Ag major equals farming? Not so much anymore

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students on bales

LONDON, Ohio — Growing up on a farm in northwest Ohio, Kristin Johnson’s choice of a major at the Ohio State University was not altogether surprising.

“But when I told people I was an agricultural economics major, people asked if I was going to be a fancy farmer,” Johnson, now a marketing specialist for Farm Credit Mid-America in Louisville, Ky. said. “I told them no, but I would probably be helping farmers make wise financial decisions.”

That broad application of an ag-based education is a growing trend, according to Jill Tyson, coordinator of prospective student services at OSU’s College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

“The misinformation often comes from not understanding the depth and breadth of ag careers,” Tyson said, “the variety of careers that ag touches, from food, to environmental, to animal sciences.”

New majors

Tyson said demand is coming from both within and outside the industry.

“I go to schools and talk to students, and I think the interest is being driven, in part, by things like the Food Network creating a passion for culinary and food sciences. Those majors are growing,” she said. “And our fastest growing major is Environment, Economy, Development and Sustainability. It has only been around for two years, but it encompasses exactly what it says.”

A multidisciplinary degree, Tyson said EEDS is appealing to students still deciding on a career path, as well as to employers looking for candidates with a more comprehensive skill set.

“In most areas, it creates more job opportunities,” she said. “We look more at outcomes than job placement, but 92 percent of our graduates either have a job or are in graduate programs within six months of graduation. And that is a five-year average.”

Linda C. Martin, associate dean in the college, said most ag degrees also require an internship, and in some cases a minor, “greatly enhancing” graduates’ real world experience and potential for advancement.

“Collaboration is an increased focus, and when you look at the bigger companies, they are continuing to expand,” Martin said. “Global firms need that collaboration, and these students already have that mindset. Fifty percent of our students study abroad before graduation, and that is valuable from an employer’s standpoint that they come to the job with that understanding.”

Off the farm

Issues such as global food sustainability have been among the most important engines driving the growth of agricultural degrees, according to the OSU representatives. As Tyson put it, “everyone has to eat.”

Brett Tom, a student at the Springfield, Ohio-based Global Impact STEM Academy attending the 2014 Farm Science Review, said he is interested in food science and how it can affect “solving world hunger.”

Perhaps a more altruistic sentiment than one might expect from a future ag professional, Martin said addressing career goals like Tom’s has become more of a focus at ag colleges.

“There is a social aspect; how our decisions impact on the community,” Martin said.

In demand

There are, however, more pragmatic considerations as well.

Tyson said degrees in agribusiness, animal sciences, and environmental and natural resources sciences are becoming recognized by a wider spectrum of industries, many outside agriculture.

“There is no longer that stigma of ag-equals-working-on-a-farm,” Tyson said. “Many (graduates) go into farm production, but Huntington Bank is an example of a company you may not guess would look for something like an ag econ degree. But they do, because they know those graduates have a strong marketing and economics background.”

Andy Paston, regional team leader for Centerburg, Ohio-based seed company Great Lakes Hybrids, credits both economic growth within the agricultural industry and the focus on ag careers at the high school level for the increased interest in college level ag programs.

“Agriculture has been in a boom phase, and it remains a good paying, attractive industry,” Paston said. “But this industry is also kind of a small fraternity and as it grows and retracts, it adjusts to those shifts. I credit FFA programs with showing the importance of agriculture and how life depends on it.”

Such programs can also widen the pool of future employees who may or may not have an agricultural background, Paston said.

“Now we are not just looking at Johnny who grew up on a farm, but also his neighbor from town who has had different experiences,” he said. “That is something we can use to better serve our customers.”

Perfect employee

Johnson, who formerly worked in Farm Credit’s recruitment department, said her company has also benefited from that larger pool of candidates.

“When we recruit at colleges, we only attend career fairs at those with ag colleges like Purdue, OSU, Wilmington,” she said. “We aren’t looking for any specific major, but finding someone who has a passion for ag does make a difference.”

Tyson and Martin said communication between businesses and educators remains the most important part of the equation.

“The industry has continued to come to us,” Tyson said. “And they tell us, ‘we like what we see, we need more; we can’t have enough of your graduates.’”

That, Martin said, represents a major change for both the business and education communities.

“We also ask them, ‘what do you see on the horizon?’ Our degree programs can’t be based on build-it-and-they-will-come,” she said.

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