Can Rural America Lead in AgTech?

By Lucy Stitzer August 18, 2021 | 9 MIN READ

Animal Welfare

Food Technology

Global Food

Sustainable Agriculture

Can Rural America Lead in AgTech?

Lucy spoke to Pennsylvanian business leaders and politicians about rural America leading the way for the future of agricultural innovations. Here is her speech...

Animal Welfare

Food Technology

By Lucy Stitzer August 18, 2021 | 9 MIN READ

Lucy recently spoke at a Boy Scouts of America event hosting community business leaders and politicians in Pennsylvania. She chose to speak about rural America’s potential to pave the way for the future of agricultural innovations.

Below is her speech.

, Can Rural America Lead in AgTech?Thank you for the introduction, Jeff Homer, President of Grovedale Winery. And thank you to the Andaste District Scouts for having me here tonight to speak to all of you about my favorite subjects: agriculture, food, and the technologies that lead us.

Even though my experience as a Girl Scout was very brief, the Boy Scouts are near and dear to my heart because my husband is an Eagle Scout and has remained involved with the Scouts for years. In fact, the Scouts are one of the reasons we are married.

When he asked my father to marry me, surprised for sure as we had only been dating a couple of months, he said no. But then, when my parents discovered that Mark was an Eagle Scout, they embraced him warmly.

So, my advice to you is to forget – just become an Eagle Scout and make sure your future wife’s family knows it. You see, being a Scout – especially an Eagle Scout – still means something in this world. It signaled to my parents more than anything that Mark would be a good husband and father.

The Scouts are about character. Your values: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent –set you apart from many in our country. You cannot be a leader with virtue. What the scouts teach are the virtues needed for children to grow into good citizens.

I love how these values coincide with the American farmer. Every day we can thank a farmer for what is on our plate. America has one of the most affordable, clean, safe, and efficient food systems in the world. This is accomplished by hard-working people who have a strong purpose to bring food to your table.

I think a lot about agriculture, science, and food…

My interest in food really solidified when I had children. Two of them, including myself, have a blood disorder. To keep our immune systems strong, our pediatrician told me to make sure we ate well. What did that mean? I thought that it simply meant organic. But as I investigated further, I began to understand that there are many ways to bring healthy, safe, clean food to the dinner table.

The grocery store was – and still is – telling me that hormones are terrible in milk (all cows have hormones), GMOs are frankenfood , glyphosate – the main chemical in the weed killer Roundup – is poisoning our food, gluten is causing everything from allergies to back pain, and chickens raised indoors, cattle at the feedlot, and dairy cows in the milking parlor are experiencing animal welfare issues.

So other than starve to death – what was I supposed to do?

I started visiting farms, feedlots, dairy farms, and saw that none of this was true. Sure, some farmers and farms are better than others, but this dichotomy made me uncomfortable, and I wanted the truth to be told That’s why I started my blog, Dirt to Dinner. Our mission is to inspire curiosity, knowledge, and action about our food from the farmer’s field to the dinner table, using science as our guide.

, Can Rural America Lead in AgTech?I recently had the chance to think about agriculture from a unique perspective…the seat of my motorcycle. My husband, one of our sons, and I love to ride through the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside on our bikes.

As the wind was whipping by me and the rows of corn and dairy farms faded into a blur – I started thinking about how important our farmers are who grow our corn, meat, dairy, soybeans, fruits, and vegetables to feed the 7.71 billion of us on Earth. In less than four years, that number will jump to over 8 billion. This global increase of 400 million more people is more than the population in our entire country – in less than four years.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that we need 60% more food to feed the extra two billion people by 2050. It sounds like a long way away. But for those of you who are teenagers, you’ll be in your 50s. You are the ones that will shape the world you inherit.

How are you going to make sure the world is what you want it to be?

Will the farmer growing the corn I whizzed by have fresh water? Will he, or she, create and maintain healthy soil? Will we be eating meat from animals or foods made in a lab? And if it is grown in a lab, what does that mean for rural America and the farming communities that sustain it? At D2D we talk a lot about technology and how that is shaping our food system. It is the future. And I wonder if we are all prepared?

Logically, you might think that to produce more food, we need more land to farm. The good news? We can do this on existing agricultural land because of innovations in agricultural technology. And, personally, I love companies that solve problems and deliver solutions.

In the ’90s, someone told me that I would have my own personal phone number that would be carried around with me. I thought, ‘What is wrong with our house phone?’ Look at what sticks in our back pocket now. It is not just our phone number: it is movies, games, the internet of things. That is in my adult lifetime. Think of agriculture as making the same leaps.

, Can Rural America Lead in AgTech?

Examining the challenges of sustainability

Sustainability means that our generation leaves your generation with clean water, healthy soil, no child labor, fair labor practices, animal welfare, enough water, clean air…the list is endless. Basically growing food with Scout values – meaning – Do the right thing.

And the first place to start answering that question is by starting at our feet. The next time you’re outside around dirt – pick up a small handful – and take a good look. Did you know that you would be looking at more microbes than all 7.8 billion people on Earth today? A small handful of soil has more diversity than all the frogs, plants, monkeys, birds, panthers, miniature elephants, and other billions of species in the vast, vast Amazon Rainforest.

Stop. Think about that for a minute…just in a handful of soil. All these fungi, insects, bacteria, and algae happily coexist in the soil keep us alive by growing our food. They control pathogens, reduce plant disease outbreaks, give plants nutrients, keep them resilient, give them energy to pull carbon out of the air, make land less prone to wind and water erosion, clean and filter water, and finally are a source of human medicine.

, Can Rural America Lead in AgTech?Here’s a great example of a very well-educated farmer who makes the most of his soil. Last summer we rode our motorcycles down to Trout Run to see Dave Albert’s farm, Misty Mountain.

Dave is the sixth generation of his family to farm the land. His ancestor and his wife immigrated to Philadelphia from Germany. After they got acclimated to their new country, they walked 200 miles to Trout Run pushing a wheelbarrow with their belongings.

Today Dave has a successful beef operation growing corn, soybeans, oats, barley, and canola to feed their cattle, sheep, and pastured poultry. How?

Dave became a soil expert reading about regenerative ag and is applying that to his farm today. He knows his soil is healthy because he can achieve the same yield per acre as conventional farmers with little to no herbicides and pesticides. He understands the power of the mighty microbes.

There’s more than one way

Big multinational companies, like Bayer and Mosaic, and smaller start-ups, like MyLand and AgBiome, are also changing the way we look and use soil.

Each farm has its own microalgae in the soil – just like we all have our own gut microbiome. Mine is different from yours and yours is different from your siblings. This company looks at which algae is essential to that specific farm. They then grow those algae in small vessels with lights and correct temperature. They make millions of cells – and sprays it back onto the soil using the farm’s irrigation system. in a tractor-trailer housed on the farm. The farm then uses less fertilizer, less water and increases their yield and thus their revenue.

Another company looks at all the soil microbes that kill insects, fungus, and weeds. They sequence the DNA, grow them in a lab, and take them out to spray on the field to have healthy crops – without pesticides and herbicides. Healthy soil, healthy planet.

These companies are leading agriculture to sustainability while making the difference between profitability and bankruptcy for family farms.

Animals can benefit, too…

It is not just soil that has excellent new technologies with sustainability. Animal welfare – taking care of our animals whether they are in a feedlot getting fat for our dinner plates, giving us milk to drink, ice cream, and mozzarella cheese, or chickens giving us eggs or chicken salad sandwiches is the right thing to do.

How do we keep track of all these animals? If one is not feeling well, they might tell you by a droopy head, not eating, not socializing. But when a farmer has hundreds of cattle on the range or in the dairy barn – it is hard to tell how each one is feeling. And often when they are sick, it is too late and you have to call the vet.

Today, it is not going a problem to keep track of them. Anyone wearing an Apple Watch or Fitbit?

Great – so is the cow.

Just like our watches – the cow version of fit bit is a necklace they wear. Where they are (important on the range), whether they are socializing, their body temperature, how much they are eating, and if they are a dairy cow, how much milk they are producing. One company does facial recognition for dairy cows instead of a necklace – because necklaces fall off.

These technologies relay information to sensors on gates and after leaving the milking parlor, if a cow is deemed to have a problem, she is automatically sorted into a ‘sick pen’. The herd manager immediately receives a text on his phone and goes to attend to the cow so she can be taken care of before she gets so sick that she needs antibiotics. Or if it is cattle on the range, the herd manager also receives this information on his phone. He, or she, can even move the cattle from pasture to pasture from sensors on the gates.

This unique technology is not only a more humane approach; it enhances the margin for the farmer by keeping their animals healthy which then makes the farmer more competitive in the market.

, Can Rural America Lead in AgTech?

Alt meat’s place in the global food system

Of course, no conversation about cows would be complete without including alternative meats.

The world is also full of carnivores. According to Research and Markets, alternative meat consumption, mostly alt-poultry, beef, and pork, is projected to have a compounded annual growth rate of 7.4% through 2025. Did you know Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America will drive 83% of this growth?

As more and more people come out of poverty thanks to the free market, they can afford and consume more meat. Once people begin making more than $5,000 a year – yes, a year – they start incorporating protein in their diets.

Right now, the world eats about 300 million metric tons of meat a year. That doesn’t include sheep and goats. If you put all that meat in a rail-cars, how long is that train? It would go around the Earth’s equator almost two times.

I am so curious as to what will happen with the future of meat. Will this industry be entirely disrupted? It just might. There are four different ways to get meat.

How many of you have had the Impossible Burger or Beyond Burger? These are burgers made out of pea protein, potato protein, water, coconut or canola oil, and several other ingredients. They are not necessarily healthier or cheaper than a lean beef burger but they have created a lot of excitement. It is a great ‘meat’ option for vegans and vegetarians. And both CEOs are committed to improving the technology.

The other non-meat option is grown in a lab. It is called cell-based meat. For instance, Upside Foods, takes cells from a particular part of a cow, duck, and chicken and grows them in a lab to make flank steak, duck breast, or chicken thighs. We went to visit them in San Francisco. It was an impressive lab for sure. But this technology is challenging as you need science technicians to literally babysit the cells, cull out the bad ones, and feed the good ones so they can grow into a meal.

The cell-based meat was initially about $5,000 a hamburger. So, you haven’t seen it on the dollar menu at McDonald’s.

Not yet…

Finally, there is synthetic biology. This is the future. Many of you are familiar with the 0s and 1s used for computer programming. It always amazes me what you can do with just two numbers. Well, take four letters instead: A, C, T, G.

They make up our DNA – and all DNA of every single living organism. Your DNA is the blueprint for your body. Each one of your cells holds this six-foot-long strand tightly wrapped and folded within the nucleus.

Synthetic biology can change the genetic code within an organism and make it do something it might not do otherwise. Or, put another way, we can create food, medicine, lumber, clothing in entirely unconventional and different ways.

Ginkgo Bioworks can make vegan ice cream by programing and fermenting yeast to create the perfect milk protein. Ecovative Design ‘grows materials’ with mycelium – the root structure of a mushroom to grow meat that tastes like crab cakes or bacon.

We need all tools in our toolbelts to thrive

As I said before there are four ways to make meat. Don’t buy into ‘canceling’ out an entire industry. We can’t say, “Oh it’s better for the earth if we just make our food in a lab” and then wipe out traditional ways of raising meat. Because that does more than remove cows and chickens from our diets – it removes much of rural America’s way of life. Also, we will need all ways to feed a growing population who need protein in their diets.

Food can unite people – let’s not let it divide people. My point here is we do not need a protein war like we have a political and culture war between our very own shores.

The technologies I have just discussed are all successful – today. But they were generated on the backs of many, many failures. Rumor has it Edison tried 1000 times for the lightbulb. Everyone who has had success has failed. I certainly have.

Being a leader means stepping out and just get started.

I was worried about starting D2D. Take a risk my uncle said! If it doesn’t work – then shut it down. So far – so good. We are trying to take a leadership role by encouraging and embracing new and safe technologies that can increase our yield and grow our food in the most sustainable and healthy way.

Being a leader means taking the values you cherish as a scout and making a difference in your community – your world.

One of my favorite D2D stories is about Farm Link. During COVID, a college-aged boy was sitting around at his kitchen table – maybe a bit bored. His mother said, go out and do something – make a difference. So he and three of his friends linked the food waste problem in our country with food banks. Food waste is a serious issue: if you were to grow a garden the size of a football field, take all the food from the 40-yard line to the goal post – and throw it away. That is how much food is wasted every day.

The goal of Farm Link is simple: to rescue wasted and surplus food from farms and connect them with food banks around the country in need of food. This was especially poignant during Covid.

The time is now

, Can Rural America Lead in AgTech?Here is where you can come in. One of the worries for our country is the decline of income in rural American. I see the problems of rural America when I fly my Super Cub over the countryside. (I also love to fly airplanes). Even from 500 feet over the ground, you can tell that some farms are thriving, and some are struggling or non-existent with junk in the front yard.

Much of our manufacturing has moved to China. A bigger worry is that we have put cheap pharmaceuticals, furniture, clothes, and almost everything we buy ahead of American jobs. But the one thing we have not exported is our food.

We grow enough food to food 350 million people plus many in the rest of the world. But we can’t if we don’t accept technology and try new things. America exports our corn, soybeans, meat, fruits, and vegetables.

How can you link the need for income growth in rural America with our food security? Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina, Texas North Carolina are all states that are attracting businesses. Why not Pennsylvania? Why not change the tax and regulatory code in the county where you live to bring in new types of business thus creating jobs and income?

Why not grow fish in the middle of our state? The oceans are certainly getting overfished. You really don’t know whether you are eating cod or grouper? Is your fish really Chilean sea bass or something grown in China? Honestly, we have no idea. How about home-grown fish in rural America? It is a unique idea for sure, but why not grow salmon, shrimp, tilapia all indoors in a clean safe environment and truck them fresh to the grocery store?

A high percentage of Americans are obese, have diabetes, heart disease, or cancer. Much of that can be changed with our diets. Just eat five to seven servings of fruits and vegetables a day. But access to affordable produce is tough. It is cheaper to eat a box of macaroni and cheese with a hamburger than eating your required fruit and vegetable servings. So how to make it easier, more affordable, and more accessible? What about vertical farming? Nutritious fresh produce delivered that is grown hydroponically right to the market is wonderful – especially in the wintertime. This is a new and expanding industry that grows lettuce and other produce year-round?

We can reinvigorate rural America – places where traditional manufacturing and industry have abandoned our towns and counties – but we can only do this by being open to new and innovative ways of doing old things…— it starts not with governments or industries but us – people just like you…

It will take pioneers – friendly and courteous and educated and helping one another along the way…you can be today’s pioneers. You don’t have to be Elon Musk or Richard Branson.

Millions of Americans have gone before you and done it. They were not all wealthy. Most had no connections and had left behind everything they knew – think of Dave Albert’s ancestors. Scouts, you can create your own legacy of making the world a better place. That is the definition of a good life and what all people of character strive for.

Thank you all for your time tonight.