Extension Service, North Carolina

Dr. William E. Splinter of the Biology and
Agricultural Engineering Department at North Carolina State displays a leaf harvested by a machine he helped develop, in August, 1967.

Photo: NCSU

Yonder is getting old.

Or, at least, the part of Yonder that grows things is getting old. We know that the average age of the American farmer is 57, as young people have abandoned of this way of life. But it seems that the entire rural intellectual infrastructure, too, is aging, retiring and, as a result, disappearing.

It’s been evident for years that fewer students are training to be large-animal veterinarians. In the mid-“˜80s, about 45 percent of all vets specialized in large animals; more recently, it’s been only 22 percent. Fewer students say they’re willing to work with livestock.

Somes states have programs to help large animal vets pay off their school debts, but rural states — especially places like South Dakota, where cows outnumber people five to one — are chronically short of large animal docs. Meanwhile, The Boston Globe reports, men are avoiding the profession.

More Women Vets

In the 1960s, only about five percent of the students graduating from veterinary programs were women. Today, it’s more like 80 percent. At University of California-Davis, 88 percent of the vet school grads last year were female. And women don’t tend to enter large animal practices, according to the Globe.

It’s not only large animal vets who are disappearing. Plant specialists and agricultural engineers are aging, retiring — and they aren’t being replaced.

The Los Angeles Times reported recently that students are avoiding agriculture schools. Well, not ALL agriculture schools. California universities report that students are signing up for wine-making courses and classes on how to make cheese. But traditional agricultural studies are as popular on campus as meetings of the Temperance Union. In California, enrollment in traditional horticulture programs has dropped 40 percent in the last five years. At Iowa State, enrollment in the ag school dropped from 2,807 in 2001 to 2,448 in 2005.

Ag school enrollment

Meanwhile, the plant and animal professionals are aging — quickly. According to the Times, “In California, one-third of the public and private plant doctors who monitor the health of the state’s $32-billion agriculture industry will retire in 10 years or less. One-third of the state’s county agricultural commissioners, whose inspections help keep out foreign pests like the Mediterranean fruit fly, will retire in the next five years.�? Nearly half the workforce at the U.S. Department of Agriculture is older than 50.

Schools have engaged in all sorts of hokey quick-fixes. Ag schools are becoming schools of life science or environmental studies. The numbers continue to drop, however, even as the opportunities grow.

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