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USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) is on a mission to promote careers in agricultural economics for minority college students. For the past two years the ERS has conducted a distance learning program that brings experts from the Agriculture Department into the classrooms of minority-serving Virginia State, Florida A&M and New Mexico State universities via interactive real-time video seminars.

The ERS also has a summer internship program that allows students to observe agricultural economists and be assigned projects related to an economist’s work. “We give them a range of tasks within an area to help them develop expertise in economic analysis,” says Dr. Keithly Jones, an agricultural economist at ERS, who coordinates with Dr. Christopher Davis the distance learning program.

The internship program has led to many of the students forming mentoring relationships with ERS officials, who encourage the students to pursue advanced studies in agricultural economics. The mentors provide advice to the students when they begin their graduate work and maintain relationships over a period of years, Jones says.

“One of the objectives of the distance learning program is to expand the size and diversity of faculty and students with policy analyses expertise,” says Davis. “We also wanted to enhance collaboration among minority-serving institutions.”

The other two general objectives of the program, according to Davis, are to build stronger relationships between ERS and 1890 Land Grant Institutions and Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities institutions and to leverage ERS expertise in key policy areas.

The core of the distance learning program is a 45-minute presentation by an ERS expert, often simultaneously broadcast to all three schools, followed by a 15-minute question and answer period, on topics such as biofuel, farm labor issues and food markets and pricing. The following week the students from each class give group presentations to three or four ERS specialists who offer comments and constructive criticism on the presentations.

The ERS hopes to expand its distance learning programs next spring to a total of six participating schools, including one tribal or American Indian-serving college. A firm selection of institutions has not yet been finalized.

The mentoring programs and the distance learning program both focus on encouraging participation of minorities. The USDA hasn’t done a study to determine if minorities are under-represented in agricultural economics.

While firm statistics on minority participation in the field of agricultural economics has not yet been explicitly determined, Dr. Oluwarotimi Odeh — an assistant professor in Virginia State University’s agriculture department, whose students participate in ERS’s seminars — says he feels such participation is lacking and the key to increasing minority presence in the field is to begin at the high school level, getting students interested in the subject before they select college majors.

“We are trying to do that now here in Virginia. Some students don’t know anything about agricultural economics or agricultural policymaking. They think of agriculture as primarily working on a farm. My goal is to show them that the field has many rewarding career opportunities.”

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