While doing an interview with Don Sturgeon, a vocational agricultural teacher who was retiring after 40 years, we got into a discussion about the different skills needed for farming today vs. four decades ago. This led into what skills would be needed over the next 40 years. As we started walking down the list, it became quite obvious not only how much farming has changed, but how much it will change and what future farmers will need to have to be successful.
Sturgeon said when he began teaching in Hagerstown, Indiana, in 1974, that it was all about production agriculture. The young men in his class were all expecting to go back to the farm. Mechanical skills were a must, and marketing skills were pretty simple. Maximizing production was the key, and the weather was the biggest risk factor you had. Sturgeon said that Purdue was just beginning to focus on international issues and that agriculture was viewed as a domestic industry. Over the next 10 years, the industry would change drastically, and the skill set needed by farmers would be radically different.
The graduates of Sturgeon’s first class would soon find themselves facing an economic recession that would send interest rates over 21%, a grain embargo that would drop prices well below the cost of production, and a government farm program that was wholly inadequate to meet the needs of agriculture. Many of these young people saw their dreams of farming wither and die; a few lucky ones hung on and learned to survive a bear market. Those farmers learned how to manage risk, manage debt, and pay attention to what was happening outside of the US which might impact their bottom line. Sturgeon and other vo-ag teachers began to teach marketing, international relations, financial management, and something new called biotechnology.
Over the next two decades the biggest challenge facing the young men, and now young woman, who were sitting in vocational agriculture programs was keeping up with technology. The advances in biotechnology and computer science were coming so fast that what was taught in class one year was out of date the next. Improvements in plant genetics that used to take 10 years was now taking place in 10 months. Successful farmers needed to not only be good mechanics, but chemists, computer experts, botanists, bankers, lawyers, and international trade specialists. Sturgeon said one of the biggest differences he sees between the young people in his first class and those in his last class is how they view agriculture. Today those young people seeking careers in agriculture see it as part of a global food production industry, connected with all the other sectors of the world economy and society.
The young people graduating from their high school ag classes this spring, as well as those just beginning their agriculture classes in the fall, will need some additional skills not dreamed of by their predecessors. These skills include public relations, advocacy, blogging, political lobbying, data analysis, and drone flying. Unlike 40 years ago, the majority of the students in these classes will not be going back to the farm. They will seeking careers in the many other fields related to agriculture and food production. But there is one skill that was taught back then, is taught today, and will be needed in the future: leadership.
Agriculture today is in the great place it is because of those who were the leaders of the past. The present and the future also demand strong, capable leaders. Leadership is the one constant that will need to remain as we train the future farmers and agriculturalists of tomorrow. Don Sturgeon is hoping his successor, with the help of the FFA, will keep leadership at the core of the curriculum.
By Gary Truitt