NRCS helps prepare students for climate smart agriculture careers
The future of agriculture lies in the hands of today’s students. As the nation’s population becomes increasingly urbanized, it can be challenging for university to build academic pathways for students to pursue careers in agriculture fields.
By Dee Ann Littlefield, Public Affairs Specialist, Henrietta, TX
The future of agriculture lies in the hands of today’s students. As the nation’s population becomes increasingly urbanized, it can be challenging for university to build academic pathways for students to pursue careers in agriculture fields. Agriculture agencies and businesses are finding a shortage of college graduates prepared to enter the agriculture workforce. To help address some of these challenges and identify opportunities, the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) recently hosted a daylong “Climate Smart Agriculture Symposium” as part of an effort to encourage more students to pursue careers in agriculture.
A team of UTA mathematicians is leading a national initiative with the goal of developing an alliance for training and apprenticeship in climate smart agriculture. The project was launched in 2022 with a three-year, $500,000 Agricultural Workforce Training grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), a federal agency within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The project, which is titled “Developing an Alliance for Training and Apprenticeship in Climate-Smart Agriculture (DATA-Ag),” is designed to equip students from community colleges and underrepresented groups with modern data and technology skills to pursue careers in agriculture. Its objectives include expanding and improving workforce training through student engagement; to provide curriculum development and faculty preparation; and to build a regional agricultural alliance among Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs).
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Assistant Chief Kenneth Walker spoke to the audience about NRCS’ role in agriculture, global climate change, conserving natural resources and a general overview of the agency’s impact on the agriculture industry. NRCS Texas State Conservationist Kristy Oates followed up with a presentation on programs and careers available to students through NRCS. Approximately 100 college students, mostly engineering and math majors, were in attendance. Oates explained to them how agriculture is made up of many diverse fields of education, including numerous positions with the agency requiring engineering degrees and mathematical skills.
A panel of recent college graduates that are now NRCS employees shared their work experiences with the audience. The panel included Joey Monaco, NRCS district conservationist in Henrietta, Lily Keis, NRCS soil conservationist in Hillsboro and Mikela Pryor, NRCS urban engineer in Dallas. Phuc Vu, NRCS Civil engineer in Fort Worth, and Rafael Guerrero, former director of the NRCS Central National Technology Support Center, participated in a panel discussion about resources educators and influencers can use to prepare and motivate students to pursue climate smart agriculture experiences and careers. University educators from UTA, Texas A&M University in Kingsville, New Mexico State University and University of Texas at El Paso were on hand as presenters and moderators to encourage an engaging learning experience for the students in attendance.
In the afternoon portion of the symposium, the students were split into groups and seated at tables with agricultural employers including USDA agencies and area businesses. They discussed how climate change and urban agriculture reach different community and groups. They also shared experiences and questions regarding agricultural technology, data science, integrated sciences, AI/Machine Learning as well as other degree and certificate programs to prepare students for career pathways. Floyd Nauls, NRCS Texas Outreach Coordinator and Tribal Liaison, was on hand to provide students with information and degree requirements for various NRCS career disciplines, as well as how to navigate the USAJobs.gov and the agency’s hiring process.
The inspiring Opal Lee, the Fort Worth activist known as the grandmother of Juneteenth, was the distinguished speaker at the symposium’s concluding dinner. She shared her life experiences and talked about her decades of public service. Lee, 96, has spent her life helping those less fortunate find self-worth and purpose in an honest day’s labor for an honest wage and founded Opal’s Farm in Fort Worth in 2019 to help local people in food desert neighborhoods have access to healthy produce and nutritious food. Lee’s words reflecting on her insight and experiences in the agriculture industry were impactful to all in attendance.
The overall focus of UTA’s project is to introduce and prepare US citizen students among community colleges and under-represented minority groups to pursue agriculture careers through student engagement and curriculum development through collaboration with NRCS and universities and community colleges. The broad goal of UTA’s effort with the USDA grant is to impacts of this project is to prepare and enhance a pipeline of urban community college students to pursue career pathways in agriculture fields, increased diversity of agriculture workforce, increased human capital to serve under-represented and under-served communities in Texas, New Mexico and beyond.
For more information on careers with NRCS, visit the NRCS Careers web page.