It’s a common story: a farm family kid goes off to college and stays in the big city. A new study from Purdue University and the USDA may mean those kids will be coming home.
“During the next five years, U.S. college graduates will find good employment opportunities if they have expertise in food, agriculture, renewable natural resources, or the environment,” says a study overview.
“Expect the strongest job market for plant scientists, food scientists, sustainable biomaterials specialists, water resources scientists and engineers, precision agriculture specialists, and farm-animal veterinarians.”
Increased job opportunities are expected for “ecosystem managers, agriscience educators, crop advisors, and pest control specialists.”
The Mid-South is full of students, from farm families or otherwise, capable of succeeding in such necessary work. Unfortunately, too few even know such opportunities exist.
That’s where people like Karen Ballard, with the University of Arkansas Extension Service, comes in. Ballard, who created the state’s Soybean Science Challenge (SSC) and works closely with the Arkansas Soybean Promotion Board, is pushing high-school students to consider careers in agriculture.
In 2014, following a successful “virtual tour” online with high school students and in-the-field producers and Extension researchers, Ballard said “about 90 percent of the student participants had never been in a soybean field. That’s in Arkansas! You wouldn’t figure that would be possible.”
Without even the barest knowledge of agriculture, “our students are vulnerable to misinformation that sometimes vilifies farmers.”
An energized Ballard insists it is crucial for the health of agriculture that an educated, young work force focuses on the industry. “We can’t expect the next generation to understand the things we take for granted, much less care. We are providing an avenue for meaningful exploration of complex issues that impact us all. The digital world in which we live requires that we show up, not just issue a press release.
“There are days that production agriculture is often clearly under attack in the social and popular media. The SCC seeks to introduce science back into the conversation through strong partnership and networks of support. We seek to make our content relatable to the things young people care about. You can’t tell teenagers what to think. We want our high-school students to be inspired to think critically. They have not disappointed us.”
The young researchers that have emerged since the challenge’s launch, “are the product of great science teachers and the fact that we are showing up through the organized chaos called the Soybean Science Challenge.”
And that chaos isn’t a hindrance, says Ballard. “Chaos can be a good thing; it always brings about change.”