Economy Doesn’t Dampen Agriculture Starting Salaries

October 6, 2010 09:39 AM

 The economy has been difficult for some, no question about it. Ask nearly any college graduate who is experiencing closed doors when it comes to potential employment. But a recent survey of agriculture college graduates shows they aren’t feeling that pain near as much as their classmates from other disciplines.

Qualified candidates for jobs in food and agriculture are in high demand. A recent survey of college graduates shows increasing salary levels among 2009 fall and 2010 spring graduates with agricultural degrees. A report released in May by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture shows this demand is expected to continue through 2015, and that demand may even outpace the supply of new graduates.

Increasing Salaries. The salary survey, coordinated by Mike Gaul, . The salary survey, coordinated by Mike Gaul, Iowa State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Career Services Director, collected data from agriculture graduates in all majors at 14 different schools across the country. This is the fourth year of doing the survey, and Gaul says starting salary numbers are inching higher each year as the ag sector is somewhat insulated from the generally dismal worldwide economy.

"It’s not a huge push in salary increases," he says. "But 5-6 years ago we saw average salaries in the $35,000-$37,000/year category. Now we’re seeing a lot of salaries in the lower $40,000 range. Despite the economy, people still need to eat and the great thing about many of our majors is how closely they tie into the food chain. I think that is what’s keeping the industry strong and we’re seeing that reflected in starting salaries."

Student enrollment at the nation’s ag colleges are increasing. At Iowa State, for example, the enrollment is just under 3,300 undergraduates, says Gaul. That is near a 30-year high in Ames. At Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., student enrollment in the College of Agriculture increased by 100 students compared to 2009. 

"There is a wide range of opportunities available in our college," said Jay Akridge, Purdue’s Glenn W. Sample Dean of the College of Agriculture in a September news release. "With our broad focus on the food, agricultural, life and natural resources sciences, the College of Agriculture is a great place for a passionate student with a wide range of interests."

The Ag Stigma. That broad range of opportunities Akridge mentions is one of the bright spots seen in the salary survey, says Gaul. "We still have a bit of what we call the cows, plows and sows syndrome. Not every job available in agriculture is about production. A lot of the higher-paying are in the technology and food science areas."

2010 Employment Pie ChartIn fact the top average starting salary in the survey among ag majors was in the Technical and Biosystems Engineering field at $47,077/year. Jobs in this category range from elevator management to farming operations, to lab technician and food packaging.

The most popular major appears to be in agriculture business or economics, which saw an average starting salary of $41,422/year.

Agronomy is one area where Gaul says supply and demand numbers definitely favor the student. "Despite strong recruitment efforts by colleges, I think a lot of high school students look at agronomy and are not completely sure what it all entails. But it’s one of the majors that certainly commands some of the higher-paying jobs. This is a great time to be a student within an agronomy curriculum."

The May report from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Employment Opportunities for College Graduates, says an average of 54,400 jobs will open annually "for individuals with baccalaureate or higher degrees in food, renewable energy and environmental specialties between 2010-15."  That number is expected to be about 5% higher than the total number of candidates graduating from the nation’s agriculture schools.




Average Annual Starting Salary

# of Respondents

Agriculture Business/Economics



Agronomy & Crop Sciences



Biological Sciences



Environmental Sciences



Technical & Biosystems Engineering



Animal & Dairy Sciences



Food Science, Human Nutrition



Agriculture Education, Communications and Studies








Source: Iowa State University; (Data collected from Fall 2009 and May 2010 Agriculture College Graduates at Auburn University, Clemson University, Colorado State University, Iowa State University, Michigan State University, The Ohio State University, Oklahoma State University, Texas A&M University, University of Florida, University of Illinois, University of Missouri, University of Nebraska, and University of Wisconsin)



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