Two high-school students stand in a field inspecting corn stalks.
Students at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences inspect corn stalks. Operating since 1985, their school is a model for other urban high schools looking to incorporate agriculture education. Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools

Complete with crops and farm animals, agriculture programs are exposing city students to careers they might not have otherwise considered.

Several years ago, leaders of the public-school district in Decatur, Illinois (population 72,000), realized something was off. The city has the highest poverty rate in the state, as well as neighborhoods with 20-percent unemployment. Yet it’s surrounded by agriculture giants—equipment manufacturer Caterpillar and grain processor Archer Daniels Midland—and they’re hiring.

“We’re right here in the middle of the agribusiness universe,” said Zach Shields, the executive director of the Decatur Public Schools Foundation, “and we were not connecting our city kids to those opportunities.”

To solve that problem, the city’s high schools launched their first round of agriculture classes this past fall. The program makes Decatur one of the latest school districts to introduce these kinds of courses in an urban setting, a trend that Omaha, Milwaukee, and Iowa City, Iowa, have participated in as well.  

Formats vary: Some schools expect students to complete four years of ag-centered education, while others offer the courses as electives. The motivators behind the programs vary, too, but one rationale holds true across the country: The agriculture industry needs new hires, and cities might be the best places to find them.

Simply put, “we don’t have enough people in the pipeline right now to fill the jobs that are going to be necessary” in agriculture, said Pamala Morris, assistant dean and director of the Office of Multicultural Programs and professor of Agricultural Sciences Education and Communication in Purdue University’s College of Agriculture.

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Purdue predicted that the agriculture and food-science industries would need about 57,900 college grads a year through 2020. But as of 2015, college agriculture programs were only graduating about 35,400 qualified candidates a year. Most of that demand comes from industry growth—although companies in Decatur have noticed that the number of white, rural farm-kid applicants is dwindling, according to Shields.

It’s hard to recruit new employees, however, if potential applicants don’t even know the jobs exist. Decatur’s two high schools plan to raise awareness with $1.65 million from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, which they’re using to hire teachers and construct a barn and a farm that students will run. (Howard Buffett, a son of Warren Buffett, is a commercial farmer who lives in Decatur and aims his philanthropy at ending world hunger.)

The first classes, Intro to Agriculture, Agriculture Business, and Horticulture, are electives that students can incorporate into their normal schedule, and all 200 spots are filled. Minority students have taken about 63 percent of them, which is consistent with their overall representation in the district.

A student in Decatur’s Ag Academy and its chapter of FFA (formerly the Future Farmers of America) with her project on dehydration. (Courtesy of Decatur Public Schools Foundation)

Accurately reflecting local demographics is a big deal, in part because agriculture as a whole is extremely white. “Going into urban areas and exposing students to agriculture at an early age helps them see ... a possible career path that they may not have seen before,” Morris said. That’s why she organizes visitation days at Purdue’s agriculture lab for students from all over the state—the goal is to build up a diverse group of ag-college applicants.

To attract more, and more diverse, students, it helps to show that agriculture is not just farming huge plots of land. Working in the sector today might include anything from building aquaculture units to teaching other people about the food system—two projects that seniors at Bryan High School in Omaha are currently working on.

Tyler Schindler is a teacher in that school’s agriculture program, which was designed in 2012 as a four-year progression of agriculture classes for enrollees (and also sponsored by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation). While students learn about soil testing and the basics of corn and soybean farming, the bigger goal is to introduce them to the range of ag careers available. So seniors at Bryan can craft their own capstone projects that relate to whatever they’re most interested in.

The Decatur program is trying a similar fluid approach. Its farm will support multiple specialties—there will be a bed of flowers for students in an anticipated floral-design class, and a greenhouse and rooftop garden are also being built.

Although these schools do their best to help students find jobs as food scientists, crop entomologists, and the like, not every graduate will go into ag. Even at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences—a public school much like Bryan that has been running since 1985—Principal William Hook says about one-third of grads go on to get college agriculture degrees. Still, given that only about 1 percent of incoming freshmen have any type of ag background at all, that’s an accomplishment.

Even if students are done with plants and animals as soon as they graduate, at least they leave with a greater understanding of how global food systems work, Hook points out. How could they not: A few weeks ago, some of his students came in for the 2 a.m. birth of piglets, which they washed and tagged, and will later castrate, wean, and sell off. Having turkeys on their farm is an opportunity for the students to feed hundreds of senior citizens a year with a November feast.

That awareness about food is crucial: The availability of jobs in agriculture is linked to the growing global population, which is anticipated to reach 10 billion by 2050. “We will have less land mass and need more food—how will we do that?” Morris asked. “We need people who are creative and innovative to come up with ideas.”

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