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More Diversity In Agriculture: A Hard Row

September 19, 1995

Big agricultural companies are trying to sow the seeds of diversity.

DuPont Co. and Cargill Inc. are among the corporations increasing their recruiting presence on college campuses and encouraging universities to introduce more minority students to modern agriculture, including agri-economics, agribusiness, genetics and biotechnology.

But it’s a hard sell. Many students from urban areas, including minority students, think of jobs in agriculture as harvesting crops and milking cows. ``They think they’re going to be working in the fields,″ says Jesse Thompson, an assistant dean at the College of Agriculture of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (In fact, at Ohio State University, site of that state’s largest agriculture school, fewer than 10 percent of the agricultural graduates become farmers; most go into agribusiness.)

For students being recruited for other fields, salaries in agriculture aren’t very enticing: Agri-engineers make about $41,000 a year on average, compared with $46,000 for civil engineers and $56,000 for chemical engineers, according to the 1990 Census.

But for many minority students there’s an additional hurdle: agriculture’s link to the hard labor endured by their ancestors. Some African-Americans ``have an aversion to agriculture going back to slavery,″ says Ian Blount, a 25-year-old African-American graduate student at Ohio State.

The experience of 20-year-old Lisa Barrios, a Mexican-American who grew up in Chicago, is typical. ``I assumed everything was just farming,″ she says. ``If you didn’t have a rural background, then you wouldn’t be able to do it.″ Ms. Barrios switched to agricultural engineering from chemical engineering at the University of Illinois only after she discovered the range of job opportunities in the field. During the summer, she worked as an intern doing research at Monsanto Co.’s Hybritech unit, a hybridized wheat research facility in Lafayette, Ind.

But Ms. Barrios is still the exception. In the 1990 U.S. Census, white men accounted for 65 percent of all agriculture-and-food scientists, while women accounted for 26.7 percent, Hispanics 4.2 percent, Asians 3.4 percent and African-Americans 3.3 percent.

``We can chase diversity with a passion, but it doesn’t mean that we catch it,″ says Arnold W. Donald, the president of Monsanto’s Crop Protection unit. But he still believes that a multiracial work force is an ``absolute business imperative to competing globally.″

Pat Nichols, a district manager for DuPont Chemicals Ag-Products Division, agrees. ``It’s important to have a diversified work force in order to have a diversity of ideas and thinking,″ she says. From a global perspective, she adds, ``there will be the need to develop different foods for different cultures, and companies will need a diverse work force to do that.″

The key to recruiting more minorities, contends Eunice Foster, a professor of crop physiology at Michigan State University, is to appeal to them while they are still in high school. Many colleges now run summer programs to introduce minority students to careers in agriculture. At Penn State University in State College, Pa., three dozen minority high-school students enrolled in a workshop that exposed them to computer landscaping, the care of stadium turf and ultrasound imaging of pregnant cows. At the University of Illinois, Dr. Thompson’s Research Apprentice program for high-school students has helped increase minority enrollment at the college of agriculture to 135 students from 35 students seven years ago.

Mr. Blount, the graduate student at Ohio State, says he never expected to end up in agriculture. He had dreamed of being a stockbroker in New York since childhood but was deterred by the stress of Wall Street. At a college career fair, he learned about commodity brokering. He figured that was the same dream with less stress and began to take courses in agriculture. He now has an undergraduate degree in agricultural economics and is working on a master’s degree in agricultural education.

Those who do choose careers in agriculture are frequently dismayed to find so few role models. Zelia Wiley, a 29-year-old African-American graduate student in agriculture and extension education, says she was motivated to become a teacher because there weren’t any African-American professors in her field when she was an undergraduate at Prairie View A&M University in Texas.

``Students ask, `Where are the black people at?‴ says Blannie Bowen, who teaches at Penn State. ``I say, `You’re looking at him.′ There just aren’t that many people yet. I tell students that’s why their services are needed.″

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