Students from varied backgrounds see many opportunities in food production
By TIM HEARDEN
CHICO, Calif. -- Brenae Royal didn't grow up on a farm, but her heart is in farming.
She became excited about agriculture when some FFA students gave a presentation to her eighth-grade class. As a high school student in Atwater, Calif., she raised four hogs and was an officer in her school's FFA chapter.
Now she's a senior at California State University-Chico, set to graduate this spring with a goal of becoming a crop scientist. She wants to help find innovative ways for farmers to conserve water, she said.
"Water use is obviously a huge issue," Royal said. "I don't think it's at the forefront like it's going to be in a couple of years."
Royal is one of thousands of students who have been flooding into the agriculture departments of universities in the West and across the nation. They're seeking the skills for what is expected to be an exploding job market in food production.
Together, they represent the next generation of agriculture.
Nationwide, enrollment in bachelor's degree programs focusing on agriculture at land-grant universities has increased nearly 28 percent since 2004, according to the USDA Food and Agriculture Education Information System.
In the West, all the major agriculture schools have seen enrollment increases. At the University of California-Davis, the number of students at the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences has increased 21 percent, from 4,704 in 2004 to 5,713 last year, according to FAEIS.
Fall enrollment at Oregon State University's College of Agricultural Sciences increased nearly 42 percent, from 1,151 to 1,630 during about the same period.
At those colleges and elsewhere, today's agriculture students come from both urban and rural backgrounds, are more ethnically diverse than they used to be and include more women than ever.
"There's so much going on in ag right now with the expanding job market," said Andrea Cox, assistant director of recruitment and retention at Washington State University's College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences.
"I do think students are interested in working with areas that will be relevant to society," she said. "The word is really getting out."
Ag has become 'hip'
The increases reflect boosts in overall university enrollment, but agriculture is definitely becoming more popular, said Bill Richardson, the director of FAEIS, which is based at Virginia Tech University.
"I think agriculture is more of a hip discipline than it used to be," Richardson said. "There's definitely jobs and definitely turnover. Agriculture is never going to go away."
He also attributes the increased interest to more Internet access in rural areas, reducing the isolation on the farms and at local businesses where many ag jobs are.
"It makes the jobs more attractive," he said.
Cottonwood, Calif., native Isaac Durham had only an ancillary connection to ag growing up. His family rented a farm house, but his father was a general contractor. His grandfather farmed in Massachusetts, but he was never involved in it, he said.
Still, the 23-year-old Durham was interested in crops, and he didn't want to spend all of his time indoors after college.
"I actually found out about the career day here just before I transferred," said Durham, now a senior at Chico State. "I'm hoping to go more into the research side of things."
Research is one of many agriculture-related disciplines in which students are showing interest. Others include food safety, renewable fuels, farm policy, veterinary medicine and plant and animal science and ag schools offer courses in them all.
At OSU, the number of agricultural business management majors increased 19 percent in a year, said Paul Dorres, director of student services at the College of Agricultural Sciences. Driving much of the increase is the ability to take some courses entirely online, he said.
"Agriculture is a very diversified industry," said Matt Erickson, an American Farm Bureau Federation economist in Washington, D.C. "To me that's really what we're seeing with these trends in agriculture (education) going up."
Women fill classes
Many students are going into animal science and related fields such as veterinary medicine -- particularly women. At OSU's animal science program, women make up about 90 percent of the nearly 500 majors in the department.
At UC-Davis, about 71 percent of this year's freshman class in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences is female, said Diane Ullman, the school's associate dean for undergraduate academic programs.
Ullman noted that one of the lecture halls on campus has pictures of each graduating veterinary class. While they started out as all men, the pictures of the last few years' graduates show nearly all women.
Many women seek a university degree to get a better-paying job, she said.
"If you read the studies on the earning power of women, a woman without a college degree has really limited earning power," Ullman said. "At the same time, you see the number of women raising families without a male partner is increasing dramatically ... so women need to be able to earn a living while raising their families."
As diversified as agricultural studies have become, most universities haven't seen a drop-off in the more traditional crop science courses, educators say. At Chico State, the number of crop and horticulture majors has tripled in six years, campus consultant Shannon Douglass said.
"People have got to eat, and the agriculture industry has always had good employment," said John Foltz, interim dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Idaho.
He added that many students are fascinated by the science and technology used on the farm today, such as the Global Positioning System and biotechnology in crops.
Ag promises jobs
The Farm Bureau's Erickson quoted statistics estimating that as many as 54,000 jobs a year will be created within agriculture in the coming years. Also, urban youths have grown up with the local-food movement, going to farmers' markets and cultivating an interest in the origin and safety of food.
"I think a lot of students are wondering, 'How can I make a difference and help the industry out in terms of working at Kraft or DuPont or different parts of the supply chain?'" he said.
"I think one of the challenges now within production agriculture are the input costs," Erickson said. "I think that's one big hurdle. ... If they want to get into production agriculture, it's not as easy as starting up a farm. You have to buy land and equipment."
Ullman sees as a solution programs such as the Winters, Calif.-based Center for Land-Based Learning, which provides extensive hands-on experience for young people. One of its programs, the California Farm Academy, gives its graduates access to land leases so young farmers can gain a foothold in the business.
Experts and university administrators see the rising enrollment rates as a ray of hope for agriculture, as the average age of today's farmer is about 58 years old.
"If we're going to feed 9 billion people in 2060, we have to have all hands on deck, and they have to be good, strong hands," Ullman said. "So we need to be providing the best education we can to students in the agricultural and environmental sciences, and in the human sciences -- what happens in communities and how do you appropriately use landscape planning to eliminate all the food deserts that we have.
"It's just a wide range of things that have to happen and we're training students to do that," she said.
"It's why I come to work every day. I really feel that doing this is so meaningful to the planet."
Enrollment growth by campus
Here are the levels of growth in number of undergraduate students at agriculture colleges in the West from 2004 to 2011, according to the USDA's Food and Agriculture Education Information System:
California Polytechnic University-San Luis Obispo: From 3,761 in 2004 to 3,851 in 2011
California State University-Chico: From 375 to 383
California State University-Fresno: From 1,105 to 1,792
University of California-Davis: From 4,704 to 5,713
University of California-Riverside: From 1,350 to 2,177
Humboldt State University: From 1,405 to 1,883
University of Idaho: From 1,174 to 1,346
University of Nevada-Reno: From 787 to 1,033
Oregon State University: 1,151 to 1,630
Washington State University: 1,472 to 1,971
USDA Food and Agriculture Education Information System: www.faeis.ahnrit.vt.edu
UC-Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences: caes.ucdavis.edu
Oregon State University College of Agricultural Sciences: agsci.oregonstate.edu
Washington State University College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences: cahnrs.wsu.edu
University of Idaho College of Agricultural and Life Sciences: www.uidaho.edu/cals