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Springfield, MO

CEO Roundtable: Agriculture Workforce Development

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These CEOs are growing the agriculture leaders of tomorrow. Springfield Business Journal Editorial Director Eric Olson talked with Missouri State University Agribusiness, Ag Education and Ag Communications Department head Arbindra Rimal; Ozarks Technical Community College Agriculture and Construction Department Chairman Robert Flatness; and University of Missouri Extension Taney County 4-H Youth Specialist Willa Williams about agriculture workforce development.

Eric Olson: In one word, how do you describe the current state of agribusiness?
Arbindra Rimal: Dynamic. All the things that we use in the corporate sector – like analytics and biotechnology and information technology – all of them are equally applied in the agriculture industry.
Robert Flatness: Evolving. We can look at how the population has shifted with less than 2 percent being involved with production agriculture, but such a high demand and need for people in agriculture. We can look at corporate agriculture and the size of our farms increasing, but then again we have to push on the other side of sustaining agriculture with smaller-acreage farms. Looking to grow more of that niche market – locally grown, sustainable, organic, that type of thing. It’s both sides, from the small all the way up to the big.
Willa Williams: Thriving. My job is youth development, getting K-12 students ready for their careers and ready for higher education. What other degree path can you go into and you see the projected 57,900 jobs out there? We only have 61 percent of the graduates projected for those jobs. We need more people – we’re going to other countries because we need more people to fill those jobs. That’s a thriving industry.

Olson: A U.S. Department of Agriculture report indicates almost half of those nearly 60,000 jobs would be in management and business.
Williams: Yes, and it’s exciting as a female. We have already surpassed the 50 percent mark of women in agriculture, food, environmental resources and management.
Rimal: If you think of softer sciences like agriculture communications, in the past you went to the corporate headquarters and never saw a PR person or a spokesperson in the company really representing well.  Now, they have a specialized person in that area that will organize and interact with the students and explain about job opportunities. Communication is becoming very important.

Olson: A 2016 report from the White House estimates there will be as many as 100,000 jobs lacking appropriately trained professionals over the next five years. It made a call to action. Have you made changes to meet those needs?
Rimal: We have done some changes. More and more people would like to have their own business, so we started a specialized field in entrepreneurship or entrepreneurial management where you combine the technology agriculture with business. This really helped us grow our program. We have a total of 150 majors.
Flatness: We are currently expanding to throw a wider net and be able to offer some of the things the local community needs. We also started a student organization that is post-secondary agriculture students. The thought behind that is to engage our students on campus and expand their knowledge of the field and opportunities. Something in the industry that we have fought, and it’s no different today than it was 10 years ago, was that we were told, “Why are you offering an agriculture degree? Everyone knows you don’t need a degree to be a farmer.” It’s not necessarily the guy who’s out there plowing every day that we educate. It’s the guy that’s supporting the production agriculture.
Williams: You have to reach the kids in middle school. That’s where they get the theory of what farmers do and what agriculture is. The reason why we’re not getting through to students as much is we need to involve the whole family. When I told my family I was going to get an agriculture degree, they didn’t understand. I’m from Houston, Texas – the city. They would have understood if they had been in some program. We can’t say we need more small dairy farms and we need to bring more people back and have more family farms. It’s not going to happen. But if they become involved more and understand the value, I think that will increase the quantity of students that go into the program.

Olson: Is the family farm over then?
Williams: No, I just think it’s different family farms. We have more farmers markets, the farm-to-school program grants through the U.S. (Department of Agriculture). People want more artisan products, so it’s great, but they’re just different.
Rimal: With the lack of resource land and other resources, you need to be able to produce in smaller spaces. We have stories of people growing stuff in New York City. Producing near to consumers is what’s going to happen on the other side of these skills. The commercial farm is in its own place, and the other would be a niche farm right next to the consumer with a limited footprint environmentally. That would bring more family involvement.
Flatness: We have to get away from the thought that large-acreage farming is strictly corporate farming. A lot of what we consider to be corporate farms, these families have incorporated. They are still a family farm, but they have become incorporated for liability and tax purposes.

Olson: How has technology disrupted and changed agribusiness?
Flatness: It has allowed less than 2 percent of the population to feed the rest of the nation. When you look at the turn of the century, if we go back to the 1900s, we were still 60 percent involved in agriculture. Go back 100 years past that, 95 percent were still engaged in agriculture production. With the technology we have, efficiency is the perfect word for it.
Olson: What about drones?
Williams: I used to work in agriculture aviation research in Arkansas. That was part of my master’s thesis, too. GPS allows us to go out and do precision application of fertilizer and herbicide. We don’t have to use flaggers anymore. It’s a lot safer.
Rimal: Remotely driven combines, you don’t have to be in the cab, you can be somewhere else and then driving all of your combines. (Technology) is disruptive, but maybe more positive.

Olson
: What advice would you give students and their families regarding what sector of the field to study based on job prospects?
Flatness: As the parent of a 17-year-old, we look at agribusiness as being probably the most well-rounded with the most options. Even if they choose not to go into agriculture, that is still an extremely valuable degree with business experience. And then, natural resources. There are so many options that field can fall under – forestry, park service.
Rimal: If we’re talking about the number of jobs, definitely agribusiness, agriculture sales and agriculture finance will be the ones where you have a lot more people needed. You don’t need that many scientists.
Flatness: Another sector we haven’t mentioned is agriculture education. We have a huge deficiency in the number of graduates that want to become vocational agriculture teachers – like FFA advisers.
Williams: Some really great advice is not to be too specific in their undergraduate degree. You have the option to specialize once you go into your graduate degree. Don’t wait until after you’re graduated from high school to think about your career. Also, large animals vets are kind of hard to find.
Flatness: It’s pretty expensive to be a vet. They’d want to start early.
Williams: There are other options where you don’t have those big student loans. That’s a big problem with youth. Maybe they need to look at something like a vet tech, where they can go in and be part of that industry and really figure it out.
Rimal: One of the ways would be offering a certificate program instead of a degree program. There are a lot of people who are already working, but don’t have a formal degree or education, but they want to go back to school. They can use a certificate to improve their career options. We are offering certificates in small agriculture business.
Flatness: We offer a 32-credit-hour turf and landscape certification. We can gather in those folks who want to get into the industry, but not get the four-year degree.

Olson: Agriculture finance is a trend we reported on in recent years. Banks are building up their agriculture business units. Has that influenced what you’re seeing?
Rimal: We interact with Rabobank. It’s one of the major agriculture loan providers, but they deal with mostly large operators. They are coming to us trying to find the graduates to work with them. I just had two people who got hired over there. Commerce Bank is another one that we interact with. A few of our gradates are working there, and they have a sizable portfolio.
Flatness: If you’re in the rural areas, if you’re a lending institution in rural areas, you want someone who really understands the rural areas. You can understand the business plan of a local farmer and the capital that’s needed, the capital that there is, the land and the machinery.

Olson: According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, by 2050, the international population will increase by about 30 percent, leaving farmers needing to produce 70 percent more than they currently do. Laying that next to the workforce issues we’ve discussed and the aging farmers, how do you reconcile those things?
Rimal: Even in developing countries, the number of people in production agriculture is declining. It’s not just us. That’s compounded the problem in the future. So smart production is the key. It has to be able to produce more with shrinking resources. Going into farming is very expensive now. Land is becoming more and more expensive and the combine is becoming more and more expensive. There is much hesitation among the young population going into farming because of all those reasons.
Flatness: Back to the efficiency we talked about with precision agriculture, we are going to continue to see growth in that area and becoming more and more efficient.
Williams: The American Farm Bureau put out some really good statistics that outline how affordable our food is here. The last statistic I saw said we spend less than 11 percent of our income, when other countries can spend over 40 percent of their income on food. We have a very safe food source. You look at other countries that could probably have some of what we have – great universities that do great research on developing food that can work in their regions and that can grow if they have trust in new sciences and new food. I think people sometimes don’t trust food.
Rimal: The improved variants in grain and livestock agriculture required improvement in management, also. What happens is the people in those countries – most developed countries – they get technology but they lack on the management side. The results are not as good as they think. They are putting in a lot of money to get that technology, but not producing enough because they don’t have the whole package and, in the end, they end up losing money.

Olson: Cultural changes we’ve seen, in America at least, are in diet with awareness of allergies and knowing where the seeds originate. How does that come into play talking about food-conscious consumers?
Flatness: I was just reading an article earlier today; it was one that Fox News had forwarded, Extreme Foods. They were talking about how 6 percent of U.S. consumers are cutting back on their meat-based products. About 55 percent of those are saying the change is permanent. The beef producers and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association are trying to study that. One thing they’re citing is in vitro meat. That’s a meat-based substance that was never alive. It’s basically factory produced meat. The people who are producing it are calling it biomeat or clean meat or cultured meat.
Williams: If you want to develop golden rice that has added vitamins, rice is a great crop that could help feed a lot of people. But, it’s also a genetically modified crop. Once people in other countries hear “genetically modified” they might not accept it. That’s a big problem. But it’s also an opportunity in our culture for people who want to grow heritage plants. We have been modifying our crops forever. You can’t find corn growing naturally. It’s not happening. It’s something that’s been genetically modified. Every piece of citrus is genetically modified.

Interview excerpts by Features Editor Hanna Smith, hsmith@sbj.net.

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