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Monday, February 1, 2010

Enrollment in U.S. Agriculture Schools Growing

The Modesto Bee

Tristesse Jones probably never will drive a tractor or guide a combine through rows of soybeans at harvest time.

There isn't a farm within miles of where she grew up on Chicago's west side, but she's set to graduate with a bachelor's degree in crop sciences from the University of Illinois' agricultural school next spring.

"People ask me what is my major, and they say 'What is that? So you want to grow plants?' " Jones said.

She is one of a growing number of students drawn to U.S. agricultural schools not by ties to a farm but by science, the job prospects for those who are good at it, and interest in the environment.

Enrollment in bachelor's degree programs in agriculture across the country grew 21.8 percent from 2005 to 2008, from about 58,300 students to nearly 71,000, according to surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And the numbers are likely higher -- not all schools respond to the surveys.

National enrollment figures for 2009 aren't available, but numbers from major schools make clear that the trend continues: The University of California at Davis has more than 5,490 students enrolled in agricultural majors -- a jump of 210 from a year earlier. Purdue University has 2,575 ag students this fall, up 40 from last year.

Yet the number of farms nationwide has been dropping for decades.

There were about 2.4 million farms in the United States in 1978, and 2.2 million last year, the USDA claims.

Educators say many students are choosing to major in agriculture after finding out that much of what they'll learn is science -- biology, chemistry and a long list of specialized skills that can land jobs at companies that produce seeds and chemicals for farms, or in nascent industries such as biofuels.

Almost a quarter of the University of Wisconsin's incoming freshmen want to do "something in biology," said Bob Ray, associate dean for undergraduate programs and services.

Agricultural schools are doing their best to reach out to these students.

Texas A&M University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has several full-time recruiters on the road talking to high school students. It also uses its Web site, YouTube and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to reach prospective students. A lot of the messages focus on job prospects.

"Every one of our poultry science graduates, they average about five job offers per graduate," college spokesman Bill Gibbs said.

Demand for science graduates, agriculture industry officials say, outstrips supply.
Monsanto, the St. Louis agribusiness giant that makes seeds, pesticides and an array of other farm products, can't hire enough.

"We find it really hard to find people in science, in particular, because they tend to get snatched up by medical and health care-related things," Monsanto spokesman Darren Wallis said, adding that it has openings for 100 researchers in St. Louis.

UC Davis' College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences is one of the country's biggest ag schools and still has many students studying in traditional areas, said Diane Ullman, the college's associate dean for undergraduate academic programs.

But more than 3,200 of UC Davis' ag students -- almost 60 percent -- are studying so-called human sciences such as nutrition, or environmental sciences such as environmental policy and landscape architecture.

"I think that young people are recognizing all of the issues that surround our society that have to do with food, and I think there's a real interest in new ways of doing things and solving some of these problems," Ullman said.