African Americans & Agriculture
Scholars say students aren’t aware of the unprecedented opportunities to do well — and to do good — in this stigmatized field
“I was taught by my parents, who had been sharecroppers, that working on the land or with products from the land was an honorable profession. But many parents and grandparents today tell young men and women about the great hardship associated with slavery.”
— Dr. Annie King
College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences
University of California-Davis
Before applying fertilizer to a field of crops, a farmer starts with a yield map that analyzes the field’s needs. The farmer may then use a variable rate applicator machine, so sophisticated that it applies just the right amount of fertilizer to one corner of the field while applying only pesticide to a different area of the field.
Such is the high-tech, computerized world that agricultural production has become today. In fact, the study of agriculture is not just about farming anymore.
Today, with a bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate in agriculture, you could end up becoming a biosystems engineer, a plant pathologist or an animal scientist with the government. You might work with seed companies or in a policy and regulatory agency that deals with environmental issues. Or you might become an agricultural economist, or work in marketing, sales or any one of the 99 subspecialties that fall under the discipline.
“There are so many ways to combine agriculture with just about anything … There’s more to it than just picking,” says Verneta Gaskins, a 24-year-old graduate student at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore who is currently studying bioinformatics, which combines computer science and agriculture.
Making more students — particularly African American students — aware of the myriad options available in the field of agriculture is the challenge faced by educators in the nation’s 136 colleges of agriculture.
Enrollment numbers in programs across the country indicate that, as a major, agriculture does not have the appeal of other professions. In the fall of 1999, there were 4,209 African American students studying in agriculture-related fields according preliminary data from the Food and Agricultural Education Information System, a database to which the nation’s colleges of agriculture report. This number is miniscule when compared to just about any other major or discipline.
“Part of the problem is that African American professionals and HBCUs have not promoted agriculture as a career,” says Dr. Charles Magee, professor and director of biological and agricultural systems engineering at Florida A&M University. “They have promoted medicine and law, and those are fine, but what is more basic than agricultural sciences? Our survival depends on it — food, fiber and shelter.”
Educators say it is crucial for the numbers of African Americans in agriculture to increase. The demographics of a recent poultry science class at the University of Tennessee illustrate the severity of the problem. Out of about 30 students, only two were minorities and only one was African American.
If the situation doesn’t change, African Americans may miss out on an epochal change taking place in agriculture and the opportunity to participate in careers that will have an impact on all of mankind in the 21st century. As Magee points out, there is power that comes with controlling this part of the economy.
“A people can never be truly independent as long as all its groceries are in someone else’s pantry,” he says. “At the present course that we are on, in 10 years we won’t have a single Black person in production agriculture. And if we lose all our Blacks out of production agriculture, all our groceries will be in somebody else’s pantry.”
Educators say a big part of the problem is that the professions of agricultural education and food production often are stigmatized in the minds of students, particularly African American students.
Dr. Annie King, associate dean at the college of agricultural and environmental sciences at the University of California-Davis says she has found that students shy away from agriculture.
“I was taught by my parents, who had been sharecroppers, that working on the land or with products from the land was an honorable profession,” King says. “But many parents and grandparents today tell young men and women about the great hardship associated with slavery or they speak about dirty, hard work with low pay, or even the loss of family-owned farms.
“Students bring these stories forward with them into high school and college, thus missing many new, rewarding experiences and careers,” she adds.
An earlier generation’s attitude about working the land has left a rich legacy in agricultural education at many historically Black colleges. At Tuskegee University, for example, there is pride in the fact that Dr. George Washington Carver started his own version of farm education extension by visiting area farmers with his renowned Jesup wagon, a wagon he outfitted as a mobile classroom.
But a rich history can’t fix some of today’s problems. Only 17 HBCUs still offer agriculture as a major. Many lost their programs, not just because of a lack of student interest, but because of integration and politics that often relocated agricultural programs from HBCUs to White institutions (see related story, pg. 30).
Even at White schools, however, lack of interest in agriculture is a problem. The reluctance to get involved with farming is not unique to African American students, explains Dr. Larry Walker, professor of agriculture and biological engineering at Cornell University.
“We are seeing the [overall] numbers of farmers decrease,” says Walker, adding that big corporations are buying out the traditional family farm. “I don’t know if it is so much that they are turned off or see a stigma as it is a realization that agriculture, at least production agriculture, is a limited career opportunity.”
Still, even without the actual family farm, agricultural opportunities are opening up in many other areas.
In 1999, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that slightly more employment opportunities are expected than can be filled by the projected number of qualified agriculture graduates. On the average, some 57,785 openings are projected during 2000-2005. USDA officials say, given current trends, schools won’t produce enough graduates to fill those jobs.
Statistics indicate that less than 5 percent of the work force are farmers, and only 1 percent of that group is Black.
“There is less and less interest in going into production agriculture,” Walker says.
“Fewer students are coming in with a farm background. When I started [teaching at the college level] in agriculture 25 years ago, the bulk of the students had farm backgrounds. I would say that today, the number with a farm background is probably about 10 percent.”
“This image thing is a serious problem because of our past slavery and plantation heritage,” Magee says. “Think about it this way: George Washington Carver was the greatest agricultural scientist this country has ever produced — Black or White. But have you ever seen his face on a jar of peanut butter?
“You will see Michael Jordan’s face on a box of Wheaties and Gladys Knight’s face selling Velveeta cheese, but you will not see Carver’s face on a jar of peanut butter because it would send a subliminal message,” he continues. “The message being sent now is that we can sing, dance and shoot basketball, but not be scientists. If our children could look at Carver’s face on a jar of peanut butter, they would start saying ‘I want to be like George and not just be like Mike.'”
“The minute students hear the word agriculture, they never get past that to see the true opportunities,” says Dr. Willie Hart, professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at the University of Tennessee. “To help them see, I ask students, ‘Did you eat today?’ And I point out that it was not just the food production that made that possible but all the way up the ladder, from folks in processing, to selling and putting it on the shelves.”
A Refocused Approach
Colleges of agriculture decided a few years ago to attack this problem through their national organization, the American Society of Agricultural Engineers.
“To get away from the negative connotations and attract more students, we decided to refocus the curriculum to reflect the transitions evolving in the agricultural industry,” Hart says.
For example, agricultural engineering now includes biosystems engineering, a coupling of the biological sciences with the engineering discipline. With the degree, one could go with a traditional agriculture track or into engineering outside of agriculture. At Tennessee, within the biosystems discipline, there are concentrations in machine design, soil and water, and food.
“But if you ask students what they are majoring in, they will tell you environmental or biosystems engineering. Only 10 percent say they are studying agriculture,” Walker says of the students at Cornell. “Students hear what’s happening in biotechnology, material science, computer science, molecular biology and are looking at where they can have exciting careers.”
Additionally, agricultural scholars are trying to get the message out that the field needs students with entrepreneurial skills.
“We need a diversity of types of agriculture students, says Dr. Walter Hill, dean of the college of agriculture, environmental and natural sciences and director of the George Washington Carver Agricultural Experiment Station at Tuskegee University. “[Students] who can combine science, business, e-commerce and who understand agriculture, the environment and who want to create businesses for themselves to enhance our own communities rather than go to the large corporations.”
Recently in West Alabama, a group of small Black farmers came together to form their own slaughterhouses. Hill encourages that sort of thinking among African American agriculture graduates.
The Global Impact
“About one fourth of our economy is based on agriculture, food and natural resources including production, processing and retailing,” Hill explains. “And that is a message we want to get out because we will always need to eat. It is not going away.”
According to statistics from the Department of Agriculture, the world population, as of the year 2000, was 6 billion. That figure is expected to reach 8 billion by 2025.
Every day, about 800 million people go to bed hungry. Many of them are children. And 34,000 are dying daily from inadequate nutrition and related diseases.
“The flip side of this situation is that in the developed world, we have overweight people,” Hill says. “Here, the demand is for nutritious food that also helps with health, for food … that helps prevent diseases such as cancer, and for foods such as soy proteins and beta carotene so that people can have longer and healthier lives.
“These twofold needs create a tremendous need for bright, intelligent, young people in agriculture, natural resources engineering and related sciences who can integrate these various needs and come up with new solutions,” Hill says.
One hundred years ago, Booker T. Washington — Tuskegee’s first president — sent a faculty member to West Africa to help the country with cotton production, Hill says. “This was one of the first international development projects of our country,” he adds.
Today, this legacy continues with 12 projects that Tuskegee University has initiated in Africa and with several other projects done by an alliance with all the other Black colleges — designated in 1890 —-as land-grant institutions. The alliance, the Strategic Alliance for Biotechnology Research, works with scientists in West, East and sub-Saharan Africa and will soon start similar projects with Black farmers here in this country.
The projects are a mutual learning process for them and us, Hill explains. Currently, the group is exploring the controversial issue of genetically engineered food with respect to what is best for their respective countries.
Other efforts are being made through organizations such as the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges and its programs to assist 1890 institutions in getting involved with international food issues.
Dr. Mortimer Neufville, executive vice president of the association, says his organization works to ensure 1890 institutions are represented on committees and in legislation dealing with global issues.
“If the 1890s [institutions] are not engaged globally, they will be losing out tremendously because the jobs of the future will demand expertise in international affairs.”
But the idea of assisting developing nations with biotechnology needs is not embraced by all. Dr. C. S. Prakash, a professor of plant molecular genetics and director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University, says that opposition to biotechnology and engineered food comes most often from countries that don’t have a food problem and activists who believe it is not safe.
For example, activist agencies like Greenpeace often say that genetically engineered food might release a gene into the environment that could upset ecosystems by making a weed like Johnson grass stronger and dangerous to other crops, Prakash explains.
“But there is nothing unsafe about it,” Prakash says, defending the technology. “When we introduce a gene into a plant, it is subject to 800-1,000 tests in different environments and every conceivable chemical analysis is made before it is released into the market.
“I just got back from India where there are serious problems and children are dying. With this technology, we could create vaccines cheaply,” he continues. “So, I get mad at condescending, paternalistic preaching when some advocates try to keep this technology from countries where it could help farmers that are miserable and committing suicide. It is absurd for these activists who are removed from these problems to try to tell these countries what to do.”
Scientists of color could really help these developing countries, Prakash adds.
“In three to five years, we are going to see a tremendous impact of this technology if opponents and activists don’t put up a barrier to its development. Given the dwindling land and water resources, as a world we are facing a crisis. We need people involved in these sciences who care about their communities,” he says.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com