For students considering careers in agriculture, I offer one word: “opportunity.”
Enrollment figures from colleges around the country suggest that students are increasingly passionate about ways they can contribute to the world with degrees in agricultural sciences.
This is heartening for all of us who care about agriculture — especially as we consider difficult challenges ahead.
In the College of Agricultural Sciences at Colorado State University, our enrollment climbed to 1,576 students in fall 2012. That’s an increase of 10 percent from five years ago, and an increase of nearly 50 percent from 20 years ago.
We’re part of a groundswell.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Feb. 13 that undergraduate enrollment in nationwide agricultural colleges and departments rose 20 percent in the five years from 2006 to 2011, to about 145,000 total students.
These data come from a study conducted at Virginia Tech University.
The Capital Press, an online agricultural news outlet, also reported the trend, noting in an editorial that “agriculture is hip again.” The website reported booming enrollment at major agricultural schools on the West Coast, including the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of California-Davis and the College of Agricultural Sciences at Oregon State University.
“We never knew that ag had stopped being hip, seeing as how eating seems to have always been popular,” editors at the Capital Press wrote.
But what’s driving this trend?
Surely, part of the interest in agricultural careers may be attributed to healthy economic conditions in several key agricultural sectors in recent years.
As the Wall Street Journal reported in the story headlined, “Farm Boom Sows Jobs Bounty,” a number of the nation’s largest agribusinesses have increased hiring as the farm economy has expanded and has become increasingly global.
We’ve seen that at CSU: Our recent Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources Career Fair attracted to campus 94 employers, ranging from small companies to international agribusinesses, including JBS, Monsanto and Cargill.
In fact, the Student Center ballroom was at capacity during the career fair in early February, with a waiting list for employers interested in meeting — and possibly hiring — our students. About 750 students attended to explore their career options, and some landed jobs and internships as a result.
It’s clear that blooming interest in locally grown, natural and organic food production also is part of the trend in rising agricultural enrollment.
This, too, provides optimism for those of us who see that agriculture is a broad and diverse industry whose sustainability depends on a wide variety of knowledgeable people, and science-based ideas and techniques.
Behind the increasing enrollment in agricultural sciences is another dynamic, which those of us in the College of Agricultural Sciences see every day: Many of our students, including an increasing number with urban and suburban backgrounds, are passionate about contributing to the world through agriculture.
Some of our highest achievers come to the college with particular talents in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math. They realize that agriculture offers a way to use those talents to help feed the world.
For students like these, our global food system provides myriad opportunities.
Of course, estimates suggest that the percentage of our U.S. population actually producing food on farms and ranches hovers around only 1 percent.
Yet we also know that this core of food production fuels a much larger agricultural industry, an industry that relies on pathologists, plant geneticists, meat-safety experts, agricultural economists and many other scientists.
Indeed, our global food system not only is robust, but in many ways is more important than ever before.
In Colorado alone, agriculture contributes an estimated $40 billion to our state economy and supports an estimated 173,000 jobs. In fact, Colorado leaders often credit agriculture with lifting our state out of the Great Recession.
Here’s another thought-provoking description: Our global food system is “humanity’s single biggest industry,” according to a study published in January in the respected journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Yet this system faces unprecedented challenges in producing a safe, healthy, abundant and affordable food supply in the face of environmental problems, climate change, energy needs and water demands, the paper’s authors, Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich, write.
Related to this assessment, a December 2012 report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology outlined top priorities for U.S. agriculture in coming years: the need to manage new pests, pathogens and invasive plants; increase efficiency of water use; improve agriculture’s impact on the environment; adapt to a changing climate; and meet demands for bioenergy – all while continuing to produce safe and nutritious food for the United States and the world.
Meeting U.S. and global food needs is daunting in itself.
Consider: The international Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that food production must increase by 70 percent to meet the needs of a global population that now numbers 7 billion and is expected to grow to more than 9 billion by 2050.
Even now, experts estimate at least 2 billion people are hungry or poorly nourished.
These facts and figures paint a picture that might be viewed as grim. Yet history shows us that critical challenges often breed incredible innovations.
An important task for all of us is helping students from a wide array of backgrounds understand that agriculture needs their talents, ideas and innovations.
While agriculture presents students with unprecedented challenges, it also offers unprecedented opportunities to help feed the world, protect the environment, and improve quality of life for people near and far.
Craig Beyrouty is dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at Colorado State University. He may be contacted at CAS_Dean_Workstudy@mail.colostate.edu or (970) 491-6274.