The future of agriculture requires a focus on youth today

By Trent McKnight

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



Editor's note: Agri-Pulse and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs are teaming up to host a monthly column to explore how the U.S. agriculture and food sector can maintain its competitive edge and advance food security in an increasingly integrated and dynamic world.

“Last year, no students signed up to study agriculture in high school; today, 40% of our students stated their intention to do so.  They did not believe Americans were farmers until Kelsey moved to this village.  When they learned that she came from a family of farmers in America, it gave our students permission to be farmers, too.”

The comments from the headmaster at the Gbuluhagu Junior High School in Ghana's poor Northern Region grabbed my attention.  He reiterated a popular myth I had heard over and over again:  If farmers are poor and Americans are rich, there must be no American farmers. 

For much of the developing world, farming is not a career option but a socio-economic condition.  As a matter of fact, “farmer” is often viewed synonymously with “peasant”.  Schools reinforce the denigration of agriculture by using school farms and gardens as a form of punishment or detention.  The message to young people is clear:  farming is your penance for being poor.  Why would any young person choose that?

Young people, who see no future in agriculture, flee the countryside for the slums of cities contributing to an atmosphere ripe for crime, revolution and terrorism.  At the same time, we need educated farmers now more than ever.  By 2050, the world's population will surpass nine billion people.  To feed the additional two billion mouths over the next 35 years will require an educated farming class in developing countries who better steward resources by using enhanced technology and methodology.  This will only happen if young people, especially young women, see a viable future in farming.

AgriCorps is working to shift things, albeit in small ways.  We engage young, American agricultural professionals to serve as agriculture teachers in junior and senior high schools in developing countries.  They commit to live for an entire year in a rural village to support local 4-H and Future Farmer type programs.  Just like American agricultural education, they teach farming as a science and a business in addition to leadership and civic responsibility.  Our fellows must have a college degree in agriculture and production agriculture experience-they are farmers in the broadest sense of the term.

By working with students, AgriCorps Fellows have the ability to reach and influence farming households as well.  For example, John Romo helped the Adarkwa 4-H Club in Ghana's Eastern Region develop a cocoa and oil palm seedling nursery.  Students learned agriculture as a science and business; local farmers gained direct access to improved, hybrid varieties of cocoa and oil palm that would increase their yields and incomes; and the school used the proceeds to pay for school supplies and the school fees of 4-H members.  It was a win-win for the entire community.

AgriCorps Fellows also benefit from the experience of living in a rural, agrarian community in a developing country.  Witnessing agriculture from a global perspective allows them to better understand and appreciate the agricultural infrastructure America has developed over the past one-hundred years, including agricultural education, research, technology, logistics, finance, insurance and policy.  Our Fellows will carry this understanding into their future agricultural careers, strengthening our own industry and economy.

To meet the growing demands of food security, we must invest more resources in agricultural education both at home and abroad.  We must give young, American agriculture students a global perspective to be leaders and competitors in a global market; and we must show young people in developing countries that farming is a noble, profitable profession.  It is only through agricultural education that we can achieve paradigm shifts like the one from a young Ghanaian who told AgriCorps, “You have helped me see that my job as a farmer is just as important as the government ministers who advise the president of Ghana, because I produce the food that feeds the president.”

We can't feed the future without farmers, and we can't have farmers tomorrow, without future farmers today. 

Trent McKnight is the founder of AgriCorps.  He is a cattle rancher in Throckmorton, Texas, and a former national FFA president.   To learn more about the work of AgriCorps, visit www.agricorps.org.  

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