University agriculture school grows in new areas

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Student reads outside the ag school
A student reads outside the University of Minnesota's College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences facilities.
MPR Photo/Alex Friedrich

When many people picture the typical agriculture student at the University of Minnesota, chances are they'd think of a rural farm boy.

For a long time they would have been on target. Many students probably arrived as a freshman to learn agronomy, soil or animal science and planned to return to the family farm or go to work for a big agricultural company.

That's no longer true. Professors are seeing a different kind of agricultural student on the Twin Cities campus.

"It's a woman who grew up in suburban Twin Cities, and is a transfer student from some place in MnSCU," said Jay Bell, associate dean the U of M's College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

She and her classmates prefer nutrition, environmental science or natural resources over traditional agricultural majors.

Add in their classmates in pre-veterinary science, and such students now account for 75 percent of agriculture students at the university.

Women now outnumber men 61 percent to 39 percent — a ratio that used to be the other way around. Thirty years ago, less than one fifth of agricultural students were women.

The U of M's ag school
The University of Minnesota's College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences facilities.
MPR Photo/Alex

"It's a very, very different student body that we're working with today than we were, you know, 20-30 years ago," Bell said.

The decline in traditional agricultural enrollment speaks to fundamental changes in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences - long the heart of the university. Agriculture is arguably the cornerstone of U of M's mission as a land grant university. It has its own section of campus located in St. Paul.

Yet university officials aren't exactly sure what's causing the shift.

The college draws a significant portion of students from the Twin Cities metro area, which until a few years ago was still ringed by farms. But that farmland has been transformed into suburban developments.

Another possible factor in the change could be the strong local-foods movement — one that emphasizes small organic farms, local producers and sustainable farming methods.

That appeals to environmental science senior Kiley Friedrich, who grew up in Milwaukee. After graduation, she'll work on a Rhode Island goat-breeding cooperative.

But Friedrich said she and her classmates don't really see themselves as farmers — at least in the traditional sense. Rather, they see food as a focal point for environmentalism and social improvement.

"There's a lot more young people looking to change the way we make our food, change the way we think about our food, the policies around our food, the way in which we do that — and making it more of a sustainable lifestyle than what we've seen in the past," she said.

Still, many students begin classes not even knowing the basics of farming.

That became clear to Bell when he spoke to a student in his soil conservation class after a lecture on planting using grain drills — common implements that insert seeds into the soil.

"She asked, 'Dr. Bell, why is it that you would you want to drill a hole in the middle of a seed?' " he recalled. "And at first I though she was trying to make a joke, but then I realized she really didn't have any idea what a grain drill was."

Such a profound change in students has prompted university officials to rethink the way professors teach agriculture.

Toward that end, Bell now includes more of the fundamentals of farming into his lectures. The college is emphasizing more hands-on education and making programs more interdisciplinary. It also is devising new majors — such as one focusing on sustainable food systems.

It's a way of thinking that Wade Kent of Iowa — an old-school Ph.D. student in agronomy — has come to appreciate.

"At first, I was kind of taken back by it, because I wasn't used to it," he said of the interests of suburban and urban students. "But what I've noticed is, I've learned a lot from them -- and I think they've learned a lot from me."

Large agriculture concerns may be starting to appreciate the college's new focus, agroecology professor Nick Jordan said.

"Somebody like Cargill is interested in the skill set that we would provide in educating a person who was capable of thinking critically about urban agriculture, say, and how do you develop that, and what are its limits," he said.

After all, Jordan said, feeding the world without wrecking the environment is a challenge that's not going to go away.