A searing drought has zapped the breadbasket of American agriculture in the Midwest, but agricultural colleges are blossoming like never before.
Students are flocking to farming courses, driven by the abundance of available jobs in related fields—a reality that is in sharp contrast to the one facing city kids who are finding employment opportunities scarce in a recession-ravaged economy, college officials said.
Wendy Wintersteen, dean of Iowa State University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said her school has seen a "simply incredible" 30 percent jump in undergraduate enrollment from 2006 to 2010.
Iowa State University's College of Agriculture enlisted 3,584 undergraduate students in the fall of 2011. This fall, Wintersteen said the college expects to break its all-time enrollment record of 3,623 set 35 years ago in 1977.
Farming is a go-to career for a state with a strong tradition of family farms, where the average operation can easily span several generations. In Iowa, a recent survey showed that 94 percent of high school students involved in the Future Farmers of America (FFA) want to pursue an agriculture-related career, up from 77 percent in 2005. "Young people like these have a positive outlook about agriculture," said Wintersteen.
Women students comprise nearly 48 percent of ISU agriculture enrolment, a rising trend noted since the 1970s. Part of the appeal stems from the broad range of disciplines that agriculture offers, said Wintersteen, "from farm to table, from environment to entrepreneurship, from science to communication."
"Students who choose this career path are passionate about farming and entrepreneurial in their thinking no matter if the farm is a large or small operation," she explained.
Wintersteen revealed that not a few graduating students would declare their plans to join a family farm operation. About 72 percent of new ISU graduates begin their careers by doing just that.
"Our college has a Beginning Farmer Center that helps smooth the transition," she said. The center discusses not just the mechanics of running an operation but also emotional topics, such as succession and conflict resolution.
Despite the challenging job market, agriculture continues to have a strong placement rate of 98 percent or better for new graduates, she said. "Our annual agricultural fair, which is the largest in the nation, is always crowded. Employers realize they must compete to hire our students."
Classes at ISU focus on everything from efficient and effective stewardship of natural resources to food security to food safety, as well as a variety of other courses spread out across two dozen majors. Research, problem-solving and decision-making skills are part of the course foundation and are invaluable to any student who decides to join an existing farming operation or start a new business, said Wintersteen.
In Illinois, where about 20 percent of the population is involved in agriculture in some way, the discipline offers a variety of opportunities, said Rob Rhykerd, chairman of Illinois State University's College of Agriculture. Many of the graduates do not go directly into farming, but work in related fields such as sales, marketing or research. Amid the trend, agriculture remains a "coveted" career and a very diverse field, "no pun intended."
"There are more jobs in agriculture now than there are graduates," Rhykerd said. "We are attracting students from allied fields like business and biology to backfill unfilled positions."
Enrollment at Illinois State University's College of Agriculture—although still relatively small at 136 students—has steadily increased in the last 10 years. The department has 64 percent male students versus 36 percent female, although the mix varies depending on courses. Male students are drawn to courses in agribusiness and agriculture industry management, while women are likely to major in agricultural education, communications and leadership, said Rhykerd.
The officials stressed the role of education in preparing young Americans to meet 21st century challenges to food security, the environment and economic development. Said Wintersteen, "Agriculture is about life and a key to making life better."