Agriculture Students Have Bright Futures

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agriculture careers

How can you identify the agriculture students on a college campus? Probably by the bright smiles on their faces. After all, agriculture students have lots of job prospects these days.

“It’s a wonderful time to be an agriculture student because of the tremendous career opportunities and growth of the agriculture market,” says Rob Rhykerd, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Agriculture at Illinois State University. “At ISU, we have nearly a 100 percent placement rate for our ag students if they’re willing to relocate. The growing export market and global demand for food and ag products as well as demand for ethanol is spurring great growth in the ag sector, and our students are prepared and excited to add their talents to the industry.”

A report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Purdue University confirms what Rhykerd sees. The 2010 study estimated that through 2015, there would be about 54,400 openings each year for agriculture and natural resource jobs and about 29,300 college graduates to fill them.

Talented students at universities across the state taking advantage of those opportunities include Jenny Jackson. She earned her bachelor’s degree in agriculture from Western Illinois University in the spring and had job offers even before graduation. She credits the opportunities not only to the expanded job market, but to her education at WIU and the contacts she made through her involvement with the Collegiate Farm Bureau.

agriculture careers

“We started the Collegiate Farm Bureau at Western in 2014, and it was very successful in its first year,” says Jackson, who served as the chapter’s first president. “It gave me the chance to network with professionals in the ag industry and to grow professionally and personally by leading others, by building awareness of the Farm Bureau organization and by educating non-ag students about the agriculture community.”

Kelsey Litchfield, a junior majoring in agriculture communications and member of the Collegiate Farm Bureau at the University of Illinois, agrees.

“We are really ambassadors for farmers on our campuses,” she says. “I’ve learned so much through my involvement with the group about how to be a strong voice for agriculture and how to make positive contributions to our future profession.”

agriculture careers

Reaching Outside of Agriculture

Members of the Collegiate Farm Bureaus accomplish that through outreach to non-agriculture students. Events like WTF Day, “Where’s The Food Without The Farmer,” get attention and provide a chance to educate other students. So do “Farmland” documentary showings and pumpkin-pie-in-a-bag distributions on campuses.

“Our objective is really to just start a conversation about agriculture with those who aren’t familiar with it,” says Jackson, whose Collegiate Farm Bureau at WIU held all three events in its first year.

Litchfield’s group has the same goal. “Through WTF Day and other events, we reach out to the non-ag community to give them more information about Illinois agriculture, where food comes from and sustainability. And we provide it in a way that is fun and simple, and that piques their curiosity and gets them thinking about the process,” she says.

Quantum Leaps

For Jackson, who grew up on a family farm in the Morgan County seat of Jacksonville, and Litchfield, from Rio in Knox County, the path to an agriculture career was as easy as looking out their back doors or going to 4-H, a youth development program that both girls did for 11 years. But others follow a less direct path.

agriculture careers

Take Mark Holmes. He grew up in the Chicago suburb of Westchester and admits that when he was younger, he “didn’t even really realize that there was an agriculture industry.”

But in the spring, Holmes earned a bachelor’s degree in crop sciences from the University of Illinois. This fall, he begins work toward a Ph.D. in plant breeding and molecular genetics at the University of Minnesota.
It started when he was in high school working summers at Boy Scout camp. There he met friends who were considering forestry as a career.

“I thought that sounded interesting, and so I decided to major in natural resources,” Holmes says. “That’s where I learned about genetic engineering and plant biology, and it didn’t take long for me to see that crop sciences would be the right step for my career path.”

That path gives Holmes the chance to make a difference. “My underlying interests are the big-world problems that are looming over us in terms of food security,” he says. “Plant breeding is a way to produce novel traits that will allow for a quantum leap in yield, and that leap will help provide solutions for food shortage problems.”

College Connections

These organizations get students involved on campus:

  • 4-H House: a cooperative sorority for female students at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
  • Collegiate Farm Bureau: an organization with chapters at several state colleges and universities that provides career development and personal growth opportunities for students majoring in agriculture
  • Crop Science Ambassadors: a group at the University of Illinois which acts as liaisons between the crop sciences department and students, both current and prospective

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