What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you say agriculture? If it’s a farm, then you’re right, but there’s so much more to agriculture these days. This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) co-hosted a virtual Youth Summit with Prairie View A&M University to let Texas K-12 students, educators, and youth-serving organizations discover the endless learning and career opportunities in agriculture.
“It’s important for us to build a workforce more representative of America,” said Dr. Lisa Ramirez, Director of USDA’s Office of Partnerships and Public Education, which co-organized the youth summit. “We want all students to know they have a place in agriculture.”
Ruby de la Garza, a USDA liaison based in Texas, coordinated the summit with fellow USDA Liaison Horace Hodge. They are among more than 20 USDA liaisons at universities (PDF, 465 KB) nationwide who advise and assist students, faculty, and communities on USDA programs and initiatives.
Throughout the summit, presenters highlighted youth outreach programs within the Department that can help spark interest in agriculture as a topic of study or career path. USDA Youth Farm Loans help students as young as 10 create income-producing projects by raising livestock or growing crops, produce, or flowers. AgLab is a new USDA website for K-12 students interested in food and science.
Hernan Colmenero (whose name means beekeeper in Spanish) talked about his work as the Child Nutrition Program Farm Manager at Idea Public Schools in Weslaco, Texas. His farm-to-school program seeks to get students to eat healthier. “They get to grow their own food, cook it, then they can take produce [from the school garden] and eat it in cafeteria,” said Colmenera. “They start to enjoy vegetables. They’re meeting our objectives – exploring new foods and enjoying them.”
Recently, Colmenero was named a 2019 E. Kika De La Garza High School Education Fellow through a program that offers faculty and staff from Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) experiences in policymaking and research at USDA and other federal agencies.
Dr. Aisha Ellis, a mixed-animal veterinarian by trade, now an information specialist with USDA’s National Agricultural Library, shared with participants that one in every 12 jobs is related to agriculture in the U.S., and new jobs are being created every year. With degrees from Tuskegee University and the University of Georgia, Dr. Ellis participated in the Pathways Internship program that provides a stepping stone from college to full-time employment at USDA. “This allowed me to connect with leaders in my field and get a great job,” she said of the program.
Panelist Russell Thomas is a 2020 graduate of Prairie View A&M University, and an 1890s scholarship recipient, who now works at USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS). “How I found ag? Through programs like this,” Thomas said during his remarks. “It’s come full circle, speaking on a panel like this.”
Thomas was interested in a business degree, but through conversations with USDA Liaison Horace Hodge and others, he was encouraged to consider agriculture business management as a way to differentiate himself in the workplace. He found the community of ag to be what he needed, while still receiving the critical business skills he was seeking. After interning with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) over three summers, Thomas received a full time offer with ERS in Kansas City, Missouri, where he manages more than $2 million in financial expenditures.
His parting advice for students – to keep their minds open and remember that “ag is literally life.”