Takuya Nagasawa remains animated when he describes the summer, three years ago, that changed his life. The 25-year old from Japan was interning at a farm in Thailand. “My experiences in rural villages were eye-opening,” he says. “The farmers struggled. Due to an instable income and a lack of financial knowledge, they didn’t have the ability to invest in their farms.” Nagasawa’s realizations transformed him: “They triggered my wish to improve agriculture and rural communities as a profession.” He’s now a graduate student in International Development studies, specializing in economics. And he studies at the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, which ranks as one of the world’s premier universities in agriculture and forestry studies.
Encouraging young people to view agriculture as a viable profession is urgently needed around the world. In addition to an aging agricultural workforce in recent years, fewer people have been choosing to work in the agricultural sector. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), in 2014, only 30 percent of professionals worked in the field of agriculture – almost 10 percent less than in the year 2000. The number of young agricultural professionals is extremely low, especially when looking at Europe’s EU-28 agricultural sector: In 2013, out of the 10.8 million farm managers, only six percent were younger than 35. At the same time, a Eurostat farm survey showed that more than half of EU farm managers were age 55 or older – meaning close to, or beyond, the retirement age.
There are recent signs of hope. In the UK, for example, agriculture is the fastest-growing subject at the university level in 2015, with a 4.6 percent increase in student numbers, and more than 19,000 students of agriculture and related subjects overall. But worldwide, more students are needed to meet the demand for agricultural professionals. According to the agency Agricultural Appointments, Australia needs 20 percent more agriculture-related degree holders to satisfy the job market and to secure the country’s farming. Stephen Powles, Professor of Agriculture and Environment at the University of Western Australia, explains: “Many students want to become lawyers or doctors. But in the coming years, a vast number of older farmers will retire.” In fact, statistics show that the median age of farmers in Australia rose from 44 to 53 between 1981 and 2013. Nearly half of the Australian farming industry is aged 55 or older, meaning the future of the industry will be in the hands of fewer and fewer agricultural experts.
Professor Powles is convinced that the choice to study agriculture pays off because the study field has so much to offer, personally and professionally. “There are so many job opportunities waiting for young agricultural professionals, in a wide range of areas: high tech, digital agriculture and biotechnology.”
The future farm is digital
From the campus of Cornell University, undergraduate Matalyn Stark shares this optimism about agriculture’s opportunities. At this US university, based in Ithaca, New York, Stark serves on the department’s ambassador team. “We show young people that the field of agriculture is diverse and fascinating. Cornell, for example, offers a range of focus areas – from agribusiness to plant pathology,” she says. Stark especially enjoys how innovative the program is. “Digital farming technology plays a huge role in my studies. For example, we work with apps that can tell you exactly what type of soil you’re standing on,” she explains. “This allows farmers to make more knowledgeable determinations about how they might manage their soils. And other apps can do things like calculate a rough estimate of canopy cover – just by taking a photo of it.”
Near Stuttgart, Germany, the University of Hohenheim’s agriculture students are also focused on innovation and technology. One of these students is 27-year-old Henriette Keuffel, a Master’s degree student in agribusiness. Growing up on a farm, Keuffel has always been amazed by agriculture’s pioneering spirit. Today, she sees even more opportunities to innovate with digital farming. “The trigger for digital farming is the diverse daily opportunities it gives us to produce food. We regularly visit farms to learn how these new applications are performing on the field. We track soil samples, yield maps and then application maps to understand what determines crop growth. This makes farming ‘smarter,’ more efficient and less physically demanding,” she explains.
We show young people that the field of agriculture is diverse and fascinating.
Diverse skill set
Programs like these enable agricultural students to become technology savvy – and gain interdisciplinary skills. “Our degree program includes agricultural policy, taxation and business studies,” says Professor Dr. Enno Bahrs, Head of Agricultural Business Operations at the University of Hohenheim. He emphasizes that students need critical thinking skills to understand complex agricultural relationships. “The requirements for agricultural stakeholders have steadily increased. To be successful, the workforce needs a high level of education and an understanding of the entire agricultural sector,” Bahrs explains.
Another educational incentive is international knowledge transfer. One platform for agricultural students is the Youth Ag-Summit (YAS), a bi-annual event hosted by Bayer and, this year, the Belgian youth ag-organizations Groene Kring and the Fédération des Jeunes Agriculteurs. During four days, young worldwide talents are brought together to explore new ideas about global food challenges. Both Henriette Keuffel and Takuya Nagasawa participated in the 2015 Youth Ag-Summit in Australia. They say they learned tremendously from fellow participants. “We’ve formed an international network for agricultural success,” Nagasawa adds. At the 2015 YAS, discussions involved topics such as biotechnology and digital farming. “We all came from different backgrounds and nations, but we all wanted to find solutions to feed a growing world,” Keuffel notes. “The experience enhanced my wish to strive towards innovation with other passionate people in the agricultural sector.”
We all came from different backgrounds and nations, but we all wanted to find solutions to feed a growing world.
Jinyi Chen, a Chinese PhD student, believes that intercultural knowledge exchange leads to better research – and this could lead to a better agricultural work force. Chen studies in the School of Agriculture and Environment at the University of Western Australia. There, she focuses on herbicide-resistant weeds. “It’s enriching to study in such a multicultural country. We are all advancing each other’s knowledge.” In Australia, Chen has developed her agricultural knowledge overall, and specifically in her research area: “I’ve learned so much about herbicide resistance,” she says.
Chen is excited to use her knowledge in a field that needs new talents like her own. “China has great potential for agricultural development. Many issues need to be resolved regarding things like herbicide resistance.” She also wants to see more Chinese youth become interested in agriculture. “In China, young people don’t see agriculture as a promising career,” she says. “I want to give agricultural careers a better image and make consumers notice how farming benefits their lives.”
It’s enriching to study in such a multicultural country. We are all advancing each other’s knowledge.
Educating the public
In the US, undergraduate Caitrin Vadnais sees similar challenges with public perceptions. As a student at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), also one of the premier agricultural universities, Vadnais explains that “many consumers don’t understand where their food comes from. This can lead to prejudices against farmers and agricultural technologies. That’s why we need to think of better ways to provide information to the public.” To learn how to best communicate about science, Vadnais attends workshops on and off campus where agricultural professionals speak. “Their talks are inspirational as they help to create knowledge and communication leaders for our college and industry. After graduation, we’re better prepared to advocate for agricultural sciences,” she says.
The future of agriculture remains hopeful with students like these, striving to convince the public of agriculture’s value and opportunities. If more students will follow their footsteps, they, too, will have the potential to fill the gap and create the next generation of farmers driving sustainable agriculture.
Bridging the Gap
Elisabeth Cieniewicz is a fourth-year PhD student at the Cornell University New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York. She explains her passion for plant pathology and why agricultural sciences are crucial for the future of farming.
What made you study agriculture?
Even though I’m not from a farming background, I’ve always wanted to make the world better through biology know-how. Right now, I’m studying a new disease in grapevines, known as red blotch, which is a virus that impacts fruit ripening and quality. We see it increasingly spreading, particularly along the West Coast of the United States. I want to find solutions that could help farmers protect their vineyards.
What are the most pressing issues facing agriculture?
From my perspective, communication is a big issue. I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there, which result in prejudices against crop protection products and tools. Researchers can develop tools for crop protection and improvement, but if they aren’t accepted by the public, then those efforts will be wasted. Scientists need to be encouraged to communicate with the public. We need to get out of our bubble in the labs and talk with people – especially about controversial topics such as GMO technology. By bridging the gap between research and public knowledge, we can make agriculture better understood.
Why should young people study agriculture?
Agriculture urgently needs highly qualified professionals from a variety of areas – economists, engineers and chemists to name a few – to feed the world. There’s room for people with diverse interests to study agriculture and contribute to food security.