One of my most popular blog posts has been “Sustainable agriculture jobs after college?” In this next essay, I share a few thoughts about the jobs situation in sustainable agriculture – based on my experience working with young women and men graduating college. My conclusion is that while there is much work that needs to be done, well-paying, meaningful “lifetime career” jobs that offer a sense of security are hard to find. It may be that getting hired for a lifetime job is an unrealistic expectation for recent college grads in our emerging “on-demand” economy. But that realization might be an opportunity!
Now, might be the time for young people to pursue their vision for a more just and equitable food system, driven by passion and grounded in pragmatism. This might be the time for more food and farming entrepreneurs to lead us to a sustainable food system.
A national news story about Sustainable Food Jobs for example, provides an outline of the many emerging opportunities in this area. Among the areas highlighted were:
- Local and regional farming and marketing
- Restaurants and food services
- Media and marketing
- Law and public policy
- Public health and nutrition
- Technology and entrepreneurship
- Advocacy and community development
- Teaching – especially community-based education
Many of the students who have graduated from the UMass Bachelor of Sciences program in Sustainable Food and Farming and are doing well have created their own new work, rather than “landed a job” in the traditional sense. I encourage graduating seniors to search the job boards online, but mostly as a way of creating a vision or coming up with a new idea for a business or service that nobody has ever thought of before! A brainstorming session in one of my classes came up with a serious, lighthearted, earnest, and ingenious list of future jobs that included; permaculture consultants, rickshaw drivers, herbal landscapers, wood mill operators, biodiesel processors, vermiculturists, urban rooftop gardeners, microlenders, witch doctors, AAA bicycle workers, compost toilet janitors, alternate transport specialists, population controllers, seed bank managers, urban wildcrafters…
I try to be honest with students when they first arrive at UMass to study Sustainable Food and Farming. In our Intro to the Major class (STOCKSCH 118), we explore potential internships and employment opportunities together, but frankly it doesn’t “get real” until the students get closer to graduation. Those without debt have more flexibility to explore creative options and many land in some really interesting situations. I try to stay connected to recent graduates and link to their Facebook pages on my program blog. This gives potential students (and their parents) some idea of where our graduates are working.
Our graduates are doing well for the most part. But still I worry. Our B.S. major in Sustainable Food and Farming at UMass has grown from just 10 students in 2004 to about 150 today. We have expanded our number of classes and created many new experiential learning opportunities to accommodate the growing demand for a college degree in sustainable food and farming. With no end in site however, I have to wonder where will all of these college graduates work? And what kind of work will they do?
A report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests a bright outlook for agricultural graduates. The report concludes that “projected growth in these occupations is in tune with our nation’s shift toward creating new businesses and jobs in local and regional food systems, capitalizing on climate change opportunities, developing renewable energy, and restoring and sustaining natural resources.” Many of the projected agricultural jobs will be in new business start-ups. This is surely our experience in New England where the number of farms is increasing!
The new farms are often small, engaged in direct to consumer sales, include both crops and livestock, and may be more likely to be managed by women than in the past. We are seeing lots of successful start-up farms. However, it is not only new farms that are appearing on the landscape in New England, but also creative new businesses that help move products from the farm to the customer. One of the emerging jobs that didn’t exist just a few years ago is called a “value chain coordinator” – a function that “connects the dots” in the food system to ensure people, goods and resources connect with each other. This is an important function that is often missing among start-up farms and markets.
One of my favorite start-ups was Valley Green Feast, a worker-owned cooperative that took orders each Tuesday and guaranteed delivery “to your door” by Friday. Managed by four entrepreneurial young women, this service helped connect farmers and consumers in a way that worked for both. Part of their mission was to make local, healthy, delicious food as accessible as possible to a wide range of consumers. And whenever possible, the delivery was done by bicycle cart!
And the realty of the business world is that most start-ups don’t make it. Although Valley Green Feast lasted 9 years (much longer than most), it had to close its doors in October, 2016. Another of my favorite experiments, All Things Local in downtown Amherst, also only lasted a few years. Consumer demand is driven largely by low price and convenience. Competing with the industrial food system, which exploits people and the environment to maximize short term profitability, is difficult. This truth led local shellfish farmer, Bren Smith, to write the N.Y. Times editorial “Don’t let your children grow up to be farmers.”
The reality of the global economy is that most new small businesses fail. Nevertheless, if we look closely at the industrial food system, we see the beginnings of “the great unraveling” in which the control of corporate monopolies are causing more harm than good. While retail food prices have never been lower (the average American family spends less than 10% of their income on food) access to high quality, fresh and sustainably produced food is limited to those in higher income brackets. The global food system drives down both food prices and drives up diabetes, heart disease and obesity while accelerating environmental degradation and social inequalities. We can do better!
The solution to the Great Unraveling is the Great Turning, which relies upon:
- A commitment to personal and community actions which slow down and begin to reverse the damage to the earth including humans.
- An understanding of the structural causes of the the crisis and the creation of alternative enterprises, organizations and governments.
- A dramatic shift in consciousness to acknowledge that humans are a part of…. not apart from the ecosystems upon which we depend for life.
While seemingly difficult to imagine, this is what students learn in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture class, Agricultural Systems Thinking. It is also the foundation for the work of Food Solutions New England, which promotes a vision that calls for our region to build the capacity to produce at least 50% of clean, fair, just and accessible food for all New Englanders by 2060.
I believe that we need lots more experiments in farming, marketing and support businesses like Valley Green Feast and All Things Local. I’m not alone in this belief. Richard Heinberg’s presentation, “Fifty Million Farmers,” predicts the need for 40 to 50 million new farmers and gardeners to help the U.S. adjust to radical climate change and depletion of easily accessible fossil fuel. Sharon Astyk’s book, A Nation of Farmers, presents a similar look at the future of American agriculture. I believe they are on to something, but I don’t know if the opportunities are opening up as fast as needed to help our graduates find meaningful work today.
So, what do we tell agricultural graduates? One thing for sure is “the future will be different than the past.” Almost everyone understands that we are in such a state of rapid and unprecedented change, that we cannot predict the future based on previous trends. I’ve begun to wonder if farmers and food marketers will learn to change to meet the “on-demand economy” that is emerging in some businesses today. A recent article in The Economist states…
“IN THE early 20th century Henry Ford combined moving assembly lines with mass labor to make building cars much cheaper and quicker—thus turning the automobile from a rich man’s toy into transport for the masses. Today a growing group of entrepreneurs is striving to do the same to services, bringing together computer power with freelance workers to supply luxuries that were once reserved for the wealthy. Uber provides chauffeurs. Handy supplies cleaners. SpoonRocket delivers restaurant meals to your door. Instacart keeps your fridge stocked.
The personalized driving service, Uber, is the model for many of these new businesses and has grown exponentially since its beginning in 2009. Will we “uberize” food and farming? What would that look like? It certainly wouldn’t be a straight-line projection from the past. The food system today is highly centralized and controlled by a few major corporations. In a recent report, Oxfam International stated that only10 companies control nearly every familiar grocery store brand.
In spite of the popularity of local food, less than 1% of American farm products are sold directly from farmer to consumer. But in a period of rapid change, it might not be so far fetched to imagine a decentralized production and distribution system, connected through technology. I’ve written about this in a previous blog that examined the concept of a Food Commons. While not exactly Uber, the Food Commons would be a national network of localized food systems and includes the food hubs that are already growing rapidly in many parts of the country.
When we ask the question “where will the agricultural college graduates work in the future” these two visions for American agriculture provide different answers. In the world in which a few corporations control the food supply there is not much opportunity for young, passionate and intelligent entrepreneurs. But in the vision presented by the Food Commons, well we might just need 50 million farmers!
But we will need much more. We need lots of experiments in new and creative approaches to growing, delivering and preparing high quality food. We need food entrepreneurs to lead us to a more sustainable food system.
What do you think? Where are the opportunities? Please share your thoughts in the Comments Box below.
And if you are looking for good work, check out this page: Good Work!
Check out our UMass Sustainable Food and Farming Bachelor of Sciences degree program and our Online Certificate Program at the University of Massachusetts to prepare yourself to explore these opportunities for change. Please join my Just Food Now Facebook group, or follow my Twitter posts.