If you think it's hard to find technically proficient employees that understand production agriculture now, hold on to your hat. It's about to get a lot harder. According to the USDA, Bachelor of Science degrees awarded to agronomy and the crop sciences dropped by a third between 1984 and 2003. In 2007, 4,010 B.S. degrees were awarded for ag business and management versus only 177 in crop production.
Like a pump that has lost its prime, our colleges and universities are not producing crop scientists to meet needs. A growing number of industry and academic leaders fear agriculture will soon be continuously sucking air like that primeless pump, when it comes to new graduates.
Emilio Oyarzabal, technology development manager, Monsanto, and John Jachetta, regulatory affairs and government affairs leader, Dow AgroSciences, will tell you that it is past time to prime the future employee pump. In fact, they warn that U.S. agriculture is in danger of losing not just the prime, but the pump and the entire pipeline that produces the highly trained graduates needed in modern agriculture.
Oyarzabal said, "Recently I met with 15 college of agriculture heads. They told me 25 percent to 30 percent of their faculty is at retirement age. Molly Jahn at the University of Wisconsin told me 50 percent of the USDA workforce (113,000) is retirement eligible in the next five years."
Shrinking Staffs and Interests
Where retirements once meant opportunity for new hires, today they are opportunities to cut costs or redirect dollars. "Department leaders are hiring new molecular biologists instead of new weed scientists," said Jachetta, who also serves as president of the Weed Science Society of America. "Administrators want people who can bring in grants or contribute to a new program that they want to develop rather than invest in production agriculture; because of this, we have a national skills gap rapidly developing."
Oyarzabal recalled when he was a graduate student at Iowa State University, Soil Science was a large department, but the department lost more than 20 percent of its professors over the past 20 years. "There used to be a professor each for N, P and K. Now there is one for all three nutrients," he said.
Contributing to the problem is limited funding for Extension research. Vernon Cardwell has taught agronomy at the University of Minnesota for more than 40 years. He explained that only a third of faculty salaries at agricultural colleges are tied to teaching. The majority of salaries traditionally come from experiment station dollars. As states cut university budgets and USDA invests less in applied research, investment has failed to keep up with inflation and positions are harder to fund.
"We are only replacing one out of two faculty that leave," he said. "At the university level, that reduced demand for scientists is a vicious cycle. We already have a limited supply of undergrad and graduates for available jobs. If we don't replace the faculty, who's going to train the next generation?"
Cardwell said the problem is exacerbated by the shift in student origins and interests. Increasingly, farm kids have been replaced by urban students with less connection to fields and crops.
"Urban background students are very comfortable in the lab, but less so in the field," explained Cardwell. "Industry contacts tell us they can find all kinds of gene jockeys who want to work in the lab, but not the plant breeders who can do selection and testing in the field."
Jachetta agreed with Cardwell. He noted that students today (like many college department heads) appear more interested in the basic sciences like molecular genetics and genomics. Reasons include a loss of faculty and mentors. Ironically, he pointed out, this drift has happened at a time when there is a greater opportunity than ever for agronomic researchers and practitioners. The impact of advanced traits from genomic research has added value to the agricultural economy in general and to crops in the field in particular.
"As these crops become more valuable, the threat of crop loss due to weeds, insects and pathogen pests becomes greater," he said. With climate change, we have weeds and pests moving north. We also have resistance to some herbicides developing. We need people who can help keep us ahead of the pests, but as an industry and nation, we are having a harder time finding them."
The shortage is made worse in another way that has even longer-term impact potential. Oyarzabal pointed out that 50 percent to 60 percent of all agricultural grad students are from outside the U.S. Where they would once have fought to stay and work in the U.S., now they are going home.
"Countries like India and China are organizing and supporting their sciences," he said. "They need professors and administrators. They will be competing with us, and if we are not competitive, we will lose our edge."
If Oyarzabal, Jachetta and Cardwell sound pessimistic, they aren't. Each is doing what they can to change the situation. Oyarzabal is an industry member of the Coalition for a Sustainable Agricultural Workforce (CSAW), which Jachetta and others helped organize. Within a few months, the group included 30 members from scientific societies, corporations and agronomic services companies representing virtually every facet of crop production.
CSAW hopes to focus attention on the need for more USDA funding, not only for research and teaching positions, but also for scholarships. They also hope to encourage federal funding of awareness initiatives that encourage elementary, junior and senior high school students to consider careers in agriculture.
"Our goals include a level of support toward agricultural educational activities commensurate with that of other scientific entities such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health," said Oyarzabal. "We also want to increase the understanding and importance of agriculture by working with partner agencies on educational programs to highlight the link between agriculture, the environment and food production among the young, urban generation."
The Need For Scholarships
The problem facing agriculture is too big for private industry and universities alone. CSAW is engaged in educating key parties to the severity of the issue and the consequences of ignoring it.
For Cardwell, the concern is personal. He has dedicated his life to teaching young people the art and science of crop production. His response is equally personal with the funding of two endowments. One was begun decades ago when, as a young professor, he saw a need to support undergrad activities. After 30 years of personal donations, his undergrad activities fund recently reached $100,000. Now large enough to be self-supporting, it funds student trips to national meetings and Crops and Soils Club competitions.
A second and potentially larger fund, a scholarship fund endowed in his name, was kicked off with a $25,000 contribution of his own and quickly reinforced with donations from friends and former students. Several farmers have already committed to contributing a semi load of corn each year for the next three years. With such support, Cardwell hopes to help build it to $250,000, and eventually $500,000, with the goal of funding several $5,000 to $10,000 yearly scholarships for upper division students and transfers.
Cardwell encourages others to fund similar grass-roots efforts to encouraging students to enter and stay in crop science fields. His fund-raising this winter will involve visiting each of the counties in the state, making contacts and setting up support committees. Ironically, his efforts may well serve another purpose as well. In his own way, he and his scholarship supporters will be raising awareness of the issue.
"All of us in agriculture and food systems have the responsibility to inform the public about the industry and the professional opportunities that lie within," said Cardwell.
Sustainability could be reason for using slow-release N formulations and additives.
When it comes to fertilizer discussions, nitrogen (N) fertilizer and its impact on yield and its impact on the environment go hand in hand. Nitrogen can be applied in a number of ways and with a number of different products, but recent discussions related to "sustainability" often turn toward N applied to the soil in slow-release formulations so that crops are "spoon fed" N during the growing season.
The agricultural sustainability conversations have looked at slow-release N products as fitting many sustainability goals. They are products that are seen as limiting the negatives of N moving off site while helping crops reach their yield potential.
Major companies' introductions of completely new soil-applied slow-release N products has been limited in the last few years. The major products on the market have been available for a few years. These manufacturers and distributors are gaining market share in commodity crop production. Slow-release N products previously have been adopted extensively in some other business segments such as turf and ornamentals and selected vegetable production.
Included here are the company descriptions of four established soil-applied products that promote slow-release of N and one new product promoted as an N stabilizer. These are major brands sold nationally for commodity crop production. Evaluating these products is no easy task; therefore, the companies are being allowed to present their description and marketing position. But the real evaluation comes with on-farm use in various weather conditions in various soil types.
When fertilizing crops with urea or liquid nitrogen (UAN), nitrogen loss can start the moment it's applied. And after the nitrogen moves into the soil with rainfall or irrigation, it can be lost over time through denitrification and leaching — totaling average losses as much as 30 percent. But not if fertilizer is stabilized with Agrotain technology.
Agrotain technology controls nitrogen loss by blocking the enzyme urease, which allows nitrogen to stay in the ammonium form longer. It helps crops to access the nitrogen it needs immediately, controlling losses for the first critical weeks after application.
Agrotain is blended with urea-based fertilizer products to create enhanced efficiency fertilizers, which control surface loss by blocking the enzyme urease. This action is unique to Agrotain nitrogen stabilizers. Agrotain Plus contains a second, additional nitrogen stabilizer that can reduce denitrification and leaching losses, as well as control loss due to volatilization.
No other product works the way Agrotain does. Agrotain works for any crop where urea or 28 percent, 30 percent or 32 percent liquid nitrogen (UAN or urea/ammonium nitrate) fertilizers are used. The urease inhibitor will not work on other forms of nitrogen fertilizer.
For just pennies per pound of nitrogen, Agrotain keeps a fertilizer investment from disappearing into thin air; resulting in more productive plants that convert that nitrogen into higher yields.
Agrotain is the world's leading urease inhibitor and has been available since 1997. It is the only urease inhibitor certified by the American Association of Plant Food Control Officials.
For more information, go to www.agrotain.com.
ESN Smart Nitrogen
ESN Smart Nitrogen is the only controlled-release nitrogen fertilizer widely available in agriculture, providing growers with a return on investment through increased nitrogen efficiency, says the manufacturer, Agrium.
ESN controlled-release technology reduces N loss due to leaching, volatilization and denitrification, providing significant benefits to the environment. What makes ESN different is its method of nitrogen delivery: a flexible, micro-thin polymer coating encapsulating each urea granule and gets N to crops when they need it most.
ESN's controlled N release feeds the crop throughout the growing season. ESN can be used as a sole source of nitrogen or blended to meet a grower's yield and economic targets for specific crops and geographies. ESN Smart Nitrogen is available for use in a wide variety of field crops such as corn, canola, cotton, wheat and potatoes.
The latest research is available at www.SmartNitrogen.com.
Soil-applied Nitamin Nfusion liquid fertilizer blends from Georgia-Pacific Plant Nutrition offer quick, enhanced uptake followed by extended delivery throughout the season. Featuring 94 percent slowly available nitrogen, Nitamin Nfusion fertilizer is formulated for custom blending with quick-release N sources to provide a high-efficiency fertility source that matches the nutritional uptake needs of the crop. It can be applied in corn, cotton, soybeans, wheat and other grain crops.
Nitamin Nfusion fertilizer is a 22-0-0 liquid slow-release nitrogen product that provides a steady delivery of N through polymer release and soil enzyme action. It is blended with other liquid N fertilizers, which make up 70 percent to 90 percent of the N in the final blended product. The patented polymer technology in the fertilizer provides an effective slow-release nitrogen source for crops.
By essentially metering out the nitrogen in the soil over time, the nutrients stay in the root zone so nitrogen is available for the crop at key growth stages. The formulation of the polymers allows more overall nitrogen to bind with the soil and stay in the root zone so it is more readily available for crop uptake. This helps growers lower overall N application rates, cover more acres during critical application windows which may reduce labor and fuel costs. Growers may also be able to reduce in-season applications while increasing/enhancing yields and crop quality.
Nitamin brand fertilizers are manufactured by Georgia-Pacific and distributed by Wilbur-Ellis and other suppliers. Additional information is available at www.gp.com/plantnutrition.
NutriSphere-N is an additive for granular or liquid nitrogen fertilizer that creates an active zone of protection around the nitrogen fertilizer to reduce volatilization and nitrification, thus leaving more nitrogen in the soil for plant uptake.
Research shows NutriSphere-N increases nitrogen availability and can increase yield potential as much as 10 percent to 15 percent, and is the only product on the market that protects nitrogen fertilizer from volatilization and denitrification from fertilization to harvest.
Developed and manufactured by SFP, NutriSphere-N, a biodegradable, water-soluble, non-toxic nitrogen fertilizer coating, leaves no environmental footprint. NutriSphere-N manages nitrogen fertilization in any soils and in a variety of crops, including wheat, corn, potatoes, cotton, grasses, sugar beets, rice and onions.
NutriSphere-N provides: greater nitrogen fertilizer efficiencies, optimized nitrogen availability to the crop, protection against volatilization and leaching.
For more information, visit www.nutrisphere-n.com.
Instinct nitrogen stabilizer optimizes the yield potential of corn by ensuring N is available in the root zone during key stages of corn growth when used with liquid N, manure or dry fertilizer blends.
Instinct contains proven technology in an innovative, encapsulated formuation from Dow AgroSciences. Application timing is preplant, at-plant row or band injection. It can be used with liquid manure in the fall or spring.
Instinct supports environmentally beneficial farming practices by reducing N leaching into groundwater and reducing denitrification, the escape of N into the atmosphere. As an encapsulated product, Instinct can remain on the soil surface for up to 10 days; it is designed to stay on the soil surface without volatilizing until the N can be incorporated into the ground either with a one-half-inch rain or mechanical incorporation. More information.