Farmers in the U.S. like to point out that their products feed people all over the world. And while this is a diverse country, the people working on farms and elsewhere in agriculture often don't reflect the nation's demographics. Changing that is becoming a priority, in hopes that new people will bring fresh ideas to meet some of our food system's greatest challenges.
Take monoculture, the long-standing practice of planting only corn or soybeans on millions of Midwest acres. While it has resulted in massive crops and billions of dollars in revenue for decades, the strategy can also contribute to problems.
"A fair bit of our environmental issues with agriculture across the country, not just Iowa, relate to the lack of diversity on the landscape. There's no doubt about that," says Kendall Lamkey, chair of the agronomy department at Iowa State University.
Agronomists understand soil, plants and farming practices and advise farmers on how to improve what they do. And Lamkey says the field needs new ideas.
"The way to re-diversify the landscape is to re-diversify the people in agriculture," he says.
Shortly after he became the department chair in 2006, Lamkey launched a statewide marketing campaign called "I'm an Agronomist," meant to attract students who wouldn't likely come in the door on their own. He wanted more students, but in particular, he wanted students from a wider pool — from cities and suburbs, and from minority groups. Not everyone embraced Lamkey's strategy, though.
"When I started doing this a long time ago, there were some people who weren't happy that we were recruiting people that didn't think like them into agriculture," Lamkey says. And nationwide, more than 95 percent of all farmers are white, according to the most recent Census of Agriculture. "But in the end, that's how all fields move forward, is bringing in people who don't think like we do."
Lamkey's approach is working. Enrollment in agronomy at Iowa State has more than tripled since 2006. That fall, there was just one agronomy student who identified as other than white. Today, 23 students do – that's almost 7 percent of the total undergraduate enrollment in agronomy. And it's not just agronomy. Students who don't come from family farms are enrolling in other agriculture classes, too. Women now make up at least half of the students in several colleges of agriculture in the Midwest.
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