Universities Draw Underrepresented Ag Students

Apr 12, 2019  | 7 min  | Ep4434

Viewers of this program know that there are more careers in agriculture than just production. Occasionally, the number of openings exceeds the number of applicants. Colleges and universities are working to fill the gap by recruiting yet another slice of the population.

Colleen Bradford Krantz has more in our Cover Story.


Pop quiz: What year did women first represent half of the U.S. college students earning bachelor’s degrees in agriculture and natural resources? It was 2012.

Next question: What year did African Americans first begin earning bachelor’s degree in ag and natural resources at a rate matching their percentage in the overall population? It has yet to happen.

But there has been an increase in the total number of students earning agricultural degrees, and university faculty are optimistic about the growth.

Dr. Antoine Alston, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University: “No matter what your background is or where you’re from, everybody has a place in agriculture… it’s important to get these young individuals with these bright aspiring minds.”

As of the 2016-17 school year, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University – also known as N.C. A&T – was sending more African Americans into the world with these degrees than any other U.S. university. The numbers graduating from the Greensboro-based school are still relatively small -- only 41 African Americans earned degrees at N.C. A&T that year – but many universities discovered that having even a handful of minorities studying agriculture at the same time can make a difference when it comes to retention.

Dr. Antoine Alston, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University: “The only barrier usually is trying to get over some of the stereotypes if the parents have not had that exposure to what agriculture truly is … As African Americans, we have had a greater history in agriculture than just the stereotypical slavery, Civil War times.”

Dr. Ralph Noble, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University: “You don’t have a lot of parents maybe encouraging their children to go to work on the farm. The farm was used as a resource to get away from the farm, to pay for college education to find another job.”

The list of U.S. universities that sent more agriculture and natural resources bachelor degree holders into the world is topped by Texas A&M, which also graduated the greatest number of Latinos. The University of California-Davis had the most Asian Americans earning four-year degrees in these fields while Oklahoma State University graduated the most Native Americans.

But considering how few young people of any ethnicity now grow up on farms, most arrive on campus having had little to no previous exposure to livestock or crops. North Carolina A&T’s Animal Science Department, where 82 percent of the fall 2018 students were female, has a farm that allows students to handle a wide variety of livestock and other animals.

Dr. Ralph Noble, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University: “You go from maybe a poodle dog up to handling a cow that might be a thousand pounds, or a bull over 2,000 pounds, so sometimes there’s a certain amount of impression you can make on a person when they handle something that big.”

The department also talks with the many students who plan to become veterinarians about other careers in animal science.

Dr. Ralph Noble, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University: “The agriculture industry is very, very broad and very, very large and everything doesn’t require you driving a tractor. Right now, I think for maybe a dollar for a hamburger, the farmer only gets about 25 cents. We train the students to go after the 75 cents, and that’s where the careers are right now.

Although he had little exposure to agriculture as a child, Durham resident Kamal Bell loved animals and being outdoors, and decided to study animal science when he attended N.C. A&T. He also earned his teaching certificate, and now teaches agriculture at a Durham middle school.

Wanting to provide an option for his students beyond the school’s basic agriculture program, Bell obtained grants and loans to purchase 12 acres about 30 miles from the metro area. In 2016, he launched an academy specifically for African American middle and high school boys called Sankofa Farms Agricultural Academy. All of the current members, who must be invited by Bell to participate, are from urban neighborhoods in Durham.

Kamal Bell, Sankofa Farms: “When we look at African American boys, I hate the fact that when I asked a young boy or young man, ‘What do you want to be?’ and they say basketball or football player. That’s not a career that is solving issues in our community, but agriculture is…I think this is a way that we can reconnect and it starts to heal from a lot of the negative experiences we have had that have taken us away from the farm.”

The academy, which will eventually invite African American girls, currently has seven boys, who are responsible for growing vegetables, raising poultry and taking care of bees. At least twice a week, Bell loads the boys into a van for the trip to the farm.

Kameron Jackson, who is 16, and Jazon Graham, 15, are both in their second year working and learning at Sankofa.

Kameron Jackson, Sankofa Farms Agricultural Academy: “When I told my mother I first wanted to come to the farm, she really didn’t believe me at first because she just thought I was playing around. But as I told her about Mr. Bell, she started to grow a liking to it as well. And then she thought it would be really good for me because I have anger problems. And since I came to the farm, I’ve learned to control my anger a lot better than before.”

Jazon Graham, Sankofa Farms Agricultural Academy: “Mr. Bell was my teacher, and I used to get in trouble a lot. So as a way for me not to get in trouble, he would bring me out to the farm and then he would talk to me about learning about agriculture, understanding biotechnology, animals, and the life of the plants. And I just liked it.”

Both boys want to study agriculture in college, and Bell plans to help them accomplish their goal.

Kamal Bell, Sankofa Farms: “I think agriculture has a really bad stigma about: ‘You’re just going to be a farmer’ because I got that all the time in college. But through me being out here on the farm, I’ve learned so much about other industries, and there are so many career opportunities in agriculture that I think a lot of people overlook.”

Grinnell Mutual Insurance