It’s no secret that agricultural illiteracy is rampant in the United States, well even globally. Most people lack more than the most basic understanding of agriculture, and they fail to comprehend its deep interconnectedness to their daily lives. Yet life’s most essential elements — food, clothing (depending on the fiber) and shelter — are all agriculturally based. Today, we can add energy to that list.
Despite on-going hassles, U.S. agriculture is on an upward trend line. In fact, it’s one of the few bright spots in the record-setting economic recession. USDA reports agricultural exports reached $137.4 billion for fiscal year 2011 (Oct.1, 2010 to Sept. 30, 2011). That compares with $108.6 billion for fiscal year 2010 and $96.3 billion for fiscal year 2009.
Add up all pork exports and we’re talking about nearly 27 percent of last year’s production sent overseas. This year looks to be similar.
Meanwhile, U.S. consumers continue to pay the lowest percentage of their income for food compared with other nations.
We’ve all heard the message that agriculture will need to double food production by 2050 to keep pace with global demand. What’s more, it will need to do so with limited land, less water and likely under greater regulation.
Agriculture is profitable, markets are growing, it’s diversifying and it’s hiring. A quick Internet search for ag jobs revealed hundreds, if not thousands, of listings.
So when a colleague flagged an Internet article “College Majors that are Useless,” with three of the top five “useless degrees” in agriculture, I was more than a bit peeved.
The subhead read, “Are you going back to school in hopes of graduating to more job opportunities? You might want to avoid these degrees.” Some are so specific they can’t be applied elsewhere, the article said. Yeah, what we really need are more generalists.
It cites a National Association of Colleges and Employers’ 2012 Job Outlook study, which asked 1,000 employers about their hiring plans. No. 1 on the list of dud majors — agriculture. Okay, that alone reflects a lack of knowledge. When was the last time anyone majored in “agriculture”? The author talks about this degree as designed to manage farms and ranches, and that growing efficiencies require fewer such people.
This reflects not just a lack of knowledge but of imagination. Agricultural-based degrees aren’t just about managing a farm or ranch (even though such businesses’ net worth would blow many other businesses away).
First off, agriculture spans from aquaculture to fruits, vegetables and nuts to lumber to the more traditional livestock, poultry and row crops, and much more. Enjoying that cup of coffee? Thank agriculture.
No question there’s a shift in the types of jobs. The decline in farm and ranch owners has been underway since the 1900s. But there are still numerous people associated with production agriculture, whether involved directly with animals and crops or behind a desk evaluating records.
There are an estimated 22 million agriculture jobs in the United States. According to AgCareers.com data, 81 percent of those jobs require education beyond high school, and nearly half require at least a bachelor’s degree.
Ag-based majors reach into areas such as food safety, product development, banking and even public health; remember — animal health and human health = One Health. We’ve all watched ethanol’s development pull agriculture deep into the energy arena, and it’s created a whole new set of agricultural careers.
In truth, there are significantly more options for agricultural graduates today than 20 years ago, and there will be even more in the future. In 2011, AgCareers.com posted almost 40,000 job openings, up 16 percent from the year before.
People will always need food, clothing, shelter and energy, and there will be many more people to supply — 9 billion by 2050. Agriculture in all areas will need to be more efficient and imaginative.
The other two “useless” ag-related majors were animal science at No. 4 and horticulture at No. 5. The article quoted a U.S. Labor Department representative: “If you’re lucky, you may find some way to apply it to a related business like food processing or production.” Here’s a clue — farming, veterinary medicine, agronomy, animal genetics and many other such jobs are related to food production.
According to the American Society of Animal Science, 90 percent of university animal science departments have seen increased enrollment in recent years. Iowa State University reports a 95 percent placement rate for animal science grads.
A recent USDA report showed that between 2010 and 2015, the United States will generate an estimated 54,000 job openings annually in the agriculture, renewable fuel and environment sectors. Meanwhile, qualified graduates are estimated at 53,500 a year. Plant and soil science and horticulture are expected to see the greatest shortfalls. (You can review the study at http://tinyurl.com/6qstv5f.)
What worries me about the author getting the agricultural career perspective so wrong is that it could discourage some great minds from entering the field.
All of agriculture needs to build and nurture future workers, and it needs to be done at a very young age. That involves reaching out in elementary school, at career fairs and with youth programs inside and out of agriculture.
We need to build and broaden people’s awareness of agriculture’s vast and varied career opportunities, not just today but in the future. We all need the best and brightest minds to rally around agriculture.