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Beyond The Farm: A Look At The Wide World Of Ag Degrees

Gross-Wen Technologies is growing algae on belts that circulate through wastewater as a cheaper way to clean that water of phosphorus and nitrogen. It also harvests that algae, scraped off easily here by a gloved hand, to use as slow-release fertilizer.

Fields, crops and farm animals are part of the agriculture-industry landscape, but an increasingly small one.

The number of farm and ranch managers shrunk by about 20 percent between 1996 and 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics. At the same time, there are more students graduating from ag colleges, and, in many parts of the country, 80 percent to 90 percent of them find a job (or go for an advanced degree) within a few months of graduating.

But they’re not headed to the farm: Think tractor financing, food products and farm technology.


Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. CREDIT MADELYN BECK / HARVEST PUBLIC MEDIA

The ag-degree marketplace

Iowa State University is a major center for ag education, and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences saw its largest graduating class in the 2017-2018 school year — 1,124 students.

Mike Gaul, the college’s career service director, said that if trends hold true, only about 8 percent of those graduates will farm. Others will either focus on animal science, aiming to become veterinarians, or into ag business, where the majority of graduates at ISU already had jobs in areas like sales, lending or merchandising when they received their diplomas.

“Despite everything that’s going on out there right now with low commodity prices and tariff implications and all that stuff that’s going on, it’s still an incredibly good time to be a student in agriculture,” Gaul said.

Beyond those majors, he said there are some that companies can’t get enough of: horticulture (think landscaping and golf course grooming) and food science.

Kevin Kimle is the director of Iowa State’s Agriculture Entreprenuership Initiative. He encourages ag students to go out on their own, saying it’s likely that a third of them will start a business at some point in their career. CREDIT MADELYN BECK / HARVEST PUBLIC MEDIA

“If parents were to come in here and say ‘Here’s my son or daughter, they’ve got a strong interest in sciences, where should they go?’ I would definitely send them to take a hard look at anything in the food sciences side of things,” he said. “The bottom line is this: We all have to eat, right?”

Just down the hall from Gaul is Kevin Kimle, a former ag entrepreneur and current director of the college’s Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative. Kimle said the ag-entrepreneur market is “hot,” but acknowledges that a lot of people don’t think about ag in as “innovative” or “entrepreneurial.”

“But I think the nature of agriculture also means managing risk when you’re dealing with living plants and animals,” he said.

He pointed to an ISU survey of those who received bachelor’s degrees from the university between 1982 and 2006. Of those earned through the ag college, 20 percent have started at least one for-profit business.

Kimle’s eyes lit up  when he talked about former students and all the things they go on to do, like 2013 graduate Colin Hurd. Hurd already sold his first ag-related business called Agriculture Concepts, which used planting technology he developed, and is making headway in autonomous tractors with his second business, Smart Ag.

What’s algae got to do with it?

There’s a little greenhouse on ISU’s BioCentury Research Farm, that would be nearly impossible to find without help. The facility, which helps make students’ business ideas reality, is a maze of offices, warehouse areas and testing facilities.

Martin Gross is president and co-founder of Gross-Wen Technologies, which uses algae to clean wastewater. He’s standing in a greenhouse the company uses outside Ames, Iowa. CREDIT MADELYN BECK / HARVEST PUBLIC MEDIA

But once you’re through a little back door, you reach Gross-Wen Technology’s testing ground for its wastewater-cleaning system: a bunch of bright green, algae-laden belts cycling vertically up and down into wastewater.

Martin Gross is the co-founder and president of the company, which uses this process to clean water of nitrogen and phosphorus that can harm aquatic ecosystems. Traditionally, cleaning water requires chemicals or bacteria, which Gross said creates “a waste, bacterial or chemical sludge … it’s a cost to get rid of.”

His idea was to use algae to treat wastewater, which he said creates “algae biomass. And that algae biomass can be sold and made into a variety of products” — like the slow-release fertilizer his company is making. Gross-Wen’s water-cleaning algal process is being used in Chicago and a few towns in Iowa so far.

His idea began at ISU, where he obtained ag-affiliated degrees, like a bachelor’s in biology, master’s in food science and technology and Ph.D.s in food science and technology and agriculture and biosystems engineering. He started the business in 2014 with one of his old professors, Zhiyou Wen, and officially finished all schooling in 2015.

But it’s not just former students changing the face of agriculture.

New majors

College degrees are evolving as massive ag companies seek graduates who know not only about agriculture, but also business, finance and technology. The University of Illinois, for example, is offering a new degree that meshes computer science and crop science.

There are just three students enrolled in the major, including freshman Omkar Manoj Haridas.

When he was in 10th grade in Bangalore, India, he had to make a choice between studying biology and computer science.

“In the end, I decided on choosing computer science, but that was a very hard decision. And I was still interested in biology,” he said.

He’d already created a few of his own computer programs to play things like Battleship, and was looking at Illinois’ renowned computer science program when he spotted the new major.

Haridas’ goal is to capture the vast amounts of data gathered on the farm to create better seeds.

Sifting through the data and understanding it correctly will take a certain level of expertise, according to Adam Davis, head of the school’s Department of Crop Sciences.

“When people graduate from computer sciences with a straight computer sciences program, they may be able to ultimately learn some domain knowledge in other fields, but this gives them the head start by training in parallel, and there are many, many employers lining up very interested in students with this type of dual degree,” he said.

Davis stressed that ag degrees like the new one are for people who want to improve the global food system — no matter if they come from a farm background.

“(Agriculture) isn’t just driving a tractor and corn and soybeans,” said Davis, who grew up in New York City and didn’t realize ag was an option for him until his last year of undergrad. “That can be part of it, but there are many ways to think about it. Intersecting with the environment, with food security, urban agriculture. Thinking about water quality and energy.”

Ultimately, Davis said, agriculture is a field for students who are “idealistic and want to do something for society and to help make the world a better place.”

Follow Madelyn on Twitter: @MadelynBeck8

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