Breeding Ground for Ag Jobs
Today’s agriculture workers are more likely to use a microscope or a computer than a tractor or a combine. That’s because opportunities in research, plant breeding and agribusiness are booming across the country.
North Carolina is well positioned to take advantage of that growth. In fact, the state is taking a leadership role, creating new initiatives and preparing students for cutting-edge employment.
“Agriculture is the broadest sector of our state economy at $78 billion a year,” says Steve Lommel, director of the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service and associate dean of research for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at North Carolina State University (NCSU). “We predict we can grow that to $100 billion through ag research and specialty crop development.”
Making that happen starts with a plan to bring the university and industry together as part of the Plant Sciences Initiative.
“This is a new concept to bring all the considerable plant sciences research and training assets into one dynamic working group under one roof,” Lommel says.
The potential for collaborative opportunities will be a win for academia, corporations and workers.
“It will allow us to work together on bigger, global issues like drought, yield and sustainability,” Lommel says. “You need a big team from a variety of disciplines to tackle these problems. Corporations really want to work with university scientists and graduate students. It provides them with academic research expertise and helps them build their pipeline of employees for their highest-end jobs.”
The Research Triangle Park is already a breeding ground for plant science research, so the initiative is a great fit, he says. “Five of the six major agricultural biotech companies have headquarters on major operations in North Carolina,” he notes. “By bringing together this team, the Plant Sciences Initiative can tremendously affect the economic development of the state.”
It can also impact the job opportunities for North Carolinians.
“The Plant Sciences Initiative will be an engine for creating new jobs for plant, soil and weed scientists, agronomists, and breeders, and for those in the production and marketing aspects of agriculture who understand the economics behind the industry.”
As opportunities in agribusiness grow, North Carolina is readying students for these jobs. North Carolina A&T State University, for instance, recently launched a master’s degree in agribusiness and food management.
“Other than health care, more people are employed in agribusiness than any other industry in this country when you add transportation, financing, marketing and all the other business aspects of agriculture into the mix,” says Osei Yeboah, professor at N.C. A&T. “The focus on organic and locally produced food supplies creates limitless career opportunities, and we’re getting our students prepared to seize those opportunities and make an impact.”
Yeboah says graduates of N.C. A&T’s master’s program will be ready to work in commodity brokering, environmental law, higher education, international trade, policy and financial analysis, and marketing and development, among other careers.
At NCSU, Sara Lane, the coordinator of career services in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, says a recovering economy and expansion of the biotech sector are also opening up opportunities for students. Internships often pave the way.
“Internships are a pipeline for full-time employment,” Lane says. “We have established a stellar reputation for preparing students and connecting them with companies that give them solid, practical experience before they graduate. Many of them get hired as a result.”
North Carolina Farm Bureau’s Institute for Future Agricultural Leaders provides even earlier opportunities. This weeklong summer program introduces high school students to the agriculture industry. They explore future career opportunities by visiting agribusinesses, schools of agriculture, research farms and agronomy laboratories.
The North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has the largest publicly operated laboratory of its kind in the nation. Colleen Hudak-Wise, who oversees this lab, explains that many of the jobs involve special biology and chemistry skills and a commitment to quality science. Good computer skills are a must.
The work includes conducting soil tests, analyzing plant tissue and identifying plant-parasitic nematodes that present potential dangers to crops. Field agronomists also provide a direct link to the farmers who use the services to make fertilizer and pest management decisions.
“The services we provide are science based, so that farmers can make the best decisions,” Hudak-Wise says. “Working in an agronomy lab is a very satisfying career for those who have a strong scientific background, feel comfortable with technology and customized software, and are interested in promoting land management and protecting environmental quality. It’s a great way to serve the agriculture industry and make a difference.”
– Cathy Lockman