For the most part, industry advocates, trade group representatives and lobbyists tend to focus on the short-term: Regulatory policies, like reigning in EPA’s WOTUS policies; legislative proposals, like GMO labeling bills; and trade rules, like COOL.

That’s as it should be, because all those issues represent immediate threats or crises that could severely impact business. And again, for the most part, those folks do a stellar job fighting to protect the interests of everyone involved in animal agriculture.

However (and you knew this was coming), there are also longer-range, long-term, deep-into-the-future issues that need to be considered, and one of the more troubling of those, in my opinion, is the challenge of succession planning.

By that I mean identifying, nurturing and training the next and future generations of Americans interested in and properly equipped to pursue careers in agriculture and food sciences.

(I dislike even using the “a-word,” though, because it’s a turnoff for most young people who didn’t grow up on a farm or a ranch, or who don’t live in the rural areas of this country. And folks, that population is growing smaller and more isolated every year).

Now, you may be of the opinion that your own operation will be safely passed along to your chosen heirs or sold to some interested party eager to take on the challenge of animal husbandry. But think about the bigger picture here for a moment.

Not only is it important to recruit and equip the next generation of ranchers, producers, feeders and dairy operators with the education — and the capitalization — they need, but if we’re to maintain domestic food security and associated export opportunities, the country also requires tens of thousands of scientists, researchers and entrepreneurs working in livestock production, food processing and the allied industries that support agriculture.

Not to mention that it would be nice if among the 98% of the population that lives in urban areas removed both geographically and intellectually from farming and ranching there could be some new leaders in business and politics who possess the requisite understanding of how critical food security and agricultural sustainability are to the nation.

One positive step

Well, here’s a way to advance that cause. Consider it a homework assignment, if you will.

Among the many things USDA does that defies logic and aggravates pretty much everyone in agriculture at some point in time, the department also is one of the only institutions actively promoting the recruitment and training of tomorrow’s industry participants.

To that end, USDA has just released a grant-funded program with the unwieldy title of “Secondary Education, Two-Year Postsecondary Education, and Agriculture in the K-12 Classroom Challenge Grants Program,” or SPECA for short.

Nobody can accuse federal agencies of failing to create lengthy, polysyllabic program titles, along with appropriately dense acronyms.

Nomenclature aside, the program aims to promote K-12 and college-level education in the areas of food science, agriculture, natural resources and human sciences, as the agency phrased it, “To help ensure the existence in the United States of a qualified workforce to serve the sciences and to encourage more young Americans [to obtain] a baccalaureate or higher degree in [those] sciences.”

I’d like to see 10 times as much funding as the $900K Congress has allocated to this program, but if even a handful of young people get turned on to the idea of a career in the ag sciences or food production, that’s a plus for the industry.

Not only are there thousands of jobs in those sciences that need to be filled, but wouldn’t it be nice if there were more people with careers in agriculture who could support industry’s position on the political issues that impact producers?

(By the way? That was a rhetorical question).

Here’s the catch: The applicants for this program are public high schools, community colleges and universities and 501(c)(3) nonprofit groups involved in education. Those institutions and organizations are the ones that have to devote the time and resources to apply for funding.

Often, those folks need not only encouragement from industry participants, but active partnerships that can inform the programs they propose to USDA.

Do you have contacts at the community college in your area? At local high schools or even middle schools? If not, believe me: All it takes is a phone call or two to connect with the professionals at those schools who are in a position to engage with this grant-funded opportunity. Many teachers and college faculty members have great ideas percolating in their classrooms and curricular planning. They just need some encouragement.

But money is always the limiting factor in funding the time and technology it takes to develop an innovative program that just might get some students excited about the myriad of career possibilities in animal agriculture and food production and processing.

We need more school-age young people to consider agriculture as a career track, and to that end, we need many more programs and projects focused on ag science in the nation’s classrooms.

UISDA’s SPECA program is but a small effort in that direction, but it’s one that needs to be actively encouraged by industry participants.

Read about the program here, and then pick up the phone and reach out to the educators in your area. The deadline for submissions to this program is March 18, so there’s no time to waste.

I won’t pretend that a classroom project here and there will revolutionize agriculture, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. 

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator