Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), sees a bright future in agriculture for young people contemplating career choices.
She met with a group of about 75 UC Davis students in November to encourage them to pursue career opportunities in agriculture and also to be effective communicators about the food system. Student leaders known as Aggie Ambassadors, who advocate on behalf of UC Davis’ College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, hosted Ross as guest speaker during one of their regular meetings.
“As we grow enough food to feed nine billion people by the year 2050,” she said, “we need every one of you to bring your creativity, your enthusiasm, your smarts, and your problem-solving skills that you’re learning on this campus to agriculture. This whole food system needs you and needs your dedication.”
Ross pointed to a wide diversity of job opportunities in agriculture both on and off the farm, such as specialists in irrigation and water use efficiency, in water quality, in air quality, and in labor. Entomologists, veterinarians, and other scientists are also needed to run CDFA’s animal and food safety programs, as well as plant protection programs and inspection services. Opportunities also exist nationally and internationally with the likes of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service and Foreign Agricultural Service.
One of the reasons Ross encourages students to consider public service is government lacks enough people who understand the complex biology of farming. “The lack of understanding of agriculture often creates well intended but negative impacts on the ability of farmers and ranchers to remain competitive,” she said.
Ross, who was appointed CDFA secretary in January 2011 and has a long history representing agricultural organizations, stressed the importance of telling agriculture’s story. “People do not know what agriculture is really about—and all the stuff that makes it work,” she said. “And they don’t have a true appreciation of what our productivity gains in agriculture have done for everyone else in this country and around the world.”
In the 1950s one farmer produced enough food to feed less than 20 people, while today one farmer is responsible for food production to feed 155 people. She said those kinds of productivity gains came from land-grant institutions like UC Davis, the extension of information through Cooperative Extension, and the adaptability and resourcefulness of farmers and ranchers to make it work for their own biological system. The result is a low per capita cost of food of less than 12 percent of disposable income.
“It’s really important that we’re good communicators to help people understand how agriculture is relevant to their daily life,” she said.
Ross also acknowledged that increasingly people are asking hard questions about the food system. In response to a student question about genetically modified organisms she said that area stands out as an area in need of good communication and more scientists involved in educating the public.
“What people are yearning for is transparency in the food system because they feel disconnected from it,” she said. “We need a continuum of business practices and farming systems and choices for consumers, which creates choices for farmers and market channels they want. It’s critically important for us to not just try to drive us to one way or another but allow for that diversity which will give us resiliency in our food system.”