NIFA grant seeks to help train, diversify nation’s agricultural work force

Professor Jim Heitholt, head of the Department of Plant Sciences
Professor Jim Heitholt, head of the Department of Plant Sciences

A $26,546 National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant to Professor Jim Heitholt is one of fourteen 2015 projects to help train and/or diversify the agricultural work force.

Heitholt, head of the Department of Plant Sciences, says this planning grant will bring collaborators together from community colleges in Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana along with the University of Wyoming and Montana State University to develop courses to attract under-represented populations for agricultural careers.

“There is a general consensus, nationwide, that U.S. agricultural industries can only achieve their full potential by better diversifying their workforces, and this project expects to contribute to that cause,” says Heitholt.

Those courses will be organized into specialties including livestock and dairy, crops and forages, horticulture, agricultural mechanization, and natural resources, notes Heitholt.

A more comprehensive grant then will be submitted for moving from planning to implementation.

The group would work with community colleges so a student’s first agricultural-related course, called “Exploring Agriculture,” focuses on actual job activities. Options would include a selection of courses with no classroom lectures but instead several one-day, hands-on experiences, says Heitholt.

He predicts the program will enroll students who might not otherwise consider taking an agriculture course.

An indirect benefit will be improved recruitment and curriculum quality not only for the participating colleges and universities but also for other schools that choose to use this model, he says.

Increasing the number of under-represented students that complete bachelor degrees in agricultural sciences is the short-term goal with diversifying the work force the overall objective.

“Once under-represented populations compose a greater portion of our nation’s trained agriculturalists, our agricultural workforce will achieve the diversification necessary to supply the world with a safe and abundant food supply,” Heitholt says.