Missouri Director of Agriculture Richard Fordyce doesn’t want to take any credit. He’ll give all the credit to his staff at the department.
But if he’s done anything to help lead to contribute to a positive outlook for the state’s agriculture industry, he thinks it’s all mental.
“I do not toot my own horn. Period,” Fordyce said. “But I will say that I think it’s an attitude and a personality thing. And if you are, I think that if you are a glass-half-full person as opposed to a glass-half-empty kind of person, I think sometimes that rubs off a little bit.”
As the head of the Missouri Department of Agriculture, Fordyce sees his role as the industry’s top advocate in the state, spreading what he calls “the good story of agriculture.” That means spreading literacy about the industry to consumers, advocating for farm stewardship and encouraging the next generation of farmers.
Fordyce gets most excited (most because he seems to be in a perpetual state of excitement talking about the industry) talking about that next generation. When asked about his favorite moments as director, he immediately talked about addressing the state Future Farmers of America convention.
“The opportunity to address an arena full of young people clad in their blue corduroy jackets is certainly something that you don’t forget,” Fordyce said. “They are the future of agriculture and they are the future of agriculture across the board. They’re the future of agriculture because they may be producers, they may be researchers, they may be bankers, they may be communicators, but they’re all going to be consumers.”
He said anyone down on the future of agriculture should spend a couple minutes talking to the young people.
“I have said, since I became the ag director, if you are down on agriculture, if you are negative about the future of this industry, then my prescription for that is to spend about 10 minutes with some of the young people in ag, and I think you’ll change your mind about where the industry is headed.”
They’re as much a part of the story of agriculture he’s trying to tell as anything else.
“We know that the strides that we have made in agriculture and the things that we like to talk about a great deal — the good story of agriculture, the positive story of producing food — we’ve got to continue to cultivate young people in being a part of agriculture, continuing to ignite the passion in young people, because we really do have tremendous young folks involved in agriculture, whether it be in high school or college or immediately after graduation, working in some really neat careers and all with a focus on growing food.”
Outside of that role, Fordyce also has to advocate for the present of the industry and for Missouri’s farmers. It can be challenging, but he thinks because he’s been a full-time farmer he can relate to both farmers and consumers.
“I think maybe, and this is probably unfair, but I think I’m the face of the department. I occasionally will provide some ideas, but I think what I bring to the table is a practical understanding of agriculture,” he said. “My job, I think, is to offer some high-level guidance and direction for our programs and then kind of get out of the way and let our people do what they do the best.”
As a farmer, he understands the ups and downs of the business, because he’s been there before. He’s watched a corn crop dry up in a drought and during calving season spent “every single day watching every cow you have to help if you need to, to help the calf after the calf is born if you need to.” He’s built farm budgets that start in the red.
“All of us in agriculture are trying to tell that good story of agriculture, but coming from a farm background, I can talk in real terms, in real live situations with people that don’t understand agriculture about what’s really happening on Missouri farms, what’s really happening on Missouri ranches and livestock operations and specialty crop operations,” Fordyce said.
But in telling the story of agriculture, Fordyce also has to counter some narratives that can be wrong and bad for the industry. One area that really rankles him is labeling of “non-GMO” foods, including a water bottle he saw labeled as “non-GMO.”
“There’s a great deal of misinformation out there about agriculture — and things that frankly are completely wrong — about the safety of GMOs,” he said. “You’ve to stay with kind of the mantra of carrying a consistent story because it’s a true story and it’s a good story.”
Moving from the private sector to the Department of Agriculture, Fordyce has also had to get used to government speed, compared to the days that when he came to a decision he could implement it immediately.
“We’ve got a really good idea and we’d like to see it implemented tomorrow, and sometimes we don’t get those implemented tomorrow,” he said. “Sometimes it takes a little while. In some cases, that’s probably a good idea and sometimes it would probably be better if we could move a little quicker.”
Outside the department, Fordyce has received praise from around the state for his work as director. That includes agriculture groups and state legislators.
John Kelley, a soybean farmer from Faucett and chairman of the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council board of directors praised Fordyce for his work as an advocate for farming, inside and outside the industry.
“Richard has the ability to bring people together in times of fellowship as well as in times of challenge, and has the ability to connect with both his fellow farmers and people not so closely tied to the farm,” Kelley said. “He has been a mentor to many and an outstanding representative of soybean farmers and the local, state and national levels. It’s been great to see him succeed.”
The Missouri Farm Bureau also appreciated Fordyce’s ability to get the department’s work out to the public.
“He works very hard. He’s a good communicator. He’s got a staff over there at the department of ag that does a wonderful job,” said Blake Hurst, director of the Missouri Farm Bureau. “He listens and he’s someone that we can pick up the phone and talk to. And of course he’s a full-time farmer, understands farming, so all of us who are in agriculture and deal with these issues share a link with him and a history with him, so he knows what we’re talking about. I don’t have to fill-in with Richard. I call him up and I tell him what I’m thinking about and he understands where I’m coming from.”
State legislators appreciated the work Fordyce has done. They especially appreciated that he’s been a full-time farmer.
“Being a farmer himself, Richard thoroughly understands what Missouri farm families do. Richard works as hard as he can to support the farmers and ranchers that help feed the world,” said Rep. Jay Houghton, R-Martinsburg, chairman of the Agriculture Policy Committee.
“Richard Fordyce has been an excellent director for the Missouri Department of Agriculture. Without a doubt Director Fordyce has a passion and it is for Missouri agriculture and the state’s number one industry,” said Rep. Joe Don McGaugh, R-Carrollton.
Rep. Tom Hurst, R-Meta, vice chairman of the Agriculture Policy Committee, said that while he and Fordyce might not always disagree, their discussions are usually fruitful and productive.
“Although he and I have not always agreed, his participation in the conversation is to be commended. It is oftentimes that disagreements lead to solutions to which everyone can agree,” Hurst said. “His demeanor and his demonstration for what is best for Missouri has always been beneficial to me and my colleagues in the decisions we must face on the state level. Disagreement not only gives us a different view, but gives the understanding we need to avoid group think, ensuring we bring to bear a range of perspectives on complex agricultural challenges.”
Hurst said Fordyce has helped the agriculture community in the state.
“We still have work to do — and in some respects, we always will. A key part of this mindset is our commitment to making agriculture competitive and diverse as the world to which we export,” he said. “As the Agriculture Policy committee knows, our attitudes, backgrounds, ethnicities, and perspectives – both moral and ethical – all play into the mission that is imperative for Missouri agriculture. I believe that the industry has benefited greatly due to the consistent, balanced, and dedication of Director Fordyce, and for that I say, ‘Thank You.'”
FOCUS ON FUTURE
Fordyce sees a bright future for agriculture, not just in Missouri, but nationally and globally. He cites a figure that 9.5 people will need to be fed by the year 2050 and sees great opportunity for agriculture. He said schools aren’t training enough students for open agriculture jobs so the job market should be strong.
And globally, some of the top research facilities are located in the state.
“In Missouri, we are home to the global, the global, plant science headquarters. Also in Missouri, we are home to the global animal health corridor,” he said. “So if you are a really smart young person that wants to pursue a career in plant sciences studying anywhere in the world, you want to end up on the eastern side of Missouri. If you are a student, studying anywhere in the world, studying animal health, you probably want to end up having a career on the western side of Missouri.”
Fordyce sees the strength of the state’s agriculture story everywhere he goes. He talked about the state fairgrounds and their historic nature in the state. He also said he likes walking around the state capitol when it’s empty.