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To feed the growing global population - expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050 - the Food and Agricultural Organization projects that agricultural production (food, feed and fiber) will need to increase by 70 percent.

If these predictions are accurate, humankind’s greatest challenge may be educating the needed labor to replace the aging American farmer and the skilled workers and scientists needed to support the sustainable growth in agricultural production.

An Opportunity to Train a Skilled Agricultural Workforce

According to the Census of Agriculture, the average age of the American farmer is 58 years and is climbing. A recent study by NIFA and Purdue University on Employment Opportunities for College Graduates in Food, Agriculture, Renewable Natural Resources and the Environment has forecasted that between 2015 and 2020, there will be 57,900 annual openings for graduates with bachelors or higher degrees in those areas. An average of 35,400 new U.S. graduates with expertise in food, agriculture, renewable natural resources, or the environment are expected to fill only about 61% of the expected 57,900 average annual openings.

Training Beginning Farmers

The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program provides grants to develop and offer education, training, outreach and mentoring programs to enhance the sustainability of the next generation of farmers. In partnerships with other federal agencies, NIFA assists new and beginning farmers with accessing capital, land and knowledge and information to ensure profitability and sustainability of those just entering agriculture and in their first ten years of operation. 

Strengthening Agricultural Education

NIFA’s approach to strengthening agricultural education is based on enhancing the education pipeline continuum and includes the following three priority areas:

  • First priority is to engage K-14 students in agricultural literacy programs in non-formal and formal educational settings. For example, NIFA provides leadership for the 4-H program, which is the nation’s largest positive youth development and youth mentoring program, that is conducted in partnership with 110 universities and engages 6 million young people. In terms of formal education, NIFA offers professional development and curriculum development opportunities in agriculture for K-14 education professionals.
  • Second priority is to broaden learning and engagement opportunities for undergraduates to address 21st century workforce skills needed in food, agricultural science, natural resources and human science professions. NIFA’s programs help to advance the development of high-quality educational curricula; enhance learning methods; design teacher preparation and professional development programs; and promote linkages among secondary, two-year post-secondary, and higher education programs in food and agricultural sciences.
  • The third priority is to advance science and promote innovation by supporting graduate and postgraduate education to cultivate future leaders who are able to address and solve emerging agricultural challenges of the 21st century.

To address the unique opportunities and challenges that stem from the growing diversity of the nation’s population, NIFA also offers a portfolio of programs targeted for Minority Serving Institutions (MSI). MSI applicants to NIFA’s programs in food, agriculture, natural resources and human sciences represent approximately 110 separate institutions educating nearly 500,000 students annually.

High Impact Outcome

University of Houston sustainability garden

HSI Program: Curriculum development to train sustainability professionals

Houston faces increasingly difficult environmental and food distribution challenges as its population grows and this will require new approaches to local collaboration and job training. Project Director Dr. Lisa Morano at the University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) saw that many Houston residents were interested in locally grown food, better water quality, and sustainable city practices as well as related job opportunities, and she is working to train the next generation to fulfill these workforce needs. Dr. Morano and UHD’s Center for Urban Agriculture and Sustainability leveraged (CUAS) NIFA’s Hispanic-Serving Institutions Education Grants Program (HSI) to receive funding to develop a workforce development curriculum and a minor in Sustainability. Morano and her co-PD Dr. Tzouanas set out to educate traditional students as well as community members in the food, agriculture, natural resources, and human sciences in order to prepare them to tackle the tough challenges Houston will face in the future.

Some of the courses that support a new minor in Sustainability include Fundamentals of Sustainability, Renewable Energy Systems, Sustainability Seminar and Capstone in Sustainability. About 30 students have engaged in the new curriculum so far and 5 students will have graduated with the minor by this spring. UHD’s HSI grant has also supported a summer experiential learning program where the CUAS hosts 10 students per summer. Projects over the last couple of summers have included solar-powered aquaponics systems, solar-powered irrigation systems for both community and UHD gardens, and an automatic, solar-powered composter.

Dr. Morano is pleased with the changes the CUAS has made over the past few years. She notes that “several students in the experiential summer program have gone on to graduate school to study related fields, which highlights the importance of these programs in recruiting and training the next generation of workers in urban agriculture. We have a population of over 70% minority students at UHD and have seen successes in increasing their pipeline into graduate programs which was one of our goals.”

In addition to the Minor in Sustainability, UHD is coordinating with the College of Business to potentially create an academic certificate that will combine business and sustainability practices.  In addition to courses and experiences for traditional students, the CUAS has started community education courses that cover topics important to urban agriculture such as how to start a garden, the basics of viticulture, and becoming an urban farmer.

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