An agronomist measures and records corn growth and other processes.
Many U.S. colleges see a boom in enrollment for agriculture as students flock to study subjects they feel offer a clear path to a job on graduation.
Ag-related college majors appeal to both the heart and mind of a student, university officials say, as a booming agriculture industry and practical skills taught at the colleges can help develop a career that addresses issues such as global hunger and obesity in the U.S.
“There’s a better understanding that when we use the term agriculture, it’s not all plows and cows. It’s clearly looking at the real intricacies of science and innovation,” said Ian Maw, vice president for food, agriculture and natural resources at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities in Washington, D.C.
At traditional agriculture powerhouses such as Penn State, where enrollment is up more than 40% since 2004, career preparation can include cutting-edge research in areas such as plant breeding or genomics. Schools in more urban regions draw students interested in local foods and healthy eating.
Farmland prices have tripled in the U.S. in the past decade, and corn prices have doubled since mid-2010. The high-paying jobs that follow are catching students’ attention in a down economy, Maw said.
Iowa State University, where the agriculture college this fall expects to surpass an enrollment record set 35 years ago, is straining to meet industry demand for its graduates, said Wendy Wintersteen, the agriculture college dean.
Anthony Lackore, 24, graduated from Iowa State in 2010 and works as a production agronomist raising soybean seeds for DuPont Pioneer, a company that produces hybrid seeds. He had the job lined up by the fall of his senior year.
Lackore recalls a College of Agriculture graduation ceremony in which graduates’ future plans were read aloud as they walked to the podium. He was struck by how many had jobs lined up.
“It was just amazing to hear all the areas of the ag industry that the individuals were going into, especially hearing, on the flip side, about the other industries that were struggling at the time,” Lackore said.
The university reports a 95% job-placement rate for graduates from the colleges of engineering and agriculture. Wages can start at between $50,000 and $60,000, said Iowa State University President Steven Leath.
DuPont Pioneer has been a top employer of College of Agriculture graduates for the past two years, said Cindy Heser, the company’s senior human resources manager.
Demand for skilled workers in the industry shows no signs of letting up, in part because some predict agriculture productivity will have to increase 70% by 2050 to feed the world’s growing population, Heser said.
Pioneer has doubled its workforce in the last six years to 12,000 employees worldwide, and expects to add employees at a similar rate for the foreseeable future, she said. About 3,400 of those jobs are in Iowa.
“We are definitely in growth mode, and agriculture is a bright spot in the economy,” she said. “We really need people to help us meet those world challenges.”
Even agriculture colleges in states not known for large-scale production of cash crops are reporting increased interest.
Enrollment at the University of Connecticut’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources has more than doubled since 2004, even though the university’s overall student body has not grown in recent years, according to data compiled by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. Among public land-grant universities, only the University of Rhode Island and University of California-Berkeley, have grown faster, the data showed.
Connecticut’s students choose majors such as animal sciences and human nutrition in hopes of becoming veterinarians and dieticians at hospitals or corporations, said Gregory Weidemann, the agriculture college dean.
Students show an interest in the big problems of the day — obesity and food safety in the U.S. and hunger in the developing world, he said. Better health through local foods and farmers markets appeal to them, added Weidemann, who noted deans at other universities have observed a similar trend.
“The focus here is on local foods, small farms, maintaining our local dairy industry, which is still fairly large,” Weidemann said. “They want that pastoral setting as they drive down a country road and see cows in a pasture, in contrast to Iowa, where they have a large agriculture industry.”
The skills taught in ag programs also tend to offer a clear career path once students earn a diploma, Weidemann said. Parents, in particular, sometimes discourage their children from subjects such as philosophy in favor of those that teach more marketable skills.
“Given the cost of public and private education, I think Mom and Dad give kids a little bit of a nudge,” he said.
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