Training fields

Agricultural companies have plenty of job opportunities in STEM fields, away from the farm

Agricultural companies are looking for people with an interest in science, and hiring managers are increasingly looking for people who don’t have a traditional agricultural background.

ST. LOUIS — Jobs in agriculture don’t just take place on the farm.

Across the Midwest, plant science and agriculture companies are looking for scientists and other STEM people to fill positions in labs or in front of computers, which may not fit the traditional image of agriculture.

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“When people meet people who work in the agricultural industry, they are often shocked by what they actually do for a living,” said Kim Kidwell, associate chancellor of strategic partnerships and initiatives at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and a former Dean of the School of Agriculture. “There’s a lot of engineering, there’s a lot of business, there’s a lot of computing.”

Industry-wide, there is a growing need for scientists at all levels as agriculture becomes more high-tech, and employers are increasingly looking for people who don’t have no traditional agricultural experience for different positions.

Corteva Agriscience is a global company that manufactures agricultural products like seeds and chemicals. The company currently has about 500 open jobs, from scientists to data engineers. About 200 of them don’t need a four-year degree. Most of the openings are in Nebraska, Indiana, Michigan, and Iowa.

“People obviously think of Corteva as an agricultural company and they think they have to have an agriculture degree, an agronomy degree, or an agricultural business degree to come and work for us, and that’s far from the truth,” said Angela Latcham, who leads Corteva’s seed production and supply chain teams in North America. “We are looking for people with non-traditional backgrounds.

Corteva has vacancies across the country and around the world. Some are in rural areas, close to the fields where they grow their crops, but this is not the case for most jobs in agriculture.

Agricultural economists at Purdue University analyzed online job postings and found that about two-thirds are in metropolitan areas.

“Most jobs are actually off the farm,” said Brady Brewer, associate professor of agricultural economics at Purdue.

The need for workers from non-traditional backgrounds also extends to education. Kidwell of the University of Illinois said there is “incredible demand” for scientists at all levels, including for positions that don’t require a four-year degree.

“If we don’t invite more people into the pipeline, what comes out of it will be grossly insufficient to sustain the advancement of food and agriculture in the way it has the potential to grow,” he said. she declared.

Elizabeth Boedeker, director of the St. Louis Community College Center for Plant and Life Sciences, leads one of her classes in an experiment. The program aims to create a labor pool for agricultural and food science technician jobs. Brian Munoz/St. Louis Public Radio

Increase agricultural labor

In St. Louis, a community college program is trying to fill the labor gap by training students to work in labs. The Center for Plant and Life Sciences at St. Louis Community College is a hands-on program. In fact, many classes are held at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, where scientists study plants and find ways to apply their knowledge to agriculture.

The center’s director, Elizabeth Boedeker, was leading a lab exercise with her students on a recent afternoon where they were working with cells.

“There’s a huge demand for labor right now,” Boedeker said. “These two-year students doing their internship, about a third of the time, these students are offered full-time or permanent part-time employment with these internship sponsors.”

The types of positions Boedeker trains students for, such as agricultural and food science technician roles, are still a much smaller group compared to agricultural workers, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these science jobs are expected to grow. Faster in the years to come than the traditional farm laborer jobs.

Boedeker students complete internships as part of their coursework, often with some of the many plant science startups and large corporations that operate in the region.

NewLeaf Symbiotics is a company that regularly hires interns through the community college program. The biotech startup is conveniently located in the same building where the classes take place.

The company makes what Natalie Breakfield, vice president for research and discovery, describes as essentially a “probiotic for a plant.”

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Natalie Breakfield is vice president of research and discovery at NewLeaf Symbiotics, which is located at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. She says she came to plant science in a roundabout way after earning a degree in molecular biology. Brian Munoz/St. Louis Public Radio

Breakfield has a doctorate, but she said many positions in the company can be filled by someone who has completed an associate or technical training program, such as that at St. Louis Community College. These research assistants perform hands-on lab work, collect data, and conduct experiments, while being supervised by another scientist.

“I know that when I need an employee, I can call [Boedeker] and ask her, who does she have available right now that’s looking for a job, and she can send me some resumes right now,” Breakfield said.

As St. Louis strives to become a hub for agricultural biotechnology companies, Breakfield said they will need more and more people for jobs like these. But one of the barriers to expansion is that people may not know these careers exist.

Even Breakfield said she didn’t know much about plant science until her first job as a lab technician.

“It was my first real introduction to working with plants, and then I fell in love with it,” she said. “I think if you like science, it’s a good place to start and you can always go further if you decide to continue your studies.”

Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @harvestpm

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