Learning the rigors and processes of farming is difficult enough, but for young people looking for a career in modern agriculture, their education goes beyond mastering planting, tilling, irrigation and harvest.
Students have to learn about the complex motion of how water moves through dirt and other soil physics. They have to have an understanding of marketing, economics and technology.
More than ever, technology is vital for farmers both in the field and in selling a product.
“Even before I really went into it, I didn’t fully understand what all goes into agriculture. Most people think about agriculture as being a farmer, but there’s so much more to it that people don’t realize,” said Sydney Ponsler, a Bargersville resident and 10-year 4-H member.
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For people working toward a career in agriculture, the core principles and style of education have changed. Students now have more options to choose from beyond working a tractor in the field.
But with the shifting principles have also brought with it new subjects and courses that need to be mastered.
“If you grew up around agriculture, you don’t always think outside the farm for employment. But there are tons of opportunities out there,” said David Harrell, chairman of the Young Farmers of Johnson County.
Casey Campbell grew up on a pig farm outside of Franklin. Agriculture was what she’d known throughout her life, and there was no doubt that she’d study it in college. She was a member of FFA at Franklin Community High School, participating in the soil judging team, and was a 10-year 4-H’er.
But after 18 years of caring for pigs, she was ready for a change. When she enrolled at Iowa State University, her goal was to study agronomy — the science of soil and crop management.
In her first two years at Iowa State, her focus has been on the core agronomy classes. But Campbell also has had to take courses on soil fertility, crop physiology and the physics of soil.
“That was really hard. You have to study how water moves through different types of soil, the attraction forces that soil has on water particles and the forces acting on it, such as gravity and hydraulic actions that push the soil,” she said.
Agriculture has been one of the bedrock vocations in Indiana. More than 58,000 farms are in operation in the state, with 562 in Johnson County.
With the constant need for food production and farms — as well as industries that support them, such as crop insurance and farm lenders — there are an estimated 57,900 high-skill job openings every year in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Nearly half of those jobs are in management and business, while 27 percent will be in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Jobs in food and biomaterials production, education, communication and governmental services also are available.
But an employment outlook report released by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and Purdue University in 2015 revealed a massive shortage in qualified people for those jobs. The report found that an average of 35,400 new graduates with a bachelor’s degree or higher in agriculture-related fields were entering the workforce each year.
Harrell teaches agriculture at Ivy Tech, and sees it more every day as he connects with his students and the companies looking for employees.
The backbone of ag education — what industry representatives want from their future employees — is hands-on learning. Working with soils, preparing reports on grain sales and other real-life applications are vital for when a student enters the workforce, Harrell said.
“You can learn a whole lot out of a book, but it’s a whole lot different to have actually done it at some point,” he said. “We have ag as a whole and general industry as a whole. We have a whole lot of people who can do the management end of it, but we’re getting fewer people who can do the physical work.”
One of the greatest shortages in Indiana is in agriculture education, Harrell said. Fewer and fewer people want to go into teaching the next generation of farmers.
Heading into last school year, there were 35 vacant agriculture education positions in high schools throughout the state. The state’s largest agriculture education program at Purdue University only graduated seven students, Harrell said.
That shortage is part of what motivated Shalee Daming to attend Purdue to be an agriculture teacher.
“It is kind of sad that there’s not that many people going into ag education. So that kind of sparked even more fire in my passion to do it. Someone has to teach these people about agriculture,” the Indian Creek High School graduate said.
She has already enrolled in classes, such as agriculture youth development and introduction to agriculture, to help her learn about the education aspect of the career. A course in crop production covers the physical process of agriculture.
Daming was influenced throughout her 10 years in 4-H by the older members who served as mentors. As she’s grown into that role, she wanted to continue teaching younger people about agriculture.
“I really wanted to expand on being able to teach about agriculture,” she said. “I didn’t grow up on a farm, but my grandparents had one, so I was always learning new things from them. I wanted to teach new people what I’ve learned and what I’m passionate about.”
Other local students have taken advantage of the growing boundaries of agriculture to find their career paths, as well.
Ideally, Campbell would use her degree in agronomy to work in the field. But after developing severe allergies, particularly to corn, that plan has changed. She is currently working an internship with the Indiana Soybean Alliance and the Indiana Corn Marketing Council doing marketing.
The experience has shown her how she can use her practical knowledge of farming, but also effectively relate different agriculture-related issues to a wide audience.
“It’s a good mix of agronomy but also communicating with people. I get to write stories and do a lot of social media,” she said. “There are so many opportunities with agronomy — sales, marketing, research or science. It’s wide open.”
Agriculture has been a tradition in Emily Dougherty’s family for more than 160 years. Her family raises corn, soybeans, hay, wheat and cattle on their farm in Clark Township.
But while caring for crops and animals has been part of her life for the past 18 years, she sees herself serving the agricultural industry in a different way. She wants to be an agricultural journalist, working for ag-specific newspapers and television, as well as using her photography skills to capture the life of a modern farmer.
Dougherty is currently serving as the vice president for the southern region of Indiana FFA. In the fall of 2017, she’ll start working on a double major in agricultural communication and agriculture economics.
“I want to be a positive advocate for the agriculture industry by being an agricultural communicator to tell the story of so many farmers and agriculturalists,” Dougherty said in an e-mail. “The story of American agriculture is great, and I want to be the one to share it.”
To help young people better understand that fact, as well as what will be expected of them in agriculture moving forward, the Young Farmers of Johnson County have organized an Ag Career Round Table Thursday.
The event will bring together industry leaders, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Ivy Tech and Farm Credit Mid-America. They’ll be sharing what they want their employees to know and focus on, and what options students have in the different branches of ag, Harrell said.
This is the second year for the event. The Young Farmers of Johnson County, a branch of the county’s Farm Bureau, had found that students often major in agriculture in college because they like the field, but don’t have a specific career path planned.
The roundtable will give them information on courses that could be helpful depending on what they want to do, Harrell said. Last year, 30 students attended the roundtable. Harrell and other organizers made some adjustments to help attract more people this time around.
“I went into ag in college, just because I was interested in ag. I didn’t have a true career path in mind,” he said. “But maybe through this, we get some of those students saying they never thought about this career in agriculture, where there’s a ton of demand but not a lot of people going into it at this point.”
Ponsler will be attending Purdue University this fall. A 10-year 4-H’er, she has been around farming all of her life.
But not until the past two years did she seriously decide to pursue agriculture as a career. Her plan is to study agriculture business, looking at the logistics of getting crops and animal products to consumers.
Ponsler will be taking multiple courses on economics as well as her introductory agriculture classes once she arrives at Purdue. Her hope after graduation is to eventually do sales and marking for a national agriculture company.
“I feel like there are more jobs in that, and a bigger job market, than in some other areas of ag,” she said. “Instead of being a vet or something like this, I’m more interested in the business side.”
What: A gathering of agriculture industry representatives sharing information and tips for students hoping to go into agriculture as a career.
When: 3 p.m. today
Where: Farm Bureau Building on the Johnson County fairgrounds
Participants: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Ivy Tech Community College, Farm Credit Mid-America, Greene Crop Consulting, Indiana Nursery and landscape Association, among others.
Thursday fair schedule
11 a.m.: 4-H and FFA livestock judging contest (indoor arena)
1 p.m.: 4-H horse and pony fun show (horse arena)
3 p.m.: Ag career roundtable
4 – 6 p.m.: Robotics club demonstration (Magil hall)
5 p.m.: Midway opens
6 p.m.: 4-H horse and pony contesting division (horse arena)
6:30 p.m.: celebrity milking contest (indoor arena)
6:30 – 10 p.m.: gospel music in the A tent
7 p.m.: straw scramble (Farm Bureau back lot)
7 p.m.: farmer’s olympics (indoor arena)
7 p.m.: Mike Archer, free stage
7 p.m.: horseshoe pitching (west of fair office)