Where will the agricultural college graduates work?


My most popular blog pogotjobsst by far at World.edu is called “Sustainable agriculture jobs after college?”  In this essay, I try to tell the truth about the jobs situation in sustainable agriculture based on my experience working with young women and men graduating college.  My conclusion is that while there is much work that needs to be done, well-paying, meaningful jobs that offer a sense of security are hard to find.  It may be that “getting hired” for a lifetime job is an unrealistic expectation in our emerging “on-demand” economy.  But that might actually be a real opportunity for small, diverse and sustainable farms and markets!

A recent national news story about Sustainable Food Jobs provides an outline of the many emerging opportunities in this area.  Among the areas highlighted were:

  • Local and regional farming and marketing
  • Restaurants and food services
  • Media and marketing
  • Law and public policy
  • Public health and nutrition
  • Technology and entrepreneurship
  • Advocacy and community development
  • Teaching – especially community-based education

The experience of those students who have graduated from the UMass Bachelor of Sciences program in Sustainable Food and Farming and are doing well have often created their own new work, rather than “landed a job” in the traditional sense.  I encourage graduating seniors to search the job boards online, but more as a way of creating a vision or coming up photodune-862826-lamp-head-businessman-xs-e1348694056144with a new idea for a business or service that nobody has ever thought of before!  A brainstorming session in one of my classes  came up with a serious, lighthearted, earnest, and ingenious list of future jobs that included; permaculture consultants, rickshaw drivers, herbal landscapers, wood mill operators, biodiesel processors, vermiculturists, urban rooftop gardeners, microlenders, witch doctors, AAA bicycle workers, compost toilet janitors, alternate transport specialists, population controllers, seed bank managers, urban wildcrafters…

I try to be honest with students when they first arrive at UMass to study Sustainable Food and Farming.  In my “intro to the major” class, we explore potential internships and employment opportunities together, but frankly it doesn’t “get real” until the students get close to graduation.  Those without debt have more flexibility to explore creative options and many land in some really interesting situations.  I try to stay connected to recent graduates and link to their Facebook pages on my program blog.  This gives potential students (and their parents) some idea of where our graduates are working.

Frankly, our graduates are doing well for the most part.  But still I worry.  Our B.S. major in Sustainable Food and Farming at UMass has grown from just 10 students in 2004 to about 125 today.   We have expanded our number of classes and created many new experiential learning opportunities to accommodate the growing demand for a college degree in sustainable food and farming.  With no end in site however, I have to wonder where will all of these agricultural graduates work?  And what kind of work will they do?

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests a bright outlook for agricultural graduates. The report concludes that “projected growth in these occupations is in tune with our nation’s shift toward creating new businesses and jobs in local and regional food systems, capitalizing on climate change opportunities, developing renewable energy, and restoring and sustaining natural resources.”   Many of the projected agricultural jobs will be in new business start-ups.  This is surely our experience in New England where the number of farms is increasing! 

The new farms are often small, engaged in direct to consumer sales, include both crops and livestock, and may be more likely to be managed by women than in the past.  We are seeing lots of successful start-up farms.   However, it is not only new farms that are appearing on the landscape in New England, but also creative new businesses that help move products from the farm to the customer.  One of the emerging jobs that didn’t exist just a few years ago is called a “value chain coordinator” – a function that “connects the dots” in the food system to ensure people, goods and resources connect with each other.  This is an important function that is often missing among start-up farms and markets.

One of my favorite start-ups is Valley Green Feast, a worker-owned cooperative that takes orders each Tuesday and guarantees deliver “to your door” by Friday.  Managed by four entrepreneurial young women, this service helps connects farmers and consumers in a way that works for both!  Part of their mission is to make local, healthy, delicious food as accessible as possible to a wide range of consumers.  And whenever possible, the delivery is done by bicycle cart!

I believe that we need lots more experiments in farming, marketing and support businesses like Valley Green Feast.  I’m not alone in this belief!  Richard Heinberg’s presentation, “Fifty Million Farmers,” predicts the need for 40 to 50 million new farmers and gardeners to help the U.S. adjust to radical climate change and depletion of easily accessible fossil fuel.  Sharon Astyk’s book, A Nation of Farmers, presents a similar look at the future of American agriculture.  I believe they are on to something, but I don’t know if the opportunities are opening up as fast as needed to help our graduates find meaningful work today.

So, what do we tell agricultural graduates?  One thing for sure is “the future will be different than the past.”  Almost everyone understands that we are in such a state of rapid and unprecedented change, that we cannot predict the future based on previous trends.  I’ve begun to wonder if farmers and food marketers will learn to change to meet the “on-demand economy” that is emerging in some businesses today.  A recent article in The Economist states…

“IN THE early 20th century Henry Ford combined moving assembly lines with mass labor to make building cars much cheaper and quicker—thus turning the automobile from a rich man’s toy into transport for the masses. Today a growing group of entrepreneurs is striving to do the same to services, bringing together computer power with freelance workers to supply luxuries that were once reserved for the wealthy. Uber provides chauffeurs. Handy supplies cleaners. SpoonRocket delivers restaurant meals to your door. Instacart keeps your fridge stocked. 

The personalized driving service, Uber, is the model for many of these new businesses and has grown exponentially since its beginning in 2009.  Will we “uberize” food and farming?  What would that look like?  It certainly wouldn’t be a straight-line projection from the past.  The food system today is highly centralized and controlled by a few major corporations.  In a recent report, Oxfam International stated that only10 companies control nearly every familiar grocery store brand.

mapIn spite of the popularity of local food, less than 1% of American farm products are sold directly from farmer to consumer.  But in a period of rapid change, it might not be so far fetched to imagine a decentralized production and distribution system, connected through technology.  I’ve written about this in a previous blog that examined the concept of a Food Commons. While not exactly Uber, the Food Commons would be a national network of localized food systems and includes the food hubs that are already growing rapidly in many parts of the country.

foodcommonsWhen we ask the question “where will the agricultural college graduates work in the future” these two visions for American agriculture provide different answers.  In the world in which a few corporations control the food supply there is not much opportunity for young, passionate and intelligent entrepreneurs.  But in the vision presented by the Food Commons, well we might just need 50 million farmers!

What do you think?  Where are the opportunities?  Please share your thoughts in the Comments Box below.

And if you are an employer looking for qualified ag students please be sure to post your job announcement here: Stockbridge Job Board.


Check out our UMass Sustainable Food and Farming Bachelor of Sciences degree program and our Online Certificate Program at the University of Massachusetts to prepare yourself to explore these opportunities for change.  And go here for more of my World.edu posts, or join my Just Food Now Facebook group, or follow my Twitter posts.

23 thoughts on “Where will the agricultural college graduates work?

  1. Topic has crossed my mind many times as I try to anticipate my place in this rapidly changing environment. Minnesota has experienced tremendous growth in CSA’s in the past year. Farm markets are so busy that many vegetables are sold out if you don’t get there early.

    Thank you for your insights. I loved the brainstorming session ideas!

  2. A great opportunity for these students may be in one of our Camphill Communities, many of which have productive and thriving agricultural components whether they are growing food for the community itself or managing a CSA and this could all be done as part of our AmeriCorps program which can help address the issue of student loan debt. Would be happy to provide more info if anyone is interested!

    Nathan McLaughlin
    Camphill Communities of North America

  3. Rather than “land a job” hopefully they will look at and will have the needed skills to be the entrepreneurs creating these opportunities! As someone who completed a Master’s degree in Sustainable Ag and a beginning farmer, most of the skills needed for running a successful farm & food business are not taught on most campuses. Hopefully your program at UMass is improving on that!

  4. Interestingly I just reviewed a new journal article on sustainable food system curricula earlier this morning. I believe both the sustainable agriculture and food systems programs are still stuck in deep denial about productivity needs in agriculture. I say this as an aging farmer from farm families who has watched the continued shrinkage of our producing class along with our natural resources.

    We took a wrong turn decades ago when we thought it was possible to neglect natural limits on production. The ability to move people from the “drudgery” of farm work silently removed resources from the production cycle, land, air, water, and people. While we are understanding the need to reverse this, we are stuck with a dearth of knowledge on how to work with the natural systems in ways that promote harvests of highly nutritious foodstuffs. Yes, we can grow more per acre, but much of this is lower nutritional value, and yes we can put more farmers into the system, but with marginalized natural resources, we really can’t afford the trials and error methodology promoted by today’s culture of agricultural education.

    I agree that we need tens of millions of new farmers and that these will be lower output farmers most likely practicing on small marginal properties or those with significant restrictions (marginal refers to the productive potential more associated with soil quality, etc. while restrictions refer to the size, shape, distance from market, etc.). I also agree that most, if not all of the graduates of sustainable agriculture programs will need to create their own jobs. This is actually a perk as we have decimated the support systems for rural areas and all scales of agriculture. Some of this is a blessing as the slate is clean for new ideas and leapfrog development instead of nursing outdated systems that drag down production or market diversity.

    BUT, all of these still are dependent on the same thing – agricultural production. Without producing farmers, there can be no future in distribution hubs, innovative food businesses, robotics, even GMO research. So it makes sense to capture as much of this dying craft as possible in the annals of agricultural education where it can be both memorialized and propagated through new generations. We do not have the programs in place to send out armies of scribes to record experiences and document wisdoms, but if I were designing sustainable agriculture or food systems curricula, I would make it my priority to get students in contact with the remaining farmers (and not just a selected few) working their craft, and create living documents across the public domain that serve to mentor future students.

    Where will you work as a graduate? Wherever you can create the best situation for yourself. Will that be a conventional “job?” No. It must embrace the tenants of sustainability. Ceding the social and environmental equity requirement of sustainability to an employer voids two thirds of the sustainability ideal. We need to embrace our concept of individualism and exceptionalism in a new framework, but to hope to work in sustainable agriculture means preserving the environment. For sustainable agriculture, this means preserving the capacity to produce agricultural products without which no post-production venture succeeds.

    To do this, we have a directive from sustainability: provide equity at the farm, social, economic, and environmental. We must revise our ideals of market management to remove all functions that depress the value of production, serve to isolate individuals in the production processes, and which encourage risking environmental health. So called “Food Hubs” that aggregate unprocessed products to compete with wholesale distribution points favoring large scale production fail the tests of sustainability as they build in pressure to impoverish the producer. We can address this through developing and redeveloping farm and regional scale processing that adds value closest to the producer. Wine markets are an example of how varietal distinctions are spread across producers with bottled production then aggregated for distribution. Everything from sausages to canned or frozen peas has similar potential. Building this capacity is an infrastructure development program that adds substantial local employment and stabilizes farm economies through diversification and risk management.

    Today we have probably passed the point of reviving “traditional” farming in the U.S. as the numbers of potential masters for apprentice farmers and mentors for new entries no longer exist. At the same time, those seasoned and experienced producers who value their resources are marginalized by our market systems to where they are unable to justify time uncompensated time or the potential losses of un- or lightly-trained interns, novices, even volunteers. We can return agriculture to our schools through farm-to-school programming and school gardens. We can mandate Home Economics in public school curricula putting consumers back in touch with missing parts of their food system. We can do so many things, but fixing our broken production system before food shortages arrive is probably not going to happen. So we can and should put in place the key pieces of the new system we will turn on when our highest producing farmers die out over the next few years.

  5. Such a good set of questions, John. To my mind, they’re linked with the even bigger (and more daunting) questions about why industrial food is so cheap and why (even with subsidies of various kinds) most farmers aren’t actually making much money, except at the very largest scales. And then there’s “Why are health care and education so expensive?”, which also factor into the challenges for people trying to get into the food economy. It does seem likely that we’re going to need those 50 million new farmers, but farming probably isn’t going to be feasible for them until the various big systems now in place are more irrevocably broken than they currently are.

    In terms of additional ways that new/young agriculturalists can be supported, I’ve been thinking about the land and buildings at historic sites, many of which were of course originally farms of one sort or another. As non-profits struggle to stay afloat, it seems as though they might partner up with farmers in search of land and housing, and develop ways to cultivate the land, house the farmers, and educate the public, all in one package. A few smart historic sites are already moving in this direction, but it seems to me there’s much more potential there for partnership.

  6. Hello John,

    Your recent post really caught my attention. In 2011, I was laid off from my medical sales job, and I considered it a godsend because my real passion is sustainable food systems. However, my education was in kinesiology and my job experience was in sales, customer service and training. My skills are marketable across many industries. I searched for over a year until I finally gave up and got a job at a company that has incredible social responsibility values, but I’m currently working in the technology sector actually. I couldn’t find a single job in local/sustainable ag that paid enough to justify accepting it. They all seemed to be internships for free room and board on a farm, low paying ($10-$15/hr) jobs or just plain free labor for experience. I’d be interested in seeing your discussion open up to people who are passionate about local/sustainable foods but who may be coming from a completely different sector.

    • I totally agree Ryan. The jobs in farming pay so badly because we expect food to be cheap and don’t want to pay decent wages to the people who put food on our tables. As long as we are willing to exploit the working poor, this won’t change.

      U.S. citizens on average invest less than 10% of our income on food, half that of most of Europe and much less than the rest of the world.


  7. I think that it’s really hard to be smart enough to figure out questions like this because our minds are so subservient to the dominant narratives. More specifically, I would emphasize that sustainability, (i.e. these majors,) is much dependent upon the larger issues of farm justice, of farm commodity policy. We’ve had a massive draining of livestock out of farming, with ⅔ of hogs going to just 4 corporations, etc. That seriously hurts the possibility of crop rotations, as do many related matters (declining infrastructure for small grains, sale barns, etc.). So the growth of sustainability options will be hurt by the mega barriers.

    Cheap prices have given the livestock to CAFOs. In general, the American way of capitalism allows the taking (away) of profit/value from other stakeholders (from farmers and other suppliers, from customers, and with low wages along the line). Other corporate macro cultures don’t do that nearly as much. (see “Building Cross Cultural Competence” & related books by same authors). As a result we create less wealth. That’s been well documented in US agriculture. (i.e. Lobao, Stofferan). In part we don’t even focus on profit holistically, creating less, or sacrificing other, more important factors in wealth creation to it. (“Charting the Corporate Mind,” 1st and last chapters).

    In policy and advocacy, the Sustainable Agriculture Movement (& related academics,) and the Food Movement (etc.) have rarely demonstrated understanding of these issues, nor has alternative media. I think they have no web sites addressing it.

    To fix it, the US must reverse course and seek profits for US agricultural exports, etc. This mostly requires market management (price & supply,) not (much) the so-called (much smaller) sustainability policies and especially not “subsidy reforms” (including “crop insurance reforms”) that everyone knows about.

    In the 1980s farm crisis, the input and output infrastructure had the chance to advocate to help fix this, but their advocacy was on the wrong side, (not daring to question the dominant narrative of exploiting stakeholders,) or meager, with devastating results, as so many farm related businesses also went belly up (i.e. tractor and farm machinery brands, from industry to service).

    Cheap food has meant prices below full costs for 26 (1981-2006, USDA, Commodity Costs and Returns, every year but 1 for a sum of 8 major crops) to 32 years (5 of them add 6 of 7 years, to 2013) and dairy (20/21 years, 1993-2013). It’s meant not just the loss of farm incomes, but the loss of family farm inheritances. For the 2008 and 2014 Farm Bills, there was almost no awareness that alternative proposals existed, (NFFC, NFU,) or even that this problem exists.

    So these huge, (unknown policy) problems ALSO affect the growth of sustainability jobs. Why does the movement miss this? The bitterness of organic/sustainable farmers is an important historical factor. If you don’t know that, you don’t know the history of the sustainable ag. paradigm. From the 1980s, history repeats itself. We’re divided and conquered. So far.

  8. As someone who has been working in sustainable food since 2005 without a sustag or farming degree, my professional advice is to find a job that will help you build specific skill sets and expertise while you build a sustainable project of your own on the side. Learn how to work with and manage a team, develop your cultural and critical competencies, learn how to negotiate, raise money, and make sales, immerse yourself in policy and advocacy issues, and most importantly, unpack your privilege.

  9. Significant student debt is not compatible with any of these “creative” make-your-own job ideas.
    I am sad because I got into debt for my “sustainable” BS, then thought I needed to go to law school to get into policy work (graduated 2007), which put me into hopeless debt (over $250,000 counting interest now).
    I can neither lawyer nor farm my way out of this situation–no attorney jobs or Ag jobs pay enough to cover a babysitter/daycare…and I’m not alone.

  10. I have been searching for an agriculture job in Portland, OR for about a year now. In Portland, these jobs are so few and far between and competitive! I am a Midwest transplant with a smaller social network than people who have been in Portland for a longer period of time.

    because of the harsh realities of the job market in Portland, I have to pursue my own endeavors. I graduated last year with my master of social work and completed an urban farming apprenticeship this past October. I’m looking to utilize my macro-level social work skills with my passion for farming and get folks fed! I started as a volunteer staff member at a local farm incubator non-profit called Emma’s Garden. We are working on finding plots of land within Portland and turning them into neighborhood farms while training new farmers. The work is amazing. Now if only I could get paid for it!

    • Also, the struggle to become a farmer is difficult. Without money, obtaining land, water rights, infrastructure, and equipment is a huge burden. I’m finding that the increase in farming (at least in Portland) is largely an influx of wealthy, white, young people who want to escape the mundane realities of a 9-5 cubicle. (guilty!)

      I’d like to see a way to get more people of color, women, and immigrants onto their own field and building their own businesses!

  11. Although I left the Boston area for Maine last spring (in search of more permaculture opportunities) I still read the Tufts Boston Food System listerv and always see great employment opportunities in the field. I wish I had know about some of these job openings before leaving the Boston area! Another resource is the Good Food Jobs email list. The number of farms in Maine is growing as well as the number of young farmers coming to the state to start or work on farms. Personally, I feel very optimistic about the future of the sustainable agriculture industry 🙂

  12. After trying to get a job in the sustainable agriculture/food sector for nearly 8 years, I’m abandoning ship. I’m a reasonably intelligent and competent person in my 30s with an Ivy League degree and a lot of connections. I’ve applied for hundreds of jobs with no luck. If I can’t get a job, how the hell are these kids going to make it?

    And let’s talk finances: to get one of these jobs, you better be prepared to work nearly unpaid internships or apprenticeships for several years to gain the experience that will make you a competitive applicant. So you’re in debt from school, you work for free for several years, and then if you’re lucky you get a job that pays $30,000. And isn’t going to go up much from there.

    My advice to your students: Get a degree in a practical skill like engineering, unless you want to live in poverty for the rest of your life. Sorry, but that’s the cold hard truth.

  13. I am a Sustainable Food and Farming major but I am taking a different approach than most of the people I am going to school with. I want to be a holistic personal trainer. This semester I am taking a class about human performance and nutrition. I am learning a lot and am able to apply it now, but I often bring holistic/unique situation questions and thoughts to the class that I have only received answers to in classes pertaining to my major rather than classes in kinesiology or nutrition. I like how I chose to carve my own path through Sustainable Food and Farming and stay with it, which I almost did changed majors. As for my job/career out look, I plan on working for gyms for a while and eventually opening up my own gym that revolves mostly around different kinds of classes. I will also have a nutrition aspect to my gym. I feel pretty optimistic about my future because I want to offer the world something that is very far and few between but very practical and engaging to many different kinds of people and athletes.

  14. I don’t think I have an answer to what I will do for the rest of my life after a Sustainable Food and Farming degree, but I can tell you that my outlook on life has changed quite a bit in a way that I can truly value the non-monetary benefits of any job that I work. While yes, the stats don’t look great as far as all of us graduating and finding a great-paying job, I think I speak for many of us when I say that we are acquiring skills that enable us to lead full, happy lives while making less money than many other majors. We can grow our own food, we can cook, we can make our own soaps and build things. We know about permaculture and multiple functions and being efficient. We can do much more with much less money than many other people. Our health is likely to cost us much less than others because of the large amount of vegetables in our diet, as well as the exercise, fresh air, and healthy soil bacteria that we are constantly exposed to. While these are only a few examples, I think that we can handle not making a ton of money like other professions. Personally, my life goals no longer include making the big bucks. I don’t need STUFF to feel that life is worth living, I don’t have to conform to the way that society thinks I should live. In no way do I think that farmers and farm workers make enough money to compensate for their importance in society, I personally think that farmers should make as much as doctors, if not more. Our services to society are crucial to their survival, and I think that we absolutely need to keep pushing food awareness and keep fighting for small farms and urban farming.

  15. I have a few thoughts on this after reading both the blog post and the comments. Although sustainability is of course linked with agriculture and the Sustainable Food and Farming major, is food/ag centered, I would wonder how many students who enter the major and graduate actually intend to become farmers and grow food for a living. Just based on my experience (as a graduating SFF senior, who is NOT intending on becoming a farmer), there are a fair number of students who intend to work in related fields. In my opinion, what the SFF major affords students, is an integrated, whole-systems overview of what sustainability as an all-inclusive field can look like- with an emphasis on farming, to be sure, but absolutely not limiting students to such.

    Recently, in class, our group talked about what what our ideal job would look like. We had 2 future herbalists (one wanting to integrate herbalism and midwifery), 2 future homesteaders, 1 possible researcher/urban food activist and myself: passionate social sustainability and social justice education activist. There are many ways to work in sustainability besides farming (as you well know!!).

  16. Sustainable Food and Farming is so much more than a major. Though I have only been in the major for a semester, I have already met many people who graduated from it not long ago and are already deeply rooted in their communities. These people are teachers, healers, artists, writers, farmers, and though they all have different titles they share a common passion…life. I have never met healthier, happier, or more creative individuals than those I have met through these courses. Another thing they can all do is feed themselves, and when it comes down to it that is the point of working in the first place? The classes we take teach more than just how to farm sustainably. They teach us how to live sustainably, specifically by asking us questions we’re all scared to answer…like what the hell we’re going to do when we graduate.

  17. Sustainable Food and Farming is unlike a lot of the majors, like nursing, engineering, political science, etc. in that the students of these majors have a much more clear and linear path to follow. Their are specific jobs for these more classic majors than SSF and there are jobs that require a specific degree in these majors but I doubt there are nearly as many types or jobs that require a BS in SSF. I think this issue is a blessing and a curse, on one hand this allows for many different possiblities of new jobs that have never been done before to be created and on the other hand many of the SSF graduates dont have nice jobs with good pay that they can be hired to right out of school. I believe creativity is key to success in this major and graduates will have to utilize all their resources including technology and market demand to find good work for themselves. SSF provides a real opportunity to try new things in the food industry that have not been done before especially on the local level with an ever number of people that are desiring to get off the dependency of major corporations and back to independent local suppliers for all their needs, most importantly food. It seems that people increasingly are beginning to see that support of local organizations is anyway is not only good for the environment but also the economy and the community.

  18. As others have commented on here, I believe that the future jobs for the graduates may not be where one might expect. Small farmers have it tough, with consumers demanding cheap food and larger operations receiving subsidies that enable food to be sold for less than the cost of production. In order for small farmers to make a reasonable living, they need to find a way to supplement their income. The big farms do so with subsidies, but small farmers will need to find another way. I think Cathy, in one of the posts above, makes an excellent suggestion in trying to pair up with non-profits, historic sites, etc. It is for these positions that I believe having a Sustainable Food and Farming degree would be useful.

  19. The biggest worry I have being a Sustainable Food and Farming major hoping to farm after graduation is discussed in the article as well as the comments – finding a job that pays. While the Valley does seem to have a lot of small farms focused on diversified vegetable and food production using sustainable or organic methods for local customers, I’ve heard that the area is almost becoming too saturated, with the demand for fresh local food not keeping up with the movement to produce it. This in turn limits the amount of paying farm jobs that seem to be available. As said in the article and comments, it seems to come down to the willingness of people to pay more for food, and I think is exacerbated by the lack of government subsidies going to growing local, organic produce.

    That being said, one of the reasons I’m in the major is because I would like to gain wealth in means other than money. This could be skill, knowledge, experience, knowing incredible people and places, and gaining an understanding of the processes of life and growth (particularly in food production) and human culture that underly the food system. Ultimately, (and perhaps this is naiively optimistic) I feel that if I am happy and doing what I’m passionate about, that’s all I’ll really need in life.

  20. While reading this article I noticed that you mentioned that the U.S. potentially needs 40-50 million new farmers to help us combat radical climate change and depletion of easily accessible fossil fuel. I believe that our country certainly needs 40-50 million new people with progressive, open minds to building a sustainable future for ourselves. That being said, farmers concerned with sustainability are just the kind of people we need. They are passionate and down to earth while also intuitive and flexible to change. With a progressive mindset focused on our future prosperity (health of the Earth), I believe that we can overcome the obstacles our society is currently facing, mainly: radical climate change, loss of biodiversity, depletion of fossil fuels, and the division of our country’s personal ideologies and values.

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