Insights on Agriculture: Agriculture should be praised and supported, not put down in schools


By Dale-Ila Riggs

In the school district where I live (New Lebanon, NY), it is estimated 59% of the graduating seniors plan to go on to college, but fully 41% do not.

What skills and job opportunities are students encouraged to explore? The number of jobs that are currently available to people with skills pertaining to agriculture is mind-boggling. Every single farmer I know is short on help, consequently they are not able to grow their business. A business that can’t grow does not help the local economy and subsequently they do not help other local businesses thrive.

Multiple universities have reams of studies that show for each agricultural job that is created, three other jobs in support industries and other businesses are created. Mountains of data have proven time and time again that communities that invest in their local natural resources and attributes have the best outcomes in economic development.

Upstate New York is an agriculturally rich area with many small farms that are in need of help to expand their operations and production. It’s a rewarding career path for both college-bound and non-college students.

Distressing feedback

All too often I hear from my employees, particularly those of high school and college age, that there is an active bias in our schools against people going into the agricultural sciences. The very strong message they have received is that “smart kids don’t go into agriculture.”

That would probably come as a surprise to the thousands of students (90%) seeking to attend Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences who get turned down each year. It’s easier to be accepted into the College of Engineering than it is the agricultural business curriculum.

It is very distressing to me as the valedictorian of both my B.S and M.S degree programs, and as a multiple national award winner for research and education programs, that educators who are supposed to be helping students maximize their potential are so closed minded about agriculture and so disrespectful to the people that provide food for their local communities throughout the year.

It feeds the mind

What I have heard from students is that their Ag classes are the only classes where they get to use their minds, their hands and think about larger issues such as water resources and climate change. It’s the one class they look forward to attending.

One student told me, “All my other classes, I go in and they say, ‘Open your Chromebook, here’s today’s topic.’ All I do is look at a screen all day. In Ag class, I get to use my hands, I get to grow something and see how it changes. I feel like I have accomplished and created something. I am outside and talking about things that engage my mind.”

Speaking of the mind, the parents of another high schooler who works for us told me how much better the mental health of their child was when they were working at our farm. They lamented how quickly it would spiral downward when their farm employment ended.

So “smart students” are told they shouldn’t go into agriculture and should instead follow other career paths, such as “computer technology,” as they will make a lot more money. Really? Is what defines a mentally healthy, successful graduate their income? No wonder our younger generation has the worst outlook on life and the greatest mental health needs.

I am indescribably distressed that some of our brightest students are being actively discouraged from entering a field that has so many opportunities at all levels of educational attainment and for which there will always be jobs available. Agriculture is one of the sciences and deserves the respect all other professions receive.

Dale-Ila Riggs owns the Berry Patch farm in Stephentown and is the inventor of a unique netting system that has allowed her to grow pesticide-free berries despite an invasive insect that has changed berry production worldwide.