Growing the ag work force, one classroom at a time

Posted 5/26/21

Agriculture is the second largest industry in Florida with an estimated market value of over $7.46 billion according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture...

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Growing the ag work force, one classroom at a time

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GAINESVILLE — Agriculture is the second largest industry in Florida with an estimated market value of over $7.46 billion according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but uncertainty of the industry’s future labor force remains, as the average age of the farmer increases each year. UF/IFAS works to address this disparity through youth outreach programs that increase agriculture literacy early on.

The disconnect begins in early education, a time when school faculty, staff and students do not discuss agricultural careers as part of the traditional STEM curriculum.

UF/IFAS entomologists developed a youth outreach program to raise awareness of the risk that invasive species bring to Florida and the career opportunities available in the field. There are a wide variety of career opportunities in agriculture, for example in plant biosecurity. These programs are an expansion of previous research on this topic.

“A lot of kids were surprised that you could be a scientist working in agriculture,” said Morgan Pinkerton, a UF/IFAS Doctor of Plant Medicine student and lead author of the study. “Many of them only pictured working in agriculture as being a farmer and they did not realize how far a career in agriculture could expand.”

Over two years, the program reached 2,326 middle and high school students in urban and suburban areas of Florida.

“From an early age, many students are interested in science,” said Amanda Hodges, UF/IFAS Extension associate scientist and director of the Doctor of Plant Medicine program. “Students know so much more about human health medicine but the thought of really considering this whole other side of science related to food production and the environment is really important so that students are aware it is an option. Most students we encountered just have not considered these topics as intensely as they may have considered human or animal health systems.”

Curriculum covered four topics: “Plant Biosecurity: Local and Global Perspectives,” “Invasive Species that Affect Plants,” “Introduction to Entomology” and “Florida Agriculture: Current Issues and Potential Careers.” UF/IFAS researchers introduced the topics during a class period that included case studies of careers in related research topics and hands-on activities. Activities included handling and viewing live insects and arthropods and preserved insect displays that aligned with the various topics.

“Invasive species cost U.S. agriculture and natural areas billions of dollars each year,” Hodges said. “Some students do decide to pursue a career in the topics we presented, but for some students this provides increased awareness about plant health and their environment which is also really important.”

Pre- and post-surveys confirmed that agriculture literacy in Florida is low and outreach events like these can significantly increase education on agriculture-related topics and careers in agriculture. Students reported knowledge gain from the outreach events, but also an increased interest in agriculture and entomology related careers.

“Agriculture literacy is important to ensure we have people entering the agriculture field which is critical to food security in the future,” Pinkerton said. “We have a growing population that we still need to feed. We need young people going into these careers.”

These outreach programs are designed to be adaptable to local curriculum needs and customizable to cover specific agricultural topics. The biggest challenge in the future will be creating space in curriculum for agriculture education.

“COVID-19 has strengthened the need for continuing this project,” Pinkerton said. “We have realized there are some challenges in the food system and one of them is that we are not involving youth in agriculture. This leads to generational problems later when there are not people to fill the shoes of those retiring.”

The program has developed online materials with hopes to return to classrooms in the future once restrictions lessen.

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