A Complete Farm to Market Learning Experience Brings Agriculture Into the 21st Century

According to America’s Diverse Family Farms most recent report, roughly 2.1 million farms grace America’s rural landscape, with approximately 99% of these farms being ran by families. Whether it’s individuals, family partnerships, or family corporations, the food grown and supplied by these farms feed around 165 people annually in the United States and abroad.

Currently, consumers are returning back to their old habits of wanting more local produce and being interested in where their food comes from. The agriculture industry as a whole is also evolving, as more technological advances are incorporated (e.g., the implementation of drones and crop monitoring) and climate and sustainability issues are taken into consideration.

Given this demand for food, both nationally and worldwide, agriculture employs over 24 million workers or 17 percent of the country’s workforce, and these trends are also seen throughout the state of New York. New York ranks high among the major agricultural states in the nation, placing in the top 10 in production of 30 various agricultural commodities, with nearly 36,000 family farms producing these delicious foods. Moreover, about 20% of New York’s land, or more than 7 million acres, is farmland.

In order to meet the needs of New York State and beyond, SUNY Cobleskill is training the future agricultural workforce by providing students with hands-on learning experiences to master both traditional practices and new trends in the industry.

Beyond farming - agriculture in the 21st century

At SUNY Cobleskill, their academic agriculture programs provide training that deviates from past educational tracks. This is because 21st century agriculture goes beyond farming: it includes everything from marketing products to implementing sustainable practices to staying up-to-date on technological advances in the field.

Through the combination of theory and practice, and cross-disciplinary programming, SUNY Cobleskill’s students learn information that benefits them once they graduate, as employers want individuals who can apply knowledge, evaluate situations, and make important decisions daily.

For example, in the Animal Science program, students may learn about homeostasis in a lecture and then practice measuring animal vital signs in a lab class. Or, they may attend a lecture about nutrients and animal nutrient requirements and then identify feeds that supply those nutrients to cattle on SUNY Cobleskill’s dairy farm. Through these classroom lessons, students effectively learn how to care for livestock before ever starting their professional career.

Dairy cows chew on hay in a barn at SUNY Cobleskill.

Dairy cows chew on hay in a barn at SUNY Cobleskill.

 

Cobleskill’s Animal Science program also teaches students about state-related and industry trends concerning dairy farms. New York is a prominent producer of dairy products, and the state still has a large number of dairy farms and dairy animals. Currently, there are key challenges facing the dairy industry in New York, such as market volatility, availability and cost, and public perceptions surrounding farming and general food production.

Consequently, Dr. Caitlin Foley of the Animal Science program keeps her students aware of these issues, "These challenges are re-occurring themes in much of my course content, and I have found that facilitating class discussions about the many factors affecting the dairy industry are essential." She also includes national and worldwide trends in her course content. Given that animal products provide and large supply of consumable nutrients and textile fiber around the world, farmers are constantly assessing their methods and tailoring them to be more efficient and still profitable.

In order to meet the needs of New York State and beyond, SUNY Cobleskill is training the future agricultural workforce to master both traditional practices and new trends in the industry.

As one of the oldest known industries in the United States, part of the process of assessing these methods involves sustainable labor. According to Dr. George Crosby of SUNY Cobleskill’s Plant Science program, "When we talk about sustainability in agriculture, labor is a huge part of it. Meaning, the amount of food that can be grown and sold in a productive way, as you might not be able to find labor to do the work. Additionally, labor to do the work to sell at scale is important."

Plants grow tall in a large greenhouse at SUNY Cobleskill.

Fruits and vegetables grow tall in the campus greenhouse at SUNY Cobleskill.

 

One way students can gain experience with this specific notion of agricultural sustainability is through internships, as they will see whether businesses and farms have a sufficient number of employees to flourish. Although a number of students from SUNY Cobleskill intern across the country, most of these aspiring agricultural professionals land internships in New York.

 As Dr. Crosby explains, “It’s more typical that a student who takes a fruit science class in Cobleskill will work in Upstate New York. It doesn’t mean that they won’t end up in a different state – and those that do are usually driven by wanting a different living experience – but we don’t usually send a lot of folks out that would grow a different crop than what they learned at Cobleskill.”

Where a student ends up after graduation may also depend on what crop is popular and where it’s grown. Currently, hops are a big interest and economy in New York State, so many students are gravitating toward that area of study. Yet, the biggest driving force of where jobs are is determined by what consumers want, and today’s consumers have a stronger desire for produce than in years past, especially when it comes to out-of-season produce.

As such, instructors like Dr. Crosby teach students how to find their passion within the industry while questioning the likelihood of making said passion a strategic career path. One way of increasing a student’s chance of succeeding in this field is having a firm grasp of growing at scale (e.g., feeding a town versus just learning about science and seed growth) and understanding where the food is distributed to after it’s grown and harvested.

In New York, there is everything from small-scale producers to large-scale distributors and grocery chains, so SUNY Cobleskill teaches students strategies for succeeding in these different markets, as well as their individual challenges. Dr. Evans, who teaches in SUNY Cobleskill’s department of agricultural business management, explains that smaller-scale New York farms or food producers need to have a number of product types and operations on their farm to succeed.

When working with students, Dr. Evans highlights the significance that marketing plays in helping businesses thrive through products that are branded, jarred, and packaged in a strategic way as well. He also notes that more farmers and businesses are being mindful of sustainability when it comes to marketing (e.g., paper for catalogs, energy for web use, lighting in offices, etc.). Another strategy that farmers are currently using is diversifying away from commodity markets (e.g., corn, rice, wheat) because, according to Dr. Evans, the "small guys can’t compete in that area."

Box full of chocolate chip cookies and brownies.

Baked goods like these chocolate chip cookies and brownies can be baked by students using ingredients grown and supplied locally from the campus and local partners.

 

In addition to marketing and sustainability strategies, students are learning hands-on business skills through SUNY Cobleskill’s Carriage House, which started out as an online farmers’ market with 35 or so producers, is now an on-campus store where students and visitors can take advantage of prepared food, local produce, and hand-made accessories. Moving forward, students will conduct market research for Carriage House suppliers to assess which new products could be successful in a store and pitch ideas on how they can expand into a larger retail location.

Overall, the agricultural landscape is changing, due to many farmers aging out and more than 20% of farmers being beginning farmers. By 2050, the global population is predicted to increase to 9.7 billion, resulting in the world’s farmers needing to grow roughly 70% more food than what is currently produced. Thankfully, SUNY Cobleskill is training the future workforce that will help meet this demand, from the beginning of the process – raising livestock and growing produce – to the end – supplying communities with products. With the education that students receive at SUNY Cobleskill, these future professionals will bring expertise to their fields with a keen eye for agricultural sustainability so that New Yorkers can enjoy high quality food for generations to come.

Published March 2019