The spring air is always full of hope back home in Gering, Nebraska.
This time of year, farmers plant seeds in hopes for Mother Nature’s cooperation and a successful harvest. Ranchers help birth the next generation of their herds and hope for fair market prices. And workers at the local sugar plant catch their breath after a busy winter and hope for a bumper crop this fall so they can do it all over again.
The Miss America crown that I’m so honored to wear is a symbol of the hope and optimism that gets us through each day. But it also bears a responsibility to help people who have so little of those things—not just in the U.S., but abroad as well.
Unfortunately, there are far too many with far too little right now. Families continue to battle a slow-moving economy here in America, wondering if they can give their children a chance at a better future while they struggle just to pay their monthly bills.
Meanwhile, our friends overseas struggle to simply put food on the table after natural disasters in other parts of the world have wreaked havoc on food supplies.
While considering ways to help these circumstances, we end up right back on the farm, and those tiny seeds that farmers are currently planting suddenly seem to carry a lot more weight.
This year’s crop has the potential to be the most valuable in U.S. history, and that translates to more jobs and stimulus for our hurting economy. Further, the Federal Reserve recently credited agricultural production with helping lead the nation’s recession recovery, so whether we live in New York's Manhattan or Manhattan, Kansas, we should all be rooting for a good growing season.
Increased U.S. production would also help ease the political instability and tensions aided by food shortages in other parts of the world. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told Congress a few weeks ago that farming and ranching will take the crown in record exports this year if things go as planned.
Of course, if years of involvement in theater and pageants have taught me anything, it’s that things rarely go as planned. U.S. producers will need more than a couple of good harvests to make a difference globally because population is exploding—predicted to grow by 2 billion people in the next 40 years—and U.S. farm output will need to expand substantially just to keep pace.
Can we feed a growing world population, fuel our economy, and still offer wholesome food choices to Americans? Sure, just as long as we avoid weakening the very infrastructure that makes it all possible.
As I write this, America has just 210,000 full-time farms. That’s it. And being from an agricultural community, I know these aren’t large corporations with giant bank accounts. These are small businesses with huge overhead expenses and a history of modest profits.
Farming and ranching is expensive, and the risks associated with it are unlike any other profession, which is why we’re faced with fewer and fewer U.S. producers to support more and more people.
Retired Army General Wesley Clark recently called these men and women a “thin green line standing between prosperity and disaster.” This line, he said, must be held and not weakened any further if America stands a chance to combat the challenges ahead of us.
But to do so will require a shift in thinking.
Modern-day agriculture has to do its part in reaching out and teaching us about what they do and how they do it. Educational groups like The Hand That Feeds U.S. and the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association are a good start, but it’s not enough.
The rest of us must reconnect with our rural roots and understand that we all have a stake in the success of farmers and ranchers. Urban and rural America need to come together, and I plan to spend my time as Miss America to make that happen.
After all, I was Miss Nebraska first. And if a small town girl from the Midwest can make it all the way to Miss America, maybe she can help bring America back to the Midwest.
Teresa Scanlan is Miss America 2011.