Colleges join drive toward ag education

Corban University near Salem, Ore., is one of several private universities in the West joining the push to add agribusiness and agriculture to their course offerings.

A Ph.D. in economics is not required to figure out what makes Oregon go.

All it takes is a car.

A drive through the Willamette Valley will reveal vast acreages devoted to nurseries, sheep, cattle, berries, wine grapes, tree fruit, hazelnut trees, seed crops — the list grows as you travel. Turn in any direction and you’ll see timber. Cross the Cascades and head east and you see more livestock, pastures, hay, wheat, potatoes and onions. Head west and you’ll see dairies. Go toward the ocean and turn south and you’ll find cranberries. More than 220 crops are grown in the state.

While cities such as Portland specialize in marketing their weirdness, coffee shops and donuts, much of the rest of Oregon’s economy can be summed up in a single word: agriculture.

The USDA tells us there are 35,439 farms encompassing 16.4 million acres of Oregon.

This same picture is seen in Washington, with 37,249 farms on 15 million acres, Idaho with 24,814 farms on 11.5 million acres and California with 77,864 farms on 25 million acres.

Together, the 175,366 farms and ranches in those four states produce crops and livestock with a market value of about $70 billion each year.

That’s big, and for young people across the West that level of economic activity also means big opportunities. By 2020, companies will need to fill a projected 57,000 agricultural jobs, most in management.

Community colleges and land-grant universities have long been the place to learn about agriculture, food processing and other associated fields. Researchers at Oregon State University, Washington State University, the University of Idaho and the University of California system and its many campuses have led the way to breakthroughs in agronomy, genetics and hundreds of other areas.

But there’s an exciting development taking place among the region’s private universities. They are taking notice of the opportunities agriculture presents and also offering their students ag-related courses and degrees.

Corban University, a small Christian college near Salem, Ore., recently announced it will offer classes in agribusiness next fall through its school of business. Ultimately, Corban plans to start a college of agricultural studies.

Other private universities and colleges also see the opportunities in agriculture.

Brigham Young University-Idaho in Rexburg, Idaho, is listed among the best colleges for agricultural sciences in the nation. Students there do research at the university’s 190-acre farm. The agricultural program’s biggest problem is producing enough graduates to meet the needs of the industry, professors there say.

Researchers at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho, also have agriculture on their minds. Using a USDA specialty crop block grant, they have been developing a drone that can scan a field in a few minutes and help farmers determine the condition of their crops.

These are exciting times for agriculture — and ag education. More students are learning the skills and gaining the backgrounds they’ll need for a career in agriculture. And more colleges and universities are joining the region’s community colleges and land-grant universities in helping their students find professions in agriculture.

They recognize the opportunities that await their students.

All they have to do is take a drive.

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