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Next-Gen Ag: Darr College students outlining new careers in agriculture

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Close to 1,400 students from 40 area high schools invaded Missouri State University’s William H. Darr College of Agriculture on Sept. 7 in what could serve as a first step for future careers in agriculture.

The Salute to Agriculture is a collaborative effort between MSU, PFI Western Wear Ltd. and Missouri Farm Bureau that College of Agriculture Dean Ronald Del Vecchio considers a recruitment tool.

“It’s also an outreach and public relations event,” he said of the fifth-annual one-day gathering that buses students in to learn about the college, participate in Barnyard Olympics and catch the first night of the Professional Bull Riders competition at JQH Arena.

For the majority of students involved, a seed of interest in agriculture already has been planted through the National FFA Organization, Del Vecchio said.

But the event provides exposure to further an ag education and develop career opportunities.

“It has more than doubled in size in the past four years, which tells us it’s working,” Del Vecchio said of the annual event.

Growth also is apparent at the College of Agriculture. According to MSU enrollment data, the number of ag students rose 11 percent in two years to 743 enrolled in 2017. He said the fall’s preliminary enrollment is down, at 702, but he expects that could increase when an official count is determined later in September.

Between 2015 and 2017, graduation numbers from the college followed suit, with 187 graduating last school year, a 37 percent uptick. That includes graduates from four departments: agriculture; agricultural business, communications and education; animal science; and environmental plant science and natural resources.

MSU officials did not have job placement data for College of Agriculture graduates available by press time.

The next step
Rachel Veenstra will be adding to the college’s graduation number in December. She is majoring in environmental plant science with minors in agronomy and horticulture.

For the past three semesters, she’s spent a portion of her mornings down in a former maintenance closet adjacent to the kitchen of MSU’s Kentwood Hall. It’s now a hydroponics grow room filled with slender 7-foot-tall metal racks sprouting produce and herbs, such as basil, cilantro, parsley, dill and kale. The harvests are used in the university’s dining venues, and the racks are portable, allowing students to see the fresh ingredients that go into their meals.

“It’s really cool. I love working in here,” she said, although she noted a career in hydroponics is not in her plans at this time.

Instead, Veenstra said she’d like to attend graduate school at Kansas State University to study applied agronomic research. While her career path is still being determined, Veenstra said she’s drawn to agriculture research on food and water security issues.

Veenstra has time to figure it out. The senior just turned 20 years old and is on track to graduate from MSU in December – only two and a half years after starting college. Coming from Hartville, where she graduated high school in 2016 with a class of seven, she lamented the lack of an FFA chapter there. She said she was the only agriculture girl in school and never took any ag-related classes until MSU.

“I grew up on a beef farm and my first word was ‘moo,’ so ag is what I do,” she said. “It’s in my blood. I always say agriculture is a culture and a part of you. It’s a way of life.”

Industry options
While Veenstra said she never got to attend a Salute to Agriculture event at the Darr Center, 2017 MSU graduate Jared Frieze was a two-time visitor while in high school in Morrisville. He also helped out at the event while attending the College of Agriculture, where he earned a bachelor’s in animal science.

Frieze said he took several grazing school and forage classes, which included quite a bit of emphasis on nutrition and reproduction – two areas that allowed him to come back to the family farm in Brighton. As part of the family-owned JBJ Livestock, Frieze helps raise and show Dorper sheep with 80-100 females kept on the farm year-round. It’s a part-time pursuit for Frieze, who also works in sales and service at the SoMo Farm & Ranch store in Springfield. However, he hopes to someday focus full time on the family farm.

Like Veenstra, Frieze said being raised on a family farm made pursuing a career in the agriculture industry an attractive option. But he and Veenstra note there are many ag-related jobs for people who weren’t born around cattle or sheep.

Veenstra recalled an internship with Des Moines, Iowa-based DuPont Pioneer she pursued in Manhattan, Kansas, this summer, in which several other interns were working strictly on computer projects.

“They had never seen a field of corn. They had never seen a field of soybeans before,” she said.

“They were sitting at a computer but working for an ag company because ag companies need data for their drone imaging or their tractor data or other stuff. It’s cool to see how it all connects.”

According to a 2018 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are an estimated 57,900 high-skilled job openings annually in the food, agriculture, renewable natural resources and environment fields. However, there are only an annual average of 35,400 new graduates with a bachelor’s degree or higher in agricultural fields to fill them.

Based on that numbers gap, both Frieze and Veenstra agree job opportunities should continue into the foreseeable future.

“It’s only going to grow; it’s not going to decline,” Frieze said, adding he knew several people at the college that didn’t have agricultural backgrounds getting degrees in agribusiness and agriculture communication.

Technology advances, such as the usage of drones, also fuel the future of agriculture.

According to investment bank Goldman Sachs, agriculture is among the industries with the most potential growth opportunity from drones. Its research estimates the agriculture drone market growing to nearly $6 billion in the next five years. Drones for ag use can conduct land surveys and precision agriculture to measure, observe and respond to variability found in crops.

Veenstra said she hopes to learn more about precision agriculture as part of her graduate school experience, which could inform her career choices.

As she finishes off her degree while maintaining three part-time jobs, Veenstra said she’s excited about the prospects.

“I think ag is a big way that I can make a difference,” she said.

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