The Next Big STEM Career: Farming
America needs skilled agricultural workers, and schools have begun adding programs to train them
Peaches and Georgia—they go together like barbecue and Texas, or cold and Minnesota. They’re even connected in Georgia’s official nickname: The Peach State. But unless you live there, chances are you don’t ever think about actual peaches coming from Georgia. And if you’re a sports fan, that Georgia–peach connection will likely come from knowing college football’s annual Peach Bowl.
That’s because Georgia, once a leading producer of the world’s peaches, has fallen behind other states. According to 2018 USDA figures, 10,000 Georgia acres produced 23,400 tons of peaches, with a value of $23.8 million. That’s well behind national leader California—36,000 acres, 475,870 tons, with a value of $304.2 million—and south region leader South Carolina—14,000 acres, 59,220 tons, with a value of $71.5 million. Georgia’s peach production is also a drop in the bushel compared to the value of the state’s larger agricultural industry, worth $75 billon annually and providing 400,000 jobs (1 in 7 statewide), according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
One reason for that drop-off: a sagging agriculture workforce. Georgia’s state university system supplies only 55% of the workers needed for the industry, according to the University of Georgia’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development. In 2018, the state legislature decided it was time to take action, approving a curriculum for the 2019-20 school year aimed at getting kids interested in agriculture while they're young.
Last fall, 20 Atlanta-area elementary schools began teaching agricultural education courses to students in grades K–5 and expanding the existing curriculum taught to older middle and high school students.
It’s still early days, but a challenge will be to get a generation of kids living a digital life interested in the relatively more analog world of farming. And overcoming the stigma of that “F” word is one of the challenges facing educators.
“Even if you’re not a farmer, the agriculture umbrella covers so many other opportunities,” Christa Steinkamp told the AJC. She’s the curriculum and technology director for the Georgia Department of Education’s Agricultural Education division. “We want to make sure kids understand that.”
What are those jobs? They range from machinists, welders, mechanics, and brewery workers, to engineers—chemical, mechanical, electrical, bakery, and, yes, computer—and programmers, according to the Georgia Governor’s High Demand Career Initiative Report.
The Georgia Alliance for Excellence in Education recently reinforced the vital economic role that agriculture will play within Georgia’s economy this decade, highlighting the industry within its annual list of the state’s Top 10 Issues to Watch in 2020. “Preparing for 2030: Shifting Demographics and Georgia’s Future,” Issue 1 on the list, notes that agriculture is viewed by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce as the top industry “that the state’s economic base and future growth will be centered on,” with that growth driven by “increasing automation and technological advancements.”
While Georgia is taking increased measures to bring agriculture back into K–12 education, the state isn’t alone in trying to grow its agricultural workforce through school.
Michigan State University and Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Michigan, have partnered on an Agricultural Operations program since 2017. Students take courses in communications, math, economics, botany, chemistry, and applications software (there’s even an art appreciation requirement), as well as Intro to Crop Science, Applied Entomology of Economic Plants, Intro to Weed Management, and Fundamentals of Applied Plant Pathology. And once they complete a 480-hour hands-on agricultural summer internship, they earn either an associate degree in Agricultural Science from Kellogg or an Agricultural Operations Certificate from MSU. (Students can also walk away with both.)
The program “provides students with a solid background in plant and soil science, precision agriculture, water management, entomology, plant pathology and farm financial management,” its website says. It adds that students are also prepared “for any number of careers or further education upon graduation,” not just ones on the farm.
The local agricultural workforce that graduates enter is even larger than the one in Georgia. Michigan’s agriculture industry contributes $104.7 billion annually to the state’s economy and accounts for 805,000 jobs, or 17% of the state workforce, according to Michigan’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Among the state’s most profitable crops: apples. According to 2018 USDA figures, 32,500 Michigan acres produced 1.05 billion tons of apples, with a value of $294.4 million.
Whether its Georgia peaches or Michigan apples, America’s future agricultural workers are getting ever-more-educated on the value of careers built around harvesting crops in the 21st century.