April 19 has been designated Agriculture Education Awareness Day, which is a good time to focus on the large number of career opportunities that exist in agriculture, food and natural resources (AFNR). It also a time to focus on the importance of making sure that the agriculture, science and business curriculum and coursework in our secondary schools in Minnesota are enhancing the AFNR career opportunities for our students.
Minnesota currently has AFNR programs in 187 school districts, with 226 AFNR teachers, reaching about 26,700 students in grades 9-12 and an additional 5,500 students in grades 7-8. There are also 176 Future Farmers of America  (FFA) chapters in Minnesota high schools, with over 9,000 total members. The number of secondary schools currently offering AFNR education has actually increased slightly compared to 2005-2006, when 182 schools offered AFNR programs. In 1985-1986, there were 254 secondary schools in Minnesota offering AFNR educational programs; however, the total student participation was only 12,766, which is less than half of today’s enrollment in AFNR coursework.
The larger number of students participating in AFNR programs today is largely the result of dramatic changes in the type of courses being offered in secondary schools as part of an AFNR program. The AFNR programming at Minnesota secondary schools focuses on the following broad topic areas: plant sciences, animal systems, agri-business systems, food processing systems, power and technical systems, natural resources and environmental systems. In previous times, AFNR programs were primarily career and technical training programs for agriculture. However, in the past decade or so, with more focus on basic academics and high-stakes student testing, AFNR programs have needed to focus more on science and economics to be a viable segment of academic requirements.
One of the biggest challenges facing public school districts is limited current and future funding resources. Tight budgets can greatly impact AFNR programs in secondary schools, especially if the AFNR courses are treated as electives, rather than being courses to meet science or other curriculum requirements, or being part of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) initiatives that exist in some school districts. There are many innovative AFNR teachers who have worked with school curriculum leaders to integrate AFNR courses into the overall course requirements and student career development objectives within a school district. However, there is a shortage of highly qualified AFNR teachers to meet the demands at our secondary schools.
The USDA  estimates that that the annual number of job openings requiring a college degree with expertise in agriculture, food systems, renewable energy and environment will increase by 5% from 2010-2015, as compared to 2005-2010. USDA projects that over 54,000 college graduates will be needed each year to meet this job demand from 2010-2015, with 74% of these jobs being business- and science-type occupations. USDA estimates that only about 49,000 qualified college graduates will be available each year to meet this growing job demand, with about 29,000 of those graduates coming from AFNR programs and the balance from other college majors. Some of the largest food and agricultural companies in the world are based out of Minnesota, and have many career opportunities available to college graduates. Of course, there are also many job opportunities available in regional centers and local communities throughout Minnesota that would prefer some AFNR training and coursework for available positions.
Too often, we correlate ag education as being coursework to prepare young people for farming or production agriculture rather than considering the vast array of career opportunities and job openings that exist in AFNR. There are going to be many future career opportunities for our students in food safety and quality, renewable energy, environmental issues, business management and other areas. Enhancing AFNR programs in our secondary and post-secondary schools is certainly one strategy to help prepare our students for these future opportunities.
Editor’s note: Kent Thiesse is a former University of Minnesota Extension educator and now is Vice President of MinnStar Bank, Lake Crystal, MN. You can contact him at 507-726-2137 or via e-mail at [email protected]