know this: Your achievements still matter.

These brief moments of recognition, these rites of passage at the end of this chapter of education, are fleeting.

Their fleetingness makes them precious, but their fleetingness also means that your life’s purpose is not staked on them.

You will find other rites of passage.

Some will be formal, such as earning a diploma from later schooling or holding a grand opening for your own farm stand.

Others will be informal, like the day you adopt a new production practice or buy your first piece of machinery.

Indeed, this strange spring has been, if not a rite of passage, then a memorable season that has tested us all.

Many of us will reflect on this period and tell stories of loss, others of waiting or disappointment.

Yours may not be a story of the deepest courage or the most strenuous exertion, but yours are experiences that no one else in living memory can tell.

The story of the abrupt end of classes and canceled graduation ceremonies belongs uniquely to the class of 2020, and I hope no future classes have to join you in that distinction.

These sacrifices have been forced on you, but know that your inconveniences were not in vain.

By following stay-at-home orders, you have participated in an effort that has saved lives in places that may seem remote, like New York City or nursing homes, but these actions have also prevented the spread of the disease in our small towns and rural areas.

But I don’t want to dwell too heavily on the past. I expect many of you are glad to be done with school, to move on to what’s next, to start making money in earnest.

Many of you are looking forward to careers in agriculture. This is a worthy and commendable undertaking.

Producing crops and livestock with efficiency and care fulfills one of humanity’s most basic needs — the need for food.

Farming is hard work, and generally not the best paid. You’ll get mud on yourself, and probably manure. You will ride the bucking bulls of the markets and the weather, and try to hang on.

You will have to meet the expectations of the government, consumers and your lender. Sometimes work will be mere toil.

Others of you may find that your skills and opportunities take you away from the farm. Your choices are also worthy of respect. There are plenty of fine industries where you can earn a living and enrich the lives of others.

But for those who accept the long hours and can find a way to be profitable, farming may provide a purpose and a community that can last you your whole life.

No matter the career you choose, you may not find the work situation you want right out of school. My advice in those cases is to keep your hand on the shovel; keep digging, keep working.

Pursue excellence where you find yourself, and keep working toward your goals. You probably will get discouraged, again and again, and in those cases you will have to adapt and persist.

Of course, when you find an opportunity, weigh it reasonably, and go for it. Do not let fear or uncertainty stop you from taking the next step.

The current challenges are huge, but they will recede. If there’s a positive takeaway from the past few months, it’s that we’ve been reminded of the crucial role that food plays in people’s lives.

I don’t think the pandemic will strongly affect how consumers feel about farmers, but it should remind farmers to feel good about what they do.

As an industry, agriculture will change, but it’s not going away. It will always be essential.

And as you think about where you will go with your life, agriculture just might be the place where you want to make your mark.

Watch the indoor version of this Commencement Address:

Or the outdoor version:


Paul and Sandy Arnold are perpetually looking for varieties of lettuce and greens that will increase efficiencies and improve profitability at their Pleasant Valley Farm, a Certified Naturally Grown operation about an hour north of Albany. Read more