Times Are Changing and Agricultural Students Are Too

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The days of hiring farm kids with college degrees are numbered. Not only are there not enough to go around, but also today’s graduates are more likely to be from a suburb, a city or perhaps a rural community. Ethnicity and gender of agricultural students are also in transition.

“We know anecdotally that more and more students are coming from urban or suburban backgrounds, which is natural given our overall population,” said Wendy Fink, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU). “The base simply isn’t there like it used to be. We have to look at urban kids for the next generation filling the employment pipeline.”

Fink cited outreach efforts to urban areas at many agricultural schools as well as to “under represented” populations, students that traditionally haven’t attended land-grant universities or pursued agricultural career training. APLU supports those efforts, working with its members on policy, student recruitment and stakeholder issues.

Changes in the Student Body

Those efforts appear to be working. Bill Richardson directs the Food, Agriculture and Education Information System (FAEIS), a USDA-funded research effort that tracks the supply side of agriculture and natural resource graduates. Richardson reported that degrees in agriculture increased by 16.1 percent, going from 51,728 in 2004 to 60,379 in 2011. Over the same period, enrollment demographics changed significantly. Hispanic student undergraduate enrollment in colleges of agriculture and natural resources increased by 107.2 percent. African American student enrollment increased by 41.8 percent, and Asian student enrollment increased by 57.3 percent.

Gender is also changing. While male students in agricultural programs traditionally outnumbered females, that changed in 2008. From 2009 on, more undergraduate females enrolled than males, with female enrollment increasing by 19.9 percent and males by 9.1 percent from 2009 to 2011.

Richardson noted that even with higher rates of female and minority enrollment, the overall undergraduate numbers need substantial improvement. “The ag economy is great,” said Richardson. “The jobs are there, and that works its way down to the undergraduate level. In 10 years time, there are going to be so very many jobs out there as baby boomers age.”

Fink mirrored Richardson’s concerns. “Our efforts in the past five years include laying out a roadmap to grow interest from prospective students, as well as identify employment opportunities,” she said. “We see that we are not producing enough graduates to fill the roles that are out there at the undergraduate level and certainly not at the graduate level. Students are taken into the workforce as soon as they graduate and often with multiple job offers.”

Schools Adapt to Attract Ag Students

Kansas State University (KSU) is doing what it can to keep the pipeline filled. From 2007 to 2012, enrollment in the College of Agriculture grew by 34 percent, and it is projected to be higher yet this coming year, said Don Boggs, associate dean, College of Ag, Academic Programs. Most of the growth has been in the animal science and food and grain science areas. Ag economics has also grown to 400 students. While the agronomy program has doubled in size in the past five to six years, there are still tremendous employment opportunities for students in that area, assured Boggs.

KSU College of Agriculture also has seen changes in its student body in recent years. Boggs credited much of the growth in non-traditional (no farm and ranch background) students to a marketing effort that began in 2007. It emphasized that you didn’t have to be from a farm or ranch to be an agricultural student. Career path possibilities were presented, which then led prospective students to the major needed to attain the career. KSU works closely with community colleges across the state, as well as with employers such as the milling industry.

“The milling industry was struggling to find new employees,” said Boggs. “We pointed out that the average 15 year-old didn’t even know what milling job opportunities were. We asked the industry to reach out to sons and daughters of employees and those of clients to help them understand the great opportunities that exist.”

The opportunity for good paying jobs is attractive to prospective students. However, what increasingly makes it stick, according to Boggs, is the fact that these jobs can make a difference in the world, whether feeding people or protecting the environment. Marcos Fernandez, associate dean and director, Office of Academic Programs, College of Agriculture, Purdue University, seconded Boggs view. He, too, cited a change in attitude among students in recent years.

“They want to make a difference, do right and change the world. They believe they can do it in agriculture and related sciences,” said Fernandez. “Although we believe the ‘better times’ in agriculture have had a positive impact on students’ outlook as to what the future may hold, the attitude change started before the ag economy improved.”

Increasing Awareness of Ag Careers

Fernandez credited a wide arrange of influences on students, ranging from articles in Time magazine and the Wall Street Journal to Michelle Obama’s White House garden, for raising awareness among non-farm background students. He suspects TV channels such as Animal Planet help attract students, especially female, to animal science, citing the 80/80/80 rule.

“In animal science, 80 percent of our students are female, 80 percent are interested in being veterinarians and 80 percent have no farm animal type experience, being from urban backgrounds,” said Fernandez. “ Animal science is easy to sell to people who love animals. We need consistent messages about the opportunities in plant and soil sciences. The opportunities are incredible and can be just as rewarding.”

At Purdue and Pennsylvania State, where Fernandez spent half a dozen years prior to coming to Purdue, students in agricultural majors have taken matters into their own hands. Their goals are to reach out to non-ag students, telling them about opportunities in agriculture and opening communications on agricultural issues. At Purdue, that includes the student-run “See What Ag Gives (SWAG) Purdue Ag Week.”

“At both universities, agriculture students are reaching out with a desire to share their perspectives with fellow students,” said Fernandez. “You would think that at a major land-grant university, there would be a common understanding about agriculture. These student efforts get communications flowing in both directions.”

Students Want to Make A Difference

One of the students who has reached out is Michael Baird. The recent Purdue graduate with a double major in horticulture production and marketing and agribusiness management is a field sales representative for Beck’s Hybrids. His family has a small row-crop and livestock operation with a strong agri-tourism bent. Baird and a brother operated a fruit and vegetable business to help finance their college careers. He put his hands-on farming experience to work as an agriculture ambassador for the College of Agriculture.

“I get questions all the time about jobs in agriculture and respond that there are tons of potential jobs and that you don’t have to be from a farm,” said Baird. “People want to know about agriculture because they are so removed from it. It’s cool to be able to share information with them or clear up a misconception. They get excited about your personal story of agriculture.”

Baird emphasized, as Boggs and Fernandez had suggested, it is more than jobs that are driving this crop of students. “We know we can make a difference, change lives and the future of the world,” said Baird. “In my new position, I will be helping farmers in Kentucky be more successful at raising corn, soybeans and wheat so they can grow their business and provide for their families. Eventually I hope to again be involved in the family business. I think it is important to introduce more students to agriculture because it is essential to our future. It is our responsibility to share our story with them.”


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