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Where will the agricultural college graduates work?

graduates, one with "hire me" on cap My most popular blog post by far at World.edu is called "Sustainable agriculture jobs after college?" In this essay, I try to tell the truth about the jobs situation in sustainable agriculture based on my experience working with young women and men graduating college.  My conclusion is that while there is much work that needs to be done, well-paying, meaningful jobs that offer a sense of security are hard to find.  It may be that “getting hired” for a lifetime job is an unrealistic expectation in our emerging “on-demand” economy.  But that might actually be an real opportunity for small, diverse and sustainable farms and markets!

The students who have graduated from our Bachelor of Sciences program in Sustainable Food and Farming and are doing well have often created their own new work, rather than “landed a job” in the traditional sense.  I encourage graduating seniors to search the job boards online, but more as a way of creating a vision or coming up with a new idea for a business or service that nobody has ever thought of before!  A brainstorming session in one of my classes  came up with a serious, lighthearted, earnest, and ingenious list of future jobs that included; permaculture consultants, rickshaw drivers, herbal landscapers, wood mill operators, biodiesel processors, vermiculturists, urban rooftop gardeners, microlenders, witch doctors, AAA bicycle workers, compost toilet janitors, alternate transport specialists, population controllers, seed bank managers, urban wildcrafters…

I try to be honest with students when they first arrive at UMass to study Sustainable Food and Farming.  In my “intro to the major” class, we explore potential internships and employment opportunities together, but frankly it doesn’t “get real” until the students get close to graduation.  Those without debt have more flexibility to explore creative options and many land in some really interesting situations.  I try to stay connected to recent graduates and link to their Facebook pages on my program blog.  This gives potential students (and their parents) some idea of where our graduates are working.

Frankly, our graduates are doing well for the most part.  But still I worry.  Our B.S. major in Sustainable Food and Farming at UMass has grown from just 10 students in 2004 to about 125 today.   We have expanded our number of classes and created many new experiential learning opportunities to accommodate the growing demand for a college degree in sustainable food and farming.  With no end in site however, I have to wonder where will all of these agricultural graduates work?  And what kind of work will they do?

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests a bright outlook for agricultural graduates. The report concludes that “projected growth in theseEmployment opportunities pie chart (15% ag and forestry) occupations is in tune with our nation’s shift toward creating new businesses and jobs in local and regional food systems, capitalizing on climate change opportunities, developing renewable energy, and restoring and sustaining natural resources.”   Many of the projected agricultural jobs will be in new business start-ups.  This is surely our experience in New England where the number of farms is increasing!  

The new farms are often small, engaged in direct to consumer sales, include both crops and livestock, and may be more likely to be managed by women than in the past.  We are seeing lots of successful start-up farms.   However, it is not only new farms that are appearing on the landscape in New England, but also creative new businesses that help move products from the farm to the customer.  One of the emerging jobs that didn’t exist just a few years ago is called a “value chain coordinator” – a function that “connects the dots” in the food system to ensure people, goods and resources connect with each other.  This is an important function that is often missing among start-up farms and markets.

One of my favorite start-ups is Valley Green Feast, a worker-owned cooperative that takes orders each Tuesday and guarantees deliver “to your door” by Friday.  Managed by four entrepreneurial young women, this service helps connects farmers and consumers in a way that works for both!  Part of their mission is to make local, healthy, delicious food as accessible as possible to a wide range of consumers.  And whenever possible, the delivery is done by bicycle cart!

I believe that we need lots more experiments in farming, marketing and support businesses like Valley Green Feast.  I’m not alone in this belief!  Richard Heinberg’s presentation, “Fifty Million Farmers,” predicts the need for 40 to 50 million new farmers and gardeners to help the U.S. adjust to radical climate change and depletion of easily accessible fossil fuel.  Sharon Astyk’s book, A Nation of Farmers, presents a similar look at the future of American agriculture.  I believe they are on to something, but I don’t know if the opportunities are opening up as fast as needed to help our graduates find meaningful work today.

So, what do we tell agricultural graduates?  One thing for sure is “the future will be different than the past.”  Almost everyone understands that we are in such a state of rapid and unprecedented change, that we cannot predict the future based on previous trends.  I’ve begun to wonder if farmers and food marketers will learn to change to meet the “on-demand economy” that is emerging in some businesses today.  A recent article in The Economist states…

“IN THE early 20th century Henry Ford combined moving assembly lines with mass labor to make building cars much cheaper and quicker—thus turning the automobile from a rich man’s toy into transport for the masses. Today a growing group of entrepreneurs is striving to do the same to services, bringing together computer power with freelance workers to supply luxuries that were once reserved for the wealthy. Uber provides chauffeurs. Handy supplies cleaners. SpoonRocket delivers restaurant meals to your door. Instacart keeps your fridge stocked. 

The personalized driving service, Uber, is the model for many of these new businesses and has grown exponentially since its beginning in 2009.  Will we “uberize” food and farming?  What would that look like?  It certainly wouldn’t be a straight-line projection from the past.  The food system today is highly centralized and controlled by a few major corporations.  In a recent report, Oxfam International stated that only 10 companies control nearly every familiar grocery store brand.

In spite of the popularity of local food, less than 1% of American farm products are sold directly from farmer to consumer.  But in a period of rapid change, it might not be so far fetched to imagine a decentralized production and distribution system, connected through technology.  I’ve written about this in a previous blog that examined the concept of a Food Commons. While not exactly Uber, the Food Commons would be a national network of localized food systems and includes the food hubs that are already growing rapidly in many parts of the country.

When we ask the question “where will the agricultural college graduates work in the future” these two visions for American agriculture provide different answers.  In the world in which a few corporations control the food supply there is not much opportunity for young, passionate and intelligent entrepreneurs.  But in the vision presented by the Food Commons, well we might just need 50 million farmers!

 

This post was originally published on John Gerber's blog.

John Gerber serves as faculty coordinator for the Sustainable Food and Farming major at the University of Massachusetts. He helped establish Grow Food Amherst, which encourages citizens to grow and buy more food at home. He has extensive related volunteer and work experience, including as Director of the University of Massachusetts Cooperative Extension System. He is an avid gardener and raises chickens in his suburban backyard.

Featured image of UMass Amherst Dining courtesy of the Henry P. Kendall Foundation.