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Preparing next generation of agriculture

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 16, 2010 - Bryan Garton wonders what we'd find if we could go back in time -- and go to the grocery store.

He has no doubt that, 40 years ago, not only were the ways in which we purchased our food dramatically different than they are today, so were the meats and vegetables themselves. Garton -- associate dean and director of academic programs at the University of Missouri, Columbia's College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources -- knows these changes in the consumer experience of agriculture reflect yet deeper ones on the production side.

The National Academy of Science says "we are now in an era of 'scientific agriculture'." Whereas in 1947, farmers accounted for 13.8 percent of the national work force, today, less than 2 percent of Americans are traditional, full-time farmers. Nonetheless, agriculture and agribusiness remain the nation's largest employer, providing 23 percent of all jobs in the U.S., 560,473 of them in Missouri -- or about 16 percent of the state's workforce -- according to the USDA Economic Research Service's 2002 data .

In short, the United States' food and fiber industry today requires fewer farmers, each able to produce more crops due to advances in production technology. But farm and farm-related work continue to demand an influx of human capital -- scientists, engineers, managers, marketers, salespeople -- and they must be better educated than ever before.

Land-grant Colleges in the 21st Century

In 2009, The National Academy of Science issued a peer-reviewed "Expert Consensus Report" addressing the future of agricultural education at the undergraduate level. Many of the challenges facing us in the 21st century, its authors conclude, "including energy security, national security, human health, and climate change ... are closely tied to the global food and agriculture enterprise."

Professionals must be well-versed in applications of the traditional STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines, and the Academy suggests STEM might well become STEAM, "joining agriculture with the other fundamental disciplines."

To address such status changes, colleges and universities with programs in agriculture must stay at the cutting-edge -- not necessarily a hallmark of academia - and provide students both the breadth and depth of study to understand the ever-increasing complexities of our food and fiber industries.

Land grant

The Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 established a system of public universities that have a mission to teach agriculture, mechanic arts and military tactics, along with classical studies, to provide the working class with a practical, liberal education.

Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is instrumental in administering and coordinating land-grant programs, including Agricultural Experiment Stations - Missouri has 16 AES sites, totaling more than 13,000 acres - and Cooperative University Extension that helps deliver knowledge and resources to the public.

At the front lines of agricultural education in the United States are the nation's land-grant colleges and universities. In Missouri, they are the Columbia campus of the University of Missouri and Lincoln University, a historically African-American college, in Jefferson City.

Post-secondary agricultural education also takes place outside of the land-grant system, at such venues as the Florissant Valley campus of St. Louis Community College. It offers an associate in applied science degree in biotechnology that partners with the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and prepares students to work as lab technicians in the plant sciences.

Future Farmers of America

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook for 2010-11 presents an interesting picture for those at Mizzou's College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR.) While job opportunities for self-employed farmers are likely to decline as farming operations become more complex, increasingly relying on computer technology, openings for salaried agricultural managers will increase.

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Job growth for agricultural and food scientists is expected to be "faster than average," at 14-19 percent; and for veterinarians and veterinary technicians, the 20 percent or more increase is rated "much faster than average." In line with these figures, among this year's 335 CAFNR graduates, the most common majors are animal science and biochemistry.

Sam Cope, a 19-year-old rising junior from Truxton, is majoring in agricultural business management. His family has been farming for more than 100 years, with his grandfather passing land to his father and uncles. "Hopefully," Cope says, "I'm gonna be returning to the farm one day, as well."

In the meantime, though, he'll intern with DOW Chemical this summer, working alongside seed sales representatives in Kansas, Missouri and Iowa and helping to cement a new family tradition: One of Cope's older brothers graduated from CAFNR Saturday and will move on to a seed sales job with Pioneer, where he'll join the eldest, already an employee.

Cope sees himself as part of a wider trend. Parents, he says - even those with generations of history on the farm -- are encouraging their children to "go out and try something for themselves for a while, build up a little money, have a cushion to start with." No longer is working the land a burden to bear; it's now a privilege earned by other means. These days, artists aren't the only ones who need a "day job."

Alternatives to Industrial Agriculture

Clint Elmore, who just completed his junior year at the William H. Darr School of Agriculture at Missouri State University, says he's not "a traditional ag kid." Though his relatives have a tobacco farm in Kentucky and he grew up in the farming community of Montgomery City, Mo., his mother and father don't farm, and Elmore was an athlete in high school, with no time "to do the fun stuff FFA does."

Elmore has taken a non-traditional path in his studies, as well. An agronomy major focused on crop science, Elmore spent the past two summers as an intern at Lee Farms, a family farm in Truxton that sells produce to local restaurants and supermarkets, as well as directly to consumers in St. Louis via a Community Supported Agriculture program.

Elmore started growing vegetables in 6th grade, but his work with Rusty Lee, who's "always doing something different and something new," really piqued Elmore's interest in small-scale production.

At Missouri State, his introductory courses didn't address CSA and local sales. Elmore says, "We don't talk about local as much as we should, because it's definitely becoming a big thing in vegetable production and I'm sure it's gonna go toward that in cattle and row crops."

Elmore's interests dovetail with a trend in popular food culture: a shift away from mass-produced, processed foods, and a heightened awareness of health-related, ethical and safety concerns in food production. Influential food writer Michael Pollan, for example, recently appeared on "Oprah" to discuss his somewhat-retro maxim for healthy eating: "Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

Recent documentaries like "Super Size Me" and "King Corn" portrayed downsides of the United States' system of industrial agriculture. This is a subject students in the "Agriculture, Culture and Film" course, taught by Assistant Professor of Science Journalism Bill Allen, address head on. Allen's class draws students from across Mizzou's campus, bringing new perspectives to agriculture students, and extending agricultural subject matter to students in other fields.

But while Elmore says he's aware of the portrayal of "Big Agriculture" in the media, and while he feels conflicted at times about topics such as copyrighted seeds, the sum of his education has convinced him that large-scale production is a vital part of the mission of agriculture.

"You can't help hear about Monsanto. [The talk] is usually evil," he jokes, "but it's one of those subjects where a lot of people don't really know how much food we would actually provide if it weren't for those companies. The way the population keeps growing, we're going to have to almost rely on a company that will make improvements in seed and fertilizer."

Spreading the Word

Whitney Wallace, 22, graduated Saturday night with a degree in agricultural journalism. That Wallace is a woman is not unusual -- 51 percent of the CAFNR students are women. What's unusual is that in 2008, after more than a decade of showing livestock at the fair, she was crowned Missouri State Fair queen.

As CAFNR's website acknowledges, "It isn't every day that a state fair queen can also discuss issues of agriculture, the life sciences, environment, food, natural resources, and medical and agricultural biotechnology."

But Wallace is part of a new generation: She regularly "tweets" about her work and experiences, for example, via Twitter (@WhitWallace), and she sees it as her mission to communicate the significance of agriculture -- "an industry that is quite vital to the success of everything we rely on" -- to the public at large.

To that end, she'll join the Missouri Beef Industry Council in June as director of consumer information, a position that grew out of her internship there. Her responsibilities will include maintaining the council's social media presence (on Twitter, it's @beefcouncil), and finding new ways to use technology to promote beef consumption. Last summer, she used Apple's iMovie software to produce a video, available on FoodTube.net, about preparing kabobs.

In spite of today's unpredictable economy, prospects for Wallace's classmates are bright. Stephanie Dager, coordinator of student services and records at CAFNR, says this class is a lot like last year's. And those graduates are doing well.

Last year's CAFNR "destination survey," which checks in with students across all degree programs six months after commencement, found that, among the 71 percent who responded, 79 percent were employed and 89 percent of them were working in a field related to their major.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. As graduation approached, Wallace was looking forward to Sen. Christopher S. "Kit" Bond's commencement address and to a celebratory dinner with family and friends. Her parents are both Mizzou alumni, as are her maternal grandparents, so the event has deep significance for them all.

"I always knew I wanted to go to Mizzou," Wallace says. Though she'll be staying on in Columbia next year, these final days -- final exams, final visits to faculty and staff she has come to know and care for -- are welcome, but bittersweet.

Margaux Wexberg Sanchez is a freelance writer. 

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