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More students seeing opportunities in agriculture

Many people think that to work on a farm you don’t need business sense, but any good farmer knows otherwise.

“I think it’s absolutely essential that a young person have that business background,” said Ricky Gray, deputy commissioner for the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce (MDAC). “Not only is agriculture a business, but programs change, whether with the bank or the government that agriculture depends on. You have to have skills where you’re able to make rapid changes in your decision, you have to be able to read a profit loss statement and put one together and interpret with your banker. Farming is like any other career these days and it changes so rapidly that if you’re doing the same thing you did five years ago, you’re not going to make it.”

Just as the importance of education to farming has changed, so too has the education itself. These days, universities offer a wide range of degree programs from agricultural economics and agribusiness to landscape contracting and management and poultry science.

Patrick Sullivan, who earned a master’s degree in agribusiness from Mississippi State University (MSU) last December, is now special projects officer for the MDAC. He said he developed a fondness for agriculture and the outdoors while growing up, chopping cotton for a research station and working on a buddy’s farm during the summer months of his teenage years.

“There’s a freedom in being out and about instead of being cooped up in an office,” Sullivan said. “It’s the good ol’ boy relationships that you have. Nothing’s as formal or confined as the corporate world.”

Sullivan got his undergraduate degree from MSU in agricultural pest management, which covers entomology, plant pathology and weed science. Sullivan decided to enter the master’s program to make himself more marketable, and to get out of the lab and get into more business oriented classes. He’s glad now that he made that decision.

“When I got out of school it was about the worst time in the job market,” Sullivan said. “But I interviewed with banks, production credit companies, private industry and of course the Department of Agriculture. There are a wide variety of positions in the agricultural industry.”

Sheba Moses, a graduate of Alcorn State University, said she wasn’t aware at first that there were so many ag majors. She majored in mathematics until a visit to the school’s Ag Day changed her mind.

“I was intrigued and I knew I had to major in agriculture,” Moses said.

The second semester of her freshmen year, Moses switched her major. She graduated in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree and got her master’s degree in 1996. Now she works in human resources at Tyson Foods.

Moses said when she visited ASU’s Ag Day she was surprised to find that so many opportunities were available to graduates with degrees in agriculture.

“Agriculture is so widespread,” Moses said. “It doesn’t pinpoint one particular industry. You can major in agriculture and still be a part of economics, math or industry.”

Dr. Kenneth Stallings, chairperson of ASU’s Department of Agriculture, said as more light is being shed on what’s available to college graduates with agricultural degrees, the number of students taking classes in the department has increased. He guessed that about 350 to 370 students at ASU are studying in some type of agricultural-related field. Agribusiness is the most popular course offered in the department. About 110 undergraduates are agribusiness majors.

At MSU, the number of ag majors is smaller, but Department of Agricultural Economics professor and interim department head Dr. Bill Herndon said the recent downturn in enrollment in the department is happening university-wide. MSU enrollment this fall is 15,764, compared to 16,066 last year. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) enrollment this year is 1,482 compared to 1,683 last year. Seventy-seven students are enrolled in agricultural economics and agribusiness degree programs.

Even with lower numbers however, Herndon has high hopes for the future of agricultural programs.

“It’s an exciting field,” Herndon said. “I’m biased on this point of view, but it’s an important aspect of the agricultural sector and there are opportunities for excellent management jobs in our field and we look forward to a bright future.”

Agribusiness and agricultural economics falls into sixth place in the list of most popular programs in CALS. The college’s most popular programs are human sciences with 320 students, animal dairy science with 205, landscape architecture with 136, agronomy with 107 and biochemistry with 94. Herndon expects the number of students enrolled in agricultural programs will increase as the economy gets better.

“This is a reflection of the poor economic situation and low agricultural commodity prices,” Herndon said.

Gray says the elements of the Farm Bill will probably help increase the enrollment in agricultural programs across the state.

“I think there is an opportunity, and obviously the government has decided that this is an area that needs to be prioritized given, for nothing else, than homeland security reasons,” Gray said. “It’s good to be independent with food supply. We need to continue to ensure the safest, most available, least expensive food supply in the world.”

And with agriculture as large a business as it is in Mississippi — about 30% of the economic activity in the state is directly linked or closely tied to agriculture — Gray said he would expect more Mississippi students to consider majoring in some type of agricultural program.

Despite the current numbers enrolled in agricultural programs in the state that some might consider low, Stallings said the future of the state’s agricultural sector is bright.

“The field of agriculture is rewarding,” Stallings said. “It develops the mind of the student to appreciate the world as a whole with all the entities that are involved in everyday life and we’re just trying to make sure that we assist in maintaining a viable, quality workforce.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Elizabeth Kirkland at ekirkland@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1042.

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