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Fodder for Thought

College Isn't Filling The Knowledge Tank For Young Farmers

Is the best alternative real experience on profitable farms and ranches around the globe?


Ever since I attend the Ranching For Profit School in late January, I have been pondering the question, "What's the right path to gain knowledge and skills a young farmer or rancher should take to adequately prepare them to enter the industry?"

When I refer to industry, I mean the part of agriculture that is most lacking in a younger demographic, the people with their boots on the ground, who get their hands dirty and grow the crops and raise the livestock which feed our nation.

The demographics of the individuals in my class at the Ranching For Profit School were noticeably young. In addition, this was one of the largest classes Ranching For Profit had ever hosted at 60+ students. Dave Pratt says he's noticing more and more a progressively younger crowd showing up for his schools. I see this as a good thing. Looking for alternative ways to gain knowledge and skills is what young farmers and ranchers should be doing.

From what I've experienced and what I hear from many others, college just doesn't cut it when it comes to adequately preparing young people to enter the farm or ranch workforce. I discussed this topic in-depth back in December, when I shared Mike Rowe's perspective on college debt and how the four-year degree just isn't what it used to be.

Today I will even go as far to say when it comes to boots-on-the-ground jobs in farming and ranching, a four-year degree never was as necessary as many in my generation have been led to believe.

When I posed the earlier question to some of my Facebook connections I got a myriad of responses, both positive and negative. You can read through the responses here, however the consensus among these responses was that, just as I had said earlier, the four-year agricultural degree on its own isn't enough. There is a clear need for experience and development of skills in farming and ranching which a college experience can never fully or adequately give. These can only be obtained from actually doing the work.

Grazing expert Jim Gerrish (who is no stranger to world of academia) even went as far to say, "I think a four-year ag degree is one of the worst things you can do to actually learn about profitable farming or ranching. It leaves you with far too many things to unlearn before you go broke."

He noted that the one exception would be ag business degree programs which teach actual business concepts. He proposed a more practical approach would be one similar to those taken by young farmers and ranchers from countries like Australia, New Zealand, Africa and South America.

"Ag kids leave their home operation and travel the world working for unrelated farm and ranch outfits," said Gerrish. "The cost in time and money ends up being about the same as attending a four-year college. The education is probably ten times as valuable from the world exposure."

If you are an aspiring young farmer or rancher you're probably now wondering, "If a college degree isn't enough, what is the right thing to do to adequately prepare myself?"

And as with any complex matter, this is where I am going to have to say … it depends.

College takes a lot of time and money and I will agree there are a lot of good things that can come from the experience. I know firsthand about the benefits. However, I also know firsthand about the debt and lack of practical skills that comes with it once you are finished.

Whether the agriculture industry wants to acknowledge it or not, there is still an overemphasis placed on going to college versus seeking real-world experience. And it may very well be like Mike Rowe says "the worst advice in the history of the world." Rowe is known to many as the host of the TV reality show "Dirty Jobs."

The skills gap isn't just an issue in mainstream, blue-collar jobs. It's alive and well on the farm and ranch too. Add the immense challenges young producers face, such as access to land and capital, and it's no wonder the average age of American farmers, now at 58.3 years, keeps increasing.

I am not sure what the right answers are. What I do know is there are plenty of young people out there just itching to get their hands dirty and their boots on the ground. They are hungry for knowledge and experience and many are starting to realize, like I did, that after all that time and money spent on a college education they are still left hungry for more.

A focus on building work ethic, skills, experience and knowledge gained through unconventional means is what the industry needs, not another graduating class with four-year degrees.

Like Mike Rowe, I am not saying don't go to college. I am saying if you want to farm or ranch think long and hard before you commit to the college experience and the debt it brings with it. Because it may well be just like Matt Damon said in Good Will Hunting, "One of these days you Harvard boys are gonna figure out that $150,000 you spent is available at the Boston Public Library."

The right path may not be the one most traveled.

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