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VIDEO: College ag students eager, committed to agriculture

CROOKSTON, Minn. — They believe in science, technology and the importance of international markets.

They’re uninterested in politics, but concerned about opposition to GMO food and the use of antibiotics in farm animals.

They mostly have farm backgrounds, and they’re increasingly female.

They go by many names: young blood, new crop, a generational turn. Whatever they’re called, they’re the future of agriculture — and they’re confident ag will give them satisfying, enduring careers.

That’s the quick summary of a recent visit with a class of University of Minnesota Crookston ag students. Ronald Del Vecchio, or “Dr. D,” has 20 students in his animal systems management course. It’s also a “capstone class,” or one that integrates students’ accumulated knowledge in animal science. The class includes discussions of current ag topics and issues.

A top collective goal for the students, both in the short and long term, is bridging what they — and others involved in ag — view as the growing disconnect between agriculture and the rest of society.

“There’s really a contrast between what people here believe and what people back home believe,” says Heather Buchhop. She comes from Cary, Ill., a Chicago suburb, and wants to become a veterinarian.

“Society in general doesn’t understand (agriculture). And it keeps getting worse,” says Keith Yorek, who comes from a Little Falls, Minn., farm family and who also wants to be a veterinarian.

“There’s more of a generation gap between the farm and people in the city,” he says. “They’re undereducated on where their food comes from. That should be part of their curriculum in high school.”

Jennifer Spahn, who grew up in St. Paul but attended an ag-based high school there, plans to become an ag education teacher.

“I’ve seen it (misperceptions about ag) first hand,” she says. “So I feel it’s super important to have someone willing to be a teacher, starting in junior high, teaching kids about agriculture. If you can start from there, and build on it, you can reduce some of those misperceptions.”

Another top goal for the UMC students is changing how some in the general public view ag jobs.

“There’s a perception that farm work is this low-class, blue-collar job. It’s really not. We’re all very smart, we’re all very passionate about agriculture. We want to put that misperception to rest,” says Emily Campbell, a senior from Aitkin, Minn., who plans to become a veterinarian.

She and others in the predominantly female class reflect the major and growing role that women play in modern agriculture.

Women earned 77 percent of all doctor of veterinary medicine degrees in 2012 to ’13. Female graduates also outnumbered men in animal behavior, animal sciences, botany and plant pathology, conservation biology, entomology, environmental sciences, food science, nutrition science, sustainability and wildlife biology, according to federal statistics.

Job opportunities

People involved in agriculture often complain that people outside ag don’t seem to understand it.

One example: an article on the Yahoo Education website that pegged agriculture as the “useless degree #1” for job opportunities. That conclusion was based on U.S. Department of Labor projections that the number of farm managers will drop sharply through 2018.

But agriculturalists point out the industry includes far more than farm managers, offering a broad range of positions in soil sciences, economics, engineering and animal sciences, among other things.

An average of 57,900 job openings will be available annually from 2015 to 2020 for college grads with expertise in food, agriculture, renewable natural resources and the environment, the federal government estimates.

It also predicts that an average of 35,400 new college grads with expertise in those areas will be available to fill those 57,900 openings. If the government is right, colleges will provide only three grads for every five openings — creating terrific opportunities for those with the right skills.

Several of the UMC students have post-graduation jobs already.

The rest generally say they’re confident they can find jobs, provided they put in the time and effort to secure one. Only a handful have had job interviews so far, however. That’s partly because many will attend vet or grad school, while others say they can go back, at least temporarily, to the family farm or land a job at the ag company at which they once interned.

Agriculturalists cite two primary reasons why young employees are in such strong demand:

  • Tough times in agriculture in the 1980s and 1990s held down the number of hires then. As a result, agriculture employs a high percentage of baby-boomers at or near retirement age, increasing the need for new hires now.
  • Agriculture, like most other industries, is dealing with new technology, something college students tend to be good at.

UMC students agree those factors are in play and benefit them. But several students note many older agriculturalists never retire fully, which can limit opportunities for young adults.

By all accounts, international markets are increasingly important to U.S. ag. Half of the annual U.S. wheat crop is exported, for instance.

About two-thirds of the students in the UMC class have traveled overseas. Most say they’d be willing to spend at least a portion of their career outside the U.S.

More consensus

Here are a few more areas in which the UMC students generally agree and feel strongly:

  • Getting started in farming and ranching is difficult, if not impossible, for young adults without family connections in ag.
  • Family farms and ranches are threatened, at least to an extent, by big corporate farms. Family operations increasingly will need to identify niches to survive and thrive.
  • Technology will continue to play a greater role in ag operations of all sizes, allowing farms and ranches to become even more efficient.
  • Ag never will become obsolete or outdated. As Campbell put it, “People will always need food. They’ll always need food.”

Agriculture offers an enjoyable, satisfying lifestyle that other occupations might not be able to provide. “It gives me what I’m looking for,” says Marilyn Lewis, a Bemidji, Minn., farm kid who wants a career, preferably a “hands-on” job, in the dairy industry.

Despite their concern about growing opposition to GMO food and the use of antibiotics in farm animals, UMC students aren’t much interested in joining the political process to influence public policy.

Del Vecchio says the students’ scientific orientation naturally limits their aptitude for hands-on politics.

Dr. D’s thoughts

Del Vecchio says he enjoys the students’ comments on the ag industry. He wonders if they, like him, see “a growing divide” between the “haves” (consumers who can afford relatively expensive hormone-free and non-GMO foods) and the “have-nots” (consumers who can’t).

Given the world’s growing population, “How are we going to meet the demand for food? This whole movement (to hormone-free and non GMO foods) can be successful to a point, but it’s never going to become mainstream because it’s not efficient enough,” he says. “Some people may argue with me, and that’s fine.”

Several students say too many consumers have mistaken ideas about hormone-free and non GMO foods, and they and other agriculturalists need to correct those ideas.

‘The place to be’

One of the big questions in U.S. agriculture is how young agriculturalists, who came of age during the now-ended boom in crop prices and farm profitability, will respond after a prolonged depression in the ag economy.

The UMC students said they realize agriculture is cyclical — and they’re committed to it in good times and bad.

“There will always be ups and downs,” says Michael Mosteck, who comes from a Thief River Falls, Minn., farm family and hopes to become a vet.

“But it’s not about the money. It’s about the product,” he says. “Ag is the place to be.”