Jobs in the agricultural sector are expected to grow, say Eastern Washington proponents who were among industry advisers to high school students from around the state attending an Agri-Business Week gathering last month in Ellensburg.
Such education is aimed at youth deciding on career paths in the age of Yahoo.com, which early this year posted a blog on "Useless College Majors," asserting that agriculture is No. 1. Animal science and horticulture also ranked among the top five majors in the "useless" listing, just behind fashion design and theater.
The Spokane-based Washington Grain Commission, in its June Wheat Life magazine, took issue with the Yahoo blogger's opinion about agriculture.
"Yahoo's ranking does bring to light the general public's ignorance of the opportunities available in agriculture," the Wheat Life article says. "That's part of the reason why the Washington Grain Commission recently voted to provide $10,000 to help support the new Agri-Business Week Program to help high school students understand careers in agriculture."
Support to start the program this summer also came from Northwest Farm Credit Services, the big Spokane-based agricultural lender, which gave $10,000 and sent six employees as advisers during the July 22-28 session. Agri-Business Week was launched as part of Washington Business Week, a Federal Way, Wash.-based nonprofit provider of business career seminars to more than 3,000 teens each year.
For Agri-Business Week, about 45 students did hands-on activities with advisers who work in the industry to learn about agriculture business strategies, commodities marketing, and job prospects. The session highlighted career options, including opportunities at or in support of large corporate farms, small food-growing operations, or within a large number of industry businesses.
Some career examples include food inspectors, crop researchers, plant supervisors, farm owners and managers, soil experts, ergonomists, government agency workers, and farm lenders, says Herman Calzadillas, a pathways manager for Washington Business Week.
"The intent is to highlight the vast opportunities that are available within the agricultural industry," he says, adding that students also toured a frozen-foods processing plant in Moses Lake. "Agriculture is by far one of our state's largest employers."
He says the Washington state Department of Agriculture describes the industry as a major employer in the state with an estimated 160,000 jobs, which include farm operators, food processing employees, seasonal farm labor, and those employed in affiliated support industries.
Wendy Knopp, vice president of Northwest Farm Credit Services' AgVision program that provides financial workshops to young and beginning agricultural producers, was an adviser for Agri-Business Week, held on the Central Washington University campus. She helped students develop business plans analyzing an operation's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.
"I think there are a lot of career opportunities in agriculture, whether you own your own operation or you work for some type of business in the ag industry," Knopp says. She adds that accompanying her was Riley Mengarelli, a young WSU graduate who works as a Northwest Farm Credit Services credit officer but also farms part time in the Moses Lake area.
"Riley started his own small operation that he kept as he was going to school," and he talked to students about the high points of his business plan and the learning curve he went through, she says.
Jennifer Rohrer, a Northwest Farm Credit Services spokeswoman, adds that the Agri-Week event targets different student populations, including some from larger cities but also children of families on farms. The agency offered $250 vouchers toward program costs for its clients' children, she adds.
The cost is $1,200 per student for a week on a university campus, but most students pay between about $500 and $800, because of corporate and individual sponsorships, Washington Business Week's website says. The nonprofit also offers an overall Business Week, a Health Care Week, and an Energy Week, held at different college campuses throughout the state.
"This is their first Agri-Business Week program, and we're definitely on board big time," Rohrer says. "Agriculture is so hot right now. When students are looking at careers, there are so many things they could look atwhether it's in a farmer or rancher role, or support role, or what our employees do."
A majority of Northwest Farm Credit Services' 650-plus employees grew up on a farm or ranch, Rohrer says. Many also have ag-related degrees and understand seasonal impacts and commodity outlooks when talking about loans with farmers, ranchers, fishermen and foresters, she adds.
The Association of Washington Business is the founding sponsor of Washington Business Week. For Agri-Business Week, sponsors also included the Washington State Potato Commission, Washington Dairy Products Commission, National Frozen Foods Corp., The McGregor Co., ConAgra Foods Co., JR Simplot Idaho, and Washington State University, among several others.
Calzadillas says that in the early stages of developing the Agri-Business Week program, Dick Grader, president and CEO of National Frozen Foods, posed a challenge as a session topic of how younger generations will find ways to feed an estimated world population of 9 billion people by 2050.
"Students also are asked to build an action plan to answer the 9 billion-people question," Calzadillas says. "How will we feed more people with essentially the same amount of land? Dick said it will take human intervention, innovation, and creativity to solve this global issue."
Another Agri-Business Week adviser was Andrea Cox, assistant director of recruitment and retention for the WSU College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences.
Cox says that soon after the Yahoo blog on college majors appeared, the Washington Post reported on a Georgetown University study that found recent college graduates with degrees in agriculture and natural resources were among those with the lowest unemployment rates in the U.S., at 7 percent.
The Yahoo blog said farms are becoming more efficient, thus requiring fewer farm managers and jobs in general. Cox says, though, that mechanization and advanced technology impacting the agricultural industry and its jobs also is a factor in other fields.
She points to a November 2009 Monthly Labor Review that projected continued strong growth in agricultural careers such as agricultural inspectors, animal and food scientists, food technology experts, natural sciences managers, pest control workers, soil and plant scientists, and veterinarians.
Cox says the WSU college had 2,600 undergraduate and graduate students last fall. That compares with 2,455 in the fall of 2010, Cox says. She adds that between 2008 and 2011, the college experienced a nearly 28 percent increase in enrollment.
She says classes of students after graduating have near 100 percent placement in the field. "We promote internships," Cox adds. "There is a broad range of careers."
Scott Yates, director of communications at the Washington Grain Commission, says although about 2 percent or less of the U.S. population actually farms, the industry has multiple spokes that involve farm support roles or related industry jobs.
"It's very hard to become a farmer, period," he says. "You either marry into a farm or you inherit a farm, but there are a lot of those related jobs out there."
He adds, "Even the folks who are getting jobs as researchers, they don't grow up with a farming background. There's almost these two orbitsthe small organic farms and then large commercial agriculture. On the one hand, the small-scale agriculture can help drive interest in the large-scale operations."
Farms of both sizes need to hire or get support from professionals with knowledge and services relating to weeds, soils, and research, as examples, he says.
"Then there are all the larger companies, like the Monsantos, and Limagrains (Cereal Seeds), a French company that's new to the area," Yates adds. "Dow has now opened a facility in Pullman. All of these large companies need folks who have some understanding and education in agriculture."
Additionally, he says, "There are a lot of government agencies that oversee and help farmers."
Regarding the Yahoo blog, Yates says, "We have to consider the source. Yahoo is a technological organization that believes what they do is the most important thing in the world, but we dispute that. Agriculture is the most important, bar none. Every day, we eat. I can get away from my computer for days, but I can't get away from eating."
Subscribe today to our free E-Newsletters!SUBSCRIBE