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Food trend boosts ag economy, money on plate
Daniel Sweeney

Plant Sciences Pay Dividends

Agriculture Targets Growing Industry Demand

By Olivia Maddox

In high school, Daniel Sweeney was like a lot of today’s high school students, not quite sure what they wanted to do for a career. Going to college was a given, but his major was still up in the air. Sweeney enjoyed the natural sciences and took advanced placement science courses, so biology was an obvious contender. What he didn’t know was that the major he now calls the “perfect choice for me”—plant breeding and genetics—was even an option.

Purdue University was at the top of Sweeney’s list for its strong science programs, and he finally narrowed his selection to biochemistry. “I was confident in my choice,” Sweeney says of the decision made his senior year at Cardinal Ritter High School in Indianapolis. But a few months later, he was attending a College of Agriculture visit day “when someone mentioned plant breeding to me.” Intrigued, he looked into the program and found it dovetailed with his interest in plant science, and the opportunity to help solve a global food problem appealed to his desire to serve others.

Raising awareness of the plant sciences with students like Sweeney is key to meeting a burgeoning demand. Nationwide, the agriscience industry is joining forces with colleges of Agriculture to find the next generation of plant scientists. Their message to teachers, guidance counselors, students and parents is that careers in plant sciences pay dividends—plentiful jobs, competitive salaries, opportunities for advancement and a role in solving global problems.

Recruiting STEM Students

There are not many career fields today that can nearly guarantee 100 percent placement and the bonus of picking and choosing from more than one job offer, but many plant science graduates find themselves in just this enviable scenario.

“We have about 165 undergraduate agronomy majors,” says Joe Anderson, head of Purdue University’s agronomy department. “We could double our enrollment, and most graduates would still walk away with multiple job offers.”

Drew Ratterman, who recruits employees for Dow AgroSciences, says there aren’t enough qualified plant science graduates to meet the demand in the ag input and production industry. “Ag is experiencing 8 percent compound growth as a group,” he says. “We have more need than before, and we’re seeing a higher frequency of retirement as baby boomers leave the workforce.”

Enrollment in agriculture is on an upswing around the country. At Purdue, undergraduate enrollment in agriculture, 2,658 at the start of the 2012-13 academic year, has been steadily increasing for the past decade. But for some areas of the agribusiness sector, the increase in ag students—and graduates—isn’t coming fast enough.

Being able to supply graduates to a rapidly growing industry starts with getting students through the door and into corresponding academic programs. Ag recruitment personnel continue to battle the “cows and plows” stereotype with students strong in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) who often have an outdated view of agriculture as just crop and livestock production.

“Yes, we are farming, but people are surprised by what else we are,” says Marcos Fernandez, director of academic programs in agriculture and associate dean of Purdue Agriculture.

In a new recruitment campaign to inform students about career opportunities in agriculture, food and natural resources, the College of Agriculture is paying particular attention to the plant sciences.

“Purdue is in the best position nationally to train the next generation of plant scientists,” Fernandez says. “I hope the campaign will help us get this exposure.” The college is also hiring a plant sciences recruitment and outreach coordinator to draw attention to the opportunities in these program areas with precollege students and teachers. Industry and university officials agree that they need everyone thinking not just STEM, but STEAM, with the “A” for agriculture.

Competing for Graduates

Ratterman says large companies such as Dow AgroSciences, Monsanto and John Deere, as well as small, independent ones are all vying for the same limited pool of candidates, which is not nearly big enough to go around. With a shortage of agriculture graduates, companies pull from other sciences, such as pharmacy, biology or chemistry. Ratterman says additional training is required for new hires that don’t have a background in agriculture. “We have to teach them the basics about agriculture,” he says. “The more employees understand how the end product is used on the farm, the more valuable they are to us.”

Sweeney is just the type of high-achieving student the industry pursues. Sweeney’s not from a farm background, but as a 10-year 4-H member, he had more than a passing knowledge of agriculture. He’s already completed one internship—at Beck’s Hybrids last year—and has another lined up with AgReliant Genetics this summer. During the academic year, he works in the research lab of Karen Hudson, a molecular biologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service unit located at Purdue.

As an agricultural ambassador for both the college and the agronomy department, Sweeney now talks with prospective students to help dispel misconceptions about agriculture. “I had some of the same misconceptions,” he admits. “But when I came to Purdue, those misconceptions were blown away pretty quickly. Ag here is diverse.”

Takeaway Message

Ratterman is hoping that bright, young, science-bound students will see what Sweeney did: rewarding careers with opportunity for growth and the chance to make a difference.

“Companies are not only selling to producers but also helping them manage production, what product to use and when to apply,” says agronomy’s Anderson. “In order to do that, employees need to understand plants and soils. Agriscience needs qualified people on both the research and commercial side. Demand is being fueled by this increased service component.”

And it’s not likely to change in the near future. A strong agricultural industry, which fared better than many others through the economic recession, is also buoyed by high commodity prices and a strong export market.

In November Ratterman met with agriculture representatives from Purdue, Iowa State and Illinois to strategize how to best attract the students they want: high achievers in math, science and business; and students who want to work for the greater good; and those with an inherent love of agriculture.

They emphasize many jobs don’t require an advanced degree—there are plenty of options for graduates with a bachelor’s degree. Since graduating in December 2007, soil and crop management major Cassie (Haskett) Misch has pursued a career licensing soybean and wheat genetics to seed companies. She anticipates the rapid expansion of trait technologies in corn, soybeans and wheat will continue to fuel job growth in the plant sciences.

Together, industry and university officials hope their combined efforts impart this takeaway message: Plant sciences give students the knowledge and tools to solve tough global challenges and make a difference in the world.

Experience Purdue Agriculture: Bailey Farrer
In Their Own Words

Students in Spotlight for Purdue Agriclture Recruitment Campaign

Bailey Farrer
Bailey Farrer

This year, college-bound high school students and their parents will get a new view into Purdue University’s College of Agriculture—one told by ag students in their own words.

“We wanted to become more visible to prospective students, both those who are from agriculture and those who aren’t,” says Marcos Fernandez, director of academic programs in agriculture and associate dean of Purdue Agriculture. “Today’s agriculture is broader and more diverse than ever.”

The new recruiting push is designed around students who represent the college’s 11 academic departments. “The Experience campaign visually expresses what it means to be a student in the College of Agriculture in 2013 and beyond,” Fernandez says.

Among the students profiled are agricultural and biological engineering major Anthony Ruberti, a native of New Jersey, who wanted the “chance to be part of a Big Ten institution and the chances of a lifetime,” and animal sciences major Bailey Farrer, who comes from an Indiana family with deep agricultural roots and a legacy of Purdue Agriculture graduates.

No matter their hometown or academic major, most students share common ground, according to Fernandez. “Our students have a strong service commitment. Agriculture students are less about self and more about others.”

Fernandez, an animal scientist, didn’t come from a farm background. He was considering zoology or biology as a major at Illinois State University. An astute college advisor steered him into agriculture when Fernandez said he wanted to work with animals and help feed the hungry.

Likewise, food science major Molly McKneight wanted a career where she could make a difference. She initially looked at nursing and other health sciences, but discovered that she could help fight global hunger through agriculture.

The multimedia Experience campaign was developed by the Departments of Agricultural Communication and Agriculture Information Technology and is being implemented across the college.

“The word ‘experience’ embodies education in agriculture,” Fernandez says. “We’re about active and engaged learning—in the classroom and through undergraduate research, internships, study abroad and service to others. Everything we do develops students’ ability to apply basic principles to solve problems. If we ever needed the best and brightest who want to make a difference with their lives, the time is now and the place is here—Purdue Agriculture.”