Earning an Education in Farming (Part 2)

farmer-working-laptop-ipad-tableThe farm might be your great-grandfather’s legacy, but today’s farm climate may require more than your great-grandfather’s education.

Precision technology, computer-based bookkeeping, genetic selection and even human resource management have gained traction as necessary skills for today’s farm manager. Of course, those skills may be attained through on-the-job experience, but an increasing number of farmers are choosing to acquire them in a formal classroom.

Data from the 2012 USDA Economic Research Service, or ERS, shows that 51% of farm managers have attained some college education, joined by 20% of farm laborers and supervisors, and 25% of all hired farm workers. In comparison, 64% of all U.S. wage and salary workers reported some college education.

Those numbers are even higher for young farmers. According to the ERS, as of 2012, beginning farmers – defined as a principal operator with fewer than 10 years’ experience – are more likely than established farmers to have at least a four-year college degree (34.3% compared to 23.5%, respectively).

The National FFA Organization, which prides itself on grooming youth for successful careers in agriculture, reports that, in 2014, 86% of surveyed students expressed interest in learning about agricultural careers. Granted, that’s above and beyond the farm; the organization states that there are over 235 independent careers in agriculture.

Catering to career diversity in the agriculture field, degrees and vocational certificates are available for everything from dairy management to crop and soil sciences, but is a degree necessary?

“Many high schools no longer teach basic business skills like balancing a checkbook, or tax management,” says Kurt Doneth, a young farmer in Bancroft, Michigan, “It becomes more important for farmers to pursue a degree or certificate for business management reasons. Farmers should also develop relationships with their local network of representatives, service technicians, etc., to continue their education in a non-formal setting.”

Money, time and program availability all play a part in a young agriculturist’s decision to continue their education.

Scholarships are available to help offset the cost – the National FFA, for example, awards over $2.2 million in scholarships each year – but the fact remains that college classes may be out of reach for young farmers whose circumstances don’t allow them to leave the farm. In that case, distance programs make it easier for farmers to receive accreditation.

Like many large agricultural schools, Iowa State University (ISU) offers multiple bachelors and masters degrees in online programs like animal science, food science, agricultural education and agronomy. In addition, ISU boasts the first online swine certification program, Swine Science Online. Studies include coursework for employee management, basic swine science, swine health and biosecurity, and a professional internship. In all, the certification requires 12 credits, costing $390 each.

While $4,690 may seem like a large expense, agriscience educators say that students should view it as an investment.

“I often hear students say they’re hesitant to leave the farm, or they won’t be successful in a college classroom,” says Sydney Miller, a future agriscience teacher in Charlotte, Mich. “I stress the value of a two-year program at a minimum. They not only learn new information that could be relevant to their farm, but also build a network of connections that will benefit their business."

As the agricultural industry evolves, so should the certifications and accreditations of its workers, managers and operators, who must have the most progressive skill sets.

The views expressed in this article are the author's alone and not those of Farmer's Business Network, Inc., its affiliates or members.  

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