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Future Farmers Require a Strong Education

Historically, how farmers became farmers was simple. As soon as junior started to walk, he would follow Daddy around the farm and learn the ropes in a hands-on kind of way.

Today, some experts say post-secondary education is increasingly important for farmers wanting to plough through a successful career.

Technology and the realities of competitive economies have teamed up to challenge farmers in new ways.

"Agriculture is becoming more knowledge-intensive, changing rapidly, and making farm management more complex," reports the website of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. "Skills and knowledge are becoming more critical for success."

In a typical day, farmers may have to recognize when an animal is sick, fix a broken tractor and check the state of world financial markets through the Internet.

Technology has allowed efficiency gains in farming. Fewer farms can produce more products. That means the number of farms is going down.

"Small family farms constitute 91 percent of all farms and own about two-thirds of all farmland, but large family and commercial farms account for over half of the total value of agricultural production," reports the Department of Labor.

Mark Leitman works for the National Council for Agricultural Education. He says the prices farmers can demand for their products have not necessarily increased over the years.

"The price per pound for pork [for the farmer] is no greater today then it was 30 years ago," says Leitman. "This has forced the farmer to become larger and more efficient."

The work of farmers is extremely diverse. Farmers wear many hats.

"The farm is not just a farm anymore," says Sean Arians. He works with the National Post-Secondary Agricultural Student Organization.

Farms are businesses and their leaders need a tremendous range of knowledge and experience to be successful.

Farmers need to keep records on everything from the health of their animals to crop rotation, income due and major purchases. Computer literacy is becoming more and more important to farmers.

Farmers also need to have a general understanding of everything from mechanics to electricity to effectively run a farm. They need to know about business management, pesticides, food safety and sustainable agriculture.

Leitman says farmers also need to understand the following:

  • Applications of technology
  • Global marketing
  • Environmental stewardship
  • Plant health
  • Soil chemistry
  • Animal health and pharmacology

Business management skills are absolutely essential to a farmer's toolkit.

Farmers have challenging decisions to make, such as deciding a year in advance which crops to grow. They have to be aware of market prices. When thousands of acres are involved, even small mistakes can mean big losses.

The Purdue University School of Agriculture produces an online self-assessment called Checking Your Farm Business Management Skills.

The assessment includes the production and operations management skills, financial management skills, general business skills, personal attitudes and decision-making skills that are important to be successful in farming.

"It is becoming more difficult to obtain all of this knowledge without a formal education," says Karen Ritter. She's president of the National Post-Secondary Agricultural Student Organization.

"Most children of producers who wish to come back to the farm or start their own farm operation are going straight from high school to college. Producers know it is impossible to ignore education; it is critical to help them keep their operations in business."

Traditionally, the career path of a farmer was clear. You were born to a farmer and you followed his footsteps, literally, for several years.

Many experts believe that hands-on training is still the best way to learn farming. Others believe that becoming a successful farmer now and in the future requires some formal training.

There are lots of educational options out there. There are thousands of technical, community college and university-level programs throughout North America -- in everything from biotechnology and food science to agribusiness and agronomy.

Jennifer Dyson works for the Agricultural Workforce Policy Board. She says post-secondary training for farmers has really taken off in the last 10 to 15 years. She says formal education can provide some of the theory to supplement the hands-on training that farmers get on the job.

Dyson believes some of the best post-secondary options for farmers contain hands-on, practical course components. Programs that adapt to the changing needs of the industry are also good choices, she adds.

"Often, we find it's family members of a farm who go on and get some post-secondary education, so they can come back and enhance and diversify the operations on the farm," says Dyson.

But not everyone comes back. One recent trend is that many young people who grow up on the farm are not automatically returning to the farm following post-secondary education.

"Many kids have grown up on farms, but a majority of them unfortunately are not returning to the farm," says Arians. "There are many other places to make a lot more money than farming."

Industry stakeholders are responding with new efforts to cultivate youth interest in farming.

One initiative is Agriculture in the Classroom. That's a program coordinated by the U.S. government. It's designed to improve high school students' awareness of the role of agriculture in the economy and society.

Dr. Norman Borlaug is an American Nobel Peace Prize recipient for scientific and humanitarian achievements. In a message to Agriculture in the Classroom teachers, he advocates compulsory agricultural education for all students in high school and university.

"With low-cost food supplies and a largely urban population, is it any wonder that consumers take for granted the world food supply?" asks Borlaug. "Yet we need a more highly trained workforce to expand it further for the nearly 85 million new children that are born into this world each year."

If farmers had to wake up with the roosters in the past, they may be getting up before the roosters in the future.


Future Farmers of America
Dedicated to preparing youth for leadership in agriculture

Purdue University School of Agriculture
Check out these online educational materials on just about every aspect of the business side of agriculture

Agriculture in the Classroom
Dedicated to promoting awareness of the role of agriculture

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OCAP believes that financial literacy and understanding the financial aid process are critical aspects of college planning and student success. OCAP staff who work with students, parents, educators and community partners in the areas of personal finance education, state and federal financial aid, and student loan management do not provide financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice. This website and all information provided is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed as financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice.