Just what is agriculture to youth who are looking at career choices?

That was one of the questions asked by Nuffield Scholar Claire Peltzer, whose 2020 report focused on attracting youth into agriculture. The short answer is that agriculture is considered “farming” and does not include the existing plethora of career opportunities.

The fields of agriculture include but are not limited to greenhouse and floriculture, vineyard, swine, cattle, poultry and eggs, aquaculture, sheep and goats, bees and other insect crops, field fruit and vegetable and tree fruits.

There are opportunities in science, research, technology, biology, business, economics, production, plant and animal health, leadership, governance, food processing, transportation, communication, product development, marketing, policy, agronomy and agrology, production and economics, to name a few potential streams.

So why not a career in agriculture?

That question was put to 512 students aged 16 to 18 in Western Australia. They responded that they felt they could not get into ag because they didn’t come from the country or from a farming background, could not afford it, or really did not want to move. Others simply did not know there were careers outside of farming or believed there were no jobs “for people like me.” Some felt there was more money in other industries and that the sector lacked technology and innovation.

The United Nations also reports that the perception of agriculture is that of farming, and that farming is not seen as a profitable business. Society as a whole and governments do not appreciate that agriculture is much broader than production and that farming itself is critical to economic stability and societal well-being. The UN says massive roadblocks exist for access to technology, information and credit.

Lack of access to credit in farming and in agricultural careers is still a major issue globally. Old perceptions that anything tied to farming is a losing game still float through the financial world. As Peltzer reported, we must reframe agriculture as a business, one that is impactful to the world around us – not only in the production of food but in feeding the hungry and bringing communities out of poverty, in making homes for the displaced and in addressing climate change.

More importantly, agriculture needs to be recognized as the powerful economic engine it is and for the potential it has.

Farmers themselves may be caught in the old paradigm of “just a farmer.”

That is why fully appreciating the connection of food production to the end user is so critical. We have yet to understand this in primary production and to take action, such as inviting a broad spectrum of end users, processors, traders, techies and scientists to our industry board of directors. Competency based leadership is not only advantageous to business but it is attractive to youth who are considering an agricultural career.

Educators have tremendous influence over our children’s choices but have little time or capacity to fully appreciate the intersection of agriculture in every subject they teach (math, science, IT, medicine, law, finance, economics and biology to name a few). These are all intersecting agricultural career paths and inclusion in the curriculum is critical to building a knowledge-based sector.

In my research I found that world leaders in food systems were firm that curiosity is a strong and necessary leadership trait. Fostering curiosity starts in our homes and schools. The question is, how do we reframe the conversation to ignite curiosity that could lead to a career in agriculture?

Changing the conversation and the old perception may come from education, lobby or simple collaboration that cross-pollinates all of the opportunities within agriculture. In Canada, David McInnes has spearheaded the National Index on Agri-Food Performance, a collaboration of 114 stakeholders who share a common goal to develop an integrated picture of sustainability for the country’s agri-food sector from food production to retail.

This initiative is historical in that it is bringing diverse stakeholders, including competitors, governments and entrepreneurs and a wide variety of food system players to the table. It changes the dialogue, desegregates and is achievable at all levels.

If, as Peltzer writes, “agriculture is perceived by youth as ‘just farming,’ which is the largest and most influential limiting factor to attracting more to the industry” then we must start at that point and embrace the challenge of creating a landscape that is inviting to our future employees, employers, investors and leaders.

The challenge is not one of succession in the agricultural industry, for we do not have the luxury of time. Addressing this perception needs our attention today. Reframing agriculture as a rich and impactful business starts within our own conversations and structures. Only then will we bring it to life for our youth.

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