The new crop of college graduates hoping to dive into the workforce this spring are up against tough odds. With a stagnant economy and 8.1% national unemployment rate, jobs are scarce. But there is one industry that has continued to grow despite the recession, and it is one that new grads should definitely consider: agriculture.
Conventional American agriculture has had its ups and downs. In the 1970s and 80s, farmers experienced a wide range of success, with grain prices initially skyrocketing and then land prices crashing. Today, “an average acre of Iowa farmland has doubled in value” since 2006 (Washington Post). Improved technology has made farming into a large-scale business, with farmers planting potentially thousands of acres.
Many agriculture programs that have seen declining enrollment numbers for years have also been rejuvenated. Rural high schools offer vocational agriculture training that allows students to pursue their interest in farming while still working towards a high school degree. And college-level agriculture programs allow students to specialize in one area of agriculture, as well as teaching them about the business aspects of the industry.
Unfortunately, large-scale Midwestern farming is not the most eco-friendly business around. Along with improved machinery comes more pesticides and herbicides to protect crops, but also leave an undesirable ecological footprint. Organic and alternative farming is not nearly as lucrative, but more sustainable over the long term if job-seekers are willing to invest the time, energy and innovation that it requires.
I spent the summer before my senior year of college and the first four months after graduation working on a small organic farm. It was an emotionally satisfying job — I put the seeds in the ground and watched the plants emerge. I didn’t have to worry about washing the produce before I ate it or gave it away, because I knew that nothing chemical had been sprayed on the plants. But it was tough. A significant portion of the crop fell to Japanese beetles, aphids and weeds, and there wasn’t much I could do about it.
Last fall, I switched sides and worked for an industrial farmer, harvesting corn and soybeans throughout the fall. The equipment was state-of-the-art, with a GPS-driven combine and enclosed tractor with air conditioning and radio. I got paid much more, and worked more hours (sometimes 17 hours a day). We harvested 2,000 acres over an 8-week period, and there was definitely some satisfaction in knowing that some of the corn we harvested would be make into ethanol. But it wasn’t the same as organic farming, because I knew that what I was doing ultimately wasn’t good for the planet.
Recent high school or college grads may well find that conventional farming is a great way to make some money and get set on their feet after graduation. But the real riches will come from the efforts to make organic and sustainable farming the norm in America.
Photo credit: Aiko, Thomas & Juliette+Isaac
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