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Are enough high schools valuing ag as a viable profession?


Imagine a high school student sitting and pondering the future beyond the small town in which he or she lives. Students are often asked the questions: What do you want to be? Where do you want to go from here? They’re told that they need to have a good education to be able to make it in life. Don’t become a loser, a dependent on the system. If they don’t go to college, they will be in dead-end jobs, with no money, and barely scraping by. That’s the theme some leaders within our school systems and communities are telling kids.

Be something, somewhere else. Get out of here. Get a real job.

That’s what I was told when I was young. It made me feel lost, scared, and confused. What if we want to travel or go to vocational-technical to specialize in welding, mechanics, or technology? What about hands-on training? No. They don’t suggest that or even encourage it.

What about agriculture?

When choosing a career as a farmer or somewhere in the agriculture industry, it’s too often looked down upon as not a real job — one that won’t get you anywhere. I’ve heard it many times among farmers themselves toward their own children. But why? Is what we do so severe that we want to spare our children hardships, even though it can be so rewarding?

There’s value in this profession.

What is our end result in sending our children away to never return to the ag community? Our small towns are becoming smaller. Farmers’ average age continues to climb ever closer to “normal” retirement age. We need young minds and bodies to come back, to not only fill empty seats but also be more proactive in the advancements within our industry. They may not be farmers, but they can be in ag technologies, diesel mechanics, welders, agronomists, and more. We need these seats filled just as much as farming positions.

In our nation, less than 2 percent of the population is farming. We are growing more with less, but with a workforce shortage as well.

According to the USDA and Purdue University, there are nearly 50,000 jobs to have with agriculture, food, and natural resources every year, yet only 35,000 graduates with ag-related degrees fill them. Is this due to lack of interest in this field? Or is it lack of knowledge that these careers are out there?

This fall 20.4 million high school graduates are attending colleges and universities, it’s an increase of 5.1 million since the year 2000. Financially these students are paying significantly more than their counterparts were in 2000. According to this chart, tuition, fees, and board cost an average of $17,381 in 2000, compared to the last school season of $26,120. Many of these students are in deep in debt by the time they graduate, so they seem lean toward the highest paying jobs. This in turn also makes them move away from our communities, to get that higher paying job in the cities.

Employment among farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers is on an 8 percent decline. Why is that? It may be due to the high debt and how much you get paid if you come back home to farm or start an operation yourself. Kids who graduate from four-year colleges want jobs that will help pay off their debt, as well as have benefits. On average a farmers or ranchers get paid $66,360 per year. We all know that number can change with the markets, which are low right now. As farm families, if we can’t pay for our benefits and have to have the off-farm jobs to make it, we understand why they financially can’t come back. Ag workers themselves get paid on average even less.

Farmers like “Farmer Derek” didn’t care about the money. He just knew he wanted to farm. He worked doing dishes and other tasks while going to school and sold sweet corn to make extra money for college. Other farmers, such as like Burk Johnson from Nickerson, Kansas, worked on a farm while going to college. He learned far more being hands on than he did in textbooks at school. To several other farmers, I asked said the same thing. Lowell Neitzel said, “College does have its place. Making contacts with people that you can rely on to answer questions that you may have.”

What if they can get jobs though that have benefits and have enough money? Will they do that? Apparently, that’s not always so. Mike Bergmeier of Shield Agriculture Equipment (a manufacturing company of ag products.) said, “We have difficulty getting people or to even walk through the door and apply, or answer advertisements for job openings.” His concerns are that the school systems are not teaching enough trade-type skills.

Something that we can realize throughout this. People who do these job/skills are a rarity. Do we need to be more proactive in giving these resources to our teachers and career counselors? Do we need to show them the opportunities of growth within this sector? College isn’t for everyone. But maybe, just perhaps, a vo-tech or skilled training is. Let’s show that these jobs are not something to look down upon but respected.

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