Concerns about the lack of "agricultural literacy"

Stateline Midwest ~ March 2012

Nebraska Sen. Kate Sullivan says agriculture is not only her state’s largest industry, it may also be one of the least understood.

“[There is a] disconnect that people have about where their food comes form and the role of agriculture in their daily lives,” she notes, adding that “more children are growing up with no connection to farming and ranching.”

Concerns about this disconnect led her to introduce LB 884, a bill to create a state task force charged with seeking ways of incorporating agricultural literacy into the curriculum of Nebraska’s K-12 schools.

“The public’s response to the bill in the Agriculture Committee showed that it was an important topic,” says

Sen. Tom Carlson, chair of the committee. Rather than create the task force, he says, the Legislature’s first step will be an interim study on agricultural literacy.

One concern among lawmakers like Carlson and Sullivan is that a lack of understanding about agriculture — and its importance to the economy and people’s everyday lives — erodes support for it.

According to a U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance survey, 72 percent of consumers reported knowing nothing or very little about farming or ranching. Less than 2 percent of Americans are actively involved in food production, but University of Minnesota professor Allen Levine says this alone does not explain public disinterest or misunderstanding of agriculture. Another contributing factor, he says, has been U.S. agriculture’s success in helping provide a bountiful food system to the nation.

“Government invests in health care research because they know about illness, but few in America’s politics know about hunger,” Levine says. “If you were hungry, you would invest in food and understand the importance of agriculture.”

Agriculture, too, is connected to up to one in three jobs in some Midwestern states (see table).

Yet there are skeptics about the future of jobs in this sector. An online ranking by Yahoo!® on “useless” college majors put agriculture at the top, with animal science and horticulture ranking fourth and fifth, respectively.

The rankings were based in part on the fact that there are fewer farms. Indeed, the continued consolidation of the agricultural industry, along with technological advances, is resulting in a decline in the number of self-employed farm producers and farm workers.

But agriculture encompasses much more than farming.

According to the Food and Agriculture Education Information System, the agriculture, food and renewable natural resource sectors of the U.S. economy from 2010-2015 will generate an estimated 54,400 annual openings; over that same time, only 29,300 students were expected to graduate from colleges of agriculture.

University of Minnesota agriculture graduates have an 83 percent placement rate within six months of graduation, averaging $36,000 a year in salary, Levine says. Iowa State and Purdue universities boast agriculture graduate placement rates of 98 percent and 86 percent, respectively.