Teaching Once and Future Farmers

Published on: 14:06PM Jul 16, 2015


Agriculture in the United States has come a long way from its earliest incarnations--the Pilgrims of Plymouth planted their first small plots in 1621 by hand, using cropping practices they learned from their Native American neighbors, the Wampanoag tribe. Today, operators of commercial-sized farming operations cultivate hundreds or even thousands of acres using 600-horsepower combines planting seed and applying inputs in a precise way based on information garnered from GPS-collected data and imagery and computer modeling. In the last century alone, the share of the American labor force employed in agriculture has fallen from 41 percent to less than 2 percent, while the complexity of knowledge needed to operate those farms has multiplied geometrically.


The history of food and agricultural education in the United States is also long and diverse--from agricultural treatises published by the earliest scientific society founded in colonial Philadelphia in 1744 by Benjamin Franklin to the student projects aimed at learning computer software, hardware, and networks and their relevance to agriculture available through 4H and FFA programs across the country. While over much of our nation's history, aspiring young farmers learned their farming skills from their older relatives, such transmission of knowledge is no longer enough in most cases.


The current food and agricultural education system in the United States has two major responsibilities: first, to build a cadre of next generation farmers and ranchers as well as career seekers interested in food and agriculture. That need applies not only to crop and livestock production, but also related occupations such as positions within the agricultural supply chain and agricultural and food science disciplines, including natural resources and nutrition. Today's farmers are likely to need computer programming skills as well as be handy with a wrench and a screwdriver and to be able to distinguish a spot sale opportunity from a futures contract.


Second, most Americans do not understand food and agriculture systems. The shrinking human footprint of agricultural production in the United States over the last century, especially as a share of U.S. population, along with a reliably productive food system, has led to a diminution among the general public of understanding what goes on in the U.S. agricultural sector and its vital importance to the nation. Thus, part of the mission of the U.S. food and agricultural education system is now focused on improving the ‘agricultural literacy’ of the general public and policymakers.


The current K-12 system for food and agricultural education is an amalgam of formal and informal training and related hands-on agricultural experiences. At the elementary and middle school levels, the main outlet is the Agriculture in the Classroom initiative, pioneered in Illinois in 1977, which provides programs or curriculum material about agriculture to at least 3.9 million students around the country, based on a survey of 35 states in 2010.


The National Association of Agricultural Educators (NAAE) estimates that 1 million students are currently enrolled in food and agricultural education programs around the country, taught by 12,000 agricultural educators at the secondary and community college level.  Associated closely with formal classroom training in most communities are FFA chapters, which provide about 650,000 students with further opportunities to expand their knowledge and experiences relevant to agriculture.  For students without access to formal agricultural education opportunities, many take part in one of more than 3,000 4-H clubs around the United States, which report having about 6 million members.


There are also some relatively new efforts that are bringing American students closer to their food in innovative ways, such as the FoodCorps, the National Farm to School Network, and the Wellness in Schools program.


The changes in the U.S. agricultural sector have come at break-neck speed in recent years, and the food and agricultural education system has worked hard to keep up, although no suitable data are available to evaluate the system’s effectiveness in doing so.  It does appear that the system is falling short of filling the student pipeline through to the university level to train professionals in all the critical food and agriculture related fields.   A 2015 study commissioned by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) found that the U.S. economy will generate more than 57,900 openings for individuals with college degrees in food, renewable energy, and environmental specialties every year between 2015 and 2020. The study projected that there would be a 41 percent shortfall of U.S. graduates in those fields to meet that demand.


In a policy background paper commissioned by the food and agricultural policy initiative AGree, I suggested the following ideas on how to improve the effectiveness of the U.S. food and agricultural education system--


  1. Improve curriculum consistency,
  2. Build stronger linkages to STEM efforts,
  3. Look for ways to reward effective programs,
  4. Conduct a national survey of agricultural literacy, and
  5. Establish a committee to review food and agricultural education’s progress.


Traditional partnerships and programs will continue to play a key role in promoting food and agricultural education across the United States. Alternative mechanisms should also be explored, such as through charter schools and innovative food education efforts. By incorporating more agricultural science across a variety of STEM fields, there will be new ways to touch students in every classroom across the country. There’s no time to lose, as the massive baby boom generation in this country begins to enter retirement years, today’s millennials will be the ones who will fill the jobs of tomorrow, in food, agriculture, and agribusiness as well as the rest of the economy.  You can access the full paper released by AGree on July 16 at http://foodandagpolicy.org/sites/default/files/AGree_Food and Ag Ed in the US.pdf