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Farm Economy on Mind of Ag Students

November 1, 1999

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) _ Like many of her classmates pursuing a career in agriculture, Jennifer Smith tailored her schedule at Iowa State University to fit the current job market.

Smith, a student in the College of Agriculture, filled her course schedule with classes in agronomy, communications and agriculture business. When she wasn’t helping out on the family farm in Atlantic, Iowa, she took internships that helped her learn about crop chemical sales and special herbicides.

It looks as though the plan will pay off. Smith already is mulling job offers and expects to be employed when she graduates a semester early in December.

But like most of her peers, Smith admits the face of today’s agriculture _ low commodity prices, consolidations and government bailouts _ can make even the most qualified graduate uneasy.

``Everyone wants to make sure they’re on the right side of the merger,″ she said. ``There’s a tendency that the last one hired is the first one fired, so we want to make sure.″

While many college seniors seeking a career in agriculture expect to find jobs waiting for them, the weakened farm economy has cast a shadow of apprehension.

Some career counselors assure students that jobs will be available. According to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study, the farm sector looks to fill nearly 48,000 jobs each year and can find only 46,000 qualified graduates.

Mike Gaul, a career services counselor at Iowa State, said the school’s job fair this month reflects the trend. The number of companies planning to interview students is ahead of schedule, he said, but students are still apprehensive.

``They’re definitely coming in concerned,″ Gaul said. ``It’s not really that bad from an entry-level standpoint. We have had a good array of positions coming in.″

Gaul said jobs in fields such as horticulture, food science and agriculture education are plentiful, while work in farm chemicals is more difficult to land.

Still, for a good portion of agriculture students, the plight of the farm economy has reached a personal level. Commodity prices fell in 1998 because of the Asian financial crisis and strong crop production the past two years has raised corn and soybean supplies.

``It’s kind of seen as a cyclical thing,″ said Lindsay Searle, an Iowa State senior. ``We’re worried that when we’re done in May the job prospects will be gloomy.″

Fellow senior Erik Heggen said he’s optimistic about finding work in agriculture business, but he knows the state of the farm economy firsthand. His parents ran a small diversified farm in Harcourt, but both have worked in outside jobs for the past few years and now farm on the side.

``We’re kind of seeing our parents not doing as well as in the past,″ Heggen said. ``You kind of question where you stand and where you’re going to be.″

Only about 15 percent of Iowa State’s agriculture graduates return to work on the family farm, said academic adviser Lisa Brejac. She said she tries to steer students toward work in sales, agronomy and other parts of agribusiness where more opportunities exist.

For some like Heggen, however, family farming might be an option down the road.

``I see a lot of friends get away, get some experience and then come back,″ he said. ``It’s awful tough to take the farm out of the farm kid.″