The U.S. really needs farmers. And I’m going to illustrate how we can provide for this need, but first, let’s start with some figures.
In 2018, 37 million people were food insecure (which simply means they had no access to healthy, affordable food).
As of this year, one third of greenhouse gas emissions have been caused by agricultural practices.
In 2008, 77 percent of vegetable farmers reported scaling back operations due to a lack of labor.
According to a 2016 study, 70 percent of surveyed college graduates were unemployed or working in a non-professional job.
According to a 2017 report, more than six million jobs are at risk of degree inflation.
Do you see the connection?
A Crumbling Country
Currently, the United States faces growing concerns. Many families lack access to affordable and healthy foods, which leads to obesity, other health risks (such as diabetes), and hunger. Despite the fact that the United States produces enough food to feed its people, 41 percent of its contiguous cropland is used to feed livestock. As if this wasn’t bad enough, a large portion of our crops is not picked because we currently possess a farm labor shortage. But why?
Many people turn their noses up at agriculture, viewing it as a “redneck” or “poor” profession. They send their children to college to be nurses, veterinarians, computer scientists, and teachers. But many people in the agricultural industry are not picking fields; they are in labs and offices. Did you know that agricultural economists and lawyers can make an average of $105,000 and $115,820 respectively?
But you don’t need to be in a lab or office to have a rewarding and important profession. While, yes, there is new technology that allows fields to be picked via robots, many farmers cannot afford automated robots. Additionally, these farmers would need workers who could operate this technology.
The agricultural industry needs laborers. This is a fact. So who are these laborers and where do we find them?
Ag Labor in the U.S.
It is estimated that one third to one half of farm workers in the United States are undocumented immigrants. So now, the country’s immigration policies are affecting agricultural efficiency. (I won’t get into that.)
Additionally, the farm labor shortage is growing due to the H-2A visa program, designed for seasonal agriculture workers. This program makes it difficult for farmers to hire workers for two reasons. First, they are required to provide above-market wages, housing, and transportation, standards that farmers simply cannot meet. Second, inefficiencies in the paperwork process make it difficult for farmers to hire workers in time to pick fields.
Due to a lack of labor and resources (money), farmers cannot expand in the industry. If farmers are having trouble making a profit due to a lack of laborers and crop losses, then future generations aren’t going to want to go into the farming business. And if the U.S. needs farmers now, then just think about the future. This could spell major trouble for the country.
According to the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, we must solve the farm labor shortage by reforming our immigration policy. This way, there will be a steady flow of farmers and laborers coming to the United States.
This is one solution. There is, however, another solution that could complement immigration reform to bolster the U.S. Ag Industry.
Solving the Issue
While hiring laborers from across the border is an excellent way to increase agricultural efficiency and solve our farm labor shortage, our country’s educational framework needs to be revised. Extensively.
Remember those statistics I mentioned earlier? Let’s review them.
According to those statistics, the United States faces four major, interconnected problems:
- Food insecurity
- Climate change
- A shrinking agricultural labor force and
- A growing number of students with degrees but no practical, real-world experience or skills.
While reforming our immigration policies to allow immigrants to work our fields will help solve the labor shortage, wouldn’t it be great if we could find one solution for all four problems? Well, there is a solution.
Each one of these problems could be solved by educating children on agricultural practices. The U.S. needs farmers–and it begins with kids.
Ag in Schools
Was anyone ever apart of the FFA (Future Farmers of America) in middle or high school?
I wasn’t. But I wish I had been.
According to Susie Thompson, an Illinois State University student, children in FFA programs receive hands-on experience that prepares them for the real world. In an article, she writes, “Many FFA members have projects and must keep accurate records of all transactions that occur each year. This teaches students how to balance a checkbook, budget accordingly, and plan for the future–all of which are real-world skills.”
In addition to everything children learn in FFA programs, they also learn an essential skill: gardening.
Knowing how to grow food, where your food comes from, and what chemicals are on your produce are important things that every person should know.
And educating children on gardening instills a passion, curiosity, and appreciation for life. Children who tend to gardens, watch plants grow, and enjoy the fruits of their labor will appreciate the effort it takes to create food. This, subsequently, helps negate any egocentric views a child might have regarding food. For instance, children will understand that food is not something you can snap your fingers and produce and hard work comes with reward.
By exposing them to gardening, children will also appreciate the value of fresh, healthy produce.
This generation is already one of the most compassionate and understanding generations we have seen thus far. Children like Greta Thunberg are petitioning for action against climate change; refusing to have children until policies are put into place; working for racial, religious, and sexual acceptance; and brainstorming how to solve growing issues in the world.
With more children learning about agriculture and entering the field, in a decade or two, we could have engineers inventing new technologies that reverse climate change (read up on regenerative agriculture to see other ways we’re working to do this); farmers with a passion for plant life; scientists bio-engineering crops to be healthier; and researchers discovering new ways to reduce food waste, feed more people, and eliminate food deserts.
Another problem, as illuminated by the above statistics, is a lack of graduates who possess the skills to perform jobs.
Degree inflation is spreading. There are many employers who require degrees for jobs that don’t require college-level skills. So, many more students are flocking to colleges to obtain those degrees (and those who can’t work minimum wage jobs or go into trade professions, which is actually a very lucrative and vital field).
Other graduates have degrees but are underemployed, meaning they can’t find a job in their degree. And, even worse, some graduates simply cannot find a job. Period. This is due to a variety of factors, including a lack of knowledge and experience regarding:
- Effective job searching
- Job opportunities related to their field of study and
- Making connections with potential employers.
To tackle underemployment and unemployment, students should seek degrees in in-demand fields (such as agriculture). They should also seek degrees in fields in which job opportunities are clearly defined.
The U.S. needs farmers and U.S. citizens need jobs. Seems like a simple I scratch your back, you scratch mine situation. But getting students interested in agriculture begins at an early age.
Indoor (and Outdoor) School Gardening
FFA is great for middle and high school students, but what about children younger than this?
Exposing younger children to gardening will increase the percentage of students entering FFA organizations and, subsequently, the agricultural field. And schools are already doing this.
In New Jersey, a Southampton elementary school has introduced aeroponic gardening to a fifth grade class. Aeroponic gardening is an indoor gardening method in which a plant’s roots are suspended in the air and water and nutrients are provided via mist.
In the tower garden, the children have grown celery, lettuce, kale, sage, and basil. And the students love it.
Student Chase Henry-O’Neal says it better than anyone else: “I like knowing where all the food’s coming from and what goes on it.”
And in a Fort Myers middle school, students have launched a compost program to combat food waste. The program emphasizes the problem of food insecurity and teaches students how to tackle world crises. The Lee County School District has over 30 school gardens thus far.
The U.S Needs Farmers–and xVital
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