Successful farmers understand how and why crop rotations promote healthy and productive soils. In general, a polyculture system is more sustainable than a monoculture system.
The same concepts apply to the agriculture industry in general. Cultivating a diverse workforce is good for the industry, bringing fresh perspectives and innovative ideas that enrich and improve the work we do.
While the future looks bright for those choosing agriculture-related career tracks today, some macro employment trends in agriculture are alarming. Farming and agribusiness have traditionally been male-dominated industries. A 2013 USDA study showed female farm operators on the rise, but a closer look at the data also showed some more troubling trends. Women farmers are experiencing the same issues that are impacting the larger agriculture workforce, but the gap is growing even wider as the average age of female farmers is rising even faster than their male counterparts, showing that young women aren’t choosing careers in agriculture. And most women who own farms aren’t making a living from it, pursuing other careers to support their farms.
The agriculture industry would be well served by encouraging more women and minorities to join the agriculture workforce, and especially attracting greater numbers of young people. But how do we get there? We start by raising awareness of the broad and diverse range of careers available in the field of agriculture, changing perceptions of our industry with younger generations preparing to enter the workforce.
The Root of the Problem
Perceptions of agriculture careers are the problem. When high school and college students think about agriculture careers, managing farms and ranches usually comes to mind first. The agriculture industry as a whole will be well served by raising awareness among women — and all young people — about the diversity of career paths rooted in agriculture, including production of food and feed, but also extending to forests, fisheries, fiber, medicine, ecosystem services, wildlife habitat, even fuels and energy.
Whether they think about it consciously or unconsciously, young people tend to evaluate career options by looking beyond income earning potential and also consider income stability and opportunities for career growth. Production agriculture is inherently risky, with major forces like weather and pricing out of the producer’s control, making it challenging for young people—especially women—to choose this path.
But production is far from the only agriculture career path. It is time to raise awareness among young people about the diversity of jobs available in agriculture. It is a broad field with growing demand for the future and plenty of upward growth opportunities for all young people, but they have to be able to visualize the possibilities.
The best advice for young people, especially women, going into agriculture is advice I would give to anyone: find a career path that connects with you, that you are passionate about, and link it to a field you find fascinating. Production agriculture is one path you can choose, but there are so many more.
If a young person is passionate about an ag career, whether they are a generational farmer or new to the industry, they can find synergy between agriculture and almost any academic discipline. The opportunities are vast, ranging from veterinary medicine to data analytics, from engineering to nutrition. As agriculture becomes more technologically advanced, emerging technologies like remote sensing, artificial intelligence, and predictive analytics are finding new applications in agriculture. Even product development, marketing, accounting and sales have applications in the ag industry.
All of these disciplines provide inroads to the agriculture industry, allowing young people to choose a stable, secure career path that plays to their unique talents while following their passions.
There are plenty of agriculture education opportunities available, but if young people aren’t aware and engaged, they may pass those opportunities by. It’s time to broaden the ag career message to reach a more diverse pool of talent and interests. Their contributions to the agriculture industry can drive change for the better, making the industry more efficient, productive and sustainable.
This guest post is by Dr. Kelly Tiller, President and CEO of Genera Inc., a Tennessee-based biomass solutions company. Partnering with local farmers, Genera is launching production of its Earthable® line of foodservice and packaging products, providing a sustainable farm-to-finished product solution to turn agricultural crops and residues into a wide array of sustainable, renewable and compostable fiber products people use every day. Dr. Tiller holds a Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.