Since its inception in 1970, Earth Day has led to enormous growth in understanding the consequences we face if we do not take care of our natural resources. It has led to more action to protect our planet's land, water, air, wildlife and human beings, and it has strengthened farmers' and ranchers' already strong commitment to being good environmental stewards.
Farmers observe Earth Day every day. Where asphalt and pavement turn to gravel and dirt, you will find men and women rising early, greeting the day and working the earth.
Their office space is outdoors in the sun, wind, rain and sometimes snow. They are doing the hard and often thankless work to feed an increasingly hungry world - and they are doing it with greater productivity, efficiency and environmental responsibility than ever. Despite Maryland's blistering drought in 2012, yield for grain averaged 122 bushels per acre, up 13 bushels from the year before.
We at USDA require farmers and ranchers to develop conservation plans to participate in our programs. Even when commodity prices are high, as they have been the last few years, we encourage farmers to renew their participation in the Conservation Reserve Program, which compensates farmers for using environmentally sensitive land for conservation benefits. We lend financial assistance to modernize farm storage facilities and improve on-farm environmental practices, and earlier this year we started a new micro-loan program geared at small niche farmers, many of whom are growing food for local consumption, which cuts down on transportation energy costs.
Farmers and ranchers do many other things for the benefit of our environment, too. First and foremost, they are keeping productive land from being developed. On top of that, on many of today's farms and ranches you might find beneficial insects used instead of pesticides to prevent plant destruction. You might see machinery and vehicles designed for reduced emissions or more use of cleaner biofuels. You might spot farmers practicing mitigation measures to reduce particulate matter (dust), and greater dependence on solar and wind energy to provide electricity for their farm homes, barns and sheds.
Whether organic or conventional, the products coming from today's farms and ranches have been grown and harvested with a greater awareness of the environment. And with the growing concern for climate change, many farmers and ranchers have redoubled their commitment to do no-till planting - which Maryland pioneered - and other common-sense practices to care for their land.
In America today, wide-spread bio-research and development of new production techniques help modern farmers plant, grow and harvest in a sustainable manner that would not have been conceivable in 1970 when the first Earth Day was celebrated. We've made great progress and all of us involved in agriculture should take pride.
Still, there is further to go. The soil and our fresh-water supply need our attention. The world's population continues to grow so there is constant pressure to produce higher yields and better nutritional value in what we grow. Adequate food and fiber supplies in the future will happen only when we have a healthy earth to supply them.
Earth Day is a good day to celebrate. It's a day to value the contributions of farmers and ranchers; a good day to be thankful, too, for each of our planetary resources that make things grow. And it's a good day to pledge - especially in the face of climate change - that we will continue to care for every part of Maryland. We live in a great state with great people and a great place to be involved in agriculture at the ground level. Let's make it last. Farmers are certainly doing their part.
Lucie L. Snodgrass
Maryland State Executive Director, Farm Service Agency