Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A hypothesis for a cure to the brain drain

Young farmers, or the lack thereof, has come up several times in class. First, we discussed the rural brain drain and its affects on the farm industry. Recently, we talked about young people choosing farming as a career--even in cases where they had no prior exposure to the industry. While the Federal government does provide a certain amount of assistance to these farmer-hopefuls, they clearly have a steep learning curve to till. South Africa, however, seems to have the right idea in addressing that problem.

A recent NY Times article, Sowing the Seeds of Food Security, discusses a South African education policy that uses growing crops as a teaching device. It's called the Organic Classroom Program and for three years it is part of the primary education curriculum in Cape Town. Operated by Schools Environment Education and Development, the program uses organic gardens to teach students science, geography, and economics. The school cafeteria then actually uses the food grown by the students.

While the interdisciplinary benefits are intriguing, the program specifically does what US primary education has not for many years: it teaches young people the principles of agriculture. While South Africa might not be a perfect analog for the United States, the lack of horticulture, agriculture, and similar courses in primary education could be why people just aren't interested in farming. More obviously, it explains why so many young farmers don't know what their doing.

Currently 45% of American farmers are over 55, and experts speculate the average age to only rise. Although the South Africa Department of Agriculture did not have age statistics (at least that I could find), one case study speculates their average age at around 40 years old. A full 15 years younger. While there are certainly different factors at play, it isn't unreasonable to think that the emphasis South Africa puts on agriculture is partly responsible. Of course SEED is relatively new, but a program doesn't become a mandatory part of primary education without some significant societal backing.

And maybe there is a larger sociological aspect here. If primary education is supposed to be the state's device for the inculcation of values, then it places value on more "cosmopolitan" subjects. When I was a high school senior I took AP Calculus BC, AP English, AP Physics, and similar classes that I can't recall. Advanced Horticulture was not offered. Students are indoctrinated with the value of a college education--in fact the need for a college degree. And while there are many college agricultural classes (especially on a campus like UC Davis), the modern idea of education is not one based on farming. Rather, students value AP tests and SAT scores not soil and seed.

Moreover, the law of most states makes primary education mandatory. It takes up about eight hours of their day, even more where they are involved in extracurricular activities. School is the center of their respective universes. If it doesn't include classes on growing, farming, and similar subjects then how can we ever expect people to be interested in the subject.


Azar said...

Having gone through high school, college, and law school (up until now of course!) without the word "farming" ever having come up in an educational capacity, I think it would have been pretty eye-opening to have gotten at least some education on the subject as a youth. I'm not sure it would have made me want to become a farmer, but you never know!

Namora said...

I too, think that the U.S. educational system could be improved by offering more curriculum on farming. However, the rural youth populations that are leaving rural areas in droves to the city are not leaving because they are unaware of the opportunity to farm. 4-h courses are still taught all over the country. Rather, these kids leave their family farms because our society places more value on urban culture.

oceguera said...

There are several "learn to grow food" courses being offered in k-12. Many of these, ironically enough, are found in the country's urban centers. In the Bay Area, Alice Waters founded the Edible School Yard in 1995, its a 1 acre garden attached to a public middle school. Similar programs exist in L.A., Chicago, New York, Brooklyn, New Orleans, Detriot,Greensboro, and San Francisco,etc. However, I agree with the comments above that despite this fascination with learning about horticulture, agriculture or permaculture, society does not value 'rural work' or 'rual culture'(unless it is romanticized and packaged for consumption).

KB said...

Making agricultural curriculum mandatory or integrating it into other disciplines is necessary to help elevate agricultural professions in the minds of young Americans. We need to encourage society to value agriculture and the hard work it entails. If elementary and secondary schools do not consider agriculture important enough to study, how can we expect children to think the agricultural industry contains careers they should pursue?

As mentioned in other comments, there are currently opportunities for students to participate in 4-H and community gardens. If agricultural activities are not a mandatory, though, children can simply not participate because they are not interested. Their disinterest may be the result of a lack of exposure to farming and agricultural activities. Having field trips to local farms could help to enhance the younger generation’s understanding of agriculture.

For older students, maybe one way to enhance any agricultural experiences they have in elementary school would be for the school to offer shadow days or internships on local farms. The internships could serve as an elective course or be integrated into the curriculum in some other way. If the children of current farmers are the only ones who experience what it is like to work on a farm, then the pool of future farmers will continue to shrink.

JLS said...

I agree that elevating the profession will help "cure the brain drain," but I think it is part of a large much-needed effort to legitimize different career/educational paths. There been such a huge focus on college accessibility that other types of professional development have fallen by the wayside. For example, some kinds of tech work (coding, web development, etc.) require no formal collegiate training (but maybe a vocational degree) and can be done from anywhere. If we want to keep rural areas from further decreasing in population (and make sure good jobs are around to keep people there), why not put effort into supporting all sorts of careers, as well as farming?