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Sustainable agriculture industry feeds growing job market

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​Editor's note: This is an excerpt from an article in the December/January edition of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Given today’s always-on information economy, few professional tracks are as consistently overlooked as agriculture.

Decades of mechanization, industrialization and consolidation have reduced the number of people employed in farming from 16 percent of the total U.S. workforce in 1945 to less than 2 percent in 2000.

Those who do opt to pursue agriculture in higher education historically are more apt to attend land grant universities than community colleges. But, as the U.S. farming and agricultural industry undergoes a technological and cultural revolution of its own, community colleges—with advanced programs in horticulture, turf management, landscaping and other areas—stand to play an increasingly vital role in training the next crop of agricultural professionals.

Evolving job market

In many parts of America, agriculture has found itself reframed amid a larger economic cluster commonly known as “food systems.” Recent changes in consumer demand for food, food experience, food security, eating habits and lifestyles, plus renewed interest in corn and other crops as viable sources of alternative energy, have opened the door to a host of economic and agricultural career opportunities, many of which require an entirely different skill set than those required to produce and harvest conventional crops and livestock for commodity markets.

Amid these changes has emerged a new generation of agricultural professionals, many of them young people, undaunted by the admonitions of former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz and others to “get big or get out” of the farming business.

These progressive thinkers have new ideas about the economics of growing, packaging and marketing high-profit specialty and artisanal items such as bok choy, Russian red kale, Osaka purple mustard, soy milk and hontsaita. Many of them would rather raise llamas and cultivate local organic gardens than produce acres of soybeans to sell as commodities. And they are turning to community colleges to provide them with the skills to make a living doing it.

Role of community colleges

Changes in food-based education are already under way. Many community colleges are integrating sustainability and diversification into existing agricultural programs. And a growing number of colleges are starting or planning new programs. Many of these colleges are members of the Alliance for Sustainability, a network of community colleges dedicated to sustainable rural development funded by the Ford Foundation.

A few examples:

Room for growth

Few community colleges offer degree programs, however, and most are linked to agribusiness programs that boast proven career paths and employment demand. Dozens of available courses cover a wide swath of conventional agricultural operations, but the majority of those courses have not yet caught up to the specialized demand inherent in niche farming markets, including organic products, herbs and herbicides, nutraceuticals and biofuels, to name a few.

Food and Agricultural Education Information System data indicate that in 2009, 4,700 associate degrees were awarded in agriculture-related fields, including two- and four-year institutions, with an estimated 3,900 awarded at community colleges. But degrees are only one indicator of the economic value of agricultural education programs. Many of these same types of courses often attract students who already have college degrees and enroll instead to acquire specialized training.

Rosenfeld is a senior research associate with the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York and a workforce and commerce consultant.

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