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. 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).  The 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

RIIA Program: A history in progress

Gladys M. Gonzalez-Martinez, Professor of Agricultural Economics, University of Puerto Rico
Gladys M. Gonzalez-Martinez, Professor of Agricultural Economics, University of Puerto Rico

Before the Resident Instruction for Insular Areas (RIIA) program was launched in 2004, the Insular Areas had funding for research and extension, but not for education.  Recruiting and training students to study agriculture was a challenge.  In 2015, the University of Puerto Rico has 300 incoming freshmen in their agricultural program. This increase in enrollment is not entirely because of the RIIA funding, but the grant was a big factor.  “Our enrollment continues to climb even as enrollment rates for agricultural degrees drops nationally”, said Dr. Gonzalez-Martinez, Project Director. “About 20 percent of our students want to pursue graduate degrees. Others go into the workforce and many join USDA agencies such as the National Resource Conservation Service or the Agricultural Research Service.”

In 2015, eight students from University of Puerto Rico presented their research at the 2015 Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences annual conference and one of them took second place in the oral presentations competition. We also have a program with a local high school to encourage students with interest and talent in math and science to participate in agricultural science laboratory experiences with our faculty.