OP-ED: Can Agriculture Attract the Talent Necessary to Meet our Growing Population’s Needs?

Without question, agriculture has both an exciting and challenging job ahead if we are to feed everyone on our planet. We’ve all heard the numbers; they’re big and getting closer. The latest one, according to the United Nations, was that on November 15th  the world population would reach the 8 billion mark. It was just a little over a decade ago – Oct. 2011, to be exact – that world population topped 7 billion. That growth equates to a need in agriculture production like never before. In fact, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 60 percent more food will need to be produced by 2050.
The required skills and talent pool needed to meet the increased production is just as daunting as the population data. To achieve this level of productivity and to create the farm of the future, we’ll need all hands on deck. It will take a deep and diverse pool of talents, skills, and perspectives – thinkers, doers and innovators.
So are we on track to have enough of that talent? Well, yes, but there is more work to do.
It was recently estimated that the 2022 college graduates with agriculture degrees would only supply 61 percent of our industry’s jobs. Where is the other 39 percent going to come from? Great question. With these statistics, it’s clear ag needs to be swimming in the biggest talent pools possible. But the good news is we already have some great organizations in place all working to solve this challenge.
I was delighted to experience firsthand (again) a glimpse of agricultural talent with over 69,000 young students descending on Indianapolis – all sharply dressed in blue and gold. It was the National FFA convention, and as always, a stark reminder to me and to others the importance these impressive young people will play in our future.
FFA is a school-based national youth leadership development organization for those interested in agriculture and leadership. What unites them is a shared desire to use their skills and talents to positively impact the future. FFA members receive a variety of learning opportunities that support leadership development, personal growth and career success beyond agriculture. The National FFA is developing society’s future leaders.
You may be reading this and thinking to yourself, “But isn’t FFA just for kids from farming and rural backgrounds?”
National FFA boasts nearly 9,000 chapters in all 50 states as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, with a membership that is growing. In fact, in 2022 membership passed 850,000 nationally. And they’re coming from all walks of life – both on and off the farm. FFA currenty has 32 urban chapters, with chapters in 24 of the 25 largest U.S. cities. FFA is no longer just for “farm kids.”
Beyond nurturing a student’s interest in agricultural careers, the National FFA also supports the development of future talent by helping develop the next generation of agricultural educators. The national Teach Ag campaign, supported in part by the FFA Foundation, has a mission of recuiting and retaining ag teachers who will ultimiately ignite a passion for ag in the next generation.
But the National FFA Organization isn’t alone in this endeavor. Beyond FFA, there are other youth-oriented organizations that are building strong and talented leaders for the future, including Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS) that promotes academic and professional advancement for minorities in these fields; Agriculture Future of America (AFA) that empowers young leaders making an impact in food and agriculture; and 4-H, an organization supported by our public universities’ Cooperative Extension that provides experiences where young people learn by doing. Combined with FFA, these organizations and others are laying a solid foundation on which to build.
So, the question remains, can we attract enough talent to agriculture to meet the needs of our growing global population? One thing is for sure – it’s vital that we do, but how?
Here are four things that come to mind for me:
1.  Support student organizations today like FFA, AFA, and MANRRS. Give a combination of your time, money and advocacy. Be a mentor to these students. Share your knowledge and invest in them.
2.  Share widely and ethusiastically our collective mission that is feeding the planet while simultaneously helping protect it. Share with your personal and professional networks the many career pathways that are possible within agriculture. Agriculture is cool again and we have to spread the word. But let’s not just spread it within agriculture.
3.  Build an inclusive and diverse team culture for your business where everyone feels welcome and able to be themselves and give their best. This will make you a more attractive employer and lead to greater talent retention. This helps everyone from all walks of life contribute to the solutions we need.
4.  Challenge your recruitment practices as employers. How much ag experience is really needed? Can that be learned? What might you gain from others’ experiences and perspectives, whether they be personal or professional?
Warren Buffet once said, “Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.” The image of that single seed is everpresent in my mind. We must continue to sow the seeds of education that will inspire and produce the next generation of our industry’s talent. We must also reach out and with open arms to secure talent from all educational disciplines, industries, walks of life, demographics and generations. This will help build the even stronger agriculture we know we need. It’s important we take those steps today, for tomorrow.
The pieces and players are already in place to attract the talent needed to achieve our goals. As leaders in this space, we must continue to show our support for these organizations that are on the front lines of this effort, and we must challenge and adapt our own practices to complement the great work these organizations are already doing.
(Paul Rea is senior vice president of Agricultural Solutions North America for BASF and was most recently the Chair of the FFA Sponsors Board. To learn more about how BASF is supporting future leaders, please visit www.basf.com/us.)