As each new generation becomes further removed from the family farm, agriculture education plays a vital role in bridging that knowledge gap and securing the industry’s future in Tennessee.
Bridging The Knowledge Gap
“A recent USDA study showed that we’re only graduating from universities 50 percent of the need to supply the workforce for the ag industry,” says Julius Johnson, commissioner, Tennessee Department of Agriculture. “The remaining jobs that are out there that typically require degrees and backgrounds in agriculture are going to graduates with degrees in biology and other sciences. So we need more agriculture graduates to fill those jobs in the ag industry.”
Fortunately for Tennessee students, Gov. Bill Haslam’s Tennessee Promise – a program that guarantees paid tuition for any student attending a state community or technical college – will enable more high school graduates to pursue careers in agriculture.
“The Tennessee Promise is a major game changer as far as assisting agriculture families or anyone wanting to go into the agriculture industry to get the education they need,” Johnson says. “The new high-tech world requires new skills for farm workers. Our tractors are equipped with computer technologies and joysticks, keyboards and other high-tech devices.”
Mike Krause, executive director of Drive to 55/Tennessee Promise, says the state’s colleges and universities are especially equipped to train students for current jobs as well as the jobs of the future. Tennessee boasts six colleges and universities with agriculture programs, and the Tennessee Promise pathways program offers direct transfer options from community college to a four-year university in three agriculture-related subject areas – ag business, animal science, and plant and soil science.
“Agriculture is not what it once was. There are so many instances where we need people who are both technologically savvy and agriculturally savvy,” Krause says. “The problem is that in agriculture, like so many other fields, we just don’t have enough kids going to college. Right now, out of a graduating class of high school students, only 57 percent go to college. I’ve heard specifically from industry leaders about the need for students who know how to fix things, but you don’t get that with a high school diploma anymore. They have to have some postsecondary training.”
Johnson agrees, but adds that the common misconception that a career in agriculture means life on a farm keeps some students from pursuing agriculture in college and beyond.
“There are fewer farmers today, but the ag industry is massive and about much more than the production on the farm. There are jobs that service and support the industry, such as sales and marketing of agriculture products or research into better practices for agriculture products,” Johnson says.
Reaping The Rewards Of Ag Education
Johnson says there are emerging sub-industries, such as food safety and agriculture technology, that will play an important role in the future of agriculture.
“We need to make sure that we are producing our products in a very safe way. Food safety careers, such as being able to identify problems in agriculture and recommend best practices for dealing with those issues, are hugely important,” he says. “Precision agriculture using computer technology is another area we need to focus on. Using these smart technologies, we can develop more efficient ways of producing the food and fiber we need. It’s also important we understand the science and chemistry involved in the various technologies that will become available.”
Heather Hill, precision ag coordinator for H&R Agri-Power, a farm equipment dealership, says hiring employees with a strong agriculture background is critical to the success of her company and others like it. Because of that, H&R Agri-Power regularly hires high school and college interns, sponsors a technician education program, and offers tuition reimbursement to qualifying students attending certain accredited diesel technology programs such as Lincoln College of Technology (formerly Nashville Auto Diesel College).
“My department had a summer intern who was learning the ropes of precision agriculture this year,” Hill says. “I, myself, interned for New Holland USA. That experience was priceless. It’s experience you really can’t learn in the classroom. It’s hands-on knowledge – learning about how the business is run and what it takes to get that machinery in the hands of your customer.”