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.