11/21/2012 10:22 am ET Updated Jan 21, 2013

Where the Jobs Are: Migrate Back to the Farm or to Agriculture

Record high U.S. agricultural exports and a booming world population, as well as growing interest in the farm-to-table and sustainable living movements, are helping to create significant demand for skilled workers in every area of agriculture. From diversified farming and food production, to agricultural waste and energy production, opportunities as varied as working for a multinational agriculture company or starting your own ag-related business abound.

In the eight years I've been teaching ag courses, I've never seen greater demand for my graduating students entering the workforce, or the range of entrepreneurial ventures they are launching. Some stats to consider:

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has projected a need for more than 54,000 new undergraduates annually to work in agriculture through 2015 -- and even more beyond.
  • The United Nations has projected the world population to grow to over nine billion people by 2050. In 2009 President Obama launched with other G-8 Leaders the "Agriculture and Food Security Initiative" collectively committing $22 billion in new investments in agriculture and nutrition.
  • U.S. agricultural exports are expected to hit $143 billion in 2013 according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

Whether you're a college student or an adult looking to make a mid-career change, agriculture is a great profession to explore. My students who don't have family farms to go back to have on average seven to 10 jobs to choose from -- before graduation. For every job that comes their way, there are just as many viable entrepreneurial opportunities.

Here in Vermont we're experiencing a renaissance in agriculture. Dairies producing fluid milk still dominate farm production, but a wide range of nondairy farms of all sizes produce conventional and organic fruits and vegetables, livestock, hay, maple products, and specialty crops for local, regional, and national markets. This dynamic and evolving sector is also made up of entrepreneurs creating a variety of value-added products (e.g., cured meats, granola, salsa, chocolate); a variety of distribution networks; and dozens of organizations, programs, and volunteer-driven activities that provide technical assistance, education, and outreach for agriculture-based ventures.

A panel of successful agricultural entrepreneurs spoke at our school, Vermont Technical College, recently. They ranged in age from 19 to 90. There was a woman whose organic composting company has grown more than 400 percent in two years, a farmer who introduced Vermont to grass-fed beef in the 1970s, an artisanal cheese maker who ships 65,000 pounds of cheese products annually, a dairy farmer who has influenced sustainable farming and the development of farm machinery around the world, and a woman who raises mixed vegetables and pastured animals on a diversified farm and tripled the size of her CSA business in just four years. A common theme in all of their endeavors is that doing what's best for the animals, the land, the water source and the air is a successful business model. Consumers today want a product that meets those requirements.

The federal government sees Vermont as a microcosm of this growing economic sector and has turned to Vermont Tech to develop a program for training students and mid-career workers eager to fill the new jobs that are being created by a changing industry and booming worldwide demand. A new $3.4 million federal grant will be used to enhance our training programs for individuals who want to work in agriculture -- everything from plant and animal food production and processing, to farm machinery and equipment expertise and energy production. The U.S. Department of Labor is hoping the program will be a model for other schools that have a hands-on approach such as Vermont Tech, which has its own 500-acre student-run farm including an 80-cow dairy, an 800-tap maple operation, a five-acre orchard, two-acre vegetable garden, a swine pen and pastured poultry operation.

Any agricultural endeavor requires specific skills and the ability to think critically and creatively. Science and math are prerequisites, as is a willingness to work hard and get dirty... sometimes really dirty! Hands-on experience is a fundamental marker for success. Farm kids -- born or created -- have a leg up when it comes to launching successful careers in agriculture. Schools like Vermont Tech that focus on applied learning -- the opportunity to integrate theory and practice, incorporating both knowledge and skills - can provide that hands-on experience. If you're interested in a life in agriculture, look for agricultural education programs that feature extensive collaborations with farms and businesses in the local and regional community. This expands a student's set of practical opportunities. Experience on many different types of farms, interacting with food outlets and other ag-related businesses, is invaluable in helping to learn about how the agricultural economy works. I often say to my students, "the farm is the professor."

We've heard a lot in these recent years about disappearing jobs. In agriculture, whether you're drawn to a lifestyle that is more connected to the local land and community, or you're moved by the idea of solving world hunger, there are plenty of opportunities to pursue. You may not have an IPad in 2050, but you're sure going to eat.