A friend’s son wants to be a dairy farmer when he grows up. His sister wants to be a large-animal veterinarian — and own a dairy farm. These hard-working teens are determined to buck the odds and follow a path less-traveled than their classmates, despite laughter from peers whenever these kids declare their plans in public.

Yet, with the right encouragement, support and opportunities, I’m confident these two will be next-generation agriculturists if that’s what they ultimately decide to do. And their chosen industry and community will be better for it.

But as a whole, we’ve not done a great job of recruiting new people to our industry. I’d say things have improved significantly since I was in high school and my contemporaries and I were strongly encouraged to stay as far away from ag as possible. (Obviously, I didn’t listen, but a lot of others did.)

However, attitudes haven’t changed quite enough if we’re going to keep ag a dynamic, vibrant career opportunity.

A conference in Wausau, Wis. this week highlighted the need to bring qualified workers into the state’s $59 billion ag industry.

A report in the Wausau Daily Herald noted that leaders were told that they need to kill the negative image that’s keeping young people from entering the field.

“During a panel discussion Wednesday at a conference about economic development in rural Wisconsin, educators, business leaders and economists highlighted a grim reality: Wisconsin's top industry is struggling and will continue to struggle to find qualified workers.

Much of that concern stems from young people's misperceptions that jobs in agriculture, including food processing, are all low-paying, require no education and equate to long hours on a farm.

The panelists said that couldn't be further from the truth,” according to the report.

"The jobs are there," said Lori Weyers, president of Northcentral Technical College in Wausau and a proponent for drawing students into agriculture work. "We can't get the people interested in the careers."

What a disheartening statement, especially in light of the country’s stubborn unemployment rate and a still-sputtering economy. We have the perfect chance to highlight the many benefits that can be found working in agriculture, yet the message hasn’t been received. Or maybe it hasn’t been sent.

"There are all kinds of opportunities in agriculture; you just have to show kids they exist," says Mark MacPhail, agriculture director for McCain Foods, an international company that makes french fries and other potato products.

So the next time you hear a kid express an interest in agriculture, don’t discourage them. Or tell people searching for the next step in their career path about the thousands of interesting and varied jobs ag offers. Help them find their niche — whether it’s on a farm or in agribusiness, high-tech or not. Agriculture is too important to outsource because we can’t find people to do the job here.