BATON ROUGE, La. – Demand for food and fiber is growing faster than ever, but the agriculture workforce responsible for meeting that demand is shrinking.
A rapidly rising world population is causing demand for agriculture products to increase exponentially. At the same time, life science companies in the United States — the world’s leading exporter of ag products — face a shortage of trained ag scientists. According to a 2013 study by the Coalition for a Sustainable Agricultural Workforce, companies are most in need of Ph.D.-level scientists in disciplines such as plant science and crop breeding.
The first place many students learn of such opportunities is in high school agriculture classes and FFA. But like the life science companies, American high schools are increasingly unable to hire as many agriculture teachers as they need — even in states like Louisiana, where agriculture is a huge economic driver.
“We’ve made student recruitment a priority over the past year, and effective recruiting has to begin early,” said Bill Richardson, LSU vice president for agriculture and dean of the College of Agriculture. “Getting young people to realize agriculture is about more than plowing fields or milking cows is a constant battle. High school teachers can play a big role in overcoming that perception and helping us attract the brightest students.”
Mike Burnett, College of Agriculture executive associate dean, said the ag teacher shortage has existed for at least 40 years in most states. There are about 230 ag teachers in 185 Louisiana schools, he said, but many are nearing retirement age. Louisiana FFA executive secretary Kathy Conerly said she expects a big turnover in the next five years.
That is bad timing because many school administrators are beginning to realize the value of teaching agriculture and want to add ag programs, Burnett said.
The high school agriculture curriculum is a broad-based, four-year program that teaches various ag sciences, basic mechanics and leadership skills. Burnett said high schoolers who take agriculture often perform better on standardized tests than those who don’t. And in Louisiana, ag classes count toward science credits required for high school graduation, he said.
“These people will have sellable skills that will help them go to work when they graduate from high school,” Burnett said. “But we also have a lot of people come out of high school ag science programs that go on to college. It’s a rigorous program that prepares them very well for college coursework.”
Conerly said ag teachers tend to develop mentor-like relationships with their students because the curriculum is hands-on and covers a wide range of topics.
“Some students who don’t perform well in other subjects may truly shine in agriculture because they’ve connected with something they’re interested in,” she said.
Students enrolled in high school ag programs can join FFA, a national organization that promotes leadership and career development. Participants can attend conferences and compete for awards. They also complete Supervised Agricultural Experiences (SAEs), which are projects or, sometimes, internships in an agriculture-related business or organization.
Conerly said there is potential for growth in Louisiana because many urban areas and even traditionally agricultural parishes do not have high school ag programs. FFA membership has declined in recent years due to school consolidations, but at the same time, about three to five schools per year have added ag programs, she said.
Unfortunately, there aren’t enough teachers to keep up with growing interest in this curriculum.
“In Louisiana right now, there’s about 15 openings for ag teachers, and no one to fill them,” said J.C. Bunch, an LSU agricultural education professor.
“Schools have to decide if they keep or cut the ag programs,” he said, adding that college students who want to be ag teachers will probably be able to find a great job quickly.
“When you’re teaching ag, not only do you work with students every day, but you get to be involved in agriculture,” he said. “Many schools have greenhouses, so you’re planting things with students, or maybe you’re working with livestock. You get to be involved in agriculture and help young people become better.”
The LSU College of Agriculture offers an undergraduate degree in agricultural education with two concentration areas — teaching and learning, and leadership and communication. Current enrollment is about 25 students. The college is also in the process of creating a Department of Agricultural Extension, Education and Evaluation that will house undergraduate and graduate degrees.
Burnett is hopeful that the college’s increased recruiting efforts and revamped ag education curriculum will contribute to the lasting success of Louisiana agriculture.
“The one distinction that the United States has apart from every other country in the world is the amount and quality of food we produce,” Burnett said. “The way we do that is we have to educate young people about the need for it, about the nature of the professions in agriculture and the benefits to them of going into the professions.”