University of Tennessee senior Evan Betterton was invited to Ohio in January for a final job interview with an energy company – an opportunity open to him in large part thanks to the academic path he chose in the college’s agriculture department.
Betterton graduated in spring 2014 with a major in natural resource and environmental economics and a minor in watershed management.
“I’ve always had an interest in natural resource management – where we get our energy, how it’s processed and sold and how we manage our water supply,” Betterton says. “I knew I could earn a business or economics degree and then apply it to those areas, but I wanted a more specific path for going into the field, and the College of Agriculture provided that.”
Betterton didn’t grow up on a farm. He’s an example of the growing number of students choosing majors from college and university ag departments as a means to qualify for jobs in energy, science, the environment, sustainability and, yes, food production.
Kemia Amin, 22, grew up just outside of Knoxville – in a residential area, not on a farm. She always had an interest in food science.
“I wasn’t really looking at agriculture,” she says. “Like most people, I generally thought of agriculture as cows and plows, not food science.”
Students like Amin and Betterton are filling agriculture classes across Tennessee and the nation for two primary reasons: job opportunities and the chance to make a difference in the world.
“I think the number one reason we’re seeing more students choose careers in agriculture is because this generation wants to be of value,” says Julius Johnson, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and a member of the Tennessee Board of Regents and the UT Board of Trustees. “Students today want their careers to be life-satisfying, and they want to make a tangible difference in the world. We’ve got to double the world’s food production by 2050 to feed the growing population. That goal creates a lot of opportunity.”
That desire to make a difference drove both Amin and Betterton toward agriculture.
“There will always be a need for reliable and affordable energy and water, and I want to figure out how to be a part of that and make it better for everyone,” Betterton says.
“Food science is a way for me to do something meaningful,” Amin says. “I’m interested in helping address foodborne illnesses and malnutrition. I think it’s important that we figure out a way to help children who don’t have access to fresh food and clean water. I definitely want my career to have an impact, and because of my education, that’s a real option for me.”
Nationally, undergraduate enrollment in agricultural colleges and departments rose 20 percent from 2006 to 2011, according to a study compiled at Virginia Tech.
At Tennessee Tech University, enrollment in ag programs rose almost 27 percent from 2008-2013, and that same trend has been seen across the state at Tennessee State University; the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; Middle Tennessee State University; Austin Peay State University; and the University of Tennessee, Martin.
“Agriculture programs have increased in enrollment by 25 percent in the last five years,” says Caula Beyl, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources at the University of Tennessee. “The job opportunities are out there in agriculture, so much so that we now have many of the big ag companies being proactive and recruiting our students before graduation. We’ve had a recent instance of a student in food science being hired prior to graduation for a salary of $70,000.”
An initiative that may push ag program enrollment even higher is Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Drive to 55” effort. The goal is to increase the percentage of Tennesseans with college degrees or certificates from the current 32 percent to 55 percent by the year 2025. “To achieve that goal, we have to reach out to students from our rural areas,” Johnson says. “Agriculture offers us that opportunity, and students don’t have to want to run a farm. They can pursue careers in research, the environment, science and even international exports. Agriculture really offers an entry into almost any career.”
Johnson said Tennessee’s colleges, universities, technical schools and community colleges are in a strong position to attract and educate students interested in careers in agriculture.
“Agribusiness, ag engineering and animal science are our top-drawing categories, but students are looking for innovation. They may enroll in the animal science program, but then they add concentrations in plant science and even agritourism,” says Dr. Billye Foster, professor and director of Tennessee Tech University’s School of Agriculture.
“That’s sort of the beauty of an ag education,” Foster says. “There is no major world issue today that does not connect with agriculture. From world hunger to the environment to our natural resources, agriculture is the common thread. Our students come to us looking both for the security and stability of a career in agriculture and for innovation and the opportunity to have an impact. An ag education provides all of that.”