Back in 2019, I had just left a corporate job to pursue farming full-time and, at the same time, pursued a master’s degree in agriculture. I went to Washington State University, a land-grant university, and when I started classes, several things became very clear very quickly.
- First, the program was heavily skewed toward large commodity crops (cereal grains, particularly) and viticulture.
- Second, they were skewed that way for good reason. Not many students were working in market gardens like I was. Washington State University is in Pullman, Washington, which is in the Palouse region of southeast Washington. Washington produces millions of bushels of wheat annually and is home to widely recognized American Viticultural Areas (Walla Walla, anyone?).
- Third, academia tends to be very black and white. There was a lot of, “if this, then that”; if you’re a farmer in practice, not just on paper, you know that farming is mostly gray. You can do everything according to the (text)book and it’s still going to go wrong.
But is there more value to a college degree than the academic aspects? Whitney Jacques owns Verdant Hare and is a contract farmer for River District Farm in Liberty Lake, Washington. With a bachelor’s degree in humanities and a certificate in organic agriculture from Washington State University, Jacques has her own thoughts about the value of her academic experience.
“When I was doing my Certificate for Organic Agriculture, I had to have an internship … so I was able to get my foot in the door with people who were in local agriculture because the person that I chose to intern under was really involved in the political side of local agriculture and also was a farmer who had a lot of experience and knew a lot of people in the industry.”
Jacques went on to say that there was no way she would’ve been able to complete an unpaid internship unless it was while she had financial aid and was completing coursework. That experience was vital to her ability to pursue a career in agriculture. So even though her major coursework was not in agriculture, just being in school provided opportunities to learn about the type of farming she wanted to pursue.
But is school the only place you can learn about agriculture? Certainly not. Aside from actual experience, peer-reviewed research is available for public consumption, and new research is published all the time. There are books, videos, and all kinds of helpful information.
Jess Jager, owner of Your Friends Farm in Spokane, Washington, is one such person who turned to these widely available resources to learn what she needed to build a successful farm. Jager earned a degree in Psychology with minors in Sociology and Theology from Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. But she utilized those available resources at the outset and still does.
Jager looks at her farm differently.
“There’s a spiritual connection for me. This connection that I have to my animals, to even the plants, to the soil, it’s just different,” she said.
Jager and her husband are concerned with making farm decisions that benefit their farm and its inhabitants — but also that benefit their community by extension. This belief informed their farm name, Your Friends Farm, and certainly Jager’s choice of degrees are a reflection of that.
“I really feel like this isn’t our farm … this farm belongs to our community,” she said. “We try to be really intentional about how we approach our business.”
Being a farmer requires proficiency in so many different areas. In the course of one day a farmer could be working on marketing, finances, insurance, and more. As a farmer we are expected to be proficient in all of these, but each one is a career path in its own right. Which begs the question, is a formal education necessary to be a successful producer?
Dr. Ayman Mostafa with the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension doesn’t believe that a disconnect exists between academia and the realities of farming and feels that a formal agricultural education is an important part of modern farming. Based on his experience at Extension, he contends that “almost all successful, long-term and innovative growers and ag professionals are those who have their academic degree.”
David Salazar, owner of Reclamación Wine, has a lifetime of experience in viticulture across the world. Having completed a bachelor’s degree in viticulture and enology from California State University, Fresno, does he think that it’s made him more successful? You bet, but not necessarily for the reason you think.
“I do think it has made me more successful, but I think that’s mostly because of the credibility a four-year degree provides,” he said. “It’s almost impossible to get a decent job in ag, or any field, without having a degree. Sometimes even with a degree it can be difficult.”
Salazar appreciates that, no matter who you are or your level of education, in viticulture, you will still do the dirty jobs.
“I’ve seen [people with master’s degrees] show up on their first day expecting a nice desk and computer in an [air conditioned] building and end up with a pair of gum boots and a pressure washer in 100-degree-plus weather … washing macro bins,” he said. Don’t think for a second you know more than those who do not have a formal education.”
Jacques of Verdant Hare encourages people who have any interest in farming to consider some of the essential supporting roles that are available. Certainly, there are many jobs within the agricultural community that require a very specific degree. Large-animal veterinarians are in high demand, with very few available in many regions. Large-equipment mechanics, AI specialists, and butchers also come to mind.
Even with a college degree, how much practical knowledge are you actually getting? I learned a lot about agriculture and, frankly, about myself working on my master’s in agriculture. I can figure how to identify a pest or a nutrient deficiency and treat it. But show me a tax form, and I’ll have to stare at it for hours before I can figure it out.
In situations where we get stuck, or lack the knowledge, there’s no other option than figure it out. Muddle through. Keep on keepin’ on. Jager contends that “… the bravest thing that we do in farming is to try.”
So, farm on.
Brianna Scott is a veteran farmer who lives in Eastern Washington and earned her Master’s of Science in Agriculture from Washington State University. She is active in the veteran ag community and raises poultry and livestock while growing a large market garden.