The pipeline of agricultural workers is becoming more and more scientific

Agricultural work is not only done on the farm.

In the Midwest, plant science and agricultural companies are looking for STEM scientists and others in laboratories or in front of computers that do not fit into the traditional image of agriculture.

“When people associate with people who work in the agricultural industry, they are often amazed at what they actually do for a living,” said Kim Kidwell, associate chancellor of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and Strategic Partnerships and Initiatives. Former Dean of the School of Agriculture. “There’s a lot of engineering, there’s a lot of business, there’s a lot of computer science.”

Across the industry, there is a growing need for scientists at all levels, as agriculture is becoming a high-tech industry, and employers are increasingly looking for people who do not have a traditional agricultural background for different jobs.

Corteva Agriscience is a global company that produces agricultural products such as seeds and chemicals. The company currently has about 500 jobs open, ranging from scientists to data engineers. About 200 of them do not need a four-year degree. Many of the openings are in Nebraska, Indiana, Michigan and Iowa.

“People obviously think Corteva is an agricultural company and they think they have to have an agricultural degree, an agronomy degree or an agricultural business degree to come to work with us, and that’s far from the truth,” Angela Latcham said. He leads the North American Seed Production and Supply Chain team. “We’re looking for people from non-traditional backgrounds.”

Corteva holds open positions nationwide and worldwide. Some are in rural areas, close to fields where crops are grown, but this is not the case in most agricultural work.

Agricultural economists at Purdue University have been studying online job vacancies and found that about two-thirds are located in metropolitan areas.

“Most of the work isn’t on the farm,” said Brady Brewer, an associate professor of agricultural economics in Purdue.

The need for workers of extraordinary origin also extends to education. Kidwell, of the University of Illinois, said there is a “tremendous demand” for scientists at all levels, as well as for positions that do not require a four-year degree.

“If we don’t get more people in, what comes out of the pipe will be very unsuitable to support the progress of food and agriculture, as it has the potential to spread,” he said.

Growing the agricultural workforce

St. In Louis, a community college program is trying to fill the staff gap by training students to work in labs. St. Louis Community College’s Center for Plant and Life Sciences is a hands-on program. In fact, many classes are taught at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, where scientists study plants and find ways to apply their knowledge in agriculture.

Brian Munoz

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San Luis Public Radio

Josh Nichols, 25, of Oakville, Mo., receives a sample Tuesday, April 26, 2022, at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Olivet, St. Louis. In a laboratory experiment in biotechnology at the Louis Community College Center for Plant and Life Sciences. , Mo.

The center’s director, Elizabeth Boedeker, was conducting a lab exercise with her students as they worked with the cells last evening.

“There’s a huge demand for staff right now,” Boedeker said. “These two-year interns are being offered permanent full-time or part-time employment with these internship sponsors.”

The types of positions that Boedeker prepares for students, such as the role of agricultural and food science technicians, are still smaller in group compared to farm workers, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these science jobs are expected to grow. much faster than traditional in the coming years farm work.

Boedeker students do internships as part of their courses, often with startups and some of the big companies in the field of plant science.

NewLeaf Symbiotics is a company that regularly hires fellows through a community college program. The biotechnology startup is located in the same building where the classes are held.

The company describes Natalie Breakfield, vice president of research and discovery, as essentially a “probiotic for a plant.”

Breakfield has a PhD, but said he could fill many of the company’s jobs through associates or a technical training program, St. Through Louis Community College. These research assistants carry out practical laboratory work, collecting data and conducting experiments, while being supervised by another scientist.

“I know I can call an employee when I need to [Boedeker] and ask him who has the job search available now, and he can send me some resumes right away, ”Breakfield said.

St. As Louis works to become a hub for biotechnology companies, Breakfield said more and more people will be needed in such jobs. But a barrier to dissemination is that people may not know that these careers exist.

Breakfield also said he did not know about the field of plant science as a laboratory technician before his first job.

“That was my first real introduction to working with plants and then I fell in love,” she said. “I think if you like science, this is a good place to start and you can always move forward if you decide you want to move forward in your education.”

Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke

This story was produced in collaboration with Harvest Public Media, a Midwest public media newsroom. It provides information on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @uztapm

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