by Marcia Passos Duffy
While many college students today struggle to get relevant jobs after graduation, there is one curious trend among graduating agriculture students: They are in high demand.
Many of these students have agriculture jobs lined up just weeks, or sometimes days, after graduation.
According to a 2012 study by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, recent agriculture and natural resources graduates with bachelor's degrees have the third lowest rate of unemployment, 7 percent, when compared to other degree programs. Those students who go on to get advanced agricultural degrees have even better prospects: The unemployment rate for those with agriculture graduate degrees is 2.4 percent.
With the net farm income expected to rise 14 percent in 2013 over last year's growth, according to USDA figures (income is expected to reach $128.2 billion this year versus $112.8 billion last year), we can expect that the demand for agriculture majors will continue to rise as well. According to a press release issued by the Ohio State University's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, this growth is attributable to a growing worldwide demand for food and an increasingly strong agriculture industry.
Colleges and universities with agriculture-related majors are understandably seeing a boom from this demand. At Penn State University, for example, enrollment in agriculture-related careers is up 40 percent since 2004. Other agriculture schools are seeing similar growth rates.
One college's perspective
John Gerber, professor of sustainable food and farming at the 94-year-old Stockbridge School of Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Mass., says that originally the school offered only a two-year associate of science degree. That initial program, still in existence, has 100 percent placement with its graduates.
This summer, the university will combine its faculty from plant, soil and animal sciences under the Stockbridge School of Agriculture leadership to further ramp up its agricultural degree offerings. The school now offers agriculture associate, bachelor's, master's and doctorate programs.
In 2003, Gerber took over heading one of the school's three agriculture bachelor's degree programs, the sustainable food and farming degree. At the time, the program had just five students. "We now have 85 students," he notes. "There is a huge demand in this area."
He attributes the demand for these degrees to the demand in the marketplace. "There has been a huge explosion in consumer demand for local food," he says.
About one-third of the Stockbridge students concentrate on small farms and marketing and want to run a small farm of their own; another third are hoping to pursue some kind of farm-based education career, such as working with youth in farm education; the rest hope to get a job in a nonprofit capacity in community development, government agencies, hunger coalition efforts or farm development. "There is a tremendous explosion of opportunity in this area as well," notes Gerber.
The school's associate degree graduates find entry-level positions on farms, and with golf courses, municipalities and lawn care companies.
The growth potential for those with a bachelor's degree in agriculture is greater, but some creativity is required to find a job. "These jobs typically aren't on job boards," he says.
Gerber is impressed with the caliber of students entering agricultural studies. Although he doesn't want to stereotype them, he says that for the most part, these students shy away from jobs in the corporate world. They have an entrepreneurial mindset and want to do meaningful work. And they are willing to be creative in a field that typically does not produce a lot of income.
"I had a student who graduated a few years ago who tried to make a go of it on a 2-acre farm in Vermont," he says. The student lacked the finances to buy enough acreage for a successful farm, so he went back to Stockbridge for additional courses and training. He now trains young farmers on work ethics and farming practices. "He has created his own business that provides a livelihood that is reasonable for him," says Gerber.
Ramping up to meet the demand
Meeting the growing demand for agriculture degrees is a serious commitment at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture. Twenty-six individuals have joined the Stockbridge faculty, including fruit, vegetable, turf, field crop, greenhouse and equine specialists; soil scientists; plant physiologists; molecular biologists; plant pathologists; entomologists; and animal physiologists. There are new Bachelor of Science degree programs starting up, including sustainable horticulture and turfgrass science and management. All of the undergraduate majors will evolve as the needs of agriculture evolve, Gerber adds.
For example, there's a growing need to offer more on-campus, hands-on agriculture training. In response to that need, a new, diverse agriculture learning center is being developed and includes a 50-acre working farm within walking distance of the Amherst campus.
It is a learning and demonstration center that is open to the entire student body [of the University of Massachusetts]," he says. "Everyone needs to know where their food comes from."
Employers demand ag
Not only is the demand high for agriculture degree graduates in the farm industry, but other related businesses, such as those in the landscape industry, are increasingly looking for employees with knowledge about soils and sustainable growing methods. These businesses are snapping up recent agriculture graduates.
"I'm starving for smart people who have an understanding of modern agriculture with a concentration on soil biology," says Thomas Kelly, principal at New Hampshire-based Natural Technologies, Inc., the parent company of BeeSafe Organic Lawn Care (www.beesafelawns.com
), a dealer network of 75 organic lawn and landscape companies.
Kelly says that organic lawn care is different than traditional methods of caring for grass. "It revolves around soil biology . the goal is to improve the soil's food web, fertilize at the appropriate time, and deal with any issues that come up with fewer pesticides," he explains. That kind of management is exactly in tune with what agriculture students who understand sustainability know.
"Growing an organic lawn is not much different, from a strong soil perspective, than what an organic farmer does," he adds.
Cyndi Monahan, a gardening adviser with Naturalyards (www.naturalyards.com
), agrees. Naturalyards, a provider of do-it-yourself cedar planter kits, says the company is always looking for agriculture graduates to join its team.
"We've seen a high demand for them in recent years," Monahan states. The reason, she says, is that agriculture programs produce graduates with fresh, progressive ideas, particularly in the area of sustainability.
She adds, "As our society moves toward sustainability, I personally look forward to what the next generation of college-educated agriculture experts has to offer."
The author is a freelance writer from Keene, N.H.
Photos courtesy of Darlene Hollywood.