Former ag chief challenges SUNY students


By Patsy Nicosia

Now is the future of farming.
That’s the message former United States Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack had for SUNY Cobleskill graduates at the 101st Commencement Saturday.
Agriculture Secretary under President Obama and the founding chairman of the White House Rural Council, Mr. Vilsack is now president and CEO of the Dairy Export Council.
Saturday, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of science degree for his “advocacy, policies, and innovation” for rural America and farmers over the past 30 years, said College President Marion Terenzio in presenting the award.
For his part, Mr. Vilsack challenged the graduates to harness the “super-power” of agriculture and “accept the enormous challenge” of leading the world into the future.
“Every generation is tasked with creating a more perfect union,” he told the outdoor crowd.
For his parents’ generation, that meant creating a stronger economy; for his, the challenge was civil rights.
The challenge today is the rapidly changing climate and its impact—nationally, locally, and globally—on food and food security.
“We are a secure nation because of agriculture,” Mr. Vilsack said. “We are a food-secure nation in that we don’t have to depend on any other nation for our food.
“And you are the generation that can take that to the next level,” by embracing data and technology.
Among the climate-driven challenges Mr. Vilsack predicts Saturday’s graduates will have to deal with are water shortages—both in this country and globally.
There is also the more immediate need to reduce food waste and overflowing landfills.
Then there’s the challenge of “helping to preserve the value system that’s so critical to all of this,” a challenge that rural communities are best qualified to meet.
“You are the generation we are relying on to make this country more resilient…a more perfect union.
“Tonight, I know you want to party. But Monday, get to work.”

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Speaking after the ceremony, Mr. Vilsack said he’s confident the SUNY Cobleskill graduates are up to the challenges he gave them—even in the face of an Administration that denies and decries climate change.
“Agriculture is already at work on reducing greenhouse emissions…in fact, dairy farmers in the Northeast are leading the rest of the world there,” he said. “We have the tools.”
Agriculture will also continue to be important for the jobs it creates, especially in rural communities, Mr. Vilsack said—even as the trade tariffs and the 2019 Farm Bill contribute to uncertainties.
Still, Mr. Vilsack predicted the second half of ’19 will bring better prices for dairy farmers as supply and demand come into alignment, cheese sales continue to improve, and powdered milk supples are sold down.