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Latinos in Agriculture Leaders Forum

Posted by Edward Romero on June 19th, 2011

AgForLife, LLC and TCTS Global, LLC have partnered to organize the Latinos in Agriculture Leaders Forum, specifically called, Latinos in Agriculture: A Leaders Forum on Capitalizing Hispanic Talent, which will be in San Antonio, Texas at the El Tropicano Riverwalk hotel on October 27 & 28, 2011.

AgForLife and TCTS Global hopes to connect industry, government, and education in order to begin an open dialogue about some of the barriers, opportunities, and challenges in recruiting Latinos into Agriculture. For years, government and higher education have been working at trying to entice minorities into agriculture but with limited success.  Some agricultural related companies have been working hard to find a diverse and qualified applicant pool as well, but the problem lies in that there are very few Hispanics enrolling in agricultural related degrees in colleges in the United States. In 2008, only 11,353 or 4.5 percent of the 251,422 college students enrolled in an agricultural or related degree program were Hispanic/Latino.  In addition, many Latinos view agriculture as a dead-end career where only the negative perceptions of hard work, long hours, stoop labor, low wages, and working in harsh conditions are the norm. This negative perception will continue to challenge us in the coming years if not addressed.

What is the purpose of the leadership forum?

  • To explore deliberate approaches in connecting agricultural stakeholders to improve Latino/Hispanic representation in Agriculture.
  • To inform industry, government, and academia of the huge potential in creating a Latino/Hispanic pipeline of future students, employees, and consumers.
  • To develop and establish a post-conference network of participants interested in addressing some of the challenges in the different market segments related to students, universities, and businesses.

What are the goals of the workshop?

  • To share recruiting strategies and best practices from industry, government, and academia on how to increase the Latino/Hispanic student representation into the educational pipeline for agriculture and related fields.
  • To allow participants the opportunity to find out more about Latinos/Hispanics and ask what they always wanted to know but were afraid to ask.
  • To explore the possibility of establishing an annual event aimed at continuing to address the emerging Latino population and how it relates to the potential impact it can have on the future of Agriculture and related industries.

Participants in the 2011 Latinos in Agriculture Leaders Forum will benefit from the opportunity to network and meet with leaders from industry, government and academia that see the value and have the vision of the opportunity in addressing the impact Latinos can have on the future of Agriculture.

Everyone that attends the forum will walk away with strategies and best practices on how to tap into this emerging demographic and how to better meet the challenge of creating a Latino/Hispanic pipeline of future students, employees, and consumers.

The Latinos in Agriculture Leaders Forum early registration is open until September 16, 2011 and is $295.00 per person and is limited to the first 150 registrants. After September 16, 2011, the forum registration is $350.00.  Registration includes three breaks, continental breakfast, lunch, welcome reception and conference materials.

For those on planning to attend, reserve your hotel room at the El Tropicano Riverwalk hotel as soon as possible as only a limited block of rooms are reserved.

Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.  San Antonio will be nice in October. We hope to see you there.

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Agriculture and Nonconformity: A thread that binds us

Posted by Edward Romero on December 1st, 2010

Photo by Pave M.

Thanks for your patience. It’s been way too long since my last blog post, and yet, you are gracious enough to stop by and read this latest post. For those of you who follow, thanks for the continued support.

For those of you who just stumbled into the AgForLife blog for the very first time, I would encourage you to sign up with the RSS Feed, which you can find at the upper left part of the page. For those of you who read my blogs (when I post), share it with your friends. Post it on Twitter. Share it on Facebook. Help me get the AgForLife name out there.

I am not even sure where I should start since I have so many things I want to say, but here we go…

Since my last post, I have traveled, moderated a panel for college students from all over the country, started a new project,  which we will be announcing the first quarter of 2011, and yet, I feel like I have let all my readers down by not posting religiously like I was told I should.

So be it…not because I don’t value those who support AgForLife, but because I am not the typical blogger who posts at designated days or times of the week. I believe you should blog when you have something important to say or share, not just blog because it’s “cool” to do so like the zillion other bloggers posting on the internet with useless content.

I, like many others, subscribe to a number of different blogs that I read often, for the most part, when they publish their blogs.  In doing so, I am going to do something I rarely do – endorse someone who inspires me.

Chris doesn’t even know me. We’ve never met. He doesn’t even know I exist. But Chris is an inspiration to me. Chris talks about different things but for the most part, his blog is centered around three areas: Life, Work, and Travel.

Oh and did I mention, he helps people take over the world. (His words, not mine!)

You see, he’s traveled to 150 countries and counting. No, he’s not an inspiration because of his travels. He’s an inspiration because his writes about The Art of Non-Conformity. Yeah, that’s right, non-conforming; unconventional methods of work.

Chris defines nonconformity as “a lack of orthodoxy in thoughts or beliefs” or “the refusal to accept established customs, attitudes, or ideas.”

In his blogs he writes with “the conviction that you don’t have to live your life the way other people expect you to” which is refreshing and inviting. So many blogs out there are about status quo.

He also writes about entrepreneurship and unconventional work and stresses the importance of having fun while the work is meaningful.

And of course, he talks about his travels.

The real reason his posts are such an inspiration is because when we first started AgForLife, people doubted us. They didn’t or couldn’t see our vision. Some people still can’t.  People didn’t have faith in us. Even today, many people don’t think our approach is logical. And that’s okay.

I got tired of sharing our strategy. I got tired of people telling me it couldn’t be done. I countered…I think it can!  So we set out to try and make a positive impact in the agricultural industry.  I can honestly say, when I finished my doctorate, I never thought I would be the person in the driver’s seat. I naively thought someone else was already doing what we thought should be done.  But I guess I was wrong.

We’re not there yet, but everyday we move a little closer to achieving our business goals. I can’t tell you when we’ll get there, but I know everyday opens many new doors and those who are serious about helping, continue to find us.

You see…I am a realist at heart, but an optimist to the core. Today, I rarely share my strategies with anyone outside my support group, unless people are serious enough to want to learn more. I am told to ignore people who tell me “you can’t.” I think my supporters are right on!

So why am I telling you about Chris? Why am I telling you about my story?

Well, it’s simple. Chris is an inspiration because I believe like he does. I have come to the realization that I too look at unconventional ways at approaching a problem.  I guess you can say I am a non-conformist at heart. I see unconventional ways of approaching established customs or ideas in agriculture from a student recruitment perspective. The approach we are taking is unconventional – no doubt – but damn sure meaningful.

According to Jeffrey Gitomer, “every obstacle presents an opportunity, if you’re looking for it.” I think he’s right.

The challenge I am talking about is the lack of students entering agriculture and the many related fields of study available in many agricultural colleges across this country.  What’s even more sobering is the lack of minority students considering agriculture.

Where are they? Is any one addressing this issue? So far, I’ve yet to find anyone who dares say they do.

In 2008, only 1.49% of undergraduate students of the 16 million plus ENROLLED (not graduated) in 2-year and 4-year schools in the U.S., were studying agriculture or some related field. That’s a measly 251,000 students.

In that same year, of those 251,000 students in agriculture or some related field, only 4.5% (11.535) were Latino or Hispanic and Black student enrollment was not much better at 5.6% (13,972).

Is this a problem for agriculture – absolutely – especially with the rapidly changing demographics?  Is there an opportunity here to help out – you bet! As we continue working on our business model and product development, I am confident we will be able to make strides in helping students see the many opportunities in agriculture. It will take time, but I think we can do it, and in the end, we all win!

After all, Chris Guillebeau in his blog, The Art of Non-Conformity says we can; and that is good enough for me.

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Undergraduate Recruiting Series: Part 4 of 4

Posted by Edward Romero on October 12th, 2010

Domain: Professional Development

Welcome to Part 4 of the Undergraduate Recruiting Series.  You can find Part 1 (Intro) here. Part 2 (Outreach/Recruitment) can be found here and Part 3 (Educational Development) here.

This week we will talk about the third part of the Undergraduate Recruiting and Educational Pipeline (UREP) model – Professional Development.

Over the course of the last several weeks, we have talked about the following research as outlined in the first blog post.

  • Students Must Be Connected With Their Educational Environment
  • Family and Community Support Is the Key to Academic Support
  • Students Become Active Learners When the Experience is Meaningful
  • Students Will Select Careers They Believe Are Most Relevant to Their Future Success
  • Perceptions about Agriculture Are Not Always Positive

Which leads me to a couple of points.

Relative to this topic and according to research, perceived barriers and relational support found that both family support and the perception of barriers were predictive of career aspirations. In other words, family is not only key to academic support but also influential in the career choice of the child. Students will select careers they believe are most relevant to their future success as do parents.  Some of those factors that influence career aspirations in addition to parental support are race, gender, academic achievement, socio economic status and self-esteem.

Research has also shown students often ask themselves the following questions when determining what their career selection will be, which in turn, determines their field of study.

  1. What does my family think about this career option?
  2. Are there others like me in this career?
  3. Can I be successful in this career and have room for growth?
  4. Will I make money in this career?
  5. Will I have to move from the comforts and conveniences of a life that I am use to?
  6. So you are probably asking yourself, what does all the above have to do with Professional Development?

Typically, Professional Development begins while students are in college. In the UREP model, it is part of the Educational Development domain (part 3 blog post) within the Student Development category, but it also occurs after graduation as well. See picture above.

From an academic perspective, the Professional Development domain is more a result of the efforts prior to graduation than the actual domain itself and is the final phase in the UREP model. The ultimate goal or objective for most colleges and universities is to prepare students who are ready to delve into the workforce and start their professional career.

By students working with their University Career Center, students can learn about:

  • Job Search
  • Cover Letters
  • Resume Writing
  • Dressing for Success
  • Professional Business Etiquette

plus more…

In addition, in preparing students for their early professional career, students exposed to industry professionals early in the process can learn valuable business skills such as:

  • Leadership
  • Teamwork
  • Networking
  • Communication
  • Public Speaking
  • Mock Interviewing
  • Learning Industry Lingo
  • Professional Expectations
  • Industry Direction or Interest
  • Personal Brand Development

Please note, the above list is not meant to be an all-inclusive list. I am sure you can think of other skills as well.

All or some of the above skills can be learned during internship or cooperative work experiences and are strongly encouraged.

Industry Partners

Often times, the first thing we think about when partnering with industry is asking for money. Financial support in the way of scholarships or some of other financial means is important and many provide financial assistance to students to help them go to school.  And it’s appreciated, don’t get me wrong.

However, there are ways that industry can partner with colleges or universities besides just giving money to the school for scholarships. Money for scholarships is one way to collaborate, but there are more opportunities for direct involvement from industry professionals as well.

Industry Professionals are good resources and are often times very willing to provide general information to college students in preparation for their first job opportunities. Professionals are willing to talk about any of the topics mentioned above.

For instance, as a student advisor, we partnered with industry professionals and invited them to conduct workshops for the students. They would discuss many of the topics listed above. Some would conduct mock interviews. Others would look over resumes or cover letters.  We also had sessions on how to network with industry professionals, plus more.

Interestingly, what I found that students enjoyed the most and was most helpful were personal stories. Stories about how they ended up where they did. The routes they took and the experiences they gained along the way. In my opinion, nothing beats a personal story to show how many pathways can be taken to end up at the same place – the job you want.

My experience always found industry professionals excited to talk to college students about the do’s” and “don’ts” of what should be done in trying to land a job, whether it’s just an internship or a more permanent job; regardless, they were willing to help. You just need to ask!

Until next time…

Adios!

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Undergraduate Recruiting Series: Part 3 of 4

Posted by Edward Romero on September 30th, 2010

Domain: Educational Development

This week we are going to talk about the Educational Development domain found in the Undergraduate Recruiting and Educational Pipeline (UREP) model.  Last week I talked about the first domain, Outreach and Recruitment which is meant as the first step in reaching out to students to help them begin the navigation process into higher education while studying agriculture or a related field.

The Educational Development domain is divided into two categories, the first is Retention and the second is Student Development. Each category functions interdependent from the other but both are critical to the success of the student’s college completion regardless of whether they are attending a 2-year college or 4-year university.

Matriculation is the step that occurs after recruitment but before retention in the Educational Development domain.  See the image above.  Students who apply AND enroll into a college or university are said to have matriculated. Show up. Register for courses.

Once students have enrolled onto a campus the Educational Development domain takes over and is critical in two areas, retention and student development. Retention is critical for many reasons and can vary greatly from student to student.

Retention

Retention definitions can vary from school to school or program to program. It’s important that you determine how you define retention for your program prior to developing your recruiting plan. Most universities will consider 6-year or 4-year persistency (how long they stayed) numbers at a university. Two-year colleges may look at 3-year or 2-year time-frames to determine program completion.

This post will not delve into the differences in retention strategies, but without getting too detailed, retention can deal with finances, academics, personal issues, etc.  In short retention is an intervention that will help you keep the students in your programs who are struggling and who want to be there.

Ask yourself this question: What is the problem you are trying to solve to help the student stay in school?

This requires that you ask a lot of questions to get to the root of the problem.  Sometimes it takes time and lots of patience.

Last week I mentioned that you should consider Outreach first before recruiting.

Here’s why.

Helping students understand the relevance of how agricultural careers are significant to their success in the Outreach/Recruiting domain helps students stay motivated to finish their program when they run into bumps along the way. Otherwise, if students do not see the importance of how their college major will be of benefit to them in the future, often, students give up and try a different major. This affects your matriculation numbers, which in turn affects your persistency numbers.  It’s a domino effect.

In short, it does no good to go out and recruit more students if you can’t keep the students you have in your program.  After all, we are not even considering time, energy, and resources (financial or otherwise) it took to recruit the individual student.  Good recruiters understand this concept.

Student Development

The second category of the Educational Development domain is Student Development.  Regardless of whether the student is attending a university or two-year program, Student Development is pretty much the same concept. This category is broad but is rather simple. Basically, any type of activity that can provide the student an opportunity to build their skill set will fall into this category.

Fundamentally, it is programming that helps the student further develop emotionally, socially, and/or intellectually in a college environment. It can also include leadership or work experience such as work-study, study abroad, internships, and cooperative work agreements.

Often times, Retention is a beneficiary of effective Student Development opportunities.  Research has shown that students involved in extra-curricular activities – in moderation – are more apt to stay in school and also do better in school.  Hence, retention numbers improve, students have a better college experience, and are more fulfilled when they graduate and prepare for their professional career.

Next week we will tackle the last of the three domains, Professional Development in the UREP model.  It is important to note that the Student Development category and the Professional Development domain are interdependent, meaning; they can function alone but work best when they work in tandem.  We will explore this a little more within the coming days.

Until next time…Adios!

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Undergraduate Recruiting Series: Part 2 of 4

Posted by Edward Romero on September 21st, 2010

Domain: Outreach/Recruitment

Last week I introduced you to the Undergraduate Recruiting and Educational Pipeline (UREP) model as well as some research that should be considered in your agricultural recruiting efforts.  This week I will talk about the first of three domain areas in the UREP model. They are Outreach and Recruitment, the 2nd part of the 4-part series I will be sharing with you over the next several weeks. This post will delve a little deeper into the strategies used in Outreach and Recruitment as well as the difference between the two.  Please keep in mind the UREP model is designed toward funneling more students into higher education in the fields of agriculture, food, natural resources and related fields.

All strategies to help steer students into Agriculture or convince them of considering a career or major in Agriculture starts with Outreach. For the purpose of the UREP model in this discussion, it starts with high school aged students.  NOTE: The model can start well into the lower grades. Conceptually speaking, starting with elementary, middle, or high school aged students in using the model is the same. Where you start, depends on your target audience. For the purpose of this discussion, we are targeting high school students.

For some of you, Outreach and Recruitment are synonymous and probably meant to be the same or used interchangeably; however, they can be distinctly different and can serve a singular purpose, depending on intent of your program or outcome.

Perhaps a couple of definitions can help followed by some explanation.

Outreach: Providing information about Agriculture, food, natural resources, and related fields in order to help students (and parents) make informed decisions about opportunities in higher education without being specific to a particular agricultural department, college, or university.

In short, Outreach is giving students (can include teachers, parents, and counselors as well) information that will help them make an informed decision. Giving students facts about agriculture (not your school) related to careers, majors, employment opportunities, etc. are all part of Outreach. In essence, the student is given information that he or she can use to determine whether they want to consider Agriculture as a viable major or career NOT where they want to attend college. For instance, Johnny can use the information to determine whether a career in Agriculture is right for him. Period.

Perhaps little Johnny is considering several options such as “business”, “law”, “engineering” or any other number of careers. Your competition is not other schools, but rather other careers. More on this later…

The Outreach information can be used no matter where they decide to go to college, which leads me to Recruitment.

Recruitment: Is encouraging students to consider studying (anything… but in this case Agriculture) in a specific department, college, or university.  For the sake of this discussion, target audiences can include juniors in high school (depending on time of year), seniors in high school, and transfer students (mostly community college although not exclusive) ready to matriculate to a designated and targeted college or university.

AFTER, you have provided students with Outreach information about Agriculture and the many positive opportunities for them in a variety of degrees found in agricultural programs, colleges, universities; then, and only then, should you try and convince students to come to your school to study Agriculture.

Often times, I get the question, “Why do you recommend this process? Why don’t you start with the recruiting piece first and then give them the Outreach information?”

Well, remember the research I shared with you in the first part of this series. Two pieces of research relevant to the Outreach/Recruitment domain in the UREP model are:

  1. Perceptions about Agriculture Are Not Always Positive
  2. Students Will Select Careers They Believe Are Most Relevant to Their Future Success

The literature is riddled with research that shows there is a negative perception about agriculture. In fact, a 2005 national study in the United States found that 41% of the students surveyed had a misconception or image about agricultural sciences. In addition, 33% of the same students surveyed lacked knowledge about employment opportunities and 22% lacked knowledge about fields of study.

Talking about Recruiting first to students who have a negative perception about agriculture or do not know about careers in agriculture or related fields is like talking to the wall. Students really have a hard time understanding the relevance of why they should consider YOUR agricultural school if they do not first believe agriculture is what they should study. You need to help students see the relevance how agricultural careers are significant to their success first, which then:

  1. makes recruiting easier,
  2. establishes your credibility with them,
  3. improves matriculation to your program,
  4. increases retention once in your program,
  5. which in turn, boosts graduation percentages.

For all students, graduation is a major milestone. And rightly so!

Of course, there are other variables in the formula for success and graduation. It would be naïve to think Outreach and Recruitment are the only two factors that predicate graduation success, but research shows that if students believe their career choices are relevant to their future, they will most definitely work hard to finish school.

As a side note, how you approach students into convincing them agriculture is their best choice takes practice.  As a recruiter, you have a moral and ethical obligation to share accurate information.  Being truthful and honest about the opportunities in agriculture, careers, majors, etc. is critical in guiding students into their proper program even if it means it’s not in an agricultural college or program, hence the importance of being knowledgeable about careers in agriculture and related fields. The more knowledgeable you are, the more options you can give students to find their interest, and the more effective you are in your agricultural programming.

Next week, we will talk about Educational Development, the second domain found in the UREP model.  This domain addresses some of the factors related to the first domain above – matriculation and retention – and positions the students for graduation.

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Agriculture and Wall Street

Posted by Eric Brenner on August 30th, 2010

When I was a teenager, I always thought of the stock market as a crowded place with a bunch of people screaming at each other. A place where millions were made and also where lost. I never imagined that inside all that apparent chaos there was actually a logical financial frame behind the scenes. Several business, economic, finance, and accounting college courses later, topped with constant reading of financial articles have given me enough background to understand the fundamentals of it.

I am most definitely not an expert in the matter, but I have enough understanding where I can give a watered-down explanation of how it works. In general, many people hear the term stock exchange, but don’t really understand what the stock exchange is all about. A stock exchange is an organization that brings together stockbrokers and traders by giving them facilities to trade stocks, other securities and other financial instruments. For many of you this is an obvious matter, but for those who did not know, this might sound a little bit abstract. I am not really going too deep into the subject but barely cover the surface to give you an idea how it works.

The stock exchange is very similar to a grocery store and the things you see inside. In a grocery store, you will find sections like the fresh meat and fresh fish sections, the produce section, the dry goods section, etc. People come to this place to buy and sell food items. The difference is that in a stock exchange, instead of sections, there are markets that trade non-tangible transferable goods, and the markets per se are essentially not physically present inside the building. A stock exchange is a virtual marketplace where sellers, the issuing corporations or organizations, and buyers or traders, conduct business. Even though, the stock exchange and a grocery store are somehow similar, the process behind the operation of the stock exchange is way more complex.

I don’t believe there is a single descriptor that could fairly explain a career in this type of environment. Professionals in this field describe it as dynamic, fast moving, rewarding, stressful, fulfilling, exciting, and amazing all at the same time. Generally, when we think about careers in this line of work, we are inclined to associate it with business, finance, management, and economic majors, but never or almost never with agriculture.

But how does agriculture relate to stock trading?

Agriculture is related to the stock market through commodities. Practically everything that comes out of the ground such as wheat, orange juice, gold, oil, grains, etc, can be classified as a commodity. People buy and sell commodities based on speculation which have the potential for huge returns with lower than average investment, but with a much higher risk for loss. The agriculture commodity venue requires experienced investors with solid knowledge in the agricultural field.

Agricultural specialists provide current and accurate information that can make all the difference whether buying or selling commodities. Some of the information comes from different sources of data, and some of the decisions are made by forecasting market behaviors based on criteria that could positively or negatively affect commodities. By collecting and disseminating the right information in a timely manner, commodity traders position themselves in today’s diverse agricultural markets to make decisions that can generate profit and greatly mitigate the chances for losses.

Some professionals believe that agricultural commodity trading should be classified as a stand-alone cluster within the trading management business because of the distinctive aspects found in similar businesses that trade other types of commodities. Certain factors like multiple quality characteristics, weather conditions, unexpected events – political and economical – can affect crops and can increase the level of risk and complexity that are not found in more standardized or generic products.

Commodity traders constantly need to adjust the approach to agricultural production, marketing, and distribution to be able to compete in national, regional, and international markets. Traditional commodities like bananas, coffee, and sugar are no longer assured of guaranteed prices and ready access to international markets. The decisions based on speculations and uncertainties for this market require agricultural based knowledge.

Agriculture has the potential to inject professionals beyond the traditional roles. However, the current rigid and obsolete recruiting structures in our industry are doing little to expand beyond the traditional areas. Most elementary, junior high, and high school students are unaware that Wall Street, the banking system, financial analysts, stock traders, lending institutions, financial institutions, commodity trading, investment banking, accounting firms, and many more jobs are reachable through agriculture majors like agribusiness, agriculture economics, agriculture development, and agriculture engineering, among others.

But why is it that potential agriculture students are not getting this kind of information early on in their formative years?

For starters, the industry has not actively engaged students to show them how diverse the industry really is. Second, school counselors usually are not aware of agriculture majors outside the production side, which limits students to certain areas in agriculture. Third, teachers are usually not aware about the broad spectrum of career paths students can pursue and are not encouraged to consider pathways outside of production agriculture. Even though the agriculture industry and universities are aware of this issue, there has not been a collective effort to revolutionize the way students are recruited into agriculture because of the incorrect perception, that agriculture is limited to farming of crops and raising livestock.

Changing people’s perspectives and the way they think about agriculture is not an easy task. Nevertheless, more than ever as an industry we need to creatively and innovatively find better ways to attract young talent. In order for our industry to grow, we have to break away from the status quo. AgForLife is committed to educate students, parents, teachers, and school counselors about career opportunities in the broad agricultural industry to encourage and recruit high school and college students to join food, and life sciences careers, and college majors that will provide rewarding and successful employment opportunities in the agriculture industry.

We have been getting a lot of positive feedback and are so pleased to know that so many people share our vision. We would be interested in hearing your story. What did you major in school? Was it in an agricultural related field? What job are you doing now or hope to do so in the future?  Share your message in the comment section and let us know or drop us a note on Facebook.

I wish you a great week. Until my next post, have a good one.

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Agriculture and the Pharmaceutical Industry; Not so Distant Relatives

Posted by Eric Brenner on August 9th, 2010

Well, I am finally done with my summer internship in Costa Rica. I came back to Texas about a week ago, and I am ready to jump back on the saddle to tackle my last semester as a graduate student. Even though it was hard to come back, I am ready to be back into the routine, and I am looking forward to graduate this December. This also means that I need to jump on the bandwagon and start looking for a job very soon.

If you have not been following my blogs, I spent my summer break working as an intern with the Ministry of Agriculture in Costa Rica. I was incorporated with DSOREA (Dirección Superior de Operaciones Regionales y de Extensión). This is the department inside the ministry of agriculture that manages, oversees, and implements the extension services in all the Costa Rican territory.

Up to this point, this has been one of the most rewarding experiences throughout the course of my master’s degree. Working with the ministry gave the opportunity to interact with people from different backgrounds like extension service specialists, agencies, universities, producers and farmers. But without a doubt, the best part was the opportunity to travel all around the country in order to analyze the extension service system, and evaluate the implementation process throughout the different regions around the country.

Many of these places I had the opportunity to visit are prominently known all around the world for its biodiversity and beauty. These National Reserves are sanctuaries for a wide array of ecosystems that support a rich variety of flora and fauna. Walking through the dense vegetation of rain forest, I found myself surrounded by the soothing sound nature, which helped me understand better how unique our planet is and how important is for us to take care of these ecosystems. I learned a great deal about the rain forests and other protected areas through specialists from the ministry, and how these specilists are actively implementing agricultural practices that are environmentally friendly. Overall, this experience helped me realize how agriculture is intrinsically related to many aspects of our lives that transcend beyond the production aspect, but we somehow fail to understand.

Irazu Volcano’s Crater

Coati at Irazu National Park

For instance, many people might not realize how closely agriculture, pharmaceutical, and the health industries are associated to each other. Many medical products like ointments, latex gloves, x-ray film, gelatin for capsules and heart valves come from the agriculture industry. In fact, the rain-forest supports millions of plant, animal, and insect species that supply some of the components that help create products like muscle relaxants, steroids and cancer drugs. More important is the fact that there are new drugs still awaiting to be discovered that have the potential to cure AIDS, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, and other illnesses.

This is one of the greatest examples on how many agriculture careers permeate into other fields, and how industries outside the agriculture arena greatly depend on agriculture professionals for their operations. The World needs more agriculture professionals in fields like horticulture, zoology, entomology, and other similar degrees that can help find the cure for diseases that could be encapsulated in plants, insects, animals, and other kinds of wild life. We also need ecosystem, wildlife and fisheries science professionals that will help educate people how to protect and conserve our natural resources.

This tiny beetle was the size of my hand

Another pretty big bug

Experts estimate that around 137 plant, animal, and insect species are lost every single day due to rain-forest deforestation. This equates to 50,000 species a year. As the rain-forest species disappear, so do many possible cures for life-threatening diseases.

Presently, hundreds of prescription drugs currently sold worldwide come from plant-derived sources. 25% of Western pharmaceuticals are derived from rain-forest ingredients. However, less than 1% of the tropical trees and plants in the rain-forests have actually been tested by scientists.

On my way to Tortuguero National Park

According to the U.S. National Cancer Institute, scientists have identified over 3000 plants that are active against cancer cells, and 70% of these plants are found in the rain-forest. Twenty-five percent of the active ingredients in today’s cancer-fighting drugs come from organisms found only in the rain-forest.

Not only agriculture has a broad array of career opportunities throughout many industries, it also is an indispensable component that feeds the world and has the potential to find the cures for life threatening diseases. So, next time somebody tells you that agriculture is a dead-end career, think again.

About the Author: Eric Brenner is a graduate student at Texas A&M University and recently returned from a study-abroad trip to Costa Rica, his home-country.

6 Comments »

Is Help On The Way?

Posted by Edward Romero on July 28th, 2010

Well, it has been a few weeks since I last posted a blog on this site.  Mr. Eric Brenner, graduate student from Costa Rica, posted some of his internship experiences on this blog while abroad. From time-to-time, he will continue to post on here as well.  I guess it is fair to say that he and I will tag-team the blog as we perfect our craft of blogging.   I am a student of this craft and still trying to sort out how to write effective blogs that are of interest, but most importantly, provide content that is relevant to the diverse group of readers we have. Please be patient, but also do not be shy in giving us feedback.

I am amazed at how much feedback and interest I have been receiving since my last blog about the need to recruit more students into agriculture. We have been receiving a steady stream of emails and phone calls regarding our site, as well as our social media efforts.  It is amazing to me, although I should not be surprised, how many people are truly interested and understand some of the challenges facing the industry, as it relates to recruiting challenges we face in agriculture.  We are unlike any other discipline, such as engineering, business, or education, for instance, when it comes to recruiting.

Why, you ask?

Because of perception! Unfortunately, a negative perception about agriculture and the lack of opportunities is a major reason why many students do not consider agriculture as a viable career path. Unfortunately, not only students view agriculture that way, but research says so do parents, counselors, teachers, and many others not directly involved in contemporary agriculture. We need to work on changing that negative perception.

There is no silver bullet. It is a collective approach.  I think that is why I get so excited when people call me and share their ideas and thoughts about how to recruit more students into agriculture.  People are thinking about it. That is the first step.

For instance, just last week I had a very interesting conversation with a faculty member at Washington State University who shared the same philosophy of trying to recruit students into agriculture using a very innovative approach.  After a 60-minute phone call, we surmised the need to continue to find ways of working together to bring some of our ideas to fruition.  I am excited about the opportunity.

Coast to coast, the interest is strong of trying to recruit more students into agriculture. Over the last month, I have been fortunate to “sit-in” on several phone conferences regarding a NASA proposal and grant in developing some formal learning modules (experiences) in the classroom in Florida using extra-celestial agriculture and lunar habitation. Very interesting and cool ideas and suggestions were discussed during several phone conversations with a group of very talented and creative individuals.  I wish them much success with their proposal and hope they are funded to carryout their project. Students will be excited to take part in some of those activities mentioned if the program is funded.

Another topic on peoples minds are along the same lines of recruiting students, but focusing their efforts on targeting students from underrepresented groups, which is sorely needed in agriculture.  I had an opportunity to learn of how a land grant university in the Southwestern United States is innovatively planning to reach out to students from underrepresented groups.  Their proposal will include recruitment, curriculum and instructional approaches, some cool experiential experiences, and a mentoring component.  Their plan is to develop a conduit to developing a pipeline of students into the agricultural teaching profession by allowing students in their cohort group to experience some professional development opportunities as well as critical thinking and service learning partnerships while in their program.  I wish them luck with their proposal and look forward to learning more as the federal funding cycle quickly approaches.

In addition, to universities and academia interested in recruiting more students into agriculture, the federal government is also very interested in this effort. The USDA, for years, has been working on building a pipeline of students into the agricultural profession as well.  One can argue both ways whether they have been successful.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been visiting with a USDA agency in Kansas City, Missouri about exploring ways to recruit diverse candidates, who have agricultural backgrounds, into their agency.  Within the next few years, many agencies in the federal government, USDA specifically in this case (others are affected as well), will be losing employees due to baby boomers retiring.

Guess what? They need to fill those positions as well, in addition to the many other positions in industry, corporate America, and academia.  Currently, the demand is far greater than the supply.

You have probably heard me say this before, but it is worth repeating. In 2008, there were 16 million UNDERGRADUATE students studying in the United States – all disciplines, all colleges and universities included. However, according to the Food and Agricultural Education Information System, only 251,000 students were studying agriculture or a related field. More information can be found here.

That is a measly 1.5% of the undergraduate student population in the agricultural pipeline.  To make matters worse, that is not the final tally. Why, you might ask. Well, we are only talking ATTENDING College we are not talking GRADUATION.  Our educational system loses students for a variety of reasons that never complete their academic programs. Graduation numbers are always lower due to a variety of retention issues. Therefore, rest assured, the number is less then 1.5% of undergraduate students in the agricultural pipeline.

How much lower?  Not sure.  I wanted to get a peaceful nights rest in order to continue tackling this problem in the morning!

Seriously, we need help. We need YOUR help. We would like to hear your thoughts on this issue. How can you make a difference?

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Coffeelicious

Posted by Eric Brenner on July 12th, 2010

It has been a week and half since I last posted the article “Stepping out of your comfort zone.” Our blog is slowly but surely gaining some followers which is pretty exciting. I have been pretty busy visiting many wonderful parts of Costa Rica and meeting a lot of wonderful people.

Last week, I went to a coffee region called Tarrazu. The coffee produced in this area is rated among the best in the World. I had the opportunity to visit two “Microbenficios” or small coffee mills in Tarrazu along with other people from the ministry and some really nice extension service agents and professors from the University of Nebraska. These really friendly guys from UNL were visiting the country to research the extension services that are implemented in Costa Rica by the Ministry of Agriculture.

Friends from the University of Nebraska, and the Ministry of Agriculture.

So far, this has been one of my favorite experiences from the whole trip because I had the opportunity to interact with the farmers and small producers. It was a very humbling experience to listen to the nice fellows from Nebraska interact and exchange information with these small farmers. In my opinion, this kind of interaction is the true essence in agriculture development because it creates an opportunity to work closely together with farmers and to truly listen to what they have to say.

University of Nebraska Entomologist with Farmer and Ministry Agent

The trips to these areas gave me an opportunity to learn how coffee is produced. More importantly, I discovered that there is a wide array of employment opportunities between all the links of the agriculture chain that begin with the producers and end with the consumers.

I am definitely not an expert, but after visiting a couple of coffee plantations I learned enough to determine what makes a good coffee. There is something about the aroma that I just love. Unlike my wife, who needs coffee to function properly throughout the day, I seldom have a cup of joe. I don’t really enjoy bitter flavors, so coffee is something I rarely drink. But like many things, coffee is an acquired flavor. And Like wine, which I truly enjoy, the art of coffee tasting could be as complex and delightful as wine tasting.

Even though I’m not an avid coffee drinker, the process that takes the bright red coffee cherry all the way to the freshly brewed cup is something all coffee drinkers should understand. Not only because it is very interesting, but it will also help you discern between a good and a bad cup of java.

Where did it all begin?

According to the story, around the year 800 A.D an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi noticed his goats acting pretty strange after they were grazing on the red berries from a coffee shrub. Perplexed by this discovery, he took the berries to a local monastery, where monks brewed a concoction that kept them alert throughout the night.

Coffee later made its way across the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsula Around A.D 1000. Based on the legend, Muslims were the first to roast and brew the coffee beans into the drink that is known today. Coffee later migrated to North Africa, Mediterranean, and India. It eventually reached Venice and the expanded to Europe around 1615. During the 18th century, a young French naval officer took some clippings from the coffee trees in the Botanical Gardens in Paris and took them to Martinique, a French Colony in the Caribbean. From Martinique, coffee later expanded to the American continent -South and Central America mostly – where it became one of the most important crops for the Latin American Colonies.

From the bean to the cup.

It takes around four years – from planting to harvesting – for a coffee plant to produce good quality berries. Coffee plants or shrubs depend on many factors to produce high quality beans that will result in great tasting coffee. These factors include the type of soil, elevation, plant variety, water, etc.

There are two main species of coffee that are cultivated for commercial consumption: Arabica and Robusta. In Costa Rica, 100% of the coffee cultivated is Arabica. According to the ICAFE, the Coffee Institute from Costa Rica, the Arabica specie produces a better bean with higher quality and aroma. The shrubs are cultivated in fertile soils of volcanic origins with low acidity; ideal conditions for the coffee plant. More than 80% of the coffee in Costa Rica is located in areas between 2700 ft to 5300 ft above sea level with temperatures ranging from 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and 78 and 118 inches of annual precipitation.

Harvesting time in Costa Rica depends on the region, but usually it takes place from October through March. Costa Rican coffee is rated among the best coffees in the World. This is a result of carefully choosing the best bean by only selecting ripened cherries, which is done by hand throughout thousands and thousands of hectares of cafetales (coffee plantations).

Green Coffee Cherries

Inside a Coffee Plantation

After harvesting, the cherries are then moved through a machine that depulps the coffee beans from the cherries. The beans then are washed and move to outside beds where they are then sun dried. It takes around five days to fully dry the coffee beans. The beans are usually turned every thirty minutes to allow for a uniform dry to avoid fermentation. After the beans are dried, they are bagged and sent to an oven for roasting and final processing.

Coffee Bean After Depulping

Depulper Machine

If you want to know more about how coffee is produced, there are many websites on the Internet where you can find tons of information. This link is a great way to get started. As my internship approaches to the end, I will try to keep you updated every week with my progress. I have a lot of info I want to share and pictures to show you. Also, keep the comments coming, they really help us out. If you have suggestions, please let us know.

Until then, have a great a week.

About the Author: Eric Brenner is a graduate student at Texas A&M University and currently on a study-abroad trip to Costa Rica, his home-country.

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Rethinking Agriculture

Posted by Eric Brenner on June 14th, 2010

Back when I was in high school, like many other students, I did not really know what career to pursue. My parents did not really care what I majored in, as long as I went to college; not going was simply not an option. But figuring out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life when I was 16 years old was not an easy endeavor.

But looking back, I was seriously struggling trying to find a career option that I felt passionate about. I looked for school counselors for guidance to help me figure out a career path. However, those options were limited and did not spark the smallest bit of interest. Counselors, teachers, friends, and even my parents always talked about majors like engineering or business management because that is all they knew.

Agriculture was never in the picture or even suggested as an available option because their perception of this field was distorted and limited. Almost 13 years later, with a bachelor’s in Agricultural Systems Management, and a master’s in International Agricultural Development, I can honestly say that I have been blessed and even lucky to have fond my true calling in the agriculture field.

Back then, my knowledge about agriculture was restricted to the production part; raising livestock and crops or farming. I did not know that the agricultural sector had such a colossal amount of majors and careers available. However, my parents nor my school counselors told me about it, because like me, they did not have a clue either. We were all ignorant about the great career opportunities that can be found in this field.

Even for students who had some interest in agriculture, many did not major in this field because there was the perception that in order to be successful, your family had to be directly involved in this field through a business or had land for agriculture activities.

All the wrongful perceptions deterred many students to major in agriculture, and this is a problem that is still latent today. It was not until I came to the U.S. to pursue my college career that I had the opportunity to be exposed to agriculture, and I was able to find my real passion for this field. But even in the U.S, agriculture was misunderstood and wrongfully perceived. By the time I was done with my bachelor’s degree, I came to two very important conclusions: agriculture played a vital role in our daily lives, and that most people were oblivious to this fact.

In developing countries like Costa Rica, the development and expansion of the agricultural sector can create more stable economies and economic growth. There is a need to increase the amount of agriculture professionals in the job market and students into agricultural careers. The problem is how to attract more people into agriculture, when there is a lack of understanding and information for this field.

For those of us involved in this field, we have not been very successful capturing potential students into ag majors. Agriculture has a stigma that it is a dead-end career with low wages, and few opportunities. It is time to rethink how we recruit more students, including minorities, and show them that agriculture is a dynamic, innovative, exciting, and vibrant field full of opportunities that go beyond the production sector.  And even for the production sector, which is a fundamental component of agriculture, we can show how it is perpetually changing by the introduction of new technologies to solve more complex challenges.

Even though production represents only 2% of the employment opportunities in agriculture, we have to find better ways to keep feeding a fast growing World.

One of the goals in AgForLife is to keep up with rapid changing times where younger generations of students are becoming more technologically savvy. The integration of these technologies are not only necessary to attract more students, but also to improve agricultural processes. Our vision is to change the perceptions of agriculture through education, technology, and innovation. You can be part of a concept that will change how people perceive agriculture. Now, the question is if you are going to join us in pursuing this quest?

Until next time, have a great week.

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