For many Baby Boomers — people born shortly after World War II ended — becoming a farmer meant helping on the family farm and eventually filling dad’s work boots. A lot has changed in the economy since then, but in many ways, agriculture still represents a satisfying and profitable career choice for young people.
Ellen Eagen, who has helped organize OnTECH, an agricultural charter high school in Syracuse, New York, believes that farming is a good choice because of “the economic growth in our area is driven by agriculture,” she said, among many reasons students have to choose farming. “It makes sense for students to be part of it.”
OnTECH is slated to open for the 2018-2019 school year.
People will always need food, fiber and fuel, three primary outputs of agriculture. But agriculture involves so much more than direct production.
Tony DiTommaso, professor at Cornell University, directs the school’s agricultural science major. He calls agriculture “a really dynamic field” with numerous facets, from business to technology to hands-on.
“Ag sciences today is very much STEM-based,” he said. “Those are big pillars of the science of agriculture. I constantly remind folks that agriculture is indeed a science. Precision agriculture and big data are part of that, but there’s still room for small scale and organic agriculture.
“There’s more than just plowing a field, though we need that, too. There’s social justice issues as an aspect of food security. You can pretty well do anything.”
While many aspects of farming seem second nature to students who grew up on a farm, they can build on their personal experiences. And students with no farming background can definitely benefit from further education in agriculture.
Sheila Marshman, PhD, is an associate professor in agricultural business at Morrisville State College.
“Agriculture is a family, the people you meet in agriculture will take time to mentor and share their experiences,” Marshman said. “Folks in agriculture are salt of the earth, have integrity and passion. I challenge you to serve with the best.”
She believes that the ag school graduate gains leadership skills as well as academic and hands-on knowledge.
For students who have farmed, a formal education in agriculture can expose them to new technology and ideas to bring back to their family farm or implement elsewhere, according to Jean Lonie, Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences’ director of student recruitment and activities.
She added that 80 percent of the school’s ag students did not grow up on a farm.
“Many students are really invested in what they’re doing,” Lonie said. “It’s something that we love.”
It’s not all planting seeds and tending animals. She referenced a USDA statistic that 46 percent of the jobs available in agriculture are in management for students with ag degrees. Twenty-seven percent of the jobs involve engineering and science, such as animal genomics and biotechnology.
“They may not end up at the barn, but the boardroom,” Lonie said. “Many students are interested in the global experience and there’s never been a better time to be in this industry with the solutions and the way we address them and take advantage of the opportunities that come with them are all in agriculture.”
She likes a quote often stated by Rick Roush, dean of the College of Agriculture Science, “In agriculture, you can do well and do good at the same time.”
Lonie is quick to quote a USA Today statistic from 2015 that stated that agriculture is the fifth top-paying degree in the U.S.
“We’re filling only 51 percent of those openings in agriculture with students with degrees,” she said. “These are very stable, lucrative career paths.”
Narrowing down the numerous options available to students in agriculture involves remaining open to new ideas, according to Lonie. It may also help to participate in programs such as Penn State’s School for Excellence in Ag Science, a four-week residential program for high school students that may help them discover what they would do as an ag school student.
In general, students should try shadowing agricultural employees, visit colleges, and talk with current agricultural college students.
“The most important thing you can do is take ownership and action to see what you want to study and major in,” Lonie said. “It’s as important to figure out what you don’t want to do as what you do want to do.”
Visiting farm shows, participating in 4-H, FFA and county and state fairs can offer exposure to agriculture, as well as offer additional experience.