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Agriculture is an ancient practice that has become a cutting-edge science and industry. It's all about the production of crops, livestock, feed, and fiber. People need agriculture for the basics like food and clothing.
"The things that we do have a major impact on everyone--everyone must eat," says Bonita A. Glatz, a food science professor at Iowa State University.
Farmers and ranchers have gotten pretty good at growing and raising crops and food. The big push in agriculture now is to increase the quality and quantity of plant and animal products, while preserving the ecology of our systems. Things are really getting technical. In many majors, agricultural study is a type of applied biology or applied chemistry. It's a science. So if you study agriculture in a four-year program, you're likely to get a solid science background followed by an in-depth exploration of chemistry, biochemistry, genetics, pathology (study of diseases), meteorology (weather), economics, or education.
Is agriculture for you? People who study and work in farming represent a wide variety of skills and interests. If you care about people, animals, or planet Earth, you might consider an agricultural major. Do you have a passion for vegetable gardening or horseback riding? Maybe you love nature, plants, or the outdoors. Perhaps you want to protect the environment or help developing countries that are struggling with poverty and malnutrition. Many students bring experience in farming and ranching with them to college. During college, they gain an interest in economics and business or a particular branch of agriscience. You don't have to come from a farming background or plan to work on a farm to be an ag major. But you will need quantitative skills--math and statistics--to study this field.
What about job prospects? We all need agricultural products, but the industry is so efficient that we don't need as many farms and traditional farm jobs as we did in the past. Farms are merging so that we have fewer and larger farms now. Agriculture is big business. That means a smaller number of jobs for farmers and ranchers. On the other hand, the business of farming and the global scale of food distribution expand the role of other things like agribusiness and agricultural economics. In fact, students in these two majors will take many of the same classes. The difference is that agribusiness students will probably have a career path toward management in a food company. Agricultural economics is more analytical and good preparation for either research or business. Your choice of major and level of degree affect your job prospects.
What's hot in the field
If you're thinking that agriculture is just plants and soil, no way. Computers, telecommunications, and other high-tech tools play a huge role. "Precision agriculture guided by geographic information systems, satellite guidance, and computer-equipped tractors increases production and conserves natural resources," explains Professor Douglas L. Young of Washington State University.
What else is happening? You've probably seen news stories about environmental regulations or about real estate development in what were once rural areas. These trends may require agriculture students to learn more about the environment and resource economics. "The sustainability of the way we produce food is becoming more important as fuel, transportation and food safety issues are intensifying," says Professor Marianne Sarrantonio, who coordinates the sustainable agriculture program at the University of Maine. She sees increasing demand for graduates in that field.
Another new area of study is the economics of biotechnology. The job picture is also bright for students in food science, partly because people's tastes change and consumers are learning more about nutrition, health, and wellness. And don't forget food safety and biosecurity. They couldn't be more important. Other hot jobs are in plant breeding and genetics, financial management, information systems, and teaching.
From field to table, from the plant to the planet, agriculture requires more knowledge and education than ever before. Today's agricultural professionals have business, economic, scientific, and technical skills and expertise.
It's no surprise that during graduate-level studies, students focus on a very specific area. For example, in agronomy, grad students zoom in on things like crop production and physiology; or soil sciences including soil chemistry, microbiology, and biochemistry. If you're interested in a business track, keep in mind that nearly all agribusiness professions require advanced degrees; grad studies veer toward agricultural marketing or agricultural trade.
But not all colleges and universities define majors in the same way. Colleges vary in the areas of study they emphasize. The differences could stem from the regional climate and its specific crop or soil suitability, or even a college's size and priorities. In college catalogs and on the Internet, look under agricultural sciences, biological sciences, environmental sciences, and natural resources. And be sure to go to the Web sites of the land-grant universities and the big state schools, which dominate agricultural education. Another section in this book related to agriculture is Natural resources and conservation. There you'll find majors in forestry, fisheries, and environmental studies.
Here are some Web sites to get you started thinking about your future in agriculture: the U.S. Department of Agriculture (www.usda.gov), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (www.fda.gov), the National FFA Organization (www.ffa.org), and the American Farm Bureau (www.fb.org).
Also known as:
What it's about:
Agricultural business deals with the management, marketing, and financing of food and fiber, "from the field to the table." You study principles from agricultural sciences, economics, business, and statistics in preparation for a career in agribusiness, farming, natural resources, government, and related areas.
Is this for you?
You might like this major if you also like: 4-H projects and competitions; debating; organizing or leading a club or other group activity; solving problems; sports. A concern for the problems of developing countries that are struggling with poverty and malnutrition might also lead you to this major.
Consider this major if you are good at: attention to detail; critical reading/thinking; leadership; organizing; persuading/influencing; quantitative analysis; teamwork ...or have... initiative; verbal skills; writing skills.
Recommended high school prep:
English 4, math 3 (including precalculus), lab science 3 (including biology and chemistry), social studies 3, and a foreign language 2-3. If available, take a computer course covering basic office applications and spreadsheets.
Did you know...
...that to be successful in agricultural business, you must know math and statistics? Many students are surprised by the idea, as well as by the need for excellent writing and speaking skills.
Typical courses in this major:
Introduction to agribusiness
Economics (micro and macro)
Farm and ranch management
Human resources management
Farm management laboratory
Agricultural history and law
Management information systems
In college: agricultural economics; agricultural marketing; farm and ranch management; agricultural finance; environmental economics; crop or animal production; international agriculture and trade.
If you go on to grad school: econometrics; agricultural policy; rural and community economic development.
What the study of this major is like:
The agricultural business major prepares you to apply business and economic principles to the production and marketing of food and other agricultural products and to the management of natural resources. In order to make economically and environmentally sound decisions in this field, you need to understand accounting, economics, finance, labor, marketing, management, and public policy, as you analyze and deal with business and environmental risk; identify and respond to changes in the demand for food products and services; and improve profitability.
You learn principles associated with best practices for product development, profit maximization, and investment planning. You become familiar with accounting tools like balance sheets, income statements, and cash flow statements. You are taught to use quantitative tools such as statistics, accounting methods, computer programs, and investment analysis to solve management and planning problems.
You also learn the importance of risk management in an industry in which prices can zigzag (because of the uncertainties of worldwide markets) and production is at the mercy of weather, pests, and natural disasters. To thrive despite the risks, you must make smart use of futures markets, insurance, contracting, machinery maintenance, emerging technologies, and labor management. You also take supporting courses in data analysis, international studies, biological sciences, social sciences, and written and oral communication. A number of agribusinesses offer internships that give you a chance to get some real business experience.
Many majors are challenged by such requirements as calculus and courses in the humanities and social sciences. Third- and fourth-year team and individual projects--which can sometimes conflict with off-campus employment or other activities--require long hours of work. But problem-centered assignments help...