Sustainable agriculture jobs after college?

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If you listen to the news these days, everyone is talking about jobs, jobs, jobs (the lack of them).  Although the unemployment rate is dropping, it’s still a pretty depressing picture for recent college grads (as well as anyone else just entering the workforce).  Students (and parents) are asking if the value of a college education is worth the cost. 

Good question!

I’m the academic adviser for students in our Sustainable Food and Farming program at the University of Massachusetts and I often get asked by parents – so will my kid get a job when they graduate?  My response is “maybe” – but if they graduate from UMass they will be prepared to create good work that is needed on the planet. This may not be the most satisfying answer for a parent – but in a rapidly changing world, its honest.

Getting a Job

There’s a difference between “getting a job” after graduation and creating good work.  We know that there are not enough jobs for everyone in the U.S. who wants to work today – but there is plenty of good work that MUST be done.  A graduating senior searching for a job may or may not find employment.  Those who graduate with a degree in Sustainable Food and Farming have had some luck searching these lists:

So, there are jobs in sustainable food and farming.  Interestingly, one of the options suggested in the blog post “Can’t find a job? Six alternatives” is working on a farm.  Some of our students in fact, do want to farm, but many are also interested in education, public policy, advocacy and community development related to food and farming.

But a “job” may not be the best choice for everyone!  In fact, many of the jobs we will be doing in ten years may not even exist today.  The world is changing fast.What job will I get after college?” is a self-limiting question.  A more important question (that is addressed in an article about “Jobs of the Future“) is “….how are we going to live?”  And especially, how are we going to live in a world in which the industrial food system is collapsing? Students in our program learn to see crisis as an opportunity for creating their own good work.

Creating Good Work

The great British economist, E.F. Schumacher, author of the classic text Small is Beautiful, wrote a lovely little book called Good Work about this topic.  According to Schumacher, good work needs to provide for three things.  It should:

1…provide a decent living (food, clothing, housing etc.).
2…enable the worker to use and perfect their native gifts.
3…allow the worker the opportunity to serve, collaborate and work with other people to free us from our inborn egocentricity.

Finding a job may serve the first need without addressing the other two.  When I ask my students if their parents are happy in their work, there is often a hesitation.  I often hear that “Dad seems okay and makes a good living – but you know he always wanted to …. (fill in the blank).

I’m sure many adults in the workforce are fulfilled by their work and challenged in a way that “frees them from their inborn egocentricity.”   But frankly, many are not.   We need good work to provide us with a reason for being and a sense of belonging if we want to be happy.

Robert Frost wrote in “Two Tramps at Mudtime”

My object in living is to unite

My avocation and my vocation…

Our dream should be to unite our avocation (that which we love) and our vocation (that which we do).  We should “love what we do and do what we love.”

While some students are trained for entry level jobs, students who want to learn to thrive in this new world learn how to learn.  They meet entrepreneurs who have followed their own dream and are busy creating new businesses, non-profit organizations, or are self-employed.  They are introduced to systems thinking, grant writing, and holistic decision-making.  They are awarded academic credit for apprenticeships or for gaining experience by “wwoofing” in  the U.S. and around the world.

This is not to deny the value of a job that “provides a decent living.”  But money is not enough.  Even during the Great Depression when the unemployment rate exceeded 25%, Franklyn Delano Roosevelt, stated in his 1933 presidential inaugural address:

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.  The joy, the moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of …. profits.  These dark days… will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and others.”

To Minister to Ourselves and Others

I encourage students not to sell themselves short but to articulate and pursue their dream.  I encourage them to think about how they might be useful – to themselves and their families – but also to others and the planet.  I often share a hard hitting essay by Derrick Jensen titled Who Are You?, in which he quotes Carolyn Raffensperger, who advises us to ask what is the biggest and most important challenge we can address with our gifts and skills.  Like E.F. Schumacher, Carolyn recognizes that to be fulfilled and happy we must not only provide for our own living – we  must “minister to ourselves and others.

Good work will provide us with a living, allow us to perfect our gifts, and perhaps most importantly …good work will allow us to be useful to others and the planet.

There is much work to be done on a planet facing the “perfect storm” of climate change, peak oil and global economic crisis.  Business as usual is not enough.  We know that crisis creates opportunity for those willing to try something new.

At a time when the federal government seems intent on stimulating the economy by encouraging new industrial jobs – we need to learn how to create good work by focusing on what is really needed.  This will require creativity, sacrifice and the willingness to learn from our mistakes.  But what other choice do we have – really?

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See “Finding Good Work” for more links to work opportunities and internships.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   Go here for more of my World.edu posts.  To get a college degree see: UMass Sustainable Food and Farming or earn a 15 credit Certificate from UMass.

22 thoughts on “Sustainable agriculture jobs after college?

  1. Thanks for your insights and for pointing to so many rich resources, John. I will add many of them to the UMass Amherst Library's forthcoming research guide on Economic Sustainability (working title). –Madeleine Charney, Research & Liaison Services Librarian.

    • Hi John,

      I enjoy and appreciate the good info you provide. As for parents wondering about the kids finding a job. Is not a job a round about way of putting food on the table? In this world, I think the more skills the better, and starting with food is smart since you can’t eat money. Thanks Don

  2. Having graduated with a similar degree just over a year ago, I would encourage current students to focus on what kind of work they might want to do throughout college or graduate school. The most successful graduates from my school (the Tufts' Friedman School of Nutrition) had a clear idea of why they were going back to school and what they wanted to do with the degree once they achieved it. They were always working towards a goal. Many students seem to think of higher education as something insulated from the rest of the world, but it's not.

    Another thing I would recommend is to always look for connections both inside and outside academia. While you're in school you have a chance to attend seminars and conferences where you can make contacts with future co-workers or employers while learning. You should also always have a job or internship while in school, otherwise it's hard to connect what you're learning with what you may be doing later. Besides, all those extra contacts will come in handy when you're job searching come May. Remember more than 2/3 of jobs are found through networking, not through sending out resumes. The more connections you graduate with the better off you'll be.

  3. Very well said, thank you – Your program and many other sustainable agriculture endeavors have indeed the added bonus of making people appreciate the value of good work and good life. The boundaries of a decent living, however, still shift wildly from household to household, and even on the thrifty/sustainable end of the spectrum, arbitrary privileges and institutionalized exploitation keep wearing, tearing and often overcoming the resolve of many actual or potential 'ministers'.
    Please ensure that your students are introduced to politics, philosophy and poetry too, so that they may learn how to get up and stand up for their dreams, once they discover and articulate them.

  4. I appreciate the thoughtfulness of this post. I was delighted to be exposed to E.F. Schumacher's ideas and I agree, in part, with encouraging students to pursue their dreams. However, I think there are two 'elephants' in the article that don't get sufficiently addressed. 1) Not everyone has a dream at 18 or 19 or 22. If they do, it might change. While I think everyone should seize the positive energy of the moment and follow the 'dream for now', I think we owe it to students and young graduates to remind them that they will need to be flexible and possibly reinvent themselves in their work and life. 2) It is a reality that every person must ask, "Can my good work sustain me?" Until some of the laws change (or dissolve) around property, taxes and servicing debt, most students will need a paycheck to pay for their education and some of the goods and services necessary for their life. There is always a way, I think students just need to be reminded that there will not necessarily be a job that has a title that matches the title of their major waiting for them after they cross the stage with a diploma. Each person will need to clarify their priorities, use their creativity and be willing to adapt.

  5. Great post. I think encouraging students to think beyond the boundaries of the formal economy in terms of both getting their needs met and doing good work is an absolute imperative nowadays. The question "what about jobs?" comes from a starting set of assumptions that a) the industrial economy as we currently know it is what sustains us, b) the industrial economy will continue in its present form, and c) paid jobs are the route to security and well-being. I don't think the culture at large is doing anyone a favor by reinforcing these beliefs; instead, what is being reinforced is the model of obscene profit by the few to the detriment of almost all other living beings. I think students would do well to question the entire system and start creating and participating in alternative economies that are based on regenerative rather than devastatingly destructive practices. Students have an incredible opportunity to really examine the meaning of "right livelihood" and not just in some ethereal, abstract way, but in a way that is directly applicable and relevant. I see a groundswell of this kind of thinking and activity among sustainability-minded students. And let's not limit it to students, either. Some young people are explicitly rejecting college because they don't want to take on staggering levels of debt and don't trust that their degree will translate into a correspondingly well-paid job (or even any job at all). Given the despair and worry I've seen on the faces of recent college grads, I think some of them wish they had foregone the debt and made other learning arrangements. I don't say this to put down the value of higher education at all, only to say that I hope that what higher ed learns from all this is that the more it decouples from the industrial economy, the more resilient and relevant it will be in the long-term. I know that there are many, many people in higher ed who believe in the value of learning/study/research beyond just how it serves the all-consuming interests of the industrial economy.

  6. Thanks, John, for you asking the question and then providing resources and perspective to help others answer it. One of the things that I am paying attention to is the avenues into good food jobs for low-skilled and low-income individuals. Our collective work to grow strong local food networks needs to be done minddfully and inclusively so that we engage everyone's talent and expertise.

  7. Thanks for another thought provoking and timely post. I highly recommend reading the latest issue of YES magazine, devoted to "New Livelihoods" ( http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/new-livelihoods ).

    As John and many others allude to, I also believe we will need to create an alternate economy which provides opportunities for right livelihood. This will by necessity require some experimentation, and intelligent risk taking. Those of us rooted in specific communities and regions need to find ways to support (and retain) young people with the creativity, drive and freedom to do this, in a way that supports long term community resilience and vibrancy.

    In terms of education, I think developing a set of adaptive skills, or an "entrepreneurial toolbelt" that one can use in a variety of situations is very useful for those committed to local and regional sustainability and not corporate track jobs. Sustainable ag and food livelihoods at these scales requires a range of collaborative problem solving skills, and a systems perspective. This will also prepare you better for career and life changes that can be expected over the course of ones life.

  8. Yas, yas, yas: the avocation to the vocation. May have to stretch a lot in doing the mental shift to say “there IS something in this ‘job’ that fits me.” Well worth it, just as a similar exercise in ‘gratitude’ and only a bit dissimilar ‘acceptance’. Both make life more enjoyable.

  9. Your "crisis creates opportunity" logic is so spot on. People who care when they see a breakdown – global or local – are compelled to take action. It's when they don't know how or where to begin that their passion can be stymied and dissolve into denial, frustration or depression. Babson College is known for its "opportunity navigation equipment" (or, officially, Entrepreneurial Thought and Action). Using the Babson approach, the Executive Director of the Social Innovation Lab and I have been creating opportunity from crisis with the development – and now launch – of an action tank called Food Sol. Sol stands for "Solutions" and our central objective is leveraging Babson's core assets to support and scale social innovation in the unhealthy business of food. Food Sol sprouted from seeds of desire to catalyze change in an unsustainable 20th-century food system. All of this to simply say, live and in real time, creating good work can be done!

  10. Thanks for bringing this subject up. I was actually one of the first people to graduate from what I believe must have been a predecessor to the program you now run. At that time it was simply a new "sustainable agriculture concentration" within the Plant and Soil Science Department. This was almost two decades ago, so the opportunities in the field were certainly less numerous than they are today, but I couldn't find much. I spent time looking through a microscope counting nematodes, watered houseplants for rich people in L.A., planted ornamentals on the balconies of New York penthouses, and spent a couple of years limbing trees on Martha's Vineyard. Finally I went back to school got a Masters, and found a "good" job running the testing program for a mycorrhizal products company. But it was still reductionist agriculture, and when the company was sold to one of the ag giants, I went back to school again. I'm finishing a dissertation looking at the values and motives of beginning farmers, and run beginningfarmers.org, where I actually spend a lot of time posting "sustainable food and farm jobs". There are quite a few of them, but few of them pay much. In fact I probably post as many "internships" as I do "jobs". One of the things I've learned from my dissertation work is that many people don't trust that our current system is capable of sustaining itself much longer, and they are motivated my self sufficiency and a "meaningful life" as much as anything. I know a lot of "consultants", businesspeople, professors, and non-profit workers in this field. But believe there are far more graduates in sustainable food and farming than there are "good" jobs in the field. I think the simple fact is that people are looking for meaning, and they can find it through studying in this growing area. But it still represents a fraction of the agriculture that is practiced in this country, and much of what does exist has come to replicate many aspects of the system it developed in opposition to. So your question is a legitimate one, and sadly "good works" don't always pay the rent, or even allow people to shop at the stores selling a lot of the food we have worked over the years to make into more than a niche.

  11. Is learning really much different than farming? Are the concepts around growing food different than the concepts around growing ones mind, body and soul? Is learning an inorganic process or does it need to be an organic one? Would not organic learning be an aerobic process and inorganic be anaerobic? Are not "jobs" as considered today the result of an inorganic and anaerobic system? Have we been factory farmed? Do we not live in one giant inorganic/anaerobic factory?
    These were the thoughts that were at the core of the 60s movement. What was special about Woodstock was it was an organic and aerobic happening. What was special about commune learning, doing and living was it was organic and aerobic. Unfortunately the 60s movement lived in an increasing inorganic anaerobic world and for the most part was suffocated. People were again placed on an assembly line from birth. We were feed by the factory. Taught/created by the factory. With the factory diploma we then were given a job at the factory. Discotheques replaced Woodstock. Where we were brought into an inorganic and anaerobic environment. Where we were stimulated by artificial stimulants. Even our cotton and organic dyed clothing was replaced with polyester leisure suits. Our music went from analog to digital. From merely amplified to inorganically synthesized.
    The new sustainable movement is merely the second coming of the 60s movement. The 60s movement was merely a rediscovery of pre- industrialization times. It must not again become anaerobic. We must encourage organic learning and doing. Those that learned from the 60s must share the true wisdoms of that era as I learned early in life from those who still maintained understandings from pre-industrial revolution times. John's realities in this post and his other posts are organic ones grown by aerobic processes. They will not be applicable within an inorganic and anaerobic system. He is right to explain this to wondering parents of his students.

  12. Could you define “industrial food system”? Also could you please site what indicates it’s near demise? I live, work , own, and farm in the corn- belt. Even during this years tough economic and weather drought, rising cost of crop inputs and fuel agriculture is one of the only industries looking at a profit this year….

  13. I am reading these commentsth much joy and happiness for a beautiful Friday! However, I struggle with the realistic expectations of many. I do embrace the movement and theroy of buy and grow local. However, this is not a realistic expectation for agriculture to remain in society. The American culture is beyond the "village" mentality. As a culture we think "global". Feed the world is how we grow. While we strive to eat the natural and organic, our clothing, medications, paper products and or virtually every part of our day to day lives are production agriculture. Understanding that carbon footprints, chemicals, antibiotics, and confinement are "dirty" words..it is how America as a culture feeds the world.

  14. Great post, John. On the practical side of things, I'll mention that, over the years, a number of UMass grads have joined the production crew here at Real Pickles, fresh out of college and excited to find a job in sustainable food/agriculture. (Real Pickles, based in the Pioneer Valley, is seeking to help build a new food system by buying vegetables from local farms and turning them into traditional, organic pickles for sale only within the region.) It has often been a great fit, as it affords them an excellent opportunity to do work they believe in and learn how a business can contribute to positive social change. The reality is that the repetitive physical labor inherent in Real Pickles production work often isn't right for them long term, but my sense is that nearly everyone finds it a valuable experience for the time they are here. And, some stay longer: We recently created 2 new key manager positions, and both were filled by recent UMass grads (one of whom took classes with John)!

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  20. Yas, yas, yas: the avocation to the vocation. May have to stretch a lot in doing the mental shift to say “there IS something in this ‘job’ that fits me.” Well worth it, just as a similar exercise in ‘gratitude’ and only a bit dissimilar ‘acceptance’. Both make life more enjoyable.

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