Part 2: Growing the Next Crop of Industry Leaders

In the last post in this series I delved into the odd similarities between virtual animal management and Pokémon Go. This week, in the second part of youth in agriculture and having recently celebrated the first anniversary of AgriEducate, I’ll look into the necessity of attracting more youth in agriculture and how exactly we’ll go about doing just that.

The problem of driving more youth into agriculture is not something limited to Australia. In Kenya, Samuel Munguti is looking at ways of promoting agriculture to youth by running education programs through his social enterprise Farmers Pride. In the US, there are many social media and government programs attempting to spread the message of agriculture and why it is so important that we appreciate and understand how the industry works. After all, we all need to eat and well informed consumers reduce wasted food and are less easily manipulated by misinformation from both sides of the fence.

Promisingly, enrolment in agriculture related courses has risen over the last five years across all major agricultural course providing universities, albeit from a low base. There is still work to be done!

“Enrolments in agriculture might be improving but they are still rising from a low base. Although the industry has seen a proliferation of new and interesting job titles in recent years, the overall percentage of students pursuing agricultural studies remains low.”

From the Australian Financial Review

Presenting solutions to a problem, first requires an exploration of the problem itself. Poor youth representation in agriculture appears to stem from urbanisation, perception and our food consumption culture.

Urbanisation
Australia sits 23rd in the world in terms of urbanisation, with just under 90% of our population living in urban centres. For context, the first 8 countries are entirely cities – such as the Vatican, Monaco and Singapore and the only European countries above Australia are San Marino, Belgium and Malta.

Urbanized_population.png
This is a heat map of urban centres. Note that Australia sits well above most of Europe (source)

While urbanisation presents a number of efficiency benefits in public service provision, (think public transport, proximity to hospitals etc.) a city-centric population means that fewer and fewer people have ties to the origin of food and hence the energy and labour that goes into producing food on a large scale. The ABC’s War on Waste highlighted the quantity of food wasted by Australians and its basis in poor understanding of and connection to agriculture, among other factors.

A further consequence of urbanisation and lack of exposure to agriculture is that a career in the industry is not in the forefront of our minds as we go through school and university. This translates into very low enrolment rates and has pushed universities to cut back on agriculture-related degrees. Fortunately in the last couple of years, enrolments have trended upwards and universities are beginning to offer more agricultural courses!

Perception

When considering studies in the agricultural field most people (quite reasonably perhaps) picture studying to be a farmer. Yet it is important to consider the breadth and multitude of career opportunities. A farmer plays one role, but there are also agronomists, machinists, agricultural engineers, physicists, programmers, salespeople, grain traders, economists, fruit and vegetable pickers, truck drivers and many many more varied and important roles.

All these people are involved in agriculture and it is critically important that if agriculture is to take on the next generation, the perception of agriculture must change to include these career opportunities. Doing so requires continued efforts from all aspects of the industry to promote the benefits of a career linked to agriculture.

As an additional point, owning and operating a farm can be risky business and requires a lot of financial capital. If someone does not inherit or have adequate capital owning a farm is unlikely. That’s where modern social enterprises come in such as Cultivate Farms which aim to improve movement back onto the farm with a type of matchmaking service.

Food Consumption

Then there’s our food consumption culture. The stores are always plentiful with fresh produce, food is always available and often much goes to waste. With such availability, the unit appreciation of each piece tends to decline as we take more for granted, perhaps as a consequence of this disconnect between food production and consumption.

The growing number of social enterprises (such as The Social Food Project), farmers markets, advertising campaigns are beginning a shift towards a focus on food provenance. A greater emphasis and understanding of the energy, water, labour and time put into each product would hope to improve decision making and reduce food waste. Understanding the story behind the food, as opposed to purely technical production characteristics, is said to improve the connection to the primary producer and improve consumer outcomes. Hence why Coles and Woolworths both have pictures of happy farmers or brief stories next to their food.

Solutions

In essence agriculture is all around us, and most of the professions out there are applicable in an agricultural context. Targeting school and tertiary levels of education increase the leverage of agricultural concepts and encourage the next generation of industry leaders to start thinking about agriculture early.

The change doesn’t need to be purely (as a primary education example) more class time on agriculture-specific concepts. In fact the class could look at new technology and use examples of agriculture, or look at the maths behind rates, speed, complex GPS calculations and incorporate the context of GPS guidance in tractors. Classes on economics or money could look at farm budgets, world markets in bulk commodities or futures markets in grain. Or how about chemistry of soaps as adjuvants in non water-soluble spray chemicals? The list is endless.

Of course, attracting the next generation will most definitely require the use of technology. Virtual reality, 360 degree photos, live streaming and augmented reality are all techniques that can break down distance barriers. Students in inner city schools could access footage direct from a dairy, grain harvester, capsicum grower, potato harvester, lettuce seeder right as it happens. The technology isn’t limited to the perception of agriculture as just farming either. Imagine viewing and interacting with researchers conducting new experiments, autonomous vehicles out in the paddock or designers working on new software.

In school we used to grow alfalfa on cotton wool in egg cartons. Imagine getting a class of students to control a robot on a 1 hectare paddock and grow a whole crop of wheat, or showing university students the important imaging tools and techniques used on farm by specialist UAV operators. Technology enables these things to happen and our creativity is the only barrier.

So where does that leave us? The trend of urbanisation will be difficult to slow, although higher house prices and cost of living may result in a market-dictated solution. Attempts to move the city to the country with relocation have drawn mixed feelings from the public. The ever growing number of agvocates, see our list of Agricultural Blogs, are spreading the good word about the agricultural industry and changing the tide of agriculture as seen in the recent statistics on enrolments, yet there remains a long way to go. Social enterprises and trends of food provenance are improving fringe awareness of production but leaving the majority behind (due to cost, time and availability of the services).

But if we plant the idea of agriculture early, imagine the wonderful field of opportunities for the industry that will arise from innovation, creativity and fresh ideas.

 

 

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