A reliable food supply is “integral to peace and liberty,” Merrigan says, “and it is important that your generation understand how complex our food system actually is.”

While only 2 percent of Americans are farmers, she notes, “they provide enough food, fiber, and fuel for the other 98 percent of us.”

But when there is not a steady, affordable food supply, civil unrest often follows, as has occurred in North Africa and other areas, she says.

Because the U.S. has such an abundance of productive land — about 70 percent, or 1.4 billion acres, of the 48 contiguous states is privately owned — “how we protect and conserve these lands will determine the fate of our natural resources for successive generations.

“Sustainability isn’t just about managing our natural resources; it’s about insuring that those resources can support our society through food production and economic benefits.

Noting that many of the younger generation are “captivated by the question of sustainability,” Merrigan says, “Our natural resources undergird an entire system that moves food from the farm to your fork. There are many players involved in these steps and their interaction is complex — but this system is at the heart of environmentalism, security, and development. You need to understand their relationship and figure out where you can make your contribution.”

In 1955, she says, one American farmer farmer produced enough food and fiber for about 25 people; today, it’s 155.

“With so few farmers and so many consumers, you might think all of our farmers are doing pretty well. But our Economic Research Service calculates that for every dollar you spend on food, the farmer sees only about 19 cents on average.

“An enormous amount of money goes into processing, aggregation, packaging, distribution, interest, inputs, labor, middle men, and other costs.”

And, Merrigan says, large up-front capital investments “mean that there are tough barriers to entering agriculture. The average farmer has nearly $1 million invested in lands, building, and equipment — and there’s no guarantee those capital investments will pay off.

“It’s because of these enormous risks that most policymakers believe farmers need a strong safety net. Most folks who hear about government support for farmers don’t realize that certain types of support — crop insurance, for example — are integral to insuring a reliable food supply.”

A growing movement in U.S. agriculture, Merrigan says, is buying locally-produced farm goods. “It has become the biggest trend to hit the food industry, and these systems can often bring more of that food dollar to the farmer. And more of that money remains in the local community.

“It’s not just about having good farm income; it’s also about insuring that money flows to small businesses so there’s a thriving Main Street and a vibrant rural economy.”