Commentary: The next frontier for tech jobs is in agriculture

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drone closeup
(Farm and Dairy file photo)

By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade

When most people close their eyes and imagine a farm, they likely picture joyful storybook pages from childhood: a happy farmer tilling his field, a sleepy farmhand milking a cow into a pail, and dozens of similarly iconic images of the timeless American heartland. But what many non-farmers would be surprised to learn is that these “timeless” images are almost entirely wrong.

Thanks to major innovations in agriculture technology over the past few decades, including drones, apps, and even Fitbit-like technology for cows, today’s farms are becoming highly technologized at a rapid rate — and this makes them a surprisingly robust career path for STEM-focused students.

Don’t believe me?

Sit in a modern combine and you’ll feel like you’ve just entered a spaceship, with hundreds of sensors collecting and processing volumes of data about the machine’s performance and the surrounding environment in real time. This data empowers farmers to identify and solve problems with a level of precision that previous generations could only dream of.

For example, if a small patch of land in a large field is underperforming, the combine’s technology can help the farmer optimize the exact amount of extra fertilizer that is needed in just that area. This level of specificity helps farmers avoid over fertilizing their entire fields, which saves resources and money while ensuring better cultivation of the land. Or visit a facility like Oakleigh Farm in Mercersburg where owner Matt Brake is happy to explain how his high-tech milking system allows him to safely produce milk from his herd while also maintaining the health of each individual cow. The system succeeds thanks to a series of biometric sensors that are constantly evaluating every animal’s well-being.

Often, the sensors can identify when an animal is experiencing an illness or pain even before the farmers themselves would be able to see any visible signs, which enables them to treat the condition much earlier, leading to far healthier outcomes.

Many people are also unaware of the variety of career opportunities available on a modern farm. For example, how do we help cows experience the most comfortable environment we can provide for them? Answering that question can involve a nutritionist, veterinarian, agronomist, and many other specializations that combine science with a love of nature.

Unfortunately, because few families today have any direct contact with the farmers and production workers who are responsible for the food we eat every day, the vast technological transformation of farming has largely flown under the radar of public awareness — and this is a big problem when it comes to the future of farming.

On average, the principal operator of a farm in the U.S. is 59 years old. As the current generation of farmers approaches retirement age, few young farmers are stepping up to take their place. One big reason for this is that today’s students have almost no firsthand experience with food production, which means the idea of working in agriculture never enters their minds. Likewise, if they love technology, they may think that only equates to a desk job, while if they love working with animals or being outdoors, they may think there are no career options to connect their passions with the technology boom.

For this reason, farmers and educators across the U.S. are finding creative ways to introduce learners of all ages to more agriculture-based experiences.

For example, the annual Remake Learning Days festival includes dozens of outdoor learning opportunities and exposure to Career Ready PA career readiness skills, including a recent visit to Oakleigh Farms when nearly 1500 K-12 students learned all about the modern science of healthy milk production. Meanwhile, many urban schools have begun implementing community garden projects that encourage students to participate in the planting, growing, and harvesting of fruits and vegetables. Forward-thinking school districts are reaching out to farmers in their region to schedule field trips and school visits, which gives kids a chance to see all the exciting farm tech up close.
For youth who love animals, nature, and technology, agri-tech is creating a robust world of new career opportunities. In fact, many of these career paths don’t even require a four-year college or veterinarian degree, just certification and on-the-job training. There are more ways to work in agriculture than ever before — if only more students, parents, and school guidance counselors knew about them.

Inspiring more science and engineering-loving kids to take a greater interest in agriculture is crucial for ensuring that America will be able to safely and sustainably produce the food we depend on. It will also power the next wave of technological innovation in the agriculture industry, where creative problem-solving helps make life better for animals, people, and the environment.

As a fourth-generation dairy farmer myself, I am excited about the future of American farming and the role that STEM is actively playing in making that future possible. By doing all we can to introduce more children to the joys of agriculture and the wonders of science, perhaps we can develop a new and more accurate storybook vision of what’s possible when nature and technology work together.

(Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Friends of Agriculture Foundation.)

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