Spring 2024

In Vivo

Dean Glenda Gillaspy
Photo by Michael P. King


Back in November, at the annual meeting of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, I was presented with some alarming statistics about rural America and the agricultural enterprise on which it depends. In his keynote talk, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack harkened back to the wave of farm foreclosures that struck the nation in the 1980s and the ongoing loss of small farms that has followed.

Vilsack cited some eyebrow-raising numbers that have since weighed heavily on me. First, there are 437,300 fewer farms in the U.S. today than in 1981. Second, there are 141 million fewer acres devoted to farming in the U.S. today than there were in 1981. (That’s equivalent to the combined land area of Florida, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, and South Carolina.) And third, although there was record-high farm income in 2022, only about 7.5% of the farms that sell more than $500,000 annually, took in 89% of the income.

Those are staggering figures. Just as staggering is the impact these farm losses and consolidation have had on the prosperity of rural communities. As Vilsack discussed in his speech, the health of farms is the health of rural communities. If farms shut down, children move away. This means fewer schools, so they shrink and merge. It means fewer customers for local businesses, so they close, and local economies stagnate. It means fewer patients for hospitals, which makes it harder to recruit doctors, and hospitals then turn into clinics with fewer services.

But there is a path with the potential to avoid all of this. Going forward, successful farms will be productive, profitable, and protective of natural resources — what the White House calls “climate-smart” agriculture. Agricultural operations that pursue this path may be more likely to stay in business and help keep their communities thriving.

And that’s where land-grant universities can play a key role. CALS is positioned well to be a leader in the science of agricultural sustainability (and bring its benefits to Wisconsin) simply by doing what it already does well — but with a more focused strategy.

Last fall, we hosted “visioning sessions” in which our college community worked to identify areas where CALS has strong multidisciplinary teams working to solve big societal problems. The idea is to create a strategic scaffold, based on our key strengths, that can be used for our hiring, infrastructure, and fundraising activities. You can read more about this visioning process, what it yielded, and how the outcome will guide the college, toward the end of our cover story, Five CALS Discoveries That Changed the World.

Many of the areas identified through our visioning sessions fall under the umbrella of sustainable agriculture, which is one of our top priorities. For example, professor Randy Jackson in the Department of Plant and Agroecosystem Sciences is working to expand knowledge of how grasslands can benefit farming and environment. He also makes use of participatory research, which includes critical engagement with key stakeholders. And several of our faculty and staff are working on breeding climate-smart crops for the future. Plant pathology professor Erin Silva and outreach program manager Daniel Cornelius (plant pathology and the UW Law School) along with Tricia Gorby, director of the UW–Madison Division of Extension’s Natural Resources Institute, are leading efforts to develop resilient food systems for Indigenous groups in our state. This last project is part of the USDA-funded Wisconsin Rural Partnerships Institute, a research project designed to provide solutions to many types of rural challenges.

I look forward to seeing CALS at the forefront of a much needed effort to partner with farmers and others on revitalizing rural communities.

This article was posted in Bioenergy and Bioproducts, Changing Climate, Economic and Community Development, Food Systems, Healthy Ecosystems, In Vivo, Spring 2024 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .