Commentary: Is agriculture useless?

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I’ll admit I was more than a little ticked when I first saw that three ag-related degrees made The Daily Beast’sTwenty most useless college degrees”.  I have many friends and colleagues who majored in agriculture, horticulture and animal science, and know that what they do and the knowledge they possess are anything but useless.

After all, those of us in agriculture work tirelessly to provide people’s fundamental needs of food, clothing and shelter. Most of us love what we do, despite the challenges, long hours and misperceptions by those unfamiliar with all things ag.

And I could not agree more with the concern of the Animal Agriculture Alliance’s Kay Johnson Smith, who hopes this article, and those like it, will not deter potential farmers, botanists or animal scientists from entering the field.

Perhaps this list wouldn’t be so offensive if a word other than useless had been used. But taken at face value, the list and accompanying article should do more than raise defensive hackles. It should make us think about the ag opportunities available to young people and what we can do to make it a career of first, and best choice, instead of one which someone can cobble data together that make it seem to be a “useless” choice.

The intent of the story, as laid out by the authors, was to find those majors that offer not only the fewest job opportunities, but those that tend to pay the least. Given these criteria, I guess it really shouldn’t be surprising that our field has some majors on this list.

The Daily Beast says it considered the following data points, weighted equally, with each degree’s numbers compared to the average for each category, to achieve a categorical comparison that accounts for differentiation from the mean.

Data are from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Payscale:

  • Starting and mid-career salary levels, using the profession most associated with the degree. 
  • The expected change in the total number of jobs from 2008-2018. 
  • The expected percentage change in available jobs from 2008-2018.

Even with this “objective” information as the foundation for the list, the outcome still stings a bit. On the other hand, maybe it will do some good if it is a catalyst for needed conversations.

As Johnson Smith rightly notes, this article “certainly serves as a stark reminder of why each of us must do our part to help bridge the urban/rural divide. Food production is essential, a key component of our nation’s security. We need to encourage young people from all walks of life to pursue a career in the industry

“It’s no secret that America’s farmers and ranchers are aging — the average farmer is well over 50 — and we need an enterprising and enthusiastic new generation to step in,” she adds.

What are you doing to help that happen? Let’s not allow the “useless” tag to stick.

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Watertown, WI  |  June, 03, 2011 at 10:17 AM

The problem with the income statistic measurement is that agriculture majors are more likely to live in the Midwest, South, or small towns in general, where living costs can be less than half of costs in New York City or San Francisco. This same income gap is the reason our national income tax needs to be replaced by a national sales tax....just a by the way...

June, 03, 2011 at 11:51 AM

No offense to the author, but I find it ironic that journalism was #1 on the list.

Not a farm  |  June, 04, 2011 at 01:48 PM

Perhaps "America’s farmers and ranchers are aging" because of a lack of opportunities for young folks to enter production Ag. There's a big difference between milking your own cows and milking them for somebody else. There are many young people interested in farming, but can't afford to enter. The Daily Beast may have stumbled upon something more important than mediocre starting salaries.

Warren Gilson    
Athens, Georgia  |  June, 07, 2011 at 04:36 PM

It would be great if they also presented a list of their "20 most useful" degrees" for comparison. It should also be kept in mind that, with a degree in the animal sciences, you can go into just about any field of work that you desire. An undergraduate degree should give you the basics of how to learn and where to look for the answers and also what is the right question. Over 50% of what you learn is outdated within a very short time anyway.

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