The other day, I was invited to meet with agriculture and university leaders of the University of Nebraska for a brainstorming session focusing on how the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources could position itself to serve not only Nebraska agriculture and rural communities, but the nation and globe, as well. This was a very energizing session, seeking input from the field in the small rural town of Bruning, Neb., population slightly under 300. After the session, many of the university leaders stayed for the Farmers and Ranchers College educational conference, which was very well received by the producers, those at the level where the “rubber meets the road.”
One producer provided a nugget to the group that explains a reason why he is bullish on the agricultural industry. He stated that agriculture needs highly trained, motivated people to operate and manage farms and ranches, and provide expertise and advice, products and services to a rapidly changing industry. He further stated that his field applicator had to have the talents of a jet fighter pilot. His point was with technology, the cost of inputs, the precision required, and the timeliness of applications on high-value farm ground with potentially high-value crops and more sophisticated consumers, one slipup can cost thousands of dollars.
Yes, agriculture has moved from the paradigm of low-cost, unskilled labor to highly qualified, highly skilled professionals who are lifelong learners that can be retained for the long term. Some estimate that while American agriculture has a narrow scope, being comprised of only approximately 2 million farms and ranches nationwide, the industry offers a wide range of employment opportunities, employing up to one in six workers directly or indirectly nationwide. This presents tremendous opportunities for young people and adults.
As a professor having taught over 10,000 students, I would suggest young people pursue an education in the sciences, business, economics and communications. I also recommend being involved in a minimum of two internships, including at least one study or working assignment abroad. While speaking with the university leaders, I reinforced the tie-in with community colleges and vocational and technical programs that provide specific and focused programs, which will be a trend of the future for youth and adult education. The “super university” of agriculture in the future will facilitate a concept called best of breed, which involves bringing in noted professors, educators, and successful businesspersons into the classroom through technology and intense face-to-face learning experiences to engage both traditional and nontraditional lifelong learners.
After reading this, if you cannot get excited about the future possibilities in education employment and ownership of agriculture businesses, you are probably reading the wrong column. As I told the leaders at the University of Nebraska, the future is for them to create, and change starts with input from the bottom-up, not top-down. If they do not heed this advice, the future will belong to other schools and nations in this short window of opportunity to ensure American agriculture can be a global leader.
Editor’s note: Dave Kohl, Corn & Soybean Digest trends editor, is an ag economist specializing in business management and ag finance. He recently retired from Virginia Tech, but continues to conduct applied research and travel extensively in the U.S. and Canada, teaching ag and banking seminars and speaking to producer and agribusiness groups. He can be reached at email@example.com.