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 postsecondary, 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

speca program: urban agriculture resource kits

Brian Allen Talbert, Professor, Agricultural Education, Purdue University
Brian Allen Talbert, Professor, Agricultural Education, Purdue University

“Engaging Underrepresented Populations in the Food and Agricultural Sciences through Urban Agriculture” is a joint project between Arsenal Tech High School Agriculture Program in Indianapolis and the Agricultural Education Program at Purdue University. The project, supported by NIFA’s Secondary Education, Two-Year Postsecondary Education, and Agriculture in the K-12 Classroom Challenge Grants Program (SPECA), is designed to help students in grades 9-12 learn about agriculture, so they become aware of and excited about careers in agriculture. Purdue has created introductory lesson plans in agriculture for an urban audience, which were pilot tested at Arsenal and are available as “spaces” through the National Association of Agricultural Educators (NAAE) Communities of Practice online community titled “Urban Agriculture."

Dr. Allen Talbert, project director, said, “One of the most exciting parts of the project is the creation of an Urban Agriculture Resource Kit that will help urban agriculture teachers more easily introduce urban agriculture to their students.” For two summers, the agriculture teacher at Arsenal Tech High School and her students have developed garden plots, set up the greenhouse for microgreens and other production, and maintained chickens. This summer they plan to experiment with honey production. The kit is being developed by Arsenal Tech based on these experiences. It will contain the equipment, materials, and instructions for an agriculture teacher to grow vegetables and other products that can be used for food consumption or sale. The students also learn procedures and skills that they could implement in their own backyards or community garden spaces. Once piloted, the recommended list of items and instructions will be available on the Communities of Practice webpage.

The project has an immediate, direct impact on students and has the potential to increase the number and diversity of students who will pursue and complete a 2- or 4-year postsecondary degree in the food and agricultural sciences. “The hands-on approach helps these students to connect the dots with the food chain and helps them identify where their food comes from,” stated project co-director and Arsenal Tech agriculture teacher Sonya Lord-Chamberlain. “When students see the classroom and lab facilities and what they can be doing, they become interested and excited.”