The pipeline for agricultural workers is becoming more and more loaded with science

Work in agriculture is not done only on the farm.

Across the Midwest, plant science and agricultural technology companies are looking for scientists and others at STEM to take positions in laboratories or in front of computers that may not fit the traditional image of agriculture.

“When people meet people who work in the agricultural industry, they are often shocked by what they are actually doing to make a living,” said Kim Kidwell, associate rector for strategic partnerships and initiatives at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. and former dean of the Agricultural High School. “There’s a lot of engineering, there’s a lot of business, there’s a lot of computer science.”

There is a growing need for scientists at every level throughout the industry, as agriculture is becoming more high-tech and employers are increasingly looking for people who do not have traditional agricultural experience for various positions.

Corteva Agriscience is a global company that produces agricultural products such as seeds and chemicals. The company currently has about 500 vacancies, from scientists to data engineers. About 200 of them do not require a four-year degree. Many of the openings are in Nebraska, Indiana, Michigan and Iowa.

“People obviously think of Corteva as an agricultural company and think they have to have agriculture, an agronomy degree or an agricultural degree to come to work for us, and that’s far from the truth,” said Angela Lachum, who leads the teams. of Corteva for seed production and supply chain in North America. “We are looking for people of non-traditional origin.”

Korteva has open positions throughout the country and around the world. Some are in rural areas, close to the fields where they grow their crops, but this is not the case for most jobs in agriculture.

Agricultural economists at Purdue University analyzed vacancies online and found that about two-thirds were in metropolitan areas.

“Most of the jobs aren’t actually on the farm,” said Brady Brewer, an associate professor of agricultural economics at Purdue.

The need for workers of non-traditional origins extends to education. Kidwell of the University of Illinois said there was an “incredible demand” for scientists at every level, including positions that did not require a four-year degree.

“If we do not attract more people to the pipeline, what comes out of the pipeline will be extremely insufficient to support the progress of food and old products in a way that has the potential to expand,” she said.

Increasing the workforce in the aggregate sector

In St. Louis, a community college program seeks to help fill the void gap by teaching students to work in laboratories. The Center for Plant and Animal Sciences at St. Louis Community College is a practical program. In fact, many of the classes are held at the Donald Danforth Science Center, where scientists study plants and find ways to apply their knowledge to agriculture.

Brian Munoz


St. Louis Public Radio

Josh Nichols, 25, of Oakville, Missouri, took a sample on Tuesday, April 26, 2022, during a laboratory biotechnology experiment at the Center for Plant and Animal Sciences in St. Louis at the Donald Danforth Center for Plant Science in Olivet, Mo

The center’s director, Elizabeth Bodecker, led a lab exercise with her students on a recent afternoon where they worked with cells.

“There is a huge demand for labor at the moment,” Boedecker said. “These two-year students who do their internships, about one-third of the time these students receive an offer to work full-time or permanent part-time with these internship sponsors.”

The types of positions that Boedeker trains for students, such as agriculture and food technician roles, are still a much smaller group than agricultural workers, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these research jobs are expected to are growing much faster in the following years from the traditional jobs for agricultural workers.

Boedeker students complete internships as part of their coursework, often with some of the many plant start-ups and large companies operating in the area.

NewLeaf Symbiotics is a company that regularly hires interns through the Public College program. The biotech startup is conveniently located in the same building where the classes are held.

The company produces what Natalie Breakfield, vice president of research and discovery, describes as essentially a “plant probiotic.”

Breakfield has a doctorate, but she said many positions in the company could be held by someone who has gone through an associate program or technical training, such as the one at St. Louis Community College. These research assistants perform practical laboratory work, collect data and conduct experiments while being observed by another scientist.

“I know when I need an employee, I can call [Boedeker] and ask her who she is currently looking for, and she can send me several CVs at once, ”Breakfield said.

As St. Louis works to become a hub for agricultural biotechnology companies, Breakfield said it will need more and more people in such jobs. But one barrier to expansion is that people may not know that these careers exist.

Even Breakfield said she didn’t know much about plant science before her first job as a lab technician.

“It was my first real introduction to working with plants, and then I actually just fell in love with it,” she said. “I think if you like science, this is a good place to start, and you can always move on if you decide you want to continue your education.”

Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke

This story was created in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public service broadcasters in the Midwest. He reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @harvestpm

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