Future looks bright for agriculture careers

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Flathead Valley vocational agriculture students got pep talks Tuesday about future opportunities and the importance of recruiting the next generation of workers in agriculture.

About 50 students attended an agricultural forum sponsored by the Montana Land Reliance.

The event at the Flathead County Fairgrounds also was well attended by local farmers, with several speakers talking about international economic opportunities in agriculture. Another major theme of the forum was the need to encourage and support young people in agriculture.

Nora Smith, assistant dean of the Montana State University College of Agriculture, exhorted the students to embrace a future in agricultural education, and if not, to acquire skills and think as entrepreneurs to create their own opportunities.

MSU’s agriculture program has become highly diversified, offering educational programs that will lead graduates to careers outside of agriculture. Only about 18 percent of graduates currently stay in agriculture, she said, but that number is expected to grow.

The broad American work force is expected to need 22 million college-educated workers by 2018, she said, and the actual number of graduates is expected to fall short of that mark by about 3 million. That shortage translates into opportunity, Smith said, and for those who enter agriculture-related work, the median annual income for graduates is about $50,000.

Smith advised the students they need to achieve academically and develop useful skills to be effective in the work force.

“I think it’s going to be all about adaptability for you guys,” she said.

“Imagine if you are a welder who speaks three languages. How long do you think you will be unemployed?” she asked before saying that it wouldn’t be long at all before such a person could find employment.

The average indebtedness of those who graduate with bachelors degrees is about $22,000 nationwide. Smith said that amount may seem intimidating, but it’s worth the investment compared to the lifetime financial return that education will yield.

“Is it worth it to take some student loans? Absolutely, as long as you finish your degrees,” she said.

Mark Schiltz, the Montana Land Reliance’s western manager, told the audience that he is encouraged about the future of farming in the Flathead Valley.

Flathead Valley landowners have faced tremendous development pressures over the last 20 years, and that pressure has had an effect.

“Land size is being reduced every generation, not just through development but also through family transfers,” he said. But the valley still has a healthy component of agricultural lands.

“I see tremendous potential ... when I look and see how much land we still have in agriculture. It’s amazing,” said Schiltz, who said he also is encouraged by the continuing interest in agriculture among young people.

“When I see kids who are in a vocational agriculture program ... that has inspired me as well. I am very optimistic,” he said.

Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by email at jmann@dailyinterlake.com.

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