Jan 22, 2012

Be Ready When you Use the Term "Useless" to Describe Ag Majors

I was surprised last week to see my email and Twitter tweets begin to light up about an article by a blogger for Yahoo who had posted the story titled: College Majors That Are Useless.

The author, Terence Loose, pointed to data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers' (NACE) 2012 Job Outlook study and other sources in his final analysis that purported that Agriculture, Animal Science, and Horticulture were among the five college majors to avoid if you were looking for a post-degree job.

I wondered how long it would take for the passionate people and agricultural advocates who I follow on Twitter to begin to respond and rebut.  Many are students or are connected through their careers and activities to food and agriculture in various ways.

Not more than two hours after the story had been tweeted, I was at a meeting in our college and found that our Undergraduate Programs office at the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was “all over” the story.  The following morning, I was sent a link to a well-written response appearing in the Huffington Post from my former colleague, friend, and Dean Allen Levine of the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.  Thanks Dr. Levine!  From Friday through Sunday morning, I followed the rebuttals, posts, and other writing from about 13 or 14 other sources (see end of this article).

All who took the time to speak up and speak out did a great job of presenting information, stories, and personal testimonials to show that opportunities in agriculture, food, energy, the environment, and connected fields are rich with opportunity now and in the future.  Work at Purdue with USDA and described in one of the tweets actually shows that we will have shortages of qualified people in the future to work in these important areas of science that touch us all.  This matches my experiences as a long-time agricultural faculty member and administrator where we find that the different industries and businesses which serve our ag and food sectors to be hungry for top-notch grads who end up in great jobs making very good money – often with opportunities to travel extensively throughout the world and work on a wide range of exciting projects.

When I first read the Yahoo piece, I immediately regressed back to my teen years in the 1970s.  I remember that when someone would diss agriculture or farming, my Dad would say “Don’t say that with your mouth full.”  In thinking about writing this piece, I thought maybe I’d try not to go there…But, I couldn’t help but imagine that the blogger who wrote this somehow finished up his article, folded up his laptop, said goodbye to Starbucks and headed off to catch up with his friends for a beer (barley from Wisconsin and hops from Washington) and pizza (tomatoes from California, pork from Iowa, wheat from both Kansas and North Dakota, mushrooms from Pennsylvania, corn meal from Minnesota, cheese from Wisconsin, and olive oil from western Europe).  Perhaps I am wrong. I'm guessing that my perceptions and pre-conceived notions are probably not correct.  But, I will throw out the friendly invitation to have Mr. Loose come visit us in Wisconsin and we’ll show him some pretty cool stuff. 

So – several of us have made the food argument; the positive job outlook points; and, we’ve expressed our feelings about our personal and professionals passions for agriculture.  Let me try to add just a couple more points.  Then, at the end of this post, I will include the links that I collected from Twitter, emails, etc. over the last couple days. It will be fun to watch and see what others say.

Agriculture, Food, and World Peace

We all eat.  Everyone in the world.  Our world population is growing fast.  A recent report by 12 of the Land Grant universities in the Midwest documented that in the next 18 years, world population will grow from 7.0 billion in 2010 to 9.3 billion (by 2030). How big is an increase of 2.3 billion?  It’s like doubling the current population of China and India, all in less than two decades.  Further, we’ve seen developing areas of the world become relatively more affluent and active in the global economy. As the world becomes more able to provide basic necessities because of growing levels of economic activity in places like China, so to do their demands grow for protein in food products like milk, meat, cheese, eggs, etc. 

Bottom line…Even though world population will grow by 33% (from 7.0 billion to 9.3 billion), total food needs are likely to double.  All this will happen at the same time that available land is shrinking.  In the 1990s, we had 0.81 acres to feed each person on the globe.  By 2050, that number will be cut in half.  So – we double production with half the land.  Mr. Loose, I’m afraid we’re going to need agricultural science people (including people doing work with animals and horticultural crops), or we’re in for a tough slog.

Further, we know from periods throughout history that when food resources are threatened, instability increases. There are more wars and conflict during times of hunger. Entire civilizations change, often in negative ways!  Having a dependable, nutritious, safe supply of food is vital to world peace.  Children who we will expect to do well in school and grow their local and regional economies to solve new challenges and provide leadership in the coming years  – whether they’re in Utah, Uzbekistan, or Uganda will need to be well-nourished if we expect them do well in school.  And, we need an educated global citizenry whether those young people are working in agriculture, designing our next energy-efficient transportation system (which will include agriculturally-sourced biofuels), or writing blog posts for Yahoo. Our future and agriculture is intimately connected.

Energy, Climate Change, and Other Environmental Challenges

On the issue of world peace, we’ve seen how a dependence on non-renewable, petroleum-based fuels adds to the complexity, instability, and fragile nature of world peace.  Throughout the world, billions of dollars are going into the science and discovery associated with the new generations of biofuels, biogases, and other renewable energy sources that will fuel tomorrow’s transportation system and the power grid.  Green plants do a miraculous job of harvesting “solar energy” and current agricultural science (and agriculture graduates) are making great advancements in figuring out how we can unlock that energy in ways that will help wean us from other energy sources. 

In addition to the “foreign energy dependence” driver for agricultural energy advancements, this science is also being influenced by our need to figure out and perhaps mitigate, respond to, or slow down climate change.  Producing food and other forms of energy involves complex biological and physical cycles and relationships connected to carbon, water, and other substances that both bless and challenge us in many ways.  People studying agriculture and related biosciences and pursuing degrees in fields like horticulture and animal science study all of these critical processes.

On the issue of water, we know that producing food and renewable energy is a water-intensive process.  Growing plants need nutrients that are carried by water (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and a range of other substances).  These nutrients must be present at the right time, in the right place, and in appropriate amounts.  Too much at the wrong time (or in the wrong place) can result in adverse impacts on ground and surface waters (pollution and waste).  Crops that are rapidly growing to produce seeds, fruit, and biomass consume and transpire lots of water.  Similar to nutrients, water must be applied at the right time, in the right place, and in the correct amounts. Crop “selection” and production practices must be carefully matched to the resources that are available to insure the long term sustainability of our precious water resources.  All of this takes the cooperation of the farmer along with soil scientists, engineers, horticulturalists, and agronomists.

Economic Development

One of the blogs cited in response to the original Yahoo blog post indicated that California produces $33 billion in direct revenue from agricultural products.  But, there’s a bigger story to tell.  In the state of Wisconsin, we know that our agricultural and directly connected food sectors contribute about $60 billion to the state’s economy through direct sales and production and the indirect and induced impacts as value is added to raw products and as dollars ripple throughout both rural and urban economies.  (so, the number in California is actually MUCH bigger when one considers all of the interconnected ripple effects that agriculture has on a state’s economy) Those who work in agriculture and food in Wisconsin make up about 10% of the total workforce.   

During the economic downturn from 2007-2010, while much of Wisconsin’s economy (including housing, manufacturing, and finance) was mired in the mud, the agricultural and food sectors actually prospered because of growing demands for agricultural products for both food and fuel uses.  Nationally, while fewer than two million people are actually involved in “farming,” there are more than 20 million who work in connected industries such as agricultural scientists, input suppliers, processors, and the many who work in connected and supporting food-related industries.   

(Note: there are growing concerns that there will be a bit of a near-term slowdown in the ag/food sectors in the next several months, particularly as a result of the economic slowdown in both Europe and Asia.  See recent video segment on this issue: http://www.iptv.org/mtom/episode.cfm/3721/video .  But, the bigger and longer term needs in agriculture over the next couple decades point to a continued bright future).

The Opportunity to Tell the Story

I was chatting with a couple of colleagues last Friday night who were bemoaning having had to spend several hours during the week responding, rebutting, and doing “damage control” after the Yahoo blog post had generated some angst for those who work in agriculture.  It was probably a tempest in a teapot. 

But, I actually think it presents a GREAT opportunity for agriculture to tell its story. Actually…we have of thousands of stories to tell!  I think that Mr. Loose did a good thing by rallying those who are passionate.  We now have a great medium in places like Twitter and Facebook to tell the story that we need to be telling every day.  Mr. Loose’s feelings and opinions are not unique.  In fact, my guess is that the majority of our population would have very similar perceptions.

Keep telling the story.  Keep engaging.  Keep the passion and the enthusiasm.  Find ways, times, and places to get others to touch, see, hear, and experience the glory of our agricultural and food system.   

Mr. Terrence Loose – the invitation is out.  Come see us.  We’ll make sure your visit includes Babcock Ice Cream and Cheese, New Glarus Beer, a visit to our Dane County Farmers’ Market, and an opportunity to meet some really cool and important people.  The ones who will be graduating in agriculture in the next few years and insuring our future!

-John Shutske (shutske@wisc.edu)
  Extension Program Leader and Associate Dean

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