3/16/2013 7:00 AM
By Jennifer Merritt Virginia Correspondent
ROANOKE, Va. — The outlook is good for students of agriculture, but the “grand challenge” presents challenges for land grant universities.
That was the message from Alan Grant, dean of Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Science, to those attending this year’s Cow College.
The event, which focuses on feed industry issues, animal nutrition research and improving nutrient management of the dairy farm, was part of the Virginia State Feed Association’s 67th Annual Feed Convention held at the Hotel Roanoke.
“How many people across the United States really know we have a grand challenge of feeding 9 billion people in the next 30 to 40 years? How are we going to come up with enough food, fiber and fuel for 9 billion people? Abundant yields are going to be critically important,” Grant said. “If it’s going to require that 70 percent of all the additional food that’s produced to feed all these people is from technology, we are going to have to continue to invest in technology and infrastructure to support that research and development.”
With their three-part mission of teaching, Extension and research, land grant universities are almost ideally suited for the challenge.
Virginia Tech is one of two land grant universities in the commonwealth. Established in 1872, it is ranked 28th among public universities and 71st among all universities, according to US News & World Report. There are currently almost 24,000 undergraduate students enrolled and more than 7,300 graduate and professional students representing 113 countries.
“This is a good thing for us, because one of the things we want to do is make sure our students understand international issues, and having international students co-mingle with the domestic students really adds benefit to the education our students are getting,” Grant said. “They’re going to be working with international groups or they’re going to have international clients. They’re going to have to understand the different cultures and value systems around the world.”
That is something the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has been taking seriously for years, with international travel a part of the college experience for many of the agriculture students. Some students traveled to Spain this year.
In addition to the 2,700 students enrolled in the CALS undergraduate program and the 500 graduate students, the college offers an ag tech program. The two-year associates degree program is for students who are not interested or ready for a four-year degree.
“These students want to get some real hands-on experience, get some technical knowledge and head back into the industry,” Grant said. “It’s a very successful program for us. We have about 130 students in that program right now and there is potential to grow that program.”
Enrollment in CALS is increasing. It’s not enough, however, to meet the expected increase in jobs in agriculture and ag-related fields. By 2020, the demand for workers may exceed the number of graduates by as much as 20,000 every year.
“This is a crisis. This is a real issue for us,” Grant said. “It’s good that we’re increasing enrollment, but we’ve got to increase the enrollment in our ag colleges or at least increase the number of students that will be pursuing careers in ag-related industries.”
CALS is actively trying to recruit students from across the university, including incoming freshmen that are exploring what they want to do.
“We find that if students across campus take some of our classes in the College of Ag and Life Sciences, a lot of them end up transferring. We see that in economics — students transferring into ag econ. We have an insects class that is taught campuswide. That leads to some transfers as well,” Grant said.
Grant also warned of the need, easily understood by farmers, to have government officials who understand the challenges facing agriculture.
“We’ve got to make sure we’ve got some of these students understanding agriculture going forward into government positions so they can communicate these issues,” he said.
Federal and state funds for research and Extension continue to be a challenge for land grant universities. The National Science Foundation ranks Virginia Tech’s ag science research expenditure in the top 10 across the nation.
“Virginia Tech is recognized as a big player in ag research and development,” Grant said. “We spend a lot of time on research, again because the industry is demanding new information, new discoveries and a refinement of some of the technology that may already be in place. We often refer to it as discovery to delivery. That’s all about the land grant mission, making this new information available to the field where it can be implemented and make a difference to society.”
That requires major investment in infrastructure, including investing in top scientists at a time when funding sources are changing. Funding for agriculture research is shifting from the USDA to the Department of Health and Human Services, and funding is increasingly coming from private industry. Compared to nations like China, the percentage of funding for agriculture research and development is shrinking.
“I think it’s a reflection that a lot of people don’t understand this grand challenge, they don’t understand agriculture,” Grant said. “We’re going to continue to face some real challenges.”