It’s no secret that agricultural illiteracy is rampant in the United States, well even globally. Most people are so far removed from agriculture that they lack more than the most basic understanding. Yet life’s most essential elements, food, clothing (depending on the fiber) and shelter, are all agriculturally based.

Still, when a colleague flagged an article “College Majors that are Useless,” with three of the top five “useless degrees” in agriculture, my reaction was “Are you kidding me?”

I do find solace in the fact that anyone currently in agriculture or pursuing such a career or even future candidates worth their salt would know that the article is folly.

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 need are more generalists.

The article cites a National Association of Colleges and Employers’ 2012 Job Outlook study, which asked 1,000 employers about their hiring plans. Business majors received the highest ranking, with 83 percent of employers prioritizing them for recruitment. Accounting, computer and information science majors came in second with 60 percent of employers looking for those candidates.  

No. 1 on the list of dud majors—agriculture. Okay, when was the last time someone majored in “agriculture”? The author talks about this degree as destined to manage farms and ranches, and that the growing efficiencies require fewer such people.

What this really reflects is a lack of imagination. Agricultural-based degrees aren’t just about managing a farm or ranch. First off, agriculture reaches 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. Craving chocolate? Agriculture is involved in those products too.

Sure there is a shift in the types of jobs involved in agriculture; there are many more desk- and laboratory-based jobs today. The decline in farm and ranch owners has been underway since the last century—that’s nothing new. But there are still numerous people associated with production agriculture, whether involved directly with animals and crops or it involves analyzing records, testing rations or drawing up nutrient-management plans.  Agricultural-based majors reach into areas such as food safety, product development, law, trade, banking and even public health—animal health and human health = one health.

We’ve all watched ethanol’s development pull agriculture deep into the energy arena. The link between agriculture and energy will continue to grow, and that has created a whole different set of ag-based careers.

In truth there are significantly more options for agricultural graduates today than even 20 years ago, and there will be more in the future. People will still need food, clothing shelter—and energy -- and there will be many more people to address—9 billion by 2050. Meanwhile resources such as land, water and energy will continue to decline significantly. Agriculture in all areas will need to be more efficient and imaginative.

The other two ag-related majors that made the “useless” were animal science at No. 4 and horticulture at No. 5. Disturbingly representatives from the U.S. Labor Department made comments regarding these degrees such as, “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, ranching, veterinary medicine, agronomy, animal genetics and any number of other jobs are related to food production.

In contrast, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, recently cited that the United States will need “100,000 new farmers over the next few years.” In fact, he brought National FFA Organization into the farm bill discussion, challenging its leaders to develop recommendations that would encourage more young people to pursue careers in farming.

Indeed, the farm and ranch sector is graying, with the average age in the mid- to upper-50s. Who will replace them?

Agriculture has been the one bright spot in the U.S. economy during this record-setting recession. It is profitable, its markets are growing, it’s diversifying and it’s hiring. A quick Internet search for ag jobs revealed hundreds if not thousands of listings, many for 2, 3, 4 placements under one listing.  

What worries me about the author getting the agricultural career perspective so wrong is that it could discourage some great minds.

All agricultural sectors need to build and nurture an understanding among future workers—and it needs to be done at a very young age. That involves reaching out in elementary school, at career fairs, with youth programs inside and out of agriculture. We need to broaden people’s awareness of agriculture’s vast and varied career opportunities not just today, but in the future.