BOZEMAN, Mont. - Gordon Holt believes in agriculture and wants to make it his lifelong career. He's off to a great start - the 23-year-old Montana State University student, who graduates this spring with a bachelor's degree in agricultural business, has had a full-time ag job waiting for him since last summer.
That's not unusual, in his experience.
"Everybody who's looking for a job in the ag sector is, for the most part, not having to look too hard before something pops out," Holt says.
The job market for young ag students - robust for years and years - remains strong, despite poor ag commodity prices and sluggish farm profitability, ag officials say.
"There's definitely jobs out there in ag," says ADawn Nelson, agricultural program manager for Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls, Minn. "It's not just the farmers and ranchers. It's the engineering, design, packaging, chemical processing, drones and aerial spraying and natural resources and soil - and all the rest. We need you (people with skills in those areas) in agriculture."
"Agriculture as a whole, with all the other sectors that go with it, is still trending up," she says.
Some people outside agriculture might assume the 2008-13 ag boom led to a temporary upturn in job prospects for ag students and that the outlook would dim now that the boom is over.
But there's no sign of slowing employer demand, says Tina Dorner, CHS outreach program manager and a former college recruiter. Her current position involves identifying "talent pools" to create a "talent pipeline" for CHS.
"Just looking at our organization, and comparing from year to year, there hasn't been a slowdown," she says, adding that her counterparts in other organizations tell her the same thing. CHS, based in Inver Grove Heights, Minn., is one of the world's largest agribusinesses and has a strong presence in the Upper Midwest.
Long-term trends continue to drive employer need for young people with education and specialized skills earned through one-, two- and four-year programs, ag officials say.
These are the big-picture factors:
• Modern agriculture increasingly relies on technology, and college-trained young people can provide the needed expertise.
• Farms are getting bigger and the number of actual farmers is shrinking. That forces remaining farmers to become more efficient, increasing their need to get help and advice from trained specialists.
• Tough times in U.S. agriculture during the 1980s and 1990s limited the number of people hired for ag jobs then. As a result, a disportionately high number of people working in ag today are aging baby-boomers, or the roughly 75 million people born between 1946 and 1964. Many boomers in ag - hired in the 1970s - retired recently or are pushing retirement, creating job openings.
Vincent Smith, a senior professor in the Montana State University Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics, says he's tired of hearing that "the sky is falling in agriculture."
The downturn in ag commodity prices and farm profitability doesn't alter the long-term need for people with agricultural skills, he says.
The statistics say
One measure of how strong the demand for ag students has been: A USDA study estimated that the agricultural, food and renewable natural resources sector generated 54,400 annual openings in 2010-15 for individuals with baccalaureate or higher degrees in food, renewable energy and environmental specialties.
However, it's estimated that only 53,500 qualified graduates were available each year to fill those 54,400 positions, according to the USDA study.
More recent numbers indicates the job outlook has become even brighter.
The number of college graduates hired by employers in the ag production, ag support service and forestry categories will increase substantially from 2015-16 to 2016-17, according to Recruiting Trends 2016-2017, published by Michigan State University's Collegiate Employment Research Institute.
Hires will rise an estimated 33 percent for grads with associate's degrees and 21 percent for grads with bachelor's degrees, according to the study, which measures recruiting trends and practices.
Students apparently have noticed the job opportunities offered by agriculture.
One sign: This is the ninth year of increased enrollment across the MSU College of Agriculture's five academic departments, which offer 11 majors, 13 graduate programs, 22 options and seven minors.
Another sign of growing interest in and demand for agricultural skills: Northland will offer four new ag programs next fall. Two are certificate programs: general agriculture and advanced general agriculture. The other two are associate degree programs in animal science and agricultural education.
General agriculture education will provide an overall look at ag, while animal science is an area with increasing job opportunities, Nelson says.
Most farmers and ranchers struggled economically for long stretches in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. As a result, many discouraged their children in high school and college from pursuing careers in agriculture, either on or off the farm.
But that has changed recently, as more agriculturalists with children realize the opportunities that ag offers, Dorner says.
More young people without an ag background also are realizing that ag provides multiple career prospects, officials say.
Experts offer these suggestions for young people interested in an agricultural career:
• Don't study ag if your only concern is a potential job. You need to enjoy agriculture.
• Land internships, ideally with ag companies, early in your college career.
• Be open to living and working in rural communities, especially early in your work career. Many ag jobs exist in metropolitan areas, too, but young ag graduates sometimes need to work their way up the ladder before landing those jobs.
'So many opportunities'
Holt agrees strongly with the three suggestions, all of which apply to him. He grew up on a family feeder cattle and poultry farm in Cassville, Ga., and first drove a tractor when he was 3. "I always knew I wanted to stay in ag, if that would be possible," he says.
After high school, he studied business and later agriculture at two colleges in the southern U.S. Then a relative with Montana ties encouraged him to visit the campus of Montana State University.
"I just fell in love with it here, the campus and the feeling. It was fall and was just beautiful," Holt says, stressing that MSU's strong agricultural program also appealed to him.
Last summer, he interned in Frazer, Mont., (population around 360) for EGT, a grain elevator company. EGT (think export grain terminal) is a joint venture between Bunge North America and a Japanese company.
At the end of his internship in August 2016, EGT hired Holt as a grain merchant. He'll begin his full-time duties, which involve dealing with farmers and contracts, in Frazer after he graduates.
"I really enjoy what I did and look forward to getting back up there (to Frazer) in June," he says.
Eventually, if things work out, Holt could return to Georgia to rejoin the family farm. Whatever happens, however, he's confident about agriculture's future.
"Agriculture isn't just (being) a farmer, a rancher. There are so many opportunities if that's what you want to do," he says.