You don't have to be a farmer to have an ag career
Sept./Oct. 2008 California Country magazine
By Ching Lee
Agriculture education in California and across the nation is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, attracting a wider spectrum of students than they have in decades.
As rapid urban growth continues to devour the nation's farmland, some might expect that agriculture programs in schools would become endangered or extinct.
But agriculture education in California and across the nation is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, attracting more students--and a wider spectrum of them--than they have in decades.
"There's a growing realization that the ag industry may not be the sunset industry that people have assumed it would be in California," said Jim Aschwanden, executive director of the California Ag Teachers' Association.
With increasing interest in everything from food safety to biotechnology to biofuel production, agriculture education is no longer about just farming but a much broader field garnishing vast appeal from students who may not have grown up on a farm. Aschwanden noted that the majority of the state's ag students do not come from agricultural backgrounds.
According to the National FFA Organization, formerly known as Future Farmers of America, there are now more than 500,000 high school agriculture students nationwide, an all-time high since 1977, when FFA membership peaked at 510,000.
In California, ag education enrollment--with 66,179 students in the 2007-08 school year--has more than doubled since 1989 after taking a dramatic dip in the early '80s. That's when a restructuring of the educational system to increase requirements for graduation left less flexibility for students to take elective classes, Aschwanden said.
Since then ag education has had to continually update itself by integrating practical applications of agriculture with more advanced science, new technology and other study areas into the mix. This is a big change from many years ago when ag classes were considered vocational education, now called career and technical education, which includes auto mechanics and wood shop.
Today, high school ag programs still offer vocational training in specific skills and trades, such as welding and small engine technology, but they've also become more academically rigorous with courses such as agricultural biology, animal science, agriculture business and economics, environmental horticulture science and ag physics.
Students get a more hands-on approach to scientific concepts because they're learning about the biology of plants and animals by growing and raising them, Aschwanden noted.
"Once they're in the ag program, what they discover is this ag industry is a lot more than what they'd imagined it was," he said.
One realization may be that an agriculture career does not necessarily mean working on a farm. In fact, only 10 percent of the 22 million people who work in agriculture are actually traditional farmers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rest work in any of the more than 200 agriculture-related careers. Here are profiles of five people whose careers represent this diversity.
David Marciel services the majority of his customers out of a service truck, fixing everything from tractors to construction equipment throughout the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys.
David Marciel, engine technician
Although David Marciel grew up around cattle and was surrounded by farms and ranches, he was always more interested in tinkering with machinery than working the fields or tending to livestock.
He spent most of his teenage years fixing and maintaining other farmers' equipment, so taking auto shop class in high school was a no-brainer.
"It just seemed like a natural thing for me to do," said Marciel, who today works as an engine technician specializing in farming equipment and other diesel engines.
His family lived in Herald, a small town in Sacramento County east of Galt, and he enrolled in the agriculture program at Galt High School. In addition to shop, he took classes in ag science, horticulture and livestock.
Marciel said his industry is threatened with a shrinking labor pool of qualified technicians as engines become more complex and aging mechanics retire. With deep budget cuts, many schools have lost some of their most popular career-tech programs such as auto shop, said Hugh Mooney, an ag teacher at Galt High School and past president of the California Ag Teachers Association.
Today, Marciel spends most of his time servicing off-road machinery and equipment, which could be a tractor or irrigation pump on a farm or some other large equipment on a construction site. The engines vary from diesel to electric to natural gas.
Marciel said one of the most rewarding aspects of his job is being able to solve difficult problems that could cost farmers time and money in the field if their equipment sits idle.
"They've got so long to get their hay chopped or get it baled," he said. "They're shooting for that window of time to get the best quality of their crop and if their equipment goes down, you need to be there to get it fixed to keep them going."
Longtime horse lover Christine Turner thought she'd grow up to be a cowgirl. The job she ultimately landed keeps her connected to farmers and ranchers but still leaves enough time to spend with her horse Stormy.
Christine Turner, agricultural commissioner
Christine Turner remembered a pivotal moment in her life when she knew she wanted to be a part of agriculture for the long haul.
It was a typical morning in San Luis Obispo County's southern valley, one of the most productive and fertile areas of the region.
Turner was working as a field inspector for the county agricultural commissioner's office, and that morning, as she was descending onto the patchwork of farmland in the valley, she saw an army of people from numerous sectors of agriculture--farmers, farmworkers, pest control specialists, university experts and field inspectors.
"Everybody was converging on this valley in the early dawn, and it was so beautiful," she said. "I thought, this is what it's about. This is what agriculture does. And being a part of that food production picture was really exciting and beautiful. That's when I thought, I'm going to stick with this."
Today, as the agricultural commissioner for Placer County, Turner is still very much a part of that food production picture, but a primary focus of her job is being an agriculture advocate for the rapidly growing region.
"In the face of all the urban development, that's a real challenge because the basis of agriculture is land resource, and the land resource is being converted to non-agricultural uses," she said.
Raised in rural Nevada County, Turner didn't live on a farm but her family raised some livestock for consumption. She developed an early passion for horses and at one point thought she wanted to be a cowgirl. But her rural upbringing also instilled in her a love for soil, and she went on to study soil science at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.
"I didn't grow up on a ranch and I probably wasn't going to become part of a farm or ranch in all likelihood," she said. "This (job) gave me a way to be affiliated with production agriculture. There's so much that people can do that is related to their food production. You don't have to just be a farmer."
Nate Green designs, installs and maintains new packaging and processing equipment for Diamond Foods, one of which was an automated system used in making candied walnuts for McDonald's fruit and nut salad.
Nate Green, mechanical engineer
Even before he knew what he wanted to be, Nate Green's life on the family ranch and experience on other farms were shaping him for what he would do.
He came from the small farming community of Arbuckle, about 50 miles north of Sacramento, where his family raised cattle and farmed hay. Because both parents were full-time schoolteachers, ranch work was always done before and after school and on weekends and holidays.
"Growing up in this fashion was important to who I became as it taught me responsibility, priorities and hard work through chores morning and night, rain or shine, heat wave or cold spell," Green said.
As a youngster, he was raising sheep for 4-H and breeding lambs by the time he entered high school, where he also got involved in FFA. But it was his summer jobs working for other farmers that gave him a glimpse of what he could do with his life.
That's where he developed a knack for servicing and repairing old farm equipment and a fascination for how mechanical things work. His interests led him to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, where he earned a bachelor's degree in agriculture engineering and a master's degree in general engineering.
Fresh out of college, Green landed a job at Diamond Foods in Stockton, a company that processes and markets nuts, and within a month, he was designing an automated system that could mass produce and package candied walnuts in three-quarter-ounce bags for McDonald's to use in its new fruit and nut salad.
"On that product, we went from: Here's your recipe to we need a finished product in 90 days for a nationwide rollout," he said. "As an engineer, my job is to determine and design solutions for troubles that arise in the entire design process of this automated system."
Green said his upbringing on the ranch taught him the importance of hard work while his involvement in FFA helped prepare him to one day lead in the workplace.
"Good communication skills, competitive ethics, creativity and cooperation are all traits taught in FFA and agriculture education and carry a huge weight in the professional workplace," he said.
Carla Blackmon studied pre-veterinary medicine in college but today works at the San Francisco International Airport with specially trained agriculture beagles such as Duffy. Their job is to find fruits, plants and meats that could carry insects and diseases.
Carla Blackmon, agriculture specialist canine officer
Growing up, Carla Blackmon wanted to be a veterinarian, but a TV show and a trip to the airport set her on a different career path.
The Virginia native was working at an emergency animal clinic and looking to do something different with her life when she saw a show about working dogs on "Animal Planet." It featured an agriculture beagle sniffing out plants at the post office.
A couple years later, she encountered a real-life sniffer dog in action at the Dulles International Airport after returning from Russia. That moment, something clicked.
"I was like, that's really cool. It would be really neat to train a dog to do work," said Blackmon, who today works at the San Francisco International Airport as an agriculture specialist canine officer for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Contrary to the common misconception of travelers getting their luggage inspected, Blackmon and her four-legged partner are not there to root out drugs and thugs. Their main concern is intercepting fruits, plants and meats that potentially carry bugs and diseases that could harm the nation's food supply.
"Protecting American agriculture from all the different pests and diseases that are coming into the country is a very important thing," she said.
With 45 to 50 international flights going through SFO daily, agriculture specialists have their work cut out for them. Blackmon noted that every day on nearly every flight, someone tries to bring prohibited items into the country. At least one or two pests are found on most fruits and vegetables that are seized.
Forbidden items range from the common apple or ham sandwich to exotic fruits and flowers. Blackmon once even confiscated some live birds that had been sedated and placed in a Ziploc bag. The passenger tried to pass the birds off as Christmas ornaments.
Blackmon actually considers it an advantage that people mistake her canine friend as a drug dog.
"If that's what they think, that makes them none the wiser when we come up to them and sniff their bag," she said.
Even though Alyssa Mangan didn't grow up on a farm, she fell in love with ag education as a student and is now inspiring her own students. Mangan was named the 2008 Vocational Agriculture Teacher of the Year by the California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom.
Alyssa Mangan, high school ag teacher
Teaching agriculture in urban Sacramento County to students who have no farming background is like coming full circle for Alyssa Mangan.
Having been an FFA student in high school herself, Mangan said she developed a "deep passion" for the agriculture program and wanted to continue on that same path as a teacher.
"I loved it and embraced it, and I knew that that's what I wanted to do," said Mangan, who is now one of six ag teachers at Elk Grove High School.
Much like her students, Mangan did not come from a farming family. But unlike most of her urban students, she grew up "in the sticks" in rural Amador County and got an early introduction to raising livestock through 4-H and her family's small herd of cattle.
But it was her experience in FFA that solidified her love for agricultural education and what it can offer young people in terms of opportunities to travel, meet people and learn accountability, work ethics, public speaking and leadership skills.
"I tell my students and I tell parents that FFA is a leadership program that uses agriculture as an avenue to teach those skills," Mangan said. "Yes, ag is involved, but it's so much bigger, so much more. I think that's what really caught me when I was in high school."
These days she's more caught up in the excitement of inspiring her students, whether they're raising pigs, practicing a speech or learning the science behind nutrition and anatomy. She's also amazed by the far-reaching impact of ag education.
"I was at the bank a few months ago and got into a conversation with a lady who was helping me. She asked me what I did as a career, and I told her. She said, 'I was in FFA. That's the best thing I ever did for myself,'" Mangan said. "She told me about her pig project and how much she learned. I think it affects people you would never, ever imagine that it would."
Preparing for a career in agriculture
More than 100 colleges, universities, technical and vocational schools in California offer agricultural training programs. Here are just a few:
College of the Sequoias
San Joaquin Delta College
Modesto Junior college
Mt. San Antonio College
Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo
Cal Poly, Pomona
California State University, Chico
California State University, Fresno
California State University, Stanislaus
University of California, Davis
University of California, Riverside
For a specialty career in agriculture, visit these sites:
U.S. Customs and Border Protection
California Agricultural Commissioners and Sealers Association
Ching Lee is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or email@example.com. Sharlene Garcia contributed to this report.