Agriculture is hip again -- at least that's the word from ag schools around the West where enrollment has been booming over the last several years.
We never knew that ag had stopped being hip, seeing as how eating seems to have always been popular. Still, it's heartening to see that young people are taking up the challenge of providing for the world's hungry 6 billion.
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. 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.
Academics attribute the increased interest in their programs to a variety of factors. Many young people have been schooled to have an interest in food and where it comes from. Rural areas are becoming ever more connected to the outside world by technology. And many people have become interested in the advanced technology that drives modern agriculture.
At the heart of it all, though, is the prospect of good jobs for smart people who want to work the land or serve in support roles for those who do. Experts say there are 54,000 vacancies a year between field and fork for producers, researchers, marketers, engineers and a host of other professionals.
"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.
We are also encouraged that many of the people coming into agriculture programs have urban rather than rural backgrounds. Advocates have long sought ways to re-establish the bonds between farmers and their city cousins who are several generations removed from the land. For good reason, some young urbanites are returning to their roots.
A few weeks ago Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack made headlines when he said rural areas have lost their relevance in American political life. Don't tell that to thousands of young people who see agriculture as a bright spot in the economy, and who are making a substantial investment to become part of its future.