Major Changes: The New Boom in Ag Education

A special report: Colleges of agriculture are reporting record admissions numbers across the U.S. and Canada. We sat down with a group of students and recent graduates to get their take.

By Claire Vath | Photos By Art Meripol

Gracie, who slinks among students under the lab tables in a vet tech class, peeks out into the hall, with her owner Emily Breitkeitz.

Gracie, who slinks among students under the lab tables in a vet tech class, peeks out into the hall, with her owner Emily Breitkeitz.

It is early, and the yolk-colored light is breaking over the spartan brick buildings in Murray, Ky. Things look decidedly hopeful as students stride across the dew-laced grass of campus. Murray State University’s Hutson School of Agriculture teems with activity.

In the equestrian center, horses are saddled for class. At the school’s Pullen Farm, students huddle around a greenhouse table, studying plant propagation. In a vet tech class, cats in varying stages of anesthesia offer up stray meows as class members monitor blood pressure.

MSU’s Hutson School of Agriculture, like so many North American ag schools, appears about to burst at the seams. In a reversal from just a decade ago, agriculture is “in” and its future bright. Enrollment in colleges of agriculture in both the U.S. and Canada has experienced healthy upswings. Individual institutions, including MSU, are reporting record numbers.

Most of it boils down to “jobs, jobs, jobs,” says MSU Hutson School of Agriculture dean Dr. Tony Brannon of increased interest in agriculture among a new crop of students. “There are lots of expanded job opportunities in fields relatively new to agriculture, such as Tony Brannon, veterinary technology and precision agriculture.” Coupled with a retiring workforce and an expanding market that includes positions for non-rural youth, Brannon believes this created “the perfect storm leading to increased enrollment in many sectors of agriculture. I also think modern students realize there is as much respect for agriculture now as there is in being a doctor, lawyer, etc.,” he adds.

Because they offer a glimpse at agriculture’s future, we sat down with a group of Murray State’s agriculture students to better understand what motivates, concerns and appeals to them about their chosen academic discipline and the profession for which they’re preparing. We did the same with a group of MSU graduates, who offered additional perspective, colored by a few years of hands-on work experience.

The following is a snapshot of the conversations with those current and former students, offering a wealth of knowledge, budding experience and plenty of opinions.

The Recent Graduates

Joe Ben Bogle, Jacob Falwell, Kelly Brannon, Dr. Brandon Wilson, Alexander Young, Allen Besand.

Joe Ben Bogle, Jacob Falwell, Kelly Brannon, Dr. Brandon Wilson, Alexander Young, Allen Besand.

Need for Technology. “Most of our grandparents can say they were on a farm or lived very close to one,” says Joe Ben Bogle. “Fewer of our parents can say that; few of us can say that; and fewer are actually involved in production agriculture.”

Bogle, a 2003 MSU graduate and currently support manager at Ag Connections, a Murray-based software company, believes technology is the way to reach across the proverbial fence that divides farm and non-farm sectors. “As we continue the trend of fewer farmers farming the same number of acres—basically just getting fewer and bigger—technology has the ability to connect those who aren’t on the farm to those who are.”

So, he continues, “even though we have fewer people farming, we’ll have more tools than ever to get our message across and to connect back, whether it’s around food safety [or] traceability of knowing where your food came from—not just the country of origin, but who actually grew that strawberry you’re eating.”

Out of the Comfort Zone. It was Allen Besand’s parents who pushed him to step beyond the confines of the family farm. “Until I started getting work experience through internships, et cetera, I felt sheltered, as a child growing up and even at Murray State,” he says.

Besand began his professional career at AGCO, returned to MSU for a master’s, and currently works for another large agribusiness. He expresses awe at all the things he’s come across outside the comfortable sphere of home and college. “It’s more than just what you see on the farm,” he says.

“In my professional life today, I’m still surprised when we come across a new market or a new crop, or something we haven’t learned about before,” Besand adds. “I’m just really fascinated to learn how things are done outside my little sphere of west Kentucky.”

Hiring Practices. “I think any student looking at colleges should consider job placement after they graduate,” advises Dr. Brandon Wilson.

Wilson brings to the agriculture table several viewpoints—both from an academic standpoint and a professional slant. His current role involves the agronomy and IT solutions side of his father-in-law’s 11,500-acre operation. And as someone who’s had a hand in hiring decisions, Wilson says he believes the degree is important but work experience backing up that education is imperative.

“If students can complement their degree with real-world events such as an internship, school activities or other work related experiences, this may indicate potential for achieving success in future career endeavors,” he says.

“Based upon my experience,” Wilson adds, “students who sought employment that possessed previous work experience performed in such a manner that exhibited self-motivation, eagerness to succeed, and an overall pleasant disposition while at work.”

Selling Worth. Alexander Young’s father was careful his children didn’t feel pressured to farm. “He wanted me to choose my own career,” says Young, whose family has been farming in Kentucky since before the Civil War. “He did encourage my bent toward IT, because he saw the impact digital technology was about to have on our farm.”

And the pull of agriculture proved strong for Young. After the 2004 MSU graduate got his master’s at UT-Knoxville, he began farming full time. A position for which, Young quips: “I interviewed myself and got the job.”

He elaborates: “Even in production agriculture, you may not have to interview for a specific job with an employer, but you’ve got to interview with those who hold the resources you need—whether it’s a landowner, etc.—you’ve got to prove yourself competent to manage their land for them and produce food on those acres. So there is an inter-view process, and it lasts even longer than an initial job interview.”

It may be tough to constantly sell his skills as a farmer, but production agriculture has afforded Young the balance he craves. “I came back not for the paycheck; I wanted my family to be happy,” he offers. “I wanted my family to be healthy, and because of my faith in God, and the future (that) is in His hands, I’m very optimistic about what’s coming.”

Ag = Industry and Jobs. “Remember a few years ago when Yahoo! ranked ag as one of the most useless degrees, and then the year after it was ranked one of the best?” asks Kelly Brannon, to vigorous nods from her peers. She’s referring to a 2012 Yahoo! study ranking agriculture as the No. 1 most useless degree upon graduation (see the report and read more about it here).

“Look at all food has to go through from the field to get to your table,” says Brannon. “All of that is agriculture and just having people’s mindset change and opening their eyes to that, I think, has really changed the whole opinion about ag.”

Brannon had no issues securing a post-college job. Armed with a resume of solid internships, she accepted a position with Cargill after majoring in agricultural economics at MSU and receiving a master’s from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Yet, six continuous months of living in a hotel quickly burned her out. Now, she’s found a home back in Murray, working for Ag Connections.

As for that hotly contested Yahoo! report, “I know it’s completely subjective,” she offers, “but I just think people are opening their eyes. Look at Monsanto, Syngenta, Cargill, ADM,” she says, rattling off big-name ag businesses. “They hire so many people, and they’re ag companies.”

So, she concludes, “instead of thinking ag equals farming, those corporations are looking at it and saying ag equals industry, ag equals jobs, ag equals a future.”

Advising Students. When Jacob Falwell graduated from MSU, he didn’t go far. Just across the road, actually, as the ag education teacher for a local high school.

When it came to picking a major in college, Falwell admits he didn’t give it much thought. “I don’t remember deciding to major in ag; I just did. I don’t remember my parents telling me I needed to go to college or pick a certain major; I just did. So now as a teacher, I’m supposed to give career guidance to kids and I’m thinking, ‘I just did it,’” he says to laughter from his fellow panelists.

Though raised on the farm on which he still owns a small stake, Falwell chose ag education as his career path because “it was the next best thing,” he says. “At the time, entry into production agriculture wasn’t an option for me.”

Teaching turned out to be the right course for Falwell. “I get paid whether it rains or not!” he says, adding: “The opportunity to see young people interested in this industry and working to instill a love for agriculture into their lives is truly enjoyable.”

And Falwell is decidedly more thoughtful when asked what advice he’d give his own students about choosing a vocation: “Decide that you’re willing to work hard, put the time in and succeed,” he says. “Ag is an ever-changing field, so a new employee needs to be adaptable. But the old skills of timelines, hard work and honesty will never be replaced.”

The Current Students

Matt Papineau, Memry Stoll, Jay Middleton, Samantha Anderson, Luke King, Jeremiah Johnson.

Matt Papineau, Memry Stoll, Jay Middleton, Samantha Anderson, Luke King, Jeremiah Johnson.

Giving Back to Agriculture. When Samantha Anderson off-handedly describes the way people see farmers—button-down plaid shirt, jeans and boots—all the students turn to Luke King and laugh. He’s dressed the part today.

But when he begins to speak, his manner of dress takes a back seat and one is left with a thoughtful dialogue on the reach of agriculture. “It’s the backbone of this nation,” he says simply. “It affects every individual on the planet.”

King, double majoring in ag business and political science, sees agriculture as a calling, not simply a major—something he hopes others see, too. “If individuals outside the ag sector come to view those on the inside as being of a high caliber and someone that demands respect … then we will see steadily increasing enrollment numbers, as well as increases in student abilities and caliber.”

King also sees the primary role of colleges of agriculture as developing programs that “will ensure our students are ranked top in the nation,” not necessarily through test scores, he says, “but by job readiness and the ability to function as a valuable member of this great nation.” These qualities will attract and retain enrollment numbers, he believes.

As for himself, “If I can positively impact the agriculture industry,” he says, “then I can—indirectly—positively impact all those who benefit from it.”

What the Ag Industry Needs. People often equate a degree in agriculture as “some guy with a cowboy hat, on the back of a horse, rounding up cattle,” says 22-year-old ag economics graduate student Samantha Anderson.

But Anderson says these days, that’s entirely too narrow a view. What’s needed in the ag field, she says, are students interested in science, technology and engineering. “Ag reaches out so far now, and that is what’s going to make it more interesting to kids who don’t come from farm backgrounds … or kids that do,” says Anderson.

As the seventh generation on her family’s tobacco farm, she advises parents not to put too much pressure on their children to go into agriculture. “When you’re 16 years old and your parents tell you to do something, you’re going to do the exact opposite,” she smiles. “I think the greatest way to get kids back to the farm is giving them a choice.”

Fresh Perspective. Memry Stoll walked into her first animal science class and thought she’d made a mistake. “I was completely lost,” she says. Agriculture was foreign to the Massac County, Ill., native, who was raised in the suburbs. A self-professed tomboy, Stoll—somewhat sheepishly—says she initially chose ag business as her major because she was attracted to the country way of life.

“Little did I know, this life wasn’t just about wearing cowboy hats, not being afraid to get dirty or riding 4-wheelers. I soon realized agriculture was much more than that and much, much more important. After that, I was sold.”

Now a senior, Stoll has had plenty of time to get her hands dirty—both in the classroom and through internships. And while she quickly found her footing in the Hutson School of Agriculture, Stoll appreciates the value of coming to agriculture from a clean slate. “It’s nice sometimes to be the only one who doesn’t have an ag background,” she says, “because I don’t have a bias about anything.”

Ag is Everywhere. “Anywhere you go, agriculture is there,” Jeremiah Johnson states unequivocally.

ROLL CALL: Click for a look at the jump in ag school enrollment numbers.

ROLL CALL: Click for a look at the jump in ag school enrollment numbers.

A summer internship with the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension youth development division proved his point. Johnson had the opportunity to work with youth at a military base—kids who didn’t have much, if any, agricultural experience.

“It was fun exposing them to the agriculture side of things they could do on the base, whether it’s vertical farming or … outside-the-box agriculture techniques,” he says. “It allowed us to take modern practices in ag and establish them in more of a city setting.”

Upon graduation, Johnson plans to continue working with youth, helping to provide real-world ag applications, because, he asks, “How would society function if there was no agriculture or ag education?”

Problem-Solving in Agriculture. “The cure to most of our problems in agriculture could be sitting right in front of us,” says Jay Middleton. It’s a heavy thought, and one of the many reasons the agronomy senior believes it’s important to point people toward an ag education.

“We just have to push them in the right direction, so we can get those thinkers and get them involved, and get them working,” he says, “and maybe way on down the road work with some ag policy as well, to help make sure agriculture is being looked out for.

“A lot of times ag is put on the back burner,” he concedes, “but you can’t go a day without it.”

Raised on his family’s farm, Middleton has never gone a day without agriculture. He got his first cow more than a decade ago, and now, he says, “I have as many cows as my dad; that expands my interest in agriculture.

“I’ve placed pressure on myself,” he says. “I want to expand the family farm and … maintain what my father, grandfather, great-grandfather started and built up for 60, 70 years.”

Influences. Twenty-year-old Matt Papineau began his college career in occupational safety, but quickly realized he belonged in agriculture. “My passion lay with agriculture,” he explains, “but I wanted something with for-sure placement when I graduated.”

It didn’t take long for him to switch his major to animal science. “The more I’ve been in the school of ag, the more I’ve seen it didn’t ever matter where I was going to be; I would always have a job somewhere within agriculture.”

Since October 2012, Papineau has gained work experience as the swine unit student manager. “I’ve been out there just maintaining the farm, but I’m also getting experience with the marketing and further experience in the show pig side of what we’re doing at Murray State,” he says.

As for the future, “I hope to be able to impact Kentucky’s youth through my experience,” Papineau relates. “I have seen the impact as well as the responsibilities needed to become a successful leader in the industry. It is my dream to make a difference in the life of a young person to positively impact and develop them into the next generation of agriculturalist.”