MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Despite a bleak economy, career outlooks are promising for agricultural students.

Ag business is big business in the state of Mississippi and according to experts, it’s only getting bigger. Increased diversity and enrollment numbers at Mississippi State’s Division of Agriculture, Forestry and Veterinary Medicine indicate that young adults recognize this potential and are thinking far beyond the family farm.

“Agriculture is the No.1 industry in the state of Mississippi. We’re a rural state--it’s our lifeblood,” said agricultural economist Ken Hood of the Mississippi State University Extension Service.

In 2009, agriculture accounted for 15 percent of Mississippi’s overall economy. Eleven million of the state’s 30 million acres were considered farmland, and nearly 20 million acres were considered forest. According to MSU’s DAFVM 2009 annual report, the agriculture sector totaled $5.5 billion in value of production and employed 1 in 3 Mississippi workers.

Agriculture has always been the driving force behind Mississippi’s economy, but in recent years the sector has become increasingly industrial.

“We put MSU grads in many ag-related industries,” Hood said. “We have people in marketing, finance, production management, regulation, legislation, Extension services, conservation and other fields.”

A May 2010 report from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture listed an estimated 54,000 jobs annually for those holding a bachelor’s degree or higher in the areas of food, renewable energy and environmental studies. That figure is roughly 5 percent greater than the projected number of students graduating from these programs during the period of 2010 to 2015.

According to a national survey conducted by Iowa State University, people holding technical and biosystem engineering degrees can expect an average of $47,000 per year directly after college. Agricultural economists can expect $41,000, and that figure drops to $40,000 for entry-level positions in agricultural communications and education and agronomy and crop sciences.

Sixty-one percent of companies that responded to a 2010 AgCareers.com survey said that all staff would receive a raise this year, as opposed to 39 percent in 2009. Half of the businesses surveyed in the most recent Agribusiness Human Resources Review projected an increased workforce within the next two years. Over 70 percent of respondents said this workforce would be filled via college recruitment.

According to the BLS, demand will continues to rise for farmed fish and organic and local food, and horticulture and biotech will be growth industries. AgCareers.com identifies biotechnology, agronomy, chemicals, equipment and finance among the Southeast’s most promising agricultural industries.

“Specifically, Mississippi will need corn specialists,” said John Riley, a MSU Extension professor. “Corn acreage in the state has jumped 120 percent from 2006 to 2010.”

Despite this increased acreage, Mississippi continues to import corn to support its ethanol and livestock-feed industries.

“We’re not growing all that we need,” Hood said. “There is a definite potential for growth in corn.”

He also stressed new possibilities in biofuels and saw a bright future in conservation and environmentally friendly agriculture.

“Timber sources will be one of our strengths,” Hood said. “There’s a lot of multidisciplinary research going on between our forest lab, chemical engineering and other areas on campus. We’re trying to develop waste wood into viable transportation fuel.”

Additionally, Hood thinks Mississippi could capture a higher share of the fruit and vegetable market.

“We have the climate, soil and water resources to support these crops,” he said. “In some of the traditional produce areas, such as Florida and California, producers are losing land to development and having trouble with fresh water.”

Basic rules of supply and demand apply.

Currently the U.S. provides a fourth of the world’s beef and a fifth of the world’s grain, milk and eggs. The United Nations estimates that by 2050 grain output will need to increase by 50 percent, and meat output will have to double as the world population soars from 7 billion to 9 billion.

And student population is growing as well. Enrollment in the nation’s colleges of agriculture increased 22 percent from 2005 to 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At MSU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Forest Resources, enrollment is up 14 and 24 percent respectively from last year. Compared to 2007, those increases jump to 62 and 64 percent. Meanwhile, the overall university’s enrollment has increased by 6 percent in the past year.

DAFVM demographics are also shifting.

“Our students used to come from agriculture backgrounds,” Hood said. “But now we have suburban students, urban students--there’s just more diversity in our ag program.”

Source: Cheree Franco, Mississippi State University Ag Communications