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Farming's in a Slump, but Ag Grads Can Still Expect to Find Good Jobs

September 29, 1985|BRUCE KEPPEL | Times Staff Writer

Despite the nation's widely publicized farm crisis, the School of Agriculture at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo has all the agricultural majors it can handle.

And while agriculture enrollments nationally are down 25% from a year ago, California's other big ag school, UC Davis, has seen its enrollment slip just 8%.

"The plight of the farmer is interpreted to mean there are not jobs in agriculture," one educator said. "Nothing could be farther from the truth."

Indeed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that 59,000 new people are needed annually to fill agriculture-related jobs. The ag graduates fill about 65% of these new jobs each year, while those in other academic disciplines account for another 22%. That leaves an annual gap of about 8,000 jobs.

California's farmers have not been entirely spared by the plunge in commodity prices at a time when many growers are mortgaged to the hilt. But the state's diverse crops--in contrast to the Midwest's grain-based agriculture--have helped sustained a level of employment opportunities higher than the national average.

Cal Poly keeps its enrollment at capacity, said Lark Carter, dean of the School of Agriculture, by seeking to produce graduates who offer the job skills that agricultural employers are seeking.

That approach blends "a good general eduation," Carter said, "plus hands-on experience in the field--knowing how to do it as well as why things happen the way they do. . . .

"I haven't had anyone pounding my desk saying I can't find a job," he added. "Most graduates find employment in their fields, if they are willing to go where the jobs are."

The most popular majors at the state's two principal ag schools are in agricultural economics and agricultural management. "The day of the farmer in overalls is long past," said Nancy Rupp, who coordinates internships for the School of Agriculture at Davis.

Across the country, agricultural colleges are playing down the traditional "cow-and-plow" image. Today's majors are preparing less for traditional jobs in agricultural production than for related work in such service-oriented, high-technology areas as computer science, biotechnology, export-import, agricultural economics, research, commodity trading, marketing and business administration.

That reflects the fact that while only about 3% of the U.S. work force is directly employed in farming, nearly 22%--22.7 million people--are employed in what is loosely called the food-and-fiber industry--processing, manufacturing, transporting, exporting, retailing, preparing and serving farm-based products. And California leads the nation in employment in that industry with 2.5 million workers, the USDA reports.

"What is happening is that agriculture is becoming industrialized, and as it does it behaves just like other industries," said Philip L. Martin, a UC Davis agricultural economist. "Most of the jobs don't involve production, but the marketing of it," a transformation that has unfolded over many years. "But the pace of change has picked up a lot," Martin added.

One of the more promising new career areas is in exporting, ranging from northern-grown rice and timber to Southland citrus and strawberries. The state Department of Food and Agriculture counted more than 800 firms involved in exporting the state's agricultural commodities and seafood last year.

The overseas market is relatively new to California agriculture, yet it accounted for more than $2.7 billion in agricultural sales last year--about 22% of the harvest. Two-thirds of that amount went to Pacific Rim countries. The persistently strong dollar, which caused exports to sag from a record $4.2 billion registered in 1981, has prompted the state and producers to redouble export marketing efforts.

Among the most active exporters is Sherman Oaks-based Sunkist Growers, a cooperative of California and Arizona citrus growers. While current employment opportunities there are limited, a spokesman said, the longer-term outlook is bright for well-trained salespeople with facility in foreign languages--particularly those of the Pacific Rim.

Cal Poly stresses Spanish proficiency among its students seeking to work in domestic agriculture as well, where Latinos account for a large chunk of the employees.

While the agricultural work force in California has slipped about 22% during the last 35 years, to about 278,000, the number of hired workers has held relatively stable, declining only 3% to about 218,000, according to Employment Development Department figures. The decline in overall employment is due almost entirely to the shrinking numbers of family-owned farms (there were 132,000 farmers and their family members logged in the employment rolls in 1950, compared to only 60,000 today).

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