Educators Challenged to Increase Interest in Agriculture

Posted By Courtney Price Davis on October 27, 2016 at 8:58 am
Educators Challenged to Increase Interest in Agriculture

A teenage girl arrives at a school that sits at the end of a dirt road. She drops her bag off in the main building and then heads outside to the chicken coop to collect eggs and feed the fowl. Later, in between other chores and farm duties, she’ll get online lessons in math, French, communication and some electives.

It’s not your typical high school, to be sure, but it’s one that Resi Connell hopes will foster a passion for farming in the students. Connell is the founder of LOCAL STEW U, a private school in Goochland, Va., for eighth to 12th grade set to open in fall 2017.

“There are no desks, no textbooks, no worksheets. Academics as we have come to accept them will not be taught in disconnected channels (i.e., biology, English, history). Instead, students learn concepts and absorb information as they pursue ideas and develop their projects,” she says.

The school is an effort to address the looming shortfall of workers (and loss of passion) in the agriculture industry, from hands in the field to farm business managers, agricultural researchers and educators.

According to the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, the average age of farm owners has been on the rise for decades.

1987 1992 1997 2002 2007 2012
Average age of principal operator: 53.3 54.3 54.0 55.3 57.1 58.3


And as older farmers retire, often their children aren’t picking up the plow.

Connell believes there are several reasons for this. Many agriculture programs, like those at cooperative extension services or the Farm Service Agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are created for adults and not for children. Very little time is spent in school focused on farming. And for those kids raised in a farm family, many are leery of the hard lifestyle.

“One thing for sure is, youth who see their parents struggle, who see them get up early and go to bed late, who hear the endless financial struggles, who see and hear so much negative from their hard-working, struggling parents, those youth – they will run as fast as they can in another direction,” she says. “If we want kids to get into agriculture, we have to show them that it’s worth it, that it can be a job you love, a job that is meaningful in the bigger scheme of things, and a job that can earn them a decent income while they are at it.”

Purdue University, tied with Iowa State as the top school for agriculture ranked by U.S. News & World Report, and the USDA estimate that more than 22,000 jobs in agricultural disciplines may go unfilled every year through at least 2020. Agencies and educators at all levels are looking at ways to increase youth interest in agriculture across the wide range of disciplines. The shortfall is more diverse than planting and harvesting crops. There’s a need for more highly skilled workers, such as plant scientists, food scientists, environmental engineers, nutritionists and veterinarians.

Producing passionate youth

Haley Hampton, senior educational consultant for the national Future Farmers of America organization, says highlighting that need for skills in a variety of ag-related jobs has been a focus of the youth organization’s AgExplorer program. She credits the program with increasing in recent years the number of students involved in the organization, which typically serves students from middle school through college.

“AgExplorer allows students to discover 235 unique careers in agriculture beyond farming and ranching. So often students are told that if they want to work in agriculture they need to be a farmer or rancher, but those of us in the industry know that agriculture is so much more than that,” she says. “It is helping students learn that they can be involved in the industry of agriculture and still pursue careers in business, design, technology and engineering.”

The program at lets students explore different career profiles, including responsibilities, job outlook, education requirements, average salary, and college and career resources. Hampton says it helps show students that they don’t have to live and work on a farm to get involved. “We have urban students who want to work on a farm, and we have students from rural areas that want to work in the corporate world. With agriculture, those students can achieve their dream, and we do all we can to make sure students are aware of all the possibilities available to them,” she says.

It’s a stance Connell also promotes.

“If we keep engaging (youth), show them how cool it is, get them involved in positive ways, we will attract a lot more into the industry. Most kids have no idea what incredible jobs there are in the agriculture industry,” Connell said.

And while many might remember FFA as just another club in high school, Hampton says the program involves aspects of both classroom learning and extracurricular activities and leadership training. But one of the greatest challenges is the need for more agricultural educators, since many are nearing retirement.

Growing minority farmers

While Connell and Hampton focus on inspiring young people to get involved, others are focused on broadening the labor force in other ways. Dr. Levon Esters, associate professor in the Department of Youth Development and Agricultural Education at Purdue University, says one of the primary goals should be to recruit a more diverse workforce and get more women and minorities involved in agriculture.

The school recently received a $92,500 grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Women and Minorities in STEM fields to admit more graduate students from historically black colleges and increase the number of women and underrepresented minorities completing science, technology, engineering, and math – or STEM – degrees based in life sciences and agriculture, among other goals.

“There needs to be a greater emphasis on diversifying the agricultural workforce. For example, there also needs to be more effort put forth toward minority student recruitment, retention and degree completion,” Esters says. He also advocates for more recruiting and support for minority educators in colleges of agriculture.

In the 2012 Census of Agriculture, less than 5 percent of farm operators were not white.  The census is taken every five years, and the next one is due next year.

Principal operator by race as a percentage of all farms:

Year All White Indian/Alaskan Native Asian Black Hawaiian/Pacific Islander More than 1 race reported
2012 2,109,303 95.42 1.79 0.64 1.58 0.07 0.47
2007 2,204,792 95.90 1.57 0.51 1.39 0.06 0.57


But the employment study from Purdue University shows some promise for narrowing that incredible gap. In 2012-13, about 79 percent of graduates in U.S. colleges of agriculture and life sciences were white, compared with 17 percent minority.

Women make up a small portion of primary farm operators. In 2012, only 288,264 operators were women, or about 14 percent of the total.

But women seem to be faring better in agricultural disciplines than other STEM fields. A recent study from the Massachusetts Institute for Technology found that 40 percent of women who earn engineering degrees either leave the field or never enter it. But the Purdue study found women make up more than half of the food, agriculture, renewable natural resources and environment graduates.

Women accounted for 52 percent of ag-related bachelor’s degrees in 2012-13. In veterinary school, female students made up 77 percent of the graduates that year. According to the report, “Women also outnumbered men in STEM areas such as animal behavior and ethology, animal sciences, botany and plant pathology, conservation biology, entomology, environmental science, food science, nutrition science, sustainability studies, and wildlife biology.”

Trends in the industry

About 46 percent the expected annual job openings are projected in the business and management fields. Another 27 percent will likely be in science and engineering.

Field Employment opportunities through 2020
Management and Business 46%
Science and Engineering 27%
Food and Biomaterials Production 15%
Education, Communication and Government Services 12%


And with the expected labor shortages, the job market for graduates should be very favorable.

“The employment outlook is great for the agricultural industry!” Esters says. “Agriculture is one of the employment industries that has and continues to provide numerous job opportunities, many of which offer attractive salaries.”

It’s a perspective Connell wants her young students to have, too, although she’s more in line with a growing school of thought that a traditional college might not be the best path for everyone.

“At LoSU, we have high expectations of our students. Not necessarily that they will spends thousands of dollars on a college degree they probably will not use,” she says. “We expect them to follow their heart and pursue what they are interested in. We will support them in that endeavor. We will provide the tools for them to develop strong skills that will enable them to succeed regardless of whether they pursue a skilled labor job or push on into academia.”

Courtney Price Davis
Courtney has a journalism degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and has worked at newspapers and magazines as a reporter, designer, copy editor and managing editor. She started a weekly newspaper at age 23 and was executive editor of Lake Norman Publications outside of Charlotte, N.C.

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