The agriculture industry in Tennessee is growing in more ways than one. The state ranks eighth in the nation for total number of farms, and it produces everything from fresh-market tomatoes to corn and soybeans. But there’s also a need to “grow” more of the people who make all this happen: those who work hard to keep Tennessee in the top tier of agriculture production. With the job of farming becoming more complex and technology-reliant than ever before, skilled ag workers are in high demand throughout the state.
Gov. Bill Lee has made access to education a top priority. Now, future farmers and ag-sector workers are seeking out programs like Tennessee Promise, which helps Tennesseans attend junior colleges and trade schools tuition-free, as well as the Tennessee Reconnect grant program, which is designed for adults going back to school. Additionally, Tennessee State University and the University of Tennessee both have beginning farmer programs for first-generation farmers.
Farming Operations Technology
Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) at Crump President Stephen Milligan says new cooperative efforts have strengthened the college’s offerings. “We’re starting a brand-new program with 10 area high schools to offer dual enrollment, which will allow students to finish high school while taking classes in our farming operations technology program,” he says. Through the Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education (GIVE) grants, TCAT will be purchasing classroom simulators. And through the college’s strong ag partnerships, students will be able to get hands-on time in the field, right in their communities.
“Whether we’re talking to crop producers, livestock farmers or those representing ag businesses, everyone is suffering from a shortage of workers with ag skills and knowledge,” TCAT instructor Brent Cherry says. “That’s what led us to create the program.”
Matthew McBride is a full-time farmer with a 500-acre, 250-head cattle operation in Beechgrove. He and his wife, Amanda, work the farm with his parents. “My significant experience in ag was through hands-on opportunities in 4-H and FFA,” he recalls. “I loved working hard and testing myself in the competitive environment of the show ring. Now I’m helping our daughters do the same thing.” He hopes that the new focus on ag education will allow for better bridges between the education system and careers. “In my senior year of high school, I was able to leave school early and spend time working on a large farm,” he says. “We need more farmers and school systems working together to allow young people, who may have zero experience, to come onto their farms.”
See more: Ag Tag Boosts Ag Education in Tennessee
Educational Youth Programs
Charlie Hancock, who farms 1,250 acres of diverse crops in Bumpus Mills, shares McBride’s appreciation for the educational opportunities he received through youth organizations. “I came up through 4-H and FFA, and those groups gave a shy young country boy the courage to become a better businessman and spokesman,” says Hancock, who started farming right out of high school 39 years ago. “Although I didn’t get to go to college, and I do regret that, I was able to receive an education through those organizations. It might take a little longer, but it can happen if you apply yourself.”
Farmers like Hancock and McBride are proof that education is critical to their farms’ success. “It’s only through education that we can help our farms be more efficient and profitable,” Hancock says.