CALS students explore: What if ag recruiting is too late?

Jessica Wendt and Deanna Zernicke are UW-Madison students and Emerging Leaders with the Land O’Lakes Global Food Challenge fellowship program. Wendt is studying agriculture business management and entrepreneurship. Zernicke is studying economics and agricultural business management. Read more about the program on the Land O’Lakes website.

Think back to your grade school days: when someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, was it easy to reply with an answer? Maybe you were considering a career as a firefighter, doctor, nurse, teacher or an astronaut. As you grew up, did those dreams change?

Today, there are endless options and opportunities for careers. So how do you decide what to do for the rest of their life? Do you research and try every career, field, industry and job until you find the perfect fit? Some might, but for us, it was easy to pursue a career that intersects with our passion for agriculture.

Although we grew up in 4-H, FFA and as farm kids who loved everything agriculture has to offer, we know not everyone has our same experience. The average American is now at least three generations removed from the farm. So, as the two Land O’Lakes Global Food Challenge Emerging Leaders from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we made it our mission to find out why (or why not), our fellow students are choosing to pursue a career in agriculture.

Discovering what ag has to offer

We gathered a group of University of Wisconsin-Madison students, both ag and non-ag majors ranging from animal science, communications, biology, nursing, finance and economics, asked one simple question: when you hear the word agriculture, what comes to mind?

Agriculture majors were quick to respond showing their passion and dedication. Emily Matzke, a freshman studying animal science and life sciences communication explained, “I think of all the hard working people across the world who spend their time and resources cultivating crops that are needed to feed the world.”

For the rest of the group, the question caused some confusion and deep thinking. Those who from urban areas, like Meg Sullivan, Sarah Homedi, and Samantha Fralish, talked about farm tours they went on in elementary school. Joseph Schroeder and Edwin Neumann, talked about their rural communities where their neighbors and classmates farmed plots of land.

Zach Simons, a junior studying animal science and poultry, laughed and explained how agriculture has much more to offer. Though Zach didn’t grow up in agriculture, he found many career opportunities within the poultry industry.

“Whether it is a production manager, processing manager, USDA inspectors on the processing line, or a feed manager, I’ve had many job offers giving me the flexibility to choose among many great opportunities,” Zach said.

Emily, on the other hand, has always had her eye on ag. “I’ve wanted to go into the agriculture industry ever since I was a little girl. Having a direct connection to where my food comes from inspired me to share the agriculture story with everyone for my career.”

Sarah Homedi, a sophomore from Chicago, Illinois, has always had a strong desire for helping others and is interested in the medical field. When talking about her interest in a career within agriculture, her answer was simple, “I don’t really think my interests fit within the industry. I’ve always wanted to be in the medical field, so I never really thought about it.”

After we shared the ways agriculture uses innovation, technology and how farmers help people everyday, Sarah realized there were quite a few similarities after all, “I wish I would have learned that earlier on. Maybe I’ll end up in the agriculture industry someday after all.”

Build interest early

In the end, a similar theme seemed to arise. Students that grew up on a farm or directly related to agriculture had a strong passion to remain in the industry. However, students that grew up away from agriculture, likely had never even thought about pursuing a career within the industry, nor do they want to at this point in their life.

“I am guessing there’d be at least one occupation that I would find interesting, such as bioengineering. But, my career goals are quite firm at this point in my education, so I doubt persuasion would make me change my mind,” Edwin told us.

Our discussion led us to an interesting thought: the industry is constantly looking for new and innovative minds to jump in and pursue a career, but what if we are trying to recruit too late? In a world with constant communication and access to information, how can we engage more students, earlier, about the diverse career opportunities in agriculture?

For us, it starts with a story, our own story of finding a love for agriculture. Through our participation in the Land O’Lakes Global Food Challenge Emerging Leaders for Food Security fellowship, we’re sparking conversations, understanding other people’s concerns and answering questions about the industry. There are so many diverse ways to become part of this industry, and we are excited to continue to inspire others to join as we look to help farmers feed the world.