Wanted: The Next Generation Of Ag Educators And Researchers [Opinion]

Wanted: The Next Generation Of Ag Educators And Researchers [Opinion]

Phil Nolte

Phil Nolte

A Changing of the Guard
I’m not going to tell you how old I am. You can find that out easily enough on your own, but here’s a subtle hint: Lately, more and more people have been asking me when I’m going to retire. I usually give them a sort of non-committal answer like, “Sometime within the next two years,” or some such. In the scheme of things, the loss of one researcher/Extension specialist to the ag industry shouldn’t be cause for alarm. Should it?

Unfortunately, I am only one member of what is likely to be a mass exodus of university researchers, educators, and Extension types that will be going out to pasture sometime in the next three to five years. This is a phenomenon that is being referred to as “The Grey Tsunami.”

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As I look around me at who will be stepping in to pick up the various torches that have been carried by all these departing people, I see some pretty thin ranks.

This is not to say that the universities around the U.S. haven’t hired some very talented people in the last few years — they have. There are just fewer and fewer scientists coming out of graduate school these days who have the practical and applied background necessary for resolving everyday agricultural problems and for tackling the new ones that seem to crop up on a regular basis.

Food For 9 Billion
And yet, as a generation of agricultural scientists contemplates its golden years, the drumbeat of the human race continues unabated in the background. Forecasts of population growth put the world at 9 billion or more by the year 2050. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations forecasts that world food production will need to rise by an astounding 70% to provide sufficient food.

To accomplish this prodigious feat, it’s no exaggeration to say that those who will be working in agriculture in the future will need to be at the very top of their games.

This probably means, first and foremost, the development of new and improved varieties, but will also require applied research to provide the knowledge base that will ensure that we get the most from every single one of the inputs required to produce a crop.

All of this new knowledge will also need to be communicated to the agricultural industry of the future, in some form or another.

All is not lost, however. In the midst of all this bad news, hope still remains. I got a questionnaire a couple of weeks ago from a young person in high school who is interested in pursuing a career as an agricultural scientist. I was asked to describe a typical day on the job, whether I had any opportunities for travel, and for a list of other basic how-to information. I took my time with my answers. At the end of the questionnaire there was a space for comments, and obviously, I told him I have best job in the world.

Invest In The Future
We, as an industry, need to identify more young people like this high school student and see that they get the encouragement and the resources they need to move forward. Now, more than ever, we must have the foresight to invest our time and money to prepare a workforce capable of addressing food security in the future and all of the tremendous challenges it will entail.

This column was not intended to be some kind of portent for the doom that is to come. Consider it rather a call to arms: Agriculture is in des-perate need of scientists and educators who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty or their shoes muddy.

Do you know a young person who you think would make a good agricultural scientist? Perhaps you have one of two of them in your own family. Interested parties are encouraged to apply at the ag university of their choice.

Our industry and our world are going to need them!