November 13, 2002 | By: Haven Miller
LEXINGTON, KY.

Despite a trend of fewer minorities following their parents into farming, many are finding that an agricultural education offers them an abundance of career choices.

That’s the message ag educators at both the University of Kentucky and Kentucky State University want to deliver to college-bound middle school and high school minority students.

“There is such a wide range of options for agriculture-based degrees now, including the business arena, the science arena, technology, pharmaceuticals, textiles and many others,” said Gae Broadwater, KSU state specialist for community and economic development.

Educators say gone are the days when a bachelor’s degree in agriculture mainly prepared a young person for managing a crop or livestock enterprise.  Ag degree programs now include majors that range from ag economics to biosystems & ag engineering to natural resources to ag communications.

The challenge faced by educators is getting the message to minorities that there’s a place for them within that academic setting.

“We have to do a better job of marketing agriculture and making it attractive to our ethnic minority students,” said Zelia Holloway, minority recruitment coordinator for the UK College of Agriculture.  “The message we present may be similar to what we use for non-minorities, but perhaps presented in a different way.  For example, instead of using the image of a tractor we instead might use the image of a well-known food product and explain that agriculture involves knowledge of nutrition, packaging, marketing and sales.”

Many educators believe agriculture needs more role models to attract African Americans and other minorities.  These might be successful minority agribusiness owners and managers, ag teachers and professors, community leaders and county Cooperative Extension agents.

“People are often surprised that I’m in the field of agriculture,” said Michael Caldwell, Nelson County Cooperative Extension agent for 4-H/youth development, and 2002 recipient of UK’s Lyman T. Johnson alumni award.  “I remember Mr. Johnson as he was the first African American student to come to UK, and I remember the role he played and the role of other minority students who followed him. And I hope in my own way I can be a beacon and role model myself.”

Caldwell said when he was growing up in the 1960s very few African Americans in Kentucky pursued agricultural degrees. According to Broadwater, the last few decades have probably seen improvement in that situation because young people are more aware of issues and have a greater interest in careers they feel make a difference.

“I know a lot of African Americans who live in rural areas and want to stay there, and who want to work in natural resources and environmental sciences,” said Broadwater.

One of the ways agricultural educators are reaching out to minority students is through support and encouragement of student organizations.  An example is the national organization called Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences, or MANRRS.

“We need to foster a climate for our minority ag students that is inclusive and makes them feel their contributions are valued, and with our MANRRS chapter here at UK we’re improving the retention of our minority ag students, making sure that after we recruit them we continue to encourage them to feel a part something important, and to go on to a successful graduation,” said Holloway.

“With MANRRS we make students aware of all their career options, and each year we have a national conference that has a big career fair so that students can make contacts and get internships,” said Carol Mills, UK MANRRS chapter president and 2002 Lyman T. Johnson student honoree.  “I think agriculture is the best thing for minorities to go into because employers are searching for minorities to fill jobs and accept internships, and there are lots of career opportunities for us after we graduate.”

Contact: 

Zelia Holloway, 859-257-9241