Rural Opportunity Investment Conference


White House Rural Council
Rural Opportunity Investment Conference
Washington, D.C., July 24, 2014


From the President’s Desk 08-15-2014:
Sustaining rural communities

The big news coming out of a White House Rural Council conference I attended recently in Washington, D.C., was the announcement of a $10 billion investment fund promoting rural economic development.

My responsibility at the Rural Opportunity Investment Conference was to represent to the group of government, business, and finance representatives the role higher education plays in fostering talent and rural entrepreneurship. Rural America does need investment to promote sustainable communities, but that counts for little without talented people to sustain it and connectivity with networks and resources of the sort for which MSU is known.

There’s great concern about loss of population in many rural areas, underscored by accelerated job losses since the last recession and continued aging of the farming population. Our own agricultural stakeholders tell us that attracting talent is among their top concerns. One study puts the pool of agricultural students at just 60 percent of the needed talent. The need for new agricultural scientists alone is predicted to exceed 1,000 positions between 2012 and 2015.

The long view, of course, tells us that such worries are nothing new and that many demographic and technological factors are at work. When Michigan State was founded in 1855, about 93 percent of Michigan’s population lived in rural communities. By 1930, only about one third did. In that same period, about 54 percent of Michigan residents were engaged in agriculture. By 1930, it was just more than 21 percent, and today across America, only about one percent of the population farms, thanks to productivity advances and other factors.

But rural America has not exhausted its economic potential, and advocates need to promote the many opportunities agri-food affords young people considering careers.

At MSU, we discuss agriculture in terms of its importance to Michigan and the world and its critical components—food, energy, and the environment. All of these—up and down the supply chain—offer areas of opportunity.

I talked to conference attendees about how MSU is about “and,” not “or,” and how our engagement with partners across the landscape creates an engine of opportunity for rural communities. I spoke about the importance of including young people in our discussions and engaging them in our enterprises through internships and other high-impact educational opportunities.

Report after national report through the years has stressed the need for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) graduates to maintain American economic competitiveness, and as president of the university that was first to teach scientific agriculture, I reminded listeners that agriculture is a STEM discipline. In fact, of the 874 alumni of the 4-H program who entered MSU between 2010 and 2013, two-thirds selected STEM majors.

Enrollment in our College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) reached 4,500 students last spring—a 30-year high. And our graduates are finding good jobs: our most recent graduate destination survey report found that 89 percent of our 2013 CANR graduates were employed, starting a business, or continuing their education. The average reported salary was $44,098.

Not every job requires a degree, of course, so our two-year Ag Tech certificate program creates another important talent-development resource. And as one of my fellow panelists pointed out, farmers and ranchers are inherently entrepreneurial. That comment gave me an opportunity to talk about how Michigan State has long supported rural communities by engaging with farmers and others where they live through MSU Extension, the MSU Product Center, and other services.

The final point I left with the conference attendees is the importance of being aware of how we think and talk about rural and agricultural issues. Rather than dwelling on the many challenges confronting rural areas, I urged attendees to look to our assets and networks, to build our teams, and to leverage education and other resources to better sustain our rural communities.


Background for ROI conference comments by Lou Anna K. Simon, president, Michigan State University

  • With the world adding two billion people in a generation or two, we at Michigan State think rural communities play an important role in solving the most difficult resource problems facing humanity.
  • This was underscored in February, when President Obama visited Michigan State to sign the new Farm Bill that Senator Debbie Stabenow and others worked so hard to draft.
  • Michigan is one of the most agriculturally diverse states in the country, so the bill’s new support for products such as fruits and vegetables, forestry, and other products certainly will benefit rural communities.
  • The bill’s support for research will not only benefit American agricultural competitiveness, but will have a positive impact on meeting the nutritional needs of a growing world population.
  • Rural communities are under stress in many regions, and the last recession helped accelerate rural job loss. Last year, the USDA reported that in rural America had suffered a net loss of population for the first time.
  • Our rural and agricultural stakeholders tell us that finding talent in the future is a major concern. A third of all Michigan farmers expect to retire within the next 10 years.

MSU talent development supports rural communities

  • MSU was created in 1855 to bring cutting-edge knowledge to a mostly rural population. It became a template for the land-grant colleges that would be founded by the Morrill Act in 1862–the same year the US Department of Agriculture was created.
  • The next generation of agricultural professionals must be better educated than ever before if they are to respond adequately to the complexities that define today’s agriculture and rural development.
  • The young people coming to rural America might not be the same ones who left it. We’re seeing more students from non-rural areas in our programs. This is good, but many students are no longer coming to the food, energy, and environment industries with a lot of experience on the family farm.
  • We have to provide hands-on, practical experience for students who have a passion for agriculture and natural resources, and a broad point of view as to what those involve. We at Michigan State do this in a variety of ways, including through our intensive, nine-month Organic Farmer Training Program.

Role of research

  • MSU’s agricultural research is rooted in rural communities, through associations with stakeholders and 13 outlying research centers throughout Michigan. These facilities conduct agriculture research that is directly applicable to nearby farms, rural communities across the nation, and even around the world.
  • MSU AgBioResearch encompasses the work of more than 300 scientists in seven colleges at MSU. These researchers investigate topics that range from agricultural production, alternative energy and biofuel production, food safety and environmental stewardship to childhood obesity, community development, and the quality of life of Michigan youth and families.
  • We’re making a commitment to revitalization of our oldest agricultural experiment station in Chatham, in the Upper Peninsula, which we started in 1899.
  • With USDA support, we’re hiring a manager and employees to turn the North Farm site into an incubator farm to assist regional residents learn the latest techniques for farming in that often-challenging geography.

Extension & entrepreneurship

  • This year we observe the centennial of the Smith-Lever Act, which created the Cooperative Extension System and put land-grant universities in charge of it. MSU hired our first livestock field agent seven years before that.
  • A theme running through much of what we do, one of great impact on rural communities, is entrepreneurship. The MSU Product Center is emblematic of the way MSU Extension and AgBioResearch work together one-on-one with entrepreneurs to supply objective, evidence-based methods for starting and growing their businesses.
  • In FY 2014 the Product Center advised 589 clients, resulting in 72 venture launches. Those projects created 90 jobs and are credited with retaining another 118.
  • Food processing is one area offering great potential to a state like Michigan, where a vast amount of food is moved to plants in other states.
  • Agriculture is a STEM activity and a portal to STEM careers, and two-thirds of our students who were in 4-H select STEM majors in college.
  • Today agriculture is a much more complicated business, one much more integrated with such issues as food safety, transportation, and marketing. So you will hear us now talking more about the broader agricultural landscape in terms of food, energy and environment–which describes the interrelatedness of the industry and its context in today’s world.
  • It’s also more integrated globally, with global-level expectations for sourcing, security, environmental impact, and quality.

Think global, eat local

  • Agri-food is becoming more locally facing – farmers’ markets and regional food hubs serving institutions and other customers are a growing phenomenon. They allow much more direct linkages between producers and their markets, and MSU is deeply involved in nurturing these developments.
  • Rural America has an opportunity not just to sustain itself but also to thrive and to lead the world in solving some of its most critical problems. Michigan State, and our fellow land-grant universities, will be there to fuel rural vitality and global hope through our talent development, research, and outreach mission.

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