COBLESKILL - When former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack graduated from college, the pop-culture buzz-word advice for young people from the movie "The Graduate" was "plastics."
Vilsack told the SUNY Cobleskill class of 2019 the challenges before them are less like character Benjamin Braddock's search for meaning and more akin to the plot of an "Avengers" movie.
"My parent's generation fought World War II, suffered through the Great Depression and built an incredibly robust economy. The people of my generation, I believe, have expanded civil rights in so many different areas," Vilsack said.
"Your challenge, in my view, is an even larger one," Vilsack continued. "You're confronted with a rapidly changing climate that's going to challenge everything we do, and how we do everything we do ... so, if I was recasting 'The Graduate,' I wouldn't say, 'Plastics.' I would say, 'Food and agriculture.' "
Vilsack was the longest tenured cabinet officer under President Barack Obama. He also served as governor of Iowa for two terms, founded the White House Rural Council and currently serves as president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. He received an honorary doctorate from SUNY Cobleskill at its 101st commencement ceremony Saturday and gave the keynote address, focusing on the college's long tradition of agricultural science and technology education.
Vilsack told the class of 2019 that thanks to the innovation of American farmers, the United States is a "food secure" nation where the public only spends about 9 percent of its income on food, significantly less than the 20 to 25 percent typically paid by households in the rest of the developed world, and much less than the 50 percent of income paid by many in the developing world.
"We have greater flexibility and more options available to us because of the efficient production of our food and agriculture industry," he said. "In fact, 43 million people are employed in the food and agriculture industry, making it the single largest employer in United States, 28 percent of the entire workforce."
Saturday's graduation was held outdoors, adjacent to the school's Neal Robbins Field House. Cobleskill's class of 2019 included 398 bachelor's degree recipients and 223 associate's degree recipients, down in size from 2018 when there were 665 bachelor's degree recipients and 250 associate's degree recipients.
Vilsack said it will be the responsibility of the next generation of farmers to use technology and innovation to deal with the affects of climate change while maintaining the strength of U.S. agriculture.
"You can be the generation that takes 'big data', that works on blockchain, embraces precision agriculture, that uses drones and sensors to understand and appreciate a wide variety of every single acre in this country, so we begin the process of reducing the amount of inputs in the carbon footprint that allows us to be more resilient and adept better and mitigate the affects of climate change," he said.
Thomas Coene, one of the commencement's two student speakers, echoed Vilsack's concerns about climate change. Coene, who graduated magna cum laude with an associates degree, said his class includes people from the most densely populated areas of metropolitan New York City and from rural areas like Hamilton County. He said his class has showed a commitment to many shared values, including support for their fellow students, and support for the planet.
"It is no secret that our generation will be faced with challenges that equal or even surpass those faced by recent generations. Among these include questions involving resource scarcity, a public that is largely removed from production agriculture and thus unaware of where there food comes from, and, yes, an ever changing and dynamic climate, that will require us to be more audacious than ever when it comes to growing the precious crops needed to feed the world," Coene said. "These are challenges that will force us to heal old wounds and unite people who have never even met before."
Amy Williams, who graduated with an agriculture business degree, said she plans to use her Cobleskill education to help manage her family's apple and peach orchards in Warwick, Orange County.
"I plan to take over, eventually. Cobleskill showed me a lot of the business side that I didn't know, accounting, other stuff," she said.
Austen Reid, from Rochester, graduated Saturday with a degree in business administration. He said SUNY Cobleskill was his third college, after stops at Monroe Community College and Finger Lakes Community College. He said he originally planned to major in wildlife studies, before realizing his passion was in business. He said he's already lined up a job working for a marketing company that's providing social media teams to help companies with older websites in need of a "rebuild."
"The professors here are all about going one-on-one to help you succeed. You don't see that at every school. ... I did not get that treatment at those other schools. Now, after four years -- I'm -- I'm going to walk across that stage today to get my diploma," he said.