June 30, 2021

DrKohl_color The Ag Globe Trotter

Dr. Dave M. Kohl

Welcome to the weekly edition of The Ag Globe Trotter by Dr. Dave Kohl.

More than 6.7 million people work in the agriculture and food industry. When related industries such as forestry, natural resources and food and beverage are included, the number of jobs increases to 22.2 million or nearly 11% of the United States’ total workforce. Employment remains strong in the food, agriculture, renewable natural resources and environment sectors with 2.6% growth in employment opportunities over the past five years, or nearly 60,000 job openings annually.  

If one thinks about this workforce, a pyramid would be a very appropriate illustration. At the top is the scientific, engineering and management realm. These are the knowledge generators bringing innovation from research labs and think tanks to the industry. This is where data science analysis, automation, robotics and precision management are integrated with agriculture, forestry, renewable resources, environment and climate, along with soil and water health and biological systems. These areas of employment usually require a bachelor's or graduate degree and represent a small portion of the workforce. Job titles include, but are not limited to, agronomist, economist, engineer, animal scientist and manager. 

Next, in the middle of the pyramid are the technical workers. Innovation drives technology and up to 60% of the new jobs created in the next 5 to 10 years will be in the technology job classification. These jobs represent agriculture equipment and precision agriculture technicians, food technologists, biosafety specialists, process engineers, drone operators, hydroponic operators, people in the forestry industry and wildlife conservationists. If a college or university degree is not for you, more specific technical education formats may suffice with a lifelong learning journey or an adult education pathway. 

At the foundation of the pyramid are the production and frontline workers. This is the core of the agricultural workforce, which includes farmers, landscapers, orchard workers and processing plant employees. This segment of the workforce is often foreign-born with English as a second language. Over half of all U.S. agricultural workers are Hispanic and 30% of the agricultural managers are Hispanic. Educational levels within this segment are often a high school degree, GED, internships, apprenticeships, certificates and micro credentials. Sometimes educational programs are offered by agricultural companies. Growth in the agri-entrepreneur sector includes food distribution, home delivery, local food and niche markets. Culinary products and craft beverages are spin offs for individuals that are entrepreneurs and are involved in all segments of the industry. 

Agriculture careers in action: Do not limit yourself  

Development of a recent video on the future opportunities in agriculture with practitioners in the field brought some very practical tips. Stephon D. Fitzpatrick, Coordinator for Recruitment, Retention, and Experiential Learning at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, and Raechel Sattazahn, Director of the Knowledge Center for AgChoice Farm Credit in Pennsylvania, provided some practical real-world nuggets. 

Raechel indicated that the agriculture industry is more than just farming and ranching; it has tremendous breadth. Be prepared to grow and change over time as your interests and opportunities constantly evolve. A career in agriculture is not a sprint, it’s more analogous to a marathon. As one is exposed to different segments, your interests within agriculture may change over time. 

Take advantage of internships. Make it your full-time job as a student to seek out scholarships and financial assistance. Many of these opportunities are not being fully utilized.  

Stephon was heavily influenced by his FFA advisor. His advice was to get comfortable by being uncomfortable. As a child of military parents living in many areas of the United States, he became interested in the agriculture industry through the Minorites in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences program. He indicated that the MANRRS program fulfilled his need to feel a sense of belonging within the agriculture industry. The program opened the door to many opportunities, and he became a mentor to other minorities. The skills learned through vocational programs are in high demand in the agriculture industry. He indicated that the internships, job shadowing and apprenticeships offered in the agriculture industry accelerated opportunities for minorities without an agriculture and natural resource background. It’s interesting that in his youth, Stephon didn’t want to become a teacher. However, his journey has gone full circle, and he is well on his way to earning his doctorate in education to become a professor. 

Both individuals indicated that the pandemic has encouraged everyone to be innovative and think outside the box. The agriculture industry is ever evolving. For example, supply chain challenges have created niche markets, a need for local products and opportunities for urban agriculture. The accelerating trend in soil and water health, environmental stewardship and climate change are fields where opportunities will be unlimited for those in agriculture and associated industries. 

Both Raechel and Stephon were very passionate about their career journey. They are in positions to make a difference in people's lives. They are also very appreciative of work cultures that encouraged education and training, some even paying for a portion or all of their advanced degrees. 

Final thoughts and perspectives 

The three of us concluded with some wisdom and perspectives. There will be three skills critical for the future in agriculture and related fields: information and data analysis, communications and critical thinking. The three areas of focus include exposure to the biological sciences, business and economics, and communications, including writing, oral communications, listening and nonverbal communication skills. 

The college or university route is not for everyone. Vocational schools, community colleges and technical degrees train graduates that are in high demand in the agriculture industry. Degrees may be enhanced by a series of certificates, micro credentials or apprenticeship opportunities with major agricultural employers. However, the ability to show up to work on time, follow directions, and engage and work well with people will be fundamental foundations for most work and job cultures, regardless of your position. 

FFA, 4-H, MANRRS and other leadership organizations are difference makers in your education. Exposure to contests and debates that often require teamwork in an inclusive and diverse environment can lead to increased confidence and self-esteem, which is important for youth and adult development. I was blessed to have a very forward-thinking agriculture instructor and FFA advisor. Our chapter inducted the first female FFA member in the United States. Now, the National FFA Organization has 46% female membership and 75% of the state and national officers are female. Nearly 20% of the members are from urban or non-rural areas with minorities and diverse members studying a wide range of opportunities in the food, agriculture, natural resources and environmental fields. 

Just like these organizations, the agriculture industry will be evolving and will require one to be proactive. Your network of people often equates to your self-worth and net worth. Discipline, attitude and accountability with initiative and passion while being respectful, reliable and open to reason can bring meaning to life and to the industry and people you serve.